If It Matters

By Ariel-D

Description: Kankuro's birthday comes, and he wonders if anyone remembers. Theoretically post-series. Warning: gore.

Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, Temari, 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: My muse is flat, but I'm going to write anyway. Prepare yourself for some serious angst, though, as that is all I can jumpstart my muse with. Warning: extreme gore, crude language, and cuss words I normally never use.

In Japan, Sejin-shiki (the coming-of-age holiday/ceremony for all new adults) on the second Monday in January. For this story, I've decided to make Suna's version be the first Sunday of June instead. I just imagine they'd have nation-to-nation variations in the Naruto-verse.

"Called to you so clearly, but you don't want to hear me
Told you everything loud and clear
But nobody's listening"

If it mattered, Kankuro wasn't sure why. He sat on his heels, seiza-style, in the Kazekage mansion's garden, cleaning pulps of flesh from Kuroari's chest. The sunset's crimson rays slanted across statues, blooming cacti, and glittering stones, creating a rosy glow, but that same light only drew attention to the blood drying on his sticky hands. Another day, another chore, another missed birthday. If it mattered.

With Akatsuki pounded into dust by Konoha's new Hokage, life had returned to normal. Temari jumped on each chance she got to be a diplomat, exam organizer, or special team member assigned to Konoha. Every time she returned, she'd bare her perfect teeth in something between a smirk and a smile and immediately launch into stories about her latest escapades with Shikamaru.

Kankuro was sick of hearing about the punk. He and Gaara both knew she used any excuse she could to spend time with the guy, and anymore she spent more time away from Suna than in it.

"Whatever, jan." Kankuro sighed and stared at his longtime friend, which he'd arduously rebuilt after facing Akasuna no Sasori. "It's not the first time my birthday's been forgotten, and with her head shoved up Shikamaru's ass, I can't expect her to remember."

Kuroari didn't reply.

Reaching deep into the puppet, Kankuro scrubbed his cleaning brush across the back. Diluted blood poured out, mixed with soap, leaving pinkish bubbles to stain his pants. Out came the gore of his most recent assignment: chipped teeth, severed fingers, clumps of black hair still attached to slivers of scalp. Kankuro had stabbed the bastard full of holes with Karasu to begin with, so the endless blades he shot through Kuroari's body hadn't left much to bury. Well, not much recognizable, anyway.

"She's in Konoha right now," he told the puppet. "Could've at least sent a hawk with a letter or something." He paused, struck by a disturbing thought. "I wonder how far they've gotten." For a moment, he felt the urge to kill Shikamaru if he were having sex with Temari, but the anger passed with another sigh — a deeper, blacker one. "She's an adult. She can do whatever she wants. It's not my business."

"May I ask who you're talking about?"

Kankuro jumped faintly. He'd neither heard nor sensed anyone approach, but he knew when it came to Gaara, he never would. "Yo, ototo." He glanced over his shoulder. Gaara was still dressed in his Kazekage robes, having likely stopped working only to eat supper.

Gaara gazed at him with unblinking aqua eyes still underscored by black rings, ever expressionless. "Don't avoid my question."

Shrugging, Kankuro turned back to his task. "Temari." He swallowed the rest of his reply, leaving the bitter thoughts to ring in his mind instead: Just wondering if she's extended her already long stay in Konoha to fuck the awesome Shikamaru. He smirked, noticed an eyeball squished into the crevice at Kuroari's arm, and ripped it out. "Oops, forgot a part." He tossed it over his shoulder.

"We received notification today that she's left Konoha. I expect her back tomorrow."

"Whatever, jan." Kankuro knew better than to expect his non-sentimental, pragmatic siblings to pay attention to dates. By some curse of fate, he was the one with the buried emotional streak, the one to remember every birthday, anniversary, and holiday. "I'm sure she'll have plenty of tales about the great and wonderful Shikamaru."

"Perhaps." Gaara sounded noncommittal. "It's time for dinner. Leave your task for now."

Kankuro snorted but obeyed. "Sure thing, Kazekage-sama." He stood, tossing the scrub brush into the bucket of soapy water. "You want me to cook you supper, huh?"

"Don't call me that in private." Gaara turned toward the mansion. "Just clean up and meet me in the kitchen." He strolled away without further comment.

Kankuro stared after his brother, watching the harsh Suna wind batter his hair. Crimson like blood. The living weapon, the killer, the protector, the human, the leader — the brother I do and don't have.He glanced at Kuroari. "For now I still have a use to him, so you'll have to wait."

The discarded puppet didn't have feelings to hurt, so Kankuro stalked toward what he called home. He wondered if perhaps Sasori had been right after all, if it would be better to be made of wood, to lack feelings, to not care. Sure, he could turn off his "soft" side during battle, but the human behind the painted mask could still sting with agony.

"Good thing I'm a kick-ass actor," he muttered to himself as he pulled off his sandals at the door. If he kept the mask up, his siblings would never know just how much it hurt to be a cast-off.

"I got a heart full of pain, head full of stress
Hand full of anger, held in my chest
And everything left's a waste of time."

Dressed in a simple black yukata with a silver dragon design, Kankuro padded downstairs on silent feet, feeling no better for having had a quick bath. All he could say was it was nice to not have blood making his fingers stick together, but it really did nothing to make him less pissed. The irony of the fact he'd be cooking his own dinner on his twentieth birthday — the damn day he was finally coming of age! — was not lost on him. Granted, having Gaara accessible and human enough to want to share meals with him was a nicety that had never worn off, but Kankuro knew perfectly well where he ranked in his brother's life.

Approaching the kitchen, he could hear the clinking of dishes beyond. "What're you in the mood for?" he called out, parting the doorway curtain with his hand. He halted abruptly at the sight of Gaara surrounded by boxes of delivered food. "What happened? You got too hungry to wait, jan?"

Gaara glanced over his shoulder, holding a serving platter. He'd changed into an unassuming black shirt and pants, much to Kankuro's surprise. He never took of his robes until he retired for the night, and he never did that before midnight. "No," Gaara replied, completing his motion by setting the platter on the counter. "Fool. It's your birthday. I'm not going to make you cook."

For a moment, Kankuro couldn't speak. Then he laughed, but he realized the sound had a sharp, almost hysterical edge. "Wait a minute . . . you actually remembered my birthday? You don't even remember your own birthday! Hell, with all the work you do, you wouldn't even know what day it was if you didn't spend all your time dating paperwork."

Gaara shrugged faintly. "It's the keeping track of dates that made sure I remembered." He gestured at the plates, utensils, and boxes. "Now help me carry this to the table."

"Sure, jan." Feeling off-kilter, Kankuro grabbed two handfuls and moved everything to the kotasu table in their all-purpose room.

Gaara said nothing further until they were seated and ready to eat. "Did your mission go poorly?" He picked up his chopsticks. "Your report indicated success, but you seem surly."

Watching his brother's utterly impassive face, Kankuro wondered at the question. "Huh. Not like you to comment on my moods." He took a bite of stir-fry and considered his reply. Careful with the mask."Nah. Love the kill, hate the cleanup is all." He nodded at Gaara's clothes. "What about you? You're awfully dressed down."

Gaara stared at him. "It's your birthday."

"Yeah, so? Don't you have work?" Kankuro snorted. When did Gaara not have work?

Sitting down his chopsticks, Gaara trained his gaze on him. "It will still be there in the morning. I had assumed you'd want to do something more interesting than a mission and chores on your birthday. I may not be 'fun' company, but there is a troop of traveling actors visiting this weekend. I thought you would want to see their performance."

Kankuro stopped chewing the rather large bite of teriyaki he'd taken. "Hmm?" He swallowed carefully. "Who suggested that? Matsuri?" He paused, trying to shake off his shock. "I mean, sure, jan. I'd like to see them if you think you can spare an evening."

"Temari reminded me in the letter she sent. They passed through Konoha a week ago." Gaara cocked his head faintly. "You're jealous of my work, aren't you?"

Kankuro's chopsticks slid from his suddenly numb fingers, clicking faintly against his plate as they fell. His first impulse had been to say 'Temari sent a letter?' However, Gaara's question wiped all other thoughts from his mind. "Jealous?" He smirked. "Why would I be jealous of that load of paperwork you're buried under? Hell, no. You can have it."

"I didn't mean the position of Kazekage." Gaara folded his arms over his chest. "I mean the fact my work means we only see each other for five or ten minutes a day."

Kankuro felt as though Gaara might as well have used subaku kyuu on him — he couldn't breathe and felt like every square inch of his body was being squeezed. "Wha — I . . . What gave you that idea? I just . . ." He stopped his stuttering and sighed, dumping the mask. "Okay. Fine. It pisses me off that half the village can demand hours of your attention every week, but all I get is maybe an hour total. It's stupid and selfish of me, but there you have it, jan."

"So you are jealous?" Gaara frowned, dropping his hands to the table and suddenly squeezing the edge. "Why?"

"I told you — I'm selfish." Kankuro shrugged, but inwardly he was concerned by Gaara's odd reaction. "All humans are selfish. The only difference is I admit it."

Gaara shook his head faintly. "No, I mean why do you want to spend time with me? I'm hardly an interesting conversationalist, and the only people who want to be in my presence are those squealing girls that follow me around when I'm in public." His forehead creased momentarily. "Although I don't understand that, either."

Reaching up with both hands, Kankuro rubbed his temples, quelling the urge to slam his face into the table. "Gaara, you idiot." He felt an exasperated smile twisting his lips. "You're my damn ototo. I don't care if you stand there like a breathing statue, I still wanna spend time with you. Besides, when you decide to speak — really speak — you always say profound things."

Gaara stared at him, the black circles making his eyes look unnaturally wide as shock registered on his face. "I . . . see."

A flash of pain shot through Kankuro's head, telling him a headache was on its way. "Look, I know you have to put the village first, so your family will always be second place in your life. But that doesn't mean I like the fact you're always gone. You're not a child anymore. You're not that Gaara, the one I tried to avoid." He sighed suddenly, struck again by the way he always came second. Or third. Or tenth. Or last.

Gaara relaxed his grip on the table. "My apologies. I didn't realize our lack of time together was having such a negative effect on you."

"Well I don't know why not!" Kankuro slammed his fist on the tabletop, his temper flaring as his mood darkened again. "I all but spelled it out for you. What do you want? For me to throw myself at your damn feet and beg you to give me a scrap of your time! I'm not some damn dog. I've been trying to get your attention for five years. Hell, I've been trying to get your attention for ten years! First I didn't know how, and you weren't interested. Then as I got older and you changed, no matter what I said or did, you basically ignored me."

Gaara opened his mouth as though to reply, but no words emerged.

Kankuro didn't give him the chance to find his footing. "Forgive me if it pisses me off a bit if both my siblings have got their heads shoved up their asses for whatever reason! Love, work, emergencies, life . . . whatever." He slumped suddenly, all his anger bleeding from him and leaving him as empty as Kuroari's chest. "They say it's the curse of the middle child to be invisible and overlooked, but that doesn't mean I'm gonna sit back and calmly accept getting shoved aside. You need me to go on missions; you need me to cook. You need me if there's something wrong. But neither one of you . . ." . . . need me.

Kankuro shoved away from the table and stood. "Thanks for the food, jan. Sorry I don't have more of an appetite." He bowed faintly and headed for the door.

Grains of sand slithered and swirled, arching up from their ever-present existence in every Suna home. Kankuro felt a pulse of fear — purely reflex — then found himself restrained, the sand capturing his legs but not squeezing too tightly.

A flutter of movement, then Kankuro felt Gaara's hand brush his sleeve. "I'm still trying to figure out how to be a normal human, so I'm unsure what to say except that you are valuable for more than your skills. Temari must feel the same. In her letter, she said to tell you she found a 'wicked' present that will make your inner puppeteer 'drool.' I've been instructed to torment your curiosity until she can arrive, although I'm unsure how to do so."

Kankuro glanced over his shoulder. "I don't want presents." I want my damn family.

Gaara stepped around him and leaned forward, doing his best to bring himself eye-to-eye despite their difference in heights. "I said I'm a poor substitute for a human, not stupid. I see what it is that bothers you now, and what you want." He released the sand, then pulled a bag of coins from his pants' pocket and shoved it in his older brother's hand. "That said, take my present anyway. I want you to buy a new kimono and pair of hakama for Sejin-shiki. After all, it falls on June 2nd this year, and all your formal clothes are worn out."

Stunned that Gaara cared about the coming-of-age ceremony enough to ensure he was properly dressed, Kankuro couldn't find his voice to thank him.

Gaara stepped past him, then paused. He spoke quietly. "If it is an ototo you want, niisan, then I am yours."

A gasp died prematurely in Kankuro's throat; he could only turn to stare at his brother.

Gaara didn't glace back. "Change into a kimono and meet me back here. We can finish supper after the performance."

Flat words, much like an order. But Kankuro closed his eyes and committed them to memory, realizing what they portended. As the promise burned itself into his mind, he clutched his yukata brutally, right over his heart.

"Uphill struggle, blood, sweat, and tears
Nobody's listening."

Walking through the dusty streets of Suna, Kankuro noted the relative quiet in the village and then glanced at his brother. "Thanks for coming with me, jan. Hopefully these guys will be good."

Expressionless eyes turned his way — the gaze that said nothing. "If you like it, that is all that matters."

"All that matters . . ." Kankuro echoed, then shook his head. "I can't ever have what I really want, but if you can find time to go see shows with me, then thatis what matters."

"I will." The faintest of smiles turned up one corner of his mouth. "Nothing has ever been easy for us, but none of us has ever given up, either. I didn't give up on being Kazekage; Temari didn't give up on diplomacy. You can't stop trying, either."

Kankuro snorted. "I don't know how to quit anymore than I know when to shut up. I just didn't think anyone was listening."

"Don't make me call you a fool again."

Kankuro laughed. "Whatever, man, whatever." He threw a sidelong glance at his brother. "But if you're gonna make a crack like that, then let me say that we have to work on your expressiveness. Your stoic appearance still gives people the creeps."

Gaara met his gaze, then looked forward again. "Idiot," he deadpanned.




"Loud-mouthed, obnoxious, overconfident—"

"Exasperating, stubborn, creepy—"


The end of Kankuro's insult was forgotten as he burst into laughter. "At least you're developing a sense of humor."

"Who said I was joking?"

"Heh." Kankuro grinned at his brother. "Love you, too, you massive pain in the ass."

"Hn. Happy birthday."

Kankuro stared at the stars piercing the black sky, spread like candles to light a larger stage and its obscure performance. "I guess so."

A/N: Citations — all lyrical quotes are from Linkin Park's "Nobody's Listening." Sorry if this is depressing or shocking. I'm stunned I got my muse to cooperate this much given that I haven't been able to write anything since Christmas, so for me this is actually a relief. This is for Club-KGT's Kankuro's Birthday Contest.

Thanks to Darkhelmetj for beta reading and to everyone who reads and reviews!