Chapter 5: Tragedies
When Gaara walked into Kankuro's room with a small box, the puppeteer put aside the large leather-bound book he had been studying and asked plaintively, "permission to speak freely, Kazekage sir?"
"Permission not granted." Gaara put the box down on his brother's desk. "How many times has she caught you today?"
"Only twice." Kankuro said.
"You could get around her if you really wanted to."
And it was true; Kankuro knew the ins and outs of the citadel better than even Gaara, who had spent thousands of sleepless nights wandering the halls.
"I could," Kankuro agreed, "but then she'd beat me to death with her fan and I just now became a functioning member of society again. You know the playhouse is going nuts without me."
"You've been sending them messages every morning."
"Hey, a ship can't run if the captain's in the brig."
Gaara resisted the automatic urge to point out that neither he nor Kankuro had ever been in a brig. "Your house arrest is up." He said, tapping the box. "You have work to do."
Kankuro rose one slim painted brow and tilted his head, inviting his brother to continue. In response, Gaara tapped the box again, and Kankuro shrugged. The puppeteer pulled the box closed and flipped the catch, opening the lid. He stared down in impassive silence at two sets of Gaara-green glass eyes, resting on a bed of cotton batting. Kankuro didn't even have to look at the maker's mark burned into the box's lid to know that the work was Matsuo's.
"Frog." He said, and it wasn't a question. Gaara nodded. "I'm gonna beat his ass." The puppeteer said fondly. "You cornered him in the market, didn't you?"
"We had a briefing first." Gaara defended. "Besides, it was an order from the Kazekage. And in cases of village security, Troupe Master, my authority overrules yours."
"Now it's a case of village security?"
Gaara's eyes met his brother's. "That's what we're calling it when we classify it as top secret."
Kankuro tapped his fingers. "Top secret. Huh, first time I've made that listing since that A Rank to Rock Country."
"Kankuro." Gaara said. "I want to see you put them in."
It was no idle request. Ninja who were not puppeteers were never allowed past the playhouse's stage; Gaara and Temari had never been in the workshop while their brother was at his craft. Puppetry was secret, it was sacred, and it was the one thing on which Kankuro never negotiated.
So it took Gaara by surprise when Kankuro only nodded.
"No point in finishing the artwork if the model doesn't get to see it, huh?" he said, the barest ghost of a real smile passing over his lips as he stood up, closing the box. "Alright. Let me get the traps set up here, first. Wouldn't want anyone breaking in and stealing all my precious first edition icha ichas."
"I thought Temari burned those."
"Temari tried, ja."
For obvious reasons, Kankuro did not want to be seen; Gaara agreed and so let his older brother lead the way to his workshop, taking so many turns and twists and secret passages that by the time they made it to the tell-tale door Gaara's head was spinning. "How do you remember it all?" he asked, standing back a safe distance as his brother disengaged all the traps.
"It's like the playhouse, little bro. All roads lead somewhere. Remind me to draw you a map sometime." Kankuro stood back. "There."
The two ninja entered the workshop, which looked much the same as it had the night Gaara placed his brother under house arrest, save for the long white shroud that covered the form on the table. Kankuro must have placed it there on one of his many forays out of his room, unable to sit still while confined.
Gaara found he was unable to look directly at it- if he tried, his gaze automatically skittered off and he was filled with the intense urge to forget whatever it was he had been trying to look at. Kankuro muttered a seal and the genjutsu dispelled. The puppeteer strode forward and pulled the white cloth off in one smooth motion.
Gaara looked at his wooden doppleganger, then sat on the bench next to the table and watched Kankuro move about, collecting tools from various drawers and cabinets, muttering to himself. Looking from the puppet to Kankuro, it suddenly struck Gaara how very different they were,
Kankuro returned to the table with a set of calipers, a small tube, a soft cloth, and a brush. He reached for the box and opened it, beginning to talk.
"Puppet eyes," he said, "they're set a little differently than human eyes. They're further back in the face, a little more inset so there's more grab in the back." He held up one of the glass eyeballs and Gaara noted for the first time that there was a small pucker on the back, like the edges in a screw. "That's where most of the chakra's contained. It feeds off the strings running through all the gears and is tied directly to the puppeteer."
Gaara didn't speak, knowing instinctively that what he was hearing wasn't meant for others' ears, that his brother was entrusting him with..something. Kankuro worked the calipers, measuring eyeball against socket.
"Some puppeteers use bigger eyes than others, depending on how much chakra they like to use and the qualities of their puppets. Dragon, for instance-" here Gaara's mind conjured up the image of the huge black-haired Dragon, the most outspoken of Kankuro's political opponents. "-Dragon's main puppet is less human than Karasu or Kuroari, and it has more emphasis on power than control, so he uses really big and animalistic eyes."
Kankuro's head twisted at an almost impossible angle as he prodded into the puppet's empty sockets. "I'm more of a humanoid puppet specialist, and that requires more chakra control, so most of my eyes are the same size as a person's. You went to Matsuo, so he..yes, he did." Kankuro put the calipers down.
"He what?" Gaara asked.
"He made them to my usual specifications." Kankuro explained. "Matsuo's got my measurements down."
Kankuro took the tube and squeezed a small amount of a gray paste onto one of the table's ceramic wells, then took the brush and one of the eyeballs and carefully began coating the back.
"Glue?" Gaara asked.
"Ultra special glue for ultra special people." Kankuro said with a grin, continuing to work. "It's chakra-matched to me, so every time I run energy through it, it'll increase the stick." The back of the eyeball was coated evenly. Kankuro held it by his fingernails, looking over it carefully. Then he leaned over and, with a surgeon's precision, placed the eyeball in the left socket.
Gaara felt a start. Where once there had been black space, now he was staring at himself- an eye for an eye. Kankuro coated the second eyeball with the same precision as the first and set it in. He placed one palm over the puppet's eyes, as though it were dead and he were closing the lids. Gaara saw his brother's chakra, a barely-visible quiver of air, working down through the sockets. The quiver became more pronounced as the chakra heated up, hardening the glue.
Kankuro removed his hand and took the cloth from where he had left it nearby, giving both eyes a quick polish.
Quite suddenly, the Gaara puppet sat up. On instinct, Gaara held very still.
"Gaara," Kankuro said, "Meet Gaara."
The puppet offered a hand. Gaara blinked at it a moment, then took it and shook.
"Pleasure to meet you." He said evenly. "You come here often?"
"Only when you're in mortal danger so your moron of an older brother can stop worrying." The puppet said in a perfect deadpan imitation of the original, and Gaara glanced sharply at Kankuro, who grinned sheepishly and released the chakra strings, setting the Gaara puppet down and closing its black-painted eyelids.
"He's not entirely done." Kankuro said. "I still need to figure out the sand. Imitating the ultimate defense is gonna be tricky, but hey, I love a challenge."
Gaara placed a hand on the puppet's forehead.
"I will help."
"Uh, Gaara," Kankuro said, "I know you're like a chakra dynamo but I don't want you climbing inside my puppet and then breaking it."
"I meant," Gaara said, "that I will help with the sand." He looked over the puppet. "There must be a way. And if I am nearby when it is in use, I can utilize my own techniques around it. We would have to coordinate our movements, but it could be done."
After all, they'd been on the same team since as long as either could remember.
"I should have been the one to do it, you know."
Gaara looked at Kankuro, who gazed down at the puppet on the table with a melancholy look. "I know it." Kankuro continued absently. "That jutsu. I made her show it to me once."
Gaara felt his blood run cold as Kankuro continued, "It wouldn't have been hard, I don't think. She said she thought it might be like falling asleep, but she hadn't tried it." Kankuro leaned against the table. "She got there first. That was all."
It was said with such vehemence that Kankuro instinctively rose his arms, transported for a moment to another time and place when that tone of voice meant that his life was in serious danger. Gaara's gaze was like diamond, unbreakable and furious.
"You will NEVER use that jutsu for me, do you understand?!" Gaara wasn't sure when his hands had grabbed Kankuro's arms, shaking him almost violently. "If you do that you're gone, not like me- you wouldn't come back and then what would I do?"
Years of ninja training battled hard against instinctive obedience and Kankuro did the only thing that either confused side of him would allow- he wrapped his arms tight around Gaara, which stopped the gratuitous shaking and allowed him a moment to breathe.
"I can't lose you." Gaara whispered into his brother's shoulder. "I can't."
"But I lost you." Kankuro's voice was broken.
"Then you know how it feels." Gaara said. Unspoken, Would you put me through that?
"I couldn't do anything."
"I'm here. It doesn't matter." They separated slightly, just enough to look at one another, Troupe Master to Kazekage.
"The both of us," Gaara said. "We're still here."
Their father wasn't. Chiyo wasn't. The past was gone, crumbling dust on the wind.
"Someday, we'll be gone too." Kankuro said.
"Someday. But not today, or tomorrow." Gaara smiled. "Not without a fight, anyway. We're too much..like our father for that."
Kankuro smiled slightly and looked from his brother to the puppet. He leaned down, putting his arms under the puppet's knees and behind its back. He lifted it up and turned, glancing over his shoulder. "Come on, bro. Let's put you to bed."
Gaara nodded and followed his brother to a nearby cabinet, locked with seals. Kankuro snapped his long fingers and the seals dropped off, letting the door swing open. Inside was a small wooden stool. Kankuro placed the puppet so that it was seated on the stool, arranging its arms so that they were folded. It looked for all the world as though the Kazekage were asleep.
Another snap of his fingers and the seals rose up again, sticking to the handles and surface of the doors as they closed.
"You should build a Temari." Gaara said as Kankuro activated the traps, stepping out into the hallway. "Just so we match."
"Maybe I could use it on that punk Nara." Kankuro agreed. "I was thinking about it, actually."
Kankuro's mind wandered to the sketchbook, forgotten in a corner. He'd show Gaara the design, work with Frog on the mechanics, maybe Sparrow for the paint. He'd present it to Temari on her birthday and she'd squeal and call him a freak but even as she threatened to destroy it she would look at it, wonder at the details, down to the freckles she denied were on her face.
He would have to go to Matsuo, for her eyes.
But first he and Gaara would go through the book at his desk together, to find another paint design.
Kankuro was tired of tragedies.
A/N: The end, I suppose, of Coping. Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, alerted and favorited this story- your support means a lot to me. And for those of you wondering, there is of course potential for a Temari-puppet story, although I doubt it will be as dramatic.