A/N: Quick set of translation reminders: "ototo" means "younger brother;" "henge" means "transform;" and "kaze no nami" means "wind wave."

Chapter Six

"Kazekage-sama?" Aya sounded surprised.

Still feeling uncomfortable with the situation, Gaara realized he didn't really know what to say. "Yeah."

Aya immediately teared up again. "I'm so sorry!" A sob caught in her throat, and she dragged in a ragged breath. "I know I made you angry back there. I can be —" She dragged in another ragged breath. "—really pushy. I just . . ." She bit her lip brutally. "I've had a crush on you for so long!"

Although he wasn't surprised, Gaara was caught off guard by the awkwardness of her admission and couldn't manage to reply.

Aya covered her face with her hands. "Oh, no." Her voice was muffled. "I didn't mean to say that." She dropped her hands and rubbed at her eyes. "Sorry. I know the other girls think I'm really shallow." Pushing herself to her feet, she stumbled over to the railing and leaned on it. "I'm sure Kaori-chan said nothing; she's too nice. But Hitomi-san speaks her mind, and we've never liked each other." She took a deep breath and stared up at the moon; tears still seeped from her eyes.

Opening his mouth to speak, Gaara hesitated when he realized he honestly had no idea what to say. "Well, she did say . . ."

"I can guess." Aya's gaze dropped and a sad smile bent her lips.

Gaara recognized he wasn't helping. "I . . ." He paused again, internally cursing himself for being so incompetent with conversation. He didn't say much, mostly talked business, and only had genuine conversations with his siblings. In the end, the only people he could really imagine being open with were his siblings and Naruto. Even the concept of small talk mystified him; he thought it was stupid.

Aya glanced at him. "When you said that you looked at all of the villagers as equals, you really meant it, didn't you?"

"Yes, I did." Gaara felt immensely thankful for the change of topic. He thought back to the chuunin exams, which suddenly seemed a lifetime ago. "Someone showed me once that circumstance has nothing to do with value. Neither does skill. There are other things more important."

Aya had turned her gaze to the full moon. "I guess that makes you a just man, then." She bit her lip again. "Maybe you'll forgive my earlier behavior. I amsorry."

Gaara was struck by how sincere she seemed, and he knew how important it was to try to forgive people if they truly were sorry, especially since he'd been there once himself. "It's . . . That's fine."

Aya smiled at him tentatively. "I'll be honest. I tend to throw my father's name around a lot to get what I want." She grimaced. "But you know, it's nice to hear that you consider us all equals. I'm actually really tired of being known as 'Daisuke's daughter.' You seem like you could actually see me as my own person." She turned and bowed her head. "In that case, let me officially introduce myself. I'm Aya."

"It's nice to meet you." Gaara inclined his head in return.

Aya's smile stabilized. "Thank you. It really is a pleasure to meet you." She stepped closer to him, although not overly so. "You said there are things more important than skill or lineage. Like what?"

Gaara walked over to the railing and put a hand on it, partially to maintain his personal space. After dancing so much, he felt the need to get away from people. "Some of the strongest shinobi I have ever fought against were strong because they fought for someone. They had something to fight for, to defend."

Aya joined him at the railing, but she didn't crowd his space. "They fought to defend someone? You mean like family?"

Gaara frowned faintly. "They fought for someone precious to them. Just like I fight for our village."

"I . . . see." Aya watched him with faint wonder. "I guess I never thought of fighting as anything more than duty." She paused, looking momentarily disgruntled. "Maybe that's why I'm still a genin."

"Someone explained it to me," Gaara said quietly. "I don't think it's always obvious."

Aya looked relieved. "Oh, good. I know I can be selfish, but I'd like to think someday I'll —" She stopped, cutting herself off. "Well, your sister and brother were definitely defending you in there." She laughed half-heartedly. "For a few minutes, I thought your sister was going to kill me."

A grin tugged at the corner of Gaara's mouth. "Temari has that effect on people." To his surprise, he found he had relaxed when Aya had, but he couldn't quite figure out why.

"Yeah, well, she told me off pretty good." Aya smiled in spite of her words. "I guess I earned it though. I admit it was why I was out here crying. But she . . . I guess she made a good point. I don't know you, and I don't have the right to walk up to you and made demands of you like I do know you. I just see you from afar and admire you." Her shoulders slumped slightly, a frown furrowing her brow. "None of us know you. Not Kaori-chan, not Hitomi-san, not me. Not any of us. We squeal and call out your name when you pass; we talk about how handsome you are. But we really know nothing. I guess I just wanted the chance to meet you for real." Her smile returned faintly. "And I have. You are very fair and very kind."

Gaara was struck speechless. He had absolutely no time for the girls who followed him around and screamed, but he'd never had one admit to him that her behaviour was shallow. "Thank you," he said quietly. Suddenly, the nameless, faceless horde separated in his mind, turning into a collection of individual girls, all of them as different from each other as Kaori, Hitomi, Matsuri, Sari, and Aya were. Instead of being the Mysterious Other, they were people just like he was.

Aya turned her smile upon the moon. "You're welcome." Holding two fingers in front of her chin she whispered, "Kaze no nami." After invoking her ninjustu, she extended a hand over the railing, and a gentle wind rushed up and over them, fluttering their hair. "There. That's what I see in you tonight — the wind, strong yet gentle." She turned back to him, only to chew on her lip faintly. "I'm sorry; I blew a leaf into your hair!" She reached up and pulled out the leaf, then paused. "You're . . ." She blushed, then leaned forward and placed a kiss on his lips.

Rendered immobile with surprise, Gaara stared at her, feeling a wave of heat rush to his face. He had no idea what he should do or even wanted to do. Should he push her away? It hadn't necessarily been a bad sensation, but he'd just met her.

When he neither resisted nor encouraged her, Aya reached out and grasped one of his wrists, pulling them toward each other and kissing him again. She gasped slightly as though she couldn't quite get air, then sucked on his lower lip before releasing the kiss slowly.

Gaara felt himself unfreeze, his impulse sliding toward shoving her away. Still he paused, unsure if that were the appropriate thing for the Kazekage to do; he didn't want to frighten or hurt her, exactly. Never again did he want to hear the word "monster" thrown at him.

Pulling back, Aya giggled and released him. "Did I get your first kiss? I did, didn't I? Awesome!" She squealed, hopping up and down in place once. "Thank you, Kazekage-sama!" She waved at him and then dashed off the balcony, throwing open the door and leaving it open behind her.

Gaara stared after her, deciding he should have shoved her away after all. Although she might be a person in his mind, apparently he wasn't a person in her mind. He remembered again what Hitomi had told him about Aya: she was a kiss collector. A wave of nausea hit his gut as he realized that she had been playing with him. He felt his lip curl in a sneer, feeling disgusted with both the girl and himself, and he slid down the railing to sit on the balcony.

For a minute, his thoughts tumbled over each other as he mentally replayed the scene, trying to figure out what he should have done differently or could have done differently to change the outcome. Would a simple "stop" have sufficed? Possibly. Why hadn't he thought of that sooner?

Too late.

Kankuro stepped through the doorway. "There you are. I wondered where you'd gone off to. How —" He stopped, glancing over his brother. "Gaara?"

Reaching up, Gaara brushed his lips with his fingers and wondered once again exactly what all these stupid social and dating rituals were supposed to be. What was a kiss, really? Did any of it mean anything?

Kankuro walked over and knelt by him. "Hey, man, what happened?

Gaara tried to say something — to explain the weird situation he'd landed himself in — but he only managed to part his lips. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, only to be struck with unwelcome thoughts. Had Aya been laughing at him? Was she laughing at him right now? He could only imagine what kinds of rumors would be started about him, and for a moment, all he could see was his childhood — people whispering about him, hissing at him, calling him names, and turning their backs as he walked past. He closed his eyes, horrified. I don't want that again — never again. But this is different, right? Things are different, right?He didn't feel reassured.

"Gaara?" Kankuro sounded worried; he squeezed his shoulder gently. "Did something happen between you and Daisuke's daughter? A minute ago, she ran past me from this general direction."

How to explain? "She . . ." It occurred to Gaara that if he still had Shukaku, the beast would have been laughing hysterically at him. In fact, Shukaku would have enjoyed the entire experience, no doubt making further demands of him. He opened his eyes, trying to chase the thoughts away. "She kissed me. It was some kind of game to her, I think."

A heavy, tense silence descended upon the balcony, and after a moment, Gaara realized the air was literally charged with his brother's angry chakra. Distracted from his thoughts by the sheer intent-to-kill electrifying the air, Gaara stared up at Kankuro.

"A game, huh?" Kankuro growled, baring his teeth in an expression Gaara rarely saw on him. "That sounds familiar, jan.What a bitch!"

Familiar?Gaara thought, briefly wondering what his brother meant. However, Kankuro's narrowed gaze slid toward the door, and Gaara remembered a dozen incidents over the last year or so where his brother had mouthed off to people who'd insulted his ototo. Unlike Temari, Kankuro didn't care about social proprieties, and he wasn't impressed with rank or traditional status. People had to earn his respect regardless of who they were. Gaara sometimes wondered if it were the result of knowing how their father, as the Kazekage, acted behind closed doors or if it were simply part of Kankuro's inherent personality.

Either way, Aya was in danger.

"Stop." Gaara grasped his brother's arm before he could take action. He didn't want a scene, and more than that, he wasn't sure himself how he wanted to deal with the situation.

Kankuro froze.

Realizing that he was being a bit vague, Gaara squeezed the arm he held, not wanting his brother to feel that his protective impulses were being rejected. It meant too much to him that his brother loved him enough to want to protect him. "You want to tell her off, don't you? Wait. I need time to think."

Kankuro thawed immediately, turning back toward him. "Sure, man."

Dropping his hand, Gaara tried to figure out what he didwant. "For now, I want to leave." He realized how incredibly rude he would seem to the Hokage and the Konoha shinobi in general. "We need a good reason. I don't want to offend our allies." At the same time, his Social Interaction Reserves, as he'd dubbed them, were completely depleted — or more like down in the negatives. He felt as though he were mentally suffocating.

"Right." Kankuro paused. "You know, leave that to me. I think I'll use your original idea. I'll use hengeand disguise myself as you. I'll give it another half-hour, maybe dance with one or two more girls, then go thank Tsunade-hime for a wonderful evening. No one will notice because no one will think to check for something like that."

"But won't someone notice that you're gone?"

"No one will care," Kankuro replied bluntly.

Gaara paused, finding that he was disturbed by Kankuro's assessment. "I don't think that's true."

Kankuro sighed. "Okay, one girl might care, but she's taking care of her friend right now. Someone lashed out at her for dancing with you." He shrugged. "But hey, if Temari approaches me, I'll explain. She's the only one likely to realize you're not you. I have your mannerisms and verbal quirks memorized, after all."

It was too tempting. "Very well. But as soon as you leave, come to my suite." Gaara frowned, putting Kankuro's story together and feeling irritated that someone had hurt Kaori for simply dancing with him.

"You got it." Kankuro gave him a small smile and stood, holding two fingers in front of his chest. "Henge." A pop, and a perfect likeness of Gaara suddenly took his place. He turned toward his ototo and crossed his arms over his chest, staring down at him impassively and silently.

Gaara returned his brother's faint smile; he would have been deeply amused had he not been so irritated and exhausted.

Kankuro strolled back into the ballroom, and Gaara was struck with the realization that he didn't want to do without his nii-san. He felt that even if he did manage to get married and have three kids of his own — which seemed somehow impossible to him — he would weave Kankuro into his life in such a way that they would never grow apart. Given that his brother stood in line to be promoted to master of the Puppet Corps, Gaara didn't see the task as too difficult. The Puppet Corps' master always had a seat on the council, after all. They would work together on an almost daily basis.

Somehow, Gaara didn't think Kankuro would mind. And given that Gaara suspected they would ultimately lose Temari to Shikamaru and Konoha, the thought that Kankuro would remain by him was profoundly comforting.

After having a glass of punch, Kankuro — still successfully disguised as Gaara — leaned against the far wall, opposite from the chamber orchestra. He'd danced with five more girls, all of them from Suna, and had found himself nearly as exhausted as Gaara by the end. Fortunately, the girls weren't all bubbly and overexcited, although Kankuro decided that for the most part, only the extraverted, hyperactive girls were bold enough to ask for a dance. Still, two of the girls had been calm, and most of them had been decent conversationalists.

Although Naruto had stopped to talk to him briefly, forcing Kankuro to put on his best performance yet, the equally overexcited, hyperactive boy had finally convinced Sakura to dance once with him. A brief glance across the floor revealed a few other dancers Kankuro recognized: Neji with Tenten, Lee with Hinata, and of course Shikamaru with Temari. Kankuro noted that both Hinata and Lee were covertly staring at Naruto and Sakura. Interestingly, Hitomi wasn't dancing with anyone else, and Kankuro found that he hoped it wasn't just because she was taking care of Kaori.

He also noticed that his ex-girlfriend, Koto, was dancing with Sari's and Matsuri's friend Ittetsu. He didn't have long to consider how he felt about it, though. Once the song ended, Temari headed straight for Kankuro, and by the way her left eyebrow arched, he knew she had figured out the switch without even talking to him.

"Ototo," she said noncommittally. Or at least it would have seemed vague to anyone but her brothers.

However, Kankuro had picked up on a difference in inflection. When his sister said the word to Gaara, it was tinged with a certain formality and reverence, as though her respect for Gaara's rank pervaded even her most casual moments with him. When she said it to Kankuro, the word was colored with an easy warmth and familiarity.

"What's this?" Kankuro dropped his voice so he wouldn't be overheard. "You're giving Nara-kun a break, jan?"

Temari shook her head with an air of exasperation. "Where is my other ototo? And why are you disguised as him?"

Kankuro made sure to keep his facial expression stoic. Although Gaara showed more expression around his siblings when they were in private, he had yet to recover the range of expression he'd had as a young child. Kankuro wondered if Gaara would ever heal enough to recover it. "Well, you know how he gets if he spends too much time in a crowd."

"This is an official event," Temari hissed under her breath.

"That will probably last all night, you know," Kankuro pointed out. "That doesn't mean, though, that we have to stay all night." He nodded faintly toward the adults, knowing where it all had to be headed. "After a while, the only form of entertainment left will be watching the drunks mutilate karaoke after the orchestra leaves. By that point, all the dignitaries will be long gone, and thanks to henge, none of them will realize Gaara left first."

Temari narrowed her eyes in the way she did when Kankuro managed to out-logic her. "It's still immature."

"Well, duh. Even though we're shinobi, we're still teenagers, jan." Kankuro gave her a very faint smirk. "Even though he's Kazekage, Gaara's still only fifteen."


"Thank you."

Temari leaned against the wall beside him, crossing her arms over her chest and matching Kankuro's "Gaara Pose" perfectly. "I never expected him to have that little endurance, though."

Staring out across the room, Kankuro found his gaze falling upon Koto again. "It's more than that. He had a run-in with that Aya girl."

"Oh, really?" Temari's eyes narrowed again.

Kankuro could smell the doom. It was one reason he hadn't told his siblings much about his breakup with Koto. In addition to not wanting to burden them, he'd suspected Temari's reaction toward her would be less than friendly. Granted, he didn't necessarily mind Temari's beating up Koto. He wasn't the kind of guy who felt he needed to guard his machismo by never letting anyone else defend him; he had utter confidence in his abilities and manhood. He just didn't want Temari to get in trouble.

The same could also be said of Temari's reaction toward Aya. It was why he understood Gaara's stopping him. "Yeah," he ventured. "Apparently she kinda . . . forced a kiss on him."

Suddenly, the air felt significantly heavier, as though iron filaments had attached to all the oxygen molecules. "Oh, she did?" Temari's posture straightened as she pulled away from the wall, her tone promising much violence.

"Gaara told me not to do anything," Kankuro quickly added. "He hasn't decided what he wants to do yet."

Frowning and clearly displeased, Temari leaned against the wall again and crossed her arms once more. "Fine. I should behave myself here, anyway. It wouldn't do to create a scene."

Temari cared far more about tradition, formality, and appearance than Kankuro did. He shrugged one shoulder. "I guess."

"Still," Temari added, frowning, "it explains all the whispering and giggling. Have you noticed all the wide-eyed looks aimed 'your' way?"

Kankuro held back a sigh. "Yeah. Aya's been bragging about it, huh?" He had hoped it was just his imagination or maybe just the normal stares from girls who wanted to dance with Gaara.

"I couldn't hear what any of them were saying other than one yelled 'No way!' But yeah, I'm guessing that's it." Temari shifted restlessly, clearly irritated. "That's so immature and disrespectful."

Kankuro agreed, but he tried to distract himself before his temper flared up again and his protective impulses got the better of him. He glanced around the room, and although he didn't want to watch her, he found his gaze sliding toward Koto again.

"You're still not quite over her, are you?" Temari asked quietly, apparently having followed his gaze.

Kankuro grimaced. "What do you mean by 'over'? I definitely don't want to have anything to do with her ever again." He paused, not wanting to talk about it. "I still feel pretty burnt, though."

"Why do I get the feeling that you're holding back on me?" Temari shot him a sideways glance. "You always do that. You want protect everyone — even nearly get yourself killed doing it — but you clam up when you're really hurt yourself."

So, she was already in the Hard Truth stage. Kankuro stared at the red and white banner decorating the far wall. "You wouldn't let me protect you, anyway." He was careful not to let his frustration or dreams on that subject show in his tone.

Temari snorted. "I will if I really need it. But you're right — you've got your work cut out for you. I'm the oldest; I'm supposed to protect you." She turned toward him. "So, do I need to beat Koto senseless or not? Don't you think it's time you told me? Although, really, your silence on the subject is enough to answer my question."

"Nah." Kankuro felt a small smile tugging at his lips and fought if off so as to not shatter his portrayal of Gaara. "It wouldn't do any good. I'll explain later. In private."

"You better." Temari stepped away from the wall. "Go take care of our ototo, okay? I'll stop in and check on you both later."

"Right." Kankuro pushed off the wall as well, wondering how his sister would react when she got the full story. Somehow the thought made him feel warm.

He headed toward Tsunade, preparing his thank you speech.

When Kankuro arrived at his brother's suite — the expansive quarters reserved for visiting Kages and similar dignitaries — he found two temporary bodyguards standing watch at the door. Technically, Temari and he were Gaara's bodyguards, though, so he dismissed them and entered, finding Gaara in the parlor, sitting on the couch and staring out the window. Kankuro noted that his brother had been quick to change out of the tux into a plain black yukata. Not that he could say anything. He had also swung past his section of the multi-room quarters and changed into a yukata.

Gaara had lit one oil lamp, which mixed with the moonlight to provide the room with faint illumination. It was enough, however, for Kankuro to detect his disgruntled expression. The faint frown that accompanied Gaara's usual stoic mask was more pronounced than usual. "Pissed?" Kankuro asked, flopping onto the couch beside him. He leaned his head against the backrest and stared at the ceiling.

"It wasn't . . . a bad sensation," Gaara admitted slowly. "But I'd just met her, and kissing complete strangers doesn't appeal to me. The more I think about it, the surer I am that it was some kind of game. I mean, in her eyes I'm not even a person. That's the part that makes me mad." He paused. "I'm not here to be anyone's entertainment."

Kankuro frowned as well, watching the moonlight slant like creeping fingers across the ceiling. "Entertainment . . ." It seemed like a theme to him. To a certain extent, Gaara had been the mere front-man for the council thus far. When Gaara had been abducted, the council had been blunt: they had made Gaara Kazekage only to try to control him. Merely thinking back on that conversation still made Kankuro furious. The council saw Gaara as a fifteen-year-old child with little leadership experience, and although there was some truth to the thought, Gaara was almost like their entertainment instead of their Kage. A monster to be controlled, not a person.

Kankuro hoped that Gaara's protection of the village had raised their opinion some.

But all of that was something that made an unfortunate kind of sense to Kankuro, even if he didn't like it. What he hadn't counted on was that some girls would see Gaara as a sex object to be pursued. He had seen it as their having crushes on him, and society tended to congratulate men who could sweep lots of women off their feet — or, more specifically, sleep with as many of them as possible. The first seemed innocent enough, and the second didn't impress him. But he only now realized that there were other points along that continuum.

"I feel stupid for somehow falling into her trap, too," Gaara continued. "I was warned, but I didn't detect her act. I also wasn't sure if I should . . ." He trailed off, his brow furrowing.

"You're not stupid. Since it's nothing but a game to her, I'm sure she's really good at it." Kankuro couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. He could empathize a little too well.

Gaara was quiet for a moment. "What happened the first time you kissed?"

"Me?" Kankuro rolled his head to the side so he could look at his brother. "Well, I ran up to the girl, gave her a quick kiss, and then ran off again."

Gaara stared at him.

Kankuro had to laugh. "Hey, we were, like, ten. I'm not really sure we understood what 'going out' was, but we stayed together for most of that school year." He smile faded as he considered the past. They'd remained friends even after graduating, but she'd been killed on a mission when they were fourteen.

Sighing, Gaara shifted on the couch and faced his brother. "Maybe I'm over-thinking this or assigning too much significance to it. Love, touch, affection, kissing . . ." He lifted one hand, waving it through the air vaguely. "I've worked hard to understand and build bonds; we've talked about things. But at the end of the day, I feel like the rules and games surrounding romance are ridiculously complicated. Some of it just seems stupid or fake."

Although he wished he could provide a counterargument, Kankuro found he couldn't. He was painfully aware of the fact his brotherly wisdom on this subject ran out after a point. "With some people, that's true." Disturbed, he wondered if his brother had suffered a setback on the issue or if his experience had merely brought more of his thoughts to the surface.

"It doesn't help that . . ." Gaara trailed off, his frown becoming more pronounced again.

Kankuro felt his stomach clench and wondered if Gaara were thinking about Shukaku. He hadn't wanted to admit it to him — hadn't even wanted to think about it — but the memory of Gaara's words several nights earlier had been haunting him:

"Shukaku's gone. It's not supposed to happen."

"But Shukaku always used to . . . He'd try to take control of me that way.

A deep, cold feeling seeped through Kankuro's gut, working outward until it felt like his lungs were frozen. What, exactly, had the beast done to his brother? The bloodlust had been obvious, but when Gaara had reached the stage where he spoke aloud with Shukaku, holding one-sided conversations, the words hadn't always made sense. Kankuro had never stopped to consider that the topic had been anything except killing and death. However, in retrospect, he realized he'd been shortsighted.

Kankuro suddenly found it deeply creepy that Gaara had confused Shukaku with their mother's spirit, and he had to wonder if the beast's actions counted as some kind of verbal molestation. If so, it made sense that Gaara was so perplexed about these issues. It also made Kankuro hurt even more for his brother.

"Maybe I'm just not normal," Gaara finally continued. "Shukaku always did and said strange things, and I never knew whether he was lying or just torturing me. I finally assumed little of it was true or real." He leaned the side of his head against the couch back. "I overheard the boys at the academy a few times, but since I never had friends, all I picked up were small bits and pieces in passing. I didn't put it together until you talked to me about it."

Kankuro straightened, propping one foot on the couch and folding his leg so he could rest his arm on his knee. He didn't interrupt, figuring Gaara was thinking out loud, but he hated thinking about the past. Until Gaara was six, he had lived in a separate house, and even once their father had brought Gaara home, he'd isolated him from his siblings. Gaara hadn't attended the Academy normally, often pulled out to be trained one-on-one instead — ultimately because of his instability and the danger it posed to the other children. Kankuro figured that even if Gaara had remained sane, he would have had trouble making and maintaining friends, and the thought still depressed him. Nothing about Gaara's experience had been normal.

"And maybe, in the end, I'll never be entirely normal." Gaara's thoughts seemed to be along the same lines as Kankuro's. He glanced down at his hand, clenching and unclenching his fingers as though he couldn't decide if they were real. "I wonder sometimes if I'll be able to build a relationship with a woman. Marry? Have children? It all seems unlikely somehow. Not because people still fear me or even that no one is capable of respecting me, but because I can't imagine connecting with someone that way."

"Or if you want to?" Kankuro asked quietly, thinking over his own experiences. He shook his head. "No, you're too young to give up. And you've come too far to assume you can't change."

Gaara seemed to chew over the words, although he didn't respond directly. "But what you said just now — you understand, don't you?"

"Yeah, that much at least." Kankuro ended up staring at his lap. "I wonder sometimes . . . did Mom love Father when they first married? Did she love him when Temari was born? When I was? Did she realize her husband was willing to sacrifice her — and her son — to get what he wanted?" He gripped his knees brutally. "She must have known. She must have figured it out."

"Uncle Yashamaru said that Mom didn't want me," Gaara whispered.

Struck through by the words, Kankuro reached out and took his hand, squeezing it. "Did she want any of us?"

And then Gaara was squeezing his hand in return as they struggled to comfort each other.

"This is why I say love really doesn't make sense to me, either." Kankuro shuddered faintly. "I don't want to have a relationship like that. What was it? A political arrangement? I don't want something fake that will ultimately turn into hate." He paused, wondering if he were making sense. "I mean, sometimes I can't help noticing the parents of my friends." He felt his nose crinkle in disgust. "They do nothing but fight. They call each other names, use each other, or dump on each other. They show no respect; they're totally selfish. I look at them, and I wonder . . . Were they ever in love at all? Or were they just infatuated? Was it lust?" He smirked, knowing he'd started to fall into that trap. He hadn't had any deep reason to date Koto; it was simply that she was pretty to look at. In the end, he felt as though he were just as confused as Gaara in his own way.

Gaara shook his head slowly. "I have no idea. But you said before it wasn't just about how good the sex was."

Kankuro snorted. "Yeah, jan." Koto's face flashed into his mind again, but he pushed it away. "And I don't want that. I mean, I don't wanna be the forty-year-old guy who does nothing but bitch about how mean his wife is or how much she nags. I don't wanna be the sixty-year-old guy who chases teenage girls down the street. I don't wanna be the eighty-year-old guy who sits in his rocking chair across from his wife and tells her to hurry up and die."

"You won't be." Gaara sounded so sure.

Kankuro thought back on the blow-out fight he'd had with Koto as they broke up. "But sometimes I wonder . . . is there really any other option?" Although he didn't intend it, the words came out as a whisper. "Everyone I know seems to spend all their time whining and complaining about their spouse." He realized suddenly that he couldn't be helping Gaara's attitude any, much less his confusion, but at the same time, he really wanted an answer.

After a lengthy pause, Gaara scooted closer, and to Kankuro's surprise, he ran his arm around his shoulders, pulling him close. With a faint smile, Kankuro shifted so he could rest his head on his brother's shoulder. He felt caught somewhere between embarrassment and deep affection. All his life, he had worried about and protected others, always working hard to get stronger, be tough, be a Man. He had hidden the depth of his true care behind a mask, knowing it wouldn't be accepted, but now someone was openly offering him that same care in return.

"If you were going to build a strong relationship with a woman, what would you do?" Gaara asked after a moment's silence.

Kankuro pondered the question with the same seriousness with which it was asked. After several minutes, he offered the only answer he could imagine. "I guess I'd be best friends with her first. You know, so we could really be ourselves." Abruptly, he found himself spilling his guts. "It's what went wrong with Koto. She loved my performance. She's an artist, herself, and she likes 'bad boys,' I guess. She liked it when I was a smart ass, when I was a total punk, even when I roughed people up. And she loved my accent —" He paused, smirking, then added belatedly, "— jan."

Gaara's arm tightened around him. "There's more to you than that."

"She didn't want anything more, so I couldn't really be me. It felt like nothing but a game." Kankuro's words sounded so acidic he wondered that he didn't burn the air speaking them. He couldn't quite reveal to Gaara the depth of his humiliation yet, though. He'd thought his relationship with Koto had been headed somewhere, but now he realized that he'd been terribly naïve.
Although three months had passed, her laughter still rang in his ears. "So, yeah, I guess I'd just wanna be friends first, you know? Or something like that. Because I realized one day that I never really knew Koto. Just little stuff like her favorite food or music." Or what she liked in bed,he thought but didn't say. "Turns out we really had nothing in common past surface details." Even as he said he words, he knew Gaara was the only one he could say them to. The entire conversation was one he'd only trust his siblings with. He couldn't begin to imagine being so open with any of his guy friends.

"Then maybe that's what we should both do," Gaara said. "Take our time getting to know the girl, feel comfortable with her. Make sure our personalities and worldviews don't clash. It would almost be like creating a successful team — matching up personalities and jutsu, balancing strengths and weaknesses, and building teamwork and communication."

Kankuro remembered some advice he'd been given years earlier. "Someone told me once that you have to have a good foundation of friendship to build a relationship on if you want it to last."

Gaara seemed to ponder this for a moment. "Makes sense. If you can't be friends with them, how can you ever be anything more and expect it to work? Don't you need to enjoy the time you spend with them just on a daily, mundane basis? Life ismundane. If you consider it that way, success would have to be in the small details as much as the large ones."

Deciding his brother understood relationships better than he thought he did, Kankuro smiled, taking the wisdom for what it was. "I'm not sure you're normal," he said without warning, "but I will say that if you're abnormal, it's not bad. That was pretty smart; I'll keep it in mind." He wondered briefly if he should try the theory with Hitomi, maybe ask her out later. The thought of dating still filled him with unease, though.

Gaara shifted again, and Kankuro felt warm lips against his forehead. Feeling somewhat like a child again, Kankuro had to hold back a laugh, but it didn't escape his notice that the care he'd given Gaara was now being returned to him.

"You're precious to me," Gaara said quietly, bluntly. "I want to help you or protect you if I can."

The words struck Kankuro so hard he thought he might be rendered momentarily deaf. He wrapped one arm around his brother, hugging him in return. For a minute, he thought his heart might tear in two. Part of him wanted Gaara to feel protective toward him, and part of him still wanted to be the older brother, almost like a father figure. "I know you're the Kazekage, and you don't really need anyone's help. But I want to protect you, too."

"You already do." The words were soft. "I don't mind. The more I look back on it, the more I can see that you always wished to protect me. You were always first to offer to carry me if I were chakra exhausted; you were always first to offer to stay behind and delay an enemy." Gaara's arm tightened around his shoulders once more. "Then you rushed after me when I was abducted. How could I not cherish that care?"

Kankuro smiled against his shoulder, feeling too overcome to reply.

"That's why I say that you'll be successful when you establish a family of your own," Gaara continued.

After taking a moment to collect himself, Kankuro managed to reply. "If that's true, then just apply your attitude toward our village to your wife and kids. If you're that dedicated, you'll succeed, too." He straightened so he could meet Gaara's gaze and show him the depth of his confidence in him.

"Thank you." Gaara paused, a thoughtful look stealing over his face. His gaze dropped until he was staring at Kankuro's chest. "Uncle Yashamaru once tried to explain love to me," he said, his brow furrowing. "And Naruto said that no one can be alone. You said that being a shinobi wasn't going to make you care any less about your family, and you've promised to protect me." He hesitated. "I'm . . . I'm glad you're my nii-san now."

Kankuro realized that although it didn't seem like it on the surface, he was being asked a question. "Of course I love you, ototo." Despite acting like it was obvious to all and easy to say, he felt vague terror. Every muscle fiber in his being tensed; he had never been so honest about his feelings. Probably he would never have been so open had their lives and relationship not pulled together in such an odd and bumpy way.

For a moment, Gaara seemed to stop breathing, and Kankuro realized that it was unlikely that anyone had ever said those words to him — not and meant them. Kankuro held his breath as well, suddenly terrified that he'd be rebuked like he had been as a young child when he'd tried to be affectionate toward his father or grandfather. However, that rare smile slowly bent up Gaara's lips, and he leaned forward until their foreheads touched. Kankuro met the gesture, feeling a smile tugging at his lips as well. He closed his eyes and relaxed.

"I don't know if we'll figure out more about all these things," Gaara whispered. "But as you said, I made it this far, so surely I — we — can. Either way, though, at least we figured out this much."

"Yeah." Kankuro once again wanted to laugh, but this time it was from joy. He had shown Gaara all of himself, the real him, and been accepted. Even his protection had been accepted.

It was a strange outcome to achieve from something as mundane as teaching someone to dance, but Kankuro couldn't complain.

A/N: Thank you so much to everyone who has reviewed, faved, or put this story on alert! (And a special call out to Tammy and jkl!)

Since most people hate OCs, I purposely didn't include any indication about the outcome of Kankuro and Hitomi's dancing, much less suggest a future trajectory for either Kankuro or Gaara. However, since I was asked about it, I will say that originally "Dances" was a series, so Gaara and Kankuro both eventually have to face their issues and work toward a solution. They don't stay stuck in this moment forever. (smile) The fact this was a series is also the reason why you don't get more information on Koto. The full story of Kankuro and Koto is actually spread over stories two and three. I tried to move some of the details back here into story one so as not to frustrate you all with unanswered questions. (I'm not going to convert the rest of the series.)