Even After All This Time


By Ariel-D

Description: After the 4th Shinobi World War, Gaara, Kankuro, and Temari have to face problems and tensions that threaten to rip apart their small family. Sometimes you can't have what you truly desire. Can anything good come from something bad?

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: Probably the manga will render this story AU fairly shortly, but that's okay. Warning: spoilers through chapter Shippuuden vol. 56 ch. 547. All post-war details fabricated by me, of course. Note that this contains a projection of who the Sandsibs could become after the war is over and is not necessarily meant to reflect who they were prior to or even during the war. Gaara, especially, is someone I feel will be changed by his experiences on the battlefield, while Temari is a projection of a common fan fantasy.

This story was written back in March as a summation of all my previous Sandsibs stories; as a result, you'll see allusions to a half-dozen of my other fanfics here even though this is not a sequel to any of them. My purpose was to process everywhere I'd been before so I could locate myself and re-enter the fandom. Originally, I didn't post it because it felt like I was missing a scene, but I finally figured out what scene that was. So I tweaked the story to fit the most recent manga chapters and then finished it.

Translations: I don't use a lot of Japanese, but since I find the language beautiful, I can't help adding just a few words.

Niisan means older brother, ototo means younger brother, and neesan means older sister. "Jan" is the syllable Kankuro adds to his sentences because he speaks with a punk/Yankee accent.

Chapter One

Wood shavings decorated the workbench; the smell of sawdust tickled his nose. Gaara's stomach tensed at the familiarity of his brother's bedroom, which glowed from the crimson sunrays piercing the curtains. An eerie hush hung in the room as though daring him to make a sound. Peering out the round window, Gaara could see the normal world outside: countless shinobi and kunoichi spending time with their families after returning from the war. Distantly, he heard children's happy shrieks, but the sound was so muffled it seemed unreal. It was too normal.

Stepping over to the worktable, Gaara ran his fingertips through the sawdust there, leaving behind narrow tracks. His soul was lodged in his throat, cutting off the scream of pain trapped in his chest. The ache of it choked him and burnt his sinuses. His gaze wandered over little ceramic pots of paint — green, red, purple — and he pressed his fingers against the cool surfaces, trying to convince himself he was still real. He felt disconnected, numb.

No sound reached his ears, but Gaara felt the soft hum of chakra behind him as someone drew near. He turned toward Temari, who wore a plain black yukata. "Any change?"

She waved one arm in front of her chest, signaling "no," and stepped into the room. "Sakura-san has arrived. She's doing her best to determine why his condition suddenly grew worse."

Gaara tried to meet his sister's eyes, but he found his gaze slipping sideways to the wall. "I don't understand." His voice was flat. "They treated the poison already." In his mind, all he could see was Kankuro collapsing shortly after they'd returned to Suna; his face had been pale, his breathing labored, his eyes nearly gray.

"There were so many of them," Temari whispered. From the corner of his vision, he saw her bow her head. "Not just Chiyo-baa, which would have been bad enough, but that Hanzo guy and his —"

"I know." In a sense, the war had been the worst nightmare of Gaara's life. He'd fought to protect Naruto, to protect the entire world. However, he'd had to face countless powerful shinobi, including his own resurrected father. At moments he'd wondered if the world might end, but the boy of legend had arrived — late, like a hero should — and turned the tide.

But there had been casualties. Fatalities. And there had been Kankuro slipping to his knees, clutching his chest and panting, sweat springing to his brow.

He's one of my precious people, Gaara thought, but the words never made it to his lips. He could feel a tingling in his tongue, almost as though the words wanted to claw their way out. You both are.

"I think perhaps we should go to him." Temari turned and headed back through the door.

Watching her back, Gaara frowned, knowing something wasn't right. A very big something. "Wait."

Temari paused without turning around.

"Explain what's going on between Kankuro and you." For months, Gaara had pretended not to notice the tension between his siblings, but he wasn't blind to the shift — indeed, fracture — in their relationship. As a child, Gaara had been tortured by the sight and evidence of his siblings' close bond. He'd peered in from the outside, watching the way they stood together and covered each other's backs. With so little difference in their ages, they acted more like twins, and although they picked on each other and gave each other attitude, their surface behavior didn't hide the love they shared. Gaara had been deeply jealous, so much so that he could hardly stand to be in their presence. Lately, though, something had changed for the worse.

"We fought." Temari spoke so suddenly Gaara felt startled. "We argued. Right before the war began. We lost our tempers, both of us. I was . . ." She hesitated. "We're close, but we're still very different. He's like Naruto, reacting based on his feelings. He doesn't understand . . ." Once again, she hesitated, as though she couldn't find the words to say. "He has different needs, I guess. So we fought."

Gaara crossed the tatami floor soundlessly and squeezed her arm. "Siblings fight. Things are good between us now, but that doesn't mean we'll never argue. I'm sure he knows you love him."

"It'd been building for months, actually." Temari finally turned toward him, but she stared at the wall. "He hasn't been the same since I started seeing Shikamaru, even though he's totally supported me in doing so."

Well aware of the likely conflict between his siblings, Gaara wasn't sure what to say, so he chose a neutral fact. "Of course. Kankuro always supports you in everything you do."

"I know." Temari sighed and tugged on her yukata, straightening the obi. "I think we're both frustrated because the other doesn't understand, but I don't know what it is that I'm supposed to figure out. And we said some really hurtful shit."

"The last words you speak to someone aren't the most important." Although he understood that she was worried about that, Gaara shuddered internally, not wanting to curse them with such an obvious allusion to Kankuro's potential death. "Let's go."

As he headed out of the room, Gaara felt his sister trail after him, but he didn't speak to her further. Despite the light and heat outside, shadows clogged the hallways, and the breeze whipping in the open windows felt cold against his face. For awhile now his brother had been the warm, affectionate presence at his elbow, teasing him and protecting him. He'd even babysat him through his nightmares as he'd learned to sleep. Gaara had absorbed it all greedily, if silently, trying to drink in the love he'd missed. But his relationship with his brother was overshadowed by the lifelong bond Kankuro and Temari shared. He knew how much pain their conflict was causing Kankuro, but selfishly, Gaara had wondered if he could win more of his brother's attention.

Now he felt guilty for wishing such a thing because they might lose their brother forever. The sheer pain and terror caused by that thought made his veins burn and tingle as though he'd been poisoned. Please don't let my brother die. Now that he'd experienced familial love, Gaara couldn't imagine life without Kankuro.

Loud clinking sounds disrupted his rest, interrupting the strange shadow world he swam through: Chiyo complimenting his growth, Temari razzing Shikamaru, Gaara asking him if he were all right. With effort, Kankuro identified the sounds as dishes in a sink, then revised it to beakers in a lab. Finally he decided they were plates on a metal rolling cart. He thought he should be home, but the smell of rubbing alcohol and bleach told him he wasn't. The confusion made him push against the sleep that grasped his limbs and pulled him downward.

Distant voices added to the chaos as incoherent mumbling. Something was wrong; he was sure of it. A no-nonsense voice spoke next to his ear, and he realized suddenly he was cold and his right hip hurt. With a frown, he forced his eyes open, and he could feel the crusted sleep in them. His eyelashes seemed to part with effort, pulling away from each other lash by lash.

"You're awake." A pale face leaned over him. "I was beginning to fear you'd sleep forever."

Snorting, Kankuro gave Gaara a smile; however, when he attempted to speak, he mangled the first syllable and had to swallow hard, trying to find his voice.

Sakura leaned over him from the opposite side. "That's two you owe me." She smiled briefly, then grew grim. "I thought at first it was poison again, but it wasn't. I'm not sure what to say it was, exactly. It acted almost like a jutsu that, over the course of days, drains a person's chakra until they're dead." She shrugged one shoulder in obvious irritation. "That will take more research. But regardless, you'll have to take it easy for awhile."

Knowing better than to argue, Kankuro nodded slowly, and Sakura retreated. He glanced back at his brother to judge just how much danger he'd been in. Dark smudges decorated the inner corners of Gaara's eyes, making the black rings seem wider. "That bad, huh?" His gaze wandered around the room, searching for Temari, wishing she were there, too. But, of course, she wasn't. Somehow, he thought he should feel hurt, but he simply felt resigned.

"Idiot," Gaara said, the word lacking any heat. "You almost died. When I put you in charge of the ambush party, I didn't expect you to get poisoned again."

Kankuro smiled weakly. "That's me. Reckless and all."

Gaara dropped his deadpan teasing act. "You feel all right?"

"Just tired," Kankuro admitted. He felt like he could sleep for years and never get enough. "How long have I been out?"

"Five days. You scared us." Gaara ran one hand through his hair, exposing his kanji more than usual.

Taking in Gaara's unusual show of discomfort, Kankuro frowned, understanding what a close call it must have been. "Where's Temari?" He almost didn't want to ask.

"I had to put her on border patrol." Gaara paused. "She's checked on you several times, and she's stayed by your side as much as she can."

Warmness radiated through the clump of ice infesting his heart, and Kankuro smiled to himself. For a moment, he'd feared his sister really had simply abandoned him despite his being hurt.

"You guys had a fight, didn't you?" Gaara asked.

Kankuro considered inquiring how he knew, but he didn't bother. His brother was highly observant. "Yeah, I was so angry I said some stuff I shouldn't have." He frowned at the ceiling. That's an understatement. It hadn't been his intention; the pain he was holding in had exploded. Not that Temari hadn't given as good as she'd got; Kankuro was still stinging over some of his sister's words. But it all hurt. The only other time in his life he'd ever hurt this much was when he'd failed to rescue Gaara and almost lost him forever.

Now it looked like he might lose his sister instead.

It was ironic. When Kankuro had been younger, everyone had assumed he was a heartless bully, and he was self-aware enough to know he'd been a jerk. But he'd never been heartless. If anything, he believed he felt toomuch. "How do you know?" he whispered, stricken. "How do you do it?"

Gaara's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?

"How do you know when to let go? How much to let go? And . . . how do you bring yourself to do it?" Kankuro felt nauseated with pain, his stomach clenching tightly. He'd never imagined his bond with Temari would be discarded, that Temari would essentially hand it back to him and tell him she no longer needed it.

Scooting in his chair, Gaara leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees. "You're still talking about Temari, aren't you?"

Without meeting his gaze, Kankuro forced himself to explain. "There are only twenty four hours in a day. Take out nine or ten for Temari's work, three for daily training, and eight for sleep. Now there are three hours left for free time." Kankuro's voice sounded flat, clinical. "She doesn't have any real hobbies, so we've always just hung out and done whatever, either her and me or all three of us."

"Our bonding time," Gaara said bluntly, having always been the type to present concepts exactly as he saw them. Having lived outside of society for so long, he seemed unbothered by the constraints of either politeness or machismo.

"Yeah, jan." Kankuro sighed faintly, staring at the cracks meandering through the beige adobe ceiling. Their pattern reminded him of crows' feet. "Then after swearing she had no interest in the stupid boys her age or in marriage in general, she started dating Shikamaru. Which, of course, is great. And I totally encouraged her to do that."

Gaara watched him with that quiet intensity he always gave to those he listened to. "Yes, you've been her number one supporter in everything she does."

Kankuro didn't want to say the words. He didn't want to continue, didn't want to acknowledge what was happening, to face the truth he couldn't avoid. "Dating is a normal thing," he whispered, arguing with himself and delaying the moment. "And to date someone from a village that's so far away takes a lot of effort and time."

"But now she has no time for us," Gaara said, still blunt. "She takes assignments to Konoha anytime they arise, and if Shikamaru is with a Konoha team or delegation that comes here, she stays with him the entire time." He shook his head. "Yes, I know. I could say, 'Suck it up. If you want any of her time, you better adapt to her schedule.'"

Kankuro sat up abruptly, ignoring the dizziness it caused him. The tray table at the end of his bed seemed to tilt and smear before righting itself. "So my time is irrelevant? Fuck that." Jerking back the sheet, he struggled to get out of bed, needing to move, take action, and find a solution. Still, even to him, his words seemed hollow — all performance and no truth.

Eyes wide, Gaara reached out and grabbed his arm, stopping him. "You're in no condition to get out of bed." He paused. "Besides, I said I could say that, not that I would. Baki would. But the issue's more complex than that."

Letting Gaara restrain him, Kankuro slumped suddenly. "For months now, it's the same thing every time. She says she'll hang out with me, but it never happens. We used to hang out almost every night, but anymore, we might hang out once a month." He met Gaara's gaze, his eyes narrowing until his glare was sharp enough to cut stone. "Why is it that her dating equates ditching me on my ass?"

Gaara released him. "So this is what you two fought about?" He nodded slowly. "I can't say I'm shocked to hear it. I know this is hard. It's not easy on me, either. All I can say is that you'll always be her ototo."

"I know that. Whenever she needs me, I'll be there." Kankuro shook off his hand and stood shakily, then shuffled across the room to the small, round window. Outside, the sunset painted the domed buildings blood-crimson, making the entire village glow red. "I don't know why I'm surprised." His words contained bitterness like tea dregs. "Do you remember? I wasn't popular as a kid. I scared off all the other kids because they were afraid of moving, talking 'dolls.' I didn't realize that the puppet jutsu was scary, so I didn't get it."

"That's not true now." Gaara leaned back in his chair once more. "You're highly respected, even more so after defeating Sasori and leading the ambush party to success."

"Yeah, I know, jan. But . . . all this feels so familiar. Except for you, I'm alone again." Just like when he was a kid. Kankuro leaned his forehead against the cool glass and closed his eyes. "Why does it have to be this way? Why do siblings have to grow up and grow apart? Is that the default setting of the world?" Somehow, that seemed terribly wrong to him — unnecessary and even cruel.

"Probably. But ultimately it's a choice." Gaara sounded so matter-of-fact. "She has to want to make time for you, and until she does, there's nothing you can do about it."

Kankuro straightened and punched the wall in frustration. "Yeah, I get that. But we all create time for what we care about." And that was what scared him most. He remembered a similar situation that had occurred when he was eleven. He'd made a friend at the academy, but Haro had gone to his grandparents' for summer break that year. In the meantime, Kankuro had been officially inducted into the Puppet Corps so they could further his training, and he'd befriended a genin there named Shiro. Except for when Shiro was on missions, they'd spent the entire summer building a puppet together and training. It had been like being sucked into their own little world. In fact, Shiro was still one of his good friends now. However, when Haro had returned home, Kankuro still spent more time with Shiro.

"Do you remember Haro?" Kankuro asked, opening his eyes and staring back out at the sand-covered streets.

"Barely." Gaara sounded curious. "Why?"

"When I became friends with Shiro, I tried to balance the time between them, but it didn't work." Kankuro wondered briefly if it was karma, but he didn't really believe in such things. "Haro couldn't discuss the puppet jutsu or train with me the way Shiro could. Haro couldn't design, build, and tweak puppets, either. In the end, Shiro and I had more in common, and we became best friends. Haro went from getting all my free time to only a small fraction of it, and as a result, he got pissed." Secretly, Kankuro had felt guilty for years over hurting Haro. However, he'd had more in common with Shiro and enjoyed hanging out with him so much that he'd been unable to strike a better balance.

Gaara joined him at the window, leaning his back against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. "I remember a little about that. Haro blew up at you." He frowned. "It's not surprising that you chose Shiro. The only thing you had in common with Haro was that you both wanted to become shinobi."

"Exactly." Kankuro stared at his brother's profile, wondering what he really thought of this whole situation. He certainly didn't expect Gaara to choose sides between Temari and him. "I could've made more time for Haro if I'd really wanted to, but I didn't. And after awhile, I stopped even caring. I had what I wanted: Shiro." Which was the scary part. Did Temari just feel no need to be around him anymore? She had found what she wanted, and nothing else was necessary?

Shifting to face him, Gaara leaned his shoulder against the wall and cocked his head to the side. "But those were the antics of kids, and kids can be thoughtlessly cruel. You're eighteen now, and Temari's your sister. Don't assume Temari thinks about you the same way that you, as a kid, thought about Haro. It can't really compare, can it?"

Kankuro shrugged. "I dunno, jan. I just know that you make time for the people you want to hang out with."

"Yes, and for Temari, part of that time will go to dating, marrying, and having a family. That's just life."

Irritated, Kankuro glowered at him. "Oh, so I — you and I — get left out? 'I had a great time, so see ya around?'" He paused, the harshness draining from his voice. Given how different Gaara's childhood had been, he wondered if his brother could really understand what he was talking about. "I'm not asking for the three hours a night back. I just want something more than once a month, you know?"

"I know. But you have a choice to make, too," Gaara said gently. "Right, wrong, or indifferent, you'll never play the same role in Temari's life that you used to. You'll never get the same time you did before. The question is whether you can be content with whatever time she allots you."

All the fight swooshed out of Kankuro, making him slump again. For him, Gaara's straightforward logic translated into a type of fatalism. Theories became nothing but facts. "Love hurts."

Gaara raised one hairless brow. "I know. That's why I burnt the kanji for 'Ai' into my forehead."

Sitting in his office, piles of paperwork laid out before him, Gaara found himself unable to concentrate. In fact, he couldn't bring himself to even care about the border reports, expense reports, and supply tallies. All he could focus on was his brother, his slow recovery, and the strained relationship between his elder siblings. He had become so used to having peace in his household that the return of conflict was startling and unwelcome; in addition, despite their spats, Kankuro and Temari had never engaged in a protracted fight. Their average argument lasted a few minutes, or a few days at worst, not a few months. The only good thing Gaara could say was that Kankuro had been released from the hospital.

Unable to concentrate, Gaara ended up slowly twirling his quill between his fingers, the scroll before him little more than a white blur to his gaze. A knock on the door focused his attention, and he lowered the quill as though he had been writing. It was best if he never seemed distracted or worried. "Enter," he called.

Temari opened the door and stepped inside. "Sorry to bother you, but I need to talk to you about a personal matter. And I think — "

"Have you checked on Kankuro?" Gaara didn't mean to interrupt his sister, but since she was clearly back from her mission, he hoped she'd visited their brother. He had looked in on Kankuro before going to his office that morning, but he hadn't had the chance to check on him since.

"Sure." Temari crossed the floor, setting her mission report on Gaara's desk. "There's nothing much to report," she said, pointing to the scroll. "And Kankuro seems better this afternoon. He was sitting up in bed."

Gaara nodded, some of the tightness easing from his chest. He hadn't been conscious of how worried he was until the relief hit him. "Good. What did you want to discuss with me?"

Temari slipped into the chair across from his desk. "I need to tell Kankuro and you something, and I think it'd be best if I told you first."

Those words were all Gaara needed to hear; he knew immediately what she would say. Still, he let her proceed. "Very well."

Taking a deep breath, Temari seemed to collect herself. "Shikamaru has asked me to marry him. We're engaged."

Gaara wasn't exactly caught off guard by the news. "Congratulations."

"Thank you." Temari paused, biting at her lip momentarily. "There's more, though."

Once again, Gaara knew what she would say. "You'll be moving to Konoha." It wasn't much of a leap of logic. In both Konoha and Suna, women were expected to adapt to their husbands' lives, not the other way around. The Nara family wouldn't understand or accept it if Shikamaru moved to Suna instead. Women were expected to leave behind their old lives, even their family if necessary, and start a new family with their husbands. Essentially, a wedding ceremony was the transfer of property — the woman — between a father and a husband, which was the origin of fathers "giving away" the bride. Given that Temari had always claimed to be a feminist, Gaara was surprised that she'd caved in without a fight. Then again, she would never be accepted by her in-laws if she didn't.

Temari cringed. "Yeah, I will be." She clenched her knees with her hands. "Look, I realize Suna is still underpowered, and the loss of even one jonin is a big deal. Konoha can stand to lose more than we can, and I feel bad about depleting our forces this way. But . . ." She trailed off, clearly unable to explain her decision in business terms.

However, the status of the village was the least of Gaara's concerns. Kazekage or not, his first reaction was based on their family. "We'll miss you."

"I know." Temari squeezed her knees harder. "I'll miss you guys, too. This isn't easy, and I'm surprised to find myself in this position. But really, I'll only be three days away. I'm sure Naruto and you can figure out a way for me to do a lot of joint missions, if you like."

I meant Kankuro and I, not the village. Gaara sighed, wondering if he should bother to explain himself. Suddenly he understood what had Kankuro so upset. "If you've decided to tell me first, as you said, then it's obvious that you know our brother will not take this well."

"No, he won't." Apparently unable to stay still, Temari pushed out of the chair. Growing silent, she wandered over to the table that held Gaara's tea cups, tea balls, and other such supplies. Methodically, she poured water from the pitcher left there that morning and put the now-full pot on the small electric burner. "Did Kankuro ever tell you that Father hit him when he was a kid?"

The quill in Gaara's hand creaked with the sudden pressure of his grip. "What?" The words seemed like a non sequitur and a distressing one at that.

"Yeah." Temari sounded exhausted and sad. Opening the can of green tea, she shook the leaves faintly, staring down at them as she did. "At first, Father loved me despite being disappointed that I wasn't compatible with Shukaku. I looked a lot like Mom, and according to our grandmamma, that's why he adored me and spoiled me. I was a little brat." She glanced at Gaara and smiled, but the expression didn't warm her eyes. "Grandmamma also said that Father instantly lost interest in Kankuro when he didn't inherit the magnetism release."

Gaara set down his quill and glared at his desk. He'd achieved closure after fighting his father during the war, but now he felt angry again. "That's ridiculous."

"As you know, he always had high expectations for his sons," Temari murmured, filling the tea balls with leaves and placing them in the cups. "Of course, Father began ignoring me once he became obsessed with you, but for Kankuro . . . things were never easy. I think if he hadn't shown such promise with the puppet jutsu — if Chiyo-baa hadn't acknowledged that and endorsed his training — Father might have ultimately sent Kankuro away to live with his cousins, kind of like he sent you away to live with Uncle Yashamaru." She paused as the water boiled and then silently poured two cups.

Gaara heard the distinct splash of the water hitting the cups' bottoms, and he found his gaze locked on the steam rising into the air. A black sense of foreboding bubbled in his chest. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Kankuro wasn't randomly a bully as a kid." Temari glanced back at Gaara and frowned. "He was very angry and somewhat insecure, although he pulled himself out of both. Father's rejection of him hurt a great deal, and even I can't guess the damage done by all those slaps, kicks, and punches."

In his mind, Gaara saw endless kunai flying toward him . . . swords, poisoned needles, explosive tags — assassin after assassin sent to kill him. "I can," he mumbled, faintly nauseated.

Temari returned to staring at their tea cups, her shoulders tensing. "Once all Father's attention transferred to you, even though it was in an entirely negative way, both Kankuro and I found ourselves on the outside. Regardless of whether Father was plotting to kill you or training you in his jutsu, we became like castoffs to him. He had no time or attention for either of us."

Reaching up, Gaara pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Which is part of why you both hated me."

"No." Temari's voice was sharp. She pulled the tea balls from their cups and set them aside, thunking them down with more force than necessary. "We were afraid of you, but we never hated you. We also couldn't be fully jealous, not since his attention on you was so negative." She turned toward him, facing him. "But it left us essentially alone in the world."

"I understand that." Gaara understood it all too well.

She turned away again, grabbing the cups. "After Father began ignoring me, too, and all our grandparents died, Kankuro and I ended up doing everything together. We played together, trained together, went to classes together. We got really close. We weren't just siblings; we were best friends, almost like emotionally conjoined twins. In a sense, we even parented each other." She carried the tea over to the desk, setting Gaara's cup down in front of him. "Me getting married and moving away will be hard for Kankuro. I get that. Although it probably didn't look like it from the outside, since we were good at hiding our true feelings, we've always been very close. But when you grow up, you put away childish things. It can't always be this way. Someday, we both have to grow up, get married, and move out. That time has come for me. As I tried to explain to him when we had our fight, I'll always be his sister. I'll always be there for him. Likewise, he'll always be my brother, my port in a storm. Just because I'm getting married doesn't mean I love him any less. Just like Kankuro can't replace my husband, Shikamaru can't replace my brother. Or you, for that matter."

Gaara stared at his sister, realizing she had no idea what she was saying or to whom she was saying it. All of his life, he'd wanted nothing more than to bond with another person, deeply bond. He'd wanted someone to love him; he'd wanted someone to love. He'd clung to his mother's ghost, or rather clung to the idea of a loving mother, because that was all he'd had. Once that had been torn from him, he'd been unable to remain sane. Still, in his heart he'd longed, absolutely pined, for someone to call him special. He ached for a relationship in which the other person would consider him irreplaceable, in which the other would love him above all, in which he could safely expose and bare every inch of his soul. Temari had achieved that level of intimacy and love with Kankuro, and now she was trading it in so she could build that relationship with another instead. Gaara understood that she had fallen in love, but from his point of view, she was throwing away the one thing he desired most in life. And all his achievements — becoming Kazekage, gaining respect, being acknowledged — were nothing but dust and ash compared to Gaara's need to be loved.

"It's your choice," he finally answered, taking a sip of his tea. "It's your happiness. It's your life, and it's your future. But don't expect me to take your side. For the sake of our family, I can't take either of your sides, but you should know I'm hurt by your decision, also."

Although she'd started to take a drink of her tea, Temari stopped short and stared at him. "What do you mean?"

"Our family." Gaara stood, grabbing his cup and carrying it back to the table. Suddenly, the thought of drinking tea made him nauseated. "There are only three of us left, and now there will be two."

Temari sighed and set her cup on his desk. "Look, just because I'm moving to a different village doesn't mean I'm dying. If you really need me, just send for me. I'll be there."

Gaara plopped the cup down, the china rattling with the brusqueness of his movement, but he couldn't bring himself to turn away from the table and meet his sister's gaze. "Being here in a crisis is not the same as sharing your life with us." He paused, not used to putting his emotions out on display. He'd done it a few times in his life — most notably during his speech to the Combined Forces — but it still wasn't easy for him. However, there was a lot at stake here; he only had two family members left, after all.

He decided it was time to speak, emotional display or not.

"We'll be family because we share blood," Gaara continued, letting himself say what he needed to say. "As I well know, nothing can change that, not betrayal, not hurt, and not death. But there is a difference between having an unbreakable bond with someone and actually maintaining closeness on a daily basis. For example, you wouldn't think to live in a different village from your husband; you'd want to spend every day with him. To share a life."

"Well, of course." Temari turned in her chair so she could face Gaara. "He's my husband. Or he will be."

"But Kankuro and I will be on the outside of your life." Gaara realized suddenly that he understood why Kankuro had gotten in an argument with their sister. "We won't know what's going on with you until days after the fact because all our communication will be by carrier letters. Even if you have an emergency, we won't be able to reach you for three days. We'll be there as soon as we can because we love you. Because we're family. But that's not the same as sitting down to supper with you every evening, or even once a week, and asking you how your week went."

For long moments, Temari frowned at her lap. "What are you asking me to do?" she whispered. "What can I do? I don't want to hurt you guys, but I love Shikamaru. I didn't mean to fall in love, but I did. He's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I want to marry him, share my life with him, eventually have children with him. And in order to do that, we have to live in the same village." She inhaled then exhaled deeply. "It's not like Shikamaru and I didn't talk about this stuff. We've discussed all the possibilities and consequences, and we've decided me moving to Konoha is the best solution."

Finally, Gaara turned away from the table and met her gaze. "And that is your choice to make, not mine. I will not be the one to get in the way of your happiness. It would achieve nothing. You would lose the love of your life, and you would resent me for it forever. The relationship with you that I don't want to lose I would lose anyway. My only option is to give you my blessing, so I'm going to give it freely."

"Gee, don't sound so thrilled," Temari drawled sarcastically.

"But although I refuse to condemn you for your choice," Gaara continued, "I also can't condone what you're doing to Kankuro in the process."

"Not you, too." She clutched her hands in her lap.

"I'm sorry, but it's obvious to me." Gaara walked to his bookcase and pulled a tome off the shelf. Having decided to speak, he found he wanted to explain himself well. It wasn't enough to let his thoughts be known; he wanted to truly communicate. "This is the history of Suna." He held up the brown leather book. "Our ancestors mostly originated in the country of Earth. They were working class people who had no opportunities or future. They were shinobi who followed alternative training methods, values, and beliefs. Some of them were even criminals. They left the land of plenty to eke out an existence in the desert because it bought them their freedom, and when they made that decision, they had to create a worldview by which they could justify leaving behind their homes, their families, and their roots. They had to successfully argue that independence, freedom, and opportunity were more important than roots, family, and heritage."

Temari's brow had furrowed. "What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying we are the inheritors of that will. That independence is the Will of Wind." Gaara paused, knowing full well that he had not inherited the Will of Wind at all; instead, he had adopted the Will of Fire. "In our culture, it's not odd for families to spread out across the entire country or even to move to another country. Individual happiness, independence, and success are more important to us than maintaining community, family, or heritage. For this reason, none of the Kazekages has been related to each other; I am the first son to be the heir to his father's position." It was that focus on independence and success that had informed Gaara's father's attitude toward him; Gaara had been measured by that ruler instead of by his value as a son.

"I guess." Temari still sounded confused.

Wanting her to see his view, Gaara pressed forward. "Don't misunderstand me. I understand our cultural values, and I won't insult them. Although freedom must always be bought at a price, it is a worthwhile goal." He replaced the tome on the shelf. "At the same time, I won't say that no other cultures and their values have any validity. When I chose to protect the village, when I chose to live and fight for the village instead of only living and fighting for myself, I rejected the Will of Wind. I will not accept the argument that my adherence to a different set of values makes me wrong. If I validate your choice, I must also validate my choice to be your opposite."

Standing stiffly, Temari nearly came to attention. "I see, sir. I didn't realize my decision to get married and start my own family had such far-flung — and negative — implications." She smirked. "Am I dismissed?"

Gaara wondered at what point she felt like they stopped talking as brother and sister. "You aren't here as my subject, neesan." He sighed and returned to his chair, realizing she felt attacked. "I'm not saying your choice is invalid; I'm saying both positions have merit and value. I'm not dressing you down, but at the same time, I'm not finished making my point. This isn't about me; this is about Kankuro."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Temari didn't reply.

Although he knew she felt like he had sided with Kankuro and was ganging up on her, Gaara steeled himself to resume. "On the surface, Kankuro and I seem like we have nothing in common. He's extroverted; I'm introverted. He's obsessed with the performing arts; I'm philosophical and a workaholic. He enjoys staging his battles; I fight simply to defend those I love. However, all those differences are merely surface details to me. There is a way in which we are the same: we have the same values and beliefs. What he desires most in life is the same as what I desire."

"What, exactly, are you saying?" Temari's eyes had narrowed.

He hated that he had to be quite this blunt, but he saw no purpose or use in being indirect or subtle. "I will do my best to take care of Kankuro once you're gone. It will suit me fine if he lives here in the mansion with me until the day he dies. For all I care, he can move his future wife into the mansion and raise his children here. I'm unlikely to marry, much less have children of my own. I simply lack the interest. I'd be happy to play the role of the doting uncle instead. But it's that very thing that makes your argument fall flat with me. If I had managed to build the relationship with you that Kankuro has, I would be just as crushed as he is. As it is, I have to mourn is the loss of the chance to build that relationship with you in the first place."

Temari flinched, clearly feeling slapped. "I can do no right by either of you, I see. I'm sorry I can't be the sister that you two need me to be."

"Don't apologize." Gaara held back a second sigh. "I'm not looking for an apology. Just be realistic. Kankuro's pain is understandable. You can't expect him to act like nothing's happening here." Even as he admitted that, Gaara wasn't quite sure how to tell his brother that. Right now, he felt that Kankuro needed to understand his sister the best he could so that he didn't end up staying angry at her forever. When he'd talked with Kankuro several days earlier, all Gaara could think to do was to explain Temari's position to him, hoping it would help him hurt less. However, he'd clearly failed.

"I don't expect that. Am I dismissed?" Temari's jaw rippled.

Gaara knew she was angry at him, but he couldn't see a way that he could have softened the blow. He suspected that he'd equally failed in his attempt to explain Kankuro's position to Temari, or at least failed in any way that would actually prove helpful. "Yes."

"Thank you, Kazekage-sama." She teleported from the room.

Gaara would have been exasperated with her except in the last moment before she vanished, he caught sight of tears standing in her eyes.

A/N: Although I have always thought Temari and Shikamaru make a cute couple, I think I figured out why Kishimoto said he has no desire to pair them up. And really, I've never been quite able to imagine Temari leaving her brothers. Still, I've decided to take on the implications of Shikamari, so we'll see how it goes.