The dojo dedicated to the puppet jutsu was built, unsurprisingly, to resemble a theater house. Rounded like most buildings in Suna, it and its domed roof were unremarkable from the outside. However, the foyer was grand and sweeping, the ceiling three stories high and sporting wrought iron candelabra. On each side, a staircase curved gracefully up each wall to the second and third stories, which contained workshops, offices, and classrooms. The "auditorium" itself was the training hall. It even had balconies and a stage, but that was simply to provide different "terrain" for the puppet masters to work from. The entire room was painted black — walls, floor, and ceiling — to enable them to complicate each other's lives by blending in to their surroundings.
As the new master of the Puppet Corps, Kankuro had spent the morning training academy students. He was the youngest master in Suna's history. However, their previous master had been killed in the war, and Kankuro already could control more puppets that the average jonin puppeteer. He took his new position quite seriously, but for the moment, he rested on a bench in the back of the auditorium and stared at the stage. A skylight had been built into roof, and he'd opened both it and the black curtains masking the windows, letting the morning sunlight stream in.
All the other puppeteers were off on missions, so when Kankuro heard the auditorium door slide open, he frowned in its direction. Only puppeteers were allowed beyond the foyer. No one was allowed to see them train; no one was permitted to witness the upgrades and changes in their puppets until they were employed on the battlefield. The only exception ever made was the Kazekage himself.
That and the man who had just bowed himself into the dojo: Ebizo.
"Good morning," Kankuro said, standing and inclining his head. The old man waved for him to sit back down, and Kankuro complied, wondering how and why he'd rated a visit from the remaining honored sibling.
"Good morning." Ebizo settled on the bench by him. "You must be wondering why I'm here. The answer is simple, really. Shiro said I should talk to you."
Nosey bastard, Kankuro thought, not sure if he wanted to thank Shiro or punch him. Still, Shiro wouldn't have asked his grandfather to talk to him unless he thought Ebizo really could help. "Yeah, jan? About what?" Not that he didn't already know the answer.
"Temari," Ebizo replied bluntly.
Kankuro sighed. Ebizo had taken an interest in the new Kazekage and his siblings, perhaps because of his sister's final actions and wishes. He'd even visited the dojo several times and had long discussions with Kankuro, apparently out of respect for his sister's legacy. Therefore, Kankuro wasn't too terribly surprised that Shiro had convinced his grandfather to broach this topic with him. "Okay, shoot." He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.
Ebizo stared out at the training room with its chairless, sloped floor. "My wife and I had trouble conceiving. We got married at 18, but by age 28, we still hadn't had any success. And that was after trying every technique, medicine, and jutsu known to humankind."
Although he remained quiet, Kankuro wondered why he was suddenly getting Ebizo's life story.
"Finally, when we'd given up all hope, we abruptly succeeded." Ebizo smiled faintly. "Our daughter, Aki, was born early and underweight, but she survived. After years of hopes, prayers, dreams, and desperation, we were beyond overjoyed. Even though we didn't outright spoil her, our lives still centered on her. She was the only child we managed to have, and we gave her our everything."
Kankuro deduced that there was likely a connection. Frowning, he watched Ebizo from the corner of his vision.
"To say I adored her is an understatement. I trained Aki myself, and after she made genin, I sometimes even took her on missions. She was definitely a daddy's girl." Ebizo leaned his head against the wall, staring up at the domed ceiling instead. "When she was twenty, though, she met a young man she liked better than the others she'd casually dated."
Suspicious, Kankuro suspected he knew where this story was headed.
"She'd moved in with some friends a few months earlier, but she still visited us several times a week. Once she began dating, though, she only visited once a week. Then once every two weeks. Then once a month."
Kankuro's chest burnt with the familiarity. "I see."
Ebizo nodded in acknowledgement then continued. "After they got married, we figured things would settle down, so we invited them to have supper with us once a week. However, sometimes we would go a month and only pass them in the street. In addition to taking a lot of missions, they were wrapped up in their own world together, happily in love and blind to everything else." He snorted in amusement. "Ah, newlyweds."
"So what happened?" Kankuro asked, feeling vaguely nauseated.
"One day, about two years later, things abruptly changed." A smile quirked the old man's lips. "I would come home on random days and find Aki visiting my wife and waiting for me. They sometimes invited us over for supper. Then Aki got pregnant, and suddenly we were woven back into the fabric of each other's lives. Now I have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren."
Kankuro watched the old man carefully, noting the happy lilt to his voice, but he wasn't sure what to say. "What are you trying to tell me?"
Ebizo pinned him with a stare. "I'm suggesting that you consider the possibility that you are — for all intents and purposes — just as much Temari's father as her brother."
Although Baki had said something similar, Kankuro was still taken off-guard. "What?"
Ebizo snorted again. "Shiro told me about both you and your situation, hoping I could help you. So I know, for example, that you're the only one who can cook decently. You fix all the meals, sending your siblings off every morning with bento boxes. You take care of both Temari and Gaara on the rare occasions they're ill."
Kankuro ended up studying the cracks and chips in the painted, black floor.
"Also, there is the way you race to protect your siblings any time they're in danger." Ebizo's voice was kind. "You're a brother and a father, both."
Unsure what to say and embarrassed at discussing this with Ebizo, Kankuro kept his gaze pinned to the floor. His role in his household was not something he let other guys figure out; Shiro had been the only one to know.
"So from one father to another, let me give you some advice." Ebizo patted his arm. "If you do a good job, then one day your kids grow up and leave home." He sighed. "I've seen it before — cases where a family has eight or nine children, and all but one or two of them move away and only return for family reunions. Siblings who were inseparable best friends as children drift apart and get lost in their own lives to the point that they only see each other once every five years."
Bracing his feet against the bench, Kankuro pulled his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. He felt like a rolly-polly bug trying to protect its soft underbelly. "Yeah." He could barely breathe. Did it really have to be that way?
"That will not be Temari and you."
Kankuro peered at him, too afraid to hope. "Why not?"
"Because growing up and leaving home don't necessarily mean goodbye." Ebizo tried to pat Kankuro's arm again, but when that proved to be an awkward angle, he patted his back instead. "Apparently you've done your job well. You gave Temari enough love to build her confidence. Now she's pulling away from you like the teenager she ultimately is — off dating. But one day you'll walk through the front door and find her sitting at your kitchen table, waiting for you." The old man chuckled. "Then you'll be an uncle-grandfather, and there will be five hundred photographs of you holding and playing with Temari's children."
Since he no longer hated kids, Kankuro managed to find a small smile at the mental picture, but it evaporated quickly. "What makes you think it'll all work out? After all, the guy she's engaged to is from Konoha, not Suna."
Ebizo turned his gaze to the stage, looking as though he had been teleported to another time. "Because you are not your father, and neither is Temari. I trust that you two won't repeat his mistakes."
Squeezing his legs to his chest, Kankuro stared down at his knees and pondered the old man's words, knowing he was right about that: He couldn't let the past, and the wounds it held, color this situation. Still, there was one issue that was not being addressed, one concern that would not leave him alone. "But I'm not her father. I can't ever be."
"Not literally, of course."
"No, you don't get it." Kankuro clutched his legs even tighter, trying to hold in his emotions, but tears burnt his eyes. "When I first got close to Temari, we didn't have a parent-child relationship. Our relationship was the same on both sides: we were each other's everything. I was her father, sure, but I was also her brother, best friend, and soulmate. She was my mother, sister, best friend, and soulmate." His voice began to rise. "Don't you get it? Everyone, even Temari herself, seems to want to put me in the role of being her father now, but that means I'm no longer her brother, best friend, or soulmate. Three-fourths of my relationship with her has been torn out of me and given away, and the only role I have left is one I can't really comprehend." He wanted to punch something, to take out his pain on a physical object, but busting his knuckles open on the wall wouldn't help him any. "I'm not a father; I didn't really have one myself, so I don't understand what a father is. Plus I'm younger than she is, and even if our ages were switched, I'd need a good twenty years on her to have enough wisdom to fill the role. If that's the way she sees me now — if that's the only role she'll give me in her life — then I have no role at all. It's gone!"
Ebizo kept his voice calm and soothing. "Is that really true?"
Unwilling to back down, Kankuro stood his ground. "If what you say is true, then yes. I'm more like a sensei; Temari's graduated and moved on."
"Did you ever stop needing your father?" Ebizo asked gently.
Again, Ebizo was missing the point. "No, but the truth is that's not what I thought was happening here." Once more Kankuro was hit with the finality of it all: the difference between what Temari and he had discussed the future would be like and what it had really turned out to be. "I thought I was special to her. Special like the First Kazekage and his sister were special to each other or you and Chiyo-baa were special to each other. A bond where you share your life with someone. My father was just someone who I went to when I had a problem." On the good days, anyway. And there had been times like that. "He was someone who checked on me in the night when I was seriously injured." And Kankuro was well aware that over the years, he'd done that for his sister. "But Temari . . . I shared my dreams with her. Weshared a dream with each other. She understood me when others didn't. I never imagined that my role in her life would change just because she began dating."
Ebizo began patting his back with long, comforting strokes. "It sounds like the two of you have a basic difference in personality. You're able to be soulmates with two people at once, apparently keeping your girlfriend in a separate category from your sister, but Temari is only soulmates with one person at a time. And it is natural to choose one's spouse as a soulmate."
Kankuro frowned, his lips quivering faintly. "So where does that leave me?" Again, he was struck by his lack of choice in this matter. His only option seemed to be to accept that Temari didn't see him as anything more than a replacement father and take the only role Temari had left for him. It felt hauntingly familiar. Just like Kankuro had never won the acceptance and approval from his father that he'd wanted, he was once more relegated to the confines of another's views, his own needs irrelevant.
Ebizo scooted closer and wrapped his arm around him. "Your pain is understandable. That's why I wanted to give you a fuller picture and a different context for what's happening. I'd hoped I could help you see a better future."
"Thanks," Kankuro whispered. Still, he was unable to lie. "But I can't see any future at all. Most people I know who live in separate villages from their parents or siblings only see them on birthdays or holidays."
Ebizo squeezed Kankuro's waist faintly. "It's all right. I'm convinced the two of you can find your way to a solution. You won't end up abandoned and alone."
Overcome, Kankuro dropped his legs and turned, burying his face against the old man's shoulder. He wondered briefly if this was what it would have been like if his favorite grandfather had lived, and he hoped Ebizo wouldn't be put off. However, Ebizo merely wrapped his other arm around him and hugged him close, and unable to contain the pain anymore, Kankuro cried, the sobs muffled by the Ebizo's shoulder.
In Kankuro's mind, he'd already been abandoned. All he could do was move forward in the other areas of his life and try his best to bury this wound.
In Gaara's office, Kankuro sat across the desk from his brother and reviewed the list of requests, plans, and guests for Temari's wedding. Given that their parents and grandparents were all dead, Temari would have to pay for her own wedding unless her brothers chipped in. Granted, they were both willing to help, but since the wedding would take place in Konoha, it made the arrangements difficult to make. They'd had to hire help.
"At least she's chosen a modern wedding," Kankuro sighed, setting down the scroll containing the guest list. "I've never liked traditional ones, jan."
Picking up the scroll, Gaara glanced over it and frowned. "I can't let this many of our top shinboi leave at once, especially when I myself will be gone."
"She probably knows that." Kankuro leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms over his head. "Hey, just don't mention the dress around her. She can't find one she likes, and despite being a tomboy, she'd really obsessing about it. It's way scary."
Gaara stared at him silently for a moment. "Did she ask you to be the one to give her away?"
Unable to stop himself, Kankuro burst into harsh laughter. The irony was atrocious. "Yeah."
"Did you agree?" Gaara asked quietly.
"Well, yeah, of course." Kankuro would rather cut off his fingers than ruin his sister's wedding. There was no incarnation of himself or his performance in which he could be that gauche. He would respect his sister's choice and uphold her happiness even if it killed him. "This is supposed to be one of the best days of her life. I'm not going to let my issues get in the way of that."
Although his stoic expression didn't change, Gaara smacked down the scroll and stared at him. "Stop doing that."
"What?" Kankuro was surprised by this sudden display. "I'm the oldest man in the family now, and she asked me to do it. Why would I say no?"
"Not that." Gaara stood abruptly. "You're disrespecting yourself."
Although he wished he could believe that, given that it would mean he could let up on himself, Kankuro just couldn't. "Oh, yeah? How so?"
"I told you several weeks ago I'd wait to talk to you until you were ready, but I think I need to do so now. It is time for me to speak." Gaara walked over to the small, round window and stared out at his village. "You won't admit it. No matter how many times you've talked to me about this situation, you won't admit that your position has as much validity as Temari's. You'll get close, but then you always get confused and shy away from it again."
For a moment, Kankuro was completely confused. Everyone, including Baki, Ebizo, and previously Gaara himself, had basically told him that he had to accept what was happening and get over it. "But . . . . it's natural for people to grow up, get married, and move out. Most siblings don't stay close. Many parents and kids don't stay close. People sometimes move far away, and they get wrapped up in their own lives." I've lost the most inevitable battle of all existence, other than death, he thought but didn't say.
Turning to face him, Gaara fixed him with a stare. "Just because it's 'normal' doesn't make it right."
Struck speechless, Kankuro simply stared back. But I'm the one with the problem here, right? I was the one unwilling to let go and bow to fate, right?
"Not all cultures do it the way we do," Gaara said. "The increasing trend we have to spread out and drift away is new. In other cultures, it just isn't that way. What makes us right and them wrong?"
"What makes us wrong and them right?" Kankuro countered, although he was mostly arguing for the sake of argument. Part of him wished, desperately wished, that Gaara was correct and that he wasn't simply the stubborn, overemotional deviant others had insisted he was.
"No, what makes Temari right and you wrong?" Gaara walked around his desk and stood by Kankuro's chair, gazing down at him with an unreadable expression. "If she is right, why are you not right also?"
Unable to reply, Kankuro met that gaze. Never. Never has someone said that to me. For the first time ever, for one person other than me, it's not either/or.
"Kankuro . . ." Gaara's voice grew soft. "Niisan, I don't think you're wrong. What I hear you saying is that you want to invest yourself deeply in two or three people and build the kind of bond with them that will fuse you together for the entirety of your lives. Now that you're dating, I know one of those people will eventually be your wife, but it's clear that only having a spouse to share your life with isn't enough for you. Why is that wrong?"
Glancing away, Kankuro tried to hide the unwelcome tears that had sprung to his eyes. "Because no one wants it." No one wants me. They never stay. If they agree to bond with me this way in the first place, then they never stay. Why is it that no one wants to keep me?
"I do," Gaara whispered.
Jerking his head back around, Kankuro stared up at his brother, the one who'd once told him that he didn't consider them siblings — the one he'd slowly built a relationship with, the one he could finally call "ototo," but also the one he'd never imagined would want such a bond with him.
"If it's valid for Temari to only desire or need one soulmate in her life," Gaara continued, "then it's equally valid for you to desire and need two of them. That's not something you should explain away or apologize for. Temari promised you she'd always be at your side the way she now is for Shikamaru, but ultimately, it was a promise she didn't keep. It's clear to me that you don't want to accept that. I know that no one can help who they fall in love with or who they consider the most important in their lives; love can take us by surprise. Temari didn't plan to replace you or hurt you, but the truth is she did. Despite your pain, you don't really want to convict her as guilty of that, but because you won't, you can't accept yourself."
Kankuro stood abruptly, walking over to the window that Gaara had abandoned and staring out of it sightlessly. A sneer formed on his lips. "I thought I was the one who simply didn't have 'boundaries' or was clinging to my sister in an 'unholy' or 'unnatural' way." The words were acidic enough to melt the glass.
"That's not the same thing." Gaara joined him at the window. "By watching you both get so upset, I've been forced to put a lot of thought into this. I can see where you don't have boundaries — you continue helping people even after you're out of energy. You don't take care of yourself properly. You'll sacrifice all your time and energy to another person without keeping back time for yourself." He paused. "You can't continue to do that. You've made yourself physically sick that way before."
Knowing he was guilty as charged, Kankuro didn't bother to argue it.
"But learning to say no sometimes is not the same as limiting the amount of love you feel for someone or how deeply you bond with them. It's simply the willingness to take time out for yourself or not overextend yourself." Gaara grabbed his shoulder and turned him to face him. "And most importantly to me, it's not something you do with me. If I ask you to do a mission when you're already overextended, you say no despite the fact I'm your brother and your Kazekage. If I need you, you're there for me, but if you need time to yourself, you stay in your room and work on your puppets. And that's fine with me. It doesn't hurt my feelings or offend me. I need a lot of time to myself, too."
Realizing that Gaara was correct, Kankuro watched his brother closely. "I'm not sure how I did that," he admitted. "You're the first person ever that I've done that with." There were times he'd failed missions because he'd stayed up all night assisting Temari with a problem. "Why are you different?"
"I'm not sure, except that I've always been different." Gaara glanced away. "However, you've always respected my boundaries as well, especially since I changed my life. If I don't want to talk about something, you don't press me. If I need to be alone, you don't bother me. And you never ask me to be someone I'm not."
Struck by irony, Kankuro realized that something entirely negative had created something entirely positive. In the beginning, he'd been so afraid of his brother that he'd erected barriers and boundaries to protect himself, but then with time he'd slowly lowered the barriers without destroying the boundaries. "Okay, so boundaries and bonds aren't the same thing. Now what?" Despite his offhand way of asking, he genuinely wanted the answer.
"Now you must accept that you're not a freak." Gaara met his gaze again. "You must say it, literally. Say that it's valid to want two soulmates. Say that it's valid to have a soulmate and a spouse at the same time. You're not wrong. You're not lacking boundaries — not in this way. You're not unholy or unnatural."
Stunned, Kankuro wondered how Gaara knew to say all of that, but as he considered all the times he'd spilled his guts to his brother, he realized he'd slowly revealed all the pieces to the story until it made a coherent picture. "My viewpoint is valid, too," he repeated. "I'm not weird."
Nodding, Gaara clasped his shoulder, then returned to his chair and sank into it. "I'm not sure you realize how this looks to me. From my point of view, Temari has pushed aside the one thing I want most in the world, and you are so hurt you're unwilling to offer this priceless gift to another person beyond your girlfriend, which essentially sets you up to deny your own being."
"I hadn't thought about that." Kankuro perched on the corner of Gaara's desk, feeling almost guilty. "I guess if I never offer that kind of bond to someone other than my girlfriend, I'll be forcing myself to be like Temari instead of like myself."
Gaara leaned back in his chair. "Precisely. Meanwhile, I'm right here." He paused, as though considering whether to finish his thought, then continued. "I'm both willing and able to share that kind of bond with you."
Blunt. Open. Honest. Since the war had ended and Gaara had made peace with their father, he had been different. Uncomfortable with how straightforward his brother was being, Kankuro glanced away again. To a certain extent, Gaara's offer was beside the point; Gaara couldn't replace Temari. No one could. Temari was a unique individual with whom Kankuro had shared a bond so deep and special that he could never put words to it. He wasn't sure even an epic poet could. But he had to admit that it was possible to build an equally deep and special bond with someone new. Gaara, by being his brother instead of his sister, would generate a different kind of bond by default, but it could still give Kankuro that same level of satisfaction and joy.
There was only one problem.
"I thought you wanted that kind of bond with Naruto," Kankuro said, pinning his brother with a stare.
A small, sad smile upturned the corners of Gaara's mouth. "Like Temari for you, Naruto is someone precious to me. He was the first person to understand me, the first person to reach out to me, and the first person to give me any hope for myself. But like Temari now, Naruto lives in Konoha. I will only see him probably once every six months. As long as I live, no matter how little we see each other or how different our lives are, Naruto will call me his friend. He'll always be happy to see me, always love me, and always rush to my side if I need his help. But he can't share my daily life with me, just like Temari can no longer share her daily life with you."
Horrified, Kankuro hopped off the desk and backed away. "I don't want to come in second place."
Gaara jerked to his feet, reaching out one hand to his brother. "No! That's not what I meant. You aren't. I can't be Temari to you, and you can't be Naruto to me. But you can be you. Can't I be me? Or . . ." He dropped his hand. "Or do you simply not want that kind of bond with me?" He took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly. "I understand if you don't. Like I said earlier, we can't help who we love or who we consider most important in our lives. If you don't feel that way about me, then you don't. I was just saying that . . ." He paused, his sentence trailing off.
Even more horrified, Kankuro stepped forward and took his brother's hand, squeezing it. "That's not it. That's not it at all." Impulsively, he pressed a kiss to the back of Gaara's hand. "I just didn't think you had that 'slot' open, if you will." It was more than that, of course. As much as he loved his brother, Kankuro had never imagined that Gaara would want a deep bond with him. Their relationship had started so rocky and taken so long to turn around, it seemed impossible somehow that Gaara could desire a bond with him like the one he shared with Temari. It was blowing his mind to learn otherwise.
"Take your time," Gaara said quietly. "I'm not pressuring you. If you do this, then I want you to pursue it because you desire it, not because you're lonely, hurt, or even worse, feeling duty or obligation. I'm not going to be angry with you if you choose not to. I'll respect you more for caring enough about me to be honest." He smiled sadly. "Besides, you still need time to grieve. As I said before, for you this has been a lot like a death. In a sense, it even is a death."
Can something good come from something bad? Kankuro wondered. But wishing to take Gaara, his request, and his feelings seriously, he simply nodded. "I won't rush in, promise. You're right. I'm still grieving, and I was never one for rebounds."
That said, for long moments, he found he couldn't let go of Gaara's hand. Even in the midst of a pain that he thought no one else could understand, someone had reached out to him — someone who could understand his pain because he valued the same things. Someone who valued him for him.
Suddenly, the world didn't look quite so dark.
Four months later, Kankuro found himself in Konoha, standing in front of the elaborately decorated civic center. Today was the day: Temari and Shikamaru's wedding. Half of Konoha and Suna had packed into the civic center's theater, its auditorium being the only place large enough to host the wedding.
Temari was standing outside at the bottom of the steps, nervously patting down her white, satin wedding dress. To Kankuro, she looked stunningly beautiful, a blush making her cheeks glow. Lined up the stairs were Shino, Kiba, Lee, and Neji on one side, and on the other side stood Temari's friends, Maki, Aika, Ryoko, Emiko, and Yumi, who was the maid of honor.
"You look too perfect," Kankuro teased his sister gently. "Stop messing with your dress; you already don't look like you, jan." In a sense, it was true. With makeup on and her hair done up in a fancy twist, Temari looked closer to a model than a kunoichi.
The comment had the desired effect; Temari stopped worrying over her dress and punched him in the arm. "Jerk."
The doors opened, revealing the assistant wedding planner, Hinata, and music floated out into the warm spring air. Hinata motioned for the flower girl and ring bearer — young cousins of Shikamaru — to go inside, and the bridesmaids and groomsmen paired up, following. Yumi grinned at her best friend, then headed inside as well.
Kankuro turned to Temari, his heart pounding in his chest. He hadn't expected to be nervous, but the idea of hundreds of people watching him escort his sister down the aisle proved to be unsettling. More than that, though, the time had come for him to symbolically finish releasing his sister to her new life. "Ready?"
"Yeah." For a long moment, Temari watched him with a sad gaze. "You okay?"
"Yep." He didn't want to be mushy, but he had to say what he really felt. "I'll always love you. You know that, right?"
Tears sprang to her eyes. "I'll always love you, too. You also know that, right? You'll always be my punk of an ototo."
Kankuro nodded. "Yeah, that's kinda the point, though. Today's the last day I'll be playing your dad, too. No more double-duty." He said it lightly, grinning to mask what would've otherwise been dead seriousness. "It's ototo, nee-san." Since it was the only role left he felt comfortable with retaining, he felt like he needed to set his boundaries, and she'd provided him the perfect opening.
A look of curiosity passed over Temari's face, but she didn't seem upset. "Sure thing. Ototo."
Smiling, Kankuro extended his elbow to her. "Let's start the show, then." He figured she was curious enough to ask him what he meant later, and when she did, he'd explain. For now, though, it would do.
Taking his arm, Temari returned his smile, and they climbed the steps together, Temari lifting up the skirt of her dress with her free hand. Once they entered the lobby, Hinata handed Temari her bouquet, and they paused at the door to the theater as the music changed. The entire congregation stood, hundreds of the Nara, Akimichi, and Yamanaka clan members on one side and a lesser number of Suna shinobi, including Ebizo and Baki, on the other. Kankuro's girlfriend hadn't accompanied him, though; being one of their stronger jonin, she'd been asked to remain behind and guard the village.
Gazing up the aisle, Kankuro saw Shikamaru waiting with his best man, Choji, as well as the now assembled bridesmaids and groomsmen. He glanced at his sister, seeing the beaming smile spread across her face, and he knew the only person in the entire room that existed for her was Shikamaru. She really is a beautiful bride, he thought, suddenly feeling like the proudest brother in the world.
When he started up the aisle, however, he focused his attention on the officiators: Gaara and Naruto. Given that it was a civil wedding instead of a religious one, Shikamaru and Temari had asked their respective kages to share the honors. Although the wedding party was wearing tuxedos and satin dresses, the Hokage and Kazekage were wearing black, satin kimono, complete with matching black haori jackets and striped hakama pants. In contrast to his formal outfit, Naruto was grinning, clearly giddy over officiating his friend's wedding, while Gaara appeared sedate and proper. Still, when Kankuro met his brother's gaze, Gaara gave him a tiny smile. Kankuro knew Gaara was feeling as proud of their sister as he was, but he recognized that his ototo was also giving him encouragement. He returned the smile.
When they reached the bottom of the temporary stairs added to the theater stage, Kankuro released his sister, watching her climb the steps and take Shikamaru's hand, and then stepped over to the front row, taking his place by Baki and Ebizo. Once the music ended, the congregation sat.
Gaara spoke first, having divided up the lines with Naruto. "We are gathered here today to unite in marriage Nara Shikamaru and Suna no Temari . . ."
Kankuro sat, listening to the opening of the ceremony and knowing his role — his final part to play — would come soon. Once again, his heart pounded in his chest, only part of it nervousness. He could only feel grateful that he'd settled his feelings earlier, otherwise the process might have been too painful to bear. He really didn't want to cry. He hated crying in front of others.
"Who gives away this woman?" Gaara asked, looking his brother's way.
The time had come. Kankuro stood. "I, her brother, do."
And it was finished.
Kankuro sat again, watching the rest of the proceedings. His sister smiled through the entire process, her joy radiating from within her like a chakra burst. Shikamaru was no less obvious, his usual languid expression banished for the day. The way he gazed at Temari, it was as though a beloved goddess stood before him. Kankuro knew with an inexplicable, abiding certainty that their marriage would never turn sour. It would be blessed. He had no fear that his sister would be unhappy; any problems Shikamaru and she faced they would work out together.
However, after several minutes, Kankuro found his attention wandering to Gaara instead. His brother's offer to bond with him seemed somehow underscored instead of threatened by the sight of Naruto standing by him. Gaara needed deep bonds with others; as Kankuro understood it now, Gaara had always wanted to bond with others. He could still remember the small child standing in the street, clutching a teddy bear by the arm and crying because everyone hated him. Kankuro had been terrified of that child, who often accidentally hurt or killed others with the overabundance of Shukaku's power.
At the same time, Kankuro remembered the days before he'd been allowed to meet his younger brother. He remembered seeing a picture of his mother holding the newborn Gaara shortly before she died. Gaara had been tiny, born so premature that he'd had to live in an incubator for the first three weeks of his life. Had Shukaku's power not given him extra strength, Gaara might have died. Kankuro, who'd been six years old when he'd seen the photograph, had experienced an overwhelming urge to protect this younger brother he'd never met.
That urge had never really left; it had simply been buried under fear. Once Gaara had turned his life around and begun reaching out to him, Kankuro had once again been consumed with the need to assist and protect his ototo, so much so that he'd risked his life to try saving Gaara from Deidara. It had meant a great deal to Kankuro that he'd finally been able to get closer to his brother, and the thought that Gaara actually desired a soul-deep bond with him made him ecstatic.
Kankuro had feared he'd end up alone again, but that was not the way it was turning out.
After the wedding, everyone moved to the banquet hall, where a herd of tables had been set up and food awaited. Temari and Shikamaru were at the table of honor by themselves, so Kankuro joined Gaara at the table where the bridesmaids and groomsmen sat. Gaara watched his brother carefully, clearly concerned, but Kankuro had no difficulty watching Shikamaru and Temari cut the cake and smear up each other's faces. The shift in dynamics that had begun nine months earlier, before the war, had finished its term. Temari was a new person who not only had come of age but also was now a married woman; from this day forward, a new phase of her life would begin. However, the same was true for Kankuro. He wasn't convinced that he'd marry the girl he was dating — having both been badly burnt in previous relationships, they were taking their time getting to know each other — and he had no overwhelming drive to marry young in the first place. But the spot that Temari had once filled was now open. By necessity, Kankuro's focus for his time and energy had changed; the change in Temari and her life was mirrored in him and his life.
When the dancing began, Kankuro watched Temari and Shikamaru during their song, marveling at the absolute adoration in their gazes as they danced. Love really was an amazing thing. However, once the guests began dancing as well, Kankuro stood to leave. His girlfriend wasn't there for him to dance with, and despite his generally extroverted nature, the huge crowd and its noise was giving him a headache. Kankuro never had normal headaches. If he let the pain take root, he would be flat on his back with a migraine for at least two days, which would not only suck but also delay his return to Suna. Better to go somewhere quieter.
Gaara stood when he did. "Are you leaving?"
"Yeah. Working on a migraine here." Kankuro looked around at the twirling dancers, picking out Temari and Shikamaru among them. "I'm just gonna head back to Suna. I need the quiet, and I think I'd feel better if I kept moving rather than lying down." Until he became light sensitive, Kankuro managed his migraines better if he stayed on his feet.
Gaara watched him for a moment. "I apologize for asking your girlfriend to stay behind. If I hadn't, you could've danced."
Struck by the irony, Kankuro raised an eyebrow at him. "No, I get it, jan. Somebody had to stay behind and protect Suna. Besides, you didn't bring a date, either, so you're not getting to dance."
Gaara shrugged faintly. When they were younger, Kankuro had wondered if his brother's total lack of interest in girls meant he was gay, but not being much of an either/or thinker, he'd come to the conclusion that his brother was simply nonsexual instead. For whatever reason, romance didn't appeal to Gaara.
"Wait!" Kankuro's sudden idea struck him so hard that he raised his voice. With all the music and talking, no one noticed. "Here's an idea. Why do Temari and Shikamaru only have to live in either Konoha or Suna? If they really are concerned about having to abandon one village or the other, why don't they spend half the year in Konoha and half in Suna?"
Gaara's eyes widened faintly. "I hadn't considered that possibility, but now that you mention it, I'm unsure why I didn't think of it myself." He glanced at their sister. "It seems logical, but I don't know if Temari and Shikamaru will be comfortable with it. It'll be quite a hassle to maintain two households."
"I suppose." Kankuro supposed it was worth pointing out the obvious. "But a lot of elderly people from various villages move south to Suna for the winter because we've got warmer, drier weather. It's not unheard of."
Gaara nodded. "It would ensure that both villages benefit from their loyalty and their talents. I'm sure Naruto will think it's a great idea and will help make the arrangements politically. I'll mention it to Temari and Shikamaru after their honeymoon and see what they think."
"Cool." Unconcerned with the outcome — whatever would be would be — Kankuro headed toward his sister.
Gaara grasped his elbow. "You can dance with me if you like."
Pausing, Kankuro glanced back at his brother, surprised. "What?" For a moment, all he could think about was Baki accusing him of committing incest with Temari and his ex-classmates calling him gay and threatening to beat him up.
Looking patently unconcerned, Gaara shrugged again. "We're brothers. Why not?"
Kankuro scanned the room. Unsurprisingly, Naruto was dancing with Hinata, but Sakura and Ino were dancing together as well. Temari's friends Yumi and Ryoko were also dancing together. "Girls can get away with that, but people might look at us funny."
Gaara's expression remained utterly deadpan.
"Right." Tired of being trapped in other people's views of what had to be normal, Kankuro turned back and pulled Gaara into his arms, grinning at him. "Okay, let's dance."
Since Temari and Kankuro had taught Gaara to dance for the sake of state functions, Gaara already knew what to do despite his general disinterest in dating and therefore lack of dancing experiences. Kankuro capitalized on that knowledge, leading them through a rather ostentatious version of a waltz, complete with twirls. The surrounding dancers exclaimed and laughed, and when the song was finished, they all clapped and whistled. Gaara took the attention in stride, but much amused, Kankuro gave them a deep, theatrical bow before heading off to say goodbye to his sister and wish her a happy honeymoon.
Then, satisfied that he'd done his job well, Kankuro slipped out, leaving the merrymakers to their party and heading back to his room to change clothes. After all, he'd completed the final act of his previous role: He'd given Temari away at her wedding, given her his blessing, and left her in the very capable hands of her husband. It was time to go home. Perhaps Ebizo was right, at least partially, and after a few months Temari, along with Shikamaru, would visit her ototo. In between those times, though, Kankuro had a new life of his own to live.
To his surprise, Kankuro found Gaara waiting at Konoha's main entrance. He smiled as he approached his ototo. "Hey, man, didn't expect to see you here. Why aren't you still at the party?"
"After a few minutes, I followed you out," Gaara said simply.
Remembering that the history books said that men like him had held hands with their brothers and thought nothing of it, Kankuro walked up and grabbed Gaara's hand. "You ready, then?"
Far from jerking away, Gaara squeezed his hand. "Whenever you are."
For a moment, Kankuro wondered if they were discussing going home or being closer brothers. Either way, it worked. "Let's go."
Still holding his brother's hand, Gaara burst into a sprint, and Kankuro kept pace with him, the smile still hovering on his lips.
In the place where they'd been standing, a leaf was carried away by a gentle breeze, leaving only the sunlight to mark the path they'd taken.
A/N: Thank you to JKL, Mystical Sand, Karasu95, and InoShikaChou for the reviews! I really appreciate you all!
A gold star to anyone who caught all the references to my old stories. As I have it counted, I managed to allude to "The Blood of Brothers," "The Greatest of These Is Love," "The Day Gaara Died," "If It Matters," "Smile and Take a Bow," "Dances with Shinobi," and in a sense, "Reaching out to You" and "Star Gazing Festival." In addition, when I later wrote "Divergent Paths," I kept Shiro as the name of Kankuro's best friend. So, either 8 or 9 stories, depending on whether I'm counting DP or not.