Author's Note: This takes place after the end of the War Arc, which I know is not completed yet. This story assumes a happy ending to all of that. Also, this story is about Kankuro x Gaara.
For hours, Kankuro worked on his new puppet design. He was excited in a way he hadn't been in months. Yes, he knew that time was passing quickly and that he'd probably surpassed dinnertime, but he didn't worry. Gaara and Temari could feed themselves. They might not cook like him, but they were shinobi. Burnt food was hardly fatal.
When he was in his workshop, his siblings hardly interrupted him. For once, he might see the better part of a day by himself, working on something that purely excited him.
The door opening at the same time that he sensed his brother's chakra interrupted his train of thought and filled him with a terrible disappointment.
Gaara peeked into the workshop, saw Kankuro at the bench, and walked up behind his brother. "Is everything okay?"
Kankuro's hand tightened on his wood-shaping tool. "Yeah. Fine." He turned around on his seat. "What's up?"
Gaara stared at him a moment before answering. "I was wondering why the kitchen was cold and the lights are off."
Kankuro huffed with exasperation. "You came home and the kitchen was dark, so you sat around in the dark and then waited until dinner time came."
Gaara shrugged. "What was I supposed to do?"
"If you see something you want done, jan, do it!" Kankuro snapped. He brushed wood shavings off his lap and stood up.
"I just got home," Gaara said quietly.
Kankuro sighed, his anger draining, and ran a hand through his hair. "You mean you worked extra long today, and when you came home, you expected someone to be here and for dinner to be on the table, because you're hungry."
"Where's Temari?" Kankuro asked. "At the very least, if you don't wanna do the cooking, then she should be able to."
Gaara turned away. "I don't know where she is."
Kankuro felt like crushing rocks into sand with his bare hands. He brushed past his brother. Gaara followed him upstairs. He stopped in the middle of the hallway and yelled. "Hey!"
Temari instantly opened the door of her bedroom. "What?" she yelled back. "I'm writing a letter!"
"To who?" Kankuro asked.
"None of your damn business!"
Kankuro folded his arms. "Dinner's not ready."
Temari pulled back inside her room. "What time is it? Hey. It's almost half an hour past dinnertime. What gives? You get busy or something? With what?"
"With my own stuff," Kankuro said.
Temari's voice came loud and clear from within her room. "Screw that."
Kankuro knew he couldn't have expected any other answer. He knew that they gave each other a hard time on a regular basis. He knew their mode of communication was two thirds bluff. Disclaimer established, his reaction was pure, knee jerk outrage on a level he could not express with words. He suddenly wondered if this was how Gaara used to feel.
Temari walked back to the door and stared out at him, reacting to his dead silence. She stared at him. "I was just giving you a hard time."
Kankuro turned away, found himself facing Gaara, and avoided eye contact. "I know."
Temari came up behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey. What's the matter?"
"You both asked me that," Kankuro said dryly.
"We both wonder," Gaara said.
Kankuro looked from one to the other, feeling ganged up on. He was definitely trapped. Honesty? That was out. "Nothing, jan. Just had a hard day."
"Oh?" Temari asked. "What happened? Something I need to know about?" She cracked her knuckles. "Someone I need to kill?"
"No. Nothing like that." He sighed. "I just…don't wanna have to cook dinner."
Temari shrugged. "Suits me. Let's get takeout."
Kankuro stared at her. "Why don't you just cook for a change?"
She made a face. "I don't want to have to eat burnt food for dinner. I've had a long day. You said you did, too. Why don't we just get takeout? Seriously. It's not that big a deal."
Kankuro wasn't sure what to say. You would rather spend money than admit you have some responsibilities around here? You're just going to pay your way out of trouble? "I don't want takeout."
"What, then?" Temari snapped. "You have to have it one way or the other. You cook, or you order takeout. I'm busy." She went back into her room and slammed the door.
Kankuro brushed past Gaara, walked downstairs, and readied the kitchen with a singular loathing for the workspace. Because that's what it was. Another workspace. Another place where he was required to set aside his feelings and work for someone else's benefit, for rewards he would most likely never see.
Gaara sat down at the kitchen table and watched him. Watched him for a solid hour. Just staring.
He knew it was just Gaara's way, but it got on his nerves. He felt judged.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Kankuro almost jumped out of his skin. "No." He paused and considered his response. It would be really nice if Gaara took the wok and cooked the meat for once. But then he'd have to endure teaching Gaara exactly what he wanted, and probably stand through noncommittal responses in exchange for burnt meat. "Nah, jan. You can settle down. Dinner will be ready soon."
As Kankuro set plates up for food, Temari came down the stairs, grinning. "Smells good."
Kankuro kept his back turned and tried to dish up without slopping stuff around in frustration. "Thanks."
They ate dinner. Temari talked extensively about current events, filling him with unhappy news he didn't want to know. Gaara stared at him the whole time. He'd never felt less connected to his family. He kept his head down and drowned them out by eating his crunchiest vegetables first, hoping they would just get bored with him and go away.
And part of him wondered what the problem was. He loved his family. He did. There were no two people he loved more in the world. They were everything to him. Normally, he loved dinnertime. He loved sitting down with his two favorite people, loved the act of feeding them and making sure that they'd had at least one good meal that day. He knew he was an incomparable cook. He'd worked hard on his cooking skills, so that he could be there for them at the end of the day.
Kankuro couldn't understand why he wanted to cry with frustration.
When they finished eating, Kankuro went to the sink to wash up the cutting board and the bowls he used for the stir-fry ingredients.
Temari jumped up from the table. "Well, thanks for dinner. I think we would've been fine eating takeout, but, whatever."
Kankuro nodded at the dishes on the table. "Gonna get those for me?"
Temari turned and looked. "Sure." She backtracked and collected the dishes, walked over, and dumped the armload into the sink. "There you go." She walked away and waved. "See you. I'm going back to my letter."
An inexplicable surge of anger and betrayal shook Kankuro. He stared at the dishes, coated with teriyaki sauce and bits of vegetables and noodles. All that came out was a mumble. "I cook the dinner and then I wash the dishes, too?"
"You made them dirty," Temari retorted cheerfully. "You didn't have to cook. You wanted to. I offered takeout."
Kankuro turned on his heel and glared at her. "Yeah, and you ate what I made for you. You gonna stick around and help me make the dishes clean again?"
Temari's grin faded. She gave him a one-sided shrug. "I don't know. Do you want me to?"
"Don't ask a question to answer one," Kankuro said. He heaved an exasperated sigh. "You gonna help or not?"
She paused, sized him up, and narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't think I should have to."
Kankuro found himself smiling with disbelief at her attitude. "Why?"
"I have an important mission in the morning. I leave at sunrise." Temari jerked a thumb at Gaara. "Just ask him. He's the Kazekage." She gestured. "Talk about it amongst yourselves."
Gaara stared at Kankuro blankly.
Temari slipped off.
Kankuro took a deep breath, focusing on Gaara. "How come –"
Gaara started at the same time, raising his hands. "I didn't –"
They stopped and looked at each other.
Kankuro exhaled and gestured for his brother to go first.
"I didn't know that it would inconvenience you," Gaara said.
"How could I not be inconvenienced?" Kankuro asked. "She just got back yesterday."
"She asked to be assigned again." Gaara gave him a helpless look.
Kankuro found himself unable to stay angry at his brother. He turned away and ran a hand through his hair, faced with the repugnant duty of washing the dishes. "I guess you've got to take whoever volunteers, jan." He picked up a bowl and scrubbed at it. "Where's she going?"
"Konoha," Gaara said.
Kankuro ground to a halt. "Konoha."
"Yes," Gaara said quietly. He got up from the table, walked across the kitchen, and put his hand on Kankuro's shoulder. "I didn't do this to hurt you. I merely didn't see the point of denying our sister what she wants. She wants to go to Konoha to visit Shikamaru again. The letter she is writing is for Shikamaru. She won't be able to spend as much time with him as she wants, so she is writing down all of the things she wanted to say to him in order to save time."
Kankuro sighed. "I guess I really will be doing the dishes by myself again."
"You don't have to," Gaara said. He looked into Kankuro's eyes. "I could help."
Kankuro wavered. "Nah, it's alright, man."
"Why?" Gaara asked.
Kankuro looked away. "I said it's alright. Now go get some sleep. You've got to be up in the morning too, remember? You need lots of sleep."
"Temari's excuse is bullshit." Gaara stared him down. "I don't need sleep so much that I can't help you with the dishes." He gently pushed Kankuro over. "It will go faster with two people."
"And we can talk?" Kankuro asked dryly.
For the first few minutes, though, all they did was wash and dry dishes. Kankuro experienced the novel sensation of drying dishes and putting them away instead of being the one with wet, soapy hands the whole time.
Gaara abruptly started. "You didn't want me to be at dinner."
"No," Kankuro protested. He knew about Gaara's insecurities. I should've made more of an effort.
Gaara frowned. "You weren't happy to see me."
"I was…I was…" Kankuro took a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. "I was just annoyed, jan."
"About what?" Gaara asked.
Kankuro looked away. "About Temari."
Gaara thought about that. In the meantime, he washed three small bowls, a pair of chopsticks, and a measuring cup. Kankuro dried them and put them away mechanically, waiting and wishing the conversation were over.
"Why aren't you getting along?" Gaara asked. "You used to. It made me jealous."
Kankuro stared at him. "I didn't know."
Gaara shrugged. "It's over now."
Gaara's expression minutely changed, conveying pride. "Now we are a family." He finished washing the dishes, handing Kankuro the wok.
Kankuro dried the wok and hung it up above the stove in its usual spot and turned around, dishrag hanging off his arm.
Gaara held out his wet, soapy hands.
Kankuro handed him the cloth.
Gaara dried his hands, placed the dishcloth by the sink, and turned back to Kankuro. He straightened. "As Kazekage, I want us to have a strong family. I do not want there to be secrets between us, nor disputes left not settled."
"You can't mediate this, ototo."
Kankuro sighed. "Because it's between me and Temari."
"I am part of this family, too." Gaara scowled.
"I never said you weren't." Kankuro looked at his brother uneasily. He knew Gaara's days of throwing massive tantrums capable of murdering everyone were over. Still, when he saw Gaara get angry, he couldn't help being uncomfortable.
Gaara's anger vanished in a second, replaced by vulnerability. "Let me help."
Kankuro shook his head. "You can't. Temari's angry because she thinks I don't want her to date Shikamaru, even though I said I'm fine with it. She's withdrawing, so she refuses to do anything around here except wait to leave again. That makes me angry, but she thinks I'm criticizing her!"
Gaara hugged him.
He just stood there, stunned. Then he closed his arms around Gaara.
Gaara held him for a moment that seemed like an eternity, and then released him. His brother looked stern. "You taught me that when someone you love hurts, you have to do something. So I'm going to do something."
Gaara knocked on Temari's door.
"I'm busy," she yelled with particular emphasis.
"Too bad," Gaara said. "Let me in."
"Oh, shit! I thought you were Kankuro." Temari opened the door. "Sorry, Gaara." She seemed a little breathless. "What can I do for you?"
Gaara raised a hairless eyebrow. "Why are you avoiding Kankuro?"
Her expression changed from remorseful to furious in an instant. "This is none of your business." She threw up her hands. "This is between me and Kankuro."
"That's what he said," Gaara said.
She scowled at him. "Then why didn't you listen? He's right."
"I can't stand by and let you pick at each other."
"As Kazekage?" Temari asked dryly.
"As your ototo." Gaara stared at her.
She stared back. Finally, she said, "Wow. I didn't think you'd play that card."
"Kankuro wants you to show more responsibility around the house," Gaara said quietly. "He fears you are leaving him behind."
Temari put her hands on her hips. "Because I want to eat takeout three times a week?"
"Because you won't spend time showing him you care," Gaara said.
Temari turned away. "That is ridiculous!"
Temari froze before she could take her first step. She turned around, cold and angry. "Yeah. It is. If you knew me half as well as you are supposed to, you would know I do care. A lot."
She ran off, leaving Gaara stunned.
Gaara found Kankuro in the puppet workshop.
"How'd it go sticking up for me?" Kankuro asked. He wore a caustic smile.
"It didn't go well," Gaara admitted. "I think I was a failure."
Kankuro's mask crumbled. "Nah, jan. Don't beat yourself up about it." He touched Gaara's arm. "None of this is your fault. You were just trying to do the right thing by me. Sweet, really." He looked at Gaara awkwardly. "I mean that."
Gaara didn't look much cheered up. He looked at the floor. "Yeah."
Kankuro snorted. "Now she's probably going to go to Shikamaru with some trumped up story about how we were picking on her."
Gaara's head snapped up. "She wouldn't do that."
Kankuro raised an eyebrow. "No? That's what girls do, jan. They have trouble at home so they leak it all out to their boyfriends. Except the trouble at home is nothing more than that they don't get along as well as they used to. They turn their growing pains into some kind of drama. And the guys eat it up, too. They get their boyfriends to swear to defend them and then go and leave a guy as soon as he figures out she isn't the little princess she made herself out to be."
Gaara studied him. "You speak from experience."
Kankuro reddened. "Yeah. This girl I once knew stringed me along until I was good and mad at her folks, and then as soon as I met them I found out her mom and papa were the nicest people in the world. I felt like a jerk." He shook his head. "She was just filling me up with all her lies so she could convince me to go off with her and make a new life away from the village, just so she didn't have to speak to her father again." He sighed. "They had some stupid argument about the price of a kimono she wanted."
"She wanted to impress Father," Gaara guessed.
Kankuro snorted. "Well, she didn't. When he heard what the argument was really about, you know what he said? He was amused. He laughed at me. He said, 'You see, Kankuro, with women it is always about money'." He clenched his jaw. "Pretty funny coming from a guy who makes sure to bring his gold dust to every battle."
"He made a value judgment against her," Gaara said.
Kankuro turned away. "Yep. Pretty much."
"And he was wrong," Gaara said.
"How do you know that, jan? Seems pretty right to me. Every date I've ever had has bled me dry."
"He was wrong. He was wrong to judge others without ever judging himself." Gaara stared at Kankuro until his brother looked at him.
When Kankuro caught sight of his determined expression, he sighed and almost turned away again. "Look, jan. The point is that I messed up. The point is that I made a mistake, and Father punished me for it. I picked a gold digger who tried to strong-arm me into eloping with her!" He shook his head. "And at thirteen years old." Kankuro stared at the floor. "I haven't really gotten any better. I'm not better at picking girls now than I was then. Father's right. I'm screwed up."
Gaara watched him with wide eyes. "This isn't about Temari, is it?"
Kankuro narrowed his eyes at Gaara. "Huh?"
"This is about you and Father," Gaara said.
"Look!" Kankuro clenched his fists. "This is about nobody respecting me and everybody making me do everything for them!"
Gaara took a step back. "Do I do that?"
Gaara scrutinized him for several moments in silence. "Then who do you mean by 'everyone'?"
Kankuro raked a hand through his hair. "Temari. I guess." He took a deep breath. "When Father was alive, I was expected to do everything and she didn't have to do anything. All she had to do was look pretty and get praise heaped upon her head."
"Like me, now," Gaara said quietly.
Kankuro winced. "No, man. You worked really hard. You deserve to get everyone's respect."
Gaara looked at the floor contemplatively. "I don't see what the difference is. You envy her for her admiration in Father's eyes. You should envy me for all the admiration I receive as Kazekage."
Kankuro shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. I don't get angry at people for getting what they deserve."
Gaara looked up at him. "Then you don't think Temari deserves what she has."
Kankuro's mouth slowly dropped open. Then he held up his hands. "No, man! No. No way. I think she deserves everything she's got. You know she's worked as hard as any of us to get where she is. We're all a team." He slowly lowered his hands and looked away. "It's about what she used to get from me that she didn't deserve." Slowly, he shook his head. "But that's old history. Irrelevant." He shrugged. "I just want her to clean the dishes once in a while. Is that so hard to understand?"
"You can't help yourself by burying the truth," Gaara said.
Kankuro glanced at him. "I can't help myself by digging it up, either. It stinks."
"She ought to understand." Gaara searched Kankuro's face.
For a moment, Kankuro thought he was going to cry. He instinctively hardened his expression. "But she doesn't, jan. She's not going to. She likes things the way they are."
Kankuro made a disdainful noise. "Her taking advantage of me. Like always."
"You do a lot of things for her, and until Shikamaru came along and divided her attention, you did almost everything with her, but I didn't think you felt like you were being taken advantage of," Gaara said. "I never saw that. Did you really feel that way?"
Once again, Kankuro found himself unable to match Gaara's relentless eye contact. "Yeah, man. All the time. You know what she used to do to me? She used to beat me up if I didn't go along with all her schemes. Sis was never a weakling. If you thought I was a bully, you should've seen some of the stuff that she did to me." He shrugged. "I just got used to being there for her. And after Dad died, there was no one else left."
Immediately, he wanted to take it back. "At least –"
But Gaara shook his head. "I know what you mean. I wasn't in any kind of shape to help you."
Kankuro sighed. "Yeah. I felt alone." He shrugged. "I didn't wanna be alone, so I stuck pretty close to Sis' side."
"She must have felt pretty alone herself," Gaara said.
Kankuro shrugged. "I don't know."
Gaara tilted his head. "Isn't it only logical? You both lost a father."
"She used to tease me about being afraid to be left alone. She called me a baby. That doesn't sound like someone who is afraid to be alone themselves," Kankuro pointed out. "If she had been afraid, she would have been a little more sympathetic."
"I don't know," Gaara said. "Sometimes we bluster to keep from appearing afraid to others."
Kankuro scowled. "But I'm her brother."
"I know." Gaara held up his hands. "I didn't say it was right."
"Every time I screwed up, she was right there to point it out," Kankuro said. "Now she has what I haven't got: a chance for future happiness." He gestured with both hands. "It's like she wrings me dry, and she's just going to leave."
Gaara blinked. "Wait. A chance for future happiness? Leave? What are you talking about?"
Kankuro scowled. "Why do you think she's so insistent on going over to Konoha all the time? She's negotiating a marriage deal with Shikamaru's family. I know it. She's found herself a new family and she's just going to move on."
"But she can't," Gaara protested. He looked panicked. "This is just a phase. Everyone I've talked to says this is just a phase. She'll grow out of it. She'll get tired like she got tired of all the other people she's dated. She'll move on."
Kankuro snorted. "Not this one, jan."
"Why not?" Gaara whispered.
Kankuro raised an eyebrow. "Since when has Temari stayed up half the night writing a letter to someone she was dating?"
"She hates writing," Kankuro said flatly. "She's always hated writing. She's going to marry this guy."
"What do we do?" Gaara whispered.
Kankuro shrugged. "Get used to losing her? I don't know, jan. Figure it out. I'm going to get some sleep."
Gaara caught his sleeve. "Wait."
Kankuro flinched. "What?"
"Don't run away because you're hurt," Gaara said.
Kankuro stared at him. "Then what do I do?"
Gaara gripped his arms. "Stay."
"If I stay – " He cut himself off. Kankuro swallowed.
"What?" Gaara looked up into his eyes.
His chin trembled. "I'm gonna cry, okay? I'll cry. And no one wants to see that."
"I don't mind," Gaara said.
Kankuro shook his head in disbelief. In spite of the fear quivering in his stomach, he let a tear well up and fall.
Gaara pulled his brother into his arms. "Niisan…"
Kankuro tightened his hands on Gaara's shoulders and let it out, sobbing hysterically. "She wants to go away and leave me! After she's all I got left! I did everything for her and she's not going to stay. She's still going to go!" He clenched his teeth, but that didn't stop his meltdown. "How could she do that to me? She's so heartless!"
Gaara just patted his back.