Chapter 16

Kankuro managed to get through the rest of the day without giving himself away or being cornered by Gaara about the residual redness in his eyes from crying.

In spite of the talk he'd had with Baki, the idea of going home made him jittery. Especially since Temari would be there. God, it's like I have to choose between them. If I accept Gaara, then I'm turning my back on Temari. If I don't, there's no way I'll feel safe unless Temari is by my side.

Kankuro ducked into the Kazekage Complex bathroom – one of them, at least, a building so huge had to have multiple bathrooms to process everyone – and gripped the sink, trying not to hyperventilate. God, why can't we just have a family?

He'd never imagined that he might have to choose between his siblings. Even if Gaara's not crazy, even if he doesn't hurt me, I still have to hide everything we do from Temari, and that pushes her out. It didn't matter that he'd wanted her out sometimes. What he really wanted was for her to be in his family and to not hurt him anymore.

Facing himself in the mirror, he finally realized that's what he'd always wanted: a normal family. And everything that's ever happened has ripped that away from me.

Kankuro steeled himself and went home.

On the short walk from the complex to the mansion, he rehearsed to himself, muttering inside his head. 'Okay, Temari, you're right. I'm gay. I'm very, very gay. I have a gay friend now, and I want to date him, but this has to utterly be a secret, or else I'm going to kill you.' Somehow, he had to share his feelings with his neesan, even if it wasn't wise. He desperately wanted to take the advice she'd given two weeks ago as a peace offering. And this is my family. I don't wanna be alone.

If he could just somehow keep Gaara, keep their brotherhood and make a new relationship on top of it, and keep Temari, even if it meant she never figured out precisely who he was dating, then he could have a family. If he included them both just enough without ever crossing them, then he could hold things together. And Temari was going to be in Konoha in six months. That would be easier. He could plan around her visits and make sure he never gave himself away.

Now I just have to convince her to mind her own business and convince Gaara that I'm done freaking out about his feelings.

Abruptly, Kankuro realized that he was treating a sexualized relationship with Gaara like a reality. He stopped in his tracks. Whoa. I know I said I would pursue this, but not so fast. I wanna kinda build up to it. I can't do this yet. I can't do this without knowing how Gaara really feels. I don't know what he imagined. Oddly, his biggest concern was suddenly that Gaara was going to leave, after he put himself out there and actually said yes. That was a huge jump from a few hours ago, when Kankuro had been afraid he couldn't get away.

When Kankuro walked into the kitchen, Gaara was the only one in it.

"Where's Temari?" Kankuro asked.

"Hmm?" Gaara looked at him curiously. "She's visiting her friend. Masako?"

Kankuro shook his head. "News to me. She's got so many of 'em – but all they do is go to the movies and, like, go rock climbing and stuff. I can never keep them straight."

"Well, she has the day off tomorrow, so she thinks 'it's cool' to go cave exploring with them," Gaara said.

"Them?" Kankuro raised an eyebrow.

"Masako and her brother," Gaara said.

Kankuro scowled. This was not the time for Temari to decide to be flighty. I need to talk, damnit! "What're they doing?" His voice came out a monotone. He completely glossed over the fact that Gaara had just told him. He already couldn't remember. He was too upset.

"I just know what she relayed to me before saying she wouldn't be at dinner and wouldn't be home until tomorrow," Gaara said. "Is there something wrong with Masako and her brother?"

Kankuro crossed his arms. "Yeah, they're not 'Kankuro and Gaara'. I've told her before, I hate it when she begs off like this. It's like we don't even matter."

Gaara looked at him with concern.

Kankuro spread his hands. "It's important to me that we spend dinner together every night. I told her it's okay to do whatever if you at least eat with us –" He curled his hands into fists. "But she clearly doesn't care!" Being pushed away again stung so bad he almost did wish she would leave forever. Just once, why can't she leave because I told her to? If I could just get it off my chest I could stop feeling this way. If I just felt like I had any control whatsoever, maybe we could sit down and talk things out. Kankuro swallowed.

"You've been crying already today," Gaara said quietly.

Kankuro smirked. "Yeah, that's me, jan. Crybaby Kankuro."

"I didn't say that."

Kankuro attempted to breeze past him. "Well, let's make dinner."

Gaara caught his arm and held on. "Dinner can wait."

"What's so important?" Kankuro asked, his manner drained of any expression.

"You are," Gaara said quietly.

Kankuro knew that his face went slack. Oh, Gaara, how I wish I could believe you. I have no reason not to…and yet… If he really screwed up this time, it would be over. He found himself biting his lip, and knew that was answer enough for Gaara. Damn it, I gave myself away. This stupid lip-biting habit. Whenever his anxiety was more than he could hold in, the first thing he did was bite his lip. Most of the time, he didn't even know he was doing it.

Gaara gently took his hands and led him into the living room. Kankuro allowed it, feeling like not much more than a puppet. What am I really…except a person who lets everyone put their expectations on him?

They sat side by side on the sofa in silence. Kankuro slowly curled his hands into fists, resting them on the tops of his thighs. When will I matter? When will I really matter?

"I don't wanna be disposable," Kankuro burst out suddenly.

Gaara looked stunned.

"If you had just been up front – if you had just said you wanted me – " Kankuro's breath hitched. He shook his head fiercely. "If someone ever had wanted me for me, wanted me for real, not said that I was just a joke or a copy or a worker or a replacement or a nobody – if I ever knew that somebody wanted me just for the sake of being with me, I would've listened!" He squeezed his eyes shut. Tears trickled out and ran down his cheeks. He couldn't get the words out without sobbing. "I just didn't want a gimmick!"

Gaara, startled, looked at Kankuro for a moment with his mouth open and then quickly wrapped his arms around his brother. "N-Niisan, it's not a gimmick. I really love you. I really want you to do sexual things with me and to be happy. I wished for that. I know I can't get all of it, that it's not what you want, but I can accept that. I won't hurt you or leave you because of that. Doing sexual things is your choice. If you don't want to then I won't. I promise."

"Don't talk for a minute and just listen." Kankuro could hardly talk. He didn't have the strength to think of a nice way to get Gaara to stop talking. He was shaking and his breath kept getting caught in his chest. "I'm okay having a relationship with you, as long as it's real. As long as you don't replace me. As long as you don't really want someone else – care about someone else – love someone else!" Kankuro jerked out of Gaara's grasp, needing to burn the force of his feelings into Gaara with his eyes. "I want you to love me for me!" He pounded his fist against his chest. "I want everyone to love me for me! Stop treating me like a replacement, god damn it!" Kankuro scrubbed his cheeks with his knuckles. "That's what I wanna say to everybody. I'm me. Deal with it. Treat me for myself or get out."

"You're not a replacement." Gaara's voice was soft. "You're my niisan and my wonderful person. I don't want to replace you with anybody. I want to spend time with you and be with you because you're special to me."

Kankuro collapsed onto Gaara and clung to his brother, trembling. I wish I could say the same. Why can't I say the same? I feel it. But people he declared special always left. They always realized they were…too good for him. "You don't need me. You're just saying that because you think you can't do better. And when I convince you that you're a great human being after all, you're gonna leave me." Isn't that what always happened with his friends? He could make them, but never keep them. All the people he'd ever attracted to him as friends were insecure, wounded people. When he nursed their self-esteem back to health, they didn't need him anymore. I'm not a clinic, I'm a person.

He pulled back and looked into Gaara's eyes. "You're not my replacement girlfriend. You're Gaara. But I'm just your replacement whatever. I'm just going to teach you how to have sex, and then you're going to find some girl who squeals all over you and make babies."

Gaara stared at Kankuro. His hairless eyebrows slowly raised. "Who said this to you?"

Kankuro looked away.

"They're wrong," Gaara said flatly. "If they had talked to me, they would know that. Niisan, I don't want girls. I don't like them. If I were still as thoughtless about human life, I would have killed them. I don't like their attention. These feelings used to mean death for the people around me. I can't do that – I can't possibly disregard their devotion – but if I were allowed to say the truth I would tell them it leaves me cold." He paused. "I'm not supposed to do that. Support is support. Kazekages need public support." He sighed. "It's been explained to me several times that these…'fan' girls are a good thing."

Kankuro snorted. "Don't sound so displeased. I'd kill for a few fangirls."

Gaara tilted his head. "Does this mean you're not attracted to me?"

Kankuro smacked his forehead. "No, you're not supposed to be attracted to them. They're attracted to you. It's a one-way attraction. It makes you feel good about yourself. Supposedly. I've never tried it."

"It doesn't make me feel good about myself," Gaara said, deadpan.

"Oh." Kankuro paused to absorb that. "Okay. I guess I see your point, then. Other than that, they're annoying."

"Their behavior makes me work very hard to treat them as human," Gaara said.

Kankuro winced, and then laughed. "Okay, I guess that's why someone's talked to you before about keeping your mouth shut on this topic. That was way harsh. Don't ever say that to them."

"I won't." Gaara looked puzzled. "Why are you changing the subject off of yourself?"

"I'm talking," Kankuro protested. "I didn't change the subject on purpose. It just happened. It happens all the time when I talk. The conversation just goes wherever." He shrugged. "We'll get back to it."

"And you'll tell me the name of the person who told you that I couldn't be interested in you because I just wanted sex," Gaara said. "If it was Baki, then I'll have to consider killing him. I can't allow anyone to say such slanderous things about me. It's personal. Especially when a former sensei says it." He narrowed his eyes.

Kankuro's eyes widened. "Baki? God, no! Baki defended you."

Gaara blinked, looking confused. "He did that?"

"Yeah." Kankuro nodded.

Gaara's shoulders relaxed. He smiled.

"I know!" Kankuro grinned. "Shocked the hell out of me, too! He really defended all of us. Not quite. Sort of. I was talking to him earlier today, and he said you couldn't possibly use me for sex." Well, he kind of said you couldn't rape me, but that's the same thing, right?

Gaara looked at him with wide eyes. "You told him?"

Kankuro froze.

Gaara trembled slightly. "I can't believe he would defend me. Wouldn't he be angry?"

"He didn't mention incest at all, ototo," Kankuro said flatly. "I discussed it right in front of him and he didn't twitch."

"Odd…" Gaara looked uncomfortable. "I thought he was a traditionalist."

"Yeah, but it's not like we ever talked to him much," Kankuro pointed out.

"Oh…" Gaara shifted. "True." He frowned. "This means he's a different person."

Kankuro sighed. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I forgot how uncomfortable it makes you when people show hidden sides."

"I can't help it," Gaara said.

Kankuro rubbed Gaara's arm. "I know. You've stated before it's because Yashamaru went crazy on you. I understand. I mean, I'd be leery too if I knew people could spontaneously go bonkers on me." He paused. I kind of do know that. That's why people scare me. He redirected himself. "But – ah – the point is, I'm not gonna be in this relationship with you if it's temporary. I don't care if it's boyfriend/girlfriend or sex partner or what. I mean, I do, but the answer is no whatever it is because I'm not interested in a temporary relationship."

Gaara hugged Kankuro. "I don't want temporary things." He nestled his head under Kankuro's chin. "Don't leave me alone."

Kankuro stroked Gaara's back. Shit, I forgot. Ichiro's words really were stupid. Gaara couldn't leave somebody if he tried. The idea of people leaving scares him. He would never leave another person as long as they were nice to him – and probably not if they weren't. He mentally rolled his eyes. Attachment issues my ass. Gaara's attachment is fine. It's separation issues he struggles with. And if Gaara doesn't hurt me, we don't have a problem.

"Niisan, I love you." Gaara's voice was thin with anxiety. "I want to stay with you forever. Please say you won't leave me."

Kankuro pulled Gaara into his lap and swiveled, falling back on the sofa cushions. Gaara landed on top of him. He wrapped his arms around Gaara and clutched his brother to his chest. "I'm not leavin'. I love you. I'm not gonna let anyone else take you, so prepare for me to be possessive."

Gaara buried his face against Kankuro's chest.

Kankuro stroked Gaara's hair. "Sheesh. What a stupid thing to do to somebody. Seriously. You call yourself a psych nin? You call that a session? I call it malpractice."

"You went to see a psych nin? Is that who told you not to see me?"

Kankuro sighed. "Right, but he told me to start something with you, for all the wrong reasons. He treated me like a piece of crap. He said I oughtta be your sex ed teacher and then leave you so you could start a family."

"Why won't people leave me alone? I have a family. I don't want any children. I don't want any wives. I want Kankuro. In a different way, I want Temari, but only if she behaves. I need Kankuro. Want Kankuro."

Kankuro didn't expect Gaara to get so upset. Gaara usually didn't sound this much like a little kid. He rubbed Gaara's back. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to make you feel like I was leaving. I'm not leaving or anything. No one's gonna take me away from you. I just…was trying to tell you what he said. Ichiro. He's kind of a psych nin. He's not a very good one, I guess, because he got it all wrong and jumped to a bunch of conclusions, but he's certified. I guess he's their walk-in hours guy. I went there today. Baki said to. He was trying to help – Baki, I mean – but he didn't know I was going to see such an asshole. Baki goes to therapy himself –" Kankuro bit his lip. Is that confidential? I don't know. He didn't treat it like that.

Gaara sniffled. "I know. I'm the one that gets the psych reports."

Kankuro felt stupid. "Of course. Right."

"It's about keeping me informed so I can…make the right decisions about who to send on missions. If I flag a mission that is dangerous for them psychologically, the psych nin sends me a message and then meets with me to discuss the client's vulnerability."

"I didn't know that," Kankuro admitted.

"That's why it's tough when people refuse to visit psych nins," Gaara said quietly. "I send them on dangerous missions never knowing it's the wrong thing."

"Shinobi are tough." Kankuro shrugged.

"If I was sent to assassinate a couple of brothers, I couldn't do it."

Kankuro flinched. "Okay. I see your point. That would be too close. Too close to home."

"Exactly," Gaara said.

"What makes us screwed up, though?" Kankuro looked at the ceiling. "Why do I like you like this?"

"Like…this?" Gaara's voice was tiny.

"Like a – like a…" Kankuro sighed. "A – a friend. No, I mean, like a boyfriend. A lover." He braced himself, squeezing his eyes shut.

"I don't know." Gaara snuggled up against him. "I just know it's true. There's nothing wrong with loving you. I mean, there is, but I don't feel like that internally. I know how we'd be slaughtered if this were public, but I don't feel any condemnation from inside. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yeah." Kankuro sighed. "My biggest concern is when people find out. Cause you can never hide anything indefinitely."

"We could try really hard," Gaara suggested.

Kankuro snorted. "Naïve." But he said the word affectionately.

"Do…Do you like it that I'm naïve?"

"Sometimes," Kankuro admitted. He found himself blushing. "It makes me feel like more of an older brother." He added quickly, "But you don't have to pretend. That's not the same. I'd know, and it wouldn't turn me on as much." He bit his lip. Where did that come from? Does this mean that the entire time he's been saying or doing these little things, he's actually…sexually aroused me? Kankuro swallowed. How can I claim to be an older brother if that happens? That's not brotherly. At all.

Gaara lifted his head and looked at Kankuro with wide eyes.

"Ah…You know…" Kankuro didn't know what to say. He stared back.

"Naiveté turns you on?" Gaara asked. "Why?"

"I dunno!" Kankuro wished he could back up and start this conversation over again. It came out wrong. And it's my fault.

"I didn't mean to judge you," Gaara said.

"But you did." Shit. No. Why did I say that?

Gaara looked at him for a moment. "I'm sorry."

"I just – I'm not ready for this stuff!" Kankuro shot to his feet. Where am I gonna run to? Seriously, I can't run every time there's a problem.

Gaara stood up, facing him. "Sexual things? That's okay. Me neither."

All the fight or flight response drained from Kankuro's body. "What?"

Gaara frowned faintly. "They're just fantasies."

Kankuro felt stupid. Of course. You've never had sex before. You've never even kissed before. You can't be ready for all that stuff. In fact, you probably find it all more intimidating than I do. "Right. Of course." He let out a slightly hysterical laugh. "What was I thinking of?"

Gaara shook his head and shrugged, confused.

"Was I thinking you were some kind of sexually experienced monster who would just rape me if I said no?" Kankuro realized dimly he was babbling. "You don't even know what sex is! You couldn't rape anyone if you tried." He laughed again. "What a ridiculous, stupid idea." Kankuro slapped himself in the forehead. Okay, snap out of it, you're scaring him.

"Rape?" Gaara asked in a tiny voice.

Kankuro found himself looking at the floor. "Yeah. I've been afraid of getting raped ever since I was a little kid. Like, eleven or something. When I hit puberty."

"Oh…" Gaara gently took his arm and guided him to sit down on the sofa again.

Kankuro sat down, feeling numb and overwhelmed. "It all goes back to that, doesn't it? I'm afraid of getting raped."

Gaara sat down beside him and carefully put an arm around him.

Kankuro stared at the coffee table. "Being helpless. Being out of control. It's all about the same thing. When I don't feel safe with somebody, whether I know them or not, I start to get afraid I'm going to be raped. It doesn't matter whether it's boys or girls."

Gaara was looking at him with that wide-eyed stare, still.

Kankuro smirked, but the expression was empty. "Girls, too." He shook his head. "What an idiot I am. Guys have the equipment. Girls? What are they gonna do? Get a bottle?"

He glanced at his brother. As far as he could tell, Gaara couldn't even understand the reference. He looked away.

Kankuro's brow furrowed. He felt guilty for burdening Gaara with all this information, but he could tell that the only way he could feel better would be to let it out. "I saw somebody get raped."

Gaara looked at him with concern.

"I don't think I knew that's what it was at the time, but then, I knew. One day, after a while, I knew. Suddenly, I knew: I'd watched someone get raped." Kankuro felt sick to his stomach. "I was just…" He shook his head slowly.

Gaara squeezed his hand.

He looked up and smiled at Gaara wanly. "I was over at a friend's house, and I wasn't supposed to be there yet, and they always let me let myself in, so I did. And then I couldn't find anybody, even though I knew they ought to be home. His dad had the day off from work, and he said he was just going to be doing homework before I got there so the sooner I arrived the better. I was like…eight? So I thought: I'd really help my friend out if I arrived early so he didn't have to do his homework. I thought that was a great plan. It was Sunday – cause we all had the day off. From school, work."

Kankuro realized he was taking a winding path through his story and didn't try to straighten himself out. It was traumatic enough as it was.

"His dad was going to take us to the park or something. I don't remember. I just know that when I got there, no one was there. I mean, no one was in the living room. Akio's mom was in the kitchen, but I don't really count her because she never talked to me or anything. So I went around the back of the house, looking for people."

Kankuro remembered his frustration. "Cause I knew they had to be home. Akio should've been doing his homework in the living room, but he wasn't. So I searched for them. And he wasn't in his room, either. And then I heard a noise from his parents' room. And there they were. Just –" Kankuro waved his hand vaguely. He had been so overwhelmed he wasn't sure his impression was describable. Even now, the flashes of movement in his memory, the shifting of bodies and clothing, had an oddly blurred quality.

"They weren't in the bed or anything," Kankuro whispered. "It wasn't like that. It didn't look like that."

Gaara pulled Kankuro into his arms and stroked Kankuro's hair.

Suddenly, Kankuro felt tears stinging his eyes. "I thought Akio was hurt. That's honestly what I thought. I thought he was hurt, and his dad was checking on him somehow. Something was weird, but I couldn't handle it. I stared at them for like…three whole minutes before they noticed I was there. At one point I even thought Akio's dad might be punishing him – spanking him like Father used to do to us. But his hands weren't moving." Kankuro's stomach contracted without warning. He almost threw up. Just as quickly, his stomach unclenched, and he was fine. "And I just…I made a sound. Because I was afraid Akio was getting punished. And they turned around…and his father had this look on his face, like…" Kankuro squeezed his eyes shut, trying not to cry. "Like, I don't know! Like, like a wild animal or something, jan. His face was all red and he was angry and his eyes were all flashing, and stuff. He was breathing real heavy, and he didn't look pleased to see me. Not at all. Not at all." He shook his head.

His voice was wavering. "I said, 'Is Akio hurt?' And Akio started crying. And that's when I noticed his pants were down. And then Akio's dad chased me out of the house. We didn't get to go to the park or anything. I had to go home. I had to go home, and I hid. I went underneath my covers and I hid, and no one could get me out for four hours."

Kankuro burst out crying. "And Akio was always saying how it hurt to sit down! He always said that – and he made me go to the bathroom with him every time he had to pee because he didn't want to be in there by himself. He was scared of his dad, I just know it. I know it. He couldn't use the bathroom by himself because he thought is dad was going to see – and – they would –"

Kankuro sobbed and held on to Gaara with all of his might. "Cause he was raping him! Cause his dad was raping him! And he couldn't sit down! Cause it hurt too bad. I don't want that to happen to me, Gaara, I don't want that to happen. I don't wanna be hurt. I don't wanna not be able to sit down the next day. And I can't – can't get over it. I can't be hurt. I don't wanna." He cried.

Gaara let him cry for a few minutes without speaking. Then he said softly, "You felt sympathy for your friend."

Kankuro yanked himself away and grabbed tissues out of the tissue box on the coffee table. He blew his nose hurriedly. "Akio was a bully, jan. But I loved him anyway. At least well enough to care if he got hurt. So, yeah, man, of course I did. Of course I cared that his dad was doing unspeakable things to him. I just couldn't make them stop. I tried telling Father, but he didn't understand me. Cause I didn't understand myself. I just saw Akio's dad hurting him. And Father said it was none of our business."

Just the memory of trying to talk to their father caused a fresh burst of tears. Kankuro scrubbed his face with a tissue. "None of our business! This was my friend, here! And what does Father do? Forbids me to see him ever again! I can't understand it! Why couldn't I help him? God, I'm such a failure."

"You were a child," Gaara said. "None of us had any control."

"What's different now?" Kankuro said bitterly.

"Because you're with me now," Gaara said. "And you're grown up. I'm the Kazekage, and you're a jonin, and together, we'll be okay. I know this. I feel this, niisan. In here." He touched his chest over his heart. "Because I won't let you get hurt, and I certainly won't do it. I'll make sure of it. I'll make sure that you're safe. Because you're my niisan and I love you."

Kankuro tried to absorb that answer. "Yeah, you're right, jan. I love you too."

Gaara studied him. "You don't sound convinced."

Kankuro sighed. "I'm convinced you're my brother, and I'm convinced that I love you. Those things were never in question. It's my safety that's in question."

"I'll work really hard," Gaara said.

Kankuro snorted and shook his head. "It's not something you work hard at. I know that's your solution for most things, but you either are a safe person for me to be with, or you're not. And I'm gonna find out which one."

Gaara's eyes widened. "You are?"

"I'm giving you a chance," Kankuro said. "It's 50/50." He knew that didn't sound gracious, but it was the best he could do.

"The best you can do is good enough," Gaara said quietly. He looked into Kankuro's eyes with solemn sincerity and rubbed Kankuro's arm.

Kankuro was tentatively convinced this wouldn't be an automatic disaster.