By Ariel-D

Description: Gaara, Kankuro, and Temari all have secrets as it concerns their identities; they all have things they want but think they can never have. Can they help each other heal? Post War Arc.

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: You will probably find this story to be shocking in the face of canon. However, that's the entire point. Consider it AU. The idea for the story, though, came from the things Gaara wonders while being dead: "Why did I want those things?" And, also, it came from Databook 3, in which Kishimoto points out that Gaara defines himself by his bonds to others and then posits the question to the readers if that's really okay. I decided to take up that implied gauntlet and then expand it to all three of the Sandsibs.

Part I

Gaara had a secret.

He didn't really want to be Kazekage.

When he had taken on Naruto's dream as his own, all Gaara had considered was the possible outcome: the village accepting him. He would no longer have to fear ceasing to exist. No one would wish him away; no one would try to assassinate him. He wouldn't have to fear when the next attack would come, wouldn't have to worry about finally facing the assassin who was too strong, wouldn't have to hurt under the weight of other people's hate.

More importantly, he wouldn't have to be lonely.

At first, Gaara had been too focused on his goal to notice anything else. So focused, in fact, that he'd utterly failed to recognize that the acceptance and love he was working for he already had. He'd died and stood around in the afterlife wondering if anyone had needed him and why he wanted so much to be needed — to be Kazekage — at all. When he awakened, he'd been stunned to see the care and acceptance aimed his way, but he hadn't denied the secret question in his heart: why did he want these things to begin with?

A year had passed. A world war had passed. Gaara had fought to protect his best friend and his village. Gaara had fought to save the entire world. But the truth was he didn't have to be Kazekage to do those things, and it was only after offering his life to presumably save the village from Deidara that Gaara had understood what a Kazekage was in the first place.

A Kazekage was a village leader, and a good leader was someone with a vision: a vision for the trajectory of the village — their needs, their dreams, their goals, and their future. Gaara had understood only three things when he'd been promoted: the Kazekage was usually respected, the Kazekage had to protect the village even if it meant dying, and the Kazekage had to work hard to keep the village on its feet. Those were the surface behaviors he'd seen in his father.

The truth was much grander, however. The Kazekage needed a powerful vision of what the future should be, what steps to take to get there, and who to assign what projects to get those steps accomplished. The Kazekage had to assess and utilize people's strengths and weaknesses, motivate his shinobi and civilians, make short-term and long-term financial decisions and investments, set standards for the academy, prepare military strategy, play a complicated political game with the council of elders, and a dozen other high-stakes and heavy-responsibility duties. In short, Gaara didn't need to simply understand how to fight or fight well. He needed to understand history, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, and military strategy; in addition, he needed strong communication skills in order to get across his ideas and persuade others. On top of all this, he was expected to find a wife and have heirs.

Before losing Shukaku, Gaara had literally worked twenty two hours a day, stopping only to eat and bathe, in order to learn what he needed to know, attempt to use it, and keep up his training. Now that Gaara had to sleep, he fortunately understood his tasks better, had gained respect, and had learned to delegate. However, he had reached an inescapable conclusion: he hadn't understood what a Kazekage was, he'd pursued the position only in a bid to be accepted, and now he realized he wasn't well-matched to his job.

In fact, many days he hated it.

This day was no different. Gaara looked up as someone knocked on his office door. "Enter."

His most competent personal aide swept into the room. Were it not for her superhuman powers of organization, Gaara suspected the entire office would have exploded by now. "The financial reports are in, sir," she said briskly, setting a stack of scrolls on his desk.

"In short?" Gaara had long ago asked her to read and summarize these kinds of reports before he read them. He had no idea if the request was appropriate, but she was the fastest reader he'd ever known and had learned what he preferred to focus on.

"We definitely have an issue, sir." She seemed grim. "The supply report indicates that our warehouses were depleted by 94 percent during the war. The village craftsmen and smiths indicate the orders will take eight months to complete. The cost exceeds our yearly budget by 178 percent, and we're already running at a deficit due to the supplementing the hospital so all the war casualties could be treated."

Gaara felt instantly overwhelmed. His economic advisor had been wailing of doom and gloom for three weeks, and the council had presented him with legislation that would raise taxes to cover all the costs. Everyone was already suffering, though, and Gaara wasn't convinced that increasing their income tax by five percent and their sales tax by three percent was an even remotely sane solution. "I see."

Yes, some days he deeply hated his job.

His aide gave him an understanding smile and pointed to the scroll on the top of the stack. "The allocation of village funds is here. And I have a suggestion, sir, if you'd like to hear it."

"Certainly." Although it was another thing he wasn't sure was appropriate, Gaara often allowed her to voice her opinions. He'd found that his aide often had clearer ideas than the councilmen who'd served Suna for the last thirty years. He could only assume it was because she didn't exist inside all the political maneuvering, but she still read all the same reports.

"Look at the line that says what the council is paid per year." She held his gaze. "Then ask Kankuro-sama and Temari-sama how much they earn per year." She paused. "After all, the budget has to be balanced to work, yes? And you have to consider where all the money comes from and where it goes."

Gaara had a bad feeling about that. "You see a problem, I take it."

"Well, sir . . ." She watched him closely for a moment. "The council has given itself an eight percent raise each year for the last four years. Perhaps asking Kankuro-sama and Temari-sama what they've grossed for the last four years would be helpful. Not to mention comparing the number of missions completed and hours logged by council members to the number completed and logged by your siblings."

Gaara got the message. "I see." She definitely had her own agenda, he realized, but he wasn't sure that was a bad thing. "Thank you. You're dismissed."

She bowed and departed, leaving Gaara to the ever-deepening swirl of politics, not to mention the inherent inequality between the ruling and working classes. Gaara already knew that his siblings had earned approximately the same amount each year, and poverty was rampant in Suna. With trepidation, he opened the scroll and scanned the report until he found the budget allotment for the council. Taking the figure and dividing by the number of council members, he had their average income, although he suspected the median and the mean would be quite different. The result made him literally physically nauseated.

Why didn't I notice this before? he thought, horrified. Then again, the council had treated him more like a pawn in the beginning, giving him access to as little information and power as possible. He had sat in on all their meetings, but his opinion was never asked and rarely acknowledged when offered. It was one of the reasons he'd assumed while he was dead that he hadn't been accepted yet.

Why did I want these people to accept and like me? he wondered. What had he thought he'd gain, precisely? Respect? Why did he need their respect? Love? They didn't love him even now, and he didn't want them to. Friendship? They weren't his friends either, although they treated him with honor now. Validation and value?

But there was the sticking point. When he was younger, he'd thought other people had to validate his opinions, decisions, and feelings, or he had to work twice as hard to prove them valid. Without one or the other, he thought he'd cease to exist. He'd also believed that his value was determined by his usefulness to other people. If they didn't need him, if he couldn't be an ultimate weapon for them, then he lacked value as a human being. From that point of view, his only choice in life was to work hard to become the most valued and validated person in his village: the Kazekage. Only as the Kazekage could he be respected and accepted. Only as the Kazekage could he ensure his existence.

Now he was beginning to wonder if those things were true.

A second knock sounded on the door. Gaara gathered his nerves, not wanting any further pending economic disasters to land on his head. "Enter."

A familiar blonde poked her head into the room. "That sounded spirited." Temari slipped into his office and shut the door behind her. "Rough day?"

Gaara scanned her appearance, checking for injuries. He didn't see any blood, but she was covered in sand, dust, and dirt from nearly head to toe. "Rough day?"

She grinned. "Nah. Well, yeah. But it was worth every moment of it."

With some irony, Gaara decided that of his siblings and him, Temari might love her job the most. He sighed and stared at the scrolls on his desk.

Crossing the room, Temari set a gem on his desk. "Found that diamond they were talking about. Thought I better bring it straight to you."

Gaara wondered how much they could sell it for and if it would help the village economy at all. "Thank you."

Temari eyed him critically. "You're not fooling me. What's up?"

Considering his nee-san, Gaara realized she never asked for validation from anyone else. She didn't care if other people agreed with her or not. She rarely asked for their opinions on an issue, although she weighed them carefully when she did, and she never cared if someone hated her. In short, she had lived her life as his opposite, which was understandable since she also hadn't faced the things he'd faced. "Do I need other people to validate me?" He supposed he should have provided context for his question, but he decided if she needed it, she would ask.

"Validation?" Temari paused. "No, of course not. No one does."

Gaara had expected the no, but he hadn't expected the rest. "No one does?"

Temari shrugged. "Why would you? Validation is an absolute. No one can make you more valid. No one can make you less valid."

With horrible certainty, Gaara understood he was still wounded. He'd come a long way, but he was missing pieces. "Why not?"

"How could they?" Temari sighed. "Did the council do something again? Bastards." She crossed her arms and leaned her hip against his desk. "Look. Let's start from the top. How can someone make you invalid? How can they make your feelings invalid? It's impossible. If you feel that the distribution of power in this village is unfair and inequitable, then that's your opinion. You don't have to validate your feelings. Your feelings might be based on misinformation, sure, but they might also be based on a belief system you have. The misinformation is an honest mistake, not something that invalidates you as a person. And you don't have to explain a feeling or belief to anyone. If you want to take action based on it, only then do you have to provide evidence. But the evidence is for the action, not the actual feeling."

Among them all, Temari was also the most logical. "I suppose." Gaara felt like he had even more questions now, though.

Temari frowned. "You're not convinced. Okay, let me try again." She paused, clearly considering her options. "What if I came to you and said I thought you loved Kankuro more than me?"

Disturbed, Gaara watched his sister closely. In truth, he did have a closer bond with Kankuro, although he wouldn't say it was a matter of love. More like compatibility.

"You would provide evidence for why it wasn't true, perhaps. But your assumption in doing so is that my feelings are based on misinformation. What if they're not? What if I'm perceiving it accurately? You can't change the validity of my feelings with your argument, no matter how well you word it. Even if everyone in the village sides with you against me, it doesn't make my feelings invalid. Only unpopular."

Gaara understood the concept of unpopularity quite well. "That makes sense. After all, your feelings would be based on the truth."

Temari raised an eyebrow. "But truth is still not the same as validity. Taking the same situation, consider this: if I am proceeding on misinformation, and you really loved us the same, it wouldn't change the fact it doesn't feel that way to me. Obviously, there is a cause for my feeling. You would have to decide whether you cared about that cause, and that would be your choice. You're not responsible for my feelings, after all. But the cause could be something objective about your behavior that you could change, and if you did love me, you probably would change it. However, the cause could be some old wound of mine from something Father said or did. Let's say he showed Kankuro and you more love for being male, for example. If that were true, my wound would be understandable, and if you cared to help me recover from it, you'd have to help me see that you weren't like Father. But even then, my feelings wouldn't be invalid, nor would I be invalid as a person. Only wounded. The wound is a real entity creating real feelings that simply became misdirected."

Gaara took several minutes to chew over that answer. "I suppose I see what you're saying." He realized suddenly he was lying. "Wait, no I don't. I still don't see why I don't need to be validated by others."

Shifting to sit on the corner of his desk, Temari gave him a small smile. "I know. It's all over you."

That wasn't very comforting.

"No matter what you believe or feel, no one has the right to take it from you." Temari patted the desktop. "You decided to become Kazekage. No one can say your dream was valid or invalid. I argued with you about whether it was practical or achievable, but I couldn't invalidate it and didn't even try to. It was your dream. You didn't need anyone to validate that. It's helpful to have others who believe in your dream with you, but no matter how little they believe in you, they can't determine your truth. And they didn't determine any external truth, either. You believed, you worked, you persevered, and you achieved."

Gaara couldn't exactly argue with that, although it made him more grateful than ever that Kankuro had never argued with him about his dream. After his initial show of concern, Kankuro had both listened to and accepted his ototo's goals. At first, he'd been the only one who had. "I suppose you would also claim, then, that my value isn't up to others, either."

"Hell, no. Of course it's not." Temari shook her head. "Your validation and worth were self-contained; no one could add to or subtract from them because they aren't determined by humans at all. They're an inherent part of you just because you're alive. Some people prove more useful to society than others. Some people become more successful than others. But no one is inherently more valuable than another. The claim that one person or group is more valuable than another is what leads to shit like racism and genocide, and I know you don't believe in stuff like that."

Once again, Gaara couldn't argue.

Temari canted her head to the side. "You've just now figured all this out, huh?" She smiled. "It's 'bout time, ototo. The council doesn't have to value you or validate you in order for you to be worth something as a human being. Or, to put it like you used to, no one can make you cease to exist."

Gaara nodded solemnly. "Thank you, nee-san."

"Sure thing." Temari hopped off the desk. "Don't kill yourself working today, okay? Take off early or something."

"I'll consider it." Gaara watched her leave, struck by the most basic implication of their talk:

He didn't have to be Kazekage.

He didn't have to earn people's respect, love, or acceptance. He didn't need them to add validation or value to his existence. There was no one he needed to prove himself to, no one he needed to make happy, no one he had to answer to for the dreams of his life — except, of course, himself.

And perhaps he really didn't have the right personality or gifts to rule an entire village.

In the end, Gaara only had one vision for his village: a vision of ethics. He wanted a culture of honor and respect in which people's dreams were nourished, their hard work rewarded, and their inherent value acknowledged. It wasn't a bad vision, but it was only a partial vision. A village was made out of more than ethics. A village was a community with physical, fiscal, emotional, spiritual, and cultural needs. Gaara cared about their physical protection and basic needs, and he had a vision for their emotional welfare and ethical growth. However, he didn't even have an inkling of an idea about the rest.

And what was problematic was he didn't have the drive to generate ideas, either. His focus was tighter and narrower than a Kage's should be, and he flatly lacked the motivation to alter himself yet again in order to fulfill the needs of other people.

The problem was he wasn't sure he could do anything about it. He was Kazekage now, after all. And rather than doom his village, he knew he would sacrifice himself again.

Gaara wondered whether he would ever have an identity that was his and his alone.

Kankuro had a secret.

He didn't really want to be a shinobi at all.

He never had. Since he had been a small child, his one and only dream had been to be an actor. He wanted to be on a stage, a whole audience before him, moving people's hearts with a stunning performance. Kabuki or bunraku, it didn't matter. He loved puppets with all his soul, after all, although he imagined himself equally often in full kabuki paint. He wanted to perform Suna's greatest classics: The Kazekage Successors, The Love Suicides at Wind Plains, The Night Song of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and The Battles of the Five Great Shinobi Nations. Ironically, he often envisioned himself in the role of the Kazekage in the kabuki plays or controlling the puppet of the Kazekage in the bunraku plays. However, he would never want the job in real life.

As a child, he'd spent considerable time and effort reenacting the plays he'd seen or creating plays of his own. Yondaime Kazekage had been a bit puzzled by his son's interest in the theater, but feeling that being cultured was profitable for a shinobi — especially for the purposes of infiltration — he had agreed to take his son to many performances. As a result, Kankuro had gleaned a considerable amount of ideas, which he'd employed in every room of the mansion. Kotasu tables had become platforms for speeches; epic battles had utilized bokken and taken place in the dojo. The couch arms became horse's backs, and sheets had become kimono. A trunk of old clothes discovered in the basement had been the treasure find of a lifetime. Suddenly, Kankuro had been blessed with old kimono and yukata, along with obi, haori, hakama, and gi. Shortly thereafter had come the kabuki paint.

The sons of Kazekage, however, were not allowed to be actors.

With his dream crushed, Kankuro had been faced with the reality that his occupation was not his to determine. Kankuro tried to figure out what jutsu would suit him best, and even that decision had been fraught with conflict. The answer had then presented itself: the puppet jutsu. He couldn't act or use puppetry in the theater, but at least he could employ puppets in battle. He could only feel grateful that Chikamatsu Monzaemon had been his exact opposite — a bunraku puppeteer who'd dreamed of becoming a shinobi.

Kankuro's dream of being an actor had never died, however. Even though he was now eighteen and a jonin, he still locked himself in his basement workshop, where he could playact to his heart's content. Although he only wore purple kabuki paint into battle and never used the white base coat, when alone he often applied both the white paint and several other colors. The old clothes he'd used as a child now fit him perfectly, and he treated them with care, wanting to extend their use forever.

And so it was that he lost countless hours of sleep secretly living out his first and greatest dream. He would put on music for both dramatic effect and to drown out his voice should his siblings track him down. Several times he'd had to open the workshop door and answer some question of theirs, and they'd seen his outfits and makeup. Since he'd done it his entire life, they didn't bother asking him about it, although Temari had told him more than once that he needed to grow up. But Kankuro didn't want to grow up. If retaining the ability to playact meant he couldn't get married and have kids — and he couldn't imagine being able to do what he did after marrying — then he'd remain a bachelor all his days.

Actually, Kankuro had already grown up. He'd begun working a job at age twelve, as soon as he graduated the academy, and he went out every day and made money to support himself instead of doing what he truly wanted to do. Wasn't that the quintessential definition of an adult? Hard-working, overly practical, and utterly miserable?

"Miserable" being the key word, and this evening was no exception.

A knock sounded on Kankuro's workshop door, and then Temari barged in. "Hey, you sick or something?" She sounded more than curious. More like irritated.

Kankuro glanced at the clock on the wall — the one that always unhelpfully pointed out to him he should have been in bed hours earlier — and knew immediately what her problem was. It was seven o'clock, and he hadn't even started supper. "No, just working on puppets." He gestured to the hand on the table in front of him. As long as his siblings were awake, he tended to work on his puppets instead. He enjoyed working on them, so it was still relaxing, and since it was for his job, they couldn't exactly argue with his usage of time or tell him he needed to grow up (again).

"And what about supper?" Temari propped her hand on her hip.

Kankuro shrugged. "Let's order takeout." Honestly, he had no desire to cook. He'd used to enjoy it, but lately it seemed like nothing but a chore that ate up ridiculous amounts of his time.

"For the third time this week?" Temari sighed. "We can't keep doing this, ototo. You and I don't make enough money to eat out all the time, and we can't make Gaara pay for everything around here. He doesn't get a great salary, anyway. The great concession to the Kazekage is living in this mansion for free."

"Yeah, yeah. I know." Kankuro eyed her with displeasure. "But if you're that hungry, it wouldn't kill you to start dinner without me." When their father had died, they'd been forced to dismiss the household servants, lacking the pay to keep them. Temari had split up all the chores, and although it had been a fairly equal split at first, things had shifted over time. Kankuro, having proven to be the only one who could cook well, had ended up fixing all the meals. Granted, he got a certain amount of pleasure in taking care of his siblings — or he had. Now he just felt overworked and used.

Temari shrugged. "I don't know what you plan to fix tonight, and if it's not something basic, I wouldn't know what to do, anyway."

"If you plan to get married some day, then I really should teach you," Kankuro pointed out unkindly. He hated that every time he asked for help, all he got was excuses. These days he was the only one among them who did a chore that had to be completed every day. All the other chores only had to be done once a week.

Glowering at him, Temari straightened her shoulders. "Oh, hell no. Don't even mention shit like that to me. I am not going to throw away my career so I can pop out babies and cook and clean for some man."

Ironically, Kankuro felt like he could quit his job and run the household instead if it just meant he could also steal more time to playact. However, his pride as a man would never allow him to even consider the option. Temari and all his friends would make fun of him. He'd be a laughingstock, and it wouldn't address the fact that he really wanted to act professionally. "Choose your husband carefully, then." Kankuro didn't know many guys in Suna who were willing to split the housework like he had with his siblings.

Temari narrowed her eyes. "Maybe I just won't marry."

"I get that." Although Kankuro had a completely different reason. "Still, it's not gonna kill you to fix dinner once in a while. You can grill fish and boil rice. That's good enough."

"Not my job, ototo." Temari stepped into the doorway. "Suck it up, kiddo. We all want more free time, but we all have chores to do. I'm off to start the laundry." She paused. "Oh, and don't use too much garlic this time." She walked off without shutting the door, clearly implying he should hop to it.

Kankuro glared after her. It was typical. Although they did razz each other a lot, he occasionally felt like she really didn't care about his feelings at all. Why did she strike out at him so much at times? It hurt. A lot. Far more than he'd ever truly admit to himself.

Five minutes later, he found himself pulling pots and skillets out of the cabinets. Even at his fastest, it would still take him thirty minutes to fix supper, and his siblings usually requested dishes that took closer to an hour. By the time he finished washing and putting up the dishes, it would be 8:30, and if he wanted to function for his early mission in the morning, he'd have to be in bed by ten. That didn't leave much time to finish preparing his puppets, much less playacting, and frankly he needed to train. He'd only trained once so far that week, and he took too much pride in his jutsu to let his skills stagnate.

However, none of it would be that simple. If Temari got bored, she'd come down and talk to him while he was trying to work, and then there was Gaara, who Kankuro loved more than his own life. If Gaara showed up and wanted to talk to him, regardless of what it was about, Kankuro would never say no. Unfortunately, between the two of them, Kankuro often didn't get to do much for himself until fifteen minutes before he was supposed to go to bed.

"I'm going to lose my mind," Kankuro muttered to himself as he pulled out a cutting board. "Completely, totally, and utterly lose my mind."

Supper was a disaster. Kankuro was too distracted by his thoughts to focus well, so the fish got charred. Temari complained that he still had used too much garlic, and Gaara was unusually quiet and pensive, even for him. By the time Kankuro escaped to his workshop again, he had a headache.

He stayed up until one o'clock in the morning, siphoning his pain into a particularly angsty play he made up on the spot. It was a pressure valve that kept him from killing the people he loved — or other basically innocent people.

In the final scene, the main character committed suicide, and Kankuro lay in the floor like a corpse, staring blankly at the ceiling and wondering if, in reality, he was much more than walking dead.

A/N: Temari's next (plus some brotherly bonding, too). I really wanted this to be a one-shot, but I thought it might it be too long as a single document.

Thank you to all who read and review!