Part II

Temari had a secret.

She desperately wanted to be Kazekage.

She hadn't mentioned it in years. Not to Kankuro, who had been closest to her for most her life. Not to Gaara, who would understand her dream. Not to Baki, who could have altered her training to prepare her. And certainly not to her father, who had judged her a failure when she was ten and then never changed his mind.

But it didn't change the truth.

Since she was six, she had dreamed of being the first female Kazekage. She had drawn pictures of it, written little one-paragraph storybooks about it, and even played dress-up using sheets to make the kimono. With youthful enthusiasm, she had daydreamed that she fixed all the village's problems and made the villagers successful and happy. She had told her teacher and class at school what her ultimate goal was, and because she was both the Kazekage's child and the eldest, no one had laughed at her despite her being female. Kunoichi like Chiyo had helped pave her way.

However, Gaara had taken on her dream, and over time he'd grown significantly stronger than she was. When he'd first graduated, the power difference had been small; the real difference had been Gaara's ultimate defense, not his attack power. But one year passed, then two, then three, and Temari found herself falling continually behind both her brothers. So she had swallowed the dream, supported Gaara in every official capacity she could think of, and ultimately been proud of his progress.

But it didn't make it hurt any less.

When people talked about Gaara's successor, when they discussed his need to pick a successor, Temari felt an odd tension, even anxiety. The mere idea of competing for such a title filled her with inexplicable fear. She felt like she could never win against Kankuro now; the overconfident brat had gone from being her equal to passing her up. What had begun as legitimate belief in herself had slowly slipped into secret insecurity. Her father hadn't seen her as special; both her little brothers had eclipsed her. Who would ever believe she could be Kazekage now? She'd only made jonin because of her superior skills in decision making, organizing, and upholding responsibility. But did anyone even care about those things? Other people had them, and what the council really wanted — what they really respected — was power. Cold, hard, unadulterated, ass-kicking power.The way things stood now, Kankuro and Gaara would both always surpass her. She could only become Kazekage if they both died, and no matter how jealous she felt, she could never wish for that. Usually.

Sometimes the daydream sneaked into her brain anyway. Sometimes, just sometimes, she daydreamed that her brothers died valiantly saving the village and the council came to beg her to be Kazekage. She occasionally wished she'd been an only child. Mostly, she wished both her brothers would spontaneously abdicate the "throne."

But no, Kankuro would be named the successor, obviously, and he acted as though he didn't even want it. That made Temari want to beat him into a bloody pulp. She rode him extra hard those days, calling him lazy, saying he was too hotheaded, telling him he didn't know how to take responsibility. She knew perfectly well that with the exception of his being hotheaded, the rest wasn't true. Still, the words left her mouth, and so far she hadn't convinced herself to stop them. She got angry, the world turned crimson, and the words were past her lips.

Today was no exception. It was only six o'clock in the morning, and she already wanted to kill both her brothers.

"Fucking early missions," Kankuro grumbled, tying knots on their bento boxes. He'd never been a morning person.

"Stop whining." Temari kicked back her chair, leaving her breakfast dishes on the table for him to clean up. "No one really wants to start work at six, but we often do. It's part of being a shinobi. Get over it."

Kankuro glared at her and shoved her bento box across the counter at her. "Shut it. I've been up an hour longer than you already so you can have a decent breakfast and lunch. All you do is fall out of bed, get dressed, and come eat. Try getting up seven days a week and making all the food and see how you feel about it."

With a flash of insight, Temari realized she'd caught her brother in one of his truly black moods; however, that in no way made her back down. "I thought I said to stop whining. You agreed to do the cooking. No one made you." She reached for her bento box.

"Good point." Kankuro snatched back the bento. "I did agree to it. Which also means I can stop at any time. You never thank me for what I do, and you spend all your time complaining that I over-season it or leave me to clean your dishes, too. So fine. Fucking fix it yourself from now on." He threw her lunch in the trash, box and all.

Temari barely stopped herself from punching him right in the jaw. "Well, I guess I won't be washing your clothes anymore then, either."

"So?" Kankuro sneered at her. "You always wait so long to do it that half the time I have to wash my stuff anyway. You can't even keep up with a once a week chore, and here I am cooking three meals a day, every day — "

Gaara, who had listened to this exchange silently thus far, stood abruptly. "Enough!"

Kankuro grew quiet immediately. Without a further word to any of them, he stalked out of the room, leaving his own lunch behind.

Gaara watched him head back upstairs, then turned to Temari. "Was that necessary? He's never been a morning person. You know that. You've known him his entire life. He doesn't calm down until eight A.M. even on a good day, and on bad days — which this obviously is — he doesn't calm down until ten."

"Sure, take his side." Temari jerked her bento out of the trash and checked it over. Fortunately, it didn't seem stained. "You love him more than you love me anyway." The words flew out without thought. When she realized what she'd admitted that her hypothetical situation was true, though, she didn't take it back; she simply made a show of double-checking her bento. Fundamentally, she felt she was right. Although Gaara usually acted unemotional, he ultimately accessed and viewed the world through his feelings, just like Kankuro. Temari was the only one who processed the world logically. Her brothers had warmed up to each other faster and built a deeper bond. Even though she believed that they loved her, she sometimes felt left out.

For a moment, the kitchen was silent. "That's not true." Gaara sounded deeply hurt. "So your example yesterday was based on your real feelings. Nee-san . . ."

Temari glanced at him. "You always take his side." She felt she was being somewhat irrational, so she tried hard to sound reasonable and present evidence.

Gaara stared at her. "Untrue. But we can discuss the possibility of misinformation, truth, or wounds later." He'd grown deadpan once again, which in a situation like this wasn't a good sign. "There is a basic imbalance here. Kankuro worries about both of us all the time, and he's done a lot around here to make sure we're taken care of. Since we had to dismiss the servants, that's meant he's done the cooking. He gets up earlier, and he works longer. Every day. It's genuinely unfair for us to overlook that or be unappreciative about it."

"It's his choice," Temari pointed out. "We negotiated the chores; we didn't make him do it. He's just being immature, and that doesn't give him the right to whine about it."

Frowning, Gaara narrowed his eyes. "And that doesn't give you the right to complain about how he cooks it, nor does it give you the right to treat him with disrespect. If he felt more appreciated, he probably wouldn't say a word about it. In fact, he rarely says anything anyway, and he wouldn't have this morning if you hadn't antagonized him about his being in a bad mood over an early mission."

Normally, Temari didn't bother to argue with Gaara. She rarely won, and Gaara usually approached her with logic, anyway. Today was different. "We all have early missions. It's part of being a shinobi. If he's that upset about it — if he hates his job so much — he should just quit and leave it to those of us who actually care!"

For long moments, they glared at each other.

Gaara's gaze wandered off to the kitchen corner. "Perhaps you have a point. Kankuro may not be happy. I should speak with him."

The irony of the comment struck Temari through the soul. "Kankuro is unhappy?"

Instantly, Gaara's deadpan stare was pinned on her once more. "Temari is unhappy?"

Temari literally took a step backwards, having not expected to air her feelings this way. Finally let my temper get the best of me. She smirked over her own stupidity. "Neither of you act like you enjoy your positions. I don't understand it." She hoped she'd sufficiently dodged. "Didn't you both work hard all your lives to be where you are? Kankuro always said he'd become head of the Puppet Corps, and you said you wanted to be Kazekage." Her gaze fell to the floor as she realized there was a theme here. None of them seemed happy. "So why do you both seem to hate it?"

Silence reigned once more.

"It was the only way for me to be accepted," Gaara answered quietly.

Temari jerked her gaze up. "What? Seriously? That's your answer?" I lost my greatest dream just because you misunderstood validation and value?

Gaara met her stare without flinching. "I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be needed. I was lonely — so lonely I thought I'd suffocate and die." His stoic mask cracked, letting the anger seep through. "Don't tell me it wasn't an answer. It was a solution. If I proved myself to the village, if I protected them and looked after them, then surely, surely, surely they would finally see that I wasn't a monster. And it worked."

"I know that." It wasn't a lie. Temari had understood that Gaara was trying to be seen in a new light. "But that's not really a good reason, is it?" She hadn't intended to confront him about his beliefs, but once her thoughts had escaped her, she couldn't seem to put on the breaks. "Why are we all three pretending that it is? This is what we discussed yesterday: Why did you need to buy their acceptance in the first place? Why should their opinions even matter? You've spent your entire life being defined by other people — what they think, what role you play for them, what they like. Why not define it for yourself? The people whose love is worth having would have loved you. They do love you. But you don't have an identity for yourself. You said before that you'd love yourself and only yourself, but it's not true. You didn't then, and you still don't now."

Gaara didn't reply.

Strangely, Temari felt like the world wasn't real. For a moment, the kitchen wasn't a real place: the countertop wasn't cool under her palm, the bento box wasn't a weight in her other hand, and the light wasn't shining off the cabinets. She certainly hadn't deconstructed her brother's entire life. She didn't breathe.

"I don't want it anymore," Gaara finally said. His voice was so quiet he could hardly be heard; he stared at the hardwood floor. "I can give orders; I can process the paperwork. I can fight. I care about the village and want it to be protected. But I hate the politics. I hate the pandering, patronizing, and lying. I hate having my life be under their scrutiny all day every day; I hate all my decisions being public ones and not private ones. I feel just the same as I did before in that sense: I'm an object. I'm a toy in a box." He finally met her gaze. "I have no private life, no personal time, and no personal space, and I feel like I'm suffocating again."

Stunned, Temari hardly knew what to say. "You . . . can just admit it? Just like that?" She expected him to deny her claims.

"Don't you believe you're right?" Gaara raised a hairless brow at her. "I wanted to become Kazekage for the wrong reason. I wanted to lead so I would be accepted. I realized after I died and was resurrected that I had been able to lead because I'd already been accepted. But having been accepted, I realized my motives were wrong. They were no less selfish than they had been before; it was only that others benefited from my selfishness this time. And in my effort to become selfless instead, I gave away myself. Now I have nothing. Everyone thinks I do my job well, but I have no personal identity. And I'm certainly not happy."

Finally, Temari had heard the words she needed to hear, wanted to hear, had dreamed of hearing: Gaara didn't want to be Kazekage. For years she'd carried the pain of a shattered dream, and an opening had presented itself. However, she realized she'd gotten that opening through someone else's pain and suffering — someone she loved. That didn't make her happy. But an opportunity was an opportunity. "I'd trade you in a heartbeat." Temari watched Gaara coolly, assessing his reaction. "I've dreamed of being Kazekage since I was six years old." She sneered. "Too bad I'm not as strong as you are."

Gaara's stoic mask was back in place again; he returned her scrutiny without expression. "You're as strong right now as I was when I was promoted. They didn't make me Kazekage because I was the strongest shinobi in the village; they made me Kazekage in order to control me. They accepted my application because I was Yondaime's son, and admittedly I was strong. But they wanted to suppress Shukaku if they could, and they used my youth and inexperience to continue running the village themselves. I was nothing but their figurehead."

"They respect you now," Temari pointed out. "The whole village loves you. They wouldn't understand if you resigned."

"That's not my problem." Gaara's gaze narrowed again. "I'm responsible for me, and I'm responsible for the village's safety and welfare. I am not responsible for their feelings, as you pointed out before. If you proved yourself worthy of my position — if you showed me that your motives were true and your abilities up to the task — I would nominate you and then step down."

A flat thud against the floor told Temari she'd actually dropped her bento box; her fingers were so numb from her sudden emotional shock that she hadn't felt her grip loosen. Until that moment, she hadn't believed it was possible to drop something from shock. However, the world had reversed itself. Time had reversed itself. Suddenly, her dream had fused itself back together. "Nominate . . . me?"

"Kankuro is obviously deeply unhappy, although I don't know why yet." Gaara frowned. "I know he doesn't want to be Kazekage, though." He gestured in her direction vaguely. "Prove to me your motivation is true. Prove to me that you want to rule this village because you love it. That you would make sacrifices to secure our success. That you have a vision for who we can become, a plan to make it happen, and a desire to impart a multi-generational blessing upon us. Prove to me that you want to leave a village-wide legacy behind, to give us a better future, and not just some kind of personal legacy of your greatness. Prove that to me, and the job is yours."

Gaara turned and stepped into the doorway, only to pause and glance over his shoulder. "If you can't prove it, then there's no point. You won't be any different than I am. Perhaps worse. I at least understand what I'm supposed to be doing now. I've simply acknowledged that this is not my strong point. It's not my gift. I'm having to do the best I can. But your personality is different than mine, so maybe the strength is yours naturally. If you have the gift, then you should do the job." He turned away again, stepping into the hall. "In the meantime, don't take out your frustration on Kankuro."

Without another word, he left, presumably to find and help their brother.

Temari stared at the empty doorway. Stared and stared. She didn't see the lintel. She didn't see the bottom of the staircase or the banister. She didn't see the hallway beyond. She saw instead the world of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She imagined a renovated village, a prosperous village, a village with plenty of missions. She saw a larger academy; she envisioned expanded training programs. She saw the details of the dreams she'd used to have, and she smiled.

From deep within her, her spirit rose to the challenge.

Gaara found Kankuro in his bedroom, curled on his side in bed. This in and of itself was a bad sign. Kankuro was not the type to admit defeat and go back to bed. Worried, Gaara sat on the bed by him and rubbed his arm lightly. Physical touch was not something that had come easily to Gaara; so far, only Naruto and Kankuro had managed to either give or receive it from him. But he'd made the progress he had because they first reached out to him. So in that moment, Gaara wanted to comfort his brother.

At the touch on his arm, Kankuro focused his gaze on his ototo, and something in his body language subtly shifted, almost as though he'd relaxed from the inside. One of the things Gaara had figured out about his nii-san was that underneath all those layers and masks, Kankuro was highly affectionate. He didn't just want to hug people; he also needed to be touched. He hid it well, probably thinking people would accuse him of being effeminate, but around Gaara it had begun slipping out. Gaara certainly didn't mind. If he'd felt more confident about such things, he would have asked to be hugged every day. He wanted someone to love and care for him — and show it to him — like Might Gai did for Rock Lee.

"What is it, Nii-san?" Gaara knew he got the best results when he called Kankuro "brother." Kankuro loved it when Gaara acknowledged their bond.

Kankuro looked away. "Aren't you gonna call me hot-tempered or smartassed or whatever? Tell me I've overstepped my bounds?"

Realizing that his brother felt like he'd taken Temari's side, Gaara rubbed his arm again. "No. I interrupted you because you're a little too good at verbal smack-downs, not because what you were saying was untrue. Your anger is valid. I didn't want you to have to apologize later for how you expressed it." He paused, wondering if he'd made the right decision or not. "Actually, I'm likely the one who owes you an apology."

"'Sokay." Kankuro watched him quietly. Gaara noted how dull and flat his brother's eyes seemed, as though his soul had departed.

"Talk to me," Gaara said quietly. He'd figured out early on that his style of communication and his brother's were very different. In fact, his style of communication — a kind of bare-all expression of his true analysis, thoughts, and feelings — was based on Naruto's highly open and honest comments to him. It was one more thing that he'd copied from his first friend. But men in Suna weren't usually so expressive; Kankuro kept most things to himself and covered his feelings with masks. However, just like Naruto had created a space in which Gaara could admit what was really on his mind, Gaara had created a space for Kankuro. It was simply a matter of inviting him into it.

Glancing away, Kankuro frowned. "She's being a bitch about it."

A surface-level comment. Gaara would have to coax him in further. "I see how hard you're working to take care of us. It's not something I'd take for granted." He left his hand on his brother's arm so he could continue to offer comfort. "You're unhappy, though. Would you like for me to hire a cook?"

Kankuro flinched. "No, man. I'd feel guilty if you did that."

The response was typical. From the most merciless fighter Gaara had ever known came the greatest amount of mercy: Kankuro had a big heart. Even when Gaara was insane, Kankuro had worried about him. He'd listened to his new dream without judgment, supported his efforts without question, and worked hard to care for and protect him. "Why?" he asked gently. "You spend two hours a day fixing our food. On days like this, you get up at five in the morning to get breakfast and lunch prepared; go out and do your mission, train, or guest lecture at the academy; come back and fix supper; and don't get out of the kitchen until seven o'clock at the earliest. In order to function properly, you have to go to sleep no later than ten, and by the time you take a bath and deal with other daily things, you only get two hours to yourself."

Kankuro inhaled deeply and didn't exhale again; he seemed to be holding his breath.

"I've figured out what you're doing," Gaara said, rubbing his arm again. "You're staying up until midnight or later so you get enough time to work on your puppets. Two hours is what it takes for you to do the normal cleaning and standard upgrades. To do something really creative or innovative takes a lot more time. And half the time you don't get those two hours, anyway. Temari and I show up in your room and ask you for help with something else. Admit it: you don't get enough time for yourself."

The breath finally came out as a sharp sigh. "Yeah, jan, that's about it." He wouldn't meet Gaara's gaze. "I love you guys. Really. And I do want to take care of you. I don't want you to just . . . go away. But fucking dammit, I feel like I'm drowning here!" He draped his arm over his eyes, hiding most of his face.

"You can't keep this up." Gaara felt the desperate urge to hug his brother, but he hadn't yet figured out how to spontaneously show that level of affection. "How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Four? It's no wonder you're so angry about going on an early mission. It's not just that you aren't a morning person; you also aren't getting enough sleep to be up at five in the morning." He made the decision abruptly. "You're not going today."

That seemed to sufficiently shock Kankuro. He dropped his arm. "What? Nah, man, don't do that."

"My mind's made up." Gaara refused to budge. "Stay home. Sleep. Then work on your puppets. Also, we're ordering take out tonight. No cooking."

Kankuro sat up. "But I'm not sick! I'm just . . ." He trailed off, staring at his lap.

"Exhausted? I agree. Physically and emotionally, you're exhausted." Gaara only knew how to approach these things logically. "Baki's been logging too many desk hours; he needs to get out in the field. I'll send him with your team instead. It's not like you can perform well when this exhausted, anyway. Someone could get hurt or killed." Realizing the truth of his own argument, he frowned. "You could be hurt or killed." That outcome was unthinkable. Now that he had his brother's love, he couldn't imagine losing it again.

With tired eyes, Kankuro met his gaze. "But isn't Temari right? Shouldn't I just suck it up? Being a shinobi is not a convenient job. It's not an easy one, either. It requires a lot of effort, energy, danger, and sacrifice. If I stayed home for something other than a violent illness or a bad injury, I'd feel like a total wimp." He snorted. "Not to mention Temari'd never let me live it down."

"Then tell her to back off." Gaara knew he was fighting Suna's ethic head on. Suna was brutal towards its shinobi, especially the male ones. Kankuro had exemplified that definition of manhood: no mercy, no second-guessing, all attitude, and all ambition. He would fight first, kill his target without hesitation, train until he passed out, and aspire to endlessly greater heights. And most of all, he would never let anyone outside of his family see his true self. "I know you don't have any problem giving as good as you get. For all that she attempts to boss you around, and always has, you call her on her attitude most of the time. And besides, there's nothing wimpy about it. Your body isn't the only thing that can get sick, and you just said yourself that doing this takes a lot of effort and energy."

Kankuro's gaze dropped to his lap. "Nah, man. I've got a duty to uphold here. I'm a team leader. I gotta pull my shit together and get my ass in gear." And with those words of great motivation, he flopped back onto his side and buried his face in the pillow.

For a moment, Gaara had to smile to himself at the irony. Usually when Kankuro said things like that, he was on his feet and angry enough to punch a hole through the wall. However, the smile died quickly. Kankuro's atypical behavior was a sure sign he was in an overwhelming amount of pain. "You aren't taking care of yourself," he said quietly. "If you want to talk duty, then talk about your duty to take care of yourself." He defaulted to logic once again. "You're not going to be useful to anyone if you're dead."

Kankuro groaned faintly.

Logic wasn't getting the job done. "I don't want Nii-san to die." Gaara again had the urge to hug his brother. He desperately wanted to protect him and take care of him. "I need Nii-san. I need Nii-san to be healthy and happy. Nii-san isn't happy. Why?"

A long, heavy silence followed.

Kankuro peeked out of the pillow. "What if I said . . ." he began in a whisper.

Gaara began rubbing his arm once more, hoping he would continue.

"What if I said . . . I never wanted to be a shinobi at all?"

Stunned, Gaara paused mid-stroke. Kankuro was one of the most talented shinobi in their village. "You — you didn't?" He barely controlled his tone in time. Fortunately, he only sounded surprised.

Kankuro grabbed the pillow and hugged it against his chest. "No. Yes. Sort of." He sighed and closed his eyes. "When I was enrolled in the academy, Father asked me what jutsu I wanted to specialize in." He hesitated. "I told him I wanted to be an actor. He said, 'That's a typical child's fantasy. I went through that stage. But you're a shinobi. Everyone in our clan has always been a shinobi, and as my son, you can't just be any shinobi. You have to be a strong one.'"

Horrified, Gaara realized where this story was headed. "He didn't give you a choice." It wasn't surprising; Gaara hadn't gotten a choice about anything.

"Hell, no." Kankuro rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "So I thought about all the shinobi I'd seen so far, and the only one I identified with at all was Uncle Yashamaru. I told Father I wanted to be a med nin."

"He vetoed it?" Gaara was honestly shocked. "But Yashamaru was his right-hand man, and Chiyo was his advisor. His top two shinobi were med nins."

Kankuro smirked. "But Chiyo was a woman, and apparently Father thought our uncle was gay. He told me it wasn't manly enough. 'Boys aren't med nins,' he said. He used them. He relied on them. But no son of his would ever be one."

Gaara felt like his brain could literally break from the stupidity of it. "There are plenty of male med nins. That's ridiculous."

"Originally, there were only male ones," Kankuro pointed out. "When we allowed women to fight, too, we shunted them off into caretaking roles: med nins, psych nins, sensory nins. And instead of acknowledging that women are equally capable, what we really did was begin to downplay the prestige of the positions we let them have. Now a job that only men were 'smart enough' and 'good enough' to hold, like being a med nin, is suddenly too 'weak' and 'gay.'" He snorted. "Ask Temari. She'll explain it better than I can."

Gaara didn't have to ask her. As soon as Kankuro brought up the topic, he knew he was right. "So Father vetoed your dream to be an actor, and then when you accepted you had to be a shinobi, he vetoed your dream to be a med nin."

"I didn't know what to do." Kankuro shrugged. "My aptitude test said I was tailor-made to be a med nin; I have the fine chakra control and precision necessary. There wasn't anything else I was remotely interested in. I really liked going to plays, though, and I noticed a lot of puppet masters doubled as med nin." He rolled back onto his side, curling up once again as though protecting his vital organs. "Grandpa showed me his battle puppets and let me try them out. They reminded me of my toys, and when I played with them, I could imagine I was on stage instead. So I chose the puppet jutsu."

With sudden insight, Gaara understood why his brother sometimes got himself in trouble on the battlefield by making his combat overly artistic. Unless he was overmatched, he spent a lot of effort on the dramatic effect and staging instead of cutting to the kill. Baki had complained about it bitterly, claiming Kankuro didn't take fighting seriously. However, Kankuro was overwhelmingly successful, so no punitive action had ever been taken. "When you fight, you're on stage. That's your compromise. It's how you remain sane."

"Yeah." Kankuro's voice was muffled by the pillow he hugged.

Gaara saw it all: the reason his brother complained about getting up early, the reason he occasionally had grumbled when on missions, the reason he wore kabuki paint and a bunraku uniform, the reason he artistically staged his fights, and the reason he never let anyone insult him. "You sacrificed everything you had to live up to our father's expectations and demands."

And it had continued, Gaara realized. Kankuro's entire mode of behavior was to sacrifice himself to meet other people's demands. Having been taught that his own desires and needs didn't matter, he defaulted to meeting his family's expectations. He genuinely loved his family and wanted to protect or help them, such as doing the cooking, but the only method he knew to do that was unhealthy. It sacrificed his personhood.

"Take it back," Gaara said, resolute. He understood his brother's pain all too well. "You have to take it back. It's your life, and it's your dream. What do you need, Nii-san? Do you want me to assign you to a jonin med nin so you can retrain? Do you want to quit altogether? Our local theater is doing well right now, and you're already trained to control puppets. You'll have to learn a different style, but they love it when people from the puppet corps volunteer for special performances. Surely they would accept you."

Lowering the pillow, Kankuro stared at him. "What?" He sat up once again. "I can't quit. I'm a jonin. We don't have a lot of those. Plus I'm Yondaime's son. No one would ever accept it. I'm supposed to be the next master of the puppet corps! Everyone is looking to me to take over. There isn't even anyone else in the running. If I just walked out — "

"Nii-san," Gaara interrupted gently. "Those are all reasons based on other people's feelings, needs, and views. I don't care what they want. I want to know what you want." He met his gaze and held it. "What does Nii-san truly want?"

Tears pooled in Kankuro's eyes; he glanced away. "I don't wanna do it," he whispered. "I never wanted to be in charge. The head of the puppet corps puts in twelve-hour work days. I already don't get any time to myself. If I did that, I'd never have a life. Besides . . . I don't want to be in on all those meetings, organize all those training programs, deal with all those policies, or discipline all those infractions. Oh, fuck no!" His voice raised suddenly. "I don't want that at all!"

"Nii-san is an introvert," Gaara said softly, understanding this aspect of his brother's pain as well. "Nii-san needs a lot of time to himself. A lot of privacy and a lot of space. Being the head of one of the units is a huge responsibility that requires a great deal of time and energy."

Kankuro nodded. "I want a life, ya know? Work shouldn't be the only thing in my world."

Gaara did know, only too well. "If you didn't feel suffocated in your personal life, you could handle that responsibility much better. As it is, it's just more of a burden on top of the ones you're already carrying. You have to learn to say no to Temari and me, too. My offer to hire a cook stands, and at the very least, the three of us should sit down and redistribute the chores."

This time, Kankuro didn't automatically object. "But I really just want . . ." He sighed deeply, as though he could exhale all the air out of his body and even expel his soul. "I dunno. If I'm going to be a shinobi at all, then I'd really prefer . . . I think I'd be a lot happier if I were a med nin."

Nodding, Gaara decided that wasn't too surprising. "You've made sure you enjoy fighting, but at the same time, there are other things that give you more joy. Things that are more fulfilling to your natural personality. With training, you would probably be an excellent med nin."

Kankuro gave him a tentative smile. "Thanks, ototo." The smile faded quickly. "Do you think so? Do you really think I could just . . . quit? Go train to do something else?"

"Realistically?" Gaara considered the problem. "You would have to work part-time and train part-time. I couldn't pull you off the duty roster completely. You would have to transition. It would probably take a good three years. But if it's your dream — if it's what you really, genuinely want — then it would be worth it."

Kankuro seemed to chew that over for several minutes. "And if I quit entirely and became an actor?"

"I wouldn't stop you." Gaara reached out and took his brother's hands, squeezing them. "You can live here as long as I'm in power." He didn't elaborate on that comment, saving that revelation for another time. "And I'd always make sure you were clothed and fed, even if it took years for you break into the business." He made up his mind in that moment that if Temari became Kazekage instead and kicked Kankuro out for being a struggling actor, then he would support his brother until he got on his feet. Kankuro had supported Gaara in his quest to become Kazekage, and Gaara would return that support one hundred percent. "Once again, I suggest transitioning. It'd probably make it easier on you. But if you quit outright, I would still support you."

Silently, Kankuro stared at him for several moments before replying. "Seriously?"


"You won't take it back?"

"Absolutely not."

Kankuro resumed staring.

Gaara understood. "You feel like someone offered to spring you out of jail, and you expect there to be some kind of catch."

"It really seems too good to be true." Kankuro's eyes began to glisten again. "Seriously? I don't have to — I don't have to keep carrying someone else's dream? I can do what I want?"

Gaara nodded. "It's your life, Nii-san. You can do whatever you want to. And I'll support you just like you supported me." He decided his brother didn't really see what he'd done. "You stood behind me every day every step of the way as I worked to be Kazekage. You saw that I believed it was the ticket to my happiness, and you never once discouraged me. You didn't try to make me 'face reality' or 'do something more practical.' It was my dream, and you told me over and over, through your words or your actions, that I would survive the struggle. That I would succeed. That you believed in me and my abilities. Do you have any idea what that means to me?" He felt tears in his eyes instead. "No onehad ever believed in me before. Don't you think I'll do the same for you?"

A strange mix of emotions crossed Kankuro's face — pride, happiness, relief, hope, and love. "Ototo . . . thank you." He paused. "I think I'd like to try training as a med nin first."

"Certainly." Gaara didn't believe his brother was following his truest dream, and he hoped that once Kankuro figured out Gaara was serious he would consider acting instead. However, Kankuro needed to be the one to determine what he would do, and Gaara would support him even if he changed his mind several times before settling down.

They stared at each other, and Gaara had a terrible moment in which he realized they were both on the verge of crying. Kankuro opened his arms, and Gaara scooted forward, more than happy to hug and be hugged. They squeezed each other so hard Gaara nearly couldn't breathe, but the embrace felt warm and comforting.

After a minute, Kankuro laughed, although it sounded watery. "We're such a mess."

Gaara couldn't deny that, but he purposefully pretended to misinterpret. "Oh, I don't know about that." He pulled back and gave his brother a small grin. "I think we're finally on our way."

Kankuro smiled.

A/N: The play titles in this fic are based on real plays by the historical playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. I used Databook 3 as my source for the power rankings of the Sandsibs.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed part 1 and to all who review part 2!