“That’s my best one!” wailed Kankurou. “Gaara gets everything! It’s not fair!”
“Oh, let him have it,” said Temari impatiently. “It’s all gnawed on anyway.”
Gaara’s sticky little hands clutched the wooden ninja tightly to his chest. “Mine,” he said, and the sand rose up around him.
“Gaara, no!” shouted Yashamaru.
The Kazekage’s deep voice silenced everything but itself. Even the whispering sand stilled. “Yashamaru: Get Gaara out of here. Kankurou: Stop crying, and never try to take anything from Gaara again. Temari: Give Kankurou one of your toys.”
No one argued with the Kazekage. Kankurou sniffled, swallowed, and decided to run away, as soon as he got his new toy. He’d live in a cave. By himself. He’d carve a whole army of ninja to defend it, out of cactus or something, and no one could ever even touch them, because he’d be too far away, and no one would know where he was, and they’d be all prickly.
Temari scowled at Kankurou from the doorway, but grudgingly let him into her room.
“You can’t have my darts or my slingshot or my shogi set,” she said. “Or my fluffy bunny.”
“I don’t want your fluffy bunny.”
“Good, ‘cause you can’t have her.”
“I don’t want her!”
Temari stood on her tiptoes to grab something from the top shelf of her closet. “Here.” She thrust out a bundle of lace and hair.
He recoiled. “Boys don’t play with dolls.”
“Too bad, ‘cause I don’t either.” She tossed it back on the shelf.
They surveyed the room. It was bare, compared to Gaara’s. (Kankurou peeked inside every now and then.) Temari didn’t collect things, unless you counted the mysterious little boxes and jars on her desk. Kankurou picked one up.
“You can’t have my flash powder.” She snatched it away from him. “Anyway, that’s not a toy.”
“You have flash powder?” asked Kankurou enviously.
“I’m not giving it to you!”
“It’s not fair.” He poked moodily at the black jar that had been next to the flash powder box. “You’re old enough to have weapons, and Gaara gets everything he wants. I don’t get anything good.”
“You can have that stuff.”
“If you don’t want it, it must not be anything cool.”
“It’s cool!” Temari unscrewed the jar. “It’s camouflage ointment. You can put it on your face and sneak around at night.”
“That’s just the stuff you put under your eyes so you don’t get sand-blind. There’s a bigger jar in the bathroom.”
But from the obstinate pinch of Temari’s lips, it was either the camouflage goop or the doll. He took it from her and dipped in his finger. The black paste was smooth and cool, pleasant to the touch. He rubbed some under his eyes, protecting them from glare, then applied it to his eyelids as well. If underneath was good, all around would be better.
He blinked up at his sister. Her eyes widened, and her mouth opened slightly. Then her expression returned to normal. But he knew what that look had meant. He saw it all the time, when the sand swirled around Gaara.
Kankurou screwed the lid back on and put the jar in his pocket. “I’ll take it.”
“Finished throwing up yet?” Temari handed him a waterskin and cloth.
Kankurou used them, then took out his little round mirror and repaired his makeup. His eyes were still watery, but no one looked at his features anyway when he had his face paint on, except maybe Temari.
“I’m all right.”
“It was a good mission,” said Temari. “No casualties.”
“For us.” A simple sneak-in-and-steal-the-documents, until the unexpected pursuit. Until Gaara’s eyes had gone wide and bloodshot, and he’d smiled. Smiled, caught the attacking shinobi in fists of sand, and squeezed his fist, slowly, so slowly, until…
Temari made an exasperated noise. “If you’d told me you weren’t done yet, I wouldn’t have wasted the water on you.”
Kankurou was too busy ruining his makeup again to answer her. Before he’d go on another mission with Gaara, he’d run away and become a missing-nin. Let them come after him. Let them send… anyone but Gaara.
This time he waited a few minutes before he took the canteen from his sister’s hand. “There’s nothing left of him, is there?”
“Oh, like you’ve never killed anyone.”
“You know what I mean. Temari, if that was Gaara, then what’s Shukaku?”
Temari flipped open her fan, examined it for scratches, and snapped it shut. “I hope we never find out. Look, Gaara is Gaara. He’s our baby brother. We protect him, no matter what.”
We need to be protected from him, thought Kankurou. He’s a spoiled brat who can pull the limbs off men like other kids pull the wings off flies, and he doesn’t give a damn about anyone, us included. We should leave him behind the dunes, feeding the bloodsoaked sand into his gourd, and run away before he kills us too.
Kankurou hoisted Karasu onto his back. “Right, then. Let’s take our precious little killer back home.”
Hospitals depressed Kankurou, even when no one he cared about was being treated in one. (The list of people he cared about consisted of Temari, himself, his sensei… oh, all right, Gaara too, not that Gaara ever required physical healing or would accept the mental treatment he badly needed— and not that even the most reckless mind-healer would venture inside that deadly theatre.)
At least if he had someone to visit, he wouldn’t be limited to prowling gloomily through the corridors. But his acquaintance with Kiba consisted of five seconds of conversation followed by an hour of hauling his doggy carcass and actual dog through the forests, and he had never spoken at all to Neji or Chouji— and they were all unconscious anyway, so there was no possibility of striking up a conversation.
He stood near the corridor where Temari was sitting with Shikamaru, and listened to them bicker. But that only deepened his gloom. His sister was getting along entirely too well with the lazy, complaining shadow-boy.
If you marry him and move to Konoha and leave me alone with Gaara, thought Kankurou, I will run away and join a traveling bunraku troupe. I bet they’d only make me train for a year or so before they let me operate the head.
But maybe it’s one-sided, he thought hopefully. No matter how determined Temari is, she’ll never get anywhere with a boy who doesn’t like her back.
“You are such a bother,” sighed Shikamaru. “You remind me of my mother.”
Kankurou ran, away through the maze of corridors. It was that, or burst into tears. Six turns later, he began a serious search for an exit. The next turn brought him face to face with Gaara, standing outside of a closed door, arms folded across his chest.
The brothers eyed each other across an expanse of polished floor. Kankurou sighed, bracing himself for the speech he really ought to make: Have you already killed whoever is or was inside that room? Who is or was it, by the way? And if you haven’t already, don’t, you bloodthirsty little psychopath! I know you don’t care about politics and alliances, but unlike you, some of us could get killed in the war you probably just started.
“The hospital doesn’t guard the rooms,” said Gaara. “Anyone could just walk in.”
“Have you been inside already?”
Gaara nodded. “He’s still unconscious.”
“You didn’t kill him?”
Gaara looked at him as if Kankurou was the crazy one. “Kill him? I’m protecting him.”
“What? Why? Who is it, anyway?”
“Naruto, of course.”
Of course. “Uh… do you expect anyone to attack him?”
“You never know,” said Gaara darkly.
Naruto, the little whiskers boy, object of Gaara’s obsession. Kankurou wasn’t sure if he should feel sorry for, concerned for, or in awe of the kid. Or grateful to him, for apparently inspiring Gaara’s recent phase of acting almost human.
Though if he was honest, what he mostly felt was jealous. How had Naruto found a door into Gaara’s heart, when his own brother and sister had long since given up trying to break in? Had he left it open behind him?
“Is there a window?” asked Kankurou. “I could guard the window.”
Kankurou tore across the sand. He scanned for the enemy as he ran, and analyzed what he knew of them by their attack, and calculated strategies. All that should be enough to keep one person’s mind occupied, but not when he’s used to simultaneously commanding himself and three puppets.
Without ceasing his calculations, he thought, quite calmly and distinctly, Temari’s in Konoha. No one’s coming from Suna; not soon enough. It’s all up to me— against the ninja who took out Gaara. I should run away and—
There in the distance was the man he sought, a shadow-puppet against the blinding white; and there, he hoped, was his brother. Kankurou ran toward them.