Requiem for Atlas

By Ariel D

Description: SANDSIBS fic. As Gaara rebuilds his chakra, he refuses to accept help from anyone. Can Kankuro convince him that he doesn't have to be like Atlas carrying the heavens on his shoulders? Set post Shippuuden ep. 32.

Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, 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: Not YAOI. This is the sequel to "Blood of Brothers," but you don't have to read the first story to read this one because I only make a few references to it here. This is another exploration of the bond that is growing between Gaara and Kankuro.

And just to avoid confusion…contrary to popular belief, Atlas is holding up the celestial sphere (the heavens) using his shoulders, not carrying the world. That's a long-standing misunderstanding caused by paintings and sculptures of the sphere.

Chapter One: Carrying the Heavens

The wind whispered across the desert, stirring grains of sand and swirling them midair. The cloudless sky arched overhead in an electric blue dome that was broken only by the lazy flight of a single hawk. Gaara knelt on his knees, his palms against the hot sand of Training Arena 2. Every afternoon since he'd returned home from his abduction, Gaara had come to Arena 2 to practice his techniques and work on rebuilding his chakra. Every day, he left frustrated. The loss of Shukaku seemed to have cut his chakra in half, and as Kazekage he needed his strength back quickly.

"Hey, man, don't push yourself too hard," said an amused voice. "The swooning girls of our village would never recover if you died of chakra exhaustion."

"Kankuro," Gaara said, identifying the speaker.

The tall puppeteer in his Bunraku outfit walked up and knelt beside him. "I thought I'd find you here." He gave Gaara a small smile. "Look, I get that you're impatient to rebuild your strength, but this process will take a few months."

"We may not have a few months!" Gaara snapped, standing. "If word leaks out that I've weakened, we would be attacked immediately." He frowned, deeply disturbed by that possible scenario. Finally, he had what he'd hoped for and worked toward: to be needed by someone, to be wanted by someone. But now . . . "I am the Kazekage; it's my duty to defend the village, not endanger it further."

Kankuro gazed up at him, his eyes wide, and Gaara realized his brother was shocked by his unusual show of emotion. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, trying to dispel the frustration that had been plaguing him for the past week, but it seemed to burn under his skin.

"I know," Kankuro said after a moment, standing as well. "But you're not going to do us any good if you collapse from overexertion, either. Temari and I are both jonin now, you know, so we can help to protect both you and the village if it comes under attack — not to mention the other Suna shinobi. We'll be safe while you recover."

Gaara gazed up at his older brother, realizing that Kankuro's claims a week earlier to care for and protect him had been quite sincere. A pang shot through his heart, and he looked away toward the horizon. Why did Kankuro's loyalty hurt? "That doesn't change the fact that this is the weakest I've been in my life," he said, further irritated by both his condition and by feelings he couldn't understand. "The sand no longer automatically defends me."

Kankuro clapped one hand on his shoulder. "Hey, you'll compensate." He smiled again. "Besides, when you can manipulate the sand to defend you by your own will, you'll actually be more powerful than you were before."

But Gaara didn't want comforting or encouraging. He wanted results. Right now. He jerked away from Kankuro's touch. "If you have the time to say things you don't know for sure, then you have time to help me train."

Kankuro's smile died. He let his hand fall and dropped his gaze to the ground. "Sure, man. No problem." He pulled out the only summoning scroll he currently carried — the one for Karasu. He hadn't finished fixing his other puppets yet; it had been all he could do to reassemble Karasu in time to search for Gaara again.

Gaara grimaced and raised his fingers to one temple. It wasn't right for him to take out his frustration on his brother, and it was especially unfair to hurt his brother over something he could never understand: how much it stung to finally be needed and then to be useless. "Sorry. I know you're trying to help."

Kankuro glanced back at him and gave him a wan smile. "It's okay. But if you didn't push yourself as hard as Lee-kun seems to, you might be less crabby."

Gaara stared at him with hooded eyes.

Kankuro chuckled and hopped backwards, leaving a fifteen-foot space between them. "Let's go!" He whipped open his summoning scroll and clapped his hands together, releasing the seal. Karasu appeared before him, making its signature clicking sounds. Kankuro launched the puppet immediately, making Karasu shoot four kunai in Gaara's direction.

"Suna no tate." Verbally invoking the jutsu to aid his efforts, Gaara gathered his remaining chakra and focused on forming a shield in front of himself. He had to get his abilities back under control. He had to be able to protect his people.

Gaara's chakra-infused sand, which he'd left in a pile on the ground, struggled upward in a triangular shape, covering his lower half well but failing to protect his upper body. Three of the kunai lodged in the shield, but the forth one headed straight for Gaara's throat. With an exclamation, he tried to dodge, but the kunai still slit the side of his neck.

Kankuro lurched forward in surprise. "Gaara!"

"I'm all right." Gaara put one hand over the cut, suppressing the bleeding, and growled. He'd never developed dodging skills because he hadn't needed them. "It's shallow; just a surface scratch. Keep going."

Kankuro paused, clearly unsure of the wisdom of this request, but then repositioned Karasu. "Very well." He separated Karasu's arms, which then extended blades, and then drove the blades at Gaara.

Once again, Gaara called forth his sand shield, straining to focus his chakra. "Suna no tate." The sand lurched upward, covering his entire body for a few seconds, then crashed to the ground.

"Damn!" Kankuro yanked on his chakra-strings, jerking Karasu's arms backwards and stopping the attack completely.

Gaara felt the blood drain from his face as his chakra hit rock bottom. He collapsed to his knees, rendered momentarily unable to move.

Kankuro dropped Karasu to the ground and ran over to his brother. "You pushed yourself too hard today. Are you all right?" He fell to his knees beside Gaara and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

"This is pathetic," Gaara snarled, clenching his fists. "I have to do better than this." I have to regain my strength before they decide I am no longer worthy of their respect. Before they decide they don't want me anymore.

Kankuro jerked off his cat-eared hood and pressed it against Gaara's bleeding neck. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Beating yourself up is not the answer. I'll come out here and help you train every day if you like, but don't hate yourself for taking time."

Gaara had leaned his head to the side to allow Kankuro better access to the wound, but at these words, he pulled away. "Think about it. I can't take time. Protecting the village aside, the morale of our people is in jeopardy. You and Temari have striven to keep the whole truth a secret from the villagers, from spies, and even from the council. But one day some child is going to throw a ball at me in invitation for a game, or the wind is going to pick up some object and hurl it at my back . . . and if I don't realize it quickly enough, everyone present will see the sand shield fail to form."

Kankuro let his arms fall and frowned. "I've thought of that. But I think you're looking at this the wrong way. Shukaku wasn't the true source of your power; it was just a power that you always had access to. You became truly powerful when you decided to protect others. Your strength never came from Shukaku. The source of your strength was — and is — your dedication to protecting the village."

Gaara blinked. It sounded almost like something Naruto would say, and he desperately wanted to believe it. But as irritated as he was with himself, he just couldn't see it as that simple.

"Besides," Kankuro continued, "you don't tend to take random walks around town, so the villagers aren't likely to figure it out. But even if they do find out, the younger generation will always stand behind you. They believe in you. I believe in you."

Gaara placed both hands on his knees and forced himself to stand. "Their trust and belief will mean nothing if I get them all killed." He stumbled away, still trapped in a swirl of self-hatred and frustration. Now that he had achieved what he so desperately wanted — to be needed as Kazekage — he couldn't bear the idea of failing his position.

Behind him, he could hear Kankuro stand and take a few steps as well. "You don't have to carry the whole universe on your shoulders. There's a whole village of shinobi here to help you, not just Temari and me."

Gaara stopped and growled. Kages were supposed to be powerful enough to defend their villages against any threat, not have to rely on their people to support them. Gaara whirled around and thumped Kankuro in the chest with the heel of his hand, shoving him backward. "Quit trying to comfort me! Given that I both died and lost Shukaku, we have no idea if I'll ever recover, and if I don't, they'll probably ask me to step down as Kazekage."

Kankuro stared at him, his expression caught between shock and hurt.

Gaara whirled back around and walked away as fast as he could manage. He felt embarrassed and angry at himself for yelling at Kankuro, but he couldn't seem to control his irritation. It almost reminded him of his struggles to control Shukaku's bloodlust.

And that scared him.

Kankuro stared after his younger brother, his emotions mixed. The seething 17-year-old inside of him had wanted to punch Gaara for shoving him . . . but no, if he was honest with himself, that wasn't really it. He really wanted to punch Gaara because as the older brother, Kankuro had been putting himself out on an emotional limb for the past week. He'd spent almost every night in Gaara's room — or vice versa — watching over Gaara as he struggled through his first few nights sleeping. It had been hard for him to lower his defenses and show his little brother just how much he cared for him. Gaara's rejection of that care just now had stung Kankuro and left him aching deeply. Even now, Kankuro clenched his fists and growled.

"Fine!" he hissed, although Gaara was too far away to hear the reply. "If you don't want my comfort, I'll keep it to myself. I'll get more sleep that way."

However, as Kankuro turned toward Karasu and prepared to reseal the puppet into its scroll, he sighed deeply and then exhaled his anger. In its place rose worry and understanding. Although he had a quick temper, Kankuro's anger had been averted when Gaara had said he might be asked to step down as Kazekage.

Kankuro reattached Karasu's arms with a mere flick of his practiced fingers and sighed again. "He's worried," he told the puppet. "He's not mad at me; he's mad at himself. And he's angry because he's worried."

It made sense. In fact, it made disturbing, dark sense because it wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Despite the villagers' unanimous support for Gaara during his abduction, the council members had been reserved and almost hateful in their actions. Kankuro sighed again, sealed his puppet into his scroll, and returned the scroll to his arsenal.

He didn't really feel like being the older brother today — not after Gaara's temper tantrum. However, it was a strange situation. Gaara hadn't been so explosive in years, and even then, he'd remained stoic most of the time. Seeing his little brother's emotions surface so easily almost seemed like an omen, and Kankuro had to wonder just how much the endless parade of nightmares and irrupted sleep had to do with it. Gaara wasn't getting any real rest, after all. So, knowing that Gaara needed an older brother more than ever, he set off to find the boy, although he purposely took his time, also knowing that Gaara needed to cool off.

Committing himself to his plan, Kankuro slowly and methodically checked the Kazekage's office, the mansion's balconies, and then Gaara's bedroom. When none of these places yielded results, Kankuro checked the most likely remaining place: the mansion's roof. This final location revealed a moping 15-year-old sitting with his knees against his chest and his arms folded around his legs. As usual, the boy was staring at the sunset.

Kankuro gathered himself and walked across the roof. "Heh. Thought I might find you here."

Gaara didn't look up. "I'm sorry."

"No big deal." He sat by Gaara and gazed at the sunset as well. "I get it. You're pissed off because, like me, you hate to be unable to act when you feel it's important. Like when you were abducted and I was poisoned by Akasuna no Sasori. Lying in bed waiting to heal was the most frustrating thing ever. I couldn't stand the thought of being bedridden while you were in danger."

From the corner of vision, Kankuro saw Gaara's gaze drop to his knees, but he didn't reply.

"I was impatient," Kankuro continued. "I took risks by chasing after you without reinforcements, and then I pushed myself hard to join Temari and the others in tracking you. Fortunately, the Konoha shinobi and Chiyo-basama were there to save you, but I gotta admit —" He paused, not sure he wanted to disclose his feelings. He inhaled deeply and forced himself to be honest. "I admit I was jealous. Jealous of Naruto and the others for saving you when I couldn't. Although I'm still eternally grateful, of course."

Gaara turned a wide-eyed gaze upon Kankuro, who had to smile in return. Something about his younger brother's shocked and innocent looks always hurt him and touched him at the same time.

"Why?" Gaara asked. "You did your best to save me. I'm quite grateful to you. And to Temari."

Kankuro turned and locked gazes with Gaara. "Exactly. That's my point exactly. I did my best to save you, and you're doing your best to regain your strength. We can both impatient people at times, but as you know, sometimes you have to work within your own limitations steadily but surely until you reach your goal. And it doesn't always spell disaster. If it did, you would've never made Kazekage, and you also wouldn't be sitting beside me right now."

Gaara returned his gaze to his knees. "Perhaps. But it is still my duty to strengthen myself as quickly as possible."

Kankuro watched the troubled look on Gaara's face and the aqua eyes clouded with depression. He wanted to hug his younger brother once again, but considering the way Gaara had shoved him away earlier, he didn't think it wise. Still, he was haunted by the feel of his brother's small frame in his arms; he forgot sometimes just how young Gaara really was — how young they both were, technically. It was a detail he easily lost sight of. Kankuro had always been so preoccupied with Gaara's maniacal mood swings that he'd failed to recognize the wounded heart of a six-year-old inside. He hadn't wanted to acknowledge the soul of the hurt child crying deep within the homicidal monster who was his brother; instead he'd wanted nothing to do with Gaara and his bloodlust.

But now . . . now not only had Gaara learned to better control the monster, but he also had lost the monster entirely. Part of that hurt child's soul was open for Kankuro to see, and he knew he was the only one Gaara allowed to see it. He was the only one Gaara confided in, and it was his duty to make him strong again.

But when he's strong again, will he no longer need me? Kankuro thought with a pang. It was a strange thought, but part of him ached to be the older brother, just as his arms ached with the need to comfort Gaara.

Gaara was still staring with despondency at his knees, and Kankuro moved before he even realized what he was doing. "Hey . . . it'll be all right," he said, reaching out and running one hand up his brother's back. Gaara relaxed faintly and closed his eyes.

However, instead of feeling better, Kankuro only hurt worse. How long could he play this role? How long would he be needed before Gaara pushed him away forever? Surely the only possible outcome was that Gaara would rebuild his strength and resume his confident demeanor as the Kazekage, and Kankuro would be standing two feet behind him watching Gaara rule the village. But Kankuro didn't want to be the loyal subject.

Kankuro scooted closer to Gaara and continued to rub his back, and his brother relaxed further, his frown fading slightly. Seeing that reaction to his care, Kankuro knew that all he really wanted was to be an older brother, even a father-figure to a certain extent. He wanted to stand by Gaara's side and protect him forever. More than that, he wanted Gaara to accept that protection.

In his own way, Kankuro — like Gaara — needed to be needed.

A/N: Thanks to darkhelmetj for betareading and anyone who reads and reviews! I appreciate everyone who read, reviewed, and/or faved the first story, "The Blood of Brothers" and my oneshot "Hurt."

A few notes:
1. The rationale behind why I assume that Gaara's real strength is human and not from Shukaku has to do with multiple reasons which you'll find out later, but one of those reasons is Yamato's speech to Naruto about the same subject.

2. Gaara's calling out of his defensive ninjustu: I realize he generally only calls out his attacks (sort of), but given how hard he's having to concentrate in this chapter, I decided to have him vocalize everything.

3. Edit, July 2011: Obviously, this story was written long before the revelations that recently took place in manga chs. 546-548, and the fans back in 2008 had debated a great deal about the impact of Shukaku's loss on Gaara's abilities. All Kishi said at the time was that Gaara would still be able to control sand (that I was aware of, at least). I suppose this story is AU now, so please accept it as such.