Brother's Keeper

By darkhelmetj

Description: Sandsib fic. One-shot. After returning to Sunagakure, Gaara feels overwhelmed by his newfound emotions, and Kankuro grieves over being unable to help his brother. Can they comfort each other and seal their bond as brothers? Set post Shippuuden ep. 32. Hurt-comfort.

Disclaimer: Gaara 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: Set the first night after Gaara is rescued from his kidnapping.

Sabaku no Gaara yawned loudly. He uncurled his fingers and stretched them over his mouth, trying to stifle it. The yawn lasted a ridiculously long time, long enough that when he finally sat back against his desk chair, he couldn't remember exactly what he had been working on. He paused, stretching his arms, watching as the black, cotton mourner's clothes pulled up his forearms, revealing a pair of pale, thin wrists. The moonlight shining through the window reflected off his skin, making it and the papers on the desk glow.

He knew, realistically, that he couldn't blame the yawn for his lack of concentration. Fatigue had sneaked up on him, a quiet, prowling cat that had crept under his eyelids and now tried to tug his eyes closed. He'd been so physically exhausted on the return trip to Sunagakure that Naruto and Kankuro had helped him to walk. Though he was now sitting, he felt little better. The exertion was less, but the day's events were beginning to accumulate. The fatigue had also stolen most of his ability to think. Whenever he tried to focus on the border reports sitting before him, he found himself reading the same line repeatedly without absorbing it.

The dark, moonlit office didn't help much either. Gaara suspected that half of his exhaustion was from trying to work in the darkened setting, and that had he spent the ten seconds it would have taken to flip on the light switch, he could have saved himself an exorbitant amount of trouble. He also knew that his contemplations about the light switch were just excuses designed to disguise the real problem – the fact that he was tired in the first place.

"It's not that late," he said, glancing out the closest window. The moon had risen and stood high above the valley walls. Several stars gleamed brightly beside it, easily visible even through the sand plastered office windows. The towering high rises of Sunagakure were mostly dark, with only a few scattered lights glittering from the rounded silhouettes.

"It's not that late," he repeated.

Gaara wasn't quite sure who he was talking to, something that inexplicably unsettled him. The utter silence of the office and the surrounding corridors did little to settle his unease. Anxiety had been creeping into the back of his mind since earlier in the day. It had been unnoticeable at first, especially when he had been kept distracted by the constant barrage of people at his door. He hadn't had any time to himself until late evening, when the nins from Konaha had left and the council members had retired for the night.

However, now that he was alone and the room was quiet, he wasn't sure how to handle the strange sensation that was bubbling inside of him. It was just too quiet, and he was too tired to fully consider what that meant. He needed to sleep, he thought absently.

Gaara stood up suddenly, pushing out the chair hard enough that it smacked into the wall. His breath caught in his throat with no warning, and he felt like he would suffocate in the enclosed space of the office. He staggered to the door, then slumped against the frame, a gasp escaping his lips as he pulled air into his lungs. He managed a few strangled breaths, then stumbled down the hallway toward the nearest stairwell.

It made no sense to him. He took the stairs carefully, bracing himself against the wall with his hands, trying to rationalize everything in his mind. He had settled everything in the village earlier in the day. There would be no more attacks on Sunagakure in the near future. He was stable. He was breathing. There was no reason to be distressed. And the silence was good, had to be good, because it meant, it meant –

The cold night air hit his face as he pushed open the door to the outer balcony. A light breeze whipped his hair into his eyes even as he collapsed to his knees on ground. He leaned forward, curling his fingers, clenching his hands, the knuckles scratching against the rough concrete roof. He shuddered, tried to inhale, and managed a shaky, strangled breath. He shook his head, trying to sort out his senses and the dizzying sensation that was overcoming him, but couldn't.

The world tipped, and as a wave of nausea hit him, he raised one hand to his mouth. In the blue moonlight, he saw a faint trickle of blood run down his fingers. Blood. Crimson blood, his blood, from a wound on his knuckles, a patch of skin scratched by the concrete's harsh touch.

He was bleeding.

"Oh . . ." The sick, dizzying feeling grew worse. He felt his balance falter, and for a moment he thought he was would hit the roof face-first. Then a strong arm caught him, pulled him upright and backwards so he was staring upward at the glowing moon and the silhouetted outline of a person. The touch washed away the terror that was rising in him, leaving him shaking from the near panic attack.

"Sorry," the figure said. The voice was low, melodical, and familiar. "I didn't notice you when you first came out. Must have been quiet. You need to make more noise when you walk."

Gaara felt dazed. The stars still spun slightly above him, and he reached up a hand, running his fingers down his brother's strong jaw , trying to find some stability there. "Kankuro?"

The older boy chuckled softly. "Nah, the bogeyman." He reached out with his other arm and pulled Gaara further backwards, so that his head rested on Kankuro's lap. "Unless you'd rather it be someone else?"

"Hn." Gaara shook his head, then stopped the motion suddenly when it made him feel like he was floating. He still couldn't see straight. Two Kankuros wavered above him, both with slight frowns on their faces. "It's fine . . ."

"It might be, but you sure don't look fine." Kankuro paused, then grasped Gaara's hand, dragging it from his face to his lap where it was illuminated better by the moonlight. "What the hell did you do to your fingers?"

"Roof," Gaara said, unable to articulate the thought better. The nausea was passing, but in its wake he was left with a horrible empty sensation, a numbness that seemed to rob him of his body. He could feel Kankuro turn his small hand over in his larger one, feel his brother's fingers rub at the wounds. And yet, it didn't feel like his hand at all, but that of a stranger whose body he was borrowing.

Kankuro chuckled again. "You've gotta be more careful. You hit your fingers on anything, they're going to bleed . . ." He trailed off, his expression growing more serious. "I'll watch out for you, you know," he said suddenly, his voice inexplicably gravelly. "Can't have you . . . bashing your knuckles up . . ."

Gaara felt his eyes widen. For a moment, he didn't know what to say. He had known Kankuro long enough to sense when his brother was hiding something, and it wasn't difficult to discern the hidden meaning behind the words. Kankuro liked to talk tough, but Gaara had seen those moments when his brother had been kinder and more honest. He had confided in him during those times. He opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off when Kankuro started talking again.

"You look exhausted," Kankuro said, his voice still that odd, raspy texture. "You . . . you need to sleep. Sakura-san told you that before she left. She said that your chakra reserve is eventually going to run out, and you won't be able to stay awake. You—"

"I know!" Gaara said, frustration rising in him at the mention of the one thing he'd been trying so hard to ignore. "I know. Eventually I'm going to have to sleep. I can't stay awake, because I don't have Shukaku's chakra to draw on to keep me stable. I—" His voice broke off, strangled again by an invisible hand that seemed to grab his lungs and squeeze them, leaving him breathless with an aching pain . He gasped, pulling his hand from Kankuro's fingers, resting it on his chest and absently tugging at the cotton shirt.

Kankuro's expression visibly softened. That surprised Gaara. He had seen many faces on Kankuro: anger, rage, cockiness, arrogance, confidence, stoic support. But never this expression. His frustration abated somewhat, and he stared up at his brother with a mixture of confusion and wonder.

"You don't have to hide it," Kankuro said, so quietly that Gaara almost didn't hear him. "You don't have to be strong all the time. You don't have to pretend that it doesn't hurt you, because I'm sure it does. I mean," he paused, staring up briefly at the moon. "I don't know what it feels like. Hell, I'll never be able to say that I've been in your position. I can only imagine what it must be like. But I . . . I can do that. I can imagine it." He gently rubbed Gaara's shoulders with his hands. "You're not alone, you know. You have all of us here for you." And then, a whisper. "You have me. I'll look out for you. I said that earlier, you know. I'm your brother. I'll always protect you. If you let me."

"Kankuro . . ."

His brother's eyes looked sad, he realized. They glistened, though Kankuro gave no other outward indication of his discomfort. Yet, he looked wounded. It was a look that Gaara recognized and understood.

"Kankuro," he said again, "You . . . have . . . I . . ."

It was so hard to say. He'd never been able to say it before, because there had always been that other voice, the one in his mind that distracted him and screamed at him. Shukaku had always stolen much of his attention. It had been hard enough to tell Kankuro what he was thinking, let alone what he was feeling. Those feelings, those emotions, frightened him. They were at the core of what made him hurt, of what Shukaku used to wrap around his neck and strangle him mentally.

Those emotions were unhindered now, like so many other things. His mind was an empty, endless well, and he was unsure of what to do with the space.

"I . . ."

He wanted to tell him the truth. That he trusted him, that he looked to him for help, that he admired his tenacity, his ability to follow his instincts -- the thing that allowed Kankuro to be so rash and cruel and yet so undeniably loyal at the same time. He wanted to explain to him that he'd tried all this time to connect, but hadn't been able to. That such a connection had almost been beyond his ability to understand.

It was still so hard to say it.

"I know you've protected me," he managed, hating himself for not saying what he was feeling, yet too exhausted to try and force it out. He wasn't strong enough to say it. He felt weak. "You and . . . everyone . . . who came to rescue me. That meant a lot to me."

"Maybe." Kankuro's voice was neutral. "Maybe we protected you. Or maybe we didn't. We didn't get to you until it was too late, after all."

Something snapped into place. Gaara remembered a conversation he'd had earlier in the day with Temari. She'd said that Kankuro had been injured trying to chase after Gaara. That he'd nearly died, and then a few days after he had been back on his feet, wanting to go after his brother. Now Kankuro, who always slept soundly, was on the roof in the middle of the night, and Gaara suspected why.

"You didn't fail me," he said, a bit more bluntly than he had intended. But he was tired, and when he was tired, he found he either had to speak plainly or risked mincing words. "You did the best you could. More so. Your enemy was Sasori of the Red Sands." He sighed. "It's not as if I did much better with my fight. I protected the village, but I lost."

Gaara saw Kankuro's eyes go wide. He seemed shocked and lost for words. "G-gaara . . ."

"Meaning," Gaara continued, "that I forgive you. Because there is nothing to forgive. Because you didn't fail me. Because I . . ." He stopped, biting the inside of his lip. He was rambling horribly. He had to be confusing Kankuro; he had to say something that would make sense.

Kankuro drew a sharp breath. "But I did fail you! I couldn't do anything!" His brother squeezed Gaara's shirt tightly between his fingers. "You were in danger, and even if it was . . . foolhardy . . ." He paused and laughed. "Foolhardy, like Baki-san said it was. He was right. I'm not strong enough to fight someone like Sasori. I'm not strong enough to protect you . . ."

The laugh sent a chill down Gaara's spine. He had laughed like that enough times in his life to recognize the sound. Everything about Kankuro's body language and voice was frighteningly familiar. It reminded him of the dark, empty part of him that still occasionally hurt, as it did now, deep in his chest.

"I've only ever wanted to be your brother," Kankuro said. "I've tried so hard to connect, and I think you want to. Because you talk to me. But I wonder. Can I actually do enough for you? Am I doing enough? Or is this something I can't do . . ."

The degree of the empathy Gaara felt startled him and, more than anything, made him hurt more. He had always shied away from trying to understand others' full feelings, mostly because those feelings added to his own overwhelmed him. He had enough hurts, enough to deal with, that he couldn't be bothered to try and help someone else. His desire to become Kazekage was tinted with the need to help, but was so generalised, directed to so many people he had never met, that it materialised in him more as a stubborn drive to be needed rather than as any direct feelings of empathy.

But those feelings did exist, and now, at his weakest, he had no way of hiding them. He had no reason to hide them anymore, when there was no longer a demon to be held at bay. He could feel Kankuro's pain, because he understood what it meant to have that kind of frustration, what it meant to feel helpless, to feel alone. And he realised that he didn't want Kankuro to feel what he had felt.

"No one could have saved me," he said, his voice quiet. "No one. And . . ." Something pained deep inside, some part of him that was trying to reach out, to strengthen that bridge of empathy between him and Kankuro. "I . . ."

It hurt to say it. It was a vocalisation of every fear, every moment of anger, every nightmare that had ever haunted him. It tore at him to give voice and form to something that he had tried for so long to ignore in the hopes it would stop hurting him. But he knew that he had to say it, or it would always be there.

Gaara rolled onto his side, curling up, wrapping his arms around his stomach. The nausea was back. He didn't feel numb. He felt. He could feel. He could feel too much.

"I don't want to be alone."

"Gaara?" Kankuro's arms followed him, one hand running down his back, warming him with his touch. "You're not alone. I'm here."

"I know," Gaara said, his voice shaky. "I know. I know." He couldn't breathe again, but he wouldn't stop. He couldn't let it win. "You've . . . always . . . been here. You . . . cared. I'm . . ." He had to stop. He drew in another strangled breath, pushed it out, tried to keep his stomach from heaving. He could feel his fingers shaking as they squeezed at his ribs. "I'm . . . so glad . . . . you cared. That you care. Because I'm . . ."

His head spun. For a moment he was back in the void. Everything was white. He stared at a reflection of himself. The face looked sad, dead. It didn't understand where it was, how infinite the space was. How empty it was. But he did because he had awakened and had seen the countless faces of his citizens around him. And there was no voice in his head; no voice that was there, yet was never a companion. The space that the voice had occupied was empty, waiting to be filled.

His entire body shook, and he felt something wet on his cheeks. Kankuro's hand touched him again on the shoulder, and he leaned into the touch, needing the warmth. He wanted that sensation to help fill the void.

"I'm not alone," he whispered. A strange, pained smile worked its way onto his face. His chest throbbed, and yet he didn't hurt. He could feel the pain leaving, replaced not by the familiar numbness, but by a deep relief.

He laughed and felt more tears fall down his cheeks. "I'm not alone. I'm not alone. I can . . . I can . . . feel it . . . You care . . ." The words were still hard to say. He said them anyway. "I'm . . . . glad you're my brother. You've always been my brother. I've always . . . wanted to . . . say that . . ." He gasped for breath. "But I've never . . . been able to . . ."

He almost gasped when Kankuro pulled him onto his back again, tugging his body upward so that Gaara's head leaned against Kankuro's shoulder. His brother's chest was warm, and he didn't pull away. He let himself relax against him, let Kankuro support him, hold him so he wouldn't slide back to the ground.

"You did now," the older boy said. "You said it now."

Gaara tilted his head up. Kankuro was smiling. It wasn't a wide smile, but it was a real one, far from the sneer he sometimes wore. His eyes still glistened, but he didn't seem pained.

Gaara held his breath unconsciously, daring to wonder if he'd managed to fix things. He bit the inside of his lip again, then frowned. "Are you okay?"

"Me?" Kankuro seemed incredulous for a moment. Then his face broke into a grin. "I'm . . . I'm fine!" He chuckled. "Man, you . . . you're something else sometimes. I'm fine."

He knew that he was at that moment. When he heard Kankuro laugh, the amused, happy chuckle he normally proffered during private family moments, he felt both his brother's and his own pain drain from him.

"I'm glad," Gaara said, hearing his own voice as if from a distance, marvelling at how genuine it sounded.

Kankuro shook his head, still chuckling. "Little brother . . . I'm . . . I'm fine now. But you," he paused and ruffled Gaara's hair. "You need to sleep."

Gaara started to nod, but stopped when the uneasy sensation returned to his stomach. He did have to sleep. He would close his eyes, fall into darkness, and when he awakened in the morning, everything would be different. The tired denial that possessed him now would wash away, and he would have to deal with a world that was so foreign that it frightened him.

But Kankuro had called him 'little brother.'

"I know," Gaara said, echoing his earlier words with much less force. "But I'm scared."

"I can tell," Kankuro said in return, running his fingers through Gaara's hair again. "But you're not alone." He smiled slightly. "I'll stay with you if you want. I swear it's not as bad as you think it might be."

He wasn't so sure. It was more than just the sleep. It was about the silence in his mind, about the chakra that had nearly failed him earlier in the day, about the blood that was crusting and drying on his knuckles. It was about everything that Shukaku had affected and that had so suddenly changed.

But as Kankuro held him in his arms, it occurred to him that his brother was right. He wasn't alone. There was someone else there who could carry his pain. Someone who could catch him if he fell from the sky, or could hold one of his arms if he was too tired to walk.

"Yeah," Gaara said, wrapping one arm around Kankuro's waist. He turned his head and buried his cheek in the soft material of Kankuro's shirt. "I would . . . like that."

"Good. Go to sleep, then. We can talk more in the morning."

Gaara nodded. The fear wouldn't go away, he knew. He had experienced too much of it to believe otherwise. But this time, it was not a fear he had to face alone. He closed his eyes, letting the exhaustion wash over him.

"Thank you . . . . brother."

Strong arms hugged him tighter, and Kankuro chuckled softly. "You're welcome."


A/N: Although I've been writing fanfiction for years, this is my first venture into the Naruto fandom. I hope everyone likes the result. Also, a huge thank you goes to Ariel-D for beta-reading this story! You are awesome as always. Thank you to anyone who reads or reviews!