The Greatest of These is Love

By Ariel D

Description: SANDSIBS fic. The greatest gift someone can give is dying for a loved one. But could Gaara cope without Kankuro, or could Kankuro cope without Gaara? Set post Shippuuden ep. 32. Hurt/comfort. Sequel to "Requiem for Atlas."

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 "Requiem for Atlas," but you don't have to read the story to read this one because I only make a few references to it here. It would probably help, though. I have officially named this the "Brothers" series, and it now includes "The Blood of Brothers," "Requiem for Atlas," and of course this story.

Translations (jic): "nii-san" means "older brother," "ototo" means "younger brother," and a yukata is a casual, cotton, summer kimono.

Chapter One: Preparations for War

Gaara frowned at the councilmen around him. They looked solemn, sour, ready to declare doom and destruction. Wrapped in their flowing robes and turbans, only their grim faces uncovered, they struck Gaara as unusually pessimistic.

"And you've verified this?" Baki asked, breaking the silence.

All eyes focused on Taro, the new head of security. As one of the oldest council members, he enjoyed the respect of everyone.

Everyone, that is, except Gaara, to whom Taro was inevitably rude and disrespectful.

"I have," Taro answered. "For several months, the Aida Clan looked to be engaging in nothing more than training exercises mixed with their normal Bedouin-like behavior. Their caravans usually swing close to our northern border once every two years or so. But, no, this time it's certain. They are preparing an attack."

Gaara glanced to Baki, needing some help understanding the significance of this. Taro's initial reports had not been alarming enough to cause Gaara to research the Aida.

Baki caught his gaze. "In their previous invasion twenty years ago, the Aida decimated the entire northern quarter of our village before we could drive them out. We lost 50 shinobi that day and nearly 120 civilians. Sandaime Kazekage had difficulty defeating them, and —"

"And," Taro interrupted, "it is a well-known fact Sandaime Kazekage-sama was and remains our strongest Kazekage."

Translation: 'You are weak,' Gaara thought, keeping his face as impassive as always, 'and even without Shukaku, I still consider you untrustworthy and likely to get us all killed.'

The entire room fell into an uncomfortable, stiff silence.

"What are their numbers?" Gaara asked, not acknowledging the implied insult.

Taro smirked faintly but answered. "The clan itself numbers 50,000."

Gaara frowned. Suna itself had a population about the same size.

"The catch is," Taro continued, "that they have no civilians. All boys and girls are trained to be shinobi, and those that prove too weak are banished. In fact, any babies born with birth defects are suffocated in the sand when they are born."

"Suffocated?" Gaara repeated, and he felt his stomach turn. For a moment, he saw himself as a baby, sacrificed as a host for Shukaku.

Taro nodded, and Gaara could tell from the gleam in his eyes that he enjoyed his small show of discomfort.

"Information gathering reports also suggest that all children are expected to reach genin by age ten," Baki added. "Which means that of their 50,000 —"

"Their forces outnumber ours," Gaara summarized bluntly. He looked at Taro. "And what kind of timetable are we looking at?"

"Right now they're offering prayers to their ancestors and undergoing purification rites," Taro replied. "It should take them another week to be ready. They are very methodical." He paused, his lip curling. "Also, any warriors who are too feeble or injured to fight — or, at the very least, to defend the young children during the battle — are expected to commit ritual seppuku, or hara-kiri, in order to maintain the honor of the clan."

A burst of mumbling filled the room at this announcement.

"What does that have to do with the timing of their preparations?" Gaara asked.

"They have several funerals to perform," Taro replied, "in which they drink the blood of the dead warrior and eat his or her flesh in order to 'ingest the strength and soul' of their ancestors."

Immediately, Gaara understood their danger. "Then the Aida Clan lives and breathes the art of war, placing all sense of personal and clan worth on glory in battle. They are not shinobi, working behind the scenes to gather information, steal artifacts, or assassinate key leaders; they are a crusading army fighting wars of conquest and power."

Taro blinked, as though he believed Gaara was incapable of making such an assessment. "In short, I suppose."

Gaara nodded. "Triple the reinforcements at the north border and activate alert system 3-C," he ordered Taro. "I also want your spies to gather any information that could help us disrupt their preparations, scramble their communication, or allow us to ambush them."

Gaara then turned to Baki. "Gather all team leaders — chuunin through ANBU — tomorrow morning and explain the situation. Have them meet with their teams no later than noon. We are instituting Defense Konoha 1; have the civilians start the practice drills tomorrow afternoon. I want drills run every day at randomly selected times, including during the night."

"Yes, sir," Baki replied.

Gaara looked at each councilman in turn. "Our primary goal is to keep the Aida from breeching our border, but if it should come to an attack on the village, I expect us to react with maximum efficiency. I expect not a single civilian casualty. Am I understood?"

A chorus of "Yes, sir" filled the room from the wide-eyed men. Gaara knew they weren't used to him being so vocal or taking such obvious control. However, Gaara had been tortured, killed, returned to life, and trained back into shape. At this point, if he had something to say, he was going to say it — and he expected his orders to be followed.

"Very well," Gaara said, standing. "This meeting is adjourned."

As he left the council chamber, Gaara set aside the disturbing news of the possible invasion and made his way across the mansion-compound to the private living quarters. Temari was awaiting him in the kitchen. It was Kankuro's birthday, and they had decided to throw him a small surprise party involving only themselves and Baki.

When Gaara entered the kitchen, he found Temari covered in flour and struggling to make sushi. She glared at him.

"You better be right," she said. "Because if you're not, I'm going to kill you."

He knew what she meant. "He'll appreciate it. I'm not sure how much he'll show it, but he'll be . . . very touched."

"He never acts like he cares that it's his birthday," she muttered, but she really wasn't arguing. "He always says not to fix him anything, that celebrating birthdays is just an imported foreign practice."

"He never acts like it's a big deal on our birthdays, either," Gaara pointed out anyway. "And yet he still manages to make sure we have nice ones with our favorite foods."

"He's such a punk," Temari sighed, but she was smiling. She pointed to the cake cooling on the counter. "Cake's ready; it just needs the icing. The seki-han and rice are ready to go, and sushi is almost ready." She reached up and wiped sweat from her forehead. "The tempura is frying in the deep cooker. That just leaves the hamburgers."

Gaara hid a small smile at her efforts. Temari always struggled when she cooked; in fact, out of the three siblings, only Kankuro could cook well. He could cook most anything with a recipe, although he generally refused to fix anything fancy unless it was Gaara's or Temari's birthday, in which case he could bake wonderful cakes. Gaara himself failed miserably as a cook; the only things he could successfully fix were tea, rice, and ramen. Still, he'd watched Kankuro cook hamburgers countless times since that was his older brother's favorite food.

"All right," he said, joining Temari. "I'll fix the hamburgers and do my best not to burn them. I'll also tryto help you ice the cake."

Temari chuckled. "Between the two of us, I'm sure it'll be the ugliest cake ever."

Gaara cooked the hamburgers while Temari finished the sushi, then they loaded up the serving plates. After fighting the icing onto the cake, they set the table. Baki arrived in time to help carry out all the serving plates, and then all was ready.

"When should Kankuro arrive?" Baki asked, putting his present in the kitchen with Gaara's and Temari's.

"Any minute now." Temari leaned against the dining room wall. "He said he was going out to train, but he'd be back by supper."

"Train?" Gaara said, feeling a touch uneasy. "Again?" Every time Kankuro wasn't on a mission, he seemed to be training. And after chastising me for over-exerting myself, too,he thought, vaguely put out.

Baki frowned. "He's been pushing himself terribly hard as of late."

"Yeah. I'm not sure what's gotten into him," Temari said. "He —"

The sound of the door sliding open interrupted her, and from the foyer, they heard Kankuro's call.

"I'm home!"

The three conspirators traded looks, and Temari grinned. They surrounded the table.

"We're in here!" Temari yelled back.

Gaara heard the distinct clunk of wooden geta hitting the floor, followed by the thunk of a bag. A moment later, Kankuro padded into the room, dressed in a simple navy yukata and obi. His face was clean of face paint, and his spiky hair was damp. Gaara surmised he'd stopped by the public baths on the way home.

Kankuro halted in the doorway, his eyes widening in shock. "What —?"

"Happy birthday!" the conspirators yelled.

Kankuro smiled sheepishly, running one hand through his wet hair. "Hey, guys, you didn't have to . . ."

Gaara had learned his brother well enough to not buy it for a minute. Kankuro was pleased. "Sure we did." He gestured to the food-laden table. "Have a seat. We have your favorite." He grimaced slightly, hoping the hamburgers had come out all right.

"Thanks. Smells good." Kankuro sat on a floor pillow and tucked his legs under the kotatsu table, and Gaara caught a little smile hovering on his lips.

Temari sat on one side of him and thumped him in the shoulder playfully, and Gaara sat on the other. Baki took the opposite seat, and then the little family settled in for their dinner. Gaara noted with unease that the hamburgers were a bit dry, and the tempura was too greasy. The sushi also tended to fall apart when picked up, and the rice had cooled off too much. Despite it all, however, Kankuro expressed appreciation and even ate seconds. Gaara watched the smile hovering on his brother's lips and felt satisfied. His nii-san had gone through a lot on his behalf in the last several months, and Gaara wanted to repay him in some small way. Still, it wasn't lost on him that Kankuro also seemed exhausted, and he made up his mind to ask him about his training.

Temari stood when they'd finished eating. "There's more," she told Kankuro. She went into the kitchen and re-emerged with a lop-sided, three-layered cake with smeared white and red icing. Eighteen candles randomly protruded from the surface.

Gaara nearly groaned; they had done a really poor job decorating the cake.

Kankuro put a hand over his mouth and snickered.

"Shut up." Temari set the cake in front of him. "I can't help it if Gaara and I can't cook as well as you can."

Kankuro just smiled at her. "Taste is all that really matters anyway. And thanks."

Temari squeezed his shoulder and grinned at him. "No problem. Now blow out your candles."

Kankuro looked back at the cake, which leaned precariously to the side, and chuckled. "I guess I better before it falls over and the candles catch the table on fire."

Temari popped him on the head, albeit lightly, and he laughed and then blew out the candles. Baki helped cut the mutilated cake and hand out pieces, and Gaara thanked him as he accepted his piece. However, he could tell by the way that Kankuro's face grew still after taking a bite of the cake that something was wrong.

"Nice job," Kankuro told Temari, who refused to have a piece because she didn't like sweets.

Gaara took a bite, then carefully swallowed. The red icing had an unpleasant fake cinnamon taste that burnt his tongue. "Yes," he lied, wondering if he could plead fullness halfway through. "Well done."

"Thank you," Temari said, looking relieved.

Baki served himself last and took a bite. Gaara watched his expression closely, but he didn't so much as blink. "Indeed, Temari, your cooking has improved drastically since you were a child."

Gaara took note of this diplomatic turn of phrase and careful application of a truth to hide a truth and tucked it away for future use on council members.

Temari grinned with pleasure. Gaara simply held his breath while he chewed and took a sip of green tea between each bite.

However, Kankuro was kind enough to accept a second piece, and in that moment, Gaara understood that his brother had always quietly stood in the background, doing small and otherwise invisible things to support his siblings. Gaara set down his fork, struck with a pang at the sudden knowledge that until recently, he'd probably overlooked a million tiny things Kankuro had done to help him.

"We have presents, too," Temari said, jumping up and running into the kitchen a second time.

"You didn't have to do that," Kankuro called after her.

"We'll spoil you if we want," Gaara said quietly, and his brother turned to him with a small smile.

Temari returned with three packages and handed them to Kankuro. "Here you go."

Kankuro set them on the table and looked almost dumbfounded. "Really, you guys . . ." Still, he was grinning. He picked up Baki's present first and opened it to find a new tool kit for working on his puppets.

"Thank you." Kankuro smiled at Baki. "I wore out my tools fixing Karasu, Kuroari, and Sanshouo."

Baki nodded. "I figured you had."

"Open mine now," Temari said.

Kankuro opened her gift and pulled out a black yukata imprinted with a conservative golden dragon pattern and a matching obi. "Wow, Temari, this is a really nice one."

Temari grinned. "I know, I know. Guys don't usually flip out over clothes, but all your yukata are getting worn out."

"No, really. It's nice."

Gaara watched Kankuro smile and realized that they could have given him a dead dog, and as long as they were trying hard and had the right intentions, he'd still be touched. He wanted to reach out and squeeze his older brother's arm, to tell him how special he was, but of course, he maintained his composure.

Temari pushed Gaara's present toward Kankuro. "Okay, then. Open Gaara's."

Gaara held his breath. He had no idea how to select gifts for people, so he'd done the only thing he could think of.

Kankuro stared at the box, which was a full three feet long, wide, and deep. "What in the world?"

Temari and Baki looked just as curious.

Kankuro ripped off the bow and paper and pulled off the top. "Gaara!" He sounded stunned. He set the top down gently, as though awed, then reached into the box and pulled out a life-sized bobcat puppet. "Where . . . how . . .?"

Gaara exhaled the breath he was holding. "I sneaked off behind your back and visited Murata. You've said several times how good she is at creating puppets, so I had one made for you." He looked down. "I did accidentally destroy the wolf puppet you were making, after all."

"You didn't have to do that," Kankuro said quietly. "I've already carved a new wolf. It's still in the rough, but . . ." He turned the bobcat over, opening its mouth and flexing its legs.

Gaara watched his brother test the puppet, checking all the spots for hidden weapons, and realized that Kankuro was deeply impressed.

"It's remarkable," Kankuro said. He set the puppet down and smiled at all of them. "Thanks!"

"You're welcome." Temari hugged him from the side.

Baki stood, and they all followed suit and stood as well. "Yes, you're welcome. It's odd to think that before too long, we'll have to throw you a coming-of-age party."

"And you never thought I'd last that long." Kankuro grinned, clearly teasing.

"Of course you will." Baki reached out and shook his hand. "Take the rest of the day off and enjoy your birthday, okay?" He turned and bowed to Temari. "Thank you for supper."

She waved her hand through the air. "No problem. Thanks for joining us."

Baki nodded and left.

Now that he was standing, Kankuro returned Temari's hug. "You punk," he muttered with obvious affection. "Taking me off guard like that."

Temari hugged him back. "Ha! You're the punk."

Gaara watched them and realized suddenly that the reason his siblings had been able to care for him, to reach out to him, was because they had first learned to love one another. He wasn't sure how they figured it out, given the cruelty of their father, but perhaps the man's cold-heartedness had been the whole point. Perhaps as small children, they'd stuck up for each other, treated each other's wounds, and cried to each other in the night because no one else had cared. And Gaara had been isolated from them, kept separate and alone, until such a time he'd been too filled with hate to accept their care. Then, of course, they'd been filled with fear as well.

Struck with a wave of inexplicable sadness, Gaara turned his stare upon the floor.

"What's that look?"

Gaara glanced back up as Kankuro walked over to him and embraced him in a tight hug. "Hey, you ought to be happy. You figured out a birthday present all on your own, and you did a great job."

Temari smirked. "Yeah, you made the rest of us look bad."

"I didn't mean to." Gaara pulled away and glanced at Temari with concern.

"I'm only kidding." Temari laughed and waved them off. "You two go play with the puppet." She smiled at Kankuro. "I'll handle the dishes tonight since it's your birthday."

Kankuro grinned and picked up the puppet. "You don't have to tell me twice." He headed toward the back door, and after a quick look at Temari to ensure she really was okay with cleaning the dishes, Gaara followed him out into the courtyard.

Kankuro jogged out to the middle of the grounds. The moonlight illuminated what passed as a garden in Suna: an expanse of stone pathways that sparkled in the light and sand which was raked in swirling patterns and offset with colored rocks. Three stone benches, a freeform sculpture, and various tropical plants broke the scenery, accompanied by a small fountain.

Kankuro stopped near the fountain, and with the simple flick of his fingers attached chakra strings to the bobcat. Gaara watched as he moved his fingers with unconscious grace, walking the puppet around him and then triggering attacks that would soon be accompanied by countless needles, kunai, and various other poisoned blades.

Gaara stirred after a moment. "Murata said that if you complete the set — the wolf, a tiger, a jackal, and the bobcat — you can paint a four part seal on their backs and use them to circle an opponent and trap them."

"I was thinking about it," Kankuro said, looking up from the puppet. "When I can control seven puppets at once, it'd make an awesome collection."

"Is that why you're training?" Gaara asked, suddenly worried again. Kankuro still looked exhausted despite his enthusiasm. Faint dark circles discolored his eyes — circles Gaara understood too well.

Kankuro paused. "Yeah. I've gotten up to four now." He had the puppet jump up onto the fountain's edge and walk the rim.

Gaara walked closer. "Why the sudden burst in training? You've always been ahead of the learning curve in the puppet corps, anyway."

Kankuro paused and let the puppet slump. "I know, but I . . ." He shrugged and reinstated his chakra strings, causing the bobcat to hop to the ground and slash its claws.

"What is it?" Gaara asked. He could tell something was wrong, but he had no idea what.

Kankuro appeared nonchalant. "Well, after helping you train and regain your strength, I decided I should shore up my strength as well."

Gaara let his gaze fall again. The sparkling stones at his feet glittered white, red, and blue in the moonlight. "All I did was regain my previous abilities. It's not like I've added to my skills yet. Why would that inspire you to get stronger?" He paused, uncomfortable, and looked up. "Besides, you trained with me to the point of exhaustion. Shouldn't you give yourself a break first?"

"Nah." Kankuro smiled at him, but the warmth didn't reach his eyes. "I'm fine, really." He turned back to the puppet, and his smile faded quickly. "Besides, I've been hearing all the rumors about the impending invasion by the Aida Clan. I need to get stronger in case your life is ever endangered again like — like it was by Akatsuki."

For a moment, Gaara couldn't breathe. "Is that what this is about? My abduction? Nii-san. . . your opponent was Akasuna no Sasori. He originally crafted your puppets, so he knew all your attacks, and Sakura said he'd modified himself to control a hundred puppets at once. You weren't exactly in a fair fight."

Kankuro set the puppet down and released the chakra strings. "You died." He paused, a look of anguish washing over his face and wrinkling his brow. "And I couldn't do anything to help you. I had to rely completely on other people to save you."

Gaara blinked, shocked by this admission and the pain he heard in his brother's voice. "Nii-san. . ."

"I won't let it happen again." Kankuro frowned at the bobcat. "Should there be a next time, I'll prove useful to you. I'll save you myself."

Gaara reached one hand toward him but then let it fall, unsure how to comfort Kankuro the way he always managed to comfort him. "Don't talk that way. You've stood beside me for years now, supporting me in my quest to become Kazekage, listening to my dreams, helping me through my initial efforts to sleep, and training with me."

Kankuro shook his head. "None of those things will mean much if I stand by and let you get killed — again."

Gaara took a step forward and grasped his brother's wrist. "I won't let you say that. You wouldn't let me say it when I was struggling to recover, and I won't let you say it now." He squeezed the wrist he held. "I see you: how strong you are, and how much you care." A small smile bent the corner of his mouth. "You ate Temari's and my horrid cooking like it tasted good and didn't even let on how bad it was."

Kankuro grinned. "Well . . ." He put one hand over his stomach. "I have a bad heartburn now."

"See?" Gaara released his arm. "You're a great brother. Neither Temari nor I could ask for more."

Kankuro blushed and nodded, but Gaara could tell he wasn't at peace with himself. His nii-san had worked hard to take care of him; from now on Gaara would do the same. It was his turn to protect Kankuro — especially since Suna was apparently going to war.

A/N: The stage is now set . . .

Sorry for the long pause between "Requiem" and this one. Thanks to Darkhelmetj for beta reading, and thank you to those who have been reading and reviewing my various Sandsib stories, as well as to anyone who reads and reviews this story.