The Day Gaara Died
Description: SANDSIBS fic. Kankuro hangs in the moment between Gaara's life and death, struck with a pain he can't face. Read author's note. Set during Shippuuden. Angst and hurt/comfort.
Disclaimer: All characters 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: Bromance/brotherly love, not Sandcest.
AU. This is an alternate version of how Gaara's resurrection could have been timed and carried out and how Kankuro would have reacted to it. So while the flow of the story will ultimately align with canon facts, the process will be different. Also, this is my first attempt at writing fanfic in first person POV. A majority of my original fic is in first person, but I've never tried it in this venue. So here goes: first person POV, Kankuro.
Translations (jic): "nii-san" means older brother; "ototo" means younger brother.
After the rigor mortis wore off, they would put his body in a barrel and bury it beside Father's in the graveyard set aside for Kazekages. Until then, he would "lay in state" — a display for villagers to walk past prior to the funeral. I knew this, had seen it when Father died, but it didn't make it any easier.
I wanted to vomit.
I sat on the bench furthest from the stage in the Kazekage Complex's assembly room, which was used for everything from Kabuki plays to state funerals. They'd laid Gaara on a pallet, then set the pallet at the stage's edge so people could walk past easily. My stomach roiled, tossing my food in a turbulent sea of acid that knocked against my guts and pleaded to be released. I stared at the concrete bench in front of mine, absently noting the paint was chipping off: tan paint, top layer; grey paint, second layer; white paint, third layer. It looked like a cheap aurora. A fat, black ant wandered over the chipped section, pausing and twitching its antennae before continuing on a path that only it understood.
I didn't understand my path, and I sure as hell didn't understand Gaara's.
Why? That was the question I wanted to ask each villager who passed me, heading to where their Kazekage had been laid. Why had Gaara been chosen as Shukaku's host? Why did Akatsuki want the tailed beasts? And most importantly, why did Gaara have to die after recovering so much of his humanity and being needed by his village?
I knew people always asked why. Useless question. It never had an answer.
Baki, who was speaking quietly with a group of shinobi in the corner, broke away from them, walked over, and sat beside me. "Kankuro . . ." He paused, and from the corner of my vision, I could see him nod in Gaara's direction. "He looks oddly peaceful."
I didn't want to look up, but I did. Gaara's flesh had turned a pale blue-grey hue, and they couldn't cross his arms over his chest because he was too stiff. They'd left him in his battle garb for now, not wanting to attempt to dress him in his Kazekage robes during rigor mortis. His grey vest straps hung loosely off the pallet, signaling the absence of his sand gourd. But his face . . . to me, his face looked no more or less peaceful than always. He had no expression.
"Maybe," I finally mumbled, not wanting to be rude to Baki but wishing he'd leave. I didn't feel like talking to anyone, not even Temari. I just wanted my ototo back. My palms had begun to sweat from my tension, and I braced them against the cool concrete bench, pressing them hard against the rough surface.
A group of sobbing twelve-year-old genin entered the room — four of the many girls who'd developed a crush on Gaara. They held each other's hands as they walked up to him, but one of them began to wail when she reached him. The others hugged her from all angles, crying with her.
For a moment, I wanted to slap them. Why were they so upset? They didn't even know Gaara. I was his nii-san; I was the one who should be crying. But I was in too much pain show any emotion: a strange burning sensation pumped through my veins with my blood. I didn't feel real, and yet my teeth ached with an emptiness I couldn't express.
They would have to cry for me.
"I failed him," I blurted out. It wasn't much more than a whisper, but I still had no idea I was going to say it until it was too late.
Baki glanced at me with surprise. "You failed him? How? No one in the entire Puppet Corps could have beaten Akasuna no Sasori alone. Not even Chiyo-baasama, as it turned out."
This time my voice was a whisper, one so faint I wasn't sure Baki would hear me. "I . . . was . . . his nii-san. It was my duty as a . . . a brother . . . to save him."
Baki had always been too practical, too logical, too rational to understand me. He was no different now. "You're being unreasonable, you know. I agree that it wasn't good that you lost your composure and ran after Gaara without reinforcements, but as it turned out, even if you'd waited, it wouldn't have done any good. Not against Sasori."
And then I remembered why I never showed my true feelings around him — him or anyone else. The shinobi world didn't have room for people like the real me, so it was better to wear the mask. "Actually," I replied, my voice turning angry, bitter, "the only reason I'll be able to live with myself was because I tried."
Baki jerked slightly, the only sign he even felt anything. "You know I care — cared — for Gaara, too," he said quietly.
It was true. He was horrid at showing it, but he'd stepped into a fatherly-like role for the three of us when Father had died: giving us advice, checking in on us, and making sure we were eating more than junk food. "I know."
It was a terse acknowledgement, and Baki took the cue and left. I stared at Gaara's body for countless minutes, wondering how I'd ever feel normal again, how I could let life move forward. Hell, I wondered how I'd even get off the bench, and that didn't count the remaining stiffness from Sasori's poison. I just didn't feel like standing. I rubbed my palms hard across the bench, roughing up my hands, hoping the friction could ground me, make me feel more real. It didn't.
I had sent reinforcements to replace Temari's team at the border as soon as I'd been able to walk, but Temari and her team had only just entered the village when the two Konoha teams had returned with an injured Chiyo-baasama and Gaara's body. Now Chiyo only had a day left to live, and Sakura-san was desperately trying to create more antidote for her. And Gaara . . . well, nothing could save Gaara.
But, no, I couldn't accept that. "It's not fair," I whispered. It was never fair. "It's not fair!"
A hand touched my shoulder and squeezed it, and I glanced up to find Temari standing behind me. She was looking at Gaara's body, not me, and tears stood in her eyes. Tears she'd never shed, but she couldn't quite hold them completely back. She squeezed my shoulder harder, and I realized the second squeeze wasn't so much to comfort me as to keep her steady.
"Sit," I said, and she did — she sat backwards on the bench, facing away from the stage.
"Damn it," she said, her voice low and sharp. "Damn it all to hell!" She began shaking faintly and bit her lip hard.
I knew what she felt, but I had no words for her. As a shinobi, I'd learned to talk trash, not to express myself. Shinobi didn't cry or reveal their hearts. Men didn't.
But as a kunoichi, Temari was no less restrained. Trapped, really. She sat and shook, clenching her teeth and fists, and I did the only thing I knew to do. I wrapped one arm around her, hugged her to me, and said nothing at all.
She froze momentarily because I rarely hugged her, then she leaned her head on my shoulder. Her arm was cold where it brushed my wrist, but her waist was hot, as though all her body heat was seeking her heart in an attempt to warm it.
We sat together in silent misery for several minutes, sharing unspoken support, until two med nin entered the room and headed for Gaara's body. I assumed they were there to check if the rigor mortis was passing; they would remove him as soon as it did and seal him in his coffin. That realization made me feel nauseated again. But the sound of running footsteps interrupted my thoughts. Temari straightened and looked toward the door, and I followed her gaze.
Uzamaki Naruto burst into the room. "Don't touch him!"
I jumped faintly, jarred by the explosion of his yell across an otherwise silent room, but I understood his anger. I didn't want them touching him either; it would make his death too final.
All the shinobi and kunoichi present turned to stare at him, this irrational, unmannered genin who ran to the stage. The older med nin, who was dressed head to toe in tan robes and a turban, turned to face Naruto. "Uzamaki-kun, we have to check the body's status."
The younger med nin, who was dressed in solid white, nodded in agreement. "After all, the body hasn't even been treated."
Naruto visibly trembled. "Don't call it 'the body'! This is Gaara we're talking about. He's . . . he's your Kazekage!"
A fist seemed to squeeze my heart, then ram itself into my throat to choke me. I seethed with similar rage: he was right. How dare they refer to Gaara that way!
A tired, quiet voice spoke from the doorway. "Relax, Uzamaki Naruto."
I glanced in surprise toward the owner of that voice, shocked beyond words to see the woman who had avoided the village for so many years. An exhausted-looking Chiyo-baasama stood in the doorway, Sakura-san at her side.
"Please don't continue!" Sakura pleaded. "The antidote will be finished soon, but until then you shouldn't be moving."
Chiyo shook her head. "I —"
Naruto whirled around to face her. "Shut up!" Tears flew from his eyes from the force of his movement, and I almost had to look away. He was saying what I wanted to say, crying like I wanted to cry, and watching him was unhinging me.
Chiyo hesitated, apparently speechless. For a moment, I wished I could slap her face. If she hadn't sealed Shukaku into Gaara, he wouldn't have been killed.
Naruto continued to yell, and once again his words aligned with my thoughts. "If you Suna shinobi hadn't put a monster in Gaara, then nothing like this would've happened! Did any of you even try to ask Gaara how he felt?"
I jerked involuntarily, and beside me, Temari jerked as well. The guilt stung like scorpion poison. Until a few years ago, we'd been too scared to ask him how he felt, but that didn't make us any less culpable.
Naruto was not finished punishing us, however. "What is this 'Jinchuuriki' anyway? You just arrogantly made up that word to call us!"
Chiyo stared at the ground for several moments, her face a painting of sadness and regret. Then she walked to the stage, past Naruto, and put her hands on Gaara's chest. Taking a deep breath first, she suddenly discharged chakra into my brother.
Releasing Temari, I wrenched myself to my feet, knowing exactly what she meant to do. The Suna shinobi watched in confused silence, none of them knowing about the forbidden jutsu the Puppet Corps had researched. None of them, that is, except Temari and me. I knew from serving in the Puppet Corps, but I was the only member present, and well . . . I'd broken my oath of silence to discuss the concept with my sister. I couldn't keep much from her, and she never revealed anything I shared.
Temari stood and grabbed my arm, squeezing hard, but I couldn't spare a look for her. I literally held my breath, nearly insane with hope. Every muscle in my body tensed. Please, please . . .
The rest of the Konoha shinobi entered the room behind Sakura, who walked halfway up the aisle to Chiyo before stopping.
"Chiyo-baasama," she began, "that jutsu is —"
Naruto interrupted her, glaring at Chiyo. "What are you trying to do now?"
I started to speak, but Sakura beat me to it.
She turned toward Naruto. "She's bringing Gaara back to life."
Naruto grew utterly still. "Bringing him back to life? Can you really do something like that?"
The Suna shinobi grew restless at this announcement, a murmur of excitement running through the room. Temari's grip on my arm tightened further, and I put my hand on her hand and squeezed back. I could barely breathe; my lungs burnt like a swimmer who has been submerged for too long.
"This jutsu is one that only Chiyo-baasama knows," Sakura said, and by the frown on her face I knew that she understood the consequences.
Chiyo gasped suddenly, her arms trembling, and the glow of chakra around her hands dimmed. "Damn! Not enough chakra."
My heart nearly stopped beating in anguish. "No," I gasped, my entire body trembling with suppressed grief and desperation. We couldn't get this close only to fail! The cruelty of the concept was too much to bear.
Naruto's eyes grew wide, and he jumped onto the stage to kneel on the opposite side of Gaara. "My chakra," he said, catching Chiyo's gaze. "Try using it." He lifted both hands. "Can you do that, Baa-chan?"
I couldn't stand it a moment longer; I released Temari and pulled away from her. With quick, long strides, I joined Chiyo at the front of the room, although I stood away from the stage edge to give her space. "Chiyo-baasama," I whispered, my throat so tight I hardly made a sound. "Please . . ."
Temari joined me, watching the scene with desperate hope, one fist clenched at her chest.
Chiyo was gazing at Gaara with the saddest expression of regret I'd ever seen. "Place your hands on top of mine," she instructed Naruto.
I clenched both my fists, the hope burning in my chest so painfully I could barely draw breath. Naruto put his hands on Chiyo's, and the glow of chakra immediately tripled.
Chiyo spoke to Naruto quietly. "In this world of shinobi, made by many foolish old people, I'm glad to see someone such as you has appeared."
Everyone present, Konoha and Suna shinobi alike, listened to this in guilty silence. Naruto, though, looked surprised.
"My past . . ." Chiyo continued. "Everything I've done has been nothing but one mistake after another. Still in my very last moments, it looks like I'll finally be able to set things right."
Naruto looked no less confused, but I understood. Since I knew Chiyo-baasama had sealed Shukaku into Gaara at my father's request — killing my mother in the process — I had held her partially responsible for Gaara's . . . condition. I chewed on the inside of my lip, oddly comforted and yet disturbed by her admission.
"Suna and Konoha . . ." she said, "The future, starting now, will surely be different from the time I lived, so become a Hokage unlike any before you."
Naruto nodded silently; Sakura, knowing as well as I did that Chiyo was close to death, began to cry. I couldn't feel any pain for her, though; I just prayed the jutsu would work.
"Naruto, this old woman has a request of you." Her voice was growing weak. "You are the only person capable of understanding Gaara's suffering. Gaara understands your suffering as well."
I flinched, scalded by her words and the truth in them. As much as I wanted to be Gaara's nii-san, to assist him and empathize with him, there was one side of Gaara I could never even touch.
Chiyo took a deep breath. "Please, help Gaara for me." With those words, she seemed to faint, to merely fall backwards, and Sakura caught her and lowered her to the ground. But Sakura, Temari, and I knew what all the jonin present likely suspected: Chiyo-baasama was dead.
I couldn't spare any attention for her, though. My gaze turned to Gaara, my pulse racing so fast I trembled. Had it worked? "Ototo . . ."
Naruto bowed his head and closed his eyes, almost as though he were reaching out to Gaara soul-to-soul. Then Gaara stirred, and Naruto opened his eyes with the softest, oddest smile I'd ever seen — a smile caught somewhere between unspeakable grief and equally unspeakable joy.
The Suna shinobi began moving forward, some hopping onto the stage, others crowding in at the sides, until we surrounded Gaara and Naruto. I could feel the breathless hope we all shared; the room seemed to vibrate with it.
Naruto put his arm under Gaara's shoulders and sat him up. Gaara opened his eyes, but they were glazed, like he wasn't seeing anything yet. Naruto balanced him by keeping one hand on his shoulder, which he then squeezed. In response, Gaara turned to look at him and then blinked. His eyes cleared; I could literally see consciousness return to him. At this, I gasped, but my lungs still burnt from the breath I didn't realize I'd been holding.
"Gaara . . ." Naruto said.
Gaara's eyes widened in detectable shock. "Naruto . . ."
Naruto smiled more genuinely, but a certain sadness still played around his eyes.
However, Gaara apparently realized they weren't alone. With a wide-eyed stare, he glanced around the room, seeing the dozens of relieved Suna shinobi crowded around him. "This is . . ." Gaara's sentence trailed off, but the awe in his voice told me all I needed to know: he finally realized he was loved. The dream that he'd shared with me about being needed by the village — the dream I already knew was fulfilled — he now understood he had achieved it, also. I smiled, my grief slipping away and joy taking its place.
The sadness at last fell away from Naruto's expression. "They all wanted to save you!"
The shock on Gaara's face didn't ease; he gazed at Naruto with almost childlike wonder.
"Hey," Naruto continued, grinning in earnest, "you put us through a lot."
I couldn't contain myself any longer. I stepped up to the stage and nodded. "For sure." I sounded so offhand, so teasing, but in truth I spoke from the bottom of my heart. "You're a little brother I'll always have to worry about, huh?"
Gaara's shock only seemed to deepen. He turned his wide-eyed gaze upon me, and I had the odd urge to hug him, to ground him, to celebrate with him.
Temari walked up to him, and like me, she hid her relief with a massive attitude. "Hey, don't go getting all complacent," she admonished Naruto and me. "Gaara's still the Kazekage, so don't be so cheeky, you underlings."
Irritated, I glared at her, and Naruto joined me. It wasn't like I didn't know she was pulling the same riff as I was.
And sure enough, she turned around in an instant and contradicted herself, leaning toward Gaara with an expression of concern. "How are you feeling?"
Hypocrite! I wanted to yell, but she was too much like me in the 'talking trash' department, so I let it go.
Temari's show of concern won her a good dose of Gaara's shocked look, but as though speech had completely failed him, he didn't answer her and just tried to stand. His limbs trembled, however, and he grunted with the effort.
"You shouldn't be in such a hurry to move," Temari said. "Your body's not back to full health yet."
Gaara nodded and relaxed. Around us, shinobi were crying, shouting in joy, and even hugging each other in relief. A few girls ran up to Gaara, each one nearly hopping up and down in happiness, and Temari turned to ward them off. I jumped onto the stage and knelt by Naruto.
For a moment, my feelings were mixed: I hated myself for being so useless to Gaara, and that anger transferred to Naruto. I really wanted to deck him for being a brother to Gaara when I couldn't be. At the same time, however, I remembered how Gaara had told me Naruto helped him see he could change his life, and I couldn't be anything other than grateful. So I sucked it up. "Thank you, Naruto," I said, and I meant every word of it.
Naruto looked surprised. "You should be saying that to Baa-chan, not me. She saved Gaara with her amazing medical ninjutsu."
I frowned and glanced toward Chiyo. A miserable-looking Sakura held her against her shoulder, and Ebizo stepped forward and gazed down at his sister.
"She's passed out from tiredness now, but —" Naruto was saying.
"No," I interrupted him. I wasn't sure how to feel about it all. Chiyo had turned her back on the Puppet Corps and Suna for so long, and I got my brother returned to me in exchange . . . but she had sacrificed herself and been an honorable kunoichi.
Naruto's eyes widened in alarm. "What do you mean, 'no?'"
Temari glanced toward us and frowned.
"Chiyo-baasama is dead," I explained quietly. "That was no medical ninjutsu; it was a tensei ninjutsu. It restores life in exchange for the user's own."
Shock descended upon the entire room; I could feel everyone tense as they turned their gazes upon Chiyo.
"At one time, in Suna's Puppet Corps, people tried to research and develop a justu to give life to puppets," I continued, frowning as the reality of her sacrifice sank into me. "Chiyo-baasama led that. When she saw the risk was too high, she had it designated a forbidden jutsu."
Naruto stared at me with horror, then turned his gaze to the floor, looking saddened.
Ebizo stirred. "'I'm just playing dead.' I keep expecting her to laugh out loud and say that . . ."
I stared at the floor momentarily, struck above all by the old man's words. Just as I'd faced my brother's death, he was now facing his sister's. Except there was no one with a wild jutsu up their sleeve to save her.
"Naruto," Temari said after a moment's silence, "Chiyo-baasama entrusted the future to you and Gaara."
"Yeah," Naruto replied. "The same as Sandaime."
I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow, wondering what kind of relationship Naruto must have had with Sandaime Hokage in order for him to be able to say such a thing.
Naruto nodded, then turned his gaze upon Chiyo. "Yeah, I understand Baa-chan's feelings for sure now."
Gaara listened to this entire exchange in silence, closed his eyes briefly, then opened them. I could only imagine what he felt hearing that the woman who had damned him had now willingly sacrificed her life to save him and then left the future in his care. Gaara put one hand on his knee and tried to stand again, and Naruto caught him under his arm and helped him. Then, with Naruto's assistance, he climbed off the stage and walked up to Chiyo-baasama.
All the shinobi, Suna and Konoha alike, turned their attention to Gaara. In a quiet but commanding voice, he finally spoke. "Everyone, say a prayer for Chiyo."
We all bowed our heads, and I prayed for her in earnest and thanked Kami for her sacrifice. But what I really wanted was to make sure Gaara was all right.
Hours had passed since the Konoha teams had left for their home. I wandered through the Kazekage Complex's hallways, staring at the sunbeams racing across the floors and shivering as the air rapidly cooled. The sun would set soon, dropping Suna into darkness and plunging the temperature a dozen degrees.
I headed for the Kazekage's office, suspecting Gaara was still there, and tried to pull myself together as I went. I'd spent the morning lost in giddy joy, overwhelmed and thankful to have Gaara returned to me. Now, though . . . now I was tired, and an inexplicable grief had returned — not the kind associated with mourning, although we'd held a small service for Chiyo-baasama that afternoon so the Konoha teams could pay their last respects. No, it was a different kind of grief, and I suspected it was the pain of a nii-san who hadn't been able to help his ototo.
When I reached my destination, I knocked on Gaara's office door. The corridor seemed unusually chilly to me even though I was sweating with a sudden and unexpected nervousness.
"Come in," called Gaara's quiet, low-pitched voice.
I opened the door and entered, putting on a smile as I shut the door behind me. "Hey, man. How are you feeling?" It seemed an almost meaningless question in the face of all he'd endured.
Gaara sat behind his desk, still wearing his black mourner's clothes. He gazed at me with his usual impassive expression. "Tired and a bit stiff."
A blunt but honest answer — the kind he reserved for me. He had slowly begun confiding in me a few years earlier, shortly before we made chunin, and while I'd been surprised at first, it had made me proud and happy. "Sakura-san mentioned you'd have to sleep now."
Gaara nodded, a faint frown working its way across his features, furrowing his brow and bending the corners of his mouth. "It's . . . a strange thought."
I walked up and propped myself on the desk corner, loosely crossing my arms. "I'd think so." I started to say something teasing, something I hoped would cheer him up, when the memory of Chiyo's words shot through my mind: "Naruto, you are the only person capable of understanding Gaara's suffering." I stopped short and stared at the floor, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing. It wasn't like I could comprehend something as bizarre as having to sleep when you'd never done so before.
"Kankuro?" Gaara's voice, which might sound emotionless to anyone else, held a tint of curiosity. A tint that only Temari and I could catch.
Only Temari and I . . .
I glanced back at Gaara, my confidence returning. "Maybe you should turn in early, you know. Since you've never slept before, and just this morning you were —" I couldn't bring myself to say dead. "Well, it might be a good idea to go ahead and go to bed." He likely needed a great deal of rest, considering.
Gaara frowned outright. "You're probably right."
He sounded like a child who'd been ordered to eat a plate full of turnips. I couldn't help smiling. "Hey, of course I am. After all, I am your —"
I stood abruptly, the word dying in my throat, and turned away from him. How could I make such claims when everyone else had helped him or saved him but me? I might have tried, but I'd also failed. As much as I wanted to protect him, to reach out to him, to connect with him, in the end, I'd been useless.
This time I detected a hint of concern in Gaara's voice. The sound of a chair scooting across the floor followed, and although I couldn't hear his footsteps, I knew Gaara had stepped up behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder and gave him a smile that I hoped didn't look as fake as it felt. "Sorry, man. I had a moment, but I'm fine now."
He looked somber, and I knew he wasn't fooled. "What is it?"
I turned back toward him and felt myself grimace. How could I tell him I loved him? How could I explain to him that he was the most important person in the world to me? I still wasn't sure he'd even understand. "Gaara . . ."
The words weren't going to come. I put my hand on my chest, right over my heart; for a moment I was sure the organ would explode from the intensity of my pain. My teeth ached again, my eyes burnt, and I cursed myself at the thought I might actually break down and cry.
Gaara was staring at my hand. He had the strangest look of comprehension on his face, as though he suddenly knew the pain I felt. Then he reached up with his own hand and placed it over his heart. "You're . . . hurting. Why?"
I felt my eyes widen. He did understand. Something in my gesture had helped him to see into me. "Because —" I paused; my voice was so rough and broken I had to clear my throat. "Because . . ."
And once again I was trapped, caught between the shinobi code, the unspoken rules of manhood, and the reality of the person I really was inside.
Gaara looked up at me with an expression I could only call pleading hope, as though there was something he needed me to say, and he wanted it so badly it hurt. "Because?" he prompted in a small voice. The voice of a lost child.
Then I knew. I knew there was something I had to give that Naruto couldn't — something that no one except family could give to Gaara. And it was something that would help.
Since I couldn't speak, I acted — irrationally, impulsively, and without composure. I acted from the depth of who I was and mentally damned anyone I could imagine admonishing me. I reached out and pulled Gaara into my arms, hugging him against my chest. Only one word emerged: "Ototo."
Although he didn't react at first, he finally unfroze and grasped the front of my shirt in both his hands, then rested his head on my shoulder. I realized then that I was shaking, but I couldn't seem to stop. Tears stung my eyes, but I rested my cheek against his head, turning my face away so there was no chance he would see. He felt so fragile in my arms, and yet he was so warm. A warm face against my shoulder, soft red hair tickling my cheek and neck . . . he was alive, breathing, touchable.
For a long moment, neither of us moved. Then he wrapped one arm around my waist, as though to support me. When I still didn't stop shaking, he pulled back a bit and put his other hand over my heart. Even through my shirt, I could feel the heat radiating from his palm.
After a long pause in which I stared at his hand, he finally spoke. "Nii-san . . ."
I gasped. I didn't mean to, but the sound slipped out. I reached up and put my hand over his, lacing my fingers through his and then squeezing. He bent his fingers as I bent mine, and then he squeezed back. My shaking ceased but seemed to transfer to him: suddenly, he was trembling against me.
I released his hand and wrapped both arms around him again, hugging him and rubbing one hand up and down his back. He still clutched at my shirt in one fist, and I held him tightly, wishing I could give my strength to him. I tucked his head under my chin, determined to protect him with everything I had. "It's all right," I finally whispered. "It took us a long time, but . . ." I shook my head, then let go. Let myself speak. "I'll protect you, ototo. I'll look after you and protect you."
Gaara released my shirt. "Then . . ." His voice was strangled. "Then . . . look after me tonight."
I understood immediately: he didn't want to sleep. "Sure thing." I paused, hoping the idea wouldn't sound odd to him. "Why don't you spend the first night in my room? If I'm going to watch over you, then —"
"Okay," he said, sounding relieved.
I smiled. "Right, then. Let's go get some sleep." I released him, but when I saw how exhausted and worried he looked, I put one arm around his shoulders and guided him toward my room. Fear was an emotion he rarely showed, and seeing the way his brow furrowed made me scramble to reassure him. "Don't be afraid," I said quietly. "I said I'd look after you."
He nodded and leaned into me. "I know. I just . . ."
He didn't finish the sentence, but he didn't have to. I knew what he meant; this side of him I did understand. I smiled at him as we traversed the hallways, making our way from the public section of the Complex to the private quarters.
"What is it like to sleep?" Gaara frowned at the floor as we walked. "Putting myself into Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu was . . . I'm not sure I can explain it. I could feel Shukaku, even see what he was doing through his eyes, but I couldn't affect it or change it. So really, I just felt power. Shukaku's power rushing through me, out of me, and growing stronger and stronger the longer I was his medium."
I frowned. "Well, sleep is . . ." How did I even explain it? "It varies. Sometimes you fall asleep slowly and think weird things as you drift off. Sometimes you conk out suddenly and don't even realize it until you wake up. While you're asleep, you dream, but —"
"Dream?" Gaara's eyes widened slightly, and I'd never seen him so anxious. "People always talk about dreams, but . . ." He hesitated, and his voice dropped nearly to a whisper. "They sound disturbing."
We'd reached my bedroom door, so I opened it and let him walk in first. I followed behind him and slid the door closed. "Some are." No use in lying. "Most aren't. Most of them you won't even remember when you wake up. The really wacky ones that are funny and make no sense you might remember for a long time. But only rarely are they scary."
Gaara walked a few steps into my room and halted, facing away from me. "I don't want to dream about . . . all the people I needlessly killed in the past." His tone was sharp, edged with pain and fear; it was almost like watching his sand armor crack and drop off. "And I don't . . . want to dream about having Shukaku ripped out of me."
I flinched and stepped toward him. Watching his stoic mask peel away and the true pain beneath it lance through made me nauseated. I couldn't even begin to comprehend what he'd suffered during Akatsuki's jutsu.
"I don't want to dream about being dead or . . ."
I closed the distance between us, wrapping my arms around him from behind and pulling him back against my chest. "I can't make promises about what you will or won't dream."
He leaned his head back against my shoulder and glanced up at me, his eyes dull and flat. "I know." His seemed beyond afraid . . . almost sad.
I blushed over what I knew I had to say, but I was finished with my mask. Finished pretending. "But whatever it is, I'll be here when you wake up."
Gaara glanced away, training his gaze on my nightstand, and I could feel a fraction of his tension ease. "Thank you."
I smiled and released him. "Okay, then." I was still dressed in my mourner's clothes, too, so I simply pulled off my white belt and tossed it on the nightstand. "You'll have to decide what you like to sleep in, but for now, we can just sleep in these clothes. They're loose-fitting and comfortable."
Gaara followed my lead and pulled off his belt, too. "What do you usually wear?"
"My boxers and a t-shirt." I yanked down the covers on my bed as I talked. "Other guys have PJs of various kinds. And some guys sleep naked."
"Naked?" Gaara sounded scandalized. "Why would anyone want to sleep naked?"
I laughed. I couldn't help it. "They just find it comfortable." I climbed onto the bed and patted the space beside me. "This bed isn't made for two people, so . . ." And suddenly I found myself staring at the footboard, embarrassed. I hadn't really thought it through too well. "So we'll be sleeping pretty tight here."
Gaara didn't seem to mind this concept and didn't reply. He just climbed into bed beside me — or tried to. He was hanging halfway off the bed. "How . . . ?"
I lay down on my side, making room for him. "Lie on your side with your back to me."
He paused, then lay down as instructed. I pulled him back against me, wrapping my arm tight around him, ensuring he wouldn't fall off the bed. Then I smiled at the back of his head. "There." He was so thin I could wrap my arm around his waist and then reach up and rest my hand over his heart.
Gaara was quite still for a moment, almost frozen, then he relaxed. "Will you be . . ." His voice trailed off to a whisper. "Are you going to . . . hold me like this all night?"
I almost died, but I couldn't deny that keeping him from falling out of the narrow bed was almost a secondary concern. I wanted him to feel utterly safe. "Yeah."
A long pause followed, and I had no idea what he was thinking. He'd been shown very little physical affection in the course of his life, and I had no idea what he knew about sex. Then he reached up and put his hand over mine. "Good."
I realized he was probably fairly innocent, if only on this one count, so I relaxed. He wouldn't take anything the wrong way, and I was willing to chance a moment's confusion and explanation, anyway: he had fifteen years of missed affection to make up for, and I had seventeen years of repressed affection to offer.
He yawned. "How long will it take to fall asleep?"
"Depends," I answered quietly. I used chakra-strings to pull the sheet up over us.
"Can you tell right before you fall asleep?" He'd begun murmuring.
I smiled, watching as my breath lightly fluttered the hair at the nape of his neck. "Uh-huh."
He wiggled a bit, making me brace so I didn't lose my balance and fall out of bed. He yawned again. "And you'll watch? All night?"
I hugged him tighter, cherishing the fact his body was warm and alive now, not the cold, rigid corpse I'd had to witness. "Yeah. All night."
"Hn." The hand that he held over mine relaxed and dropped.
I closed my eyes and listened to his quiet, steady breathing — really listened to it. Focused on it, the sound beautiful to me. Then I opened my eyes and rose up slightly, propping my head on my hand and watching his face. This time, his expression truly was peaceful. His face held a faint pink hue, the traces of pale blue long gone, and the corners of his mouth were bent upward faintly.
I could have watched over him all night long, and I did.
A/N: Thank you to Darkhelmetj for betareading and to everyone who reads and reviews! Again, I apologize for not sending out individual thank you PMs for the ffdot net reviews here recently, but I do note and appreciate every review I get. Thank you, everyone.
Exact dialogue was taken from fan translations — which I prefer to the Shonen Jump version because they seem to adhere to the characters' "voices" better — of Naruto chapters 278-281 and is therefore technically copyrighted to Kishimoto.