The Greatest Gift

Description: While reassessing his life, Gaara realises that he wants his brother to love him as a person. But he doesn't actually deserve love, right? Angst/hurt/comfort. Post Episode 32 Shippuuden.

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: Set after Episode 32 of Naruto: Shippuuden. Ariel-D co-wrote this with me because I have a vicious cold, feel terrible, and am working long hours this week. She wrote Kankuro's dialogue and helped covert it to prose from our MSN Messenger RP. Please give her lots of love for all the help!

Translations (jic): "ototo" means younger brother, "niisan" means older brother, and "jan" is a non-sense word Kankuro puts on the end of some of his sentences (like how some Canadians say "eh?" sometimes).

Gaara leaned on the railing and stared at the village sprawled before him. From the balcony near his office, he had the best view of the domed, adobe homes and stores, so he often retreated to this vantage point before or after council meetings. Tonight he watched soft lights illuminate windows one-by-one as darkness fell, but although the sight should have been warming, the cool wind whipping across the balcony made him shiver.

Granted, Gaara usually wore more layers of clothing than he currently was. He'd changed from his Kazekage kimono into his black mourner's clothes, which he'd worn most of the week since his return to life. The councilmen thought it was a sign of respect to Chiyo-basama, an assumption that was correct for the first few days after her funeral. A week later, however, he simply couldn't bring himself to wear the clothes he'd died in. The implications of that experience were enormous, and he needed time to sort them out. Longer than a mere seven days.

With a sigh, Gaara folded his arms on the railing and closed his eyes briefly, letting the cool wind blow his bangs back from his forehead. "Relax," he muttered to himself, but he couldn't release his tension. He opened his eyes and stared at the village, feeling a wave of exhaustion wash over him. The week had been long: endless paperwork to process, backlogged projects to review—a million things a Kage misses after being abducted and dead for several days.

However, there had been Kankuro to help, and Temari as well, until she'd had to return to Konoha. Kankuro had stayed at his side the entire week, handling all the paperwork that wasn't too confidential. He'd overworked himself, losing almost as much sleep as his younger brother had previously. Then again, Gaara was forcing himself to stay awake by meditating and taking herbal medicines the med nins made for him. Kankuro had foregone sleep using sheer stamina alone, and Gaara felt bad that his brother had worked so much overtime. But he had said . . .

Gaara stirred and repeated those words to himself: "'You're an ototo I'll always have to worry about and look out for.'" The wind carried away the whisper, the sound lost, but the words could not be taken from Gaara's mind. Or heart. They made him realise he truly wanted a niisan, and Kankuro didn't seem to mind the duty of helping him. But Gaara wished it could mean more to his brother than a mere obligation charged to him because they shared the same parents. There was no reason to suppose Kankuro believed otherwise.

Gaara heard the balcony door click open and shut, and he glanced up in time to see Baki join him at the railing.

"You look exhausted," Baki said, his tone blunt. "Why are you still awake? The council actually gave you tomorrow off, and you can't avoid sleeping forever. Not without Shukaku."

Gaara stared at the man who had once been his team captain and found his gaze stuck on the red tattoo decorating his cheek. In his sleep-deprived state, he couldn't seem to bring himself to focus elsewhere. "'Without Shukaku,'" he murmured, struck once again by a fact he couldn't escape: his mind was so quiet with the beast gone that he couldn't deny that he was still utterly alone. He gave Baki a faint smile, but he knew his expression had to be pained.

"Gaara-sama," Baki said, "I'm serious. It's rare for the Kazekage to get a day off, since you're technically on call every moment of every day. They gave you this time to recover. What are you waiting for? You look nearly delirious."

Gaara glanced away, his gaze falling upon his village again. The glowing windows seemed inviting, but he felt removed from all the houses and the people in them. "I'm their protector," he said, following the sudden flow of his thoughts. "They . . . they actually need me. Some of them appreciate me—enough of them that several squads ran after my abductors." He sighed softly, the concept still new and delightful to him, but the momentary happiness was whisked away by a frown. "And yet I'm standing alone above it all. Some things don't change, I suppose. I worked hard, and the younger generation respects me now. That is . . . invaluable. But—" He paused, unable to say what he knew was true: the villagers didn't know him or love him as a person. It was wonderful to be appreciated and needed as Kazekage, but this one hole remained. And working beside Kankuro all week, with his brother's promise echoing in his mind, had underscored that void. Gaara wished Kankuro could love him as a person—a unique individual, defined by something other than the robes he wore.

But Gaara didn't deserve that love. Not after all the cruel things he'd done to his brother. To his village. To everyone he had met for six long years of near insanity.

"You're babbling," Baki said, apparently realising Gaara wasn't going to finish his sentence. "That is a clear sign you need sleep. Plus, you never answered my question."

"Who am I?" Gaara asked suddenly, one thought piercing through the growing fog in his mind. "When I'm not Kazekage, dressed in the traditional kimono and michiyuki, who am I?"

"A fatigued sixteen-year-old boy who is so drowsy he's not making sense when he speaks," Baki replied. "Go to bed. I can't give you orders anymore, I know. But accept this one anyway."

Gaara glanced back at the older man, meeting his one-eyed gaze, and nodded. "I realise I will have to sleep. I just—"

Behind them, the door opened and closed again. The two men both looked to see who had joined them and discovered Kankuro, who was dressed in a simple black t-shirt and pants. He'd apparently discarded his Kabuki uniform and hood for the day, but his face paint remained.

"Kankuro," Baki greeted him. "Good. Maybe you can talk sense into your brother."

Gaara flinched at the term "brother," and the mere fact he let his emotions show so easily told him he really did need to sleep. But the pain wouldn't disburse. He was Kankuro's brother in name only. How could he even ask Kankuro to love him instead of helping him out of familial duty? After having told him earlier in their lives that he didn't even consider him a sibling, such a request seemed ludicrous.

"Sure thing, jan," Kankuro said, nodding to Baki.

Baki wished them both a good night and then left quickly, presumably so Kankuro could force his brother to go to bed. But Kankuro just smiled at Gaara and joined him at the balcony's edge.

"Hey, man." He flexed his fingers on the railing. "What're you doing hanging out here? We're done for the day, right?" He snorted. "Besides, I think Baki wants you to sleep."

Gaara blinked blurrily, then rested against the railing again. "Yes, we're done." He leaned over so he could rest his chin on his arms.

Kankuro gazed at him with a look of concern. "Then why stay on the office side of the Complex?" He sighed, shook his head, and smiled. "Look, I get the workaholic thing. We both busted our asses this week making up for all the stuff you missed. But take the council up on their offer of a day off before they change their bigoted little minds." He jabbed his thumb toward the door. "Let's go back to the private quarters."

"All right." Gaara stood up straight again. He didn't want to cause his brother any trouble. Still, after he turned to face Kankuro, he didn't move any further—he couldn't bring himself to. When he was in the office side of the Kazekage Complex, Gaara at least felt as though he had a purpose. And he really wasn't interested in sleeping, much less spending his first night sleeping all alone. His lips twitched downward slightly as he considered the situation.

Kankuro was still grinning at him. "You said that with such enthusiasm. Really, man. Let's ditch this place for awhile."

Gaara gazed at Kankuro, this person who was his niisan, who supported him and helped him, and wondered: if their lives had been different, could Gaara actually have been a person who deserved Kankuro's love? At that thought, a pang shot through his heart, and he flinched again.

"Gaara?" Kankuro's brow furrowed. "Are you okay?" He reached out and touched his shoulder. "You've pushed yourself too hard this week. You really do need to rest. Seriously. You look like you could fall asleep standing up."

Gaara jumped at the touch, and somewhere in his fatigue-fogged mind, he realised his emotions were fraying. He jerked away from Kankuro's hand, stung by the reminder of the gap between them, and faced the railing again, bracing himself against it. "I . . ." He heard the waver in his voice and cleared his throat. "I don't need to sleep. I'll be fine." For an odd moment, he felt completely alone in the world, as though no one else were real, and he feared that even with Shukaku gone, his life wouldn't change. He was still different from other people; he'd still done unspeakable things in the past—a past he could never change. He didn't know if not being a host would even be able to begin to change the future.

Kankuro frowned. "Gaara, you're so sleep-deprived that you're slurring your words and you're shivering."

Gaara glanced down and rubbed his arms, suddenly aware his brother was right: he was shaking.

"Hey, man," Kankuro said, stepping closer to him. "Listen to your niisan for once." He smiled. "You need sleep. I mean, I get that the thought of it has to be weird." He glanced away momentarily. "I guess . . . well, I could sit in the room with you while you slept. Would that help any? I could wake you up if you seemed to be having a nightmare or something."

Gaara put his hand over his heart, clutching his shirt as a sharp pang shot through his chest. He wanted his brother to love him, but he felt like he was burdening him. He didn't want to be the monster, to be someone who took advantage of his family. "I . . . don't want to bother you." His voice grew shaky again, and he internally cursed himself. "It's no trouble. I should be able to manage it."

His words seemed to hang in the air, surrounding his niisan and him like a sand cloud. Then Gaara felt as though the world would be swallowed, condensed, crushed into a single pinpoint of searing pain. He wanted Kankuro to touch his shoulder again; he wished he could tell his brother what he wanted. But he could never deserve it. Kankuro had already done so much for him—supported his quest for Kazekage, chased after his abductors, helped with paperwork—and he couldn't expect more. He sternly told himself to cherish what he had and suck up the rest. After a moment, he found his voice again. "I'll be fine . . . alone."

Kankuro raised both eyebrows. "What are you talking about, jan? You're not bothering me!" He grabbed Gaara's shoulder and turned him toward him. "Hey . . ." His voice grew softer, losing its punk edge. "I can't even imagine what it'd be like to sleep when you've basically never slept before. If I were you, I'd want some support. And what are brothers for, anyway?" He winked at him. "I said I'd always look out for you, ototo. Remember?" He smiled.

The world seemed to freeze again for Gaara, as though he could see every dust mote hanging in the air. A single train of thought suspended itself in his mind: It's impossible. No one could ever love me. I can't . . . I can't let myself believe they would because I can't risk being hurt that way again. The thought seemed to mushroom and explode, releasing pure anguish, and then Gaara gasped, totally broken by Kankuro's words. He pulled away once more and sank to the ground, wrapping his arms over his stomach with a faint moan. For the first time since he was six, he felt tears streak down his cheeks, and he clenched his jaw, trying and failing to hold them back.

"Gaara!" Kankuro sounded shocked senseless. He knelt by him and wrapped his arm around his shoulders, pulling Gaara against his chest. "What the hell? What's wrong? Talk to me." He wrapped his other arm around his brother.

Kankuro's touch was murder. Gaara instinctively curled away from the embrace, caught in the pain of disbelief. He desperately wanted to think Kankuro cared, and he even knew that his brother did support him and watch his back. But to Gaara, it seemed impossible that Kankuro would selflessly love him—he'd hurt him too much in the past. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, but the tears kept coming. "S-sorry . . . am . . . so sorry . . ." He wanted to apologize better, and more than that, he wanted Kankuro to reach out to him. He was tired—so utterly weary—of being alone.

Once more, Kankuro sounded stunned. "Sorry for what?" He pulled Gaara back against him. "Sorry for having the worst, most stressful week of your life? For dying and then spending all your days and nights making up backlogged paperwork? For the stress busting out of you as tears?" He set Gaara up slightly, halfway releasing him.

Gaara frowned, wondering why his brother was letting go of him. He knew his shoulders were stiff under Kankuro's touch, but he did want the embrace. Without it, he felt cold.

"Hey," Kankuro continued, "I get it, jan. If I were you, I'd be having a meltdown, too. Don't apologize. Just tell me how I can help."

Gaara closed his eyes momentarily, feeling pathetic for letting his emotions get so out-of-control, but he couldn't seem to rein in the grief. "S-sorry," he mumbled, unable to stop himself from apologizing again. "I know . . ." He gasped faintly, having a hard time catching his breath when he was trying so hard—and still failing—not to cry. "I know I can't ask you this . . . but I just . . ." The agony hit again, harder this time, and he curled in on himself, completely pulling away from his brother and clutching at his chest. "Sorry . . . I just don't . . . feel like being . . . alone."

Once the words left his mouth, Gaara wished he could retract them. He shook his head and wondered if he had gone mad again. It wasn't simply a matter of asking too much from Kankuro—it was a matter of the inevitable rejection. He held his breath and tried to suck back the hot tears that stung his eyes.

"Hey!" Kankuro scooted closer to him. "That's no big deal. I already offered to spend the night in your room, you know. I don't mind, really." He reached out tentatively and hesitated, looking conflicted. "Gaara? Is it okay if I . . .?" A frown crossed his face, and he snorted. "Hell, never mind." He jerked Gaara back into his arms and hugged him tightly. "You're not alone, ototo. Okay? You're not."

Gaara froze momentarily, unsure what to do. He wanted to hug Kankuro back and relax against him, but the fear of an all-to-familiar rejection still haunted him, especially now when he felt so exhausted and unstable. "But I've . . ." he began, his voice a whisper, "I've been so bad to you . . . and you've already done so much for me." He allowed himself to rest his head against Kankuro's shoulder. "I can't ask for more, even if it's what I . . ." His throat closed up over the words. "I mean, you're my brother, and I . . ." He choked again, unable to communicate, to say what he really felt.

For a moment, Kankuro grew stiff and still, and Gaara nearly panicked, certain he had gone too far and had triggered the inevitable rejection. However, his brother relaxed suddenly and seemed to find his voice.

"'You're my brother'?" he said, repeating Gaara's words. "Do you . . . do you want me as your niisan?"

Gaara cringed, but he knew he had to be honest. He had to step beyond the wall of stoicism he'd built around himself, push through the emotional breakdown, and speak the truth. "Yes . . . I do." He squeezed his eyes shut and didn't dare lift his head from Kankuro's shoulder. "But I know I don't deserve it . . . that it's not my right to ask for something I don't deserve." He sighed, exhaling as though the last of his breath escaped him, and then collapsed against his brother's chest, feeling emotionally naked.

However, at the same time, Kankuro inhaled suddenly. "Hell, yeah!"

Gaara jumped faintly at the yell, then realised it was a shout of victory. His brow furrowed as confusion swept through him.

"Don't you know?" Kankuro asked. "Don't you see it?" He hugged him tighter, and his voice grew unusually kind again. "Love is a gift, Gaara. Like forgiveness. There's no 'deserve' to it. And I forgave you a long time ago, when you decided to live for and bond with the village." He rubbed Gaara's back. "Ototo . . . you changed. For the better. And the reason I was so angry before was . . ." His voice trailed off, and when he spoke again, it was more of a whisper. "I really just wanted a brother."

The words stole Gaara's breath away. He choked as the tears returned full force—hot tears that burned down his cheeks only to be absorbed by Kankuro's shirt. However, another emotion bloomed in him, sweeping away the anguish: hope. He dared to believe that his brother would stay by his side forever. He forced himself to take several deep breaths and managed to nod.

"Did we miscommunicate all this time?" Kankuro asked quietly, rubbing his back. "Did we just miss each other, like passing in the hallway without seeing one another? Didn't you know?" He laughed, but it sounded watery. "I've gotten to the point I nearly pummel everyone who insults you. Damn it, Gaara . . . you mean a lot to me. Were you really unable to tell? Was my mask really that good?" He sighed. "If so, I'm sorry. I thought I was being obvious, but you know how I am. Born performer and all."

Gaara began catching his breath, his tears slowing as he registered what Kankuro was saying. "I thought you just . . . that because we're family . . . you should watch out for me. Not because I'm me." A gust of cool night air whipped across the balcony, and he shivered.

Kankuro rubbed his brother's arms as though to warm him. "You mean like a duty?" He sighed again, this time a long, loud exhalation. "I guess I can see why you'd think that. Father and Baki both ordered me to keep an eye on you when we were younger. It was part of my job as a member of Team Baki." His voice was bitter. "But that was a long time ago now. Yeah, I look out for you. I always will. But it's because I want to, not because of some duty. I mean . . ." He paused, tensing slightly. "When I ran up and saw you dead, I thought for a moment I'd vomit. I thought . . . I don't know. I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't—" He hesitated again. "Gaara, your being alive, being here, being my ototo . . . that means the world to me."

Gaara tried to wrap his fatigue-fogged mind around those words. "Even after what I did?" he whispered. "Even if I was horrible to you, and I don't deserve it?"

Kankuro leaned back slightly, grabbed Gaara's chin, and tilted up his face so their gazes met. "I've done horrible things, too, to other people. And I used to hate you, in a way. If you went by those criteria, no one would ever be loved. It's a gift, remember? We're not loved because we deserve it; we're loved because we need it. And . . . well, when I make up my mind about something, I'm pretty stubborn, you know." He smiled.

Gaara felt trashed by that smile. He buried his face against his brother's chest again, wanting to disappear in the warmth being offered to him. "Then please . . ." He paused, struck by the sudden thought that maybe it was all real: his brother was holding him and was really going to protect him and care for him because of who he was as a person. He wrapped his arms around Kankuro's waist, hugging him tightly. "Niisan . . ."

Kankuro's voice remained kind, as though his punk attitude had been momentarily stripped from him. It was a quiet voice, a private voice. "Ototo, it's okay." He hugged him back just as tightly. "Like I said earlier, I'll always look after you."

Finally, Gaara relaxed completely against him. He believed he could trust Kankuro to look out for him even now, when he was almost drunk with physical and emotional exhaustion. He leaned against Kankuro's chest, letting the final remnants of his adrenaline fade. "Then help me," he said quietly, unable to explain himself better.

"I will," Kankuro replied. "And let's start by helping you get some sleep, but that requires standing and walking to your room." He kept his arm around Gaara and stood up, pulling his brother up with him. "I'll stick by you, okay? You're not going to be alone for this."

Gaara nodded, then leaned against Kankuro. "Okay."

Kankuro looped one arm around his waist and guided him toward the door. "I'll always be here, you know." He supported most of Gaara's weight as they traversed the hallways. "I always tried to give you as much space as I thought you wanted, but . . ." He blushed faintly. "Well, just ask. That's what a niisan is for."

Now that Gaara had relaxed and allowed himself to trust his brother, he felt as though he were losing consciousness quickly. "Didn't know how," he mumbled. "Didn't feel it was right."

Kankuro's grip tightened, steadying Gaara as they entered the private wing of the Kazekage mansion and headed for the master suite. "I guess it would be hard. You were forced to be alone for so long." He paused as they reached the bedroom door and slid it open. "But it's okay now. You can ask anytime."

Gaara stumbled slightly and leaned against the lintel. "Hn." He felt punch-drunk and a bit silly for needing so much help, but he took comfort in the fact Kankuro had promised to assist him.

"Man, you're ready to pass out on your feet." Kankuro shook his head. "Let's just get you to the bed." He guided him to the foot of the unused bed and set him down. "There." He pulled back the covers, revealing crisp white bed sheets.

Gaara blinked slowly, realising his incoherence meant he was falling asleep. He turned blearily to Kankuro. "I-it doesn't . . . hurt, right?" He vaguely registered that he even sounded drunk from the sleep loss. "It's going to be . . . okay?"

Kankuro nodded. "It doesn't hurt at all. Your body basically shuts down all nonessential functions, after all. It doesn't feel like anything, really." He reached over and picked up his brother.

Gaara started slightly at the sudden and unexpected move, but he didn't complain. He felt like he was going to pass out. Kankuro laid him on the mattress and pulled up the covers, then sat on the bed beside him.

"You could have nightmares," Kankuro said, "but if you seem to be, I'll wake you up immediately. So yeah, it'll be fine."

Gaara shivered faintly even with the covers and recognized that he felt colder now that Kankuro wasn't holding him. He paused, unsure of himself, but his brother had said he could ask for help any time. "Niisan . . . can you . . ." His voice dropped to a whisper as he realised the delicacy of the request. "Would you continue to hug me?" He blushed furiously, suddenly feeling six years old again.

Kankuro's eyes grew wide with shock, and he blushed slightly as well. "Well . . . sure. If you think it'll help." He crawled under the covers and lay on his back, then pulled Gaara into his arms again, resting his younger brother's head on his shoulder. He seemed tense for a moment, but he slowly relaxed.

Gaara curled into the embrace, comforted by the warmth and the tactile proof that this love was real, that he truly had a niisan who cared for him. He inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. "Yes, it will help."

Kankuro nodded, and after a minute he yawned. "See? It's fine." His words were now slightly slurred as well. "Don't worry 'bout it. I'm right here."

With a nod of acknowledgement, Gaara relaxed further, recognizing his brother felt the same as he did, and wrapped his arm around Kankuro's waist. "You'll stay?" he murmured, consciousness beginning to float away from him.

"Um-hm." Kankuro settled in and hugged Gaara tighter. "All night." He yawned again, more deeply this time.

"Okay," Gaara whispered, unable to stop himself from yawning as well. The last of his tension drained away, leaving him feeling pleasantly warm and safe, but also exhausted and relieved. He knew now that he was loved as a person. At that thought, the final hole in his soul seemed to seal shut. Safe in Kankuro's arms, he drifted to sleep.