A/N: Spoilers briefly mentioned for manga chs. 546-548.

Translation reminders, jic: "Nii-san" means older brother, and "ototo" means younger brother.


"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence . . ."
-"Road Not Taken," Robert Frost

Chapter Four — Ages Hence, Age 16

Ai.

Love.

As he left his office for the evening and headed toward the Kazekage mansion's private wing, Gaara reached up and touched his forehead, brushing over the kanji he'd burnt there with his own sand. Now that he'd decided to live for his village, to bond with and love it, his self-imposed tattoo had gone from being caustically ironic to prophetic and literal. He considered that the greatest victory of his life thus far.

And yet he was well aware that love was also the greatest double-edged sword.

Before his fight with Naruto, Gaara had found bonds to be painful; part of his revision of himself had included accepting that one shares pain, joy, sadness, and happiness with another. He'd begun to support and encourage his siblings, and they had supported and encouraged him. Now, though, came the sharing of pain and sadness. Upon returning home from the Fourth Shinobi World War, Gaara had conducted a mass funeral for all the Suna shinobi who'd been killed. He'd thanked Kami that he'd not had to bury any of his friends or family, although he'd learned that he'd come close to losing Kankuro to poison — again. Kankuro himself had not been so lucky, though. His best friend, Shiro, had been killed in action.

Therefore, as Gaara headed back to the private wing he shared with his siblings, he wondered how to comfort his brother. It was a new area for him. He'd watched others, though, and knew it involved things like sitting with them, listening to them, getting tissues for them, and hugging or holding them. He now felt close enough to his siblings to do those kinds of things, and any reluctance he might have harbored he'd erased when he'd finally confronted his father and learned about his mother. Facing that pain head-on had been liberating; he'd not realized how much hurt had remained until he spoke with his father again. With that thorn extracted from his soul, he felt empowered to properly care for his family in any way necessary.

However, checking the kitchen first, Gaara found only Temari at the supper table. His brother was conspicuous by his absence.

"Hey, ototo," she said, gesturing toward a herd of paper boxes. "We have takeout."

"Takeout?" Gaara frowned. That said a lot by itself. In what Gaara had learned was a fit of paranoia, Kankuro had learned to cook when he was fourteen, and he'd been cooking their meals ever since. Given that he was a natural artist, he'd even turned out to be good at it, which was fortunate since both Gaara and Temari had no talent in that area. "Kankuro didn't feel like cooking," he surmised.

Temari frowned at her plate and set down her chopsticks. "He's really hurting; I can tell. He's not saying anything yet, but that's the issue — he's not talking at all. He's not working on his puppets, either. For the most part, he's just been shut up in his room."

That's a bad sign. Gaara sat across the table from her and stared at the boxes of rice, noodles, stirfry, and sweet-and-sour pork. "I didn't really pay attention as a kid. Is this normal behavior for when he's extremely upset?" His brother was a fairly predictable guy. He only had one real hobby, and that was working on puppets, although he also sketched and occasionally painted. However, he had a fairly large crowd of friends he hung out with, and he loved to hang out with his siblings, too. He preferred outdoor activities, though, and had even managed to teach Gaara a few sports. He wasn't the type to stay cooped up for anything other than his beloved puppets.

"Sorta." Temari pushed the box of rice at him. "I haven't seen him this hurt in a long time. I remember when Grandpa died, though." She paused, her brow furrowing. "Our mom's father, that is. They were super close. Grandpa was the one who began teaching him the puppet jutsu; Kankuro inherited Karasu and Kuroari from him."

Listening intently, Gaara spooned out a helping of rice as well as pork. He didn't remember much about their mother's parents. They'd died when he was young, and he guessed they'd wanted nothing to do with him. "So Kankuro was hit hard by his death?"

"Very." Temari picked up her chopsticks again, only to push her food around on her plate, creating small rice dunes. "He was only eight at the time. It was bad. He locked himself into his room and wouldn't come out or eat. Father broke the doorknob on the second day, but even after Kankuro was forced out, he was really withdrawn and sullen for months."

Gaara ate his supper silently, thinking back on the frowning boy he'd first gotten to know as his brother. He hadn't seen much of his siblings prior to Yashamaru's death, and it occurred to him that the Kankuro he'd first known had been grieving. He'd thought his brother had hated him on sight; after all, he always had his arms crossed and a frown fixed to his lips. It struck him now that his perception of his brother might have been off from the beginning.

"I think Grandpa was the only one Kankuro was close to," Temari continued, setting down her chopsticks again without eating anything. "He wasn't close to Father or Uncle Yashamaru, and our paternal grandparents died before we were born. Kankuro was never quite the same after Grandpa passed away, although he worked hard to become a good puppet master like him. Or to surpass him, technically."

In his mind, Gaara suddenly made connections across the generations of their family — Kankuro, like Yashamaru, had inherited from his grandpa the fine chakra control needed for either puppetry or medical jutsu. For a painful moment, he wondered if their father had been disappointed in that outcome or had hoped Kankuro would inherit his magnetism release instead. What had Kankuro suffered as a child that Gaara didn't even know about? "You're afraid it will be similar this time," he noted, pulling his thoughts back on track. "You're afraid he'll withdraw from us."

"Yeah, I am." Temari leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its back legs, and crossed her arms. "Shiro was his best friend, and they've been best friends since the academy. And as best I can tell, he's holding in all his grief."

Gaara stood and cleared their dishes, realizing neither one of them had the heart to finish their supper. "I'll go up and talk to him." Or I'll try at least, he thought, scraping his leftover food into the trash. "Maybe I should take him some food." He glanced at the boxes.

"There's the party tonight." Temari stood to help him. "Maybe we can get him to eat something there."

It was true. Now that the funeral had been conducted, a village-wide party was being thrown in honor of the Allied Forces' victory. "If we can get him to go," Gaara said, wondering if he had his work cut out for him. "Is he cooped up in his room right now?"

Temari shook her head as she began closing boxes and transferring them to the refrigerator. "In an effort to help, Baki ordered him out on some small mission this afternoon. I expect him back any time now." She stopped abruptly at the table, half the herd of boxes still left before her. "I'm really worried," she murmured, staring down at her hands. "About the way he's bottling it up, I mean. Granted, I haven't seen him cry since the day you killed his cat, and that was when he was eleven, almost twelve. But that's the whole damn point: I know he tries too hard to hold it all in, which is probably Father's fault. Father always had a very strict, narrow definition of what it meant to be a shinobi — or a man."

The universe screeched to a halt. Gaara forgot to inhale. "Killed . . . his cat?"

Clearly surprised, Temari raised an eyebrow at him. "Yeah. Don't you remember? He said you two had been arguing, and he knocked your food into the floor. And then you killed his cat, Akako." She shook her head, her gaze piercing the wall with the faraway look that signaled she was mentally in the past. "He loved that cat."

Gaara remembered the cat. He'd been jealous of the attention and love his brother poured on it, holding it and carrying it and talking to it. He'd forgotten that he'd killed it, though. Some of his memories, especially the earlier ones, were washed over in the red haze of Shukaku's bloodlust and his own rage. Now that Temari had focused his attention, though, he vaguely recalled crushing the cat in a fit of pique.

Abruptly sitting down at the table again, Gaara tried to control his reaction — to stay calm — but the wave of horror crashing into his chest made him pale. He clenched his fists, fighting for his composure, but he shook with anguish. The picture that formed in his mind turned his stomach: he now knew that Kankuro had started fights over his food in order to save him from being poisoned, and he even remembered calling his brother fat during those arguments. But the incident with the cat . . . It was likely that Kankuro had saved him only to be punished by losing his beloved pet. Somehow that memory on top of knowing that Kankuro had just lost his best friend was more than Gaara could take. He wanted to cry for his brother.

"Gaara?" Temari sounded worried.

"It's not right," Gaara whispered, sickened. It was a stupid thing to say, he decided, but it was all that would come out. "It's not right." He stood slowly, as though his muscles were stiff, and turned toward the door, determined to fix it if only he could figure out how.

To love someone was to hurt with them. To love someone was to hurt when he hurt them. But Gaara couldn't undo the past, and he wasn't Chiyo that he could transfer his life-force to bring back the dead. All his gestures would only be token ones.

He hoped that would be good enough.


Soaking in the tub, Kankuro attempted to relax. He tried to psych himself up for the party later that evening, tried to tell himself that it was okay because Shiro died honorably — in short, he tried to pretend like everything would be all right.

It was merely a token effort; it was a miserable lie.

He sighed as he stood and grabbed his towel. Already that day he'd fallen into the inevitable traps: quick, simple thoughts like I need to tell Shiro that or Shiro'll think that's hilarious. The concept that they'd never hang out together again, and all the things that realization brought with it, was a pain that Kankuro's mind skittered away from. It seemed like a special kind of hell — one his father's death hadn't inspired in him. His father's death and the grief it caused had been complex, complicated, and unclear. With Shiro, the loss was straightforward and cutting like it had been with his grandpa. The world seemed strangely flat and gray, as though Kankuro were underwater. War's stupid, he thought, stubborn, but he knew perfectly well that fighting Madara and his forces had been their only choice.

Just like going to the post-victory celebration was his only choice. Being the fun-loving guy he was, Shiro would've wanted it that way.

After drying off, Kankuro wrapped the towel around himself and slipped down the hallway to his bedroom. He could feel Gaara's chakra through the door, and he knew his siblings were the only ones he could tolerate talking to about Shiro's death. So he steeled himself and opened the door. To his shock, he found Gaara sitting on his bed — or, more specifically, sitting on his clothes. "Ototo?" The word just slipped out, the clear sign that his relationship with his younger brother had changed. Before Gaara's death, Kankuro rarely referred to him as "ototo" since Gaara had made it clear when he was younger that he didn't consider them to be brothers.

Pausing, Gaara grew quite still, apparently cherishing the bond between them. However, he didn't remark on the word choice, and after a moment, he held up the bundle in his hands. "Wear this instead."

"What's that?" Kankuro couldn't imagine why Gaara would care one way or another.

"Clothes that will fit you properly." Gaara frowned, lowering the bundle to his lap again. "I realized it earlier. Temari made a comment about the past at supper, and I remember I used to call you fat. Then it struck me suddenly that you rarely wear clothes that actually fit." He shrugged one shoulder. "I'm probably over-thinking it; it's probably a coincidence. But . . ." He held out the bundle once more.

At first, Kankuro couldn't reply. He knew that he was thin enough now that he'd have to gain over 25 pounds before being even faintly overweight. However, although he knew factually that he was skinny, he'd never lost the strange need to hide his body. The topic had become a sore point with him after years of classmates — and his ultra-thin brother — bullying him about it. "Ah, c'mon. I'm not that fragile, jan." He smirked at the irony of his own words. He might not be fragile, but he was certainly wounded. "Puppet masters' outfits are supposed to baggy. And black. It's tradition from the art of puppetry itself. Bunraku puppeteers wear black robes and hoods so they blend in with the background when on stage."

"I insist." Gaara stretched out his arms further, drawing attention to the clothes he held.

It wasn't worth arguing about, and although Kankuro would never admit it, Gaara was partially right. "Okay, okay." He accepted the bundle, flopping it down on his chest of drawers and acting as though he were vaguely put out. In truth, however, he was touched that his brother cared, and the mystery of the situation distracted him from his grief a bit. Why was Gaara suddenly so concerned about the past?

Unbothered by his brother's presence, Kankuro tossed aside his towel and proceeded to get dressed. There wasn't anything overtly special about the outfit Gaara had given him; it was just black pants and a short-sleeved crimson shirt with a high collar and a V-neck. Black mesh covered the open V section and also extended from the sleeves down to his wrists, hugging his arms. Simple and dark, which was what Kankuro liked. The only special detail was the fact it all fit snuggly and underscored just how slender he was.

Kankuro turned to face his brother, feeling stuck somewhere between self-conscious and pleased. Hopefully it didn't show. For Gaara, weight had always been a nonissue. No one had ever called him fat because he'd always straddled the line between normal and underweight. "Well, how does it look?" he asked completely facetiously. He struck a pose, adding flair to his performance out of sheer habit, and wondered how he could act so normal — so silly — when he hurt so much inside. Then again, he didn't quite feel real. His best friend wasn't actually dead, and this party was just a hoop to jump through.

Gaara gazed up at him, utterly serious and deadpan. "Very nice."

Surprised, Kankuro turned away. "Uh, thanks." He sounded off-hand, but secretly he was complimented. Unsure what to do with the bizarre situation, he opened the top drawer of his chest of drawers and considered the box of paints there. His purple face paint lived in the bathroom, where he could easily access it, but he kept a few other colors, namely for fancy parties or Halloween. White was the base color, which he never wore into battle, and he kept crimson and indigo so on Halloween he could portray a ghost or some other scary character. He also owned light green and red, and he considered them briefly before rejecting them. Light green symbolized peacefulness while red symbolized enthusiasm and passion. Neither color matched his current state of mind. If he used anything, he decided it should be indigo, which meant depression.

A gentle hand closed around his wrist, arresting his hand before he could reach for the indigo. "Don't."

Kankuro stared at Gaara, shocked. "What? Why?"

"You don't need it." His brother looked grim; his lips were bent into a frown and his brow furrowed.

Kankuro couldn't formulate a reply. First the clothes and now this?

"It's unnecessary, and . . ." Gaara seemed to be struggling with words. "What is it that you believe? That without the mask there will be no 'you'? Or that you need to hide your true self? There's nothing wrong with you just the way you are."

"I know," Kankuro said, suddenly irritated. "Look, I get that you're feeling guilty about the past." Had Gaara remembered what he said about the paint, too, or had this interrogation sprung from a different source? "But the paint is part of my performance and persona — my artistry. The Puppet Corps stole it from Kabuki Theater, so it's part of being a puppet master, even though we don't all choose to wear it. Without it, I feel naked."

Reaching up, Gaara cupped Kankuro's face in his hands. "Nii-san." His voice was quiet, almost commanding.

Kankuro grew very still, just as much over the touch as the word. Gaara never touched him; Gaara never called him "brother."

"You don't need it," Gaara repeated, catching his brother's gaze and holding it. "I know you won't go into battle without it, but this isn't a battle." He squeezed gently. "And I appreciate your artistry, but I still want you to know that you don't need any 'help.'"

Stunned, Kankuro felt a strange warmth wash through his chest, easing the wounds buried there, and he wondered if he could find his voice. The mask dropped. "I look like him." Honesty, at last.

"You aren't him." Gaara released his brother, giving him his barely-there smile in the process. "Now, finish getting ready, okay?" He turned, stepping away.

Kankuro's heart broke. Don't leave! His brother's kindness was one straw too many piled on the proverbial camel's back. Too many emotions, too many thoughts, too many wounds opened to the air. He whirled around, hiding his face as tears collected on his eyelashes, and he crossed his arms over his stomach, feeling utterly trashed.

A warm hand pressed between his shoulder blades, where it rubbed up and down his spine slowly. "It's okay," came the quiet voice. "You don't have to hold it in. One of your precious people died."

Even though he knew he was safe with Gaara, Kankuro still heard his father's old insults screaming in his head, but the numbness of denial was cracking around the edges, making his sinuses burn. Despite his resistance, the tears tore free of him violently, making his shoulders jerk, and for several minutes he was lost in the pain. He was barely aware of Gaara moving him over to sit on his bed, but he felt slim, strong arms wrapping around him, offering support. They had never hugged before, so even after he'd calmed down and was able to breathe again, Kankuro rested his face against his brother's warm shoulder, trying to soak up the comfort.

"My door's always open," Gaara murmured, rubbing his back once more. "Don't try to carry this alone. Pain and sadness must be shared, too."

Kankuro decided he'd ended up with the wisest, most dedicated ototo in the world. "Okay, man."

"Good." Releasing him, Gaara gave his shoulder a quick squeeze, as though confirming a pact between them. "Then I have one final gift for you." He headed over to Kankuro's worktable, where a large box tied with a ribbon sat. "I know nothing can replace a lost friend, but I'm hoping this will help cheer you up or at least distract you."

Kankuro noticed with some discomfort that the box had holes cut into it. Please, don't let it be a cat,he thought, horrified. Gaara had clearly been doing some thinking, clearly had been trying to right past wrongs, but Kankuro didn't want another pet. It had hurt too much to lose the first one, and he didn't want any reminders.

When Gaara picked up the box, it started making scratching and thumping noises.

"No . . ." Kankuro began, raising both hands.

Gaara walked back to him, carrying the box. It meowed.

"Look, I don't want —" Kankuro grimaced as his brother set the box in his lap.

"Please, nii-san." Gaara yanked on the bow, untying the present.

Kankuro frowned. "I appreciate the gesture," he began, wondering if he should or shouldn't finish the sentence: But I'm not here to assuage your guilt. Then he realized that for Gaara, it was likely a different issue. Did he think he needed to earn his forgiveness? "But you don't have to make up for the past, you know."

Without replying, Gaara ripped off the lid.

A curious trill caught Kankuro's attention, and against his will, he glanced down. He knew instantly that he'd made a mistake. A kitten peered up at him, standing on her hind legs and pressing her paws against the box's edge. She cocked her head to the side, studying him for a moment, and meowed again. She was a brindle, like his first cat, except tiny and fuzzy.

He was doomed.

"I had trouble finding one I liked." Gaara picked her up with one hand and moved the box out of the way. She squirmed in his grasp, stretching out her legs until her toes spread wide. She squeaked faintly as he set her in Kankuro's lap. "It wasn't so much about her coloring as her personality. I wanted her to be playful."

The kitten wobbled on his leg, her tail shooting straight up, and Kankuro reached out instinctively, steadying her. The instant his fingers touched her soft fur he knew he was utterly defeated. Two seconds, and he had her pressed against his cheek, her loud purrs filling his ear. She licked his face, tickling him. He was too moved to speak, which made him feel silly. But the warm, fuzzy kitten was wiggling against his jaw, and his ototo was hovering over him, looking worried. He patted his bed wordlessly, motioning for Gaara to sit.

Gaara sat right beside him, and after an awkward pause, he slowly ran his arm around Kankuro's waist. "I'm sorry, nii-san," he whispered. "I'm so sorry — about the past and about Shiro. And I wanted to thank you for standing by me all this time."

Setting the kitten on his lap, where she plopped down unceremoniously, Kankuro wrapped his arm around Gaara's shoulders. He was surprised that Gaara was showing him open affection, but he welcomed it. For a strange, suspended moment in time, he felt like his usual mask was out of reach, and he hugged his brother to his side. "No problem, ototo." He wondered if Gaara could begin to guess all the things he'd done for him when no one was looking, and he sincerely hoped he wouldn't learn of the rest. It was bad enough that Gaara had discovered his efforts to protect him from being poisoned. Some gifts were best when hidden.

"What will you name your kitten?" Gaara asked quietly.

Considering the tiny, purring ball on his lap, Kankuro thought through a few possibilities, only to arrive at something he knew would sound quite odd. Still, he found it to be appropriate. "I think I've got the perfect name."

Gaara raised one hairless brow. "Oh?"

"Ai."

To Kankuro's surprise and pleasure, Gaara smiled.


A/N: A warm thanks to all my reviewers for their support and feedback. Since I sent PMs to the signed-in reviewers, to the others: Thank you, jkl, for your continued support and feedback! It's always a pleasure to hear from you.

To Black Veil: I hope you find your way to this story, since it is indeed the continuation of "To Cease to Exist," and if I could PM you a hearty thank you for your reviews on all the other stories, I would. You made my night, let me tell you!

Now, the promised explanation about weight. I've always been fascinated by the seemingly common idea that Kankuro was overweight in part 1, and I think I mentioned it once in a previous story myself. However, as I said earlier, in part 1, Kankuro is 5.47 feet tall and weighs 132.2 lbs. According to a Body Mass Index calculator, this makes his weight healthy and normal for a teenager, especially when you stop to consider some of it will be muscle weight (which is something a BMI calculator can't factor in). In Shippuuden, Kankuro is 5.74 feet tall and weighs 134.9 lbs. According to a BMI calculator, he would have to gain an entire 27 lbs to be even slightly overweight. Since more boys have eating disorders now than they used to, I decided to brush up against the issue of boys and weight (among other reasons).