A Time of Mourning, A Time of Peace


By Ariel-D

Description: After the Fourth Shinobi World War, Gaara has to face the loss of his best friend, and Kankuro struggles to provide the help he needs. However, Kankuro is forced to remember losing his father, with whom he didn't get to make peace on the battlefield. Brotherly bonding. AU.

Disclaimer: Gaara, Kankuro, Temari, 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: Since I don't believe Naruto will die, this story is blatantly AU. Warning: spoilers through ch. 562.

Translations: Nii-san means older brother, ototo means younger brother, and nee-san means older sister. "Jan" is the syllable Kankuro adds to his sentences because he speaks with a punk/Yankee accent.

Chapter One: The Body

Kankuro didn't know what to do. He only knew he had to be at Gaara's side.

The news had shocked Kankuro as much as anyone else. Naruto had been the hero he'd always proudly claimed to be. Naruto had shown the courage, determination, and strength of any kage. His efforts had turned the tide of the war, helped win the war, and kept up morale. And in the end, he'd fought Sasuke, even defeated Sasuke — but they had killed one another. Naruto had purged the world of Sasuke's inexhaustible vendetta, and he'd done it by personally bearing away that hate and extinguishing it in the afterlife.

Gaara was crushed.

To everyone who wasn't Kankuro and Temari, Gaara looked quite courageous. He was every inch the Kazekage, delivering speeches to console the survivors, giving orders to help clean up the aftermath, engaging in talks to secure permanent treaties amongst the five great shinobi villages. He was stoic. He was professional. He was organized, logical, calm, and in control.

It was all so much bullshit.

Kankuro was worried about his little brother. Deeply worried. But so far all he'd been able to do was watch. At headquarters, Gaara sat at the table with the Mizukage and the Raikage, discussing the distribution of med nins and medical supplies. Kankuro stood behind his right shoulder, refusing to budge. In truth, Kankuro could barely walk, having not fully recovered from being poisoned — again. Temari, who had only the most minor of injuries, had been sent on several sensitive errands, which she'd accepted after protest, wanting to remain with Gaara as well. Kankuro had met her gaze as she left and nodded at the message contained there:

Our ototo is going to shatter. Stay by him at any cost.

And Kankuro had done just that. Now, though, the moment had come. Ino had arrived in the doorway, her stare aimed at the ground, and bowed to the kages.

"Excuse me, but if you'd like to see Naruto . . ." She trailed off. Her complexion was unnaturally white, as though her soul had tried to tear out of her body.

For a moment, Gaara grew so still that he didn't seem to be breathing. Without comment, he stood and glanced at the other two kages.

"Go," the Raikage said bluntly. "He was your friend. We will pay our respects at the ceremony."

Gaara inclined his head and marched from the room, Kankuro trailing him. Twenty four hours had passed since victory had been declared; two hours had passed since Naruto had succumbed to his injuries and died. Kankuro hadn't been sure Gaara would be allowed to join Naruto's teammates and see the body. He was glad someone had realized how much Naruto meant to Gaara. And it was just that connection that made him worry about Gaara's ability to pull through this. He was already devoid of emotional and spiritual energy thanks to the war. Everyone was. Plus Naruto had been his first friend, his role model, his source of inspiration — the one to show him he could change his life. Naruto had meant so much to Gaara that Kankuro had been hard-pressed not to become jealous. Naruto had meant so much to Gaara that Kankuro had begun to wonder if Gaara was in love with him. Gaara, though, had shown no romantic interest in anyone, male or female, so he couldn't draw any conclusions on that count.

In the end, Kankuro decided it didn't matter. Either way, Gaara was in a hell of pain. So he kept pace with his brother and Ino despite the lingering numbness in his legs, and he prayed for comfort and strength for his brother. And he worried. He worried because he really had no idea how to help Gaara face this.

When they entered the hospital, Kankuro's stomach seemed to turn to rock. A hard knot pressed against his gut, a knot he knew Gaara had to have as well, and he wondered if either one of them would gain back their appetites ever again. He wondered if they could feel normal again, and if so, how long it would take. He wanted to scramble after that fleeting sense of normalcy, which was now only a whisper of sparrow wings, and bring back the day before Naruto had died, the day before the war began, the day before the Kage Summit. The day before all their lives changed. But the past could only ever be the past, and chasing it could never resurrect it, no matter how hard he tried.

Ino stopped at the door to the west wing, her hand frozen on the handle. She didn't turn around. "We moved him out of Trauma 1 to a private room toward the back of the ER." Her voice was strained. "We waited for all the teams to make it back from the field. I mean, the ones Naruto graduated the academy with or was close to. We figured they would be — we would be — the closest he had to family. Team Kakashi will be allowed back first, along with you, Gaara-sama."

They understand better than I thought, Kankuro realized. Then again, they'd seen Naruto's reaction to Gaara's abduction as well as Gaara's dedication to protecting Naruto from being captured and killed. "Please allow me to accompany Gaara." He used far more polite language than usual, letting the gravity of his tone underscore the only answer he would accept.

Ino paused. "Of course." She slid open the door.

When Kankuro stepped into the hallway beyond, he found the heaviness of the air was tangible like black fog. Since they'd walked through the hospital rather than circling around the outside, they entered the ER waiting room from the opposite side. Most everyone's backs were turned, but Kankuro didn't need to see their faces to know how upset they were. Kiba, the boy Kankuro had once saved, and the Hyuuga boy were kneeling on the floor on the either side of the Hyuuga girl, each holding her as she sobbed. Very few of them even noticed their arrival, and Ino walked past them without speaking. Since Kankuro hadn't been personal friends with Naruto, he hadn't been sure how he'd be affected, but the sight, sound, and feeling of the group's pain made his chest ache and his throat close up. Despite his punk veneer, Kankuro knew full well that he had a heart, and a secretly soft one at that — outside of battle.

Ino led them to a door marked "Consultation" and opened it. Inside, hovering together, were Kakashi, Sakura, Sai, and Tsunade. Kakashi was holding Sakura, who was so grey-faced and silent that she looked much like a corpse herself. Kankuro realized that she'd lost her close friend and her love at the same time, just as Kakashi had lost or re-lost two of his original genin and charges.

"Please wait here," Ino said, her tone flat and lifeless.

His movements stiff, Gaara walked past her without a word, so Kankuro bowed his head to her in thanks. He followed Gaara inside, worried by his brother's complete silence but not really surprised by it. For his entire life, Gaara had reacted to everything with either stoic silence or deep, philosophical speeches. All or nothing. Kankuro had quickly learned to listen to the speeches. When Gaara had been insane, Kankuro had listened to them because if he didn't, his brother would grow angry and violent. When Gaara had changed, he'd listened to them because he gained insight into his brother and bonded with him that way.

Kankuro desperately hoped the bond they shared was strong enough for him to help Gaara through this tragedy, but he honestly didn't know. He knew how much he loved his brother, but he wasn't sure just what Gaara felt about him. Love, certainly. But Kankuro had no illusions about the fact Gaara loved Naruto more than anyone in the world, perhaps second only to their mother. To Gaara, Naruto was The One Who Understood. Kankuro could never fill that void. No one could. And that was what worried Kankuro the most. Had Gaara invested only in Naruto? Could he derive any support and comfort from his nii-san at all? Kankuro prayed he could, even as the very concept that he couldn't stung his soul.

"Thank you for coming," Tsunade told Gaara.

Wordlessly, he inclined his head.

Kankuro stepped up. "Thank you for considering Gaara as Naruto's family."

"Of course." Tsunade gazed upon everyone in the room, her compassion and pain evident. Underneath that grief simmered rage, if her tight jaw was any indication, but she was obviously holding it in. "He's been cleaned up as best we can, but just to warn you, he's still banged up. Ready? Let's go." She opened the door on the far side of the room and stepped into another hallway.

Still hovering at Gaara's shoulder, Kankuro followed them out. He wasn't sure what all the customs and rituals were in Konoha — each country did different things for deaths and funerals — but allowing the family to see their loved one and officially identify the body was clearly an important step here. Suna's own practices were similar, and Kankuro had been forced to do something like this when his father had died. Everyone had known that Yondaime Kazekage was the one in the morgue, but both legally and socially, his children still had been required to make the identification. The experience had left an indelible mark upon Kankuro, and he suspected the same would happen to Gaara now.

Tsunade led them to a room in the back of the ER and then stood aside so they could enter. The instant Sakura saw Naruto's face, she broke down and wailed. Kakashi's expression wasn't easily determined, but his body language was tight and stiff. He kept his arm around Sakura's shoulders, and Sai, who was more expressive than Kankuro had yet seen him, was holding her hand. Tears stood in his eyes.

Gaara entered last, walking up the opposite side of the bed and stopping by Naruto's head. Kankuro stayed right by his brother, his hand on his shoulder. He could feel Gaara's trembling; he could hear the harshness of his labored breathing. But Gaara's face was blank.

Along with his brother, Kankuro gazed down at Naruto. His entire head was bandaged, as well as most of his jaw. Minor cuts showed on what was visible of his cheeks and brow, and his lower lip was cracked. Had he not been pale and waxy grey, he would have simply seemed asleep. It was strange, but Kankuro felt like he only sensed the difference because he already knew that Naruto was dead. After a moment, though, he realized he could sense something more — lack of chakra, lack of spirit energy, lack of soul.

"I can't," Sakura sobbed. "I can't."

"Get her out of here," Kakashi snapped, releasing her.

Sai grabbed her in his arms and teleported out.

Tsunade stepped into the room and squeezed Kakashi's shoulder. "It shouldn't have ended this way. I know it. I took that chance; I believed. And I knew it would work this time. It shouldn't have ended this way."

"I failed him." Kakashi reached out, touching Naruto's arm gently. "I failed them both. I was a fool."

"The things that happened yesterday were out of your hands," Tsunade murmured. "What happened . . . it was like history repeating itself."

Kakashi shook his head and teleported out without another word. With a sigh, Tsunade headed toward the door, clearly intent on tracking him down. She paused in the doorway and glanced at Kankuro.

Kankuro met her gaze and simply nodded, indicating they would be fine alone. Returning the nod, Tsunade slid the door closed behind her.

Instantly, Gaara's façade cracked, his face crumpling. He knelt to the floor, pressing his forehead into the side of Naruto's mattress, and a single, harsh sob tore from him.

Horrified, Kankuro knelt beside him, wrapping one arm around his shoulders. Tears stood in his eyes just from seeing his brother's pain, and he trembled as well, although from stress rather than grief. He'd never wanted Gaara to face something like this. What was more, despite the fact they had been at war, Kankuro hadn't expected something like this. Naruto had always seemed to cheat the odds.

"It's stupid to ask," Gaara said, his words distorted by his sobs, "but why? Why?" He paused, tears glittering on his eyelashes and his lips trembling. He inhaled sharply before continuing. "What could I have done differently to save him? What would Naruto have done in the same situation?"

Later, Kankuro would talk to him about his questions, try to assure that Gaara didn't blame himself. For now, though, no real answers came to mind. "He said he would help Sasuke like a Hokage should," he pointed out. It was the only thing he could say.

The tears streaked down Gaara's cheeks. "Then he was still wrong!"

Kankuro hugged him, offering what comfort he could. Not that any comfort could be had. Although Gaara didn't pull away, he didn't respond, either. Kankuro felt utterly lost, so he did the only thing he knew to do: he stayed. He remained on the floor by Gaara, his arm around him, his stress and fear for Gaara creating a knot that ate at his stomach lining.

"It's not him," Gaara whispered, rubbing at his face with his jacket sleeve. "It's not him. It's just a shell."

"You're right." Kankuro had always agreed. The body they'd presented to him when his father had died had only been a shell. He had never been the type to cling to a body — not his grandparents', not his father's, not his acquaintances'. The soul was what made a human a human, and that distinction was never so clear and so important than when Kankuro was around corpses. When he killed, he was snuffing out the light inside his opponents — their spirit, their essence, the shine in their eyes. Once that was gone, a body was a body, and it meant nothing to Kankuro at all. His attitude was odd given his culture, perhaps, or maybe it wasn't. Either way, it was how he felt. "Let's go, okay?" He couldn't imagine that remaining would help Gaara in any way, although if his brother wasn't ready to go, he'd stay as long as he liked.

However, Gaara nodded, and they were escorted back to Gaara's assigned quarters. It was all familiar, too familiar, and Kankuro found himself in the past after all. For several minutes, his memory overcame him, and he was fourteen years old again, learning of his father's death.

"I need to talk to you all."

Kankuro glanced up from the kotatsu table in the great room and found a grim Baki standing in the doorway. It was no surprise. The Konoha Invasion had failed, and no one could seem to locate the Kazekage. A sense of humiliation pervaded the village, along with pain and grief over the casualties and fatalities. Baki's usual stoicism had transformed into a black grimness.

And with those thoughts, Kankuro instantly knew what Baki had come to tell them. Whether it was intuition or simple logic, Kankuro knew his father was dead. He sat down Karasu's arm, which he'd been repairing, and crossed his arms over his stomach.

Temari, who was sitting beside him, lowered the newspaper she'd been scanning and frowned. "What is it?"

From his seat in the bay window, Gaara turned his head Baki's way, but he didn't speak. He'd been utterly silent since the invasion, and Kankuro wasn't sure why. He'd been completely chakra drained from fighting, which could have been part of it, but there was something more, something Kankuro couldn't quite identify.

Baki took a deep breath. "We located your father."

Diverting his gaze, Kankuro stared at the table top. "He's dead." Beside him, Temari inhaled sharply.



"What happened?" Temari's voice was unusually shrill.

Kankuro reached out and pressed his fingertips into the middle of Karasu's palm. Its fingers twitched as though they had life.

"We believe he was betrayed and killed by Orochimaru." Baki's voice was quiet. "His bodyguards were found dead, also. The Kazekage officially died from a sword wound; given the remnants of chakra around the wound, we believe it was from Orochimaru's famous Sword of Kusanagi."

Making a deal with the devil always costs you your soul. The words fired across Kankuro's mind, unwanted. When he'd learned of their alliance with Sound — when he'd later learned who Sound's leader was — he'd had a bad feeling about it. He'd desperately hoped it wouldn't come to this, but Orochimaru's betrayal seemed so inevitable to him, given his reputation, that Kankuro couldn't shake the obvious conclusion: his father would be killed.

Despite that, he was so shocked he felt immediately numb.

"How long?" Temari's voice had fallen into a whisper.

"Awhile." Baki paused, clearly uncomfortable. "Despite that, both law and custom dictate that one of you needs to come to the morgue and identify him. I must warn you, though . . . he was found in the desert. After extended exposure . . ."

Kankuro understood that he'd probably have nightmares for years. Still, he was fourteen now, and with his father dead, he was the oldest male in the household. He had to act like a man. "I'll go." He stood. It hit him as ironic that he was wearing a plain, black yukata. He was dressed appropriately for a mourner.

Standing as well, Temari stepped close to his side. "Not alone you won't. I need to be there, too."

Wordlessly, Gaara climbed down from the window seat and walked to the doorway, stopping by Baki.

Secretly relieved not to be going alone, Kankuro nodded. Baki led them out of the mansion and through the streets to the hospital.

Kankuro wondered if anyone else in the village knew, but as they wound through the sandy streets, he got his answer. People were gathering outside their doors, silently watching the procession of Yondaime's heirs. From rooftops, masked ANBU jumped down and provided escort. A sense of solemnity shrouded the air, and from time to time, Kankuro could hear the sounds of weeping.

I can't do this. Kankuro's feet kept taking steps, his body oblivious to his thoughts. I have no idea how we can survive this. It struck him that he and his siblings were orphans now. Both their parents were dead. All four of their grandparents. Their uncle. Except for some second and third cousins who lived elsewhere in Wind, they had no family left, and Kankuro hadn't seen those cousins since his uncle's funeral when he was eight. They were all alone. What now? What will our lives become now?

He wondered if his life would ever be normal again — if he would ever feel normal again.

Baki led them to the hospital, Gaara following him closely and Kankuro and Temari following Gaara. Temari had linked her arm with Kankuro's, clutching the crook of his elbow. To an observer, she likely looked to be expressing solidarity, but Kankuro could feel how tight her hold was. She was fighting to remain stoic, to conduct herself as a shinobi. Numbness had enabled Kankuro to do the same. They had to look honorable in front of the villagers; they had to appear to be proper heirs to a kage. Secretly, Kankuro seethed against such restrictions, but no one had ever let him express his true self in public. The face paint was his only hint to the world, and only in battle could he expose his soul. He had to be stoic and tow the line now so he didn't get lectures about being a disgrace. Such lectures were the last things he needed.

Only vaguely did Kankuro register the fact they'd entered the hospital. White walls were a blur in his peripheral vision. Temari retained her hold on his elbow as they walked downstairs to the basement, where the morgue was.

Baki stopped outside the door and paused, his hand frozen on the handle. "Like I said, he was left exposed. The coroner promised me he would clean up Kazekage-sama as much as he could so you could be spared, but it might still be bad. Only one of you has to go in there. No one but I will know the difference, and I see no dishonor in it. Make sure you really want to go in before you do."

For a moment, none of them spoke. Baki had offered them an out, and that fact alone told Kankuro how bad it was. Kankuro felt even surer he would have nightmares, but he was also convinced that Baki and his siblings would think less of him if he didn't "act like a man" and go in.

"I have to see," Gaara said quietly.

Kankuro wondered at his motivation, knowing that Gaara both hated and feared their father. But despite Gaara's willingness to volunteer, Kankuro didn't think he could back down. "I'll go."

Temari was squeezing his arm so hard it hurt. "I'll go."

"As you wish." Baki slid open the door and stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter.

Gaara marched in, seemingly resolute, and Kankuro followed, Temari glued to his side. He wasn't sure how she would react, given the odd dynamics of her relationship with their father. He sank himself as deeply into his numbness as he could, though.

Without pause, Gaara walked up to the table where their father was laid, standing right by his head. From his shoulders down, Yondaime Kazekage was covered in a white sheet, and bandages covered part of his face, as though the coroner wished to spare them as much pain as possible. Kankuro stepped at the foot of the table, unable to get any closer. All he could see was his father's bandaged chin, his bare nose, and a glimpse of his right eye and brow. Fortunately, the room smelled of lime and chemicals, and the tiny patch of skin Kankuro could see was still intact, if waxy and bloodless.

Gaara stared down at the man who'd repeatedly tried to kill him. His face was devoid of expression; he said nothing. After a moment, he teleported away.

Kankuro couldn't feel anything. The body on the table didn't look like his father. The body on the table wasn't his father. His father was a spirit abiding in the afterlife, not this shell. He'd been afraid to enter the room, but once confronted with the man under the sheet, he couldn't react at all.

Beside him, Temari burst into tears, her sobs harsh. Although she didn't release her hold on Kankuro, she began to sink to the floor, and she was accidentally dragging him with her. Instinctively, Kankuro turned and pulled her into his arms, kneeling to the floor. That was when his emotions hit him — suddenly, sharply — and crushed the numbness with their intensity. He sobbed with her, their cries echoing off the metal tables and storage units, and they clung to each other, two siblings alone in the world.

Until that moment, Kankuro had not realized he'd loved his father. Since they weren't close — his father was a stern man who worked long hours — Kankuro had assumed that he was merely tied to the man by blood and had no real feelings for him. Now, he realized he had in fact felt a silent, buried love for his dad, and hidden where no one could see it or know it, Kankuro had hoped he'd one day catch his dad's attention and build a stronger bond. That was no longer possible, and it hurt him to know there was nothing more he could ever say to the man. He cried just as much for the dad he'd never have as he did for the father he had lost.

Baki came to them, wrapping his arms around them with a tenderness he'd never before shown them, and stayed as they wept upon each other. To Kankuro, it felt as though life had stopped, literally making the entire world stand still, and all that existed was pain.

Only when the numbness returned did Kankuro collect himself and let Baki lead his sister and him away. But the body they left behind in the morgue was not his father. That person would not return. So Kankuro held his sister's hand as they wound their way back through the streets toward home, clinging to what little family he had left.

Kankuro stood in Gaara's hotel bedroom doorway, still fighting against his memories. His father's death had resulted in many things, and one of them was to reinforce Kankuro's determination to protect his siblings. He had always worried about them, always been the first to offer to stay behind and fight an opponent, but his desire to protect them had escalated to the point of near-obsession. He hid a great deal of it with silence, punk attitude, or offhand suggestions because he didn't want to smother them or make them feel like he didn't believe in them. But in truth he worried about them all the time.

Just like now.

"Gaara," he said softly, stepping into the elaborately decorated room, which reflected the country of Fire — crimson and gold. The hotel suite had a bedspread, rugs, chairs, and curtains that were all patterned in crimson and gold hues.

Gaara sat on the bed, staring at the floor. He'd changed into a simple black yukata after his bath, but he seemed to have slowed to zero momentum. He looked like a statue, glassy-eyed and motionless. Kankuro had seen puppets with more life and expression.

"Gaara," he repeated, just as softly. He crossed the room, his bare feet silent on the rug. Watching his brother's pain was almost as difficult for him as living through the pain firsthand.

"I can't feel anything," Gaara whispered. "Is that normal? I keep expecting the crushing pain to return, that — that searing agony. But it doesn't. I can't feel anything at all."

Sitting by his brother, Kankuro wrapped his arm around his shoulders. "That's normal. I experienced the same thing when Father died. And Granddad." He'd been closest to his maternal grandfather, the one who'd introduced him to the puppet jutsu and given him Karasu and Kuroari.

"It doesn't feel real." Gaara frowned. "I feel like it's silly for me to say this, but it really is like what people have described. I feel like I could go to sleep and wake up and find out it was just a nightmare. A sick nightmare."

Kankuro remembered the surreal nature of the first day or two. The feeling wasn't constant, but there would be moments where reality seemed fake, and he could almost step outside of his own mind into a different world in which his granddad was still alive. "I remember that feeling."

"It's wrong." Gaara's gaze never moved from the floor. "It's wrong. It shouldn't be this way. Naruto promised he wouldn't die until he became Hokage. He was supposed to fulfill his dream, just like I did. It shouldn't be this way."

In truth, Kankuro had no reply for that. In his experience, death was neither fair nor logical. People died too young; children died before parents. Shinobi served on hundreds of missions with only a few scars to show for it and then were killed in freak accidents inside their own homes. Even without the existence of jutsu like Edo Tensei and monsters like Shukaku, Kankuro had understood at an early age that universal forces of good and evil fought a battle in which his world, country, and village were a part. He had seen that evil up close every time Shukaku made an appearance, and he had realized that the deaths were victories by the enemy. At the same time, he also believed that the ultimate victory would not belong to evil. Gaara had overcome Shukaku, the Allied Forces had won the war, and the same would be true on the larger scale.

None of that could help Gaara at this moment, though.

"Could I have done something differently?" Gaara asked, his brow furrowing. "Should I have done something differently? Could Naruto have been saved?"

Those questions, though, Kankuro could answer. He shifted and captured Gaara's face in his hands, turning his head so their gazes would meet. "No. Naruto was the only one who could stop Sasuke — the only one who could even capture his attention at this point, and even still, he barely could. Tsunade-hime and several other top mednins all treated Naruto. If there was anything that could've been done, they would have done it. They did do it. It just wasn't enough. None of it is your fault."

"But — "

"No." Kankuro wasn't going to budge. "Don't fall into that trap. Almost everyone thinks there was something they could have done to save their loved one. They think it's somehow their fault. I even thought I'd killed Granddad because I was in charge of giving him his medication that night, but since he was asleep, I didn't want to wake him up. I gave him his pills two hours late. But the truth is it didn't make any difference. The cancer had eaten up his entire body. If he hadn't taken his medicine at all it would've made no difference." Kankuro remembered that experience well. He'd become nearly hysterical eight or nine hours after his granddad's death, convinced he'd somehow killed him, and his father had asked him what was wrong. When he'd told his father, he'd expected to be verbally slapped for being so stupid because part of him knew he was being illogical. His father, though, had taken his concerns quite seriously and even pondered whether Kankuro was responsible before explaining to him why he couldn't be. That performance — and Kankuro was now convinced his father never considered even for a moment that he was guilty — had silenced his fears utterly. His father had taken him seriously before absolving him and then had revealed to him that many people fell into the same trap.

Belatedly, Kankuro realized he hadn't quite done the same for Gaara. "Well, okay. Let's just take this one step at a time and analyze it. You tell me what you think you did wrong, and we'll consider it."

Gaara's eyes widened a fraction, but he seemed to relax. "All right. I'll start at the point Naruto discovered Sasuke was on the battlefield."

For an hour, Kankuro listened to his brother break down the sequence of events, the conversations, the battles. For an hour, he helped Gaara analyze each piece, pointing out the illogic of the lies that tried to creep in and steal his brother's sanity. For an hour, he took everything Gaara said with a pretend seriousness that was one hundred percent sincere in its gravity, if not its belief in Gaara's guilt.

Finally, Gaara ran out of arguments. "I see," he whispered, admitting defeat at last. "Everyone falls into this trap?"

"A lot of people, yeah." Kankuro felt a great deal of relief that Gaara had allowed him to help him process that piece. Gaara wasn't reacting to the physical affection or the external attempts at comfort, but at least he hadn't completely shut him out. So far, Naruto was the only one from whom Gaara had accepted physical comfort and the only one to whom Gaara had shown it. Had he not seen Gaara clasp Naruto's shoulder in an attempt to reassure him, Kankuro wouldn't have believed his brother capable of it.

For a horrible moment, Kankuro wondered how long he would come in second or third place to Naruto's ghost.

Gaara sighed. "I feel numb again." His shoulders slumped. "These next few days will not be easy. Given what Naruto did for all of us, I suspect there will be a special ceremony for him that's separate from the mass memorial for all the other fallen Konoha shinobi."

"No doubt." Kankuro was well aware that Naruto had basically saved the world. Everyone had played a part, and everyone had done their duty. But in the end, Naruto had carried a larger burden than even the kages had.

"I'm not looking forward to attending that memorial." Gaara shifted and curled up on his bed.

Despite those words, Kankuro knew his brother couldn't be stopped from attending. Gaara would see to that before he even travelled back to Suna to officiate the mass memorial service there. Somehow Kankuro had to get his brother through that funeral.

"I'll stay by your side," Kankuro whispered. "Temari and me both." It was all he could say, and it was all he could do.

He just hoped it was enough.

A/N: Thank you to all who read, review, fave, and follow.