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Chapter Three: Happily Ever After?

When Kankuro awakened in the morning, he found that Gaara was already gone. Disturbed that he'd managed to sleep through Gaara's getting ready, even if his brother had done so stealthily, Kankuro quickly got himself ready as well. He was worried about his brother's condition.

He went the only place he could imagine Gaara being: Naruto's grave.

Sure enough, he found Gaara kneeling at the fresh gravesite. White carnations had been placed on the compacted dirt.

"Ototo . . ." Kankuro found he wasn't sure what to say. "I know you miss Naruto, but I don't want you to make yourself sick with grief."

Gaara's face was impassive as he looked up at his brother. "I am not," he promised. "I'm merely thinking."

"About?" Kankuro prompted. He noticed Gaara's eyes were bloodshot and wondered how bad his hangover was.

Gaara paused and glanced back at Naruto's grave. "When I got up this morning, I had to ask myself a hard question: who am I mourning? I called Naruto my friend, and he certainly went out of his way to save me when Akatsuki abducted me. Likewise, I worked hard to protect him when the war broke out. But that defines the parameters of our relationship as 'Will save in a crisis.' That's a kind of friend, sure. It's a specific type of friendship. But when I mourn, who I am mourning?"

Kankuro thought that was a wise question. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised to find Gaara philosophizing his way through his pain. Gaara always had been deep-thinking and philosophical.

"Then I thought," Gaara continued, "'Maybe I'm mourning what could have been.' In my life, I've only interacted with Naruto directly five times — and two of those times were entirely negative — but because of the inspiration I took from him and his life, I felt closer to him than that. But let's face it: with both of us being kages, I would have only been able to see Naruto during the chuunin exams and whatever occasional meetings official business caused. No deep relationship would have formed. I would have simply admired him from afar, just like before."

Although he didn't interrupt the flow of Gaara's thoughts, Kankuro did nod. It was true; Gaara and Naruto had not been destined to see each other often or for long periods of time. At best, they would have had what Suna called a tea table relationship — a friendship where acquaintances met and talked over tea once every few months.

"Then I came to a conclusion: I'm selling myself short," Gaara said. "As much as it hurts to lose the shinobi I've been idolizing, the truth is that the strongest bonds I have are with the people closest to me. And that was Naruto's whole point. His whole argument to me the day he fought me was that he loved his friends because they saved him from his loneliness — that you need to bond with those closest to you."

Kankuro felt a surge of hope at those words. Maybe, after all this time . . .

Gaara looked up from Naruto's grave. "You asked me last night to let you in, let you help. I said I would, but I realized this morning the importance of that request. Out of everyone dead or alive, Temari and you have become the closest to me. Although I will miss Naruto, I can't afford to live my life mourning the relationship I didn't get to have with this person I idolized; I need to focus on the real loving relationships I already have. If not, I'll be like Father — not realizing until after I'm dead that I got everything backwards." He snorted. "If I did do something like that, Naruto would kick my ass in the afterlife for missing the whole point."

"You bet he would," Kankuro agreed. He held out his hand.

Gaara accepted it, and Kankuro pulled him to his feet, hugging him. Gaara paused, then slipped his arms around Kankuro's waist, hugging him back.

After a moment, Kankuro released Gaara and met his gaze. "I'm glad you're thinking this through. I wasn't sure what I was going to do if you shut me out and mourned Naruto all alone forever." He tilted his head. "And it's not like we don't bring pieces of our loved ones with us. Maybe us more than others."

Gaara raised a hairless brow. "What do you mean?"

"Father and Mother's spirits," Kankuro said matter-of-factly.

"Their spirits?" Gaara glanced around them, his brow furrowing.

Kankuro nodded. "Didn't you wonder why I wasn't upset that you got to talk to Father and I didn't?"

Gaara stared at him. "I just thought . . ."

"I didn't want to? Hardly." Kankuro smiled. "A piece of Father's spirit has stayed with me since the night of his funeral. Just like a piece of Mother's spirit has stayed in your sand since you were born."

Gaara's eyes widened. "He did?"

Kankuro smiled. "Yep. He's been watching over us ever since he died." He paused. "You might not have a piece of Naruto's spirit with you, but you do have the Will of Fire, which you inherited from Naruto. And you'll carry memories, shared experiences, shared dreams . . . As long as you live, a piece of Naruto will live inside you. Just like Father and Mother will be looking out for us."

Gaara hesitated, looking down at the ground. "But I think . . . I would like to have living people looking out for me, too." He raised his eyes and scanned Kankuro's face. "I often thought of how Naruto was that person who could pull me through a crisis . . . but I realized at his funeral that I was hardly special. In that way, our relationship was never personal. He would do the same for anyone." He visibly steeled himself. "Last night there were very few people you would have done that for. But I was one of them . . . and I should feel special. Because I warrant your attention, and I always warranted it, even when I thought I didn't need an older brother." He reached out and took Kankuro's arm. "If anything, this experience has reinforced my knowledge that I do. I do need an older brother, Kankuro. And it's you."

Kankuro was initially speechless. He hadn't expected such a direct affirmation, even though he'd gained the esteemed position of Gaara's personal bodyguard. "G-Gaara . . ." He found a smile coming to his lips. I've been trying to reach you all this time, and finally you reached me.

Gaara gave him a small smile and pulled him into a gentle hug. "Thank you. And thank you for going up to the podium with me when I was called upon to make a speech on behalf of Naruto's memory. I know you hate funerals."

"God, do I," Kankuro said, hugging Gaara in return. "And you're welcome. There was no way I was letting you go up there and face that alone."

"Thank you," Gaara whispered. He didn't let go of Kankuro. Instead, he rested his head against Kankuro's shoulder. "I would never have survived an experience like this without you and Temari by my side. During the past few days, it has been mostly you. I realize that I was shutting everyone out . . . but you did not pay attention. Just like you never paid attention to my attempts to shut you out. You always knew when you were needed anyway, in spite of me. I apologize for making you fight to save me. I should never have done that." He looked into Kankuro's eyes. "And I won't again."

Kankuro met his gaze. "Good." He thought it ironic that losing Naruto had essentially given him his brother in full. "Good. I have always wished to be your niisan, and not only in name. It's what I really was trying to tell you when Father died: I love you, so I would have never let your body be tossed away or your memory forgotten. You won't die alone. Not again. I tried to stop it from happening the first time, and you can damn well be sure I'll stop it a second time. You won't be abandoned. You have me."

Gaara placed a hand over his heart, absorbing that declaration. He closed his eyes. "I believe that you, too, have me. Any vows should be exchanged in full, not merely taken for granted by one party or the other. I will not allow your body to be tossed aside or your memory forgotten, nor will you die alone. You won't be abandoned." He opened his eyes and looked at Kankuro. "Because I love you."

"Then it's a pledge," Kankuro said. Life, death, rebirth. The cycle never ended, and Kankuro realized that Naruto's death had, in fact, led to a birth. He wouldn't have to wonder any longer if he truly had an ototo because he did. Gaara's gaze was now acknowledging him. His words had singled him out as special.

It could now be a time of peace.