And thus, this story comes to an end… and about time too, as all of you would agree.
Between apologies for my appalling delays, I want to THANK all of you who have read this story for the support and inspiration you have provided.
This chapter, in its entirety, is dedicated to Mitsuki Shiroi: loyal reader, avid supporter and true friend.
Chapter 12 – Shades of Life
The feeling of being suspended in mid air suddenly ceased and he could make out a faint light filtering through his eyelids. It was soft and warm, radiating a feeling of comfort which he couldn't ignore even if he tried.
With great effort, Sabaku no Gaara opened his eyes.
He was lying on his back and the first thing he saw was an endless bright blue sky, without a single cloud gracing its vastness. He was suddenly immersed in a feeling of contentment, as if that endless firmament reflected the nature of his very being. Blinking in rapid succession he tried to move his limbs and his hands met with a strange substance, on which he was seemingly lying.
He shifted his head slightly, his eyes travelling down the length of his arm and halting at his hand… the hand of a child. This fact didn't faze him in the least and he started threading the sand through his fingers, relishing in the feel of the grains as they slipped from his grasp.
After what seemed like an eternity, he managed to sit up, shifting his short legs underneath him. Before him lay a vast ocean, as endless as the sky above him and he couldn't help but smile in wonderment at the beautiful sight.
The realization that he couldn't hear the sound of the waves never crossed his mind and he sat there in amazement, staring at the movements of the waters as if he were watching the sea for the first time.
It was then that he felt it: a familiar presence to his left. Turning his head in its direction, his eyes widened at the sight before him and his mind went blank.
There, sitting some distance away sat a beautiful woman with long auburn hair trailing down her back. She was playing happily with the sand and the echo of her laughter brought music to Gaara's ears, as if he'd been craving for that sound all his life. She turned then towards him and he recognized her immediately even though he had never seen her before.
It was his mother.
With tears in his eyes, he forced his small body into action, lunging himself towards her and falling into her arms.
"Shhh," she told him softly, "no need to worry, dearest. I'm here."
As she said the words, her tender hands caressed his hair and his cheeks, embracing him as if she never wanted to let him go.
Gaara had never felt so loved.
"Mama, can I stay her with you forever?" he asked, looking up towards her face.
She answered with a loving smile and tightened her embrace.
The bags under her eyes were increasing by the minute and walking up and down the corridor was all she could do to prevent herself from falling asleep on her feet.
The days following the bare knuckled fight had been a blur, with the police coming in and taking shifts to guard Gaara. They didn't know if any of Sasuke's lackeys were still out there, just waiting for the right moment to retaliate and thus, they weren't going to take any chances. Sakura had been forced from the red head's side given that her statement was necessary to prosecute all the mafia bosses Shikamaru had apprehended and the story of her kidnapping needed to be adequately archived in the files of the case. This took her away for hours at a time and before she knew it, the days had passed before her eyes without her even noticing.
At one point, there were some heated debates concerning Gaara's participation in the fight and the possibility that he would be charged with murder appeared. The pink haired girl almost had a breakdown right there and then, but Shikamaru assured that her statement and the letter that Sasuke had sent the bodyguard issuing a challenge were more than enough evidence to show that he had gone to the fight in an effort to protect her. If he had finally beaten down and ended the life of his opponent, well, it had been done in self-defence as well as for her own safety.
Sakura wasn't entirely sure if he had done just that but she decided to let the matter drop. True enough, the debates weren't heard of again and the trials proceeded without any problems. She was called to the witness box many times and she was more than happy to provide the jury with everything she had seen while in the forced custody of Uchiha Sasuke. The truth of their past relationship was also revealed and it was extremely hard for her to tell the world about the torment her ex-lover had made her live through but she did so with her head held high.
All in all, before she could even start to think about the chaos of the past few days and to realize that she was finally safe, two whole weeks had gone by without Gaara showing any signs of improvement.
She visited him everyday and tried to stay the night as much as possible, alternating with Naruto. Nonetheless, the redhead's siblings and the members of the Konoha's Shidokan would always appear out of nowhere, giving their support in their own little ways. They had been insistent when it came to staying by their friend's side and they wouldn't let Sakura assume the tiring responsibility of taking care of him all by herself. It was during this time that the pink haired girl had gotten to know Temari and Kankurou; they spoke to her of Gaara's childhood and of the good times the three of them had shared together despite their terrible circumstances. It eased her heart to know that her beloved redhead had siblings who had cared for him ever since he was small and that there had been some light in the darkness he had been forced to face.
Even though she had some moments in which she could breathe, Sakura was overwhelmed with worries more often than not. It didn't help to constantly remind herself that Hinata had been leading her company ever since she had been taken by Sasuke and the pink haired manager knew she couldn't let her assume the role of temporal administrator for much longer. Her friend had done so much for her and it was about time that she relieved her of an occupation that truly wasn't meant for the shy girl. She knew that her raven haired friend was going crazy despite the smiles and the reassurances she gave her but she simply couldn't bring herself to leave Gaara… at least not yet.
Sakura made a point of being there everyday when Tsunade-sensei made her rounds and came to check on the redhead. But she only came to tell the pink haired girl what she had already surmised by herself.
"He's in a coma, dear. It's all up to him now."
Now, as she walked the corridor of the hospital in front of Gaara's room, Sakura tried to get her life back into some semblance of order, trying to think of anything but the man lying on a bed on the other side of the wall. Her tired mind would jump from one thought to the next, barely being coherent, as she attempted to calm down somewhat. But the intense period of tension she had been living couldn't be disregarded so easily.
Her body was screaming for her to get some sleep but she knew that if she went back home and got into bed, her mind would not let her get a single minute of rest. Either way, she needed to wait for Naruto who was coming to stay the night with Gaara. He would be arriving any minute and she felt like talking to her friend for a while.
There were many things she wanted to say to him but she simply hadn't found the courage or the time.
By the time the blond arrived carrying a duffle bag with his things, he knew that Sakura had been waiting specifically for him. When he greeted her with an embrace, he suddenly realized how fragile she was and wasn't at all surprised to find that she had lost some weight.
"When was the last time you ate?" he asked her, concern in his voice.
"Midday," the pink haired girl confessed with a wry smile. In all honesty, her body was still recuperating from the shock the past few days had dealt her and her eating habits had not returned to normal yet… and she didn't know if they ever would if Gaara continued to linger in the unconscious state he was currently in.
Naruto left his things inside the room and walked her down to the hospital's 24 hour cafeteria. There were only a few people around this late at night and they sat alone at a table completely undisturbed.
Sakura tried to initiate a conversation with her friend but he wouldn't hear any of it until she had finished the food on her plate. The blond fighter knew that his pink haired friend had a tendency to neglect her own care, especially when others needed her and he decided that he would have to pamper her himself until Gaara decided to join them.
When Sakura finished eating, silence fell over the both of them and as she lifted tired emerald eyes towards Naruto, she found a pair of sapphire blue orbs staring back at her intently.
"He's dead then," she said suddenly, managing to get past the lump in her throat as she broke the silence.
There was absolutely no need to explain who he was.
"Yes," Naruto answered simply, a strange mixture of pain and relief flooding through him.
Sakura knew that if there was anyone who would understand how she was feeling, it would be her loyal blond friend.
"It's kind of strange to think that he is actually gone…" she said, tears threatening to slip from her eyes. "To think that the shadow that has been chasing me for years has finally been extinguished and that it will truly never bother me again."
"I know," Naruto said softly, looking down at the cup of tea he held in his hands. "You know, after all this time, something deep inside of me always thought that he might come back to us… that he might return to being the person he was before."
Sakura nodded. She had been right. Naruto was the only person who would be able to understand what she was going through.
"I thought so too," she confessed. "But he simply slipped out of our grasp a very long time ago."
"Yes, I knew that too but hope is the last thing you lose…" the blond said, smiling sadly.
"Yeah," Sakura replied simply.
"But I guess its fitting, don't you think?" she said after a while. "He has been released from the world of darkness he decided to descend into and we have been freed of his lurking shadow."
Naruto's smile changed slightly. "Yes, you're right. It couldn't have ended any other way. Now, all we can do it look forward to what is yet to come."
Sakura nodded, unable to speak because of the tears. Not caring if there was anyone watching, she stood up and walked over to sit on the chair next to Naruto and embraced him tightly. She wept into his shoulder while he held her, letting go of all the bottled up emotions she had been trying to control these past few days.
When she quietened, the blond caressed her soft cherry hair and murmured into her ear. "Don't worry, Gaara will come back to us. He won't dare to leave you like that… he knows I'll kick his ass in this life or the next if he breaks your heart."
Sakura chuckled slightly at the statement and lifted her face to look up at her friend.
"You need to get some sleep," he told her as he took in her haggard face and swollen eyes. "Go home, take a bath and rest. You know I'll call you if there's any change."
She nodded and stood slowly, her body deciding that it was going to follow Naruto's advice even if she didn't want to. Accompanying the blond to Gaara's room, she kissed her redheaded lover goodnight before leaving him alone with their friend.
A few minutes later, she was out the hospital doors and heading home. By the time she got to her apartment, her limbs were already taking their toll from the lack of sleep and she was barely able to undress to take a quick shower. She forced herself to wash since the hot water would be good for her.
Terribly exhausted from the exertion, she collapsed on the bed completely naked after towelling herself dry and fell asleep the instant her cheek touched her pillow.
His mother's lap was all he had ever imagined it would be and more. As he sat there in her embrace while overlooking the vast ocean in front of them, Gaara thought there was nothing else he could ever want in his entire existence.
But his mother had other opinions.
"Sweety, you will have to leave soon," she told him in a patient tone.
The redheaded child simply shook his head forcefully and buried his face in her chest. "I don't want to go anywhere, mama. I belong here."
The auburn haired woman smiled down at him fondly. "You will always belong here with me, dear. You always have me with you, no matter where you go. But there is another place where you must be… there are other people who need you."
"I don't care about them," Gaara exclaimed, tears coming to his jade eyes. "I just want to be with you."
His mother embraced him tightly and caressed his hair softly. "I know, I know, but you don't mean it when you say you do not care for them. They are important people, people who care for you immensely. It will not do to keep them crying over you because you do not return."
Wide jade eyes turned to look at her. "Someone is crying over me?"
"Yes," his mother replied with a sad smile. "Crying very much."
"But no one loves me," Gaara answered angrily. "No one has ever cared about me."
"That's a lie and you know it," she said in a patient tone. "You just have to remember."
"Remember who?" the redheaded boy asked as the waves continued to crash upon the sand.
Sakura woke up unbelievably rested. It had been weeks since she had been able to get sleep properly and as the morning sun filtered through her curtains, her body felt like it was heading directly towards normalcy at an incredibly fast rate.
Emerald eyes turned to look at her bedside alarm clock and she was shocked to see that it was already midday. She had slept over 12 hours and had actually missed Tsunade's round on Gaara. Cursing loudly, the pink haired girl threw the covers off her and made her way to the bathroom. She washed her face quickly and started dressing in a pair of jeans but stopped suddenly.
As much as it broke her heart, she realized that it was time she started concentrating on her own life and started paying attention to the professional aspects of it. HPhar was the inheritance she had received from her dead parents and she needed it to keep going so she could keep their legacy alive. It was one of the most important things in her life and due to all the recent chaos, she had thrown it down to the bottom of her priorities.
But she couldn't keep that up for long. She had her family name to live up to and even though her parents would understand the terrible experiences she had gone through, Sakura refused to bow her head to adversity, especially when all she wanted was for them to be proud of her… wherever they were.
Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply. Leaving Gaara in the hands of someone else was going to prove extremely difficult but she knew she had to do it. For the sake of her family's company and of her standing as a professional, she knew she would have to cut down the time she spent at the hospital. Bracing her courage, she reminded herself that this didn't mean that she was leaving him alone… not at all. She would spend this night by his side and would take care of him as best as she could. It just meant that she needed to concentrate on other important factors in life.
Besides, he wouldn't be completely alone. Even now as she looked at the time, she knew Kankurou would definitely be with his little brother, keeping him company. The tattoed man had a tendency to drop by before lunch and he stayed for a few hours after that. Temari would most likely stop by as well. Gaara would always have a familiar face beside him, no matter the time.
There was really nothing to worry about.
Dropping the jeans she had been holding in her hand to the floor, the pink haired girl walked back into her closet. She looked through her clothing, finally making her choice. A few minutes later she emerged, wearing a navy blue pinstripe suit that hugged her figure very nicely, her hair carefully dried and perfectly combed. Putting on some of her favourite jewellery, she applied just enough make up to hide the haggard look on her face. She finally turned to survey herself in her full length mirror…
And was met by the sight of the Chief Manager of Haruno Pharmaceuticals, a strong and confident woman she hadn't seen in a very long time.
By the time she stepped out of the elevator unto the conference room's floor of office building, Sakura was feeling so much like herself again that she thought she would be overcome with the powerful emotions running rampant within her. She had missed this. She had missed her job, she had missed her profession… she had missed being the head of the company her parent's had built with their own hands. A wide grin spread across her face as she walked through the hallway, smiling even more when people in the corridor would stop and stare openly at her, bowing their heads as she passed.
"Miss Haruno," they greeted with respect. "It's great to have you back."
Yes, it was great to be back. She greeted all of them cheerfully and stopped to chat with some of them. But she didn't linger long. A board meeting was taking place in this instant, as it always did at this hour once a month, and she was intent on attending this one.
As she reached the large double doors of the conference room, she stopped a moment to breathe in deeply. Without any hesitation, Sakura grasped the door knob and opened the door, noticing the silence that descended over the room when the discussion was interrupted by her entrance.
Lifting emerald eyes towards the long table where the members of the board were sitting, she almost let out a giggle at the looks of utter shock on most faces. But as she turned towards the head of the table and found Hinata sitting in the Chief Manager chair, she only saw relief and happiness reflected in her friend's eyes.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Sakura greeted with a smile. "I apologize for my extended absence but as you already know, things were simply not in my hands. I'm happy to say that I am back so I would appreciate it if you could brief me on the situation so we can get down to business."
As she talked, she made her way steadily to the end of the table, where Hinata was already standing next to her chair, basically radiating with happiness. Sakura smiled widely and grasped her hand in affection for a moment, letting her know that they would talk later. Sitting down in her chair with the grace of a multimillionaire heiress, she turned towards her board members and proceeded to throw herself head first in the running of her company.
It was some minutes afterwards that Hinata approached her quietly and leaned down towards her ear.
"Would you like a double mocha?" she whispered sweetly.
The grin on Sakura's lips couldn't have been wider.
"I would love one," she replied, happier than she'd been in days.
Smiling just as wide, the raven haired assistant made her way silently out of the room, utterly ecstatic with the return of her friend.
A few hours later, after having gone out together for a nice lunch, manager and assistant made their way up to Sakura's office. They were intent on sitting down and tackling the re-organization that was surely going to be needed when the pink haired girl resumed her post once again. Hinata had been rescheduling many meetings for her sake and some business partners were getting impatient.
Sakura wasn't sure how Hinata had managed it but she had kept her situation a classified secret and only the top members of her company, the ones she had been in a meeting with up until now, knew exactly what had been going on. All of them were loyal to Sakura and her parents; some had actually known her since she was small, for they had always been like family. And thus, the incident with Sasuke had been kept to an extremely low profile and Sakura's absence had been attributed to a strange illness. With the way she had lost weight and had looked slightly haggard, it hadn't been hard for her employees to believe what they had been told.
Once more, the pink haired manager was completely grateful for Hinata's subtle influences and knew that she wouldn't have been able to recover professionally from this whole episode if she hadn't been standing beside her. Now that she had managed to get things in order and had delegated responsibilities, she planned on giving her friend an extended vacation. She had also made clear that she would be coming into the office often but that due to personal reasons she still wasn't capable of returning full time. However, she would be available for anything anyone might need and she would be checking up on everything constantly. There hadn't been any complaints to that and some of the closest members of the board had told her to rest as much as she needed.
She appreciated that more than they could ever know and once more, she promised herself she would do anything in her power to keep her parent's company on the top.
"It's been cleaned twice a week like you've always preferred," Hinata said with a smile as they walked into Sakura's office. Just like she mentioned, everything was in pristine order, her desk and furniture completely free of any dust that might have accumulated while she was gone.
The pink haired manager walked up towards her large window, the afternoon sun flooding her office with its warm glow. She overlooked the city and unconsciously, her eyes darted across the landscape in search of Konoha's Central Hospital some distance away, pinpointing its location among the rest of the buildings.
'I'm right here,' she told him inside her mind, letting Gaara know that she was within easy reach if he happened to need her.
Turning around, she walked towards her desk and sat down in her armchair, making herself comfortable. Hinata smiled and took a chair in front of her as Sakura turned on her computer.
"Let's do this," HPhar's manager said with determination.
"Alright," her raven haired assistant replied, settling back and taking out her PDA from her suit pocket. "The only really urgent meeting that you have is with Tanaka-san, since he's leaving the country early in the morning in two day's time. He is adamant in his request to meet with you before he leaves. I've had a tough time pacifying him… when I told him you were sick, he said he would visit you at home if he needed to."
Sakura chuckled. That was Tanaka-san for you. He was one of her main business partners and owned a large company of medical supplies. She really had an obligation to him especially since he had been so patient with her when she had first taken the reigns of HPhar.
"Tell him I'll meet with him tomorrow afternoon," she replied. "Maybe we can even have a lunch meeting and come back to the office if our discussions extend too much… which is ends up being the case."
"I'm sure he'll ask if he can see you tonight," Hinata said as she scheduled the meeting on her PDA, her small pen moving with amazing speed across the screen.
"If he does simply tell him that I'm indisposed," Sakura stated firmly. "I'm staying with Gaara tonight."
The raven haired assistant nodded, concerned at the sad look that abruptly crossed her friend's emerald eyes. She knew Sakura needed a break… needed some time away from the hospital so she could concentrate on other things and rest her worried mind.
And it was up to her to provide the distraction.
"The developing team has come up with a couple of potential products," Hinata said, changing the subject. "They've been begging to meet with you."
That did the trick and she saw the expression on Sakura's face change from sad to curious in a few seconds.
"Now that will definitely prove interesting," she replied, leaning forward in her chair. "What have they come up with this time?"
Glad that she could help lighten the burden her friend carried, Hinata smiled before plunging into the description of the innovative products their team had come up with.
What his mother had said confused him.
All along he had been feeling completely at ease, satisfied with watching the rolling waves as they crashed against the shore, one after another. She had gone silent after that. Her hand continued to caress his hair but no other words fell from her lips.
He was starting to feel edgy and he didn't like it. The urge to throw a tantrum was slowly rising to the surface. But he was sure that if he let his temper get the best of him and he demanded that his mother tell him who she was talking about, he wouldn't get the answers he needed. His childlike mind somehow managed to grasp the intuitive realization that he needed to solve this problem by himself.
Bright jade eyes turned up towards the sea, narrowing as he tried to discern the puzzle his mother had inadvertently dropped into his lap. Strangely, he didn't feel as welcome as he had before in this peaceful landscape and something deep inside him started to stir.
He shouldn't be feeling this way. He was with his mother… there really shouldn't be anything else he could want. Her smiles, her caresses and her love were all he needed, all he had ever wanted in life. But a sudden restlessness overcame him and before he could think about what he was doing, he had stood up and walked away from his mother's lap.
Heading directly towards the water, he could feel the soft sand under his feet. He looked up towards the sky and abruptly realized that the day was ending. The light of the fading sun rapidly turned the sky into a thousand different hues of orange and roseate.
Inexplicably, he felt his eyes being drawn towards the various shades of pink. Something stirred inside him, as if he were trying to recall something important… something of significance that he had somehow lost.
But try as he might, he simply couldn't pinpoint it. As he continued to stand there in his confusion, he felt an initial spark of irritated anger make its way up his spine at not knowing what it was that was bothering him.
Naruto rose from the chair he had been dozing on for the past couple of hours and walked towards the hospital room's window. Lifting his hand, he partially opened the white curtains to overlook the view of the city at night. Dawn was only around 20 minutes away and soon, all the lights that illuminated Konoha would slowly disappear under the sun's shining rays.
Watching the dawn was a habit he had acquired of late and he found himself drawn to the window whenever he spent the night at the hospital with his sleeping friend. He guessed it was a way to hang on to the hope that they were all clinging to; to watch the sun drive away the darkness was like re-affirming their faith in the redheaded man lying on the bed a few paces away.
The tired blond turned to look at him then. Nothing had changed. So many days had gone by and Gaara didn't show any signs of improvement. Compared to the fit and strong fighter that he was before he'd encountered Sasuke, he was now like a shadow self of what he once had been. Due to his injuries and lack of consciousness, the redhead had lost weight and the black rings around his eyes had intensified. They stood out terribly against his pale skin, just like the crimson tattoo on his forehead. The bruises from his fight with the Uchiha were slowly disappearing and instead of a leering purple, they were turning into a shade of sickly yellow which made him look all the more pallid.
With an unhurried yawn, Naruto walked back and forth across the room in an attempt to stretch his slightly cramped legs. He hadn't been working out as much as he would have liked lately but it simply couldn't be helped. Even though all the members of Konoha's Shidokan were helping as much as they could, the responsibility of taking care of Gaara had fallen to Sakura, Temari, Kankurou and him. The redhead's siblings would usually split the day shift between themselves while Naruto and Sakura alternated the nights. The pink haired doctor had specified that it was essential for someone to be with him at all times… she said it could actually help to bring him back to consciousness and would lessen the shock of finding himself in a strange environment when he woke up.
If he ever did.
Shaking his head vigorously, the blond vanished such pessimistic thoughts from his mind. He had to believe in his friend, had to believe in his strength of will. Gaara wasn't the kind of person that would give up so easily, especially after he had found someone as special as Sakura to love him back. She meant the world to him and Naruto knew he wouldn't abandon her without putting up a fight.
His musings were abruptly interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Taking it out from the pocket of his jacket hanging on the chair, he moved towards the window with a smile before he answered.
"Good morning," he said with a husky voice.
Hinata answered shyly on the other side of the line.
Naruto had known that she needed to get up really early to go drop off some business associates of Sakura's at the airport and had been expecting her call. As she chatted happily with him while she made herself a quick breakfast, the blond decided that getting a cup of coffee himself wouldn't be a bad idea.
Opening the door of Gaara's room with his free hand, he moved quickly down the corridor towards the hospital's cafeteria, talking happily with his girl.
He had been angry before coming to this place… of that much he was certain.
There had been something… someone he had been extremely infuriated with before coming to this peaceful beach with his mother. As he let the memory of the emotion wash over him, the redhead suddenly felt his chest tighten with another kind of emotion.
It was relief… relief of knowing that whatever he had been doing had succeeded. The situation he had been in had involved pain, at a physical, emotional and mental level. Devastation would have been the closest term he could use to describe the state he had found himself in before realizing that whatever it was that he had done, had actually worked.
Gaara tried to desperately to remember but the more he wanted to grasp the elusive visions that were just beyond his reach, the more they eluded him. The anger came flooding back over him tenfold and his hands tightened into fists at his side.
It was then that he looked down and realized that the strength with which he was pressing his fingers against his palms was not the typical force of a little boy. Lifting his fist to his face, he looked it over and found the hand of a man. His knuckles showed scars from previous injuries and he was suddenly aware that he was looking at the hands of a fighter. He flexed his fingers then and the familiar way with which his arms settled into a combat stance out of their own accord had him widening his eyes even further.
He went through a couple of movements as easily as if his muscles were flowing water. The memory of the katas he would perform while warming up for training came tumbling into his mind out of nowhere and rush of familiarity washed over him. Not stopping once, he followed the urge of his limbs to move in remembrance, bare feet shifting in the sand as he allowed his instincts to take over.
And as his body lost itself in the familiar routine of movements, his mind started to remember.
Left foot forward, right foot back.
The faces of his comrades at Konoha's Shidokan appeared before him. All the training they'd endured together, all the competitions they'd participated in… it all pushed him to move further and drove him forward.
Right arm extended, left fist back.
The face of a blue-eyed blond with a wide smile hovered in front of him. The bonds of friendship he'd formed with Naruto were suddenly clear and Gaara remembered all the times they'd gone at each other at the dojo, trying to improve each other's abilities.
Left foot back, right back hand block as he turned.
Temari was suddenly there, with her harsh words and demeanour but no less caring because of it. He remembered what it was like to live under her 'rule' while he was a child and a painful cringe erupted from his heart as he remembered the tattered experiences of his childhood. But he held the pain at bay, concentrating on the way his body was humming with satisfaction as he moved through his katas.
Right food forward, left side kick.
His brother was there as well, tattoed face smiling in glee as he showed him one of his newest puppets for the latest film he'd been working on. Kankurou, his loyal brother who had always given him his silent support even throughout the beatings he'd been forced to see Gaara go through.
Step forward, back stance, middle level knife.
A man with dark hair and cruel eyes appeared abruptly before him. The reaction of utter hatred the redhead felt deep within his guts almost overpowered him. This was the man he had been infuriated with… this was the person who had brought him to the brink of despair. He was the one that had taken happiness away.
Left hand block, right foot front kick.
Someone had been taken away… someone he was supposed to be protecting.
She had been abducted, taken away before his very eyes and he had been powerless to do anything.
The girl with the green eyes and the pink hair…
Spear hand strike as he turned again.
The dam inside his mind broke and as his vision was flooded with light, he felt the sand and the ocean disappear.
"Getting your coffee a bit early today, aren't you?" Miyako asked Naruto as she poured him a cup from behind the counter.
"Well yes," he replied sheepishly, "I kind of needed it earlier than usual today."
"I still think you guys should ask Tsunade-sama for an extra bed or some kind of pallet in the room… it really couldn't hurt," the hospital waitress, who knew all about their situation, said with concern.
"We kind of did hint at it but she told us adamantly that there are none to spare. And hospital regulations don't allow us to bring our own in so… we're stuck with a chair," he replied ruefully. "At least it's better than nothing."
"I guess you're right," she replied with a comforting smile. "Well, we'll be serving scrambled eggs for breakfast in case you're interested."
Naruto's stomach rumbled slightly at the mention of food and he tried to keep it in check. He still had another hour an a half to go before the cafeteria served the first meal of the day but he could make it. "I'll definitely be here."
With that, he took his cup and a packet of cookies with him towards the elevator. The warm feel of the dark liquid down his throat as he drank was like heaven. Pressing the button, he rode in silence up to the floor of Gaara's room, blissfully enjoying the smell of his coffee.
He sat up as if he had been struck by lighting, his breathing coming in rapid, harsh gasps. The world turned abruptly before his eyes and he was forced to close them in an attempt to get his bearings straight.
Nausea overcame him but he fought it back with sheer willpower. He tumbled back down into a soft mattress helplessly after a few seconds, his muscles giving way under the sudden strain he'd abruptly placed them under. A deep and raw cough found its way up his throat and as his chest convulsed painfully, he could taste the metallic tinge of blood on his tongue. He was having trouble breathing but he couldn't allow this to stop him.
Opening glazed jade eyes, Gaara scanned the room with the instinctual precision of a predator. He noticed that he was alone immediately and that the only source of light in the chamber was coming from a fluorescent lamp on the bedside table. It took him a while to get used to its irritating glow and his eyes started to water from the effort of trying to keep things in focus. From the constant beep of a machine next to him and the IV in his wrist, he realized he was in a hospital.
Where was she? Why wasn't she here?
Had someone taken her away again?
With the greatest effort he had ever exerted in his life, the redhead sat up again. Adrenaline started pumping in his veins along with the maddening anger that invaded him at the thought of someone daring to take Sakura away from his side.
His mind flooded his consciousness with visions of her crying, bloodied and battered in a cell somewhere, held captive by another psychotic bastard.
With a strangled scream of rage and without knowing exactly what he was doing, Gaara pulled the IV from his arm with one violent movement. Lowering his legs from the bed, he moved to stand.
As his feet took on the entirety of his weight, he toppled forward and stumbled against the wall. Bracing his arms against the cold concrete, he managed to stay upright out of sheer force of will as pain invaded his whole body. Every single one of his muscles complained in earnest against the sudden movement. But the images of Sakura's suffering pushed him to move forward and leaning against the wall, he made his way towards the room's only door.
Anger fuelled his actions… unsuppressed and pure rage. It had been his weapon all his life and he didn't hesitate to use it once again. Gaara couldn't afford to be weak, not now. Summoning the adrenaline that had helped him attain Shidokan World Championship titles, he slammed the door open with all his strength. The glass panel on the wooden frame shattered with the force of his movement, eliciting a deafening clash throughout the silent hospital. The shards of glass fell to the floor in front of him and he heard a yell of alarm coming from somewhere down the corridor.
Not caring that he was barefoot, he stepped forward, scanning the hall for any signs of his pink haired lover. He had to look for her… her life depended on it, damn it!
A male nurse came rushing at him down the hall, screaming something incoherent. Gaara couldn't make out the words but the way the man was approaching him triggered a basic response from him and he was powerless to stop his body from moving… not that he actually wanted to.
In answer to the nurse's threatening step, Gaara lunged himself forward, punching the man in the stomach. As he toppled forward in pain, the redhead used the opportunity to grab him by the neck. With a forceful movement of his arm, he pinned the man against the wall, his fingers digging menacingly into his throat.
The male nurse tried to pry him away, his hands clawing at the skin of Gaara's arm but the redhead's hold was strong as steel.
"WHERE IS SHE?" he roared into the man's face, wide jade eyes taking on a maddening glint.
The man tried to gargle out a negative response but Gaara shook him forcefully.
"WHERE IS SHE?" he screamed again, closing his fingers even more around the nurse's throat.
Gaara could tell other people that had been approaching them had stopped dead in their tracks. He didn't know exactly what the hell was going on but he wanted answers and he wanted them now. He didn't care who these people were or why they had him in that room… he just wanted to know were Sakura was and wanted her beside him.
But the reigning silence that had descended over all of them was broken by the sound of a breaking ceramic cup as it hit the floor.
He lifted his face towards the familiar voice, jade eyes widening in recognition at the familiar figure making its way over to him in a hurry. Naruto was moving with great speed from one end of the corridor towards him, his jeans splashed with what appeared to be coffee.
Relief replaced the anger within him and without even noticing, he loosened his hold on the man in front of him. As he was released, the male nurse slid down the wall to the ground, his face fraught with fear. Gaara didn't notice this however, as he stepped in the direction of his friend.
If Naruto was here, it meant that Sakura had to be around too. The blond would never let anything happen to her. Apart from himself, he was the only other person he trusted Sakura's safety with. Naruto wouldn't have allowed anything to happen to her… not after they'd managed to rescue her. Definitely not.
The redhead stumbled slightly as the surge of anger and adrenaline left his body abruptly. All the aches he had been able to suppress up until now returned to him with a vengeance and a terrible jolt of pain from his left flank suddenly overwhelmed him. He fell forward, his breathing coming in loud gasps… exhaustion had finally gotten the best of him.
Miraculously, he never made it to the floor.
A strong hold was suddenly supporting him and someone was wrapping his arm around their shoulders. He was being lifted upwards but the pain in his side wasn't diminishing.
"Someone get a wheelchair!" a nearby nurse was shouting, "we need to get him to another room."
"You alright?" he heard the familiar voice filled with emotion from somewhere near. Gaara found enough strength left in him to lift his head slightly, only to look into the blue eyes of his friend.
He tried to smile but found that he simply couldn't. "Where is she?" he whispered, the desperation in his voice coming as no surprise.
"She'll be here any moment now," Naruto replied with a reassuring grin, his eyes slightly teary at seeing his friend awake. "She'll come in a minute."
"Good," Gaara replied, the relief he felt of his body finally allowing him to relax. He felt the dark void of oblivion trying to reach for him again but Naruto shook him slightly when he saw his jade eyes closing.
"Don't you dare go back to sleep," he scolded softly but there was no conviction behind his statement. "She'll have my head if you do."
The redhead managed to smile then.
"Could you hurry up with that wheel chair?" Naruto shouted, turning to the medical staff scurrying around trying to clean up Gaara's mess.
"Even though you've lost weight, you're still hell heavy," he added with a chuckle, turning towards his friend once more.
She jumped into a run as soon as the elevator doors opened before her. All the rules that she'd followed for a long time when it came to hospital regulations flying out the window and she allowed her feet to propel her forward with abandon.
She'd received the call she had been awaiting for days and nothing could prevent her from rushing down the hall. Not even the surprised nurses who quickly scrambled out of her way or the angry yells of the interns telling her to slow down could stop her now.
It was all superfluous…none of it mattered. Not in this moment.
Her mind simply didn't think. So intent was she on reaching her goal that the only thing she was aware of was the beat of her pounding heart in her chest and the raw need that was thrumming through her to see the man she loved with her own eyes… to know that he was safe.
Tsunade-sensei's presence in front of the hospital room door confirmed her destination and impossibly, she quickened her run. At the sound of her approach, her former sensei lifted her head and spotted her, a wide smile blossoming on her lips. The older woman didn't say anything; she merely stepped out of the way wisely.
Barely able to stop her forward momentum in time to veer into the room's doorway, Sakura grabbed the door frame with one hand to help her make the tight turn. She was panting heavily but she wasn't even aware of it.
The sight of the redheaded man sitting up on the hospital bed with a scowl on his face was, in one word, overwhelming.
Naruto's presence to one side simply didn't register… nor did she notice the nurse that was tinkering with the IV bag next to the bed.
There was no room in her consciousness for them as she stood there for a few seconds, feeling like she could gaze at him like this for the rest of eternity.
But she realized she needed more… so much more than merely gazing.
He lifted his face when she stepped forward, his scowl disappearing in an instant.
Relieved emerald met yearning jade and the world narrowed down to nothing else.
It took two steps for her to reach the bed and throw herself upon him, ignoring the surprised yelp of the nurse and Naruto's happy laugh.
She buried her face in his neck, showering his skin with kisses as her fists buried themselves in the material of his robe… as she had done countless times in the past days.
But this time was different for instead of remaining still beneath her, she felt his strong arms lift to hold her to him in a tight embrace.
She simply couldn't find the strength of will to suppress the sob of relief that shuddered through her frame when she perceived the feel of his breath upon the top of her head as he too started to kiss her with a tad of desperation.
It was as if neither of them could believe that the one they were holding was real.
Neither of them noticed when Naruto approached the nurse or the woman's complaints when he firmly ushered her out of the room and closed the door.
There simply wasn't room in their world for that.
It was until midday of the following day that Naruto found himself pushing a wheelchair carrying a sour-looking Gaara out of the hospital's front door. The redhead had been forced to stay more time than he would've wanted to for if it had been up to him, he would've been back at Sakura's apartment by mid-morning the day before. Unfortunately, hospital protocol couldn't allow that for he had recently woken from a coma and still needed to be tightly monitored. It was only after he had effectively threatened the whole of his floor's medical staff that Tsunade finally signed his release form and decided that if he had enough energy to throw cantankerous tantrums, then he was healthy enough to go home.
Of course, the fact that it was Sakura who would be taking care of him helped with her decision and she knew that Gaara couldn't be in better hands.
Naruto simply sighed in resignation as they both waited for Sakura to bring out the car from the parking lot in gloomy silence. The blond had to admit that yesterday's festive mood, with all of the members of Konoha's Shidokan visiting along with Temari and Kankurou, had been dampened by an unpleasant bit of news.
Due to the nature of his injuries, to the complications to which they had led and the time he had spent unconscious, Sabaku no Gaara would have to refrain from practicing shidokan for an indefinite amount of time. He would have to remain in repose for months and due to the violent nature of his martial art, he would have to retake it slowly, one step at a time and under constant medical observation.
It was like asking a bird not to spread its wings to fly… both Sakura and Naruto knew that.
This was partly the reason why they had tolerated his outbursts towards the medical staff the day before since they knew it was his way of dealing with his frustration. Shidokan was Gaara's life, it was as simple as that. It was the martial art that had allowed him to rise from the existence he had previously led as a bare-knuckled fighter out on the streets and it was shidokan that had given him the chance to better himself. Thus, asking him to stop doing what was completely second-nature to him was like severing a limb.
It was going to take a great deal of patience and perseverance to be able to handle the redhead in the difficult state he would surely be in during the days to come. Both Naruto and Sakura were quite glad that they would have each other to count on and knew that with their help, Gaara would surely pull through... but it would definitely prove difficult.
After a couple of minutes, the pink haired girl pulled her BMW up to the sidewalk. Naruto stepped forward and opened the door, turning so he could help Gaara out of the chair and into the passenger seat. However, before he could do anything, the redhead had already stood up and turned away the blond's proffered help with a growl. Sakura and Naruto shared a concerned glance, especially with the evident effort that the redhead was making to hide the pain he was experiencing in his abdomen with each movement.
He finally managed to flop down on the seat beside her and blew out a deep breath, falling into a coughing fit. The blond threw Sakura a meaningful look before he closed the door and folded the wheel chair they had purchased so he could place it in the trunk. The pink haired girl sighed, lifting her hand to caress Gaara's cheek after the coughing had passed.
"You're supposed to take it easy and you know it," she said in a worried tone.
The redhead merely nodded as he turned to look at her but there was a steely glint of stubbornness in his eyes that told her otherwise. Lifting his hand up to her hair, he pulled her to him for a kiss.
His lips were hungry, zealous and possessive… just like they had been since he had woken up. The day before, he hadn't tolerated much time without her presence and if she was gone for a few minutes, he would be cursing whoever was in close proximity violently only to bury her in a needy embrace seconds after she reappeared. Despite spending hours clinging to each other in the hospital bed the previous day, they hadn't been able to talk much in private yet. Both of them had simply needed to get their fill of one another after being apart so long and they had been content with just laying there in each other's arms, whispering soft words. Nonetheless, Sakura knew there were things they would eventually need to discuss. But it was wiser to take everything one step at a time and not rush things… with the experiences they had gone through, both of them had wounds that went beyond the physical.
The opportunity to talk things over would present itself in due course. Right now, all both of them wanted to do was enjoy each other's presence to the fullest.
Their kiss was interrupted by Naruto as he climbed into the back seat of the car.
"How about some lunch?" the blond asked hopefully. "I feel like we had breakfast 3 days ago."
"I just want to go home," Gaara said with finality as Sakura pulled off the sidewalk and started driving down the street.
Naruto grumbled in protest but didn't say anything.
Sakura on the other hand, felt her chest swell with emotion with the redhead's statement. Gaara considered her apartment home... he had just made that absolutely clear. A myriad of feelings rose to the surface with the realization and her lips parted in a content smile.
"Tell you what," the pink haired girl said while looking at Naruto through the rear view mirror. "Why don't you call Hinata and tell her to pick you up at my place. Then the two of you can go buy the four of us lunch and we'll eat at the apartment. Sounds good to you?"
"Perfect!" he replied cheerily as he took out his cell phone from his pocket and dialled the raven haired girl's number.
Luckily, they didn't encounter much traffic on the way to Sakura's building and managed to make good timing. They parked in the basement and Gaara was the victim of the loud protests of his lover and friend when he opened the car door in an attempt to get out on his own. A hurt look from the pink haired girl managed to keep him in place while Naruto hurried to the back of the vehicle and took the wheel chair out.
"The two of you are going to be the death of me," the redhead said through clenched teeth as he reluctantly allowed the blond to help him into the chair.
"On the contrary, you idiot," Naruto replied with a smug grin, "we're here to keep you out of harm's way."
"By treating me like a cripple?" Gaara bit back.
"You are not a cripple," Sakura said as she walked around the car, "so stop saying that. The wheelchair is a necessary precaution since you need to move as least as possible. Your lung was punctured by your broken rib and it needs to heal properly." She leaned down to give him a quick peck on the cheek and even though he grumbled slightly, the redhead kept quiet.
They rode the elevator up to the pink haired girl's floor and Naruto pushed Gaara out into the corridor when they arrived. While Sakura found her keys and unlocked their apartment, the lift doors opened once more to reveal Hinata, who had just arrived to pick the blond up.
"Hi everyone," she said shyly just before Naruto buried her in a warm embrace.
"You two go get some lunch," Sakura said with a smile, "or else fox boy over here's going to eat us all."
"Hey!" the blond protested while Hinata chuckled.
The raven haired girl recovered quickly however and approached Gaara. "I'm glad you're back," she said while placing a soft hand on his shoulder, "she's been lonely in this place without you."
The redhead smiled before he replied. "She won't be lonely anymore then."
Hinata nodded happily and turned towards Sakura, giving her a quick hug.
"I'll keep him busy for a while," she whispered in her ear.
The pink haired girl stifled a chuckle at the mischievous tone in her friend's voice. "Thank you," she whispered back.
With that, Hinata pulled away and stepped towards Naruto.
"We'll get going now. See you in a bit!" the blond said as he took her hand, completely oblivious to the exchange between the two women.
When the elevator doors had closed behind them, Sakura pushed Gaara into their apartment.
"You don't need to do that," he protested.
"Oh yes I do," she replied, accentuating her answer with a slightly forceful shove of the wheelchair.
"I can manage this cursed chair by myself," the redhead said while she closed the door.
Sakura laughed slightly. "I know you can but you should start getting used to being helped."
"I don't need any help," he told her stubbornly.
"Things would get done a lot quicker if you allowed me to help," she said innocently, slowly approaching him. As she took in the sight of him sitting there in front of the living room, she realized there was only one thing that she wanted to do.
"What things?" Gaara asked
"I don't know…" she replied as she leaned down towards him, her lips ghosting over his, "things like taking your clothes off."
He let out a loud chuckle.
"Now that's an aspect in which I'll always welcome your help," he finally said, pulling her down towards him.
The feel of her skin was everything he had ever craved for and more. As he caressed her naked breasts, her back, her thighs… he could feel the heat of her body through his wandering hands and it reminded him of how incredibly ecstatic he felt at being alive.
Every single second he had been forced to be apart from her had been like torture. Every time he had thought of her in the hands of that Uchiha maniac, he had felt the scalding wash of all-consuming wrath permeate through him. It had always been immediately followed by the cold swab of mind wreaking anxiety at the thought of what the bastard might have been doing to her and to this day, he didn't know how he had managed to maintain his sanity.
But that time was long gone. It was a thing of the past. Sakura was here now, lying in her unclothed splendour next to him as he kissed her with all the fervour he possessed. To think that it was all over, that no one would threaten her ever again… to know that she was his and that she was safe in his arms… it only spurred him to unimaginable levels of passion and he strived to show her everything he was feeling through his ardent lovemaking.
Sakura moaned loudly as he moved within her, unable to keep quiet with the surge of emotions she was experiencing. It was simply an overdose of feeling combined with the most delightful sensations she had ever experienced in her life. Touching him everywhere, she simply couldn't get enough of him and the fact that half his abdomen was wrapped in bandages didn't deter her from exploring him fully…not that she actually noticed the wrappings around his torso. The pink haired girl was simply too absorbed in the sensation of his muscles beneath her fingers, too absorbed in the knowledge that he was awake and that he was making love to her in their bed.
Such an experience had been a faraway dream to her just a couple of days before and it was all the more breathtaking to realize that this was real… that this wasn't just another of her constant daydreams. She had been deprived of his presence for too long and she relished in every single sensation he was provoking: from the feel of his urgent lips to the thrill of his wandering hands on her skin to the mind-blowing ecstasy he was provoking deep within her. Having experienced a deep void within her during the time he had been in a coma, it was all the more overwhelming to find herself whole again… to find that the part of herself she had been missing had been finally returned to her.
In the back of her mind, Sakura knew they should be taking it easy due to his condition and she had managed lure him to lie on his right side so that no pressure would fall on his injured ribs. But it was extremely difficult to control their reactions and it had taken all her strength of will to avoid throwing him on his back so she could ride him with all the ardour in her being. His ribs were still too sore and the weight of her on top of him would definitely not be good for him. He would never admit it but his breathing would sometimes come out in wheezing gasps. He'd have to settle with lying on his side for the time being but from the low growls he was eliciting, it seemed he didn't mind at all.
With her leg thrown over his hip, Gaara quickened the tempo of his thrusts, losing himself with every movement. There was no pain, no emptiness… there was only her and the bliss that being together like this brought them. He felt every inch of her skin and he was certain she felt him in the same way too. The blur of pleasurable sensation after pleasurable sensation threatened to consume them whole and as it was, they welcomed that ecstatic oblivion and moved closer to the edge with abandon.
They flew together and rose above the mundane happenings of the world, knowing they would be there to catch each other when they feel back down from grace.
As he opened the door to Sakura's apartment, a bag of Mexican take-out food in one hand, Naruto began to apologize immediately.
"I'm sorry we took so long guys, but Hinata insisted that we eat at the restaurant and…"
His words died in his mouth when he suddenly realized that he had just stepped on his pink haired friend's blouse as it lay discarded on the floor.
A quick perusal of the area quickly revealed the jeans Gaara had been wearing in a similar position not far away.
Hinata giggled behind him.
Wide blue eyes looked down the corridor for a moment, just to realize that the bedroom door was open. Luckily, no sounds were coming from within.
Sighing with relief, the blond replaced his shock with indignation.
"Now wait just a minute!" he bellowed. "Gaara, you're supposed to be taking it easy!"
"Oh, shut up!" came the redhead's irritated reply from the vicinity of the bedroom.
Sakura's bubbly laughter followed quickly afterwards.
The pink haired girl emerged from a deliciously hot shower the next morning with an utterly content smile on her lips. She paused for moment though, when she found the bedroom empty and she wondered where Gaara could've gone. Having left him sound asleep on the bed some minutes before, she thought she'd find him right where he had been.
'At least he took the chair with him,' he thought dryly when she realized that the wheelchair she had left at the side of the bed wasn't there. He had been trying to avoid using it every chance he got despite the fact that he received a stern scolding from whoever was in the vicinity whenever he did so. The previous night, when a group of their friends had come over to visit, Temari had actually gotten up and pinched his ear. It had elicited quite a wave of laughter from everyone in the living room and a deadly jade glare from the victim of the dark blond's vicious fingers.
Gaara had threatened her vehemently, daring her to do it again. But his older sister was undaunted and she kept pinching his ear until he'd settled back down on his chair.
Luckily, Sakura hadn't been forced to go to such means yet and the fact that he had used the wheelchair willingly was a sure sign of progress.
She got dressed quickly and went looking for him. It wasn't hard to guess his destination and she smiled sadly when she found him sitting on the floor of the mini-dojo she had built for him, his back to the door while he stared at the small shrine. The wheelchair was standing next to him and her heart simply couldn't avoid the swell of guilt that overcame her with the knowledge that everything that happened to him had been because of her.
Crossing the room with a slightly hesitant stride, Sakura kneeled down behind him and threw her arms around his neck. She buried her face on his shoulder as she embraced him, trying to fight the remorse building inside of her.
"I'm…" she began to say but he cut her short.
"If you're going to apologize, then you'd better think again," Gaara told her, his voice firm. "Everything I did, I did willingly. I was driven by my love for you and there's nothing I regret doing. To bring down that sick bastard, I would've done everything I did and more."
There simply wasn't anything she could say to that.
She answered by tightening her hold on him and pressing her face against him further. Sakura allowed the strength of his presence to fill her and to help her wash away the guilt. It wouldn't leave as easily as she wished but with him beside her, she knew it would eventually disappear. They stayed like that for a while, lost in the silence of the room.
By the time she lifted her eyes up to him again, she caught the look of longing with which he was gazing at the shidokan scrolls on the walls. Sighing as she strengthened her own resolve, she knew that she had to be there to help him as well. He would be going through a very tough time and she promised herself to show her support in every possible way.
She lifted her lips to his cheeks and kissed him tenderly. "You'll be back in that arena sooner than you think…"
"Do you really think so?" he asked and the doubt in his voice almost broke her heart. But she needed to be tough for him and to make him realize that the uncertainty that he was experiencing could be driven away.
"Of course I do," she said. "Everyone believes in you, especially me, and we'll be here to help you every step of the way."
Gaara breathed in deeply, allowing the comfort of her sure words to wash over him.
"Besides," she added as she playfully nipped his ear with her teeth, "with your stubborn streak? Your return is basically a given."
He simply had to grin at the truth behind her statement.
Lifting his hands, he caught both of hers as he interlaced their fingers. Bringing her knuckles to his lips, he kissed them tenderly as he continued to gaze upon the scroll before him.
It was going to take some doing and it would require large amounts of patience… a trait he barely possessed. But he realized that Sakura was right.
With her beside him, there really wasn't anything he couldn't accomplish.
Arigatou, minna. For your support throughout all this time.