Warnings: Slash/Yaoi, flirts with canon, WIP, angst, fluff, humor

Pairings: Gaara/Naruto

Rating: PG-13 (this chapter)

Disclaimer: Owned by Kishimoto Masashi, et al.

Summary: Naruto hasn't been broken and Gaara hasn't been mended, but they're getting there. (Takes place shortly after Sasuke leaves Konoha)

A/N 2: Be forewarned—this is a peculiar child of a peculiar brain. Whether the reader may find anything worthy of approbation, the author cannot say—except that zie hopes the reader will show enough human respect and dignity to refrain from sacrificing zir upon the alter of the reader's indignation. Thank you most kindly for your time and for, if you may be so inclined, a memento of your visit in the form of a review. The author is, as always, the humble and pitiable servant of your entertainment.


::The Sum Total of Our Inchoate Parts::
What can these hands hold onto? If they cannot reach out and pull a friend back from the darkness, if they cannot make another understand, then what good are they? Bandaged, bruised, bleeding still, and for what?

In the end, his best friend walked away. These hands could not stop him, could not hold onto him. Now he grasps at memories, cradles phantoms from the past—a smile, a smirk, a glare, a muffled chuckle—and what use are those to him now?

He clenches his fists, impotent, worthless lumps of meat, and feels the healing cuts seep open. Sharp, sweet pain. Warmth.

How long are you going to feel sorry for yourself? How long are you going to wallow in self-pity? Get up, Uzumaki! Get your ass out of bed and find the stupid bastard. Drag him back, kicking and screaming. Is this all the next Hokage has in him? Is this all you can do?

No. That's right. This is a setback, and hasn't he had plenty of these, overcome plenty of these, before? This is nothing. He uncurls his bandaged fingers and spreads his hands flat against the bedcovers. If he's weak, he's just got to get stronger. If he loses, he's just got to practice and practice and practice until he wins.

This is it, Uzumaki. This is your test. If you can't do this, then you'll never be worthy of the title of Hokage. You won't eve be worthy of being a shinobi. Might as well lie down and die.

This isn't the end. Not by a long shot. He promised Sakura-chan, and he promised himself. As Lee said, he promised with the "Nice Guy" pose. He isn't ready to call it quits. He's not going to give up. Never. That's not his nindo. Never give up. Never give in. Fight. Fight until you can't stand, can't crawl, can't even open your eyes. Fight until you're next to dead, and then fight just a little more.

He stares at the darkish stains upon the white gauze wrapping, at the ivory sheets covering his legs, the metal safety rail about the medical cot, the filmy curtains pregnant with a late afternoon zephyr. The sky beyond the rooftops of the surrounding buildings is a misty blue. A few insouciant clouds scud by. Outside people are going about their business, children are playing or training—or both—and he's still alive, still kicking, and still full of vim and vigor.

So what if, this time, his hands couldn't hold on? He'll make them strong, strong enough to grab hold of the entire world if he has to. He's got a misguided fool of a friend to save, and he'll go kicking ass into the underworld if he has to. And what better time to start than now? No pain, no gain.

First, he has to work the scratchy sheets and blanket off. It's harder to do than he would have thought. The nurses seem to be under the impression that the covers should be tucked in as tightly as humanly possible. Those sour-faced old women really know how to make a bed. Crap, these blankets are better than manacles. Muscles spasm, sweat drips down the sides of his face, wounds weep red, and a multitude of small aches and pains jag his nerve endings. Never give up, Uzumaki. Fight! Fight!

There! Victory!

He pauses, panting and embarrassingly out of breath, to gather his strength and then initiates the second stage: getting out of bed. So deceptively easy in theory, but, in practice, perhaps not the brightest of ideas. No matter, though. If he can't get out of this bed, then how is he going to get Sasuke back? Come on legs, you can do it. Work. Work. Work.

Planting his hands firmly in the firm mattress, ignoring the twinges of pinprick-pain, Naruto braces his weight and swings his aching legs off the side of the bed. Okay, so far so good; still on stage two, but getting closer to stage three. He's just got to push himself off and hope that his knees lock. The floor isn't as far away as it looks; that's just a trick of the eyes. On the count of three: one, two—

"Should you be doing that?"

The flinch is automatic, ingrained from many encounters with tyrannical nurses, only the person standing calmly in the doorway is no nurse: hair the color of drying blood, pale-pale green eyes—deep set and permanently ringed in blue-black shadows—skin as fair as skim milk and a voice like raw silk, a tactile voice, one that sounds like you could reach out and hold in your hand, feel its weight, its cool roughness.

"Ah… Gaara. I was—was stretching and certainly not, you know, planning on leaving and—uh—yeah, leaving. Not me. Nope."

"You are still injured," the redhead notes without a single change of expression. Those flat, calculating eyes move over him and the room, cataloguing both in a cool, collected instance. "I thought you healed faster."

Indignation kindles in the pit of the convalescing boy's stomach, even though the other's voice betrays no censure, no judgment. He is simply stating a fact now proven erroneous, but that doesn't prevent Naruto's instinctive defensiveness. "It's been a rough week. I used up a lot of chakra when… you know."

You were there. You saw. You heard. Hells, you probably even smelt it. All the blood and the rain, the burning ozone as lightning scored open the sky. All of it. But you didn't see him walk away. You don't know that, you didn't see that. That sight, that pain, that rage, that belongs to Naruto alone. You're not the one who couldn't stop him. These hands…

"I see." Gaara moves into the small room with deliberate steps, each foot carefully placed upon the linoleum tiles before the other follows, and he keeps up that careful pace until he is standing a few feet away. Where once the room would have swelled ripe and throbbing with killing intent—with rapacity and the need to claw open all existence—now there is only calm, not peace, not tranquility, but calm. There can never be true peace for their kind, for those not meant to exist, but there can be a cessation, however temporary or fragile, of clamorous suffering.

The gourd makes a dull clunk as the Sand-nin sets it down after undoing the leather straps and sash holding it in place. Naruto watches him at a loss for language. This isn't the same boy, young man, he met during the Chuunin Exams. There's no instability, no rage—at least on the surface. There is a sense of confusion, of stumbling blindly in the dark, but there is also an ineffable air of hope. Hope looks good on Gaara.

So do his new clothes, that maroon, long-tailed coat and black pants. He looks kind of… regal, commanding. Naruto, on the other hand, is covered in bandages, dried blood and the hospital-issue pajamas, and looks… well, it's probably a good thing he doesn't have a mirror handy.

"Is it customary to give someone a gift when visiting him in the hospital?" Naruto follows Gaara's gaze to the toothbrush cup and its wilting floral occupants, two daffodils, one from Sakura and one from a beet-red Hinata. There's a card from Iruka-sensei and another one, hand drawn and nearly illegible, from Konohamaru and his friends beside the cup on the small stand next to his bed.

Naruto shrugs and swings his feet a bit as they dangle over the edge of the cot. "I guess. Some people do that."

"I did not bring anything." A line of tension draws down the redhead's brow as he stares at the flowers and cards.

"That's okay. It's not like the staff'll throw you out if you don't. It's an etiquette thing, I think, like slurping loudly when you like the soup."

Gaara reaches out with one elegant hand to touch the edge of Iruka-sensei's card. The tip of his middle finger barely brushes against the white cardboard before he jerks his hand back. He stares at the card as if expecting it to fall to ashes.

"You can read it," Naruto tells him, but the saturnine young man shakes his head even as his eyes trace over the cards and flowers with poignant wistfulness.

"Who are they from?"

Naruto scratches at an itch behind his left ear and answers, watching the subtle, almost imperceptible shifts in the other's expression. There is something childlike and full of inarticulate sorrow in Gaara; something that makes his glass-fragile hope so beautifully painful; and something that beseeches human touch. As he stitches together the threads of connection between the gifts and their givers, Naruto feels a burgeoning desire flutter in his stomach and tingle in the tips of his bandaged fingers: he wants to hold onto Gaara, giving and receiving comfort, exploring this tremulous, nascent bond.

"Are they important to you?"

"Very. I'd give my life for any of them—for Iruka-sensei, Sakura-chan, Hinata, Konohamaru and his friends." Of its own volition, his right hand rises and curls into a loose fist over his heart, as if to keep the sweet ache of returned affection from escaping with his winged-words. "They're very, very precious to me, my most important, cherished people. I want to protect them with all my strength." Their acknowledgement is a constant reassurance that it is okay for him to exist.

With cutting clarity he realizes he wants—no, needs—Gaara to feel the same, that his existence is a worthy one and one that is greatly cherished by those around him. The loneliness he saw below that incendiary, internecine rage during the Chuunin Exams, the loneliness that still remains, he needs to ease it. Gaara is just like him.

"And the Uchiha? Will you continue to pursue him even after this betrayal?" A glacier of cold fury growls beneath the surface of Gaara's words as he turns his inscrutable gaze back upon Naruto. Confusion, too, weaves its way through the redhead's voice. "Is he still one of your important people?"

His broken fingernails dig into the flesh over his heart, biting through the thin hospital-issue shirt. The small twinges are nothing compared to the ravening despair that tries to claw its way back out of the darkest cavities of his heart. No. He will not give in to it. He will not.

These hands…

"He'll always be special to me. He was my first for so many things. My first rival, my first friend, my first kiss—accidentally. He was the first person I could talk to as an equal, could fight against and with as one. He made me want to be stronger not so I would be acknowledged, but so I could protect all the precious, important people in my life." The rain and the blood. Staring up into the weeping sky and telling himself that his face was wet with raindrops. The fading sound of halting footsteps. "He saved me so many times, and now I have to save him from himself."

If you had truly cut that bond, then you would have killed me as the sky opened up around us.

"I'm going to save him this time."

A cool hand covers his eyes. "Do not smile like that. Do not smile with such a painful look in your eyes."

"G-Gaara?" As he speaks he can feel a strange wetness slide down his cheeks. What is that?

The hand clenches, fingers digging into his skin, and it trembles with violent emotions, emotions that will never transgress across the redhead's face. "It hurts. That smile hurts. Why?"

"I'm sorry." Am I crying?

Gaara lifts his hand away, but not completely. With a frown pulling down the corners of his mouth, he follows the traitorous wetness spilling down Naruto's flushed cheeks.

"Sorry," the blond repeats. "I don't know why I'm doing this. It's crazy. I'm… I'm fine." He forces out a laugh. "It's fine, just ignore me. Sorry."

Stop it, Uzumaki. Stop crying like some helpless child. Pull yourself together. You can't rescue Sasuke if you're crying like a stupid baby—and in front of Gaara of all people. Tears don't solve problems. You don't have time for them.

The fingers ghost over the chakra-scars upon his right cheek, and those pale-pale green eyes bore into his, willing him to give up some deeply rooted secret, to unfold the answers to a mystery beyond the comprehension of human language.

"Your pain hurts me, Uzumaki Naruto." Gaara clutches the fabric over his own heart. "Why?"

"I don't know."


Sakura-chan drops by shortly after Tsunade-baachan finishes checking up on Naruto. She has a new daffodil in hand and a too-bright smile on her face. They talk for a bit in awkward fits and starts, mostly about Sasuke—their memories of him, their missions, and plans to get him back—and Sakura's medical apprenticeship under Tsunade. A new self-confidence blooms across her face as she tells him about the exercises she has to do and how far she's come. She even offers to practice some of the healing jutsu she has learned on him. He respectfully declines, not quite trusting the wicked glint in her green eyes. Before she leaves she gives him a quick, platonic peck on the forehead and tells him to take care of himself.

Naruto is stilled shocked by the brief contact half an hour later when Gaara enters—carrying a basket of shiny red apples and a gleaming paring knife. The knife makes him pause, but a genuine happiness wells up in his chest to find that the awkward ending of yesterday's encounter has not put an end to their growing acquaintanceship.

"What's all that?" the blond asks as he sits up against the pillows under his back, a scroll of basic jutsu from Iruka-sensei unfurled across his lap.

"Temari suggested I bring this." He holds up the basket and gives it a faintly perplexed look. "She said to make rabbits."

"Rabbits?"

"Yes, rabbits."

"Oh. Okay." There's nothing much else to say, and so Naruto settles for watching Gaara out of the corner of his eye as he browses the contents of the scroll over again. Iruka-sensei has decided Naruto should be academically productive for the duration of this short convalescence, and what better place to start now that he can't play hooky than with kid stuff? Building blocks my ass, he thinks stubbornly for the hundredth time as he rereads about basic chakra control and manipulation. Okay, maybe the basics are kinda important, and kinda are like building blocks, but Naruto needs the big stuff, the heavy hitting jutsu if he wants to get Sasuke back. Stuff first years learn won't do shit.

He needs to get stronger. He needs—

The apple disintegrates in Gaara's hands and falls in wet, pulpy bits to join the peel on the floor between his feet. The redhead looks at his juice-glisten hands and the knife with an expression of faint bemusement.

"I don't think you're doing it right," Naruto says. Gaara cocks his head to the side and then calmly plucks another fruit from the basket. This one suffers a similar mushy fate after being expertly peeled.

"This is more problematic than I anticipated. I do not think there is a rabbit in this apple either."

"Eh?"

"A famous sculptor once said to carve away everything that is not your vision." The Sand-nin inspects another apple with a critical eye, elegant fingers traveling across the glossy red surface as he searches out soft spots. The sweet smell of fresh-spilled juice fills the room and mixes with sterile odor of the hospital that relentlessly seeps in through the thing walls of the room.

"It's not supposed to literally look like a rabbit, I think. More, I don't know, suggest it or something. Here, let me give it a try."

Naruto proves to be not much more adept at making apples into rabbits, even suggested ones. Laughing as another ripe fruit falls to pieces in his hands and all over his blanket-covered lap, he lets Gaara have another shot and licks the sticky rills of juice from his fingers and palms.

They go through the whole basket this way, neither one meeting with much success, and with each apple that falls apart, a tingling, gentle warmth spreads through Naruto's chest. Something tight and aching eases, and it's like breaking the surface of the water and taking that first sweet breath, like falling and finding yourself caught in the arms of those you care about. The laughter that falls from his lips and the smile curled in the corners of his mouth are genuine, and, though Gaara neither laughs nor smiles, he meets Naruto's spilling pleasure with a quieter enjoyment of their companionship.

"You think your sister will be upset that we failed in our rabbit making mission?" Naruto asks afterwards, sucking the juice off his fingers and picking up bits of spongy apple from his lap, as Gaara meticulously cleans up their mess. "And wasted all these apples?"

"She… seemed pleased that I asked her help in finding a gift." The redhead washes his hands in the sink and then returns with a damp towel. A small frown tugs at his mouth as he hands Naruto the cloth and returns to his seat by the bed. "She smiled at me."

So confused. So bewildered. And what can Naruto say? What can he say to the boy who only knew family as loathsome bonds of blood that connected people in hate and fear? Only knew love as something that everyone else could have but not him, not the monster? A boy who never had an Iruka-sensei to acknowledge him and care for him and support him, or a Sandaime Hokage who treated him like he wasn't an abomination, like he was just a normal child, worthy of love, just like every other child in the village.

"It'll be our secret, then. Just between us," Naruto declares, dabbing at the stickiness in the web of flesh between thumb and forefinger—thank goodness Tsunade-baachan decided he didn't need to keep his hands wrapped anymore.

Naruto's pretty sure Temari won't care either way about the apples. She's probably thrilled that Gaara asked for her assistance in the first place; probably the first time she got to act like a big sister and treat him like a little brother—but trying to explain that would probably just confuse Gaara even more. Besides, it's not something that you can understand if someone else tells you, you have to realize it on your own.

"Our secret?" The hesitant, uncertainly wistful tone slipping beneath the redhead's words pulls at Naruto's heart.

"A secret between friends, yeah? Hey, let's shake on it. Give me your hand." He holds out his right hand and meets the clouded look in Gaara's pale green eyes with a wide grin. There is an awkward stretch of seconds as the redhead regards his hand like its some strange, foreign—possibly dangerous—object and he's not sure whether or not he should touch it; but he does. His cool fingers and palm slide across Naruto's warm ones, and they lock onto each other, gazes meeting, fingers pressing firmly against the other's flesh.

"Best friends forever, right?" Naruto says and Gaara nods jerkily, squeezing Naruto's hand tightly.

"Forever," the redhead agrees on a soft breath.

A handshake that is more like a long awaited embrace passes between them.


TBC…
A/N2: "…slurping when you like the soup" Slurping loudly is a sign of respect when having noodles in broth. You are praising the cook and saluting his/her/zir cooking ability, and, in some of the more traditional Japanese restaurants/households, if you don't slurp then you are gravely insulting the cook and the food.

A/N3: The story will be updated on this site after I complete two chapters of it for my LJ. Thus, for every two chapters posted on my LiveJournal account, one chapter will be posted here. The chapters posted here will be the two LJ chapters combined into a single chapter. Complicated, yes, but it keeps up the author's average FFnet word count, and, yes, zie is weirdly obsessive that way.