AN: Last chapter here. Thank you all for reading and for the reviews, they are very much appreciated.
The sound of the rusted fan revolving overhead was what brought him to. There was a warm breeze on his face and the scent of summer, of Konoha, filled his nostrils. Gaara opened his eyes.
Naruto and Sakura sat beside him, one on either side of his bed, beaming at him.
"You all right?" Naruto demanded cheerfully as Sakura asked, "How do you feel?"
He didn't know the answer to either question. Everything felt numb. He looked down the length of his body and saw a white sheet covering him, and a fresh, clean yukata. He knew that his torso was wound with bandages, and his legs as well, so much of them that they looked like twin bulky cylinders under the sheets. He knew it, but felt none of it.
He looked at them again, at their faces—Sakura's, gently smiling, and Naruto's, filled with joy—and felt nothing at all.
"It was the Otoe clan," Sakura said. Both of their expressions darkened, but only briefly, as though no cloud could shadow for long the light in their faces. "They attacked the wall. The brothers. So that Kazuki could come here and—and try to murder you."
He didn't understand. "They—attacked you? To kill me?"
Sakura nodded. "It was a diversion."
"Our own village!" Gaara could see it in Naruto's eyes—he would carry that betrayal with him for a long time. "Just to kill you!"
"They said it was to avenge their family," Sakura explained gently. "They said you killed two of the brothers during the Chuunin Exam."
"It's unforgivable," Naruto growled. "You're injured! You're in a hospital!"
"Tsunade-sama says the survivors will be jailed for life, if not executed."
"I'll kill them myself if old lady Tsunade doesn't!"
"I killed Kazuki," Gaara said.
Naruto and Sakura both looked at him.
"We saw her," Sakura said. "You had to. It was self-defense."
"She had already stabbed me," he said.
Silence hung thickly in the air between them. He saw Naruto and Sakura exchange a troubled glance, and he didn't care what it was about, what they were thinking. There was nothing in him.
"Tsunade-sama did the surgery, Gaara," Sakura said quietly after a moment or two.
At first he didn't understand. He looked at her as he realized what she meant.
"Yes." Sakura's smile was back in place now. "She says you'll walk again."
"It's great, isn't it?" Naruto burst out enthusiastically. "She even had Sakura help her!"
Sakura nodded self-consciously, still smiling. "My first major surgery."
"She would have helped with your belly-cut too, but old lady Tsunade made her sleep."
"I was worn out from fighting and healing."
"At least you didn't get knocked in the head."
"That was your own stupid fault, Naruto."
"Hey! I almost got stabbed too, you know! One of them came at me with a knife while my head was still fuzzy, but for some reason all this sand appeared and stopped him." Naruto grinned broadly.
He didn't understand why they looked so pleased, so happy. The emptiness stretched on and on inside him. He stood at the very edge of the abyss, and they smiled at him, holding him fast.
"You—" His voice caught, and he struggled to speak, struggled to sit up, Sakura immediately leaning forward to support his shoulders. "You saved my life." He looked at Naruto and tried to breathe through the tightness in his chest, the slight roaring in his ears. "Again. This is—the third time."
Naruto and Sakura looked at one another again, briefly. "Old lady Tsunade saved you," Naruto said. "We just kept you awake till she came, that's all."
He shook his head violently, needing to explain, needing to say what was in him, though he hardly knew what it was. "I was going to die. I was—and you—I killed her. I didn't have to. She already killed me. I was going to die. It was enough. And you—again—after everything—"
Naruto hit him. It was barely a punch, but enough to make his jaw ache and shock him into silence. Sakura flinched, but offered no reproach.
"She could have stabbed you again, you moron! She could have stayed and finished the job, or attacked Sakura-chan and me when we tried to help you! Yeah, you were going to die! And if you try to tell me you deserved it, I'm gonna knock your stupid brains out!"
Gaara said nothing. Naruto glared at him as though daring him to speak.
"You wanted to live, didn't you?" Sakura asked softly. "Or you really would have died. You were hanging on to life."
Yes. He had wanted to live. The knowledge poured into him, filling the void that threatened to swallow him whole. It was all he could do just to breathe.
"Why do you keep doing this?" he said quietly at last, his voice no longer strangled, composed again. "When they took Shukaku…when my legs were crushed…and now this. Why are you there—always?"
Naruto looked at him as though the answer should have been obvious a thousand times over. "We're friends, aren't we?"
Yes—he and Naruto were friends. He had that now. He had a home he wanted to return to, a family he wanted to see—and friends. Those were things worth dying for.
They were also worth living for.
"Thank you," he said at last, his voice far less steady than he would have preferred it. He looked at Sakura. "Both of you."
He couldn't speak anymore, because the numbness was leaving him; the pain of his healing legs and stomach wound were growing, and he could only lay back and sweat, staring at the ceiling, until the pain ran its course. Naruto and Sakura remained beside him in silence, waiting it out with him.
He went to see Kazuki as soon as he was well enough to go outside. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of the village, the freshly turned earth the only sign that remained of her passage. The attack had been small in scale, hers the only death, his the only major injury, but her name was to go unwritten, and soon forgotten. She would have no visitors or mourners to her gravesite; even Sakura demurred to take him any farther than he could wheel himself. Her brothers in the attack—whether they were executed tomorrow or died after a lifetime in prison—would receive the same treatment.
He did not reproach Konoha for it. He, too, would have stricken the names of anyone who attacked his own people from his village's memory, whatever their reasons.
He stared at the earth beneath which Kazuki lay, whose life he had traded for his own, who would have traded his life for the vengeance of two victims he could not remember.
He would answer to her and her brothers in the afterlife. And he would not forget her face.
When they came in a month to bring him home, neither Kankuro nor Temari were particularly surprised to find that Gaara was using crutches whenever he could, in defiance of Tsunade's strictest orders. He had agreed to confine himself to a wheelchair for the journey, and go straight to Sunagakure's hospital for a month-long stay, but to continue resting all the time, to not test his own limits—that much he refused. He would stand on his own feet again, soon, without any support at all.
"Just like Lee," Tsunade had commented in apparent disgust the first time she caught him at it, leaving Gaara wondering if he should be pleased or offended to be compared to that particular specimen of Konoha tenacity.
His siblings' greetings were congruous. Kankuro punched his shoulder lightly. Temari tentatively rested her hand on the other. He briefly covered her fingers with his, and the burst of sudden happiness in her face nearly made him smile.
Sakura said goodbye at the hospital, and gave him a bottle of pain medication for the journey, which he knew he wouldn't use. Naruto walked with them to the village gate. It was a clear day, the sky endlessly blue and the sun warm, and the wind smelled of Konoha's trees and greenery. The colors—green leaves and blue sky, the yellow wall, the orange roofs, the green-painted gates and their bright red kanji—all seemed impossibly vivid after the sterile whiteness of the hospital. He breathed the warm air deeply, as though to drink the village in, to keep it alive in his memories.
"Well," Naruto said somewhat awkwardly, once Temari and Kankuro had moved out of earshot and they were left facing one another.
Gaara took a breath. "Come to Suna." The simple words were a struggle, a war that he made himself win. Naruto blinked at him. He felt his fingers curl into the arms of the wheelchair, and forced them to relax. "When you can."
Naruto grinned. It was so easy for him, so natural. "I'll be there."
There was no need to say goodbye after that. Nor did he need to look back, as he wheeled away from Konoha between his brother and sister, to know that Naruto would be watching long after they were completely gone from sight. They would see each other again, soon. That was enough.
The trees rustled as a wind came from somewhere in the west, perhaps as far away as Sunagakure. Gaara raised his face into it, and imagined he could smell the desert.