A/N: I had an old shoulder-blade injury come back to haunt me a couple of months back, an incident that unexpectedly dunked me in the world of physiotherapy for a couple of days. It renewed my admiration for people who give their all to overcome the physical disabilities terrible accidents, illness or surgery left them with. I didn't know the experience had inspired a story until I started writing this a couple of weeks ago.
Hope you guys enjoy tagging along for the ride with this one. I have to say I like where it's going.
(Rated this T for the time being!)
Chapter I - PICK YOURSELF UP
I've fallen out of favour and I've fallen from grace
Fallen out of trees and I've fallen on my face
Fallen out of taxis, out of windows too
Fell in your opinion when I fell in love with you
Sometimes I wish for falling, wish for the release
Wish for falling through the air to give me some relief
Because falling's not the problem, when I'm falling I'm at peace
It's only when I hit the ground it causes all the grief
Falling, Florence + The Machine
It was the uncanny sound of metal scraping against metal again. Like listening within a void, Sakura could not escape the reverberation of metal hitting its likeness with the inherent force of a moving object going at a speed of seventy-three miles per hour.
In one of those strange moments that don't seem to have any meaning while they are happening, she remembered eyeing the speedometer before all the world came to a shattering halt.
Seventy-three miles per hour.
And then the excruciating sound of scraping metal, crushed and wrinkled, like if it were no more than cardboard paper.
No matter how hard she tried to run from it, she couldn't escape the sound. It would always come upon her from one instant to the next, when she looked over her shoulder for a second or when she looked up from whatever she was doing. It thundered down upon her, drowning away everything else.
And then she was flying through the back windshield all over again, landing on the concrete of the road behind the smashed car. Not that she could feel anything, no. Her senses, in an attempt to prevent her consciousness from being carried off by the magnitude of the experience, had shut down. The pain appeared later, much later.
As she lay there on the concrete, she didn't register the warmth of the blood running down her face from the cuts on her brow. She didn't register the smell of the dripping car oil as it spilled onto the road. She didn't see the people running towards the accident, intent on aiding any survivors.
All she could make out was the laughter. His laughter. As he sat in the driver's seat, the bones of his legs completely crushed and his skull cracked from where it had broken the window, all he could do was laugh. Looking at the dark-haired man in the other car, his eyes closed in death and blood on his face, all he did was laugh.
'I finally killed you, brother. I finally killed you.'
"Alright, try it a little higher," Naruto said, standing to one side.
Gaara, stretching his left arm away from his body, attempted to lift it as much as he could. He could feel the strain of what would otherwise be a simple movement on his injured shoulder. It wasn't hurting at the moment and it had already taken more than forty-five minutes of continuous stretching exercises.
This, in the redhead's perspective, was a marked improvement. He'd been unable to move his shoulder at all when he'd started out. Still, he wasn't exactly renowned for his patience. The few weeks that had passed since he'd started out his physiotherapy program with Naruto had been excruciatingly slow-going for the redhead. Even though he was already lifting weights to regain the strength in his unused muscles, he wished it would all progress faster.
Gripping the weight in his hand, he kept lifting his arm.
"Good, that's it," Naruto remarked, observing Gaara's face for any trace of discomfort. "Alright, stop and hold it there."
But the wilful redhead didn't do as he was told. He kept lifting his arm up.
"Gaara," the blond said in a warning tone, "I said stop."
The other man still didn't listen and kept raising his arm. Something so simple shouldn't be so hard. He'd lifted five times this weight before; he knew he was able to do it.
"Stop. Now." The words clipped out of Naruto's mouth.
The strain proved too much and the predictable pain erupted in his shoulder. He felt the tension on his prosthetic joint as it made an effort to accommodate the weight and the forced movement. Gaara couldn't help hissing out in pain.
"Stubborn mule!" the blond exclaimed, whacking the redhead on the back of the head with his open palm.
The impact made Gaara drop the weight in his hand, lowering his arm rapidly as he did so. His jade eyes glared at the blond despite the throbbing pain jolting his joint.
"Oh don't give me that look," Naruto admonished as he bent down to pick up the weight from the mat on the floor. "You know very well you're as obstinate as they come. And you know very well that when I say stop, I mean stop, soldier!"
Gaara narrowed his eyes at him. "And I meant it when I said that if you gave me any drill sergeant bullshit I'd throw you on the floor, injured shoulder or not."
The blond chuckled at his cockiness. "Your threats don't work on me, soldier," his repeated emphasis on the word made the redhead look even more rebellious. "Besides, you'll find that throwing me won't be easy and if you do try to pull it off, I'll have you wreathing in pain before you know what hit you. I am the physiotherapist here."
"As if you'd let me forget it," Gaara grumbled but he backed down. He knew Naruto was right. During his first days, when his frustration over his injury had been riding him the hardest, the blond had demonstrated he could deal with an aggressive ex-marine patient who tried to overpower him physically. Using his good arm, Gaara had thrown a punch at him at a particularly exasperating moment of his rehabilitation; in response, Naruto had simply dodged it, grabbed his incoming hand and had done something to his fingers that had made the redhead groan out in pain. He'd always been a quick learner and he instantly realized that messing with the physiotherapist was a bad idea. Gaara refrained from repeating the mistake.
Besides, he knew very well that Naruto was genuinely trying to help him. During the time they'd spent together, working on Gaara's shoulder for a couple of hours almost every day of the week, the two of them had come to recognize a kindred spirit in each other.
Naruto was one of those people that seemed to naturally appeal to others; his open manner and his unreserved way with words made him impossible to dislike. No matter how tight-lipped a patient was, the blond always managed to get them to talk. It was evident he enjoyed helping people and his enjoyment of his work proved to be a great motivation for his patients. Allowing them to voice their aggravation and openly sharing their frustration while recuperating from their personal injuries, Naruto proved to be a natural physiotherapist. Not that Gaara had fallen for his antics to start off with. Instead, he proved to be a rather difficult nut to crack. But Naruto thrived on challenges.
Being amazingly private with his life, Gaara had fought the dedicated physiotherapist every step of the way. Even though physical intimidation had been out of the question since the blond had almost dislocated all his fingers, there were other ways the redhead could rebel. But the more he kept silent and the more insurgent be became, the more Naruto battered at his defences. It continued until the redhead finally erupted; cursing and cussing at the blond, he finally spilled out his story and the reason for his injury.
Predictably, it hadn't been a bedtime story with a happy ending.
But Naruto had simply smiled, genuine sympathy in his blue eyes, and asked if he felt better now. Strangely, the redhead grudgingly admitted that he did.
"I more or less knew what happened," Naruto had confessed. "The military hospital did send me your file, after all. But I just wanted to hear it from you."
The redhead kept cursing him for a week straight after that but the blond didn't seem to mind. The sharp edge of Gaara's insults had disappeared and as the days progressed the two of them had started developing a rather unexpected friendship.
It was the reason why Naruto was allowed to whack Gaara upside the head when he didn't behave.
"Alright, time to call it a day," the blond said, looking up at the clock hanging on the wall to one side of the large room.
It was similar to a gym in many aspects, with a series of exercise machines on one side, a large mirror running along the opposite wall and thick mats covering most of the floor. This was the room within the clinic where the more advanced stages of physiotherapy took place. There were doors on the far end of the room leading towards a traditional Japanese garden where patients were welcome to rest whenever they felt like it. At the front of the clinic, along one side of the large room and down the hallway leading to the entrance, there were a few smaller rooms were other kinds of physical therapies were performed.
"I can take a bit more," Gaara complained, his impatience at his shoulder evident.
Naruto shook his head. "If it were up to you, we'd be here till morning," he stated with a chuckle. "Come on, it's time for Tenten to give you your massage."
"That's right!" called out a female voice at the other end of the room. "Time for your massage therapy, marine!"
Both Gaara and Naruto looked up to see Tenten, dressed in traditional Chinese clothes, tapping her foot impatiently on the floor. "You kept him exercising fifteen minutes longer than you were supposed to," she told Naruto, "I've been waiting."
"Sorry about that," the blond remarked sheepishly, "you know he can be rather enthusiastic."
"And you're supposed to be the one in charge," she countered, narrowing her brown eyes as the two men approached her. She turned towards Gaara, her gaze devious. "Now I'm going to have to work extra on your shoulder to undo any damage."
The redhead groaned. The massages were his least favourite part of his rehabilitation. He'd tried to go around them but Naruto, not to mention Tenten, had been adamant. There had been nothing to do but grit his teeth and bare it. But damn, the bloody massages hurt like a bitch!
"Tenten, you're supposed to help patients, not torture them," Neji remarked as he stepped out of one of the adjacent rooms where he performed his acupuncture therapy.
"Says the man who sticks needles into his patients," Gaara murmured under his breath.
Naruto snorted at his words, smiling widely. "You might find it really helpful if you would only deign to try it."
"Over my dead body," the redhead replied vehemently.
Neji shook his head. "Gaara, I've told a dozen times, I'm a professional. You'll barely feel the needles."
"I'd rather face Tenten's torture," he remarked, making his way towards the woman's massage room.
"It wouldn't be torture if you did what you were told," the woman said as she turned to follow him, "besides, a marine afraid of a few needles? It's unheard of!"
"Ex-marine," Gaara growled but she merely chuckled.
It seemed his intimating techniques had been rendered completely useless since he had been... approved, for lack of a better term, by Naruto. When he had first shown up at the clinic, it had been easy to keep people at bay and frighten them off with his harsh demeanour. But once the blond had made his way past his defences and began to approach him with genuine friendship, the others working at his clinic had done the same. There was no undoing what Naruto had done. Now, all his physiotherapists treated him without an iota of respect.
And if the redhead was completely honest with himself, he didn't exactly mind. It was a welcome change to be able to relate to people in such a way, without wondering if they would be alive the next minute or if they would be a liability when the time for action came.
Because that was it, wasn't it? He'd spend the last eleven years of his life moving from one deadly situation to another, moulded into a proficient and unthinking killing machine, pulling off the jobs no one in the military wanted to take on. His brigade had never existed, at least not officially. Consisting of maladjusted young men who cared nothing for their lives and who had nowhere else to go, they were turned into the government's ruthless assassins. Gaara had volunteered for the military when he was seventeen because he believed death would surely come for him if he did. He'd signed up yearning for it. But then his profile been the perfect fit for the secret brigade project the high military officials had been working on. So off he went, donning the cloak of the Reaper willingly.
The time Gaara had been forced to spend in the hospital, recovering from the incident that had almost resulted in his death, had been the final antidote to remove the red haze that had covered his eyes for most of his life. It had been a trying exercise, lying there unmoving in a bed and staring all day at the ceiling fan above him, going over with great detail through all the years he had spent in the military. Despite the inevitable bleakness of such contemplation, it had proved rather enlightening.
Strange that it had taken so many years and so much death for him to finally snap out of it. It was a veritable revelation, to realize that his life was actually worth something.
Ironically, his crippled shoulder had been his ticket out of the military. Since Gaara had barely touched the generous salary that had been deposited in his bank account each month without fail for the past ten years, he found he was a free man in every sense of the word. He could do whatever he wanted.
And what he wanted was to regain the complete use of his arm. He'd be damned if a prosthetic joint was going to prevent him from using his limb like he used to.
A streak of mind-numbing pain brought him back from his musings, forcing him to wince.
"Oh, don't be such a wuss," Tenten told him but the way she softened the movements of her hands belied her words. She had worked her way up his arm until she reached his joint, massaging his exerted muscles.
Leaning against the doorframe, Naruto smiled at the redhead. "Are you sure you don't prefer the needles?"
"Completely sure," Gaara replied with a growl.
"By the way," Tenten addressed Naruto, "when did Sakura say she was coming? Next Wednesday or Thursday?"
The expression on the blond's face changed from one instant to the next, a mix of concern and determination flitting across his features. "Next Friday, a week from today, actually. I'll be here with her the whole weekend."
Tenten nodded, her expression equally determined. "I'll be here to check on her before you start. I'm certain she'll need a good rub down before you try anything."
A grim yet resilient silence descended upon the room. Gaara lifted his eyes to look at the two of them but refrained from saying anything. He was aware that this Sakura they were speaking about was a close friend to all of them and that she'd had a terrible accident. What exactly had happened, he didn't know. Uncharacteristically, Naruto had been rather tight-lipped about the whole thing.
But the redhead figured, like it or not, he would find out when she got here. Not that he was overly interested in whatever it was that had happened to her. In their personal opinion, everyone who showed up here had a tragic story to accompany them. It had been on countless occasions that the redhead had been left imagining the look on another patient's face if he were to reveal the actual truth of his injury. By disclosing what was wrong with them so openly it was evident that what patients wanted was sympathy and compassion. Well, Gaara had gone all his life without sympathy and compassion was a completely alien concept to him.
So no, having another patient with a supposedly disastrous tale coming to the clinic had nothing to do with him.
"Gaaraaaa!" an enthusiastic voice called from the corridor, "I made it back in time for your thermal therapy!"
The interruption effectively dispelled the silent tension within the room. Naruto burst out laughing while Tenten tried to unsuccessfully hide her grin behind her hand.
The redhead buried his face morosely into the cushion of the massage bed. Why couldn't luck be on his side for once in his accursed life?
"He's right here, Lee," Naruto called, leaning his head out the door frame, "he was hoping you would manage to make it."
Jade eyes glared at the blond. "I can bloody buy a heat patch at the drug store and apply it myself."
"But you wouldn't do it with the fervour of youth," Tenten remarked, barely controlling her laughter, "you know it's famous for its healing qualities."
Lee had reached the door of the massage room by then, gracing him with a winning smile and a thumbs-up.
For the umpteenth time, Gaara wondered why, out of all the other perfectly decent physiotherapist establishments in the city, he had decided to choose this particular clinic of lunatics.
With a jerk, Sakura came awake, instantly aware of her surroundings. In an act of amazing self control, she steadied her breathing with a few exhalations, bringing the erratic beating of her heart to a normal pace once again. After being plagued by the same recurrent nightmare for the past months, the breathing techniques came naturally to her now. Luckily, their effectiveness never wore off and she managed to subdue the rising panic before it peaked out of control. She fell back upon her pillows once more, looking at the eerie light of the alarm clock on her night table.
She closed her eyes, knowing very well she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep but attempting it anyway. During the first weeks after the accident, the nightmare would visit her at least three times a night and made it impossible for her to sleep at all. No matter what drugs the doctors gave her or how exhausted she was, she was never able to sleep the night through. Sakura was very much aware it was part of the trauma she had suffered; it was only natural for her head to be completely screwed up and for it to re-live the event over and over again in a masochistic sort of inner film festival. The more she wanted to forget, the more her mind strove to remember. It was a kind of necessary processing of information, essential for her mind to patch itself up. Torturous while it was happening yet necessary all the same. True to what she had been told and what she knew of such trauma recoveries, the nightmares had receded as time went by; even though their intensity didn't lessen, at least their number did. Now, she would wake up two or three times per week at the most.
It was, in her opinion, progress of some kind. Even though Sakura wished they would disappear altogether. It would make her life a whole lot easier if she were finally able to put all this behind her. But the unconscious fragments of her mind had other opinions… and from the way they were behaving Sakura openly wondered if the nightmares would ever disappear completely.
'Nightly companions for the rest of my life', she thought sullenly. It did no good to be able to understand it all rationally; in such circumstances, rationality simply wasn't part of the equation. When it came to the lingering inner terror that accompanied a life-shattering event of this magnitude, all the medical knowledge in the world didn't help to keep the shadows at bay.
Sitting up, she reached for the crutches leaning against the headboard of her bed. Once she had a good grip on them in one hand, she turned on the bedside lamp with the other. The shaded light was soft and illuminated her hotel room only partially; even so she had to give her eyes a few moments to adjust.
Sometimes the darkness of her nightmares would continue to cover her eyes even after she came awake and it took a while for it to dissipate completely in consciousness.
With a grunt, she lifted her right leg from the bed, carefully bending her knee as she sat up on the edge of the bed. Pain crept up her leg but it was only momentary. She looked down at her injured limb, covered in a special knee-brace, and patted it softly as if to reassure it. They had come a long way from where they had started off from. At one point there had been serious doubts of her being able to walk again at all.
That was the good thing about having a medical degree; she knew exactly what was happening and other doctors' misgivings would just fall on deaf ears. Sakura was very much aware that the odds were against her. The fracture she incurred when landing on the pavement had more or less obliterated her knee. Surgery had given her the chance to regain some of what had been lost but she knew what the specialists thought. It would be considered a victory if she managed to walk with a limp for the rest of her life, relying on a cane for any kind of movement.
But this wasn't enough for Sakura. Not even nearly enough. She wouldn't allow him to steal her life from her, like he'd intended to do. Inexorably pulled into the vortex of his obsessive madness, he had tried to bring her down with him. But it wasn't her fate to meet her end in the violent crash he had perpetrated. Life had other plans for her, allowing her to make a rather messy escape but an escape nonetheless. If she had to sacrifice her knee to be able to live the remaining years of her life, she didn't begrudge it. She would pay the price for the erroneous choices she had made and pay them in full so they would never come back to haunt her.
But sacrifice didn't mean she had to lower her head. No, it very damn well didn't. She promised herself she would never lose sight of the horizon ever again. Now, after all was done and he was lying in a coma he would most likely never rise from, she refused for him to affect her life in any way. Sakura refused to give him the satisfaction. She would triumph no matter what it took.
So no, a lifelong limp was not even nearly enough.
Luckily, it hadn't been enough for Naruto either.
Her friend was just as stubborn as she was, infuriated beyond words at the source of her injury. He'd wept with her, holding her tight until the deluge of her tears had finally run dry. Then, the anger had finally come along. Initially worried that she would fall into sullenness after she had recovered from the initial shock, Naruto was more than happy to give full vent to the rage he felt when she had expressed her own anger at what had happened. He discussed and argued with the doctors more avidly than she did. After having flown in on the very first flight he could find after hearing of her accident, he stayed by her side a whole lot longer than he'd originally intended. The feisty blond wouldn't leave her until her surgery had been performed; until he was sure modern medicine had done all it could to help her.
"You do all you can," he'd told the doctors with a determined glint in his eyes, "then the leave the rest to me."
It was then that Naruto told Sakura that the purpose of him having a degree in physiotherapy, after struggling through school all those long years, was to be able to help her when this moment arrived.
Unable to voice any coherent statement through her tears, she'd hugged him tightly and inwardly promised herself she would fight with everything she had until she was able to walk.
Sure, there was more metal than bone in her knee now but this wasn't going to deter her or Naruto. The scraping of metal against metal had gotten her into this… and it was the same scraping that would get her out. The titanium in her joint would not let her down; she knew she could rely on it.
Placing her crutches under her arms, Sakura lifted up from the bed with practiced ease and headed for the bathroom. As time passed, she had become rather adept at handling her crutches. Due to the seriousness of her injury, she had to wait twice the time after normal knee surgery to start her rehabilitation. Of course, she had started out with small stretching exercise in an attempt for her leg to regain some of its strength. Naruto had coached her through the simple exercises through webcam and Ino had been with her during the sessions to help her out.
But the time had come for her to go all out and start with more advanced physiotherapy. The time had come to pack her bags and fly back to her hometown, Konoha, the place where Naruto ran his physical therapy clinic. The moment had arrived for her to face the music and found out what she was truly made of.
Naruto had had extensive phone conversations with Sakura about how tough her rehab would be. He'd been thoroughly honest, in typical Naruto fashion, not holding anything back from her and informing her of what it was she was getting into. And she had, in typical Sakura fashion, risen to the challenge she was about to face. She was intent on holding her head up no matter how many times she fell and ended up in tears on the ground. She vowed to pick herself right up.
With that resolve in mind, Sakura turned on the light of her small bathroom. Now that she was awake, she might as well take a shower. The earlier she started the better. Of course, the fact that she had arrived two days in advance than she'd initially planned might have something to do with her eagerness. Her co-workers, darlings that they were, had helped her finish the projects she had been working on and aided her in delegating all the tasks she had been forced to leave pending. After five years of working at the same medical research firm, it seemed her assistants and peers had developed a rather endearing loyalty towards her. And it wasn't just them… her boss too. Tsunade-sama had given her leave to take all the time she needed to get better.
"I'm sure you'll come waltzing in through those doors on your own two legs sooner than any of us expects," she'd told Sakura. "At least your pigheadedness will come in handy this time around."
Hence, thanks to all their help, she had been able to get off work two days earlier and had managed to change her flight at the last minute. Sakura had not let Naruto know on purpose, wanting to surprise him. She couldn't wait to see the look on his and the others' faces when she arrived at his clinic. It was sure to be priceless.
With a skill that denoted practice, Sakura took off her clothes before manoeuvring into the shower. She carefully sat down on the plastic stool she had especially asked for and turned on the water, waiting for it to warm up. It took a while to take off her knee-brace but she finally managed it. Making sure she kept her injured leg properly stretched and in place, she reached up for the removable showerhead. The dim light of dawn was starting to filter through the window, slowly washing away the remaining shadows of the lingering night. She looked up steadily at the hazy glass and breathed in deeply.
It was time to get her life back.
Sweat trickled down the side of Gaara's face as he jogged a final lap around the park. The early morning air felt crisp and fresh all around him, his hot breaths coming out in white puffs. Dressed in shorts, sweater and a gray beanie, he revelled in the lack of shoulder pain as he progressed through his morning jog. It seemed the workings of his lunatic physiotherapists were really paying off.
When he had first attempted to go out for a run after starting his rehabilitation, his shoulder had started to kill him only five minutes into his jog. Gaara had thought running would be a perfectly performable exercise… but the swinging movement of his arms as he jogged proved to be too much. No matter how much he willed it to remain in place, his shoulder still got jolted around. To realize he wouldn't be able to vent some of his frustration by taking a quick run had only helped to worsen his already sour disposition. His stubborn streak had shone through though and he refused to back down. But when Naruto caught him jogging with his arm in a sling, the blond physiotherapist almost had an apoplexy.
Gaara didn't think it was worth making such a fuss but his madcap specialists had been merciless. He was banned from doing any rehab exercises for three days, forced to receive extra massages as well as additional ultrasound therapy on top of what he normally got and was given so many heat patches he thought he would spontaneously combust. It was when Neji had attempted to corner him into one of his treatment rooms, his needles at the ready, that Gaara had finally caved in. He swore he wouldn't go for a jog until they all approved.
The four of them had glared threateningly: they certainly hoped he had learned his lesson.
Luckily, the treatment paid off and he was allowed to go out jogging only after two weeks had passed by. All in all, he'd been in therapy for almost two months now. Even though he still had some ways to go before his arm regained any level of normalcy, the redhead was satisfied with the progress he had made. Naruto had made it clear from the beginning that his healing would be slow-going; the injury he was recovering from hadn't been what one would call superficial. His shoulder bones had been splintered by enemy bullets and his joint had to be rebuilt almost from scratch using titanium. It was a testament to surgical technology and the skill of the military surgeons that they had been able to succeed in such a venture. A weaker man would have certainly lost his arm. But Gaara couldn't have been in better physical condition; a dedicated soldier, albeit for the wrong reasons, no one could deny that his body was in prime shape.
Your body is your main weapon, one of his first drill instructors had said when he had recently enlisted... and Gaara had taken this statement to heart. On more than one occasion he had proved he didn't need a firearm or a blade to kill a man.
Jogging in place as he waited for a traffic light, the redhead finally left the park and headed towards the clinic. He had an early appointment today since Naruto had booked the whole afternoon to work with one of his special clients. Konohamaru, a small ten year old boy, had suffered from a severe case of polio that had affected his legs. With the help of Naruto, the child was attempting to regain his ability to walk... and succeeding with amazing results.
This meant that Gaara, who was also ranked among Naruto's special clients much to his mortification, had been rescheduled for morning treatment. Neji would be giving him ultrasound therapy before he and Naruto went through a weight-lifting routine. If all went well, he'd be able increase the weight he'd been lifting this past week.
The redhead stopped at a convenience store along the way and bought a bottle of Gatorade along with a few pastries. He never ate breakfast before running but if he arrived at the clinic without eating anything, Tenten would wring his neck. Kami-sama knew how many times she'd babbled endlessly about breakfast being the most important meal of the day and all that gibberish. When Gaara had been out on a mission, there had been occasions in which he'd made it through with barely a single meal a day for long stretches. Again, he wasn't sure what the fuss was about but he was a quick learner: he could avoid the annoying sermons if he only ate something before reaching the clinic.
After gobbling down the greasy cheese-filled croissants, he reached the clinic a few minutes later.
"I'm here!" he shouted from the entrance, opening his Gatorade bottle and taking a long satisfying drink.
"Good morning to you too!" Tenten retorted from within the confines of the otherwise silent clinic.
Gaara heard her mumble something about him never learning manners and couldn't help grinning deviously. His insolence was just retaliation for the pain he suffered at her hands.
"Did you eat something?" came her predictable question.
Luckily, he was ready for it. "I ate three cheese-croissants," he answered, victoriously avoiding one of her lectures.
"Humph," she replied, unconvinced. It was clear his choice of breakfast wasn't as healthy as she would have liked it to be. But still, since he had actually eaten something, she couldn't complain too much.
"Oi, Gaara!" Naruto shouted from even deeper within the clinic. From what the redhead could discern, he seemed to be opening the back garden doors. "Did you go out for a jog?"
"Yeah," the redhead answered, gulping down some more Gatorade. "Five miles. Still not close to what I used to do but it's better than nothing."
He heard the blond chuckle. "You got that right!"
"Gaara," came Neji's voice from within one of the therapy rooms, "I'm prepping up for your ultrasound. Give me five minutes."
The redhead grunted his assent, walking over to one of the chairs in the waiting room in front of the main desk of the clinic where a newspaper had been hurriedly tossed.
"Is this today's paper?" he asked loudly.
"Yes!" came Tenten and Neji's simultaneous reply.
He looked over the headlines of the front page in a quick yet thorough scan. He stood there, one hand holding the paper while the other held his bottle half way to his lips when the door of the clinic opened with a jingle of bells.
Thinking it was Lee, Gaara opened his mouth to make some snide remark before his jade eyes lifted from the page and looked at the woman standing before him.
Propped up on a pair of crutches, she was surveying the clinic's interior with a look of hopeful determination on her face. She was wearing a hooded jacket and jeans, her right leg bent at an angle to avoid her foot from making contact with the floor. There was a small backpack slung over her shoulders. Her hair was a shade of delicate pink and once her eyes finished looking at her surroundings and finally rested on him, he found they were a deep emerald green.
She seemed to be taken aback at finding him standing there, as if she hadn't noticed his presence until now. Her inquisitive eyes looked him over for a moment before she nodded and half-smiled in silent greeting.
Despite the upwards curve of her mouth, Gaara couldn't help but notice the haunted look in her beautiful eyes. It was inevitable for a man like him to be instantly aware of the inner turmoil reflected within her emerald orbs, even though she made an effort to hide it. Someone else might not have noticed but courtesy of his chosen profession and the things he had done, Gaara was very well acquainted with despair. He'd danced with death enough times to recognise the tainted mark it left behind... and it seemed this roseate haired woman had danced closely with the Reaper herself.
Nonetheless, here she was, standing with her head held high and holding herself proudly despite the crutches she needed to hold herself upright. She may have danced with death but she certainly wasn't letting the experience defeat her or turn her into a whimpering failure.
As such, Gaara couldn't help feel a surge of respect for her. It must have shown in his eyes because under his intense gaze, she blushed slightly and turned her eyes away.
"Was that Lee?" Naruto asked from within the clinic. From the sound of his voice, he was walking steadily towards the reception room.
"No, it's not Lee!" Gaara shouted back.
The woman had turned her head quickly at the sound of Naruto's voice, a bigger and more genuine smile appearing on her lips. She seemed to be overcome with anticipation all of a sudden.
"Who is it then?" Naruto inquired.
"I don't know," the redhead replied, dropping the paper unto a nearby chair and taking a final drink from his bottle.
"Well, why don't you ask the-" the blond started to say but he had finally appeared at the end of the corridor and was forced to stop in mid-sentence.
The woman was standing directly in front of Gaara, beaming at the blond. The redhead was sure that had she not been impaired by her clutches, she would have made a mad rush towards Naruto.
She didn't have to, though. The blond, overcome with emotion and his mouth gaping open, finally recovered from his initial shock and basically charged at her.
"SAKURA!" he boomed before he reached her and took her up in his arms. It was painful to see how he controlled himself for it was clear that he wanted nothing more than to twirl her around the room. But Naruto remained still, lifting her up from the ground in a huge bear hug that was utterly mindful of her injured leg.
"I'm here," came her muffled voice from somewhere within Naruto's embrace. She had dropped her crutches to return her friend's hug and they had landed on the floor with a clang.
"I can bloody see that!" Naruto exclaimed. "When did you get here? How did you-"
But he was interrupted.
Tenten was shouting something as she ran down the corridor and Neji exclaimed in surprise as he followed fast on her heals. In that instant, the door opened again to reveal Lee, who was in the middle of voicing an excuse for being late.
In a whirlwind of movement and high emotion all of them descended upon Sakura who, lifting her face from Naruto's hug to reveal joyful teary eyes at seeing them all, smiled and laughed at the hundred questions they threw her way.
Taking aim towards the recycling bin and succeeding in throwing his bottle in it, Gaara shook his head at the cacophonous spectacle in front of him.
His physiotherapists truly were a bunch of raging lunatics.
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