Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,

Naruto Fic: Diplomatic Relations, Part Nine

Here's the latest chapter of DR. Enjoy ^_^ Freeport should be out this Sunday.





Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them.

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Part Nine: Desert Apple



"Whooo!" Lee wiped his brow with an expansive gesture and glanced up at the late afternoon sun. "It's hot!"

The Shinobi around him looked up from maps, tents or nearly-packed bags. Then everyone - even Gaara - stared pointedly at the legwarmers.

"A Shinobi is always master of his body and his environment," Lee announced solemnly. "This is just one more challenge for a man to conquer."

One of the Chuunin, who hadn't been on a mission with Lee before, fumbled the pans he was packing. Nobody else raised an eyebrow.

Gaara folded the map and handed it back to Captain Sanada. "This is the approach to the hills the missing patrol would have followed, correct?”

"Yes, sir."

Gaara thought awhile, then gestured back at their camp. "Pack up here. We're going on ahead; you and the others spread out and follow in a V-formation at five hundred yards. Start looking for any traces."

Captain Sanada didn't need to ask who 'we' was. But he did object to the order. "Kazekage-sama, if you think there is any danger, myself and Takumi will accompany you and Lee-san, while the others can- Sir?"

Gaara was already a few feet away, heading north through the sand dunes. Lee grabbed his pack and followed him, mouthing 'Don't worry, I'll watch his six' to Sanada behind Gaara's back. Sanada sighed and nodded in silent thanks. Lee knew the older Shinobi was sometimes frustrated with Gaara's attempts to shelter and defend the men under his command, when it should be the other way around, but it was just one more thing you learned to live with in Suna.

Lee followed his friend, keeping an eye open though he didn't expect any immediate danger. There were reports of missing-nin gathering in a rocky area a day's march from here, but they would probably stick to that cover and not attack in the open desert.

The disappearance of a couple of caravans and a Suna patrol in the area was the reason for Gaara's presence here today; he was Sunagakure’s greatest weapon, as well as the one responsible for its troops. Sanada and the others might consider it their duty to watch over him, but the simple truth was that the Kazekage had nothing to fear from petty criminals, even if he were on his own. Gaara always ordered the men back and dealt with danger himself; it was part of what he saw as his duty towards Sunagakure, the link he'd forged to connect him with life.

After half an hour of walking, Gaara stopped at the top of a rocky outcropping piercing the sand, eyes scouring the desert. In the distance, huge rocks reared up through the sand, heralds to the sprawl of canyons, mesas and hills where their prey was hiding. Late-afternoon shadows clung in graceful curves to the edge of the dunes; Sand Shinobi camped during the day and travelled in the evening and into the night, faster than any other force could move over this difficult terrain.

Lee breathed deeply. The desert air was hot and dry and smelled of rocks and raw sunshine. He missed trees and lakes, but this land had its own savage appeal, and it tested men to the full. No wonder the people from Suna made such fine Shinobi.

He turned towards Gaara to share his observation, and found his friend staring at him from the corner of his eye.

“Yes? What’s up?” Lee realized he wasn’t actually surprised. Gaara had been oddly silent with him since they’d left Suna two days ago, introverted even by his standards. Looked like he had something on his mind, and was taking this opportunity alone to talk about it.

Gaara, who didn’t do spontaneous or hurried any more than he did meek or mannered, was silent for a long minute. Lee waited patiently, noting the small frown twisting the symbol on Gaara’s forehead as his friend stared out across the desert.

"Do you want to go back to Konoha? For only a short while," Gaara added, almost harshly.

"What? No," Lee answered, startled.

"You don't miss it?" The green eyes had flickered in Lee's direction once again.

"I do, of course. But I go there regularly for missions. Why do you ask?"

"Kankuro said something was bothering you. He thought you might be homesick."

Gaara said 'homesick' in a way that strongly suggested he hadn't understood the concept, despite several attempts by his brother to explain it with the help of a diagram. Considering Gaara’s relationship with his ‘home’ for the first twelve years of his life, that wasn’t surprising.

"Oh? That’s strange, why would Kankuro think-"

Damn. Of course.

Only last week, Lee had staggered back from training in the desert at two in the morning to find Kankuro waiting for him, leaning against the gates with his arms crossed over his chest and a look remarkably like his brother’s on his face. Kankuro was direct by nature, and the two of them had become casual friends this past year. So the puppeteer had simply asked Lee point-blank if there was anything the matter; anything that might explain why Lee had been seen at all hours of the night training like a fiend. Not that there was anything wrong with practicing Taijutsu at night, Kankuro had dryly added, but not when your daily exercise regimen was already enough to kill most Shinobi after a month.

Lee thought he’d managed to brush off the question, but apparently Kankuro had not been fooled by his evasions, and had gone ahead and talked to Gaara directly.

"Oh that!" Lee said, a bit too loudly. "No, I'm fine! I'm just, ah, working on my Taijutsu."

"You're working on it a lot these days," Gaara commented simply and without any trace of doubt or sarcasm in his tone.

Lee's laughter was loud and pitched a bit higher than usual as he looked at the dunes, the blue sky, anywhere but at Gaara. A few hundred yards behind them, Captain Sanada glanced up from a map and stared at him curiously as the echoes of that nervous laughter reached him. When Lee chanced a peek at Gaara, he found his friend looking at him strangely too, but Gaara wouldn't be able to read him well enough to figure out that Lee wasn't entirely concerned with his Taijutsu. And it would never occur to Gaara in a million years just why Lee was exercising like a maniac and falling into exhausted, dreamless sleep every night.

Lee hoped Kankuro hadn’t gone and worried Gaara too much. Because Lee had no intention of stopping his current exercises. They ensured he got a good night’s sleep, undisturbed by inappropriate thoughts and dreams and other, ah, incidents. He was getting a hell of a lot of prime training into the bargain. Gai-sensei would be very proud of him, next time they caught up.

Lee looked with some affection at his friend who'd taken Lee's denials at face value and visibly dismissed the whole subject as something Kankuro had imagined. This was Gaara. The dreams were just a fantasy. The creamy skin, the secret smile, the intimacy; they weren't the real thing. And Lee realized, content, that he didn't mind. This man at his side, harsh, controlled, complex, occasionally kind...this was the real Gaara. And Lee liked him just the way he was.

"Come on," Gaara said, gesturing curtly. "It will take us four hours to get to those hills-"

He interrupted himself and looked around quickly.

"What?" Lee asked, surprised. He couldn't see or sense anything alarming.

Gaara was silent, motionless, only the green eyes, narrowed in their dark rings, going slowly over the desert landscape around them.

"Lee, stand back," he ordered, moving a few feet ahead.

"Like hell," Lee muttered, stepping away to give them some fighting space, but staying at Gaara's side.

Gaara's eyes glinted with annoyance, but he didn't say anything.

“I can’t sense anything...Gaara, are you sure-“

The Kazekage's eyes suddenly widened and he twisted around. Lee did the same, in time to see one of the Chuunin behind them stumble and fall. They were too far away to see what had happened, but the boneless way the man had hit the ground meant they'd probably lost one of their numbers.

Sand howled and clawed at Lee as it whirled up around Gaara, whose eyes had gone as hard and cold as jade.

"No, wait!" Lee shouted.

But it was too late. Gaara had already disappeared in a whirlwind of sand.

Five hundred yards away, Sanada and the other Shinobi were fending off two dozen attackers that had sprung up from seemingly nowhere. They’d gotten around seasoned Sand Shinobi, they’d gotten around Gaara of the Desert- who the hell were these people?! Not a bunch of missing-nin bandits, that was for sure. Elite troops, at the very least.

Gaara's transportation jutsu was going to take him right into the middle of the fray - and Lee was stuck back here, completely useless! Lee galloped towards the fighting, promising Gaara a thorough chewing out for his reckless move later.

The attackers had divided their forces into two, half of them hitting the Sand Shinobi hard and fast. Sanada and his men fell back to avoid getting encircled and then exterminated.

One of the attackers leaned over the fallen Chuunin, either to confirm the kill or to finish him off. A vicious dust devil shaped itself into a single figure right behind him. The man spun around- too late. Lee didn't see Gaara's hand move, but a blast of sand picked up the attacker, hurled him from the fallen Chuunin and crushed him into the ground, very messily. Gaara crouched next to the injured Sand Shinobi, glancing around to check on his other men. He’d ascertain their position, and then the entire desert would rise up and exterminate his enemies.

Who would be stupid enough to attack Gaara in the desert? If they’d kept the other Sand Shinobi around instead of driving them off, it would have at least cramped Gaara’s style, but now they-

Wait. Something was wrong.

Lee had been in battles before. And his instincts were suddenly screaming at him. The way the strangers had pushed the Sand ninjas back rather than going for the most kills in that first shock of the ambush...the way they were moving now-...

Lee was still two hundred yards away; from that distance, he could see what Gaara might not have spotted. Most of the attackers had their hands full keeping Sanada and the others back. But six men had gathered in a wide circle around the initial battlefield, where Gaara was wiping out a few of the stragglers. They had moved into position at a speed that rivalled Lee’s, which made them extremely proficient and dangerous; shock troops to take care of the most dangerous of their opponents.

They were surrounding Gaara at a prudent distance, and they were making seals. They had something in their mouths- scrolls-

Lee's heart thudded once in his chest. A trap!

Gaara had started to move after the men attacking Sanada’s force when he spotted the danger. A lethal wave of sand hissed out towards the men encircling him, but before it could reach its targets, the jutsu had triggered. Symbols shot out from the six men, crawling like bugs over the sand dunes towards Gaara, skittering right over the sand wave as if it wasn’t there. But as soon as the symbols had passed the expanding ring of sand, the latter crumbled into nothing.

They’d neutralized a sand attack. That was not good.

Lee ripped open his first three Gates on the heels of that conclusion. The hundreds of yards that separated him from the fray instantly vanished.

The first enemy never saw him coming. Lee's fist hammered him down to the ground in a crunch of broken bones, and he was on to the next man, ready to kick, when he realized to his horror that breaking their formation had not stopped the attack on Gaara! The symbols were still rushing over the ground and had nearly reached their target.

The Sand Barrier shot up, feeling a threat to its master. The symbols slithered right through it; it wasn't a tangible attack the Sand could stop. Lee knew right then that Gaara's Sand Armour would fail as well.

The fourth Gate opened just as the symbols touched Gaara, crawling up his skin in an eye blink.

The Kazekage jerked and clutched his chest- Lee was there, and caught him as he fell. Sand whirled around them; the Sand Armour sloughing off. Lee shot through the enemy formation before they could react, and stopped with his back to a big rock.

"Gaara?" Lee’s voice was harsh and ragged as he tried to control the destructive power riding his own body.

"Alive. But we have a problem." Gaara sounded factual.

"What did they do?"

"I don't know what jutsu they used, but I can't seem to control the Sand anymore."

Damn.

He couldn't see Sanada or the others; they'd either been killed or pushed back by their opponents, fighting for their lives out of his line of sight. Their enemy might have backup troops in that direction; lower rank Shinobi who didn’t have the ability to pull off this elegant an ambush, but who might overwhelm Sanada’s forces through sheer numbers.

Either way, the two young men were on their own. Lee counted four survivors from those who'd cast the jutsu, and four others to back them up. All high level; he could feel the power roiling off of them. Their eyes were intent on the Kazekage, but they were not dismissing Lee. They were going to kill him first and get him out of the way.

Lee spared a glance at his friend. Strangely enough, the gourd was still on Gaara’s back, and the Sand Barrier was hissing around Gaara like an angry cat. So the automatic defence was still working? That was good news; it meant Lee could move around a bit and not worry about Gaara catching a kunai in the back.

Gaara’s eyes were moving swiftly over the opposing forces, calculating, but his hand was clutching his chest as if he'd been wounded there. His face was white, jaw tight with pain; the fact that Lee could see that reminded him that Gaara had lost the Sand Armour. That meant that if the enemy got around the Sand Barrier – and Lee had managed to do that when he was thirteen – then Gaara would be defenceless.

Lee looked back at their attackers. He felt no real animosity towards them. A Shinobi's life was one of battle; hating the enemy made a lie of that simple truth.

He didn't hate them, but he was going to kill them all the same.

"Figure out what they did and get control of the sand back.”

Lee knew these could very well be the last words he ever spoke to Gaara, and he wished they weren’t by necessity so curt and practical. But there was really too much to say and no time to say it, so he only said what mattered.

"Stay safe. I'll protect you."

“Don’t-“

The power in his body doubled. Trebled. It howled in his ears, drowning out Gaara’s sharp words of caution.

Look at me, Gai-sensei, Gaara...be proud of me. This is my Shinobi way.



---



Lee had brushed death several times in his short life, but he'd never had an out-of-body experience before.

It wasn't all that it was made up to be. In fact, it was uncomfortable, stuffy, and he couldn't see anything. But he knew he was floating above his body, and that he was probably dead, or would be soon.

What had happened...?

An attack. Eight extremely high level elites encircling him, with some weird chakra pattern over their skins. They'd been so strong. Protect Gaara. Lee had opened up the fifth Gate, and then-...he'd opened up another one. And probably another one. Gai-sensei was the only one to have ever opened seven Gates and survived, and he’d only done it once. Lee had never gone that high before. For the simple reason that it was likely to kill him. Had, in fact, probably killed him.

But Gaara was safe. Lee didn't know how he knew that, but he did. It made the darkness more comforting.

He'd protected Gaara. It was a good way to die.

Lee felt at peace for the first time in months. His life had been getting rather complicated these days; all those mixed-up, confused feelings towards a torn, powerful young man who'd become his friend. But now everything was suddenly simple. He'd been strong, he'd upheld his ninja way and he'd protected Gaara. That was all that mattered. As he started to fade, he felt nothing but contentment, and the faint hope that one day Gaara would finally be happy.

Wait a minute.

Gaara wasn't going to be particularly happy if Lee died. Lee was his friend. Gaara didn't have any of those to spare. Lee tried to imagine how Gaara would react, and, even dead, the thought made him wince.

...That sucked.

Maybe Lee should stop accepting his death that easily, and try to get out of this bloody darkness. He wasn't a coward or a weakling; he was a powerful Shinobi who'd beaten the odds time and again. He wasn't going to give up and take death lying down! He was going to-

Light. And a flurry of confused sensations. Pain chief among them.

Pain? That probably meant his body wasn't dead yet.

See? said Gai-sensei's voice inside Lee's head. Never give up! You're still alive, so fight!

Lee started by fighting with his eyelids, which weren't cooperating. They were letting a thin slit of light through, but they wouldn't lift.

Something warm brushed his face. The sensation felt distant, numb, but it was a sensation; he wasn't floating anymore.

"Lee?"

Gaara. Gaara was here. Goddammit, you stupid eyelids-

Yellow light, a blur of familiar red. Lee smiled weakly. Even the muscles in his face felt like they'd been tenderized with a sledgehammer.

"G-..." his vocal cords weren't doing too well either.

Lee focused a bit and blinked. Gaara's face was four inches from his own. He was staring into Lee's eyes, examining his pupils.

"Try to stay awake this time," Gaara said. "How do you feel?"

“Like hell," Lee wanted to say, but only his lips moved. His throat felt fossilized.

"Yes. You overdid it." Traces of relief, concern and anger were making Gaara’s normal monotone more abrupt and choppy than usual. "That was foolish. That was really stupid. You didn’t have to go that far. What were you trying to do, lose an arm and a leg again?"

Lee hadn't thought that far ahead. He'd just wanted to protect Gaara.

"Are you in any pain?" Gaara added. His words still short, but Lee could have spent hours staring into the troubled green eyes that had lost some of their detached distance and betrayed some worry. For him.

Was he in any pain...? That was an interesting question. Pain and Lee went way back. They were old buddies. Lee did hurt, but it was in no way the amount he should feel if he'd 'overdone' it like Gaara was suggesting. But...it felt strange. The sensation was distant. Yes, it hurt, in fact he thought it might be hurting quite a lot, but his body felt muffled in ten layers of felt.

"Dunno," Lee mouthed.

Gaara didn't look surprised at his answer.

Lee's eyes were finally focusing a bit further than a foot in front of his nose. He and Gaara were squeezed into a small sandy area, a few square feet between two flanks of jagged rock. Gaara's coat was stretched over their open shelter to provide Lee with some shade from the sun overhead, leaving Gaara in a linen tunic. Lee's brain didn't seem to be working very well; he was staring at the thin strip of creamy skin visible at Gaara's shoulders, turning pink beneath the sun, and his mind kept tripping over the words Sand Armour, but he couldn't seem to remember why this was important.

Lee was propped up against what felt like a rock, with wadded-up clothes for a cushion; he was bare to the waist, with thick bandages over his chest. They were stained with blood. Lee stared down at them, perplexed, then glanced up at Gaara.

"What happened?" he croaked.

Gaara had been sorting through the contents of a backpack. He looked up sharply.

"You don't remember?"

Lee shook his head; it hurt and made him dizzy, but it was easier than trying to talk.

"One of our assailants had some form of suicide jutsu ready when you attacked him. They were getting desperate; you'd already taken down half their numbers. A sword ripped out of his body. It was probably meant to cut you in two, but you moved too fast. You took the cut across the chest. It didn’t hit anything vital."

Gaara leaned back to pick up something out of Lee's line of sight: a small satchel which he hefted in front of the Leaf Shinobi's eyes.

"When we get back, thank your friend Haruno. She gave this to me some time ago when I met with Tsunade. It's a medical balm with some form of jutsu keyed into it; very hard to make. It heals wounds extremely quickly, as long as no organs are affected. From what she said, you'll be able to walk and fight in twenty-four hours. But you have to stay still in the meantime, to get the best effect. You need the rest anyway; you've also strained your muscles, exhausted your chakra and lost some blood."

Lee licked his lips, but his mouth was dry as dust. “Where...”

"We’re safe for now. You killed all the ones who attacked us," Gaara said bluntly. "Then you grabbed me and we ran; the others who went after Sanada’s group could have doubled back on us. There were probably more in reserve as well, in case the first wave failed. This was a very organized attack. We reached the hills in little over an hour, then you collapsed. It's good cover; we can stay here for a bit."

"You?" Lee croaked.

"Uninjured. But there's this."

Gaara reached up to the thong knotting his linen tunic shut. He jerked the top open, and Lee promptly lost whatever sense of reality he'd managed to capture.

"Lee?" Gaara said, after a minute.

Lee couldn't stop staring at Gaara's chest. He'd seen Gaara naked before, almost entirely (and his night-time imagination had filled in the blanks for him after that). But for some reason, seeing Gaara's cream-coloured skin framed by the saffron-coloured linen was completely absorbing, as if Lee was seeing something hidden that was being revealed only for him, as if Gaara was undressing-

"Lee, are you still with me?"

"...Huh...?"

Lee felt like he was floating again. The pain had all but gone. But he managed to focus a bit anyway, because there was something wrong.

Symbols cut black traces into the cream-coloured skin all across Gaara's chest. Complex squiggles arching into intersecting circles. A small part of Lee knew that this was Bad, but the way those dark markings brought out the colour of Gaara's flawless skin kept distracting him.

Gaara pulled the ties on his tunic shut again. "Never mind. You're Taijutsu-orientated anyway, you wouldn't know about this level of Sealing technique. You need to rest. Don't worry about anything else."

"Okay," Lee mouthed obediently, his brain still on holiday.

Gaara looked at him for a few seconds, then he leaned forward and waved his hand in front of Lee’s eyes.

“Haruno told me the medication contains an opiate to control the pain. It looks like you’re as sensitive to that as you are to alcohol. It doesn’t make you as excitable, though. Fortunately.”

Lee blinked slowly; it felt like the movement took several minutes to complete. Sakura-san...Gaara...opiate...huh...?

Gaara ignored Lee's fuzzy bewildered look. He got down on his knees next to Lee, carefully slipped an arm beneath the wounded Shinobi, and eased Lee so that he was leaning his back against Gaara's chest and shoulder. Then he picked up a canteen of water.

"You've been unconscious for hours, but try to stay awake for awhile. You need to get some fluids down."

Fluids. Water. Lee had never been so thirsty in his life.

Lee was completely helpless; he couldn't move a finger or even sit up. Gaara held him straight, head back a little; the position allowed Gaara to let a tiny, well-controlled trickle of water past Lee's lips without any wastage. Lee didn't think a single drop reached his throat; his dry mouth absorbed it like a sponge. Gaara gave him more, a few frustrating drops at a time, or it would have been frustrating if Lee hadn't been deep in Happy Land. Sakura-san's medicine was really very good. He’d have to thank her. Give her a bouquet of flowers. Or squirrels. Sakura-san also loved squirrels. A bouquet of squirrels...?

"Hmm...still thirsty," he whispered hoarsely when Gaara eased him back onto his previous support.

"I know," Gaara said, shaking the canteen next to his ear and frowning. "But you need nutrients too."

"Not hungry...don't think I can chew..." Lee mouthed, staring dreamily up at Gaara's coat above his head.

"I found some desert apples. The juice is good for you." Gaara corked the canteen and reached for his belt. A kunai glinted in his hand.

In the far back of Lee's mind, seeing Gaara wielding a kunai added an item to the list of things that were Wrong. Gaara never needed any other weapon than sand. The thought slipped through Lee’s mind and failed to raise any significant alarms.

"Not hungry," he repeated in a near-unintelligible mumble. He just wanted more water. So thirsty...

"They're rich in water, glucose and minerals," Gaara told him, rummaging around in a backpack, one Lee didn't recognize. “They’re a traditional Suna way of hydrating someone who’s incapacitated. I had them when I was sick.”

Sick…? The thought wound its way through Lee’s mind, and he made a surprised sound in his dry throat.

“You…can get sick?” he whispered.

"There are some things even the Sand can't defend me against; especially back when my metabolism was trying to adapt to the lack of sleep," Gaara pointed out indifferently, drawing a lumpy brown bulb from the bag.

“What happened?” Lee mouthed.

Gaara ignored him, concentrating on knocking some fibres from the bulb.

“Talk to me. Or gonna go to sleep…” Lee whispered, struggling to keep his eyes open.

Gaara glanced up at him, then turned back to what he was doing.

"I was three, and fell ill,” he said, in the tone of one humouring an invalid. “During the worst of the fever, I was unable to sit up or swallow anything solid. Medicine kept me alive, but since the Sand wouldn't allow them to stick in a saline drip or a feeding tube, I was getting very weak. Someone went out in the middle of the night and walked for hours to find some desert apples for me. It's a traditional desert remedy. A glucose drink would have had the same effect, but the inhabitants of Suna have always been prone to superstition. Particularly around me."

Lee felt a distant mix of emotions at that, completely confused: he was sad, he was curious, he was a bit jealous, he was touched...

"Who...gave you...?"

Gaara's face was expressionless, his eyes on the knife that was slitting the bulb’s skin. "One of my caretakers. You never met him, I killed him when I was six."

Oh.

Lee suddenly wished he could move. He wanted to...he didn't even know what he wanted to do. Touch. Hold. Comfort, though Gaara was showing no signs of sadness or pain or any other emotion...

The sorrow in Lee persisted, an undercurrent in his befuddled mind, which was now fascinated by the way Gaara was cutting the thick, coarse rind, the metal of the kunai flashing quickly and hypnotically in agile fingers.

The Sand Shinobi called them desert apples, but they were in fact the bulbs from a cactus plants. They stored up water and sugar, and stayed fresh for ages until peeled, a handy food in the desert. Gaara sliced the fleshy pale-green pulp into a pan taken from the backpack, then pressed out the juice with the kunai and his fingers. Lee watched him in a warm and fuzzy daze. Far, far away, concerns and questions were lining up trying to get his attention, but they couldn't get through the happy cloud of whatever it was that Sakura had put into her medication. The pain was an echo to every breath he drew, but it was nothing to what he'd already gone through in his life. A simple distraction - like Gaara licking the juice from his fingers - was quite enough to take Lee's mind from something as familiar and banal as pain.

Gaara propped Lee up against him again, and brought the bowl to his lips. The juice was sweet and sticky in Lee's mouth, with a resinous aftertaste that made him think of pine needles and figs. It had bits of pulp in it, and he swallowed painfully.

He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Gaara had an arm around his shoulder, holding Lee against his chest to keep him from slipping.

"Don't go to sleep just yet," Gaara murmured. "Finish the water first."

Lee hauled his eyelids open and squinted. The bowl had been replaced by the mouth of the canteen. Water. He wouldn't mind some more water. But he was struggling to stay awake and swallow. Drops trickled down his chin.

Gaara quickly reached for the spilled water. His fingers caught the drops, traced them back up to Lee's lips, and then Gaara brought his fingers to his own mouth, licking the moisture away.

Lee's eyes were now open without any effort.

"Drink," Gaara ordered, bringing the canteen to Lee's mouth again.

The way Lee’s mouth was hanging open, there was no way in hell he could drink. The canteen tipped and the water spilled all over his chin.

Gaara urgently caught some drops in the canteen, others on his hand. Lee wondered, breathless, if Gaara would lick his fingers again. There was still water on Lee's face, too.

A blur of red hair in his vision, and Lee felt a tongue catch some of the drops and follow the trail of liquid to his lips in a quick swipe.

Lee stared straight ahead at a clump of rocks, blazing crude orange in the sunlight.

What...just happened there?

Did Gaara just-...the very notion was so wild, the words couldn't even take shape in Lee’s mind.

"Don’t waste any water," Gaara cautioned, propping Lee up a bit more before licking away the drops he’d caught on his fingers. "We don’t have much."

Water.

Oh.

Oh right. Gaara, the desert inhabitant, was always obsessed with saving water, especially in their present situation, when their life depended on it. The gesture had been perfectly innocent.

That made sense, but Lee's mind wasn't focusing on sense.

The clouds of sedative were dissipating under the shock. Flustered embarrassment slowly pervaded Lee’s confused mind; it recoiled in guilty horror when it stumbled upon the part of Lee that wanted only one thing, and that was for Gaara to do that again.

The world had become solid around him, bewilderingly, achingly real. He was in a small nook of sun-baked rock, and in Gaara's arms; resting against Gaara's chest; head pillowed on his shoulder; Gaara's right knee was propping him up as well. Gaara smelled of sand, sweat and desert apples. A strand of red hair was tickling Lee's forehead. Lee tilted his head and he could see the line of Gaara's throat, a little flicker of pulse in his neck, dust and dirt on the creamy skin of his cheek, the dark ring of his eyes. This close, the green of Gaara’s pupils was shot through with teal and speckles of blue.

He'd never been this close to Gaara.

He'd never been this close to anyone. Not even Gai-sensei; not quite in this way. This was...something he'd never felt before. He felt warm. Valued. Safe, even though the logical part of his brain - slowly waking up too - was telling him there was little that was 'safe' about any of their present predicament. He should be worried, and thinking of ways they could get back to Suna unharmed. But all Lee could really think about was the warmth coming from Gaara's body through the linen tunic. Lee could feel that warmth along every inch of skin on his bare back; it made the desert heat beating on their improvised shelter trivial and irrelevant by comparison. Every detail was sharp and clear, as if this moment was getting carved into crystal for Lee to keep, always. The way Gaara was holding him up, careful of his injury. The way his tongue had briefly touched Lee's lips...

"Lee? Are you okay?"

Lee blinked.

Gaara had put down the canteen. He lifted a strand of hair that was falling near Lee's eye. "Your respiration has accelerated and you're flushed. Am I hurting you?"

Lee swallowed and managed to shake his head.

Gaara stared into his eyes, faces only inches from Lee. The moment stretched, and Lee held onto it preciously. Gaara was frowning down at him, worried, and maybe slightly perplexed. Then he reached for the water again.

"No," Lee whispered.

Gaara looked at him, puzzled, the canteen near Lee's lips.

"You drink the rest." Lee could tell from the way the water had sloshed in the bottle that there wasn't much left.

"There’s another flask, it’s almost half-full. Besides, I'm not injured."

Lee just smiled and shook his head again. It moved against Gaara's shoulder, black hair rustling against the tunic. Lee felt...so good, despite the distant pain wracking his body. He felt a bit of the simple peace he'd tasted earlier, when he thought he had died defending Gaara. He didn't know why he felt that way; he was alive, and his life was probably going to get even more complicated, now that he'd tasted and touched something that he was probably not meant to...His thoughts weren't making much sense any more.

"Gonna sleep," he whispered. "Can I stay like this? Just for a little while…"

"Stay...?" Gaara's voice, sounding faintly puzzled, was fading.

Lee, safely anchored in Gaara’s arms, smiled and slipped back into sleep.



End Part Nine



The format of this fic is going to change now; the chapters will no longer be standalone and fairly independent, which means that the next couple of chapters will also concern this event and its fallout. The tone is going to change too, as already discussed, though as you can see, the humour and the romance (yes, romance ^_^ Well, by Mal standards, that's romance) is still present, and will continue to be in all coming chapters if I have any say in the matter.

Thank you so much for the reviews, thoughtful comments, insights, jokes, encouragements or simple cheers; they all make Mal very happy ^_^ A happy Mal is a productive Mal...I'm now a few chapters ahead in DR, so hopefully there won't be any other 2-week delay between chapters for awhile!



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