Gaara may be one of the strongest Shinobi around, but he's not invulnerable. When something unexpected threatens him, it is up to Lee to protect him and lend him the strength to fight the enemy wit...
AN: Can be seen as being in the continuity of 'Big Heart, Drunken Fist', though it can be read perfectly standalone. All you need to know is that the guys are nineteen/twenty, and Lee and Gaara are sort of married (by virtue of Gaara announcing that they were, and nobody in Suna having the balls to disagree).
Chicken Soup for the Demonic Soul
The round table in the council room was a relic of the first Kazekage; built of thick polished oak, it seemed to symbolize the gravity of the decisions taken around it.
Lee would feel very, very sorry for breaking it, when he remembered it later.
But considering the circumstances, he really didn't see that he'd had much of a choice. Gaara and the council members had just finished their meeting, and Lee had gone to check the exits; he took his duties as one of Gaara's personal guards seriously. Gaara had slipped the gourd onto his back with an oddly heavy gesture, and then he'd gone pale and staggered. Lee had been on one side of the large room, his husband had been on the other side, there was the bloody table between them - Gaara's head dangerously close to knocking against it as he fell-...well, anybody who knew Lee could do the math. Take the total number of tables in Suna and substract one.
"Gaara!" Lee shouted, catching the falling man and getting his back to the wall instinctively. Behind him, the oaken antique - henceforth to be named 'firewood' - collapsed to the floor. All the council members were now on their feet; the civilians taking alarmed steps towards their Kazekage, while those councillors who were also Shinobi stood with their hands on their weapons, looking around for the source of an attack.
"Lee, I'm okay," Gaara snapped. "Put me down, I-..." He abruptly stopped struggling against Lee's hold and put a trembling hand to his forehead.
Lee would also, at a later date, feel very apologetic about the large hole in the council room wall. But Sunagakure's clinic was to the north, and the door out of the room was in a southerly direction, so-
He left the council members behind him, apart from Councillor Takeo, who followed Lee and his Kazekage closely with drawn sword. The old man had retired from his position as a high-level Jounin years ago, but he was still quite sprightly at the age of sixty. He kept pace with Lee until Gaara, in Lee's arms, stopped complaining and calling Lee an idiot, and made a small, pained noise deep in his throat; then Lee went into high gear and left Takeo-san in his dust. He was running through the halls of the small Suna hospital less than thirty seconds later, leaving a few broken doors in his wake (Lee would be sure to return to repair them later).
Lee found who he was looking for in the nurses' lounge.
Doctor Masaki, the head of the medical squad and the Kazekage's personal physician, put down his cup of coffee, took one look at a white-faced Gaara and motioned Lee into the next room, followed by a few nurses and medi-nin.
"Put him over there," the doctor indicated, heading quickly towards the sink to wash his hands. "Kazekage, please remove your shirt and-"
"I'm fine," Gaara snapped, trying to get down from the examination table. "I just- Lee!"
Lee, who was entirely in mission mode, had proceeded to yank off the gourd and drop it unceremoniously in a corner, then he did the same to the Kazekage's robe and shirt, despite Gaara's weak growls and attempts to stop him. A few things ripped, but they were just clothes; Lee knew how to use thread and needle, he could fix them later. The gourd was leaking Sand which was rustling around the floor in a way that sounded almost indignant, making some of the medical staff nervous, but Lee ignored it with the habit of long practice.
"Thank you, Lee-san," Doctor Masaki said dryly. He grabbed Lee by the shoulders and gently shoved him back towards the far wall. "Now go and stand over there please, and stop fussing like a cat with only one kitten. We'll take care of him."
Lee stood rigid against the wall while the doctor examined Gaara. The events were finally catching up with him, now that he didn't have anything to do. Gaara's skin had felt abnormally hot. His face was pale, the dark rings standing out in an even starker contrast. His eyes were bloodshot and dull. Lee cursed himself and clenched his hands into fists. How had he not noticed there was a problem?! He knew Gaara was tired; Lee was as well. That two-week diplomatic visit to Water country had been exhausting, and neither of them had gotten much rest on the trip home yesterday. He'd put down Gaara's silence and lack of energy to that, but-
A hand thumped him on the back.
"Stop worrying so much, Lee," Councillor Takeo said, having finally caught up. "He's alive, breathing, conscious, he even appears lucid; it doesn't look too serious. Besides, our doctors can perform miracles as long as the patient still has a pulse."
"Yes sir," Lee mumbled unhappily. Takeo-san thumped him on the back again; after a year of working together, he treated Lee like one of his grandkids.
The doctor and Gaara were talking together softly. Then Doctor Masaki stepped away, after a reassuring gesture towards his patient. He gave the medi-nin a few orders, sending one of them scurrying towards the medical equipment. Lee was instantly at the doctor's side, tugging at his sleeve.
The doctor shooed him away again; on the table, Gaara was sitting up, but he was frowning and rubbing his neck as if it pained him.
"It's nothing too serious. He's got a viral infection. Probably caught it in Water country, I hear they have a nasty flu going around their capital. The stress of travelling and all those meetings-"
"The flu?!" Lee stared at the doctor. "Are you sure?! That can't be right- Wait, maybe it's some sort of poison that's meant to look like the flu! Did you check for that?! Gaara has many political enemies - I tasted everything he ate and drank during our trip, he doesn't eat that much anyway, but I've heard of toxins that can be assimilated through the skin - not that Gaara lets people touch him - except for me of course, but I didn't do it- but I didn't think to check his- I didn't check his clothes! How stupid of me! This is serious! What are you waiting for?! You have to help him! He could be-hmf!"
Councillor Takeo gave the roll of bandages he'd stuffed into Lee's mouth an extra shove, then he turned towards Doctor Masaki.
"What do you suggest, doctor?"
"For the Kazekage I'd prescribe fluids and bed rest. For his husband I'd prescribe tranquilizers."
"He's just worried. So are we all. So are you, doctor. Why?"
Lee managed to get the bandages out of his mouth and looked anxiously at the doctor.
"It's just a viral infection," Doctor Masaki said gruffly. "But it's taken hold a lot more quickly and thoroughly than I'd expect it to in an otherwise healthy young male of nineteen."
"He's not an ordinary young male of nineteen," Takeo-san pointed out calmly.
"That may be the issue here. The Kazekage seems to think that-"
Lee sent the two old men flying as he rushed to catch his husband who'd swayed and nearly toppled off the table.
The doctor was at his side in a flash, one hand on Gaara's forehead, the other on his chest, finally modulated chakra flowing through his fingers. He didn't shoo Lee away this time, letting him hold onto Gaara.
"Doctor Naki?" he said calmly over his shoulder.
One of the interns popped forward. "Should I get some saline-"
"No, I want you to do two things for me."
"Yes sir?" The junior medi-nin was practically vibrating with enthusiasm, obviously pleased at being able to assist the doctor with such an important patient.
"First, I want you to send a runner to Ebizou-jiisama and get him to come here. Then I want you to evacuate the hospital."
A thick silence settled in the room.
"But-but-" the intern finally stuttered.
"I don't believe we have any critical cases that can't be moved. I'd rather move them now and be safe, than...later."
"Yes sir," the young doctor whispered, and practically ran out of the room.
Lee started to demand an explanation, but the doctor ignored him and dragged Councillor Takeo away for a quick discussion.
"I'm here, Gaara!"
"I know you're here," Gaara growled. "You're squeezing me too tight."
"Oh." Lee relinquished some of his hold.
Gaara patted him gently on the shoulder. "I made you worry. I'm sorry."
"What's going on?" Lee asked plaintively.
"Shukaku. He's trying to knock me out and take over," Gaara said, his voice weak and tired.
When Lee could get his mouth working again, he said "What?"
"Since I was stupid enough to catch this bug...he's interfering with my immune system. I've been lax...he's slipped through a bit..."
Interfering with...Lee went cold all over. "But...but if he does that too much- I mean, you might not just pass out, you could-..."
"Die, yes. Which would disperse his chakra for a few hundred years before he could materialize again. Not a very bright move, but then he's not the sharpest sword in the armoury sometimes," Gaara said, rubbing his eyes. "All he sees is the chance for a bit of fun. Mayhem. Destruction. That sort of fun. It's the way he thinks. Don't worry," Gaara added faintly, his head sinking against Lee's shoulder. "I'll protect you. I won't...let him out..."
Gaara's forehead felt hot and clammy when Lee brushed some of the red hair aside. Lee swallowed painfully and held Gaara close. Shukaku getting loose was a very serious problem, but Lee couldn't think beyond the possibility of losing Gaara. He couldn't lose Gaara.
All his great strength...the Renge...all the work and training to perfect his fighting skills and protect the one he loved...and he was completely useless.
"Please..." Lee stared helplessly at Doctor Masaki, who'd come up on the other side of the examination table, flicking the air out of a syringe. "Please help him?"
"Of course. Don't worry; he's young and strong. We're only playing it safe by evacuating the hospital, but I don't anticipate any problems."
Lee nodded, letting the doctor's bracing words reassure him.
"We'll start with this," the doctor added, swabbing the crook of Gaara's elbow with disinfectant. "It should help his body kick the virus, and bring the fever down a bit."
He put the needle against the cream-coloured skin-
The Sand Barrier broke it in two.
The doctor's jaw dropped.
"But-..." he looked at Lee worriedly. "I'm trying to help, he needs-"
"It's not always able to tell the difference, especially when it feels Gaara in danger," Lee muttered, glaring at the Sand skulking back towards the gourd. "Get another needle ready."
"Do it. Gaara?"
Lee shook his husband gently, but Gaara had slumped a bit against Lee's chest and his eyes were unfocused.
"Gaara? Wake up. I need you to- er, switch off the Sand Barrier." Lee's voice had gone weak as he realized what he'd just said. Even Gaara had no control over the automatic defence.
The doctor was fingering another needle uncertainly. "We have oral solutions of this medication, but it won't be as efficient, and the absorption rate will slow down the-"
"Hmmm. Lee? It's hot. Open the window," Gaara muttered.
"Right," Lee said to himself.
He put Gaara back down on the cushioned examination table with utmost gentleness. Then he took the needle from the doctor's hands and turned towards the gourd he'd propped up against the wall earlier.
He didn't understand the pack of chakra-rich Sand that protected Gaara. He knew it wasn't Shukaku, because that demon could only master attack, death and destruction, not protection. He didn't really believe it was Gaara's dead mother, because that was just creepy, and besides she'd surely be a bit smarter than this. Lee had always thought of the Sand as an entity in itself, symbiotically linked to Gaara, shaped from blood, hate, pain, love and chakra; something as primal as a dying curse, as protective as a mother's love, as fierce and grasping as a lonely child. He was grateful for its defence, but he and the Sand had clashed before.
He crouched down and thrust the needle before the gourd.
"Look," he said, in a voice that made the doctor and the medi-nin take a wary step away. "We are trying to help him. You are killing him with your interference. You will let us do this."
Everybody - even Councillor Takeo - stared at Lee as he got up and turned back to Gaara. Nobody had ever heard the kind-hearted, enthusiastic Leaf Jounin speak like that before. The fact he'd been speaking to a gourd only added an element of the bizarre to the scene.
Lee swabbed Gaara's arm again and raised the vein. The Sand lurking beneath the table shifted. Lee slipped the needle into the pale skin with barely more than a rustle on the Sand's behalf.
There was a collective sigh of relief around him.
"A man arguing with a gourd. That's something even I have never seen before, and I'll be eighty-three in a couple of months. I'm almost glad you got me out of retirement for this. Almost. Can't you let an old man rest in peace?"
Old Ebizou, Chiyo's brother and the closest thing to an expert on Shukaku the village had apart from Gaara, was standing in the doorway, bent, wrinkled and mussed like something that had been resurrected out of a sarcophagus. Despite his cranky tone, he was looking at the Kazekage, Lee, the gourd and the assembled medics with wise eyes.
"This doesn't look too good," he finally said. "I guess you had your reasons to drag me down here today."
"Yes sir," the doctor said, as respectful as everyone else in the village when it came to the old man. "The antiviral we gave him should help, but it won't help for long if It continues to suppress his immune system. We-"
"Start from the beginning, doctor. Lee."
"Yes?" Lee looked up in surprise from where he'd been conscientiously putting a bandage over the minuscule wound the needle had left.
"Stop fussing, and go and help that panicking intern I crossed on the way here to get people out of the hospital. It didn't look like he was having any success at it."
"You can't do much more here for now."
Lee opened his mouth to argue, but Ebizou walked right past him. Lee spluttered at the old man's back, but then he turned around and went to do as he was told; you couldn't argue with Ebizou-jiisama, it was just a waste of time. Lee would evacuate the hospital quickly- carrying each patient out himself if he had to!- and get it over with.
Lee glanced back, as rebelliously as he could when it came to someone four times his age.
"Come back here when you're done," Ebizou-jiisama said, looking at Lee thoughtfully.
Now that was one order Lee had no problems with! He saluted quickly and left at a dead run.
"How are you doing?" Lee sat down by the hospital bed and threaded his fingers through Gaara's. "You're looking a lot better."
"I'm clearheaded now; I don't know for how long," Gaara answered in his usual direct manner. "I stopped Shukaku's interference, but the damage is done. My immune system's still recovering, and there's only so much you can do with medicine. I could relapse at any moment."
"You will get better," Lee said, quietly but mulishly.
"Perhaps. Between the antiviral treatment, the antipyretic and my body's defences, the doctor says I should be over the worst of it by tomorrow and stable after that."
"There! See?!" Lee felt terribly relieved. Doctor Masaki had looked so grave when Lee had passed him earlier, and he'd seen Ebizou-jiisama and three powerful Shinobi councillors talking in hushed voices outside of Gaara's room in a way Lee hadn't liked.
"The problem is the next twenty-four hours, and how to keep conscious and in control during that time," Gaara explained abruptly. He was still as white as a sheet, and the fingers in Lee's hand were shaking.
"This is going to get potentially dangerous. Lee, I want you to evacuate with the hospital patients."
"Sure, Gaara." Lee patted Gaara's hand.
Gaara looked at him suspiciously.
"No," Lee answered honestly, "I was just humouring you because you're not feeling well."
"Gaara, if you'll take a second to think through the conversation we're about to have, you'll see that the only thing that will happen is that you'll waste energy you need right now, and I'll still be here," Lee said reasonably.
"But I'm asking you to leave. I'm your husband- I'm also the Kazekage, and I'm ordering you to evacuate."
"Which is it?"
"Are you asking me as my husband, or ordering me as the Kazekage?"
"...Does it matter?" Gaara asked, his cold monotone weaker than usual.
"Well yes, it does, because in the first instance, I'd say 'no, Gaara', and in the second instance, I'd say 'no, sir'." Lee had always been very respectful of the chain of command.
"That's insubordination," Gaara ground out.
"Seeing how Tsunade-sama detached me to your village under your orders, yes, it is insubordination," Lee agreed solemnly. "You can have me arrested as soon as you're feeling better and I'll go quietly. I hope you'll visit me in jail from time to time."
"Lee..." Gaara's eyes became calculating. "I want you to supervise the evacuation of the hospital and protect the innocents here. In fact, let's get the village civilians to the shelters as well; we should be careful. Can I trust you to do that?"
"Oh, about that evacuation. Ebizou-jiisama already asked me to do that. It turns out there's only a dozen patients in the clinic at this time; three civilians and the rest are Shinobi. They all refused to move. And the-"
"They what?" Gaara asked coldly.
"Refused to move. They said they trusted their Kazekage to protect them, and they didn't want the medi-nins and nurses to have to come with them for their care, in case any of the medical staff might be needed here to help you. In fact, they barricaded themselves into a single ward and are all taking care of each other, and they won't let anyone in until you're well again. As for the villagers, the word about your condition's gotten out already. Some of them may have headed towards the shelters, but it looks like most of them have gathered around the clinic to stand vigil and pray for your health, and they refuse to budge."
Gaara's eyes had gone wide. "But- but- Get me the senior Jounin here now! They have to enforce an evacuation-"
"They're setting up a defence perimeter around the clinic. They want to make sure no enemy of yours uses this opportunity to take a shot at you," Lee reported happily. He'd seen with his own eyes the slow shift of behaviour of Suna towards Gaara these past years, but he'd still been pleasantly surprised by the quiet yet determined outpouring of support and concern for their Kazekage.
Gaara reacted as well as Lee expected him to...
"Am I the only sane person left in this village?"
...considering that he was still unfamiliar with positive emotions such as affection, respect and caring, and couldn't quite believe it when they were directed at him from an unexpected source.
"Now, Gaara, don't get excited, it's not good for you," Lee said, patting Gaara's hand again. He ignored Gaara's diamond-hard stare at the gesture, and the way the Sand was hissing with anxiety and bad temper in the gourd.
The argument would probably have lasted a lot longer, but just then Ebizou-jiisama poked his head through the door.
"How's everyone doing in here?"
"Ebizou!" Gaara snapped, struggling to sit up. "People will listen to you. Get the civilians out of the village, now."
"Sorry, boy," Ebizou answered, with his usual lack of respect for anyone in the village younger than himself (that is to say, everyone). "The way I see it, they have the right to choose. It's their way of showing their faith and support in their Kazekage, the leader and soul of the village; they trust you to keep control of Shukaku and protect them. Consider it an incentive. Though if it makes you feel any better, I have no doubts that you'll stay in control; otherwise I'd be busy packing my luggage to go finish my retirement in another village, or possibly another continent. So you see? Nothing to worry about. Just just relax and get better. Lee, can I speak with you?"
"Coming!" Lee gave Gaara's hand a squeeze. "I'll be right back."
"I guess you will be," Gaara said with exhausted resignation, closing his eyes and sinking back into the pillow. His fingers briefly clung to Lee's, still seeking some comfort, perhaps unconsciously.
Ebizou smiled genially until Lee had closed the door behind them, and then his expression abruptly changed.
"He's going to lose control of the demon."
"Wha-at?!" Lee leaned against the wall. "But you just said-"
"I didn't want him worrying. If he flips out, you know what he'll do: try to slip past us all and head out towards the desert where he can lose it- and die - without putting anyone at risk."
Lee swallowed and nodded.
"But Gaara's strong," he said faithfully.
"He is, but when it comes down to it, he's also just human," Ebizou murmured, a faint trace of regret on his usually crusty demeanour. "He's a force of nature when he's got the reins, but Shukaku is working against him now, and this infection, innocuous in itself, is going to take Gaara's defences down sufficiently where the creature will be able to take over."
"What are we going to do?" Lee asked. His fists had clenched and his mind was now centered on the mission.
"When Gaara falls asleep, Shukaku is going to attack his mind. Gaara is going to fall asleep - pass out, to be more precise - because if nothing else, his body needs rest to heal. What we need to do is give him some support while he's out of it, to stop Shukaku from taking over."
"I'd ask Temari or Kankuro to do this, if they were in the village, but they're more than a day's travel away even at full speed. You may be the best choice anyway, in final. You are close to him as well, and besides, you do not fear Shukaku like we of the Desert fear him. So I want you to go into Gaara's mind when he falls asleep and repel Shukaku's attempts to break his spirit."
Lee stared at Ebizou for a split second, and then he was unwrapping the bandages from his hands. "Right! That monster is not going to get a chance at Gaara! Not if I can help it! Just show me how to- wait a minute. Did you say, go into Gaara's...?"
Ebizou nodded at the three councillors behind him, then he turned back to a gaping Lee.
"I'll show you."
"Comfortable, Gaara?" Ebizou asked solicitously, smiling down at the Kazekage.
Gaara glared back, ignoring the polite enquiry. "What the hell is going on?"
"It's a medical jutsu. It'll help as much as the drugs," Ebizou answered airily, waving a wrinkled hand at the complex symbols the doctor and the three councillors were drawing on the ground of the large, empty room. Gaara was lying on a bare futon at the center of the pattern, looking remarkably small and ill in his hospital clothes and without his gourd and usual formidable presence.
"And what's Lee doing here?" Gaara glanced up suspiciously at Lee, who was sitting on the futon and pillowing Gaara's head in his lap.
"We thought you'd like your husband by your side for the next few hours. To help and support you," Ebizou said, with a warm and paternal smile.
Gaara's eyes narrowed to slits.
Ebizou switched tactics. "He was driving us crazy asking about you. I didn't want him whining and scratching at the door like a mutt locked out of the house, so I thought I'd let him in," he explained, much more plausibly.
"Don't insult Lee," Gaara muttered automatically.
Lee and Ebizou had just started to relax when Gaara painfully levered himself into a sitting position. He was getting weaker, the virus taking a new hold while his immune system was still fragile.
"Gaara, don't. Lay down," Lee said, pulling him back, but Gaara struggled against his hold, sceptical green eyes trying to focus on the pattern around him.
"This doesn't look like a medical jutsu," he said muzzily.
"Now, Gaara-" Lee tugged gently at his husband's shoulders, trying to get him to lie down again. Gaara ignored him.
"Why is that symbol over there- hmm..."
Lee, in a flash of instinct, had dug his thumbs into Gaara's shoulders. Gaara was a walking case of back tension at the best of times, from the constant control he exerted over himself and the monster within, not to mention the way he held himself to carry the gourd. While Lee was very good with muscles.
Gaara slowly leaned into Lee's fingers, apparently forgetting what he'd been talking about. Lee had never ever considered doing this outside the privacy of their home before. He tried to stay professional and reserved in public at all times like a good Shinobi should, and this was something private and intimate. Besides, this was Gaara, who'd remained untouchable throughout the village for most of his life; if Suna learned that the previous cold killer and their present-day Kazekage could be so easily tamed with a back rub, they'd probably die of collective shock.
But all means were good if it got Gaara to cooperate now. Lee managed to coax Gaara to lie back down again, then went over his shoulders, the tops of his arms and his chest (trying to forget there were a bunch of elderly councillors staring at him). Gaara blinked, dazed.
"...doesn't look like a medical...jutsu..." he muttered, still clinging to the thought, then the fever-bright eyes closed, and Gaara rolled onto his side and pressed his hot forehead into Lee's stomach, the arm without an IV wrapping around Lee's waist.
"Hmmm. Don't stop..." he mumbled. Lee did his best, working on Gaara's neck, which got him a small sigh of pleasure. Lee was going to remember doing this in front of a snickering Ebizou-jiisama later. And he was going to cringe in sheer mortification; he just knew it.
In his lap, Gaara rubbed one dark-ringed eye with a shaking hand loosely curled into a fist. He didn't look like the aloof Kazekage now, or like the dreaded Gaara of the Desert. He looked like a young boy who'd stayed up too late, and was too tired to hide his sleepiness from his parents anymore.
Lee gently drew back a few sweat-soaked strands of hair from Gaara's forehead and massaged his temples. He suddenly didn't care if the whole village was watching. He was going to defend Gaara to the last of his strength, and beyond. Nobody was going to hurt his husband any further, especially not a bloody big sand demon who was getting uppity just because Gaara was a little bit sick!
He could feel Ebizou's eyes on him. He looked up and nodded. Ebizou nodded back and knelt on one of the nodes of the complicated spell painted on the floor. The three councillors took up similar positions around Gaara, and the doctor hovered by with medical supplies. Lee had managed to coax an IV past the Sand Barrier and into Gaara's arm earlier, despite the ominous rustling from the gourd on the other side of the futon. The line provided fluids and some medication; if anything else was needed, Lee trusted Doctor Masaki to provide it, even if Lee and Gaara were both unconscious. The doctor was a medi-nin like Sakura-san and Tsunade-sama; he had plenty of guts.
"Remember, Lee," Ebizou-jiisama said very softly, after a wary glance at Gaara. "If he falls asleep deeply enough for his control to start to slip, the pattern will trigger and your consciousness will be transferred to the part of his mind assaulted by Shukaku. Try to stay there as long as you can. Lend Gaara your strength. Resist. Or..."
"Hmm?" Gaara mumbled in Lee's lap, his eyes still closed. "Did you say something...?"
"No, Gaara. Rest," Lee whispered, rubbing as much of Gaara's back as he could reach.
The next few hours passed quietly. Gaara drifted in and out of a light doze, his form of sleep. Lee stayed awake with the determination and spirit he used on a long patrols.
A hint of grey light yawned at the edge of the window, announcing without any fanfare the arrival of a sleepy dawn. Lee blinked at it blearily. The science of medicine was hardly as precise as a good Taijutsu move, but the doctor had said that if Gaara could stay conscious till morning, he'd have weathered the worst of it, and could be counted on to stay awake on his own while his body started to recover properly. Looked like Lee hadn't been needed after all. Hah, he'd told that old Ebizou that Gaara was strong-
In his lap, Gaara breathed out deeply and the arm around Lee's waist loosened.
Everything went dark.
Lee staggered back, which brought to his attention the fact that he was now standing. No more Gaara in his lap, no more pattern around him, no more bored Ebizou-jiisama cleaning out a wrinkled ear with his finger, no more window, no more hospital room. Lee's feet were sinking into sand.
He was, to all appearances, standing on a crumbling sandy plateau hanging in a starless void. The sky, if that was what it was, was totally dark, but the sand itself seemed to shine with a pale, creamy luminescence that achingly reminded Lee of the way Gaara's skin glowed under candlelight. There wasn't any sound apart from the crunch of Lee's sandals in the sand, yet what appeared to be a violent wind was ripping at the edges of the plateau, hurling great wisps of sand about and churning up dust devils in absolute and eerie silence. Whole chunks of the plateau were being torn off, tumbling slowly and without a sound into the void. There was something deliberate and cruel about this slow shredding, and the quiet air was heavy with hostile intent and tinged with madness.
Lee stared around him, suddenly realizing that he didn't really know what he was supposed to do, exactly. They hadn't had much time to discuss it, once Lee had agreed; by the time Ebizou had directed the painting of the jutsu, Gaara had taken a turn for the worse, and Lee had had to join him in the centre of the pattern without delay in case the patient passed out more quickly than expected.
Was Shukaku here? He was probably in the wind ripping chunks out of this bleak wasteland. It hurt Lee to think this might be Gaara's inner landscape. He was going to be extra nice to his husband when he got out of here. But in the meantime...
"Looking for someone?" said a voice in his ear.
Lee yelped and leapt away. The whole air was quivering with such power and malice that he'd not felt anybody approach him.
Lee took a second look and felt his heart sink like a rock in his chest.
It looked like Gaara. It was his husband's lean frame in the long dark coat he favoured for battle. The familiar rings of his eyes stood out in sharp contrast to his pale skin, dominating his face, lending intensity to his gaze. The smile was distantly familiar too, but Lee hadn't seen it in years, not since the Chuunin exam; it was the crazed grin Lee had briefly seen when he had ripped off the Sand Armour to show the fractured mind underneath.
The eyes were solid black with speckled yellow pupils and the air around the figure was reeking with barely leashed power.
"Shukaku," Lee guessed grimly.
"Hello, idiot. Fancy finding you in here," the demon drawled, with an amused toothy grin that looked completely, horribly wrong on Gaara's usually solemn face. "Having fun hanging out in the brat's subconscious? I better warn you, it's pretty boring at the best of times, and gloomy as all hell."
Lee blinked. He'd expected something a bit more...ominous and portentous from the Sand Demon. Then again, Gaara had told him before that Shukaku could be rather strange, and oddly laid-back in behaviour for a creature of pure chaotic evil.
Despite the casual greeting, Shukaku was staring at Lee like a wolf examining a baby piglet all trussed up with an apple in its mouth. And there was something...wrong. A small pull at Lee's mind. It was growing. Like someone trying to tease out his soul through his brain.
"Stop it," Lee growled. "I know what you're doing and it's not going to work!"
And wasn't that a stupid thing to say. Lee didn't really know what Shukaku was doing, and he had no idea how to oppose it. The only thing he knew for sure was that telling the powerful One-Tail to 'stop it' was probably not going to do the trick. Damn it, Ebizou, you crumbling old relic, Lee thought frantically, you could have given me an instruction manual before sending me in here!
The pull was very subtle, like a faint, irregular whisper you could barely hear. Not downright unpleasant. In fact, you almost felt like listening to those hushed words, those seductive sighs. But you could never quite catch them; and having them there yet just beyond your reach would get first annoying, then difficult, then painful, then soul-crushingly unbearable.
...Was this what Gaara put up with? All the time? Lee felt sick at the thought. Hopefully it was only this bad because Gaara was asleep and Shukaku had slipped out. This was his attempt to break Gaara.
And he was directing that effort at Lee now. Lee narrowed his eyes at the demon. Why was Shukaku bothering with Lee? Unless Lee's very presence here was, in fact, all the reinforcement Gaara's spirit needed. An element of resistance his husband's unconscious mind could anchor itself to. The wind was still ripping at the edges of the plateau, but when he looked carefully, Lee could see that the stretch of sand they were standing on was not getting any smaller. He wasn't sure what to trust here, but his instincts were telling him that the longer he held out against the demon's growing pressure to cave in, the more he'd protect Gaara.
"Right!" Lee bellowed. "I'm not going to let you do anything to Gaara while he's resting!"
A look of fear and respect completely failed to cross the demon's face. Shukaku merely looked bored.
Lee set his mind to resisting - he wasn't sure what he was resisting exactly, but he was going to resist it anyway! Youth and Determination and Spirit and- hey, that was a thought. If Shukaku could attack him with this subtle, seductive sense of malice like sweet-tasting poison, then Lee could attack right back, and he knew just the way to do it!
"Listen up, Demon!" Lee shouted, pointing a dramatic finger at the creature. "I am about to show you the Errors of your Ways!"
One of Shukaku's eyes twitched in an expressive look of 'Say what?'
"The passionate spirit of Youth can strike the shells from the eyes of the most hardened villain! Or demon. My teacher, Gai-Sensei, has brought many an evil man back to the right path with the power of his fists and the beauty of his spirit!"
The demon was staring at him. The silent wind around them seemed to have died down a fraction, and Lee felt more of the demon's attention on him, like a cat curiously watching a mouse between its claws performing tricks with a ball. Well, as long as the demon concentrated on Lee, it might spare Gaara some hardship. Lee took a deep breath and broke into a diatribe on Youth, Justice and Spirit, followed by a long medley of Gai-sensei's best speeches.
Time seemed to behave strangely in this non-space within Gaara's mind; Lee could have sworn he'd only been talking for twenty minutes, yet he was exhausted as if he'd been here for over an hour. But he was proud of himself. He'd resisted, and he'd said all that as beautifully as Gai-Sensei himself could. Even a Sand Demon had to have been moved!
In fact, Shukaku did look affected; his eyes had gone rather wide, his face had become serious and he was staring at Lee with something like respect on his countenance.
"I see," he whispered, in a stunned voice, "...That's amazing...it makes so much sense to me now..."
"Really?" Lee asked in surprise (not that he didn't trust the power of Gai-Sensei's speeches, of course, but he hadn't realized they'd be that effective).
"No," the demon said with a sudden cruel smile, "I'm just messing with your head. That's the worst fucking nonsense I've heard since that priest tried to give me religion some time back."
"You don't really believe all that, do you?" the demon asked him, tilting his head curiously.
It was as if the whispers at the back of Lee's mind had suddenly become a bit clearer. You don't really believe all that...do you...?
"Of course I do! I live my life according to Gai-Sensei's teachings!" Lee shouted, banishing the small trickle of doubt that had tried to insinuate itself into the cracks of his mind.
The demon scratched his chin in an oddly human gesture.
"I was almost afraid you'd say that, and I don't fear much, believe me. You know, ever since you came into his life, you've been taking up a lot of room in the brat's mind-space. I've gotten to know you a bit, which is good enough reason to want to kill you," the demon commented, as if casual homicide was as natural as a duck taking to water. "I was wondering if I would ever have the chance to meet you, and now that I have, I really don't get what the kid sees in you. I've known some moronic humans in my time, but you take the fucking prize. You do have balls though. I'll give you that. What you're doing right now is gutsy. Stupid beyond belief, but gutsy."
"I'm not afraid of you," Lee said sternly. "This isn't even real, this is Gaara's imagination. My body is still back in Suna. You can't hurt me."
"Oh, your body's not here," the demon murmured, touching a finger to his lips in a thoughtful gesture that made Lee ache with the sudden familiarity; Gaara did the exact same thing when he was thinking... "But I can still hurt you very badly indeed. You see, balls and guts are not enough. Not against me."
The pull at Lee's mind effortlessly doubled, and he realized that the demon had been merely toying with him until now.
"I'm taking him down, human. I'm getting out. And your puny mind is not enough to stop me. If you leave now, Gaara will still have a husband around when he wakes up. He may not have a village any more, but he'll still have you; I know your physical abilities, and you'll be too fast and tough for me to wing you if you start running for it now."
A creeping sense of despair strangled Lee's indignant protests. Lee had always failed to protect his important people...in fact, they'd often had to turn around and protect him. And he couldn't even use the Renge here. What possible good was he without his Taijutsu? All his life, he'd been reminded just how useless he was with things of the mind; a talentless loser unable to perform the simplest ninjutsu. He-
"Damn, you're about as subtle as I am," Lee growled, shaking his head and glaring at the demon. "You can stop that line of attack right now. Maybe I'm not as mentally tough as Gaara is, but I'm not weak for all that. And I never give up, especially not to self-pity and despair. I would shame myself, Gaara, Gai-sensei, all those who believe in me. You can give up, demon. If Gaara could put up with you for nineteen years, I can stand you for a few hours until he's recovered."
The demon looked at him, and his lips quivered in the smallest twitch of amusement.
And then he was gone.
Lee felt a single flicker of hope - that's right, Shukaku! Run!
"Are you so sure of that?" a voice murmured in his ear.
Lee leapt away and spun around.
"So twitchy," said the voice in his ear again. And Shukaku was there, grabbing him by the chin in a grip that was stronger even than Gaara's and forcing Lee's head around until they were nearly nose to nose.
The alien/familiar face was close to his own. The fingers gripping his chin felt grainy, like when Gaara was wearing the sand armour. Up close, the speckles in the yellow eyes seemed to be spinning very slowly.
Lee grabbed the arm holding him and tried to break the bone. But there wasn't anything human beneath that coat; it was like trying to break the universe.
"Oh, don't worry. There's no point in me hurting this illusion of your body, that won't affect your mind," the demon said, watching Lee's struggles with hungry amusement. He squeezed Lee's chin to the edge of pain, then suddenly his fingers drew back in a lingering caress. Lee jerked back, repelled; he'd have preferred bruises.
"Come to think of it," Shukaku added, stepping right up to Lee as the other stumbled back, "we don't have to fight at all. All that mental stuff is going on in the background; we don't really need to pay that much attention to it. You'll crack sooner or later, and I don't even need to try. Maybe we should take this time to chat. I'll be too busy having fun when I get out- and you'll be too busy running and trying to save people. Want to talk about the brat? I bet you got loads of questions for me."
"No, and you're not getting out," Lee said through gritted teeth. He stepped back again, but the demon stayed in his face. A smell of dry sand and blood filled Lee's nose. The curve of the cheek, the red hair, everything was so familiar, it was very confusing. Lee wanted to focus on the eyes, but that slow dangerous spinning was also dangerous, he instinctively knew.
"You're not very chatty. Yeah, that's right; you're more a man of action." The demon smiled, a rich, hedonistic movement of the lips that looked sacrilegious on Gaara's features. "Do you want to fool around instead?"
Lee stared, coming to an abrupt halt. The demon's face was only a few inches away, but Lee could feel no breath playing against his skin.
"Do I want to fool around with an evil demon wearing a copy of my husband's body while I'm in Gaara's head?" Lee asked, just to clarify.
"...That is really fucked up."
"Oh yes. But tempting?"
"Not even remotely." Lee looked at Shukaku suspiciously. "Are you messing with my head again?"
"Look! It thinks!"
"Get lost," Lee snapped, turning away and stomping off. The pull on his mind was getting...harder to bear.
"Oh, come on..." the whisper followed him seductively, Shukaku just behind him. "It can be just like it is with him. Maybe even more so..."
"What-" Lee stopped himself severely. Don't play his game.
"What do I mean? You know what I mean," Shukaku murmured, suddenly in front of Lee and leaning forward, hands behind his back, face wise and cruel and highly amused. "You know exactly what I mean, Rock Lee. I'm giving you the opportunity to be with the full Gaara; to be with everything he is. Don't tell me that's not even remotely tempting."
"No, it really isn't."
"But you do know what I mean," Shukaku murmured into Lee's ear. His hands - its hands, Lee reminded himself savagely - were resting gently on Lee's shoulder, fingers stroking the skin of Lee's throat in a caress that was both dangerous and delightful. "You know that I've been with him far longer than he's even known you. I know his childhood. I know his deepest secrets. We've melded and become one on several occasions. I know him to the bottom of his soul. I know things about him you cannot even begin to comprehend. And you...you know that."
The mental storm around them was now in Lee's head and ripping him apart. He was struggling to stay standing as an alien wind howled over his soul.
"Yes," Lee had to whisper, "I know that."
"Even when he's in your arms, he's not entirely there. There are facets to Gaara that you will never see, that you will never touch..."
"That's true," Lee said, with the last of his strength. "But when he reaches out to me - to me, not to you...it's the part of himself that Gaara actually cares about...that he's sharing with me..."
There was a short, dangerous silence.
Lee could feel his will start to crumble. The hands on his shoulders were turning into claws.
Then something ripped Lee away from Shukaku's growing grip.
Lee staggered - fingers on his wrist stopped him from falling. He looked up wildly.
His husband was holding him so tightly it was probably leaving sympathetic bruises in real life. He'd positioned himself between Lee and Shukaku.
"Leave. Him. Alone."
Shukaku stared at them, face unreadable. And then the demon smiled. It was a way-too-wide smirk that would feature in the starring role of many of Lee's upcoming nightmares, and take top ratings from the all the critics.
Grainy wisps trailed from the demon as the silent wind brushed him; the body slowly crumbled into sand and blew away, the smile hovering till last.
Lee blinked, trying to focus as his perspective radically changed.
He wasn't in the wasteland anymore. He was back in the room in Suna's hospital, bathed in the morning sun, and staring down at Gaara's face pillowed in his lap. The green eyes were open and glaring fuzzily at him, and Gaara was gripping Lee by the wrist.
"When I get better," Gaara mumbled, "I am going to need a dictionary."
"Wh-what?" Lee croaked, now completely confused.
"I'll use it to look up the word that exactly describes how stupid that was of you to do that." Gaara's eyes slid shut. "And then I'll hit you with the dictionary."
"Okay. When you get better," Lee said with a relieved smile. There was a small hint of colour back in Gaara's cheeks, and the fingers on Lee's wrist were firm and reassuring, grounding him back in reality.
The village of Sunagakure was as silent as a ghost town. People didn't speak, and they walked about in utmost silence. Chimes had been taken down, radios and televisions remained off, horses' hooves had been muffled in cloth, and children and pets were kept indoors.
In that mausoleum-like silence, Lee's voice was as clear as a clarion.
"I'm back and I brought soup!"
There was a swift hiss, and Lee hopped aside with his usual speed and agility, along with the habit of much practice these past two days. The sand missed him by a few inches. It had actually been targeting the soup, but Gaara's aim was still off. The reaction was barely conscious as it were, a reflexive gesture of annoyance slipping past Gaara's usual control. Because Gaara still cared for the people under his protection more than he cared for his own life, even those instinctive swipes were not aimed at causing bodily injury; the sand's reaction was petulant rather than lethal, and Lee and everybody else put up with it with fairly good grace, buoyed by the relief that they still had their Kazekage around and on the mend.
"Now, now," Lee said, moving breezily into the bedroom as if there weren't wobbling fingers of sand trying to stop him and shove him out again, "you know the doctor said you needed to eat."
A bump in the covers moved sluggishly, and Gaara poked his head out.
"Lee, the entire village is treating me like a landmine that's about to go off. Can't you get a hint?"
"Don't be stupid! They just want to let you rest and not make your headache any worse, that's all. Okay, the way you broke that doorbell from three streets away did impress them a little, and I'm sure those cats won't be yowling again any time soon - last I heard, they're still hiding under their owner's bed. But the villagers are not afraid of you, they're only being considerate." And maybe just a tiny bit cautious as well.
Gaara made an unconvinced sound, followed by a sniff. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was sticking in sweat-soaked strands to his face, and his nose was sore and running.
"But I don't mind taking care of you on my own!" Lee exclaimed brightly, ducking under a weak lash of sand trying to gag him. "I told you this before! I'll be nursing you as long as you're sick."
Nobody else had volunteered, once the danger to Gaara's life had passed, leaving only a fluey and very irritable Kazekage in its wake. Even the medical staff were treating this like the hibernation cycle of a bear in winter; something natural, meant to happen and that should probably be left to happen in solitude. There'd been an unspoken plan to leave Gaara holed up in his room for a week, and just shove food through the door at regular intervals, but Lee had indignantly refused to accept that. The third time he'd caught Gaara trying to work on papers and mission statements in bed, he knew he'd made the right choice. He'd banned all work items from their home, and forbidden anyone from even mentioning the Kazekage's duties within earshot; it was actually a toss-up whether the villagers were warier of Gaara's sand or of Lee's lectures on Rest and Recovery.
Gaara stared up at him.
"...This is a ploy to get me to heal faster, isn't it."
"No, you have to let your body heal at its own natural rate, and not rely on chakra or anything else; it will reinforce your natural defences next time this happens. The doctor told you this already."
"I know. I'm sick, not amnesic."
"But you sure are grumpy! Hey, watch that, I almost spilled the soup. You need to eat, you know. Then we can play cards! Or maybe some Go. Or do you want me to read you something? I have the latest issue of Taijutsu Arts here."
"Go away?" Gaara asked plaintively. "Please?" The sand had slumped away in defeat.
Lee sat down on the mattress and put the soup on the bedside table, coaxing the spoon into Gaara's fingers.
"Come on, eat up. I made it myself! It's Gai-Sensei's special recipe: Eight Wonders Health Soup. Guaranteed to re-energize and revitalize!"
Gaara swallowed with bad grace, then looked down at the spoon with a thoughtful expression.
"Isn't it?" Lee asked in delight.
"My nose is completely blocked up, yet I can still taste it. Could you write this recipe down?"
"Yes! Of course!"
"Good," Gaara said, pushing the soup away and rolling into the blankets, "then go give it to the Interrogation Division and leave me alone."
"Now Gaara-" Lee started, grabbing the bowl and poking the spoon at his husband.
There was a swish and the bowl went sailing out the window (where it nearly beaned one of the guards who'd inadvertently wandered into the danger zone).
Lee looked at his empty fingers, impressed. "Your speed and aim have improved. And after just one spoonful."
"Get out and stay out. Kankuro said you could use his place until I got better; do so."
Lee stood up and looked down at the lump in the bed. Okay. Time to address the real issue here.
"If that's what you really want, I will. But if there's any chance you might need my strength again, than neither you, heaven nor hell will stop me from going back into your mind and protecting you. You can send me to Kankuro's, or to the other side of the village, or back to Konoha for that matter, and I'll still be here when you need me. I know I scared you with that stunt; I know I was a just few seconds away from letting Shukaku get into my head and harm me. But if the positions were reversed, you'd have done the same and you damn well know it. So stop trying to drive me off for my own safety. It'll never work."
There was a short silence.
"Actually, my head hurts," Gaara muttered, glaring at the far wall, "and you're loud."
"Oh? Gai-Sensei always told me that a cheery demeanour was bracing when you were sick." Lee scratched his head and sighed. "Well, if that's what you really want, I can leave you alone this afternoon, if you promise not to-"
Lee tried to dodge it, but the sand managed to get around him. It thrust him onto the bed with a shove. Before he could right himself, a fever-warm, soggy lump was curled up against his side.
"Or I can stay here and keep you company in silence," Lee said, looking down at tousled red hair in bemusement.
A humid sniff approved his decision.
Lee got his limbs sorted without nudging Gaara too much, and settled on the bed. He was glad Gaara was letting him stay. It was probably irrational, in the middle of a village full of Suna guards and with the sand clobbering any object that made more than thirty decibels worth of noise in a three-street radius, but Lee didn't like to leave Gaara alone when he was in this weakened state. Though Gaara was apparently recovering fast.
"You're going to get snot on my shirt," Lee remarked, after a second sniff.
"Live with it."
...very fast. Lee smiled happily and closed his eyes for a short nap, while pondering tonight's menu in view of what had happened to the soup. He'd defended the man he loved, stayed strong and resisted the might of the great One-Tail himself. Surely it wouldn't be that much harder to get Gaara to eat Gai-Sensei's Energy Dumplings for supper...? Would it...?