Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > Missing

Missing

by Maldoror 12 Reviews

Gaara is looking for Lee. All the Shinobi he talks to tell him Lee was killed in action, but if his lover really had died all those weeks ago, Gaara would know. At this point, the only thing he kno...

Category: Naruto - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Drama - Characters: Gaara, Rock Lee - Published: 2006/09/02 - Updated: 2007/08/12 - 12539 words - Complete

Disclaimer: Not for profit, and I don't own Naruto or any of the situations or characters.

Rating: What's the rating for the F-word again? Oh, PG15, to be on the safe side.

Warning: There are some bits in this that might be considered gory (I have high tolerance for that, so I can't tell) And before I get a few kindly reviews pointing out I made a mistake...yes, I probably have made a few mistakes, but the switches in verb tense are intentional ^_^

AN: I played around and had fun with the style in this one. There are a few oddities in here compared to my usual form. Comments on how it reads and 'feels' are highly appreciated.




Missing

---



Gaara picked up the next letter, resisting the urge to transform the pile of documents in his inbox into confetti with a small but well placed Sand Coffin. This was a necessary part of the Kazekage's job; he couldn't be killing enemies of Suna all the time.

"...Gaara?"

The unusual note of hesitation in Temari's voice made him glance up. He thought she was just dropping off yet more of the bloody paperwork, but it looked like something serious was going on. Gaara wondered, a bit morosely, if this would result in another deluge of forms, or if fighting might be involved this time.

His sister's face was carefully controlled, but she looked oddly pale beneath her tan. A grim Kankuro trailed her into Gaara's office, followed, surprisingly, by Naruto, who should have been in Konoha last they'd heard from him. In his fist, Naruto gripped a Leaf headband sewn onto a red belt.

*

The belt's cloth has a starchy feel to it, as if it has been recently washed. The metal is intact, the leaf symbol familiar. Gaara folds the corners of the sash beneath the steel rectangle and holds it in both hands.

"I'm so sorry, man. I...I just wish I'd been there, that I could have brought him back. I..." Naruto gives Gaara's siblings a look that's almost pleading.

Kankuro clears his throat. "He went down fighting, in the line of duty." He says it like a mantra; a Shinobi prayer.

"I'm sorry." Temari's face is a stern mask; she looks older than her twenty years of age. "Do you..." Her voice trails off for a minute, then she asks with undertones of concern, "Are you alright?"

In the circumstances, Gaara thinks that's a rather odd question to ask.

"Gaara, say something." Kankuro also sounds worried.

Gaara stares at each of their faces in turn. "What should I say?"

They glance at each other, obviously not sure themselves.

Gaara fingers the edges of the headband and realizes that he's waiting. He doesn't know for what. He looks around at his office, which hasn't changed; at the maps, the scrolls, his gourd, the paperwork in its inbox.

"Oh no, don't worry about- let me take care of that today." Temari scoops up the stack of letters and reports, sending the tray beneath them clattering unnoticed to the ground. "You just- why don't the three of you take a walk together." She hurries out. Gaara's aide is at the door, eyes concerned. He follows her, a folder bent and twisted in his fingers.

Gaara stands up, the headband still in his hand. He doesn't know what he should do right now, but Temari seems to, so he follows her advice.

They take a circuitous route through the village towards the ramparts. His friend and his brother follow Gaara closely, looking at him when they think he won't notice. Sand Shinobi and civilians go about their work and salute their Kazekage as he walks by. It's a normal late afternoon. Gaara frowns. He has a feeling he's missing something. Other than Lee, but it seems he'll have to get used to that now. I knew this would happen one day, he tells himself, and wonders why his own thoughts sound rehearsed but not convinced.

From the southern wall, Gaara stares out into the desert. "What happened?" he asks, trying to pin down what it is he's supposed to feel.

Naruto's face closes. "Lee and the others were protecting this large settlement in the contended zone; you know, between the borders of Fire and Earth Country. Lee and another high-level fighter had been sent with the regular teams because some tough Shinobi from Stone had been spotted around that region; a border raid, their usual assing around. I don't think it was meant to end in an all-out battle, but it did."

Gaara looks down at the headband he's still holding. He slips it into his pocket and turns an unblinking stare on Naruto, waiting for him to finish. Naruto looks miserable and hesitates over the next words.

"He was...He didn't make it back. Lost in action." Gaara has heard that term a dozen times before, written it himself on forms and letters. It sounds like a foreign expression when Naruto uses it. "I talked to a guy who saw the whole thing. He told me it was quick. Very quick. But they couldn't...the headband's all they could bring back. They put his name on the cenotaph. Or they will soon, I dunno if they did it yet. Lee's name and two others who didn't make it back."

"When did this happen?"

For an instant, Naruto's uncharacteristically sad and solemn expression gives way to the wooly look of someone doing maths on his fingers. "Lemme see, we're Tuesday today, so...nine days ago."

Nine days ago? Gaara frowns. There's something wrong here and he can't put his finger on it. Nine days ago? What was he doing nine days ago? It was a day like any other day.

"At what time?"

Naruto gapes at him. "I don't know! Why?"

Gaara turns back towards the desert. He feels disoriented, as if he's just missed a step; quite a large one.

"What about the bastards who did it?" Kankuro asks.

"Dunno. Our guys fell back to the settlement to defend it and regroup. By the time they went hunting, the Stone nin had broken camp and run for it. The ANBU got sent out days ago, but I dunno if they found anything. When the team leader told me what had happened, I came here right away. I wanted to tell you myself, I didn't want you to get it in a letter, you know. Um, Gaara?"

Gaara looks around. Over Naruto's shoulder, he can see evening creeping over the village. Guards patrol the walls, and two streets away a tinker is hawking his wares.

"...Are you alright?"

Gaara gets that senseless question a lot as the hours and then the days move forward. He doesn't answer. He's still waiting, and this disturbs him. The people around him are quiet; they no longer approach him with questions and problems. Though they still have questions and problems, they just go and see someone else with them, as far as Gaara can tell. Temari insists she take over his duties. After two days, she insists he get back to work 'to get his mind off things'. Then a day later, she says he should take off more time to recover. Gaara, who doesn't see the point, continues to do his job. He's slowly coming to grips with what is so wrong, as he sits in his office above the mission room and listens to his village turning over like a muted but well-oiled engine.

The world around him continues, and so does Gaara. He's been waiting all this time to feel something that measures up to his loss. He does not. He doesn't feel anything.

He works for seventy two hours straight, and when the work runs out he gives his siblings the slip and goes out to walk through the moonlit desert around Sunagakure.

Gaara stops at the top of an arroyo and examines the familiar landscape. Lee walks this route with him sometimes. Lee used to walk this route. Gaara repeats it silently to himself until the words become a meaningless jumble of syllables and still they feel meaningless. Lee patrolled this area on a regular basis; he'd lived in Suna for nearly two years and protected it assiduously. The people of Hidden Sand knew him, he'd made many friends. He participated in missions, he ate lunch at the refectory, he lived with the Kazekage, shared his bed where he touched Gaara in the dead of night, he touched Gaara, he's touched so many things, he's here, he's created ties here. Those ties are still here, they've not been severed. Lee's absence is not carved into the village and into Gaara's soul; he's not gone.

He's not gone.

Lee is something unique in Gaara's life; a bond like no other for a creature who does not have that many to start with. Gaara knows that when his lover dies, a part of Lee will live on within him; it's the nature of what they share. But that corner of his soul that belongs to Lee will change when that happens. It will go from Present to Past. It will stop, it will be closed, like a book when it hits the word End. Gaara has been looking for End for days now and cannot see it anywhere. It does not make sense to have been walking around with such a terrible rift in his soul for nine days without even knowing about it. It should be there, but it's missing. Lee is missing.

Lee is alive. Gaara repeats the words slowly, and this time they feel right. Lee is alive, because at this point in time, he cannot be dead. He's out there somewhere, missing.

The next morning at breakfast, Naruto emerges from the guest bedroom, sits down with a yawn and reminds them he's leaving later today. He has to get back to his duties.

"I'm coming with you."

Gaara's announcement is met with surprise and consternation. The prevalent question is 'Why?'

"I am going to talk to your eyewitness."

Naruto flinches and his fingers snap one of the chopsticks he's holding. "No! I told you what happened, and I mean, no, buddy, that's just a very bad idea. Really."

Gaara finishes his breakfast and stands up to get his travel bag. That hadn't been a request. He has something he must look for. Something he's missing.

*

The eyewitness turns out to be the leader of the ill-fated Konoha forces, a somber Jounin ten years Gaara's senior. He meets with the Kazekage in a conference room in the Hokage tower a few hours after Gaara's arrival. The two of them sit down while Naruto stays standing, looking down at the man with a strangely intent, almost forbidding expression on his usually open and cheerful face.

The witness recounts how his troops got into an unexpected confrontation with the Stone Shinobi forces and came under fire while still deploying. Lee was out of sight, making a sweep around the perimeter when he was attacked. He managed to fight his way back to the Konoha lines, but it didn't save his life. The witness saw Lee die with his own eyes, though only from a distance of fifty feet. The body was not recoverable, but they did get his headband, the one that's now inside Gaara's breast pocket. When Gaara asks how Lee died exactly, the eyewitness glances at Naruto and says it was sudden and very quick, and won't elaborate.

Gaara nods, stands up and leaves. Naruto hastily thanks the witness and follows Gaara at a run.

"Hey, wait up. Are you-"

Gaara stops in his tracks in the hallway outside, interrupting the ludicrous question that's about to follow. He turns towards the wall, his hands covering his eyes. Naruto makes a small lost noise and finally pats him awkwardly on the shoulder.

"It's okay, I know how it hurts...I'm sorry, buddy. I'm really...we're going to miss him."

Gaara lets his hands fall to his side. "I need some time alone."

It's a handy phrase, one he's heard people use before; it shouldn't sound out of place or be questioned in the circumstances. The blunt, uninflected request seems to puzzle Naruto, but he nods in understanding anyway. Gaara doesn't wait for his friend to finish his offer of a heart-to-heart talk over ramen later; he walks off at a fast pace, leaving the building and angling across the street.

'I need some time alone'. As he walks and concentrates, he wonders absently why humans say that when they've lost someone close. Maybe they need the raw pain of isolation to finally realize that part of their life, their future, is gone. It doesn't do anything for Gaara, but he did not expect it to. He's been alone before, even in these later, better years, and this is no different. The world has not changed. Birds sing in Konoha's trees, until he gets close enough and then they suddenly stop. Kids shout and play in nearby yards. Naruto follows him around at a distance he must think is discreet. The breeze smells of wood, water and growing things, dappled sunlight falls on Gaara's face like the touch of a lover's fingers, and Gaara knows that Lee is only missing.

When evening falls, he goes back with Naruto to the latter's apartment for dinner and a place to stay. Naruto is making plans to visit Lee's acquaintances and teacher tomorrow. Gaara nods, and waits until his friend is asleep before breaking out of the house, disarming the seals Naruto put on the door.

He makes his way discreetly through Konoha's streets to the eyewitness's lodgings. The place looks bigger in real life than through the Third Eye Jutsu that trailed the man home earlier. Gaara realizes it's an apartment building, and wastes a lot of time finding the right one without alerting the Shinobi inhabitants.

The eyewitness is tense once he's shaken awake.

"Wha-You?! What do you want?" Instead of letting Gaara answer, he immediately adds: "I told you what happened. There was nothing we could have done to save him. We lost two others out there as well- one of them was my team-mate since I was a Genin, my best friend. If we could have saved him, if we could have saved Lee or any of them, we would have."

There is a flicker of grief in his eyes when he mentions his friend. Gaara looks at him curiously and almost asks the man what it feels like and how he does it; Gaara's been waiting to feel that for over a week now.

The Leaf Jounin falls silent; his gaze darts towards the door for the third or fourth time, but he's smart enough not to make a run for it. Gaara finally has the opportunity to answer the witness's question.

"I want to know what you saw. All of it."

The man studies Gaara's face in the near-darkness. "I see. I guess I should have told you, but Naruto-kun wanted to spare you the details. As I told you earlier, Lee must have fought like hell to get away from his attackers. I saw him take down one of the Stone nin in the distance and charge towards us. He nearly made it; he was just a few feet away from our front line. But one of our opponents had a jutsu I've never seen before. Bloodline limit, I guess. The bastard formed his chakra into a bunch of wires; they tangled around Lee, and then the Stone nin, ah, pulled them tight. Lee was...cut."

Lee's been cut before. Gaara frowns and turns that word over in his mind. "Multiple lacerations do not kill immediately."

The Jounin's lips look pinched. "A bit more than...that..."

"You mean the wires dismembered him."

The man stares at Gaara for a whole ten seconds and finally says, "Yes."

"You said just now that he was only a few feet away from your lines. But you were fifty feet away when he died. Which is it?"

The man is still staring at him and appears not to have heard. Gaara has to repeat the question.

"He was fifty feet away from me, but I was at the centre of our formation. Two of my men were closer to him when he got-...when he died."

Gaara's eyes narrow to slits. Why is he not talking to those men then?

The Jounin seems to regain some focus. He shakes his head. "They could not have done anything either. One of them died right after Lee. Her head...the same nin killed her, with just the one wire so at least we got her body out. The second man was trying to reach Lee when the wires caught them both; he ended up badly cut, though he survived. He's still at the hospital. It was my responsibility to tell you what happened, since I was the commanding-"

"You will take me to this survivor."

"What? No, he's still recovering. I will not-"

The Sand moves. That hadn't been a request.

*

Gaara pins the eyewitness to the hospital wall - with some care - as soon as he's shown the right room. The man fights the Sand and makes a lot of noise; Gaara shuts the door and barricades it behind him. By this time, the survivor is awake and trying to rip himself free from the sheets, sensors and IV drip. He makes a defensive gesture as Gaara approaches, one hand out to parry, while the sleeve of his hospital gown flaps in the empty space where his other arm should be.

Gaara ascertains with one question that this is the man he needs. The survivor calms down somewhat and confirms he saw Lee killed (he flinches violently when Gaara says 'sliced') right before his eyes.

"Could it have been a henge, or a substitution jutsu cast by a third party?"

"A- a henge?" The question seems to confuse the survivor.

"Did you do a dispel on the body?"

The man stares at him. "My arm was cut off."

"You still had the other one. Did you do a dispel on the body?"

"There wasn't a body! It was just-...bits! Everywhere!" The survivor's voice cracks.

"Did you find the head?"

The man's jaw moves twice, before he shakes his head convulsively.

"Then why are you so certain it was Lee?"

That earns Gaara a few splutters. "He was five feet away when he- when he- I can recognize a comrade! That was Lee! He knew they were right behind him. He was running towards us, shouting for help, when he-...I reached out and then my arm-..."

"He was running away from the enemy, shouting for help?"

"Yeah."

"And you still think that was Lee?"

The man buries his face in one hand; the short stump of his right arm waves around as if trying to make the same gesture. The survivor glances at the empty sleeve, a look of pain and loss on his face, but it seems to sober him. He puts his remaining hand on his ribs, covered in bandages, and turns a hard, clear look on Gaara. People are gathering outside the door, listening in; Gaara ignores them.

"It was Lee. Don't get any ideas. He'd ditched his weights and legwarmers to get back to us, but it was his face, his uniform, his belt with the headband; it had his serial number scratched into the back, and it landed next to me when his waist was-...I grabbed it when they carried me out, because we couldn't take what was left of the body; most of it had fallen to the forest floor and was irretrievable anyway. We were out in the middle of fucking nowhere, with only the guys from Iwagakure. If it was a henge, who would it be? All Konoha nin are accounted for, and they had no reason to pretend to be Lee. As for the Stone nin, it could have been a henge to get near us, obviously, but we were in battle conditions; we were on the lookout for that kind of trick, that's basic training stuff. I didn't see any henge chakra patterns. Then that Stone nin killed him before he even got near us. Why would they kill one of their own? And trust me, the body was real, it wasn't a switch; I got enough of him on me to tell." The man reaches for his stump, face twisting with pain as he fingers the short piece left. "He's dead. There's no doubt about it."

"That's all you know?"

"Yes."

Gaara leaves. The eyewitness, the doctors and some ANBU are there, none too happy with him. Gaara walks through their ranks, too deep in thought to hear what they say.

The survivor is partially right; there is a lot that is unexplained about this picture. But if these people think they know what happened - if they think Lee would be running away shouting for help - then Gaara won't get the information he needs here.

*

It's two in the morning when he enters Sunagakure. A guard must have spotted him, because Temari joins him as he climbs the steps to the command centre.

"There you are," she says softly. "Did you have time to grieve?"

"No."

"Oh. Gaara...I know we're taught emotional control, but you and Lee were really close. Nobody - least of all me - will think any less of you if you want to express some of your feelings, especially in view of how you've been, um, acting. To tell you the truth, some of the command staff are getting a bit worried, and- where are you going?" Temari looks around the hall they've just entered.

"Records Room."

"Why?"

"The man who killed Lee was an elite Stone ninja using a particular jutsu. We should have records-"

Temari catches him by the arm and forces him to stop. "You know this?! For a fact?"

"Yes." The eyewitness has confirmed it, and so has the Hokage, once she'd finished yelling at him. Unfortunately, Konoha does not know - or will not tell him - who the Stone nin is exactly.

"That's why you talked to the witness." Temari's careworn face breaks into a savage smile and she looks happier than he's seen her at any time in the past fortnight. "You want revenge. Good! I'll help you. I'll go get Kankuro out of bed and we'll both help you."

She runs off without waiting for him to reply, and returns with his brother, as well as a stack of sandwiches she makes him eat. Then the three of them get to work.

A thin glint of pre-dawn light reflects off of Kankuro's Sand symbol as he nods in his chair. Temari is more alert, talking animatedly and tapping the paper with their written conclusions. They've found several references to the man Gaara is searching for.

"He's the leader of Stone's special strike force, their unit codenamed Avalanche. No wonder Konoha got so badly routed, these men are notorious."

"I will go to Iwagakure then." Gaara stands up.

"What?! No!" Temari waves her hands at him, and Kankuro, suddenly wide awake, does the same. "That'd be way too dangerous. We have to wait until he's outside his village."

"That's not the problem. The problem is finding the bastard." Kankuro scrubs his hair savagely, making it stick out in all directions. "I know these guys by reputation; they're mean mothers, tough as bricks. The Avalanche team only rarely goes back to Hidden Stone, they're always out in the field, always on the move, ready to act if the Tsuchikage snaps his fingers. It's gonna be hard to track them down."

"We have contacts in Iwagakure," Temari says. "With some monetary incentives-"

"Most people in Stone don't know where Avalanche is at any given time, apart from the upper crust."

"We'll find this guy anyway. It might take awhile. We have to work around missions, and we can't send out a huge force; he'll hear about it and go to ground. But we will find him. For Lee." Temari's eyes are red-rimmed; they are often like that these days. She's tired, Gaara realizes, and that's not good right now; he needs her to be strong. He gestures towards the door.

"Get some rest, the both of you."

Kankuro nods at the order and rubs his eyes. "Back at you, bro. We'll put together a search and destroy plan after a nap. When's the last time you slept? Just a bit?"

Gaara can't remember; sometimes it seems he can't look back anymore, except to see the trail that darts past him and leads forward, to what he's looking for.

It turns out that Kankuro and Temari have moved into his house permanently. They wander off to their respective beds, yawning. Gaara goes to the bedroom he shares with Lee and opens the safe near the desk. He gets paid for his Kage-level missions same as any other nin, and he never spends any of it. He takes all the cash he finds. He's used to dealing with Suna's national budget, not the detail of mission expenses, so he's only got a rough idea of what sums might be needed for informants and bribes, but he assumes they are expensive. He leaves his seal and keys on the desk for Temari and exits the village discreetly.

Gaara climbs to one of the heights protecting his hometown, turns around and sits on the hard-packed sand beneath a jut of stone. He stares at Sunagakure for hours as the sun rises and creeps overhead. This is unexpectedly hard. He's left before, for months at a time, but he left it well defended and he knew he would return. This time, Gaara obscurely feels that he might not be able to come back, and the world is now a strange, dangerous place where important things go missing and he only hears about it nine days later; it no longer feels safe for his village or his family.

But if he stays here...The danger the world represents is nebulous; the danger Gaara represents if he loses his hold on sanity is immediate and real, and he doesn't know-...If Lee had died, it would be very different, nothing would get Gaara to leave Suna ever again, but if he stays here now while his lover is out there, missing...Gaara does not think he can stand this state of affairs much longer.

He gets to his feet, takes one last look at his home and turns away, melting into the desert like one of its dust devils. Gaara is going to search for Lee, or for the grief and loss and knowledge that he will never find him. Suna is much less likely to go missing. If it does, then once he has found Lee, he will come back here and start searching all over again.

*

On the twelfth day, Gaara finds someone at the end of a long chain of rumor and information provided against money or intimidation. It's not the man he's looking for, the one who kills with chakra wires, but this man is from Stone, from the Avalanche unit, and knows what Gaara needs to know. Gaara finds him in a bar, drinking morosely from a bottle of clear alcohol. He gives Gaara a hard stare as the latter sits down, but his look of suspicion fades into one of disinterest as he takes in Gaara's appearance.

Last week, Gaara ran into a Suna nin in a half-deserted hamlet three hundred miles away from this bar. The Shinobi was overjoyed to have found his Kazekage safe and sound, and was going to escort him back to Suna immediately. Gaara knocked the man unconscious as gently as he could. That evening, in a sea-side shanty town far away from where he'd left the Chuunin, Gaara wrapped the gourd in swathes of discarded sailcloth and rope to look like a bundle of rags, bought some second-hand clothes to go with it and put on a hood. He's been wearing it ever since. The suppression of his chakra is by now second nature, and the trail he follows keeps him on the move and hard to track. Of all his things, he's kept only the two headbands, his own and Lee's, wrapped together in his pocket out of sight...He cannot afford to go back to Sunagakure now. If he goes back, he does not know if he will ever be able to leave again.

An added benefit to his disguise is that information is easier to gather this way. People are less wary of him from the outset. The Stone nin on the other side of the table looks positively bored with him.

"What do you want, kid?"

"Where's Lee?"

The Stone nin's brow wrinkles in confusion. Gaara pauses, thinks a bit, winds back to another question, about the man who kills with chakra wires.

After a few questions and two inches of liquid from the bottle, the man is more loquacious.

"Yeah, I'm a part of Avalanche and I don't care who knows it. It's the greatest honor in Stone and I'm a part of it. I'm one of the five backups and scouts. We work with the five big guns, who're the first strike team. We're the second strike team, and the first team's gofers." The man takes a drink and swishes it around in his mouth with a sour air. "Or rather, I will be, when my village rebuilds the squad. We got-...well, let's just say, I'm at loose ends right now."

Gaara says nothing. He's waiting for the man to answer the question.

The man leers at him. "If you think I hurt this 'Lee' of yours and you're out for blood, let me tell you right now that I eat kids like you for breakfast, sober or not. I even made it out of that last battle alive; me and two others from the backup team, so who're the tough guys now, huh, you bastards?! If we were the weaker unit- ugh, gotta stop drinking." Regardless of his own decision, he swallows his cupful and reaches for the bottle, which he waves decisively at Gaara. "Look, kid, I shouldn't be telling you this, but the man you're looking for is dead. Has been for nearly a fortnight. He was our leader. Real tough bastard. He's killed more people than I can count with those creepy wires of his. Can't give you his name, sorry. Secrets. So many bloody secrets. Can't tell you my name, either, even if I was just his gofer." The gofer tips the bottle, aiming for his glass, and spills some of the spirits on the rough, unvarnished wooden table. "What did you want him for? And who's this Lee?"

He lifts the glass to his mouth. It stays there, an inch from his lips, when Gaara puts down Lee's headband on the table and asks him, in great detail, about the border raid a month ago and the dead men from Konoha. When Gaara mentions the death of a man dressed in green, killed by this leader whose name the gofer is not allowed to give away, the Stone ninja spills some of his drink.

The glass goes back on the table, unsipped. The man tilts his head and scrutinizes Gaara's face beneath the hood.

"This guy who was killed...was he a friend of yours?"

"Yes. I'm looking for him. Did you see what happened to him?"

"Uh, no. Are you from Konoha? They had troops there, they saw him get-"

Gaara shakes his head in a precise gesture. "They thought they saw Lee die. But they don't actually know it was him."

The gofer's eyes bulge. "How the fuck did you find out-..."

After a moment of silence, when it seems the man won't add anything, Gaara says: "How did I find out that it wasn't my friend who was killed there?"

"...Nobody's supposed to know that." The gofer is glaring at his bottle.

"I know it." Gaara's voice sounds flat even to his own ears. Unsurprised. Unrelieved. Unemotional. He still can't seem to feel anything, even now. He can't step away from the path that led him here, either, so he starts again. "I'm looking for Lee. Have you seen him?"

"Seen him...? Kid..." The man wipes his face with his hand, fingers digging at the stubble on his jaw. "Yeah, you're right, and I don't know how the hell you knew, but the man my leader killed was not this Lee person. But your friend is still dead. Um, I'm not responsible for that. As I said, I'm just the scout and gofer."

"What happened?" Gaara says, and has the strange feeling that time has wound itself back, back to that moment on the parapet where he asks Naruto the same question. The odd sensation means little to him. Lee is still missing. Nothing else matters. Even if he has to repeat this moment until the end of eternity, nothing matters.

"He died. Sorry." The older nin looks suddenly a tad embarrassed at having shown a hint of fellow feeling despite the strictures of nindo. He shoves the bottle at Gaara. Gaara stares at it. He doesn't drink.

"I shouldn't be telling you this. I'm in trouble if they hear I talked about this." The gofer's voice drops to a threadbare mutter, his eyes shift as he looks about the half-deserted bar. "But then again, we did put a price out on that second guy's head, so really, how secret can it be...? Oh hell. Just don't tell them I told you, okay?"

Gaara nods like a sort of promise. If 'they' don't know where Lee is, he won't be talking to 'them' anyway.

The man puffs out his cheeks, takes one last glance around and leans forward to talk to Gaara in a low voice. His breath smells like soured alcohol.

"We had defectors. Two of them. One of them killed your friend."

"Did you see the body?"

The man stares at him. "You sure this guy was your friend?"

"Yes."

"You don't sound very upset about what I just said."

Gaara upholds the stare. His emotions, twisted and abnormal and utterly focused at present, are really not the subject of this conversation.

"Well...whatever. The guy that did for your friend, he was a deserter, like I said. I was taking messages to the members of the primary strike force. I found Ma-...can't tell you his name either, but I found him dressing in a weird outfit, all in green, with a Konoha symbol on a belt in his hand. What the hell? I ask him. Shut up, he tells me. Then I look down and I see the body of your friend."

"Down?"

"We were in a tree. The skirmish went down in that jungle in the contended lands. Your friend had been tossed to the ground. Konoha nin? I ask. Yes, he says, I found him, cornered him and killed him."

"No."

The man's mouth stays open around the next part of his interrupted story. "No?" he finally says. "What do you mean, no?"

Gaara thinks his meaning should be clear enough. It must be, because after a minute of staring at each other, eyes locked over the table, the glass and the bottle, the gofer looks away and says: "You think your friend couldn't be taken down that easily? Look, you don't know Ma- um, that guy. The defector. He was a real piece of work. Not very strong, but the best Genjutsu user in Stone. He could cast an illusion that could bamboozle anybody, then he'd slit his victim's throat while the poor sucker's busy staring at his own worst nightmare."

The man takes another swallow from his glass and grimaces.

"He was a really good infiltrator, I have to give him that. Could cast a henge nobody could detect, unless they were the best of the best in that field; and he'd think of everything- like taking the victim's clothes to cover his scent. He wasn't all that strong physically though, compared to some of the other guys in Avalanche. Wasn't as strong as our leader, or he'd have challenged him ages ago. You see, he wasn't happy with the way we were being led. No, not at all. He tried to round up the others for support; he kept saying our leader was going to get us all killed. Turned out he was right on that point, but he's still a dirty traitor, him and his friend. It's an honor to be in Avalanche. We're the pebble down the slope. We're the strength of the Earth. You leave Avalanche feet first, yes sir, there is no leaving it any other way, except if you do fifty missions and nobody alive has ever done that." The man looks suddenly a bit alarmed and stares about him as if making sure he's still here and not in Hell.

Gaara cannot focus on the long-term prospects of a group of Stone Shinobi. "Did you see Lee's body?"

"Yeah, I told you. I looked down and there he was. Stripped down to his underwear, poor bugger."

"How did he die?"

"Had his throat slit."

"You saw this?"

The gofer scratches the back of his head. "Saw it? Well, I was rather high up in the tree...but there was blood. The defector told me he'd killed the Leaf Shinobi, and guys like him don't miss. If he doesn't kill the target whose identity he's taken, he's signing his own death warrant sooner or later. I didn't doubt your buddy was dead. What I did doubt was that my so-called colleague was planning to penetrate the Konoha lines under my leader's orders. We were supposed to be in a holding pattern. When he sends me off to scout, I go to our Leader instead. Is this guy really supposed to infiltrate Leaf ranks? I ask. Hell no, Leader answers, what the fuck is he playing at? The two of us run after our lil' traitor, and stumble across the body of one of our other scouts. Brain fried out by Genjutsu. And there's a green dash running up ahead, making straight towards Konoha lines. He must have been waiting for his chance to finally bolt, maybe try n' join another village. He thought we wouldn't risk a confrontation with Konoha to get him. He should have thought it out a bit more. Leader's not a patient man, and certainly not a forgiving one."

The Stone nin gestures, drops flying from his empty glass as he relives his memories. "I wasn't there to see him die. Wish I had been. But Leader ordered me back right away to do a head count. The traitor had been trying to bring the others around for support. I was sent to check if anybody else had decided to use the confusion of our unexpected meeting with Konoha for a lil' vamoose. We didn't think that traitor would have the balls to try that trick alone, and sure enough, one of our defector's buddies was gone too. That put us on the spot: down four people- two traitors, the scout they killed, and another guy the Konoha leader torched as they fell back towards the settlement. We were left too short on troops, 'specially primaries, so our leader decided to fall back too, and chase after our second traitor. But he was too fast, he got away. For a short while. We didn't even have time to add his face to our bingo book; he got caught by a patrol in Lightning country a few weeks later, thrown in the slammer and died there a short while back. Hopefully under torture, bloody bastard. And that's it."

"So you didn't actually see Lee's body up close?"

"Shit, you're stubborn. No, I did not, but I saw enough and I know he's dead. Okay?"

"This place where he died, can you find it again?"

"I guess."

"Lead me there."

The man shoves his chair back and lets his arms dangle from the rests as he boggles. "Just like that?! Look, I've got some free time while they make another squad back home, but this is the first break I've had in over a year. Besides, I can't hare off into the horizon just because some kid asks me to, I have to answer to my superiors, they might have a B-rank job for me. Maybe if you pay me, make it a mission-"

Gaara looks through his pockets. He has a bit of money in one, for food when his body and chakra levels remind him to eat. But when he scrounges for more, he finds a long thin purse hidden inside the lining of his ragged coat. It has gold in it. Gaara looks at it, trying to remember why he has it. The reason is too far in the past and unimportant. He plunks it down; money spills out, thin golden oblongs with the symbol for Wind country embossed on them.

"Is that enough for you to take me there?"

"And to Hell afterwards," the Stone nin says weakly. "Um...that's a bit overpaid...maybe...maybe just half of it...?" His fingers are twitching.

Gaara takes out half, leaves it on the table and puts the purse back in his coat.

The man seems hypnotized by the small strips of metal. "You're just giving it to me like that? Now?"

"You want money."

"...Right. I'll write you out a receipt. This friend of yours...he must mean a lot to you."

"Yes, that's not changed. I can't find him, or the part I'm missing."

The man tears his gaze away from the cash to give him an odd look. "...Okay. Let me get a message off to my bosses. They might say no, but I think they won't care as long as they get their sixty percent. Wait here."

Gaara waits. He's been waiting for as long as he can remember.

*
It's been thirty-two days since Lee has gone missing. Gaara is still looking for him. He's following a new path now. Deep in his mind, Gaara knows this trail will either end with Lee or at the edge of the massive hole Lee has left in the world. If the latter, then the outcome won't be that much different; Gaara will only have to take one more step, and when he stops falling, he will still have found Lee, one way or another.

The Stone-nin stops and drops his pack on a tree limb with a grunt. "Here's the place."

Gaara turns an unblinking stare on him. Sober, the gofer is a lot less talkative and open, but he's taken Gaara across country, around the settlement Konoha was defending and into the jungle.

"It is!" The man makes an aggrieved gesture and mops his brow. He's been complaining about the heat and humidity for the past twenty-four hours. Gaara has noticed neither. "I swear it. You paid me; I'm honor-bound to bring you to the right place. We used this spot right here for a base. The defector's post was less than fifty yards from here in that direction. I told you days ago I can't narrow it down more than a square mile. And you can see why we weren't going to go looking for the body, even if he'd been one of our own."

The jungle is indeed impenetrable, forcing the two travelers to stick to the treetops. The trees are a tangle of leaves, branches and vines sprouting from underbrush as thick and cloying as quicksand.

Gaara looks around. The place the man indicated, where his unit was camped, is one of the rare bits of visible ground; a rocky hillock breaking through the jungle in a jumble of stones and mulch, a good strategic spot. Gaara heads that way. The gofer follows him, grumbling a bit about something or other.

Gaara gets there in two short bounds. The hill is not very high, barely level with the canopy. He puts down the bundle of cloth that hides the gourd, sits down, crosses his arms and stares at the ground and the forest around him. For three days.

The man occasionally tries to talk to him.

"Oy, kid. You okay? Look, we should be getting back."

Gaara never answers him, but the gofer still talks every few hours.

"You know, I had a brother, an older brother. Lost in a mountain climb during his Chuunin exam. I'd go stare at that mountain sometimes. Never found his body, but it was a bit like visiting his grave anyway. Can you hear anything? Birds aren't singing...I can swear I hear something though...like a scratching noise. Sounds like termites. You think they have termites here? Fuck, kid, say something."

Once a day, Gaara goes down to the murky trickle of a creek they've found, to drink, wash and use what they've summarily dubbed the latrines. It's the only time he moves.

"Damn mosquitoes...I could just leave. You paid me to bring you here and now you're brought. I could just leave; you know that, right? Say something...Then again, your friends might be as persistent in finding you as you are. Which means next thing I know I'll be bringing them out here to find your body, and this time they might actually blame me. Look, just eat something, will you?"

Gaara eats so the talking will stop and because something in his stomach feels distantly like it hurts.

"Look, you had your moment of- of mourning or whatever this is. I'm thinking this guy was a lot more to you than a friend, right, but he wouldn't be happy with you if you just let yourself die out here, he wouldn't like that at all...Damn it, it's so quiet, that's just not right. I hate this fucking jungle. I don't like you that much either right now. I know you paid me, but hell, you're really pushing it, kid. You're what? Seventeen? Eighteen? Listen to a guy who's lived a lot longer than you have, and let's get the hell out of here."

Gaara thinks about killing this man who talks. He's not supposed to kill randomly any more, though he can't remember the reason why at this point. But he just doesn't have the chakra. He's considerably more exhausted than he anticipated. He feels thin, stretched. He's nearing the end, he can feel it. Finally.

Now.

For the last thirty minutes, the man has been breaking camp with a lot of noise. He hoists his pack onto his shoulders and stops near Gaara. "I'm leaving, kid, and you're coming with me. Now."

Gaara stands.

"Yes, that's it. Finally, you show some sense. Come on, let's stay in that settlement tonight and get some real food and a bath, and you're gonna sleep before you up and die on me; I don't know how you're still standing, I haven't seen you get any shut-eye in over five days. Then tomorrow we- what- chakra- holy Mother! F-/fuck/!"

The earth shakes, screams and tears as Gaara raises his hands. A square mile of jungle rises ponderously into the air, a plateau of sand lifting up between the trees, skinning them of bark and leaves, carrying up anything on the jungle's floor. It hovers a few feet above the bared canopy; leaves and tiny objects are blown away by the wind caused by the tremors. Below the floating isle of sand, trees screech in wooden agony, twist and sink like drowning souls into the ground hollowed of all rocks and minerals. There is a rustle nearby, lost in the chaos, as the Sand creeps back into the gourd and the pile of sailcloth.

Gaara picks up his weapon and steps forward, onto a ramp that leads up to the sand. Muttering curses and half-shaped prayer, the gofer eventually follows him.

It takes an hour, because there's still a lot of the uprooted underbrush to go through. The air is thick with the stink of sap, mulch and rot, baking beneath the open sky. Huge waves of sand ripple across the plateau, clearing it out as Gaara methodically searches. Finally, as the sun reaches its zenith and the heat gears up to kill, he finds the body.

There's not much left. Wild animals and insects have done their work. But the hair is a messy light brown, longer than it should be, and the skin, stretched thin and brown as parchment across the forehead, bears no eyebrows of note.

Gaara turns to the gofer. The man is staring at the corpse, doubt and bewilderment printed all over his face, as well as a healthy dose of disgust.

"Man, not much left. Uh...is this your friend...? That's weird, I could almost swear...but...oh, well, it's so damaged, I guess his own mom couldn't recognize him. You gonna bury him now, right? And then we can go. You did it, paint me impressed, now let's finish this and get out of here."

Sand crunches beneath his sandals as Gaara crouches next to the body and reaches for the head. He checks the hair, pokes at the skin like leather, drilled through by bugs who've built palaces behind the eye sockets. Behind Gaara, the gofer makes a gagging noise and turns away. Gaara feels the skull. His fingers quickly determine the reason for the odd shape of it, flattened on one side.

"It's been crushed. By a single blow."

"Oh really?" The Stone nin sounds uninterested.

Gaara's fingers find no signs of lacerations anywhere else on the torso, though there's not much soft tissue left to examine. "You said he had his throat cut."

"Damn, kid, you...you don't have a soul, do you. The worst is, I believe you when you say this is a friend of yours."

"This is not my friend. This is yours."

"....What?"

"This is the second man you thought had deserted."

There's a long silence. Gaara scrubs his hands with sand and glances up. The man is staring at the carcass and looks doubtful.

"Just how do you come to that brilliant conclusion?"

Gaara shakes a bead of sweat from his eyes. The drain on his powers is sending Shukaku into a frenzy inside, and weakening Gaara's control which has already become tenuous these past twenty days, but he can't let it go, he can't let any of it go. Lee is still missing, still out there somewhere. Gaara dredges up words and assembles them, to dress the picture that is so clear in his mind.

"Your traitor was trying to defect to Konoha. It would be unwise for him to kill Lee. He left him incapacitated, for later retrieval. But another one of your men found Lee and tried to finish him off. Lee managed to kill him, took his clothes and ran. He took his own legweights too; they're not here. Nobody but Lee would take those. You thought you were chasing the second traitor. You were chasing Lee."

Gaara's words hang in the utter stillness. All the living noises from the jungle for miles around are still hushed with shock. Gaara stares straight ahead at a tangle of ripped-up underbrush.

The man scratches his head, makes a few 'um' noises and even leans over the corpse for a better look. Finally, he speaks.

"But...but that makes no sense. If that was your buddy running away, why didn't he head for the Konoha lines? Why did he run all the way to Lightning country- that's nearly four days through this terrain or worse, so why? I-...I'm sorry, I just don't believe that's likely. Besides, even if it was, your friend is still dead. He died in captivity, I already told you that. If he'd told his captors he was from Konoha, they'd have released him, or at least contacted his village. Earth and Lightning have a feud, but they have no beef with Fire Country, they wouldn't have kept a Konoha nin in the slammer 'till he croaked. No. I...I think this is the body of your friend. Sorry, kid."

Gaara straightens up. He is going to have to let go of this jutsu real soon, or else transform into the first stage Sand Demon, and that would be unadvisable at present. He might never turn back. He strides off towards the edge of the floating plateau. The gofer follows hastily.

When his feet are back on the solid ground of the hillock, Gaara looks around. "This prison in Lightning country you talked about. Where is it?"

"Just past the frontier, in that large town near the southern delta- but look, our spies assured us the guy was from Stone and he's dead. It's in the prison reports. He's dead, do you hear me?"

"Lee's died twice already. Even if he died there too, he's still missing. He's waiting for me; I need to find him."

"....Oh boy. Maybe you should go home. Do you have family? Friends? People who can take care of you?"

That stops Gaara dead in his tracks, but only for a moment. "Too dangerous. I want to go back, but they can't take care of me when I'm missing so much. You can't take care of an absence."

"You've really gone off the deep end, haven't you...Um...that jutsu...it looked like- hey! Come back!"

Gaara has already leapt into the nearest tree; he does not turn around.

"Hey! I'm not letting you trot off on your own when you're not right in the head. I don't want Sunagakure coming after me to find out what happened to you, if you are who I think you are. Stop! I- what the fuck-"

And then there's a noise like the end of the world, as a square mile of sand crashes down thirty feet to the ground on the other side of the hill. But it's not the end of the world. An hour later, as Gaara heads eastwards, the birds are singing again, small animals scurry through the trees, life is all around him and the part of Gaara that's missing is at the end of the trail.

*
Getting over the border isn't hard. The large city on the estuary is militarized and pays for Cloud Shinobi patrols, but the inhabitants rely principally on town guards, and the latter give him no problems either. This however...Gaara leans against the roof's rail guard and stares across the plaza at the large, forbidding prison. It's...large. It has thick walls. Gaara's mind turns around it like a mouse around a trap. It won't be easy, but he has to get in there. He has to find Lee.

"Oh my god."

Gaara glances around. Temari is standing ten feet away, hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

"Gaara?" She sounds like she's not sure.

Gaara nods and turns back to his study of the prison.

Temari makes an anxious noise in her throat. She runs to the edge of the roof and waves furiously. "Up here! He's up here!"

Naruto's first words are, "Hey buddy- bloody hell, you look like shit!"

Kankuro, by contrast, says nothing when he climbs up onto the flat roof. Gaara can feel his brother studying his profile as the puppeteer joins him at the parapet. Kankuro leans an elbow against the rail guard, looks at the prison and says: "So that's where we go next, huh?"

On Gaara's other side, Temari spins around to glare at him. "Kankuro, do not encourage him!"

"You rather he run off on his own again? He's walked hundreds of miles to get here, you think he'll stop now?"

"But it's not- Gaara, listen to me." Temari takes him by the shoulders and gently turns him towards her. Her face is worn, dark marks beneath her eyes. Gaara studies them without comprehension and then tries to turn his head to look at the prison again, but Temari gently catches his chin and makes him face her.

He doesn't fully listen to all the talking that follows. Apparently, that Stone nin warned Suna he was coming here, and told them why. Temari is convinced the body they found is Lee's. Kankuro's sure as well, but says they need to let Gaara find out for himself. Naruto finally points out that 'letting' Gaara do anything has so far proved pretty pointless 'as he goes and does it anyway'. That concludes whatever debate is washing around Gaara, who's just decided that the best way into the prison is to go in through the front door, and anyone who tries to stop him can be caught and squeezed with Sand until they tell him where Lee is.

It turns out that mayhem is unnecessary. Temari runs on ahead and does a lot of very quick explaining to the prison guards and the Cloud Shinobi on duty. She mentions titles and good relations and diplomacy, and they are taken into the jail under escort. They walk through long ill-lit corridors, heavily guarded. Most of the prison is underground, where the dank smell and humidity from the river is almost overpowering. Unkempt prisoners watch them pass from cells, yards or sometimes just cages. Naruto makes a sound in his throat, half sad, half angry, at the sight.

They end up in the office of someone who introduces himself at length. He's the prison warden, Gaara gathers.

"Where's Lee?" he asks, interrupting the man's overlong greetings.

The man stares at him. Temari comes forward and explains, in a patient voice, what Gaara wants to know.

The warden nods. "Oh, that one. I was the prison's first lieutenant at the time of his incarceration last month. The old warden retired a little over a week ago, and I was promoted to the post. I remember seeing your prisoner a couple of times."

"Good," says Temari, in a voice that indicates she is being very patient, and will continue to be so until she kills somebody. "Can you please tell us what you know of this man and what he looked like so we can all go home?"

"I didn't get much of a look at him; he wasn't in my section. He refused to give us his name, organization and rank, which isn't uncommon. In this case, though, he simply might not have been able to. He wasn't quite right in the head. I think he'd taken a bad blow during his capture, or possibly before."

"Did he say anything?" Kankuro asks.

"Not much. Maybe ten words all told. Ten comprehensible words, that is; he'd been injured in the throat, it made him hard to understand. But despite this, he sure talked a lot, repeating the same thing over and over again at the top of his voice. As I said, he wasn't right in the head. I was afraid one of the other prisoners might stick a shiv into him, but somehow it never happened. In fact, they kept trying to feed him and take care of him, as much as they could. He wasn't very old...He kept talking about how he had to get home, back to his duties, his village and his girlfriend."

Behind Gaara, Naruto sighs abruptly and mutters 'damn it'. Kankuro tells him he was an idiot to get his hopes up. Temari turns and gives Gaara a heavy look. Gaara looks back at her, waiting for her to continue and ask the important question, the only question. Temari seems to be able to communicate better than he can right now and get answers, but she's not asking the right question.

Temari breathes in slowly and turns back to the warden. "Girlfriend?"

"Yes, some girl he'd left behind. One day on watch, I went into his cell and told him to shut up already; he was never going back to Stone. He said he didn't want to go back there anyway, because they'd been chasing him. Said it just like that, like he was talking about the weather. The previous warden had looked into the matter, and told us the guy was a missing nin."

"You saw him up close, so what did he look like?"

The warden shrugs. "Not much when I saw him, miss. He'd been lost in the jungle for a long time before the patrol caught him; he'd been injured and his head was in pieces, he was in pretty poor shape. The warden - I mean, the previous warden tried to help him; transferred him to a better cell, despite regulations on keeping Shinobi locked up tight, but still, the prisoner faded fast. This isn't exactly a hospital."

Temari is silent for a moment; she's staring at a little calendar on the warden's desk, with 'For My Daddy' written in colored crayon across the top. "I see. What happened to the body?"

The warden looks away, fiddles with his moustache for a few seconds, and then joins his hands together in a professional way. "It's a bit delicate. Is there any reason you want to retrieve it?"

Temari stares at him. "What do you mean, 'delicate'? What did you do with it? How complicated a question is that?"

"Ah. Well, if you really must know, you'll have to ask the old warden. The remains weren't sent to our crematorium. I think he's been buried in a cemetery near the warden's home, out in the country around town."

There is consternation amongst those present. Kankuro says: "I don't know how you guys run things, but ain't that against procedure?"

"I'm afraid so. I can assure you it wouldn't happen under my watch," the new warden says primly. "But you see, that's why our old warden suddenly retired like that; he wasn't due for another few years, after his long and distinguished services, but...I believe it was all getting to him. And...I don't want to get my predecessor into trouble, but if there's any doubts about the book-keeping of this jail while I was first lieutenant-"

"We don't want trouble either. We don't care about your internal affairs." Temari's voice is a snap. "Just tell us what happened."

"What happened is that the old warden lost a son a few years back and has never been the same since. He was getting a bit too lenient towards the prisoners, especially the young ones- and around here, the young ones tend to be Shinobi, and highly dangerous. That couldn't go on. The old warden took a particular liking to this boy. I don't know why, the prisoner was a Stone nin and a traitor. Maybe because, what with the crack on the head, the boy had no clue as to where he was, and he was just...well, you had to be there, but he was oddly cheerful in a strange way. Even as he was dying. To tell you the truth, I think the old warden took him away and put him out of his misery. The boy was getting weaker, and even though he never sounded down at all, it was pretty pitiful to hear him near the end. You could barely make out what he was saying, just on and on about how he had to get home to his friends, his teacher and his girlfriend, his 'love' as he called her. Guera, her name was, or Gara or-...um...what?"

The silence that follows is lethal. Luckily, Lee is no longer in this place, he's elsewhere by now. Still missing.

*

The old man opens the door of the sprawling country home, takes one look at the people on his doorstep and says: "You'll be Gaara."

Before Gaara can answer, Naruto barges in front of him. "Oh damn, mister, please tell me he's here?! And okay?!"

"Did you kill him?" Temari asks at Gaara's shoulder, her voice smooth and clean. There is something dark in her eyes as she watches the old man's reaction.

The elderly ex-warden looks them over, makes sure there is nobody else around, then puts his hands on his hips and tilts his balding head at Temari. "No, young lady. No, I did not. I'm tired of killing, tired of locking people up, tired of it all. He was dying; a traitor nobody wanted. His family would be happy to hear he was dead, no doubt. I knew nobody would care if he disappeared. Except...I thought, if this 'Gaara' he keeps going on about is in love with the boy the way the boy is in love with him, then one day he'll show up on my doorstep."

Kankuro makes a sharp 'whoa' gesture with his hand. "Is this really Lee we're talking about?"

"Yes. Though it wasn't until last week I managed to get his name out of him. He's been nailed with some pretty nasty genjutsu, stabbed, lost enough blood to kill an ordinary man, suffered from weeks of exposure, and then the jail." The retired warden makes a 'follow me' gesture and takes them down a hallway to a brightly lit kitchen where a woman his age is shucking peas. She looks up when they come in, and there's something like pain in her eyes, and resignation.

"We spent a week nursing him back to health, and there were times we thought he wouldn't make it," the old warden says. His voice is firm, almost gruff, but he looks a little lost and he pats his wife on the shoulder absently. "Physically, he's better now, but the rest...we need a medi-nin to fix the mental damage, but we can't get one to come here and see to him; I'd end up in my own jail and the boy'd be executed. Now that he's in a friendly place and well fed and cared for, he's recovering a little. He eventually remembered his name, and we got more details from him, such as the fact this person he keeps raving about is a man, not a girl as we all supposed. But he can't remember his last name, or his family, his friends or his home in Iwa. He's also a bit fixated about getting to either Suna or Konoha; keeps changing his mind as to which he's heading for. I was trying to talk him into staying here; I don't think those places take on missing-nin, whereas he could join with our town's guard force, if he gets better and people forget-"

Gaara finally speaks. "Where is Lee?"

The man waves a wrinkled hand towards the open door leading to a porch and a garden. "Out back. I have to warn you, he wasn't all that lucid this morning; this isn't one of his good days. But I think he'll want to see you anyway. He's damn weak, but when the wife and I keep him indoors, he gets a bit excitable and tries to break out - and damn near succeeds, however beaten up he is. So we let him out during the day. He always says thank you, very polite, and wishes us well, and then he heads off into the forest to get to wherever he thinks he's going today. Except he ends up walking in circles and he doesn't get far, he's still too weak. My wife's old dog follows him around. She's a good girl; if something happened to him, she'd come get us. We usually find him a few hundred feet from our garden in the woods when evening falls, and bring him back and feed him."

The old man's voice is fading in the distance. Gaara strides through wheatgrass, past a vegetable patch, towards a rickety fence and an old gate leading out into the woods.

He walks. His eyes tell him there is no path, yet his feet tread one anyway. It's led him from Suna to Konoha and back, zigzagging over hundreds of miles, diving through a jungle...It's led him beyond murky prison halls, across country to a rambling old house, through a pleasant garden and woods, to this sunlit clearing. For the past few minutes, Lee's voice has been guiding him.

"You better eat if you're going to. I have to go soon, I'm late. Come on, eat this and then you should go home. You can't come with me, sorry. You're a great dog, but my love doesn't get along with animals very well."

Lee is sitting on a tree root, trying to entice an elderly dog into eating a piece of sandwich. The dog appears to be dozing and totally oblivious to his attempts. Lee is pale, haggard and emaciated; the limbs sticking out of the cotton shirt and pants have lost some muscle, and there is something off in the way he looks at the dog, as if he's having a hard time concentrating. The mutt doesn't pay him any attention, but she sniffs the air and is suddenly wide awake, staring at Gaara on the other side of the clearing. Then she whimpers and runs off.

Lee looks up. He studies Gaara for a few seconds, and then gives him a cheerful grin that puts creases in his thin, weatherworn cheeks.

"Gaara." His voice is weak and torn; there's a thick bandage wrapped around his throat. "Finally, I made it. I knew that if I continued on towards home without stopping or looking left or right, I'd find you again."

Gaara feels something twisting and knotting in his gut. He's drawn inexorably over the last few feet of the path. He can hear footfalls follow his, but they sound as distant as surf on a faraway ocean.

Lee blinks up at him; he seems to have a little difficulty focusing, and his hand, still holding the sandwich out to the dog, is shaking. But the grin is still the same, always the same. "Did you miss me?"

Lee falls off the root as Gaara slams him against his chest, against the hole where the pain is rushing in. Gaara clutches what he was missing and screams and screams as the agony and relief pulse through him like a heartbeat.

*

Lee's big eyes fluttered open and he frowned at the ceiling.

"Huuuuh..." His look of confusion faded as he glanced around and his eyes fastened on Gaara. Gaara watched him intently. This was the second time Lee had awoken since the procedure, but he'd been nowhere near clear-headed previously.

Lee lifted his head in stages, as if this took an inordinate amount of effort, and his hand shook as he rubbed his eyes. He squinted at Gaara, who leaned back and drew the light curtain fully over the window, blocking out the worst of the bright morning sunshine.

"Gaara...? I kept walking and walking, but I couldn't get back home. I couldn't find you. It was like a nightmare."

He stared at Gaara, finally letting his head fall back on the pillow. His gaze was focused and lucid, Gaara judged.

"...Gaara? I'm...not dreaming now, am I?"

"Nope." Naruto stepped over the threshold, carrying two cups of coffee. He carelessly plunked one of them down on the medical instrument table near Gaara and grinned down at Lee. "Welcome back, Fuzzy-brow. Don't worry, you'll be fine, even if you don't feel like it right now. You've just been through a two-day operation, that's why you feel like shit. They fixed your head a little. And your throat. And the rest of you too while they were at it. Looked like you'd been chewed up by a large dog."

"Where am I?"

"Suna. We took you here direct from Lightning Country; Gaara insisted on getting home right away. Don't you remember the trip? You were awake. Sort of."

Lee looked at him, then at Gaara, visibly confused and worried. He studied the Kazekage's face with increasing concern. "I...I don't remember...I have flashes- but some of it cannot possibly have happened. Gaara...?"

Naruto shook his head and took a sip of coffee. "Gaara can't talk right now, buddy. But I'm sure he'll be okay. Eventually."

"...Can't talk...?"

Gaara wished he could remove the worry from Lee's eyes; his current inability to speak did not warrant it. He wasn't injured, and despite his physical condition - which his doctor described as 'strained' - he wasn't in danger of losing control of the demon inside. All his words seemed to have disappeared, drawn out by the repeated question - where is Lee? - and since the answer to that question was right there before his eyes, it was now moot. Nobody, not even his physician, suggested Gaara leave Lee's bedside, or do anything other than sit there and look at him. So Gaara had no more questions, no more words, no more need, for now.

Lee painfully hoisted himself onto his elbows and looked from Gaara to Naruto, who was making weird signs out of what he probably thought was Gaara's line of sight.

"Don't worry too much, Fuzzy-brow. He's just not...You see, Gaara was looking for you all this time. We all thought you were dead; none of us can figure out how he knew otherwise, but he just wouldn't quit. He got kinda...you can guess what he got like, but he'll be okay now. You just get better and talk to him and stuff."

The effort to move had cost Lee too much energy; his eyes were unfocused again as he squinted at Naruto. "...Talk...? What should I say?"

Gaara almost smiled, though he didn't because of the way the facial muscles involved felt rusty, almost paralyzed. Time had started to move around him normally again, giving him back a past beyond Lee's disappearance, a future beyond his recovery and every splintered moment in between. Gaara had asked that same question well over a month ago, he remembered now.

"Say? Geez, man, I dunno, you figure it out; he's your guy. I'm gonna go tell the others you have your marbles back."

Lee slumped back on the bed. He stared at the ceiling thoughtfully for a few seconds, then he turned towards Gaara again and smiled in a way that helped a lot. "I'm sorry I worried you so much. I'm still a bit tired; I need to rest some more. Gaara...please watch over me while I sleep?"

Gaara nodded and held his hand while Lee's eyes closed again.



End



I swear, this is the last time I write in the present tense. But as I said, I wanted to play around with the style, and it was really fun. I love driving my characters crazy ^_^ Please drop me a line on how it reads, and if there were bits that you didn't understand, and I might fine-tune it. I've been working on this for nearly two weeks and I've gotten to the point I can't work on it any more without a remove.
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