The infamous initial author's note: I'm diverging from canon somewhere in the middle of manga #256, after the time jump. The standard disclaimer applies: I make no money from this; Naruto and associated characters are not mine, but Kishimoto's.
"I think we've lost them."
The hushed feminine voice brushed past his left ear as his arm was unhooked from around slim shoulders. Strong hands carefully lowered him to his knees before the speaker crouched in front of him. "Kazekage-sama?"
There was a faint sound of water nearby, an indistinct breeze. He blinked at the stone he was resting on, trying to force his head to stop pounding and his mind to cooperate, to make sense of what was going on.
And the person talking wouldn't go away.
He shook his head, looking up to meet her worried expression as she spoke again. "Gaara, it's me, Sakura. You remember me, right?"
Vaguely. Enough. He'd think about it later.
A hand patted his cheeks, and he batted at it sluggishly. "You're awake now, right? Gaara?"
He'd been . . . Oh, no. That meant the vague recollections of black and red nightmares interspersed with memories of agony so intense that the nightmares were preferable . . . That meant that they were all real. And if they were real . . .
The girl—Sakura—was checking his pulse, craning her neck to peer into his eyes, then trying to shove an opened water bottle into his hands. "Here, you need this—"
He pushed it down. "How long?" At least he tried to say it. The sudden pain in his throat stopped him from producing more than a faint wheeze and was his only indication of how much he'd screamed.
"Shh. Let me take care of that first." Her hand slipped under the one he'd raised in surprise at the unfamiliar and decidedly unpleasant physical sensation. Fingertips hovered beside his windpipe, her unfocused gaze and a soft warmth marking her attempt to repair the damage he'd done.
Whatever happened must have taken a while, and it had to have been bad. Otherwise his mouth wouldn't feel as dry as it did, and his lips wouldn't crack and bleed when he tried to run his tongue over them. They cracked further when he scowled. He could still count the number of times he'd been injured on one hand, and had never been wounded before to the point where he required a medic's attention.
So much for his record.
"Stop that," Sakura admonished gently, as if she were talking to a child. She pulled back, folding her hands in her lap. "I've done what I can. Try not to talk too much or strain yourself until it has a chance to fully heal. You need water, though. You're extremely dehydrated—"
"How long?" The words came out this time, albeit hoarsely.
She looked down. "Five days."
Five days. Close to a week of being unconscious, having that tanuki bastard inside him tearing away at his psyche and with him not even having the faintest idea of how much of his self had been lost . . . Wait—where was Shukaku?
A swift mental probe found the demon cowering in the corners of his mind, severely weakened but still snarling. Gaara wasn't sure if he felt relieved or disappointed by its continued residency in his body. At least its chakra would help him recover faster, he decided, as he accepted Sakura's proffered bottle and tipped it up to his lips. The water inside was lukewarm, flat, tasted vaguely musty, and was the single best thing he was sure he'd ever encountered in his entire life. What he'd intended to be a single sip turned into a gulp, then a series of gulps, then into him trying desperately to finish it all off before his stomach cramped and he dropped the bottle, clutching his abdomen and fighting to not vomit.
Sakura wisely shifted out of the way, hands forming a seal as she moved. He wasn't sure what she'd done, but her next touch calmed the spasms and allowed him to take a deep, shuddering breath. And damn it, that was pity on her face.
And when had she become adept?
And for Sand's sake, what was that smell?
A second bottle was put in his hands, with a murmured explanation: "I figured you'd need all the water you could get." This time he made an effort to drink slowly, letting the liquid soothe his split lips and sore throat as he watched Sakura out of the corner of his eye. After he stopped, having greedily shaken the last drops into his mouth, she spoke again. "If you want to get cleaned up, there's a stream . . ."
Well, that explained the smell. The Akatsuki'd had no reason to give him a bath in the time they'd been his captors, apparently. He staggered to his feet, feeling somewhat more clear-headed and glad that the stream was only a short distance away. Ten paces. He could make that. Still at his side and ignoring the reek of his unwashed body, Sakura slipped his arm over her shoulders and supported him to the water's edge.
And aside from her, no one else was anywhere nearby. This also couldn't be good.
She looked down again as she let his arm go, forehead wrinkling. "We think they were trying to steal your demon. Naruto and Kakashi-sensei and Chiyo-baasama—"
Her? The Elders were outside of Sand?
"—caused enough of a distraction for us to steal you back. Then . . . then everyone was fighting and Naruto told me to take you and run."
Naruto . . .
He braced himself, feet planted wide in an attempt to keep his less than trustworthy balance. "Where are they?"
"I don't know." She covered the quivering of her chin and twist of her lips by examining the long, slowly seeping gash across the back of her right shoulder.
Naruto had come to try and save him. And now Naruto was missing, and the Akatsuki were hunting them all.
No, this wasn't good in the least bit.
Because he couldn't immediately do anything to remedy that situation, he decided to follow her example and take care of a smaller, more manageable one. The leather brace for holding his sand wouldn't take well to water. His fingers didn't want to work properly on the buckles, but he persisted. The accouterment hit the ground, followed by the shuriken holder strapped to his thigh and a trio of remaining kunai. Last to go were his sandals.
"Do you need help? It's probably slippery . . ."
"No." People too sick, weak, or young to take care of themselves had others bathe them. He was none of those. Otherwise fully clothed, he waded into the stream, bare feet careful on smooth ledges of stone. It only took a few steps for the water to reach his hips. Deciding that the depth was sufficient and conspicuously ignoring the cautiously watching kunoichi, he took a deep breath and immersed himself.
The stream's water tasted different, mineral-laden and sweet. He drank enough to make his shrunken stomach protest yet again, then scrubbed at his hair for a few seconds before deciding that it would be that much better to just rest, just appreciate the faint gurgling sound and coolness washing over him. It really was too bad that he couldn't just absorb the stuff through his skin, he thought, that it had to go through his digestive system before it was of any use to him.
A muscle in his arm cramped, but he ignored it, stubbornly refusing to move until the need for oxygen finally drove him to the surface. Snorting and wiping his eyes, he looked up to find Sakura balanced on the water's surface beside him, hand poised in such a way that she'd obviously meant to go in after him had he not come up at that instant.
"Could you . . ." She colored faintly and glanced away, then back. "Could you do me a favor? I can't hold my wound together and heal it at the same time."
He blinked at her, confused, then nodded and followed her to the shallows. The gash on her shoulder was longer than his hand and gaped every time her arm moved.
"You got this while running," he stated.
And if the angle and depth of the cut were any indications, she'd gotten it while turning to prevent him from taking the blow. He frowned slightly, pushing the torn fabric of her shirt out of the way and pressing the edges of the wound together firmly enough that she flinched. After a few seconds the healing was done, leaving him free to sink back into the relative buoyancy of the water.
He knew she had another request by the way she turned, her blush three shades darker, teeth worrying at her lower lip. "I . . . I have to bandage it, so it doesn't split open again when we get going. And I . . ."
Even her ears were turning red. He wasn't sure whether to be intrigued or annoyed.
"Could you . . . not look, when I do it?"
Not look at . . . Oh. She'd have to take her shirt off to do it, and . . . Her face fell even further at the flat stare he gave her before turning his back. What kind of ninja did they train in Leaf, anyway? There wasn't room for some display of modesty in their situation! If anything, he should bandage her while she kept a lookout since she was currently the best equipped to deal with threats, and then they should get moving.
And the complete lack of sound said that she was still watching him.
It wasn't even like her chest was the least bit impressive, anyway!
Well, he told himself, at least he didn't have to be vulnerable for long. It wouldn't be the same as if he had his gourd, but he could still form an adequate defense with sand pulled up from between the stones of the streambed, from the ground around him. It wouldn't be much effort at all; a thought would be enough.
The thought was enough.
And everything happened at once.
Shukaku bolted up from the fringes of his consciousness, shrieking, scrabbling for control, while the sand Gaara had previously only been vaguely aware of exploded into the space around him, shattering and pulverizing the stone under his feet, clinging to his arms and legs in the tanuki's drive to build itself a body. Free, came the howl; and for one terrible second he was sure that the monster was right, that the struggle to control both it and the wild flow of chakra through his starved and weakened body was too much, as he drowned out Sakura's sharp cry of fear from somewhere behind him by undoing all of her careful work with his full-throated scream.
He wasn't sure how long it went on, just that it ended with Shukaku's exhausted retreat. And then there were arms hooking under his as he started to slump, another's strength dragging him out of the water, her thighs under the backs of his shoulders as vivid green eyes stared anxiously down into his. Sakura gulped, panting almost as hard as he was. "Gaara . . . You . . ." The fear in her expression shifted into something between shock and amazed horror. "What did they do to you?"
He turned his head, coughed hoarsely, spat blood.
Receiving no answer, she glanced around. "That chakra blast . . . If someone was anywhere nearby, they'd have felt it. We've got to . . ." Then she was moving, grabbing the emptied water bottles and refilling them as he forced himself upright, then ducking under his arm to lift him to his feet. The force of her chakra-boosted initial leap nearly dislocated his shoulder.
"Not good" had never seemed like so much of an understatement.