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Diplomatic Relations

Chapter Text

“Who did you say you were?” the Sunagakure guard asked a bit weakly.

Lee straightened up, shifted his bag on his shoulder and saluted (again).

“Rock Lee, the Splendid Blue Beast of Konoha! Reporting to Hidden Sand as Leaf’s official military liaison!”

The guard stared at him for a few seconds, the light of his torch chasing away the night around Lee to reveal him, all tired and sweaty that he was. Then the Chuunin guard's gaze dropped to Lee’s legwarmers once more; they seemed to intrigue him in particular.

“Seriously?” he asked. Behind him, the other Chuunin guarding the Kazekage’s HQ shuffled and muttered amongst themselves, hands on their weapons, though they didn’t seem to really think Lee could be the spearhead of an invading force.

“Seriously what?” echoed Lee, puzzled.

“...Nothing, I guess. I need to go ask about this- oh, Captain? Good thing you’re here. This...guy just showed up and-“

“Yes, I know all about it,” the Sand Jounin said, heading towards them with a crisp businesslike stride.

“You do?” the guard asked, bemused, before trying to look serious and professional once more.

The captain gave all the men on duty a heavy ‘watch your step’ glare, then turned to Lee with a salute.

“Welcome to Sand. I apologize for not meeting you at the gates in person, sir, but we weren’t expecting you until tomorrow evening.”

Lee grinned proudly. He’d made it to Sand in little over two days instead of the usual three. Which was good; it meant he didn't have to find out how long it would take to run two hundred laps around Sunagakure on the very first day of his arrival.

“This is the administration building,” the captain added, hooking a thumb at the doors behind his shoulder. “This is not where you'll live. I’ll show you to your assigned residence, it’s not far from here-“

“Oh, I’ve been there already, I had the address. But there was only the security guard there, and he said he couldn’t let me in for some reason.”

“That would be because it’s three o’clock in the morning,” the captain said with a touch of steely patience. “But that's okay, I’ll go with you and talk to security- or maybe a hotel-“

“No need! Hokage-sama told me you would have an office for me here in the administration building, so I thought I’d get ready for tomorrow's morning.”

The captain looked at Lee dubiously. "Don’t you want some rest?”

Lee could probably do with a nap, but he was too keyed up at the thought of starting his new post in the morning.

“No need!” he exclaimed, fist in the air, “I am strong and determined. Two days running at full speed without sleep and with little food will not defeat someone who truly believes in himself. Please, show me to the office so I can begin right away!"

The guard was staring at him with eyes that were almost as round as Lee’s, but the captain was made of sterner stuff. He merely bowed and motioned to Lee to follow.

 

---

 

"The Kazekage's office is down that hallway and to the right," the captain explained with a wave of his hand, "I'll see to it that you have an appointment with him tomorrow for an official welcome. And this is your office."

“Are you sure?” Lee asked weakly as he poked his head through the door the Jounin had opened for him. The room he'd been led to was bigger than his apartment back in Konoha.

“Yes, Rock-sama.”

Lee almost glanced around to see who the captain was talking to.

“No no, just Lee!” he yelped.

The captain looked at him steadily, and then nodded. He was in his forties, old for a ninja still on active duty, and he looked like he’d seen it all already. “Very well, Lee-san. If there’s anything you need, please talk to the guards downstairs.”

One of those guards, the man who'd originally stopped Lee, had followed them up the stairs and into the wing of offices, staring at the guest he was escorting with something like fascination. When the captain glanced at him over his shoulder, the guard nodded hastily in assent.

“I’ll be fine,” Lee said, which he would be as long as he brought a map and compass to navigate his office. What was he supposed to be doing with all this space? Maybe he could set up a small gym in one corner...

“We have direct orders from Kazekage-sama that you are to be given free access to the entire building,” the captain added, with a significant glance at the curious guard behind him to make sure the latter got the message. “Though we ask that you respect any locks and Restricted Access signs on the doors, in the interest of security and the good entente between our villages.”

The captain saluted and left while Lee was still spluttering some 'I would nevers' regarding that last statement. The guard trailed after his officer with one last sceptical glance at Lee. Lee could hear them talk in the hall through the open door.

“Captain, are you sure that’s the ambassador from Leaf?”

“Yes. Kankuro-san gave me a full – and very accurate – description.”

“...Are they trying to start a war?”

“Shut up and learn to live with it if you don’t want a trip to the Kazekage’s office.”

"Yessir."

Lee closed the door with a sigh. Such heavy responsibility to rest upon his eighteen-year-old shoulders, and without Gai-sensei's endless wisdom to rely upon. Gai-sensei had said to write to him often, and particularly if Lee had any problems or questions. Lee was tempted to write a letter right away. He was worried he wouldn't be very good at this. He wondered if he'd made a good first impression with the guards. And how about tomorrow when he met the Kazekage and the council?

He'd started to trek across to the desk and the blank scrolls and pens there, his feet brushing static from the carpet in the dry desert air, when he caught himself.

No. Gai-sensei had told him to write, true. But he'd also told Lee to do his very best, and to become a man and a warrior Gai would be proud of. Such a one did not run to his teacher at the slightest doubt. He remembered Gai's proud look and masculine tears when he'd crushed Lee in one last bear hug two days ago, saying how glad he was that Lee had been chosen for this honour. Then he'd punched Lee - not even that hard - because his pupil was wasting time and would be late to take up his duties if he let his youth and splendid success go to his head any further.

Lee straightened up and clenched a fist in resolve. He was going to do his best! Gai-sensei would be proud of him! Resolve, determination, hard work! Those were the keys!

Boosted, Lee dropped his bag on the desk and trekked back towards the door. There should be a bathroom nearby. He wanted to go and freshen up, comb his hair, brush his teeth and all that, before he started his duties. Maybe eat some of the special Power Dumplings Gai-sensei had made and packed specially for him. Those were wonderful; you ate one, and you weren't hungry for the rest of the day! Well, maybe you were a bit hungry, but the way your stomach was cramping, you didn't actually feel like eating.

Lee opened the door with his usual energy and stepped firmly into the hallway, and came to an abrupt halt. He'd felt a sudden flare of chakra behind him, though there'd been no sound or sense of presence until that moment. He spun around, alarmed.

“Gaara?” he gasped.

Gaara was standing in the hallway, a plate in one hand, an apple and a bottle of water held a bit awkwardly in the other, staring at Lee. He was wearing simple linen pants and shirt, and his hair was still that ruffled red mop Lee remembered, worn slightly longer than when he'd been younger.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Lee exclaimed. “Except you’ve grown. And you’re broader around the chest and arms.” Not all that much for a Shinobi, but he was less weedy than when they’d been kids. Gaara was a couple of inches shorter than Lee, which made him a respectable height as Lee had really shot up lately. The Sand-nin was still carrying his gourd around, but it didn’t look so oversized on him now.

“Oh, here, let me get that,” Lee added, instinctively making a grab for the plate which had tilted as Gaara stepped back from Lee’s energetic appearance into the hall. He had to tug slightly before he could get the dish of sandwiches from Gaara's fingers; this would leave the Sand-nin's hands free to carry the apple and bottle. “It’s been what, two years since we’ve seen each other? Back when Akatsuki tried to extract Shukaku from you. And then three years before that, and I haven’t forgotten that you saved my life on that occasion. I’ll never forget that! Rock Lee always repays his debts!”

A thick silence settled in the hallway.

Gaara's face had lost some of the roundness of his childhood, but it was still dominated by those dark-ringed eyes, and the green of his pupils that could drill holes into your soul. Those eyes were now scrutinizing Lee and the dramatic thumb that Lee had stuck out to illustrate his last point.

In the abrupt quiet and growing realization, Lee could almost hear Tsunade’s lecture.

“Look, Lee, I don’t know what the hell got into Gaara of the Sand, but he’s decided he wants you and no other for this new military attaché post we’re setting up. You’ll be expected to help defend Sand in the case of an attack and participate in shared missions between our countries, but this is also a diplomatic role, so please try to behave norm- with proper decorum. At least you know what Gaara’s like already. I have a list of recommendations I give to all diplomatic staff sent to Sand, based on Gaara’s profile and the way his own people behave around him:

"Do not get too close to him, do not speak too loudly in his presence; do not argue with him; save any official objections for his council or his staff. Do not mention Shukaku, he might lash out; the subject appears to be taboo in Sunagakure. Do not, under any circumstances, touch him, surprise him or startle him, and above all, make sure you show proper respect and call him Kazekage-sama at all times. Think you can manage that?”

The silence stretched.

Gaara still hadn’t said anything. He was looking Lee up and down slowly, his eyes lingering briefly on the plate of captured sandwiches in Lee’s hand. Lee didn’t say anything either; back straight, free fist clenched, he was trying to figure out what he should apologize for first.

"You've arrived early I see."

Lee noted that Gaara's voice had changed very little too; the timbre was deeper, but it was still that same calm, cold, unhurried tone that seemed perfectly tailored for death threats.

"Erm, Kaz-"

"I chose well," Gaara said, walking past Lee and continuing down the hall. "I didn't want another sycophant. You'll do in that respect."

Lee gaped at the Kazekage's back.

"Keep the sandwiches," Gaara added without glancing back. He was already at the end of the hallway. "Running full speed all the way, you'll need to replenish your energy."

"Oh, but I can't- this is your-" Lee's stomach interrupted him with a sudden growl that seemed to echo through the empty offices.

Gaara didn't turn around; he was halfway around the corner. There was a mirror at the end of the hall. In it, Lee caught a flash of Gaara's face an instant before he disappeared. His expression was unreadable, ringed eyes unblinking and hard, firm lips twitched down at the corners as usual.

But - it might have been the sudden hunger, or the dawning exhaustion making him see things - but Lee could have sworn that somewhere in Gaara's stance or eyes or demeanour - somewhere - there lurked the tiniest of dry smiles.

It was probably the fatigue.

Chapter Text

The padded practice post shuddered under Lee's repeated blows. The rhythm was soothing, while the violent physical exercise dusted out the cobwebs he'd felt gathering between his ears.

In Lee's opinion, being the 'Military Envoy' to Sand should involve a lot of fighting and dangerous missions. But in the week since his arrival, his fiercest opponent had been boredom.

Lee had been taught to always respect his elders, but the way the council members rabbited on made Lee want to shoot out of his chair, yell at the top of his lungs and then jump out the nearest window. Since that wouldn't be very Diplomatic, he'd put all his effort and concentration into looking attentive and not yawning ('for each yawn, I'll do five hundred one-armed pressups-'). Despite his efforts, he'd actually nodded off this morning. When he'd come to with a start, the same venerable relic was still going on about border patrol areas between Wind and Fire countries. Nobody appeared to have noticed Lee’s indiscretion.

Except perhaps for Gaara. It was hard to say. Lee sometimes had the strangest feeling the Kazekage was watching him during the council meetings Lee was invited to; yet, when he looked at Gaara, the dark-ringed eyes were always fixed on somebody else.

Four-hundred-and-ninety-nine...five hundred! Lee stopped hitting the wooden post and wiped the sweat from his eyes. The heat was crushing, especially to someone used to training in Leaf's forests. Just one more thing to get used to in this foreign village. Everything was different here: the food, the flat, mineral well water, the way people stared at him and his legwarmers...The inhabitants of Sunagakure were a serious, closed-mouth bunch, and they had many customs, unspoken traditions and strict taboos that Lee was constantly tripping over. It wasn't easy to make friends with them.

Lee would have been terribly homesick if he'd let himself, but he wasn't the type to mope. He'd work at it until he was accepted! Temari and Kankuro were fairly friendly when they weren't off on business on Gaara's behalf. And Gaara...well, Lee wasn't sure where he stood with Gaara, but the Kazekage didn't seem to mind having Lee around. It was a start.

Lee bent his legs into a few deep stretches and breathed evenly. The sand was glowing under the sun, nearly blinding. He was alone in the huge training grounds. Most Sand nins only practiced here in the early morning or at night, but Lee was trying to get used to the smouldering daytime heat the only way he knew how; by meeting it full on, at two in the afternoon, and trying to beat it through sheer stubbornness. He'd had to switch his beloved form-fitting green suit for some lighter clothes, though he’d kept his weights and legwarmers on for sentimental reasons. After an hour's practice, he'd stripped down to the waist, and rivulets of sweat were running down his bare chest, soaking the bandages around his torso, arms and hands, but he kept at it.

"Right!" Lee shouted, straightening up. "Let's go!" He was missing Gai-sensei a lot, particularly in these moments, but Lee refused to let it get to him.

He concentrated for an instant and then burst into motion, the sand of the arena exploding up around him. He lunged at the first training post. It was a heavy oak pole sunk five feet into bedrock; it nonetheless shuddered with an awful crash when Lee spun and kicked it. It was still groaning when he leapt up and hammered the next post in the line with a downward kick, then spun and punched the third post with a fearsome double blow.

He grabbed the top of the quivering post, vaulted over it and hit the fourth with a double spin-kick. Somewhere underground, wood cracked.

Drop down, dodge an invisible enemy - faster! Back, spin and hammer the fifth pole. Jump high - higher! Spin and level a kick at the sixth post-

Wait- there was someone near the sixth- ohshit!

Lee's brain would have stopped, but his highly trained body had reacted to something unknown like it had been trained to; the kick scythed out with enough force to snap a man's spine in two.

It crashed into a wall of sand, sending grains flying everywhere.

Gaara?!

Lee leapt back, horrified.

The sand slowly started to seep down from its improvised wall protecting Gaara's upper body. The Kazekage was standing right next to the sixth post, arms crossed over his chest, staring.

Lee wondered how long Gaara had been here, hiding his presence, watching him. Then he wondered why Gaara was here, watching him. Then he wondered just how painful ritual suicide would turn out to be. In the long list of recommendations Tsunade had given him, 'Don't try to break the Kazekage's neck' hadn't actually featured, but only because Tsunade probably thought it sort of went without saying.

"Kaze-"

"That's not the best you can do," Gaara stated, and the faint hint of scorn to his monotone got Lee reacting before Tsunade's lecture on the Rules of Diplomacy stood much of a chance to object.

"Of course that wasn't! This is only practice! I normally train harder against Gai-sensei, but in this instance I didn't want to damage my host's training field."

Gaara slowly looked away, off to Lee's left. Lee glanced in the same direction in time to see one of the oaken poles list backwards in its stone moorings.

"...Ooops." Lee winced. Captain Sanada was going to be mad with him. Sanada was the Jounin who'd met Lee and showed him to his office that first day. The older man treated Lee with kind patience in regards to his status of foreigner; he'd shown him the training field when Lee had complained about lack of exercise. He was going to be ticked off that Lee had broken it after only a few sessions.

"Were you going to use them? I'm sorry I ruined your training," Lee said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking dolefully at the broken post. This just wasn't his day.

Gaara once more gave him that long, unreadable stare. Lee had the feeling his words intrigued Gaara, though he didn't see why. Here was Gaara on the one hand, a training field on the other, what was there to think about? Even the Kage of hidden villages had to train; they were not only leaders and administrators, they were also the strongest warriors.

Even Tsunade practiced with the highest-level Jounin occasionally, though it could have been a ploy on her part to escape the mountains of paperwork on her desk. In fact, the most exciting fights - at least in the opinion of almost every other male in the village - was when Shizune snapped, marched down to the practice field and went toe to toe with her boss on the condition that if she won, Tsunade had to get back to work. Shizune usually won these days; Tsunade couldn't unleash her full strength against a friend, and Shizune had learned to fight dirty these past few years. Everybody - every male - in the village stopped whatever it was they were doing to watch these matches. Lee had admired the techniques used, but he failed to understand the captivation.

Lee suddenly straightened up, struck by the best idea he'd had for a long time. "I know! We can spar together as compensation for my breaking one of the training stations."

Gaara's eyes widened a fraction.

"Spar...with me."

"Yes!" Lee resisted the urge to go grab Gaara and drag him into the arena section of the training field. "To tell you the truth, I've been hoping we'd get the chance to do this one day. I know you've gotten stronger since our match at the Chuunin exams. And I want to try out some of my new techniques against your Sand Barrier."

"You want to spar with me."

Gaara seemed to be having a problem with the concept.

"Yes. Er, am I not supposed to?" Lee reminded himself - for only the hundredth time since he’d arrived here - that Gaara was the Kazekage and had to be treated differently than Neji or Naruto or Lee's other friends who didn't mind having a tussle with him.

Gaara moved forward slowly away from the shadow of the training post. A flurry of sand hissed and circled him slowly, a faint warning like the distant rattle of a snake. It brushed against the trailing hem of Gaara's long black overcoat. He was wearing his usual outdoor outfit, ditching the Kazekage's robe for the protective coat and the pants strapped at thigh and knee.

Lee had noticed before - and found it a bit odd - that he was always hyper aware of what Gaara was wearing. It was probably because he was the Kazekage, the most important person of the village. Not that Lee noticed what Tsunade wore in quite the same way, but that was because he was always watching her with an anticipatory wince, especially if she was talking animatedly or walking fast. Lee was rather worried that the Hokage's skimpy outfit would slip up or down or any which way, giving Lee a view of something he didn't particularly want to see in a superior officer.

Gaara was only a few feet away, watching Lee like a hawk as if expecting something, some reaction. Lee looked at him, both puzzled and polite.

"Aren't you afraid?" Gaara finally asked.

"Afraid?"

"Of the Sand."

Lee glanced at the stuff lying all around the training grounds.

"Well, to be honest, I still have nightmares about that Desert Coffin blow. But this will be a practice bout, not a real fight. You won't be hitting me with that."

He glanced up and started back. Gaara had approached to within a few inches.

"What if I lose control?" Gaara asked softly.

"Lose control?" Lee was startled by the notion. "We haven't seen each other for awhile, but as one warrior to another, you don't strike me as someone who loses control nowadays."

Lee could well remember that old Gaara during the Chuunin exams, emerging from a shattered Sand Armour and laughing like a fiend before crushing Lee. But he also remembered Gaara sending his sand to defend Lee's life against Kimimaro even after Gaara had been hurled to the sidelines and could barely stand up yet. Despite appearances, in both cases Gaara had been in complete control; the killing attack against Lee and the sand that had defended him had both been perfectly intentional.

Lee had been observing Gaara this last week and had seen somebody who was under control to a fault. Maybe under a bit too much control, said a small part of Lee. He wasn’t really sure what to make of that thought, so he dismissed it.

"Injuries can happen during training," he said with a shrug. "They heal and make you stronger. So, do you want to try?"

Gaara scrutinized him for what seemed like a long time, and then he turned and walked away. Lee suppressed a disappointed sigh. Of course the Kazekage of the Sand wasn't about to trade blows with a Shinobi from Leaf, particularly one he'd already beaten before...

"Let's spar," Gaara said. He stopped near the wooden posts, unbuckled a few straps and lifted the leather harness over his head to lean the gourd against the broken pole. Lee was about to object, but then a stream of sand hopped out of the gourd and followed Gaara's slow march to the centre of the training field, curling about his ankles like a puppy eager to play. The whole central arena was made of sand; Gaara was hardly defenseless.

Lee, who couldn't believe his luck, took up a spot opposite Gaara. He was sure this was one more item on Tsunade's long list of don’t-dos, but hey, Gaara had said 'Yes'. Lee was going to have the opportunity to match up with Gaara again! He wasn’t about to pass this up!

“Since this is just a friendly match, I won’t use Renge or anything but normal Taijutsu either,” Lee announced, “but I’ve improved a lot too in the last few years. Even in those conditions, I’ll do my best to punch through that Sand Barrier of yours!" If he couldn't do it, he'd perform ten thousand strikes against the fourth oaken post; it was already broken anyway. “In fact, maybe you should get your gourd and make sure you have all the sand you need. I won’t be going easy on you!”

Gaara didn’t bother to answer. He was checking the distance to the edges of the field and measuring the space he had to work with.

“Have it your way,” Lee said, unwrapping a few loops of bandages from around his hands. “But don’t underestimate me.”

"Underestimate you?" Gaara looked around, eyes narrowed. "You were the first person to strike an actual blow against me. Ever. I have never underestimated you."

Lee blinked, touched by that recognition of his skills-

"That's why I came to kill you in the hospital afterwards," Gaara added, somewhat spoiling the effect. Oh well, you took the accolades you could get. At least that old, wilder, unleashed Gaara had considered him worth killing, injured as he was.

"Is that why you sent for me to become Military Envoy?" Lee asked, probing a point he'd been curious about. "Because you'd seen me fight?"

"Among other reasons."

"What- oh yes, you said you didn't want another yes-man."

Gaara nodded shortly.

"And what else?" Lee asked curiously, because something in Gaara's attitude made him wonder if that was really all there was to it.

"Maybe I'll tell you one day," Gaara answered, crossing his arms over his chest. "Do you want to spar, or simply talk me to my knees?"

"Spar!" Lee said cheerfully and attacked.

A simple, slow probing blow to start with. He kicked out, expecting to hit sand- and scythed through air instead. Lee was startled, but his body had already followed through, spinning him around on the other foot and cutting low at Gaara's legs.

Sand crackled and flickered, but Lee hit air again. This time he saw what happened; Gaara had stepped back.

What the- Gaara never dodged! He normally just stood there and let the Sand Barrier take it. Lee was already darting into his next attack, his body running on rails set by years of gruelling training, but now he was curious.

His right fist slammed straight at the Kazekage's stomach. Gaara sidestepped, turning away from the blow, arms still crossed over his chest. The Sand was whipping around their feet, but since Lee wasn't getting all that near, it wasn't rising to the defence.

Lee feinted right, then struck to the left, still probing and assessing. He could feel grainy sand flying around his fist as the automatic barrier reacted, but once more Gaara was just out of reach. This time, Lee followed through more aggressively. He punched once, then vaulted forward on his momentum, somersaulted and aimed a downward kick at Gaara's chest. Gaara stepped back, his coat flaring around him as he spun out of the way. The move was so sparse yet so elegant and measured that Lee realized he'd missed two good openings out of sheer distraction.

Right! Time to stop kidding around!

Lee effortlessly kicked into higher speed, the kind he used when training against other Shinobi.

Gaara's eyes widened as he quickly dodged a kick, and this time the sand rose like a wave, catching Lee but not really blocking the blow as he still hadn't gotten quite close enough to pose a direct threat. But Lee did love a challenge.

Gaara twisted and fell back again. He ducked under the next blow, deliberately dropping to one knee. His hands hit the ground and a sharp, rapid spray of sand darted out from under his fingers to strike Lee in the face. Aiming at his eyes, Lee realized; trying to blind him. He managed to get his arm up to protect himself- and felt sand curl around his ankles.

He leapt high, away from the trap, twisted in midair and aimed at Gaara's shoulder with his elbow. Gaara threw himself out of the way, but Lee was already there again, pressing the attack, intent on pushing Gaara back. He spun around, aimed a kick at Gaara from a new direction- and this time he hit a wall of sand! Gaara had been unable to dodge. Lee used the sand as support to shove off and into a high jump, tumbling over and aiming a kick at Gaara's head; a strike similar to the first one he'd scored on Gaara, back during the Chuunin exams. This time, the sand was there to intercept. Lee was faster than he was five years ago, even wearing the weights, but then so was Gaara.

Lee felt a fierce exultation and a happy grin on his face. He vaulted over a blow of sand trying to trip him, spun around, feinted with a kick and, with a burst of speed and power, punched right at Gaara.

The sand hissed up and stopped him, but it was gripping him by the forearm. His fist had made it through, and had been halted an inch from Gaara's face.

Beyond the sand wall and Lee's hand, a twitch of a smile turned up one corner of Gaara's lips; acknowledgement of a good strike.

"First point to me!" Lee exclaimed happily.

"First point?" Gaara echoed. "How many points are there to a match?"

"Oh, it varies, but Gai-sensei and I can practice like this all afternoon."

Gaara blinked slowly. "All afternoon. At that stamina expenditure. No wonder you eat so much."

"Let's go again!" Lee said, falling back and taking up a stance, one hand out and ready, the other behind his back. Sweat trickled down his bare chest, but he was long past noticing the heat and the sun roasting the skin of his shoulders.

Gaara shook his head. "I have to get back."

"Oh." Lee tried to keep his disappointment from showing as Gaara turned and headed towards where he'd left the gourd, the sand skulking after him.

Lee trailed after him too, his curiosity about a new jutsu overcoming his dampened spirits. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dodge in a fight before. That’s new! Are you working on a new defence?”

Gaara gave him another one of those long, blank looks, the kind that reminded Lee - once again! - that he was talking to the Kazekage and a Shinobi from another village who might not want to let Lee into his secrets.

"I'm fine tuning my control of the Sand," Gaara finally answered as if that moment hadn't happened. "Do you remember that fight with Kimimaro?"

"The guy with the bones," Lee confirmed, nodding firmly. "You defeated him totally! That was impressive!"

"That was wasteful and inefficient," Gaara contradicted, buckling the gourd's harness back on. "I had to bury him under an avalanche of Sand and chakra. If I could have winged him from the start with my lighter attacks, it would have saved us a lot of trouble, but he was too fast and agile."

"Well, yes," Lee admitted. He hadn't really thought of it that way. "But you won."

"I very nearly lost. My chakra is huge, but it is not without limits as Deidara demonstrated." Gaara's gaze drifted towards the village behind them and Lee understood the portion left unsaid. Gaara's power might be enough to defend himself...but he wasn't only protecting his own life now. It took a hell of a lot of chakra to shield that many people from harm.

"So how does learning to dodge help?" Lee asked curiously. “Because I have to tell you, the way you dodge, if you were in a real fight, um...” Lee tried to remember the notes he’d cribbed from Gai-Sensei about Politics and Diplomacy, and how to apply them.

"I won’t be dodging like that in a serious fight. I wouldn’t stand a chance. As you just showed,” Gaara said without any sign of animosity.

Lee grinned sheepishly.

“I’m learning to use the Sand with more finesse. It’s an extension of my mind and body, so I train them to react more accurately in battle. I never had much formal training as a Shinobi. It was assumed I wouldn’t need it. I’m trying to overcome that, and use the Sand more efficiently to conserve as much chakra as I can. It's a slow process," Gaara admitted, tone indifferent.

"I bet. It's amazingly hard to change your fighting style like that." Lee looked at him with admiration. He was also touched, and downright amazed actually, that Gaara was willing to share this much with him. Maybe it was in thanks for the chance to spar.

"It's not that big a modification," Gaara said. "I’m not planning on changing my defensive strategy. The Sand is the ultimate defence anyway. But learning how a target moves helps me work on my attacks."

"Attacks?" Lee almost hopped up and down on the spot, trying to restrain his urge to drag Gaara back into the training field and see what he'd come up with. Gaara had only really defended himself against Lee today. If Gaara fought him as he had Kimimaro- now that would be a match!

"I've been practicing against Kankuro's puppets," Gaara said. "But they’re not a good substitute for-" and he interrupted himself, his eyes flinching away from Lee's direct stare.

For a brief instant, Lee saw something flicker in those hard eyes, an emotion that was quickly accepted, acknowledged and dismissed almost the moment it was felt. A flinch had rippled across Gaara’s countenance like a drop of water falling into a large, dark lake, instantly absorbed and gone.

“They’re not a good substitute for a flesh-and-blood opponent as they don’t tend to dodge as well,” Gaara finished as if that flinch had never happened. “But it helps me practice. Though Kankuro complains because the Sand gets into the gears.”

Lee normally didn't have a huge amount of intuition -

Aren't you afraid?

What if I lose control?

- but he suddenly had a very strong idea why Gaara only practiced against Kankuro's puppets and not the other Shinobi of his village. Lee had only been here a week, but he'd observed Captain Sanada and the other ninja as they interacted with Gaara. They watched over their Kazekage with great respect; with awe even; with gratitude for the way Gaara had saved their lives during the fight with Deidara; and with fear. Maybe not an unjustified fear at that. They’d seen a lot more of that old Gaara than Lee had. They’d seen what Shukaku could do.

"I have to go. Don't stay out too long. You're not used to it. You'll get heatstroke," Gaara said, heading back towards the village. Lee thought that was rich, coming from a guy in a thick black coat, pants and a heavy gourd slung from his shoulders.

Lee watched him go, remembering the way the jabs of sand had struck at Kimimaro and missed. It would take a lot of work, determination and effort to bring the sand up to speed to nail that sort of opponent, and it would require training against someone who was just as fast.

"Gaara!"

The redhead glanced back over his shoulder.

"I'll be here tomorrow afternoon too. We can spar some more!"

Gaara looked at him in silence.

"Come on! I want to see those attacks you mentioned," Lee added, his eyes blazing with combative fervor.

Gaara turned away once more and walked on. He was almost out of earshot before he spoke.

"I'll try to make the time," was all he said, tone indifferent.

But Lee felt like he'd just won his second victory of the day.

Chapter Text

"Desert have mercy. Desert have mercy," the old woman muttered again and again, stirring the fire fiercely. The wind screamed down the air vent and nearly killed the flame.

"Desert have mercy," the old woman muttered again, her eyes wide and bright with fear that Lee didn't understand.

It had been awesome and terrifying to see the entire desert rise up and hurl itself upon Sunagakure, a huge wall of yellow sand lashed by lightning and winds. But sandstorms like these occurred regularly according to Captain Sanada. Everybody had known this one was coming. Sand Shinobi could feel one creeping up on them, and Gaara could sense their approach several days ahead of time. The Kazekage had made sure all outlying patrols had been warned and were ready to fall back to the walls.

Fortunately somebody had remembered to warn Lee too; Captain Sanada had caught him just as he was about to leave for his daily jog around the village and canyons, and had dragged him into the safety of the garrison fort on the outskirts of the village. Considering the sudden furious speed with which the storm had arrived, Lee was rather thankful.

Protected by their thick stucco walls, Shinobi and a few civilian caretakers huddled around brazeros or sat at the tables in the corner and drank their strong desert coffee in silence. Lee was the only one near the window, trying to make out, through a gap in the shutters, the fascinating shifts of sand in the jaws of the storm. Everybody else stayed as far away from the doors and shuttered panes as possible. There was tension and some fear in the air.

"Desert have-" the old woman interrupted herself with a gasp and dragged her robe up to cover her face and open mouth.

Every Shinobi had felt it, including Lee. Something was stirring out there. Inside the perimeter of the village. A huge boil of chakra moving slowly in the maelstrom past their building.

Lee stared out the crack in the shuttered window, but he couldn't see further than a couple of feet. The sand hissed and rattled against the shutter as if it was trying to reach him.

"What the hell is that?" he said sharply. "Guys? Can you feel-"

The Shinobi around him turned away. They hunched over their tables or drew the veils of their helms over their faces.

"Gaara..."

The murmur seemed to have no source; it hung like a haze in the room full of tension and superstitious fear.

"Gaara of the Desert..."

Lee boggled at the men and women around him, then he marched towards the barred and bolted door. If that was Gaara out there, somebody should check it out and help him inside. If that wasn't Gaara out there, somebody should really check it out, because that was a hell of a lot of chakra. What was wrong with these people? He ignored the cut-off cry of one of the guards. All sound vanished to be replaced with the wild lament of the wind as he opened the door. He thought the old woman had screamed. He closed the door quickly behind him, arm raised to protect his eyes.

A dark shape was walking slowly up ahead. Lee could barely make it out through the lashings of wind and sand. He was surprised he could see anything at all, actually; maybe the storm was abating a bit.

Lee marched forth. The sand immediately invaded his clothes, mouth and nostrils, it scraped at every inch of bare skin it could find. Lee coughed and brought both arms up to defend his face. Up ahead, the figure stopped.

It was Gaara.

He was dressed in his usual black longcoat, whipping about his legs and ankles as it was lifted back by the storm. He had the gourd on his back and both arms at his side; he wasn't protecting his eyes, to Lee's amazement. Lee himself could barely see, his lashes already thick with grains.

"Gaa-" Lee coughed again.

He was downwind from the Kazekage now. Lee blinked and prudently lowered his arms, feeling a sudden change in the gale. The storm still raged, but it was curling and howling around Gaara like waves hitting a breaker.

Of course, it's sand, Lee reminded himself with self-directed exasperation. This was Gaara's element.

The roiling chakra in the air seemed a bit excessive for simply keeping the sand off of Gaara's face, though...

Lee blinked grit out of his eyes, slightly protected now by whatever force was surrounding Gaara. The Kazekage wasn't stopping the wind and sand. They beat against him in a brief, fierce battle. When they lost, they broke around him and curled and wailed, weaving around his shoulders and through his fingers in surrender.

Lee, who hadn't realized he had that much imagination, took a step closer.

Gaara slowly turned around. Lee stopped dead in his tracks.

This was the Old Gaara.

Lee recognized that small, cruel grin, the narrowed eyes with staring pinpoint pupils. They haunted some of his worst nightmares, the ones where he woke up sweating and with his left arm and leg aching.

The wind hissed and grasped at Gaara, ripping through his hair and touching his skin, but the sand did not cut him. Gaara blinked slowly, the basilisk stare moving away from Lee, who was standing very still. Gaara of the Desert lazily tilted his head back, eyes almost closed as if the howling wind was caressing his face like a lover.

Lee really hadn't thought he had this much imagination. But it wasn't his imagination that he was in some danger here. He had to be careful. Should he fall back a few paces to follow Gaara? Stay motionless until the Kazekage turned around? Or go up to Gaara and try to talk him out of the storm? No, that was stupid. He had no grasp of the situation. But he didn't feel like leaving Gaara-

A dark shape surged out of the sand from the direction of the garrison fort, grabbed Lee by the shoulders and dragged him back into the fury of the storm.

"Wha-" Lee got a mouthful of sand for his efforts. He noticed briefly that though the wind was stronger than in Gaara's leeway, he wasn't being pushed and prodded with the full force of the sandstorm, either. It was as if a hand of chakra still sheltered him and his guide a bit as they headed away.

One last glance behind him showed him that Gaara had turned around once more and had taken another slow step out into the storm.

Once in the leeway of the garrison fort, Lee, through eyes streaming with tears, recognized a bundled-up Kankuro from the puppet bound on his back. Gaara's brother dragged him towards the garrison door and hammered on it. When it didn't open, Kankuro kicked it and yelled a few curses and threats until it did. Then he shoved Lee inside. The Shinobi who'd opened the door slammed it behind them, locked and barred it, and then ran back to the thickest wall near the brazero, looking over his shoulder as if he could see his Kazekage slowly stalking by in the jaws of the storm.

"Lee," Kankuro panted, hands on his knees, voice layered with steely patience. "I know you're new around here, but please use whatever common sense you got? That was beyond dumb."

Kankuro was dressed in his usual getup, and Lee suddenly realized that suit covered every inch of Kankuro's body. He'd pulled the veils that hung to the side of his cat-eared hood across his face to protect that as well. Lee had never realized how practical the strange costume could be. Which, for an inhabitant of the desert, only made sense (though that didn't explain Temari's outfit, come to think of it). The one addition to Kankuro's usual costume were a pair of wide, thick leather goggles which the Sand Jounin now lifted from his eyes and stuck up on his forehead. A few other guards who were hanging around, staring at the two men, wore the same protection over their eyes.

"Good thing I was in the fort," Kankuro muttered. "And that those boneheads thought to warn me. Do you realize-"

"What is he doing out there?" Lee asked, though a part of him knew; a small, darker part of Lee he wasn't fully in touch with and which would have surprised most people to learn he even had.

Kankuro glanced around - glared, really, and a few of the less valorous guards decided they had duties elsewhere.

"He...likes to walk around in sandstorms," Kankuro muttered.

Then he turned towards the window next to the door, though now the full fury of the storm was back and the view through the gap in the shutters was once more counted in feet.

Kankuro spoke in a low tone as if he didn't want to hear his own words.

"He never sleeps. Never rests. He...it never lets go. And...things happened when he was younger. Bad things. Really, we're all lucky he's strong enough to suppress all this shit most days. But he's...not as...stable as he sometimes appears to be. He's constantly fighting against it. And on days like this, well, he likes to let go a bit. He goes out and plays."

From the way Kankuro said it, it wasn't a game anybody else would understand or want to participate in.

"Everybody's locked indoors anyway. So he walks through the storm, and...you know, cuts a bit loose. I...yeah, I guess he's not as stable as I- as we would want...he can be..." Kankuro's voice dropped to a whisper, "maybe people are right to be afraid of him..."

But he seemed to catch himself almost immediately and turned to glare at the others across the room. The old woman was huddled near her fire, her face still buried in her robe and only a pair of fearful black eyes peeking above it. As Lee watched her, she made an old, superstitious sign he'd seen before - sometimes he'd glimpsed it as it was discreetly directed at the Kazekage's back; an old warding gesture against demons.

"Bunch of numbnuts," Kankuro growled. "Gaara will defend this village with his life. He nearly died once for our asses already. That's the only way those Akatsuki bastards could have caught him two years ago. And even now." He glared fiercely at Lee. "There's things out in the desert, in the bad spots. Monsters. Just like your Forest of Death. Even worse. And they also come out to roam in sandstorms. That's one of the reasons why we have garrisons around the village, fully manned. No army or Shinobi could get through this, but we've still been attacked by some pretty scary things in the past, when the storm is at its worst. But not in the past few years. They don't reach Sunagakure any more."

But was that the Kazekage protecting his village, or was that just part of the game for Gaara of the Desert? Maybe both...Lee wondered if any senseless monster would come to Suna today, and fall victim to its defender's unleashed amusement.

Lee stared at the room around him, at Kankuro and the nervous guards, at the old woman, at the barren desert crashing like surf against the window outside, and thought of the single figure alone in that fury.

"May I please borrow these?" he asked politely, reaching for Kankuro's goggles.

"What- what do you think you're-" Kankuro stared as Lee fitted the eye protection over his head. They were scratched from the Sand, but still better than bleeding eyeballs.

"If there's dangerous animals or monsters out there, someone needs to watch his back."

"Watch his-" Kankuro gaped. "The whole desert is watching his back! He has eyes in every grain of sand in the air right now, and that's a fucking huge heap of sand! What do you think you can do?!"

"We won't know if I'm not there," Lee pointed out. "I am the military envoy to Sand, a representative of Konoha, and I have to stand for the Alliance between our villages. I am not going to leave the Kazekage to face danger without my backup. Thanks for the goggles-"

"You'll need more than goggles, mate," Kankuro said, staring at him bug-eyed.

"I'm not afraid."

Kankuro's gaping mouth closed, and the look he gave Lee was suddenly unreadable. "No, you're not, are you...but that's not what I meant," he added, briskly. "Here, take this too."

Kankuro marched over to one of the guards near the stairs to the second floor, grabbed the man and brazenly stripped him of his outerwear and veiled helm.

"The wind's gonna feel like sandpaper on your face. If you don't want to be red as a tomato for a week and in a lot of pain, you'll need to gear up properly."

"Thank you."

"Whatever," Kankuro muttered as he stuffed the helmet on Lee's head with a bit more force than was necessary. "Just don't get killed. I don't want to fight a war against you crazy Leaf guys again."

"Don't worry, I can defend myself. I practice in the Forest of Death daily and in worse places as well; I know what kind of dangerous animals you find there."

"That wasn't the sort of getting killed I meant." Kankuro grabbed Lee by the arm as the Leaf Shinobi headed towards the door. "Seriously, Lee. Don't get near him. He's very unpredictable in these sort of circumstances."

"I know," Lee said, and Kankuro must have seen the knowledge in Lee's serious face because the puppeteer dropped Lee's arm and looked at him with some surprise. "I'm not stupid, though I won't claim to know that much about what he's been through and what he needs now to fight it. I'll keep well back, but I won't leave him alone out there. It's just not right."

The scratched sand goggles were warping his vision, but he thought he saw Kankuro flinch briefly.

"Fine," Kankuro muttered. He marched back towards the guard and this time grabbed the poor, confused man's goggles. "I'm coming with you though."

Lee hesitated. He was quite aware that he was riding out on the power of blithe and happy ignorance here. Kankuro had grown up with Gaara, he'd seen him at his worst, he knew exactly what was out there today, and Lee knew that Kankuro was afraid.

"You don't have to-"

Kankuro was able to direct a remarkably fierce glare at Lee through the thick goggles he's slipped over his eyes. "Let's go. You don't know what's a safe distance, and he's my brother- anyway, I'm not gonna let you get yourself sandblasted and create a diplomatic incident. That slug-woman Tsunade would rip us all a new one-"

Lee ignored the growls and the vernacular that followed. 'He's my brother' was enough.

"Let's go then," he said happily.

"Just for the record, this is really dumb and I don't like you very much right now," Kankuro grumbled.

He was already unlocking and unbarring the door to the storm.

Chapter Text

The hawk shifted on its perch. It gave Gaara a suspicious stare, then it looked fixedly at the meat between his fingers. Just as it was starting to stretch its neck out cautiously, Gaara tossed it the morsel. The meat was instantly snatched out of midair. The hawk made a huffy noise, swallowed, and then glared at Gaara arrogantly.

Lee, still on the stairs up to the Communication room and trying not to startle either the Kazekage or the hawk, decided it was safe to call out now.

“Hello, Gaara. Taking care of the birds?”

Gaara glanced over his shoulder in acknowledgement as if to say, ‘What does it look like I’m doing’. It was Gaara’s standard behavior, Lee didn’t bat an eye.

“Hey, where’s the Chuunin in charge?” he asked in surprise as he approached the Information Desk.

“Several urgent messages came in. He was out of runners, so he went to Crypto himself. He should be back in an hour at the latest,” Gaara answered, reaching into the bucket for some more meat. One of the other hawks hopped along its perch eagerly, its jesses jingling.

Bummer. Lee ditched his backpack and sat down in the man’s vacated chair to wait, hoping it wouldn’t take too long. Though he had the sneaking suspicion that the Chuunin would be in no hurry to get back as long as the Kazekage was in the aviary.

A lot of people avoided being alone in the same room as Gaara if they didn’t have any official business with him. This reaction was due in part to some remaining fear, particularly from the civilians, but it was also born of deference; Gaara always had an air about him of someone who didn't want to be disturbed. Add to that a thread of embarrassment at being in the presence of the most important man in the village, someone they all owed their lives to, and being unable to think of a single subject of conversation that was likely to fly in the face of those cold green eyes.

Lee watched as Gaara tossed another chunk of meat at the hawks. It was a Chuunin's job to feed the birds kept for inter-village communication, but Gaara did it from time to time for no reason he cared to explain.

The silence that followed was comfortable, with only the noise of the birds of prey rustling on their perches and gulping down their meal, and the worried cooing of the carrier pigeons in the cages further back. Lee couldn't claim to have had long and heartfelt conversations with the Kazekage either; sometimes he struggled just as hard as the other villagers to find subjects of conversation that might actually have a chance of engaging Gaara's interest. But that didn't mean he was uncomfortable in the Kazekage's presence. In the six months since Lee's arrival, he and Gaara had fallen into a routine of daily sparring when they were both available. You didn't need hours of conversation with a guy to get to know him when you fought with him every day. A man’s fighting style revealed his true character, according to Gai-sensei’s declarations, and he should know what he was talking about.

Those sparring sessions had become the highlight of Lee's day, and he liked to think that Gaara looked forward to them as well, seeing how he arranged his busy days to spare the time to be there. It had taken Gaara a few weeks to fully accept that Lee really did want to be attacked as if he were an enemy (within reasonable limits of course). But Gaara was now fully into the spirit of things, and Lee was getting the kind of workouts he'd expect from Gai-sensei.

The bouts were high-speed attacks and parries, Sand Jutsu versus Taijutsu. Lee dodging Gaara’s strikes, rolling, leaping forward, darting to the side, trying to get close enough to counter-attack; landing a blow that exploded against the Sand Barrier, if one of Gaara’s swipes didn’t knock him back first- it was exhilarating! Or, as Kankuro put it: 'Brutal,' usually followed by, 'You should get your head examined'.

Which was silly. Lee's head was perfectly fine. Gaara was practicing his control as well as his speed and power, and he'd never aim for anything as vital as Lee's skull.

Gaara didn’t speak much during their matches, though he still couldn’t quite beat Neji when it came to being taciturn. Lee didn’t mind; he’d gotten used to Gaara’s shifting moods and bouts of dark silences over the last few months of working together or hanging out in Gaara's office.

It was another habit, like the sparring. Lee often worked late in the admin building. Between his missions as a Leaf Jounin and his responsibilities as a diplomat, he had a lot to take care of, and he was both conscientious and a bit slow about it. A genius might have mastered the duties quickly, but Lee had only stubbornness, determination and hard work to rely on, same as always. He’d frequently take a break around midnight to see if the Kazekage, who never slept anyway, needed anything from the kitchen or just a bit of company.

Depending on the quality of Gaara’s initial silence, Lee would only stay for a few seconds, or else he’d sit down for half an hour or more. Sometimes they didn’t speak at all, and sometimes they talked about their villages, about Shinobi they knew and missions and such. Lee liked those midnight breaks, when the rest of the village had gone to bed and the chill desert night was only disturbed by the calls of the night watch and the yip of desert foxes outside the walls.

Despite the raw sunshine pouring through the open windows, this moment in the aviary had something of that same quality. The birds rustled and cawed. A few cicadas chirped in the afternoon heat. Gaara’s dusky red shirt seemed to blend with the tawny plumage of the birds of prey he was feeding. The sun's light picked out the threads, curved around his shoulders, warmed the sand-colour of the gourd on his back. The Kazekage’s robe was tossed over a chair nearby.

The pigeons cooed, a bit calmer now. Lee blinked sleepily.

Then he sternly shook himself. Now was not the time to nod off! He had to leave in a few minutes if he wanted to make it to the first relay point before dusk. Lee stared anxiously at the trapdoor down to the lower level as if he could conjure up the Chuunin in charge of the Information Desk through willpower alone.

After a couple of minutes, Lee’s instincts prickled. He glanced up to find Gaara staring at him. Or rather, staring at Lee’s fingers fretfully tapping against the table. Lee forced himself to stop.

“What are you waiting for? The dispatch to Konoha is already sealed and ready to go,” Gaara said, keeping his voice low to avoid scaring the birds. He was wiping his hands on a rag to clean up the traces of blood from his fingers.

“I was hoping to slip in a letter. A personal letter.” Lee waved the small scroll he held. “But if the Chuunin doesn’t come back quickly, he won’t have time to inspect it before the carrier bird to Konoha has to leave. And I have to go soon, too.”

“You have that B-rank mission to the Southern Flats.”

“That’s the one.”

“Is your letter important?”

“Well, no. I could just send it by regular mail.” Lee looked mournfully at his own studiously neat writing, tightly crammed onto the lightweight rice-paper scroll. “It’s just a letter to Gai-sensei. But it takes three days to get to the Flats, then three days back. I’ll be gone a week, and he was going to leave on a mission on Tuesday-“

“Give it to me. I’ll inspect it.” Gaara held out a hand without turning around, his eyes on one of the hawks which was apparently trying to outstare him (Lee’s money wasn’t on the bird).

“But...” Lee hesitated, his fingers playing with the scroll’s edge. “That’s the Chuunin’s job. I can’t ask you to-“

Gaara snapped his outstretched fingers without looking around. Lee shrugged mentally and walked over with the letter. He’d gotten used to the way Gaara could go beyond curt at times. The Kazekage wasn’t deliberately rude to people, but he didn’t embarrass himself with courtesies either. There was a good chance he didn’t really know what they were or how they fit into human interaction.

Oh well, there was nothing in that scroll he wouldn’t want Gaara to read. And it wasn’t as if Gaara’s authority didn’t largely supersede that of the Chuunin who should normally be doing this.

Gaara dropped the bloody rag, took the letter without a word and held it up to the afternoon sunshine to inspect it for markings or pinpoints. Then he scanned the sentences quickly, looking for anything that could be code. He would be memorizing the words to transcribe for the Information Desk later, and the copy would be kept for cross-referencing by code specialists. Lee wasn’t particularly upset by any of this; this formality was a standard procedure for visiting Shinobi in any Hidden Village. But he was watching Gaara carefully and wondering if Gaara would notice-

Gaara’s eyes twitched as his own name caught his attention. The swift scan of the letter slowed as he started to actually focus and read.

“Um, Gai-sensei always inquires about you,” Lee said, a bit embarrassed for no reason he could properly explain. “I give him updates on you, Temari-san and Kankuro. Er, only non-classified information, of course.”

Gaara was staring at the small paragraph (which didn’t say much more than that the Kazekage was doing fine, still sparring with Lee and his speed was improving).

“Why?” he asked in that flat way of his that seemed to make it more a statement than a question.

“Why what?”

“I nearly killed you twice. He had to stop me both times. Why would he want news about me? Unless he’s hoping you’ll tell him I’ve suddenly dropped dead,” Gaara added, voice indifferent.

“What?! No!” Lee squawked. All the fowls in the aviary chimed in, disturbed by the sudden noise.

“No,” Lee repeated, lowering his voice against a background of ruffled feathers. “He doesn’t hold a grudge about the Chuunin exam any more than I do. And he knows you saved my life. He’s asking about you because he’s met you, and because we spar and work together. He’s just interested in the people I know,” Lee finished lamely. This wasn’t something that should need explaining in his book.

“Because you were important to him…” Gaara said slowly, staring at the letter as if trying to decrypt some hidden code concealed in Lee’s enthusiastic description of his missions and everyday life.

“Yes.”

“You write to each other often.” It wasn't a question. The Kazekage would know what kind of correspondence a foreign Jounin sent and received out of his village.

“Almost every week,” Lee said happily.

“Why? He has a new Genin team now. He no longer needs you.”

Lee winced. This was another reason people tended not to talk with Gaara much.

Gaara could be cruel in his cold, hard way, though most of the time that cruelty wasn’t intentional. He just had very little empathy for other people. He’d say things in that direct, cutting manner of his without always realizing how much it might smart.

And sometimes he did realize that what he said might hurt and he’d say it anyway. Gaara had spent the first twelve years of his life as a weapon, as someone who killed with absolutely no mercy and even a sort of hungry pleasure. When Lee thought about it, the changes Gaara had wrought on his own personality were amazing and worthy of huge respect. But that didn’t mean there weren’t some rough edges left. Gaara was the kind of guy who once used the Desert Coffin as the easiest way of ending an argument. By comparison, leaving his audience with a few verbal bruises probably didn’t seem like such a big deal to him.

This attitude wasn't helped by his people who, good Shinobi that they were, never showed any emotions beyond deference or the slightest trace of wary caution. If one of them had told Gaara to cut it out from time to time, it would probably have taught him a lot. His siblings did so occasionally, but only when he really pushed them; they weren't in the village much anyway.

And then there was Lee. Lee, who never backed down from his principles or a fight. Particularly when his pride or his teacher or another point of honour had been ruffled. Lee opened his mouth, then shut it as he reined in the first few words that came to mind. He didn't have the time for an argument right now and besides, his instincts were telling him that this time the cut had been truly unintentional on Gaara's behalf.

“Gai-sensei and I are no longer teacher and pupil, that’s true," Lee declared with a dramatically extended finger pointed in the direction of Konoha; he ignored the hungry look the nearest hawk gave the digit. "But that doesn't mean we don't need each other any more, or have forsaken each other! We shared many hardships together, and he taught me all about life and Taijutsu. The miles may separate us, we may not see each other for months on end, but we share a beautiful friendship that will last forever!”

“You sometimes sound just like him, too,” Gaara muttered, his eyes flicking over the rest of the letter.

“The bond between master and disciple is very strong,” Lee agreed. “It shapes your entire life.”

Gaara turned towards the Information Desk.

“I wouldn’t know,” he said, reaching for the inkpot and brushes. “I never had any teachers. Only caretakers. All but one of them is dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lee said sincerely but without much surprise. It was a Shinobi’s lot. “Did they fall in the line of duty?” he added politely.

“In a way.”

“In a way? What happened?”

“I did.”

Lee took a second to figure it out. Then he stared at Gaara’s profile, aghast.

The green eyes slowly rose to meet his without a flinch. Cold as glass, they searched his face. Gaara often watched him like this. As if he expected something from Lee, as if were searching for something, some reaction. Maybe some sign of fear or disgust.

Lee knew about the Old Gaara; he'd met him close up and personal, after all. That creature still lurked, carefully leashed and suppressed, at the back of those green eyes. It was the young man who went for walks in the sandstorms, with Lee following at a prudent distance. Lee was very cautious with that Gaara whenever he showed up, and he didn’t like him much or approach him. But he wasn’t afraid of him. The difference between caution and fear might seem fine. Maybe it was as fine as the difference between a teacher and a ‘caretaker’. It was just as vital though.

“I’m sorry you never had a real sensei,” Lee said quietly but perfectly honestly. In Lee’s opinion, that Old Gaara could have really done with a Gai-sensei in his life.

Gaara's searching gaze turned into something more familiar; that blank look he often gave Lee as if he was trying to understand a sentence in a foreign language he could only master after interpreting it into his own. Finally he looked away with a slight frown, as if what Lee had said still didn't make much sense even after translation.

He leaned over the desk and signed his name in the margin of Lee’s letter, adding ‘Inspected. Send this now’ at the bottom. That’d give the desk Chuunin a turn when he got back.

“Thank you,” Lee said. Gaara didn’t answer. Civilities were not Gaara’s forte. He probably didn’t see the point.

Lee made sure the letter was visible on the desk and then shouldered his backpack and turned to go. Gaara had walked back over to the birds. As Lee glanced at him, Gaara slowly extended a finger towards one of the hawks he'd fed. The bird bobbed its head and clicked its beak - Lee tensed - but finally it let Gaara gently smooth the feathers along its chest.

According to Kankuro, the first time Gaara had set foot in the aviary the whole flock had gone absolutely berserk. It might have been the smell of blood in the sand, or it might have simply been instinct.

With the new determination he'd acquired after his fight with Naruto, Gaara had persisted. The doves and pigeons still went crazy if he got too close, but the predators let him feed them now, and the bolder ones even took the meat from his fingers and let him handle them.

Gaara looked at the hawk leaning into his touch with something like grim recognition in his eyes. Lee didn't think Gaara was capable of joy, but the Kazekage could acknowledge his achievements. He'd formed a small bond with a living creature, he'd eradicated a bit of fear.

It was pretty much the same way he treated Sunagakure, Lee found himself thinking; like something to protect, care for and slowly domesticate. Something to link to, even if he never hoped to get much out of it in return beyond a validation of his blood-soaked existence. It filled Lee with a diffuse sadness he couldn't quite define.

I'm being fanciful today, he thought, shaking his head. Time to go.

Despite his timetable, Lee found himself examining the young man reaching for one of the kestrels. The bird was inching away nervously.

"Hey, Gaara."

Gaara let his hand drop and glanced over his shoulder.

Lee had absolutely no clue what to say. He knew what he wanted to say, but 'Cheer up' would be stupid, insensitive, unrealistic and likely to get him sandblasted to boot. What right did he have to comment on Gaara's mood, anyway? He didn't know all the details of Gaara's past, but he knew enough; even half of it would have crushed Lee long ago.

Gaara was looking at him inquiringly, so Lee stuck out an enthusiastic thumb and winked: "I'll work hard on my mission. And I'll see you in a week! I’ll miss our sparring while I’m gone. But I’ll try to think up a counter to that blow of yours, the one with the three prongs of sand. I’ll defeat you this time!"

Gaara stared at Lee’s thumb. Lee held the pose for a few seconds, then he saluted and headed towards the stairs, not expecting anything in the way of farewells.

“I’ll miss our sparring too.”

Lee stumbled to a halt and stared. Gaara had turned his back to him and was petting the kestrel now; it had apparently lost its fear and was trying to nibble on his fingers.

“Wh-what?” Lee felt sure he must have misheard. Or maybe Suna’s aviary had a parrot in one of the back cages, because surely Gaara couldn’t have said-

“Our sparring. I’ll miss it too,” Gaara repeated. He said it slowly, as if tasting the words and finding them strange and not quite to his taste, but not enough to spit them out again.

Lee remembered the day - the very second - when Neji had admitted that he 'didn't really mind' Lee's constant challenges. He remembered how that felt. Well, this was even better. Especially since he knew Gaara truly meant it; the positive side of Gaara's habit of complete and brutal honesty was that he didn't know how to pay empty compliments. Odds were, he didn't even know what they were.

It was like a great, big bright ball of enthusiasm bursting in Lee's chest.

"I'll be there and back before you know it! Right! If I try hard, I can make the trip in only one day! See you soon!"

Lee ignored the stairs and jumped straight out the open window with his usual enthusiasm. He thought he heard a sharp 'Lee' behind him as he bounced down the wall and onto the flat roof of a shed, but then his feet hit the ground and he didn't have a second to lose. If he couldn't make it to the Southern Flats in one day, he would perform three thousand-

"Lee!"

Lee froze. So did half the people in and around the administration building. In living memory, nobody here had heard the Kazekage shout.

Gaara was leaning out the window of the Communication room, a frown wrinkling the mark on his forehead, but to Lee who'd looked back up, startled, he didn't seem seriously angry.

"Take three days on the trip, coming and going. Do not run like a maniac or open Gates to get there with any unreasonable speed," Gaara ordered in a dire tone.

"But I could-"

"Lee."

"Oh okay."

Gaara gave Lee one last stern look, daring him to disobey, before he turned back to the birds who were probably throwing up a ruckus after that shout.

Lee trotted obediently until he was out of sight of the admin building, then he broke into a fast run. Gaara had said no 'unreasonable' speed, but the Southern Flats and Konoha were both the same distance from Suna, and Lee had made the Konoha-Sunagakure trip in two days when he’d first arrived, so that wasn’t unreasonable. And he didn’t want to waste any time if he could help it.

Because he really would miss the sparring if he stayed away longer than necessary. And the aloof, changeable, brutally honest sparring partner too. Just a little bit.

Chapter Text

"Fuzzy-brows!"

Lee absently dodged a kunai and looked over in delight. "Naruto-kun! I was hoping you'd make it back before I had to leave!"

"I just got in an hour ago. Sakura-chan told me you were in Konoha, so I ran over. No prizes for guessing where you'd be. Same old training field. How you doing?"

Naruto's friendly slap on the shoulder would have sent a normal man flying several feet. Lee didn't give an inch of course, and neither did Naruto when Lee returned the greeting. In the background, TenTen snorted something about 'idiotic males' and put away her training weapons.

"Lee, I'm going to leave you two chuckleheads to catch up," she said over her shoulder as she headed out of the clearing. "I'll be running north of here near the river, if you have time to join me. Otherwise I'll see you this evening at Neji's."

"Sure thing!" Lee waved at her until she vanished in a burst of displaced air, then he turned towards Naruto. "How was your mission?"

"Same as usual. Some idiots trying to shake down a village on the border. A few easy fights, a couple of missing nin sent back to their Hidden Villages with their asses in their hands...We made it home two days early, it was so boring."

Lee gave Naruto an appraising look. His friend hadn’t changed a bit. Big open grin, a demeanour brimming with self-assurance, and under the Jounin vest lurked an orange jumpsuit as discreet and capable of camouflage as a bull elephant on the rampage.

Lee hadn’t realized how homesick he was until a mission had sent him back to Konoha. It had been wonderful to see Gai-sensei again. Their reunion had been noisy, tearful and beautiful beyond words; half the village had stopped to watch in amazement, in fact.

He’d also seen Sakura-san again, when she wasn't busy with her duties to Tsunade-sama. She'd progressed even more in the past few months and he'd been proud to see how strong she'd become. He'd also trained with Neji, TenTen and some of the other Chuunin and Jounin of his generation. He'd just needed to see Naruto and make sure he was doing well too. Lee was due back in Sunagakure by the end of the week; he could leave with a light heart now.

"So how's Gaara?" Naruto asked after they'd caught up on eight month's worth of news. They'd wandered over to the heights above the village to get away from the training grounds where a noisy Jounin versus Jounin capture-the-flag match was starting.

"Gaara? He's..."

Lee hesitated over the word 'fine'. There'd been another sandstorm last month and he'd followed Gaara again. He'd gotten a bit too close, accidentally stepping into the small eye of the storm around the Kazekage. Lee must have been beneath the other's notice at the time. Gaara hadn't looked up from the wind-blown sand curling around his fingers, taking strange and disturbing shapes in his palm. He was talking to it softly and smiling...Lee had very carefully backed away, until the harsh wind was once more beating against him.

"He's..."

In Lee’s mind, little pictures kept flashing by along with the memory of that crazed smile. He could see Gaara peeling an orange, sitting at his desk at midnight in a mesh vest with the Kazekage robe tossed over a nearby chair...the crooked upturn of the corner of Gaara’s mouth when he'd scored a good strike on Lee during a match...

“He’s in good health. Physically.”

...Standing on a rooftop at sunset looking over Sunagakure, serious, protective...Cold green eyes as he ordered Kankuro on an S-rank mission...His silence until his brother showed up again, late but unharmed...

“Not that he’s unhealthy in any other way. I didn’t mean that. I meant he’s- er...”

...Looking out at the desert, eyes dead and bleak for a few moments...Watching over his people who respected him and feared him and liked him and avoided him, the emotions washing around Gaara and barely touching him, like words in a language he couldn’t understand...

"He’s complicated," Lee concluded with a hefty sigh.

Naruto stopped walking and examined Lee curiously. That look struck Lee as familiar. Naruto and Gaara were as different as the sun and the moon. But that gaze that seemed to be searching for something it expected to find...that was almost exactly the same, he realized, though in Naruto it wasn't quite as open or obvious. It was Lee's familiarity with Gaara's version that allowed him to recognize it.

"Naruto-kun, what's it like-..."

"Hmm?" Naruto looked brightly back at Lee who’d abruptly stopped in the middle of his question.

"I'm sorry, I was going to ask you something really personal."

"If it's about Sakura-chan, don't worry, mate, there's nothing between us."

"No, it wasn’t that!" Lee yelped, embarrassed.

"If it's about Sasuke, there's nothing between them either-“

“No! It wasn’t about-“

“- and he's too tired to go and flirt anyway. I'm working his bastard ass off," Naruto added with a hard smirk.

"And loving every minute of it," Lee guessed, distracted from both his initial question and Naruto's speculations.

"His fault for bailing! And for not being here when you, me n' Sakura-chan joined forces and aced the Jounin test together. He's got to obey rank if he wants to keep his parole. And that means jump when his Jounin commander Uzumaki Naruto says so. He hates it so much, it makes my day."

Lee wisely said nothing. In truth, he could feel some rather complicated bonds weaving between Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke since the latter’s return. Ties of friendship, anger, brotherhood and pain. He'd offered Sakura-san a chivalrous shoulder to cry on, so he knew some of the details, but there were depths here between the three of them that he didn't feel qualified to enter.

Naruto glanced at Lee, then made a 'follow me' gesture. He jumped into a tree and bounced through the canopy with Lee at his heels. He leapt from a branch and plummeted downwards into thin air, landing with a thump on a rocky outcropping. Lee followed and realized they'd landed on the monument, specifically on the Fourth's head.

"Hello, old man!" Naruto said, flopping down and thumping the rock with complete lack of respect, then he looked at Lee who'd crouched down beside him. "What did you want to ask me, Fuzzy-brows?"

Lee hesitated, but now the question was running around the inside of his skull like a rat in a cage.

"Feel free to not answer this, but..." Lee took a breath and then finished in a rush, "what's it like being the Kyuubi host?"

For the briefest instant Naruto's smile flickered, but then it was steady again.

"Wow, that's a direct question. But also kinda complicated. Is this about Gaara?"

"Yes," Lee answered. "I guess I'm trying to understand him a bit better."

"Are you two friends?" Naruto idly drew a kunai and started scratching at the rock he was sitting on. The question sounded casual, but Lee thought Naruto was listening to him attentively.

Were he and Gaara friends?

"I don’t know," Lee said honestly, and the small dash of regret he felt at that admission startled him. "I mean, I get on with him alright. I’d like to be his friend. I think he’s-"

Intense? Strong? Serious? Kind, on occasion? Bat-shit crazy when the wind starts to blow?

“He's...er...”

"I see Gaara’s still got it," Naruto snickered. “Of course he’s the Kazekage too, that makes things awkward.”

"Not as much as you’d think." Lee rubbed the back of his head. "He doesn’t seem to want me to treat him with respect. I did try at the start- not right at the start because I sort of forgot when I first saw him. I tried to treat him diplomatically afterwards, but he gets a bit short when I call him Kazekage-sama. He’s already told me on several occasions he doesn’t want a yes-man. I think he’d rather have someone to spar with and talk to normally. Even argue with him, which I know sounds weird but nobody else in the village does, and-"

"You guys argue?" Naruto asked loudly, glancing up from the stone he was carving, his eyebrows arched up to his forehead protector. Lee hesitated, remembering that Naruto and Gaara were close. But he wasn't about to lie.

"Yes, we do. From time to time. He can be stubborn when he sets his mind on something."

"And we all know you're as flexible as a rock," Naruto quipped with a snicker, turning back to chipping at the stone.

"The arguments are not my fault! Well, most of the time they’re not my fault."

Maybe it wasn’t anybody’s fault; they just seemed to occasionally clash by their very natures. Lee always looked for the best in people and Gaara usually focused on the worst. Lee tended to be honest and say things without thinking even if he regretted them almost instantly when he'd put his foot in it. Gaara tended to say what he thought and not regret it at all. Gaara was indeed very stubborn. And Lee wasn’t as bad as Naruto had implied, of course, but he just couldn’t seem to back down from a challenge whatever the form.

Of course, 'argument' was perhaps too strong a term. They disagreed. Yes, that was more like it. To be exact, a red-faced Lee disagreed loudly, and Gaara would stare at him with incomprehension or indifference or cynical amusement depending on his mood, until the storm blew over and Lee had run a few laps around Suna to cool off. Then Lee would forgive Gaara, since he really wasn't the kind to hold grudges; and Gaara, oblivious to the graciousness of the pardon, would continue to give Lee that ‘What a strange creature’ stare; and the rest of Suna would come out from hiding and life would go on.

Naruto didn’t appear particularly shocked by the admission. In fact he seemed to find the whole thing very funny once he'd pumped a reluctant Lee for a few examples of past arguments.

"So what exactly did you want to know about the Fox?" he finally asked to Lee’s surprise; he’d assumed Naruto wouldn't answer such a personal question if Lee couldn't really affirm that he and Gaara were friends. "The bastard’s got kickass chakra and a nasty disposition to start with. Did you need more?"

"How badly does he affect you?" Lee asked, then winced as he realized how blunt that had sounded.

"He lends me his chakra when I yell at him,” Naruto answered casually before Lee could apologize, his eyes still focused on what his kunai was doing. “It can make me go a bit wild in a serious fight, but that's about all. A few interesting nightmares, too. But if you're trying to understand Gaara, then you're asking the wrong questions."

"What do you mean?"

Naruto finally looked up, waving the kunai in Lee’s direction.

"Look, Lee, apart from a few gory dreams and the chakra, neither the fox nor that bloody big raccoon really affect me or Gaara."

"I thought it was a Tanuki. But I don't understand-"

"The 'Tails don't talk to us unless we get in touch with them," Naruto said bluntly. "They don't influence our every move, they don't dick around with our subconscious. They're caged. They're chakra powerhouses. Nothing more. Until that bastard Mizuki spilled the truth, I didn't have a clue I had the Fox in me, I just thought I was a social reject who sometimes had some very sick dreams."

"But..."

"But why's Gaara like he is? Why'd I almost end up like that too?" Naruto's grin was hard and toothy now. "Because we're the bloody cages and everybody knows it."

Lee felt something go cold in his chest as he suddenly realized what Naruto was saying.

"Everywhere we go, that's all people see. The hosts. Some dopes even think we're the Tails incarnate. It makes us about as popular as plague-carriers. Gaara's got it worse. Kyuubi's ass is completely sealed in me, except when I'm really pushed to the ropes. But Shukaku's built into Gaara like a weapon, and he's had it like that since he was a baby. Plus he can't really sleep, poor bastard, that can't help. Gaara's got a short mental fuse and you don't want to be near when that snaps. Hell, you don't want to be near me either if you've hurt my friends. But it’s not due to the Demon Tails that we're like that. It’s the way we were kicked around since we were kids."

Lee stared blindly out across the rooftops of Konoha while his mind slowly tried to come to grips with the enormity of what Naruto had just told him.

No effect...the demons had no real effect on their hosts. He’d assumed that the Old Gaara walking around in the storms was a creature born of Shukaku's influence. But if Naruto was right- and he had to know what he was talking about if anybody did- then the demon had little or nothing to do with Gaara’s behavior, past or present. All the damage had come from ordinary people. Just normal people like Lee. Isolating young children out of baseless fear, shunning them out of loathing or superstition, using them to kill and turning them into monsters...

Lee had been lonely in his life. Isolated by his lack of talent, his inability to do ninjutsu in a village of ninjas; his family dead when he was very young, cared for by distant relatives who mostly ignored the uninteresting child. He knew what loneliness could do to someone. He’d had a dream to stubbornly cling to and then a mentor to walk the road with him. That had made all the difference.

And that road had been nothing compared to what Naruto and Gaara had been through.

"Plus, Gaara's got the Sand Barrier. That's a bit freaky, the way he thought it was his mom. I'm not sure he's quite over that yet. He did say he was, but I don't know if he's as over it as he thinks he is, if you see what I mean. We had a good long talk a couple of years ago, just the two of us. I was damn happy to see he'd managed to sort out a lot of his problems. His brother and sister, and becoming Kazekage, that all saved his life. He's not one hundred percent straight in the head yet, but he's gotten some of the worst kinks out. Guy's strong."

"Yes he is," Lee agreed firmly, because that at least he was sure of. But another question was trotting around his head now. "Why did he take it back?"

"What?"

"Shukaku. When you destroyed Akatsuki's demon cage-"

"No choice. Those Demon Tails were rushing out like water from a broken pipe. Had to seal the worst one somehow."

"But why did he accept?" Lee asked. "Somebody else could have done it. That old woman, Chiyo, said she'd be the vessel. It was her fault to start with, that Shukaku had been sealed in Gaara, and she was dying anyway, she should have-"

"Because without Shukaku, he wouldn't be able to defend Sunagakure," Naruto said with a shrug. "The harm was already done. Carrying the bloody thing around some more isn't that much worse than what he'd already been through most of his life."

It had been the answer Lee had been somehow expecting.

"His life’s what you need to know about if you want to understand Gaara," Naruto added as he dug sharply at the rock with his blade. “I'll give you the highlights. Hold on to your lunch, it ain't pretty.”

Lee had studied the information Konoha had on Gaara before he'd left on his diplomatic mission eight months back, but it was very dry and incomplete. Now Naruto was filling in the blanks, with what Gaara himself had told him on the occasions they'd talked together, unlikely brothers of a similar misfortune.

It was a lot of information after all the evasions and strict silences in Sand surrounding Gaara and his origins. Lee learned particulars about Gaara's father and mother and the fear, guilt and superstition that surrounded the host of Shukaku even before the Sand had become vicious. He learned about the early murders and the assassination attempts, and he learned about a man named Yashamaru, and it was like someone had punched Lee in the stomach. His hands had clenched into fists.

The anger he felt told him something important. Gaara might consider Lee to be nothing more than a convenient sparring partner, but as far as Lee was concerned, Gaara was indeed his friend. Lee would feel righteously indignant if he heard of a stranger being treated like this, but he only felt this angry and protective when a friend had been wronged.

"Oh well, it’s all history!” Naruto exclaimed, his bright voice piercing the shadows that seemed to have darkened the afternoon sunshine. He was sweeping away stone chips from ‘Uzumaki Rules!’ carved into the Fourth’s head. “Don't worry about it. Gaara's a lot better now."

"Naruto..." Lee lifted his head to stare at his friend. What could he say? I'm sorry for the life you've had? That could barely begin to cover it.

The friendly punch on the arm nearly knocked him over. "Don't look so down. Me 'n Gaara survived. My buddies helped. Buddies like you, Fuzzy-brows. Come on, let's go downtown. I've been away two weeks, I want my ramen. That bastard Sasuke was in charge of provisions on this mission, and he kept feeding me health food. I'm talking tofu. The bastard and I both know it’s a way of getting his own back, but he’s too good at denying it. And that’s not the worst, lemme tell you what happened two missions ago- you have the time, right? When you heading back, by the way?"

"In two days-" Lee hesitated as he got up. "Tomorrow in fact."

"Cool. Gaara can do with having a buddy around. Come on, let's go eat!"

Lee slowly followed Naruto who'd hurled himself off the monument with his usual energy. He had a lot to think about.

Chapter Text

"Hey, you! The red-head with the eye makeup!"

Lee froze with his tea halfway to his mouth. On the other side of the table, Gaara turned his head slowly to look over at the man who’d addressed him.

"Yeah, you. Care to show a hardworking sailor a good time?"

Lee sat in stunned horror for a brief instant, then he plunked down his cup hard enough to attract the man's drunken attention.

"He's not interested," he said, trying to keep his tone firm but unprovocative.

"Oh yeah? And who are you?” the man asked, swaying a bit and trying to focus on Lee. “The daddy?"

Lee stared at the drunken sailor, aghast.

"You should leave," he finally managed to say. "Now."

The sailor started to protest, but just then one of his friends who hadn't gotten quite as plastered, grabbed him by the shoulders and started to drag him away. Lee didn't know what kind of face Gaara was making because he didn't dare look quite yet, but the second man was staring at the Sand nin and he'd gone pale.

"Come on, mate," the second sailor muttered tightly, "I don't think that guy's a rent-boy."

"But he's dressed like-"

"For the love of god, shut up and let's go!"

Lee made sure the two sailors had actually exited the tavern. Then with the great courage that characterized Rock Lee, he turned to face Gaara.

Gaara didn't look ready to kill, strangely enough. He was staring at Lee, unperturbed and impassive as usual, but Lee could detect a faint layer of curiosity in the green eyes.

"What's a rent-boy?"

"Um..." Lee coughed and tried to think of what to say.

"Why would he think you're my father? You're only a year older than me, and we look nothing alike."

"He was very drunk. I think we should leave," Lee said, his voice pitched higher than usual. He stood up, leaving their unfinished tea behind with a few coins for the waitress, and headed quickly towards the tavern’s back door.

Lee sidestepped a thin cat in the back alley, as well as a couple of crates of fish that were starting to stink under the sun, and headed towards the street as fast as he could. But he didn't make it.

"He thought I was a prostitute," Gaara said right behind him, in the tone of one who'd just now figured it out.

Lee stopped and put a hand out to lean briefly against the wall, though what he really wanted to do was bang his head against it. He'd been hoping Gaara wouldn't catch on. Gaara might have been born in blood, killed his first man by the age of three and have more murders to his name than most Shinobi were reasonably expected to at his age, but nobody had bothered to give Sunagakure's lethal weapon much of an education outside of the art of killing as Lee had found out on previous occasions. In some ways, Gaara was quite-...

Lee tried to fit the word 'innocent' in the same sentence as 'Gaara' and failed completely. No, not innocent by a very long stretch, but Gaara was missing some information about how the non-Shinobi world functioned. Lee, as a ninja, had been taught the ins and outs of the criminal underbelly of society at the academy. He might have to use it to go undercover on missions, or he might be commissioned by his country or village to target certain areas of it. Lee hadn't liked that part of his education much, but at least he knew what a rent-boy was. His face was now a shade of red it normally didn't reach unless he'd opened his Life Gate. He had the feeling that Gaara was going to force him to elaborate, and serious wall-induced head trauma was looking very appealing.

He bravely turned to face Gaara, but the Kazekage still didn’t look particularly murderous. He’d apparently dismissed the man and his suggestion out of hand, though he was looking down at his clothes, faintly intrigued.

"What's wrong with the way I dress?" he asked. "I wear this all the time in Suna."

Yes, Lee found himself reflecting, but out here in the real world it's a bit more provocative to wear mesh and straps and buckled- what the hell am I thinking?!

Lee tried to derail that strange and completely inappropriate thought about a Shinobi leader and a friend. Gaara wore outfits that were practical to fight in and that protected him without hindering his movements. The fact that they buckled close to his body had nothing to do with-with anything!

With a bit of effort, Lee managed to get his mind off of what Gaara was wearing - since he wasn't carrying the gourd on its leather halter, Gaara's long coat had fallen open to reveal the short red sleeveless vest he wore beneath it, buckled tight over a mesh shirt-

With considerable effort, Lee managed to get his mind off of what Gaara was wearing by concentrating on one single absorbing fact.

Temari was going to kill him.

 

---

 

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Lee had mulled long and hard over the conversation he'd had with Naruto. And a quiet resolve had taken shape in his mind. He couldn't change Gaara's past. And as much as Lee would like to believe that being friends with Gaara would change his present and future, he doubted it would. Lee could only guess at how great the damage was, but it would probably be beyond the scope of someone like himself to repair. There might not be anyone who could help at this stage. Some things were too broken to fix.

But he would try. Because above all else, Rock Lee was not one to give up. Maybe simply trying would make things a little bit better.

He’d been unable to act on his resolution right away; the month that followed his mission in Konoha had been very busy. Gaara and his siblings were preparing to meet the Daimyo in Nasaki, an important maritime town in Wind where the court resided for the summer. Lee had joined them in his capacity of military liaison, after listening to a long and occasionally threatening lecture on how to behave from Temari. Gaara’s sister had become an important force for politics and diplomacy in Suna, and for some reason she seemed persuaded that Lee would embarrass himself - and by implication, all Shinobi - before the Daimyo of Wind.

During the boring week that followed their arrival at Nasaki’s summer palace, Lee had ample time to observe Gaara in this different environment. He'd watched the Kazekage deal with politics, obligations and negotiations like a man of seventy and not seventeen. Lee knew that caring for his village was a lifeline to Gaara's sanity, but there should be more.

So he'd suggested they go for a walk around the city one afternoon when they shouldn’t be missed. It wasn't much of a suggestion, but it was something Gaara had never done before. Gaara hadn't been very enthusiastic, not seeing the point, but even as he'd said that, he'd accepted, much to Lee's surprise and delight.

Of course if anybody had found out what Lee was planning, they would have stopped him and talked Gaara out of it. The dangerous weapon from Sand was not supposed to walk around a crowded city full of innocent people. Most of the Sand Shinobi had come to accept that Gaara would probably not snap and kill everybody in a five hundred yard radius at the slightest provocation anymore, but that didn't mean they were going to take any chances.

Lee believed to the bottom of his heart that taking chances was the only way of forcing yourself to grow. If they kept Gaara isolated, how would they ever know if he’d finally grown beyond the mad host of Shukaku and truly become the Kazekage? How would Gaara know, for that matter?

Since the gourd was hardly discreet, Gaara had left it back at the palace, putting on a good thick layer of Sand Armour and packing more into his coat. A bustling seaside city in Wind should be safe enough; if not, Lee had solemnly promised himself to defend Gaara with his life in case of danger. And he trusted Gaara not to lash out and hurt anybody, though he was ready to step in and protect the citizens of Nasaki from the Sand in the unlikely case something happened; he'd lay down his life for that too.

That was a lot of potentially deadly pitfalls for just a walk along the wharf. But Lee had never let the mere danger of death deter him from what he'd set his mind to.

Two minutes after they'd hit the street, a bustling fishmonger had bumped into Gaara; a situation that would have given Temari and Kankuro nightmares for a week. The sand had rustled in Gaara's coat, but the woman had been moving way too slowly to be a threat, so it hadn't reacted beyond that. Gaara hadn't reacted either, despite having had the Shinobi equivalent of hours to dodge her approach; in Suna, a space of a few feet always materialized around the bearer of Shukaku as people avoided him out of respect or fear. Even Shinobi who didn't know him sidestepped Gaara on the strength of their survival instincts. Nobody just bumped into Gaara of the Sand.

Lee had tensed, ready to leap forward - rip open a Gate if need be! - to protect the hapless woman who’d been trying to wipe fish scales off of Gaara's sleeve. Then the fishmonger had apologized cheerfully and tried to sell him some tuna.

The look on Gaara's face had made it all worth it to Lee.

Not that there were many people who could have read that look. In fact the woman had grown a bit huffy with him and walked off, muttering about 'stone-faced foreigners with no sense of humour or manners', not knowing how close she'd come to a lethal killer. But Lee was starting to get rather good at reading Gaara, and he’d detected the surprise and the wonder at being treated normally - that is to say, without fear, loathing or respect - for one of the first times in his life.

Mission successful, or so Lee had thought, but it turned out that he had failed to anticipate a couple of things. First, that Gaara would be curious about these new experiences and unwilling to return to the palace after a short walk. And second, that the docks of Nasaki, where they'd ended up, was a rough and rather disreputable area.

How disreputable was quickly obvious when they were mugged after only half an hour of wandering around. That was the point when Lee had wished he'd not gone undercover to get Gaara out of the palace, or at least that he'd put on his forehead protector after slipping through the back gate. Shinobi didn’t get mugged as a rule.

He'd gotten rid of the muggers without any risk to anyone by the most expedient of means; he'd picked up a discarded metal boat hook and bent it with his bare hands. When he'd looked up again, the four muggers had disappeared.

Gaara hadn't said anything, but Lee had the feeling the Kazekage had been cynically entertained by the whole episode.

Despite Lee's protests, Gaara had wandered deeper into the seedy underbelly of the docks, looking at everything - the boats, the market stalls, the arguments, the bustling life around him - with a tentative curiosity that had eventually defeated Lee's better judgment, which was how they'd ended up in a tavern where a drunken sailor had mistaken the Kazekage of Sunagakure for a hooker and asked him for a good time.

Temari was going to kill him. Slowly.

"So in that context," Gaara was saying thoughtfully, "what exactly is a ‘daddy’?"

If Gaara figured out that the sailor had thought Lee was his pimp, Temari would not have the opportunity to kill him; Lee would die of embarrassment first.

"We should get back to the palace," he said, proud he'd managed not to stutter too badly. "They'll notice we're gone soon, and-"

Gaara’s dark-ringed eyes narrowed as he glanced back at the tavern door.

Lee stiffened, feeling it too.

"Let's get out of this alley," Gaara said calmly.

The men were trying to surround them, but Gaara, now more in his element, leapt over a low wall and headed towards the pier. Lee shadowed his footsteps, protecting the Kazekage's back.

"There, that will do," Lee said mournfully, pointing ahead at an empty fish-packing yard. Taking a simple walk in town shouldn't be this damn complicated!

Gaara headed towards the area in silence. A dozen men materialized around them as soon as he and Lee stopped moving.

One of them stepped forward and Lee's heart sunk further. He'd seen that face posted in Leaf's Bingo Book. He didn't recognize any of the others, and their stances weren't very impressive, but if there were any more like this guy in the lot, Lee was going to have to work at it to defend himself and Gaara without endangering the people in the streets nearby.

And all that without letting rumours of Gaara’s presence in town get out, either. It was already going to take quite a bit of luck to sneak back into the palace without the Suna contingent realizing they’d lost sight of their leader and greatest weapon for a couple of hours.

Temari was going to kill him slowly with a rusted spoon.

"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty..." one of the men murmured mockingly, demonstrating a total lack of survival instincts that didn’t impress Lee very much.

"Remember," Lee murmured in Gaara's direction. "You promised me you wouldn't use your jutsus on anybody in town."

"Except in self-defence," Gaara amended, his eyes coolly assessing the thugs present with something a bit too much like anticipation. The sand in his coat was rustling.

"What do you guys want? We don't have much money," Lee shouted sternly at the thugs as he stepped in front of the Kazekage. He already knew this wasn't an ordinary mugging.

The leader's eyes lingered over Lee's outfit. Lee was wearing his usual formfitting Gai-Sensei-Approved Power Suit, with legwarmers and a yellow poncho thrown over it all for discretion. After a long minute, the leader stopped staring at Lee and fastened his gaze on Gaara.

"What do we have here? Are you two boys trying to muscle in on my territory?" he murmured. His voice was oddly hoarse, as if he’d been wounded in the throat in the past. He had two curved and notched daggers at his belt, which he was fingering lightly.

"No, we're just visiting," Lee said quickly. They’d left all Shinobi markings back at the palace, but somebody - maybe those muggers - must have identified them as ninja and assumed they were missing nin or criminals from another organisation.

Behind Lee, Gaara had crossed his arms over his chest and was returning the man's stare with interest. Maybe they could talk, or in Gaara's case intimidate, their way out of this. Not that this rabble posed any real danger to either of them, but Lee didn't want Gaara to kill anyone, and tarnish the experience of this afternoon with the bloodshed that always seemed to follow him wherever he went.

The man stared at them for a while, assessing. Then he gestured contemptuously at Lee.

"You. Leave now. I don't care about you. I only want the spook behind you. You can come back later and pick up the remains. Show them to your friends while you’re at it. I want everyone to know what happens to guys who make a move on my organisation, however fucking badass they think they are."

It was strange how people always underestimated Lee when they first saw him. It happened all the time. Really, couldn't they recognize a fearsome warrior when they saw one? Maybe it was because he was wearing the poncho...But being dismissed so casually wasn't anywhere as insulting as the suggestion that Lee would run off and leave Gaara behind.

"I refuse," he said contemptuously, extending his right hand towards the thug in an attack stance. "We’re not here for a fight, but if you are looking for one, you’ll have to start with me. Trust me, you won’t get the chance to face my friend.”

The criminal smirked-

There was a sudden surge of chakra right behind Lee.

Lee darted an alarmed look over his shoulder. Had someone tried to attack Gaara? He hadn’t felt anyone try to circle them-

There was only Gaara behind him, arms crossed over his chest, unharmed. Staring at Lee.

"What?" Lee whispered. "What happened?" Gaara could normally suppress his chakra and his presence until he was practically invisible to all but the most wary and seasoned Shinobi.

Lee felt the kunai fly at his back. He didn’t need to turn around; instinct had his hand instantly in place to intersect with ample time to block the strike.

Which never came. Lee's fingers twitched as they failed to catch cold metal. There had been an impact noise instead, a very familiar sound. He glanced around. The kunai was embedded in a thin arch of sand that had materialized in front of him.

"Gaara!" Lee gave the Kazekage a reproachful look.

Gaara's eyes were still fixed on him, expression unreadable.

"I told you I'd deal with this," Lee said as patiently as he could.

"It was...a reflex," Gaara answered, his voice distant.

"I understand." Lee sighed. It wasn't easy to see a kunai fly at someone’s back and not stop it if you had the ability. "But save the sand jutsu for self-defense and stay back, okay? Let me handle this please."

Lee turned prudently back towards their attackers, absently catching the kunai as it fell from the sand and hefting it in his palm. He was going to have to make this a very quick battle; Gaara was still leaking chakra a bit oddly, though the amount was decreasing now.

There seemed to be fewer thugs around, Lee realized with some surprise. Their leader had fallen into a defensive stance.

“Gaara...of the Sand?” he asked slowly, his eyes flicking from Gaara to Lee, to the sand creeping back towards Gaara’s feet.

There was a crunch in the debris of fish scales and old bones strewn in the yard as Gaara moved forward to stand next to Lee, arms still crossed over his chest.

Two seconds later, the yard was empty aside from Lee and Gaara.

Lee had to beat down the urge to run after the cowardly foe and continue the confrontation. He had other fish to fry, and those losers were hardly worth it anyway.

“I guess that’s one way to end a fight,” he said with a sigh, absently sticking the kunai into his weapons holster.

Gaara didn’t answer. His eyes were still fixed on the space where the leader had been, but they weren’t focused on anything.

“The downside is that in an hour, there’ll be rumours of your presence all over town,” Lee admitted with a wince. “I think we should head back. Right?”

Silence.

“Gaara? Come on.”

He'd memorized a map of the city before their trip. He grabbed Gaara by the wrist and headed towards the wharf nearby.

"Hello, sir. Can you do me a favour?" Lee asked brightly, leaning down to talk to an old fisherman fixing a net in his boat. "Can you take us across to the other side of the estuary?"

"Ain't nothin’ there. Nothin' but t' palace grounds," the old man said without looking up.

"I know. That's where we need to go."

The old sailor looked slowly up at Lee through a pair of bushy eyebrows, then his gaze slid across to Gaara. He seemed to think it over for a minute - Lee's pulse was counting every second repeatedly and excitedly - then he put down his net and nodded.

"Thanks!" Lee led Gaara into the small skiff and tugged him down to sit next to him on a bench near the bow.

Lee breathed easier as the old man pulled out and started poling his boat against the current. That should put them back on the palace grounds in a few minutes, where they might have a chance of pretending they’d been taking a casual stroll all along.

"You okay?" he asked as an afterthought. Gaara was oddly silent even by normal Gaara standards. And there was still an odd shiver of chakra about him, stirring the sand along his skin with the faintest of hisses.

Gaara was staring out across the water. The green of his pupils seemed to have deepened to the color of cut jade in the dark rings of his eyes and his face was a mask. Lee felt a small trickle of worry creep up his spine. There was something wrong here.

“I want to make one thing clear,” Gaara said suddenly, still staring out to sea. “You do remember that I almost crippled you and that I could kill you without even trying, right?”

“No you couldn't,” Lee huffed. He wasn't that much of a pushover.

Silence.

Gaara slowly turned around and Lee's mouth went dry.

This was not the cool, collected Kazekage he was used to. Or rather it was, but behind the mask of sand and the iron control, Lee could see something stirring, something cruel and wounded and hungry, something that had been hurt way too many times and was ready to lash out if hurt again.

Lee swallowed.

“I'd put up a good fight. You'd certainly have to try,” he said, his mouth on automatic while his mind skipped to the safety of the old sailor. If things went haywire, he'd concentrate on getting the old man to the nearest shore, then come back and deal with the fallout.

Gaara’s eyes could have chiseled stone.

"Why did you take me with you this afternoon?" he asked in a soft, dangerous tone.

"I...just thought we could take a break from work,” Lee answered weakly. “Go for a walk and look at the city together." Of course, that hadn’t gone quite to plan, but-

Gaara turned away, and the sense of threat dissipated slowly.

Lee dared to breathe a little easier.

"...Gaara?"

"I understand. I think. It just took me by surprise. I didn't know what it would feel like." Gaara crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at the water, his face turned away from Lee.

Lee was going to ask him what the hell he was talking about, when he realized that Gaara was muttering to himself in a monotone, his words so soft that the cry of the gulls overhead nearly drowned them.

"...I protect them. I nearly died for them. They still fear me, but they need me. It's a connection. It's all there can be. I know that. But sharing...sharing those things today, together, that’s...I don't understand how-...It’s not need. There was no price to pay for it. I didn't even notice it happening. Doesn't make sense-..."

Lee didn't know what was wrong, but he instinctively backed off, sitting back on the bench and not saying anything, letting Gaara work through it on his own.

But he was in more hurry than ever to get back to the palace grounds now. Talk about a relaxing afternoon out...

“Where are we going?” Gaara suddenly asked, his head coming up and his eyes flickering over the boat and the old sailor who was apparently rather deaf and completely oblivious to the previous tension on board.

That question, if nothing else, showed Lee how far Gaara had lost it earlier.

But when Gaara turned to look at him, Lee realized with a rush of relief that the more familiar Gaara was now firmly back in the driver's seat. Whether that other old, wilder part was gone or merely hidden again, Lee didn’t know. He did however note to himself that however troubled Gaara had been, he hadn’t lost it and hurt anybody. Far from it. He’d protected Lee, shown restraint with their attackers and then he’d followed the Jounin and trusted him to lead them to safety. That meant a lot to Lee. He would remember that the next time Gaara was being a stubborn pain in the ass.

Lee's luck was always abysmal, as this afternoon illustrated, but taking a chance could still pay off when you trusted and believed in the strength of a friend. He beamed warmly at Gaara and explained his plan to sneak into the palace grounds and act casual.

“That's a stupid idea,” Gaara said shortly.

Lee rolled his eyes. Yep, Gaara was definitely back.

“You have a better one?”

“We'll go in through the garrison gate. I'll deal with this.”

“But-“

“Can you make this boat go any faster?”

“No.”

“How far to the shore?” Gaara turned around to look.

“About ten min-“

“Let's walk.”

Gaara stood up and stepped over the side of the boat. The sea waves rippling through the estuary instantly flattened themselves beneath his feet, the water becoming as still as glass all around him as his massive chakra exerted itself.

Lee sighed and kindly thanked the gaping sailor who'd nearly dropped his pole. Then he got to his feet and followed quickly. He couldn’t mold chakra outside of his body all that well. He’d better stick close to Gaara or he’d not be able to negotiate the waves and end up swimming to shore.

 

 

---

 

Apparently somebody had noticed Gaara’s absence from his quarters in the Daimyo's summer palace, because when they got back they found the garrison in an uproar, with Temari and Kankuro busy organizing a search party for their missing leader and brother.

Temari looked at them both as they walked in, then her eyes fixed on Lee with a gaze that could have been borrowed from Shukaku itself.

"You-" she started.

"Temari," Gaara said, his flat tone brooking no argument. "This situation is my responsibility. Lee just made sure I was safe, and that others were safe around me. If you have any complaints, address them to me after I finish talking with the Daimyo. Leave my friend alone."

Temari started at those last two words. She and Kankuro stared open-mouthed at Gaara as he headed towards the door.

Then Temari blinked as if waking up. She levelled a hot glare at Lee. Behind Gaara’s back, Kankuro gave Lee a grin and dragged a finger across his throat in the universal sign for 'you are so dead', before following his brother towards the Daimyo's quarters.

Temari waited until Gaara was out of earshot.

"Sit," she said in a voice nobody would have disobeyed. In fact the three senior Jounin present almost sat down too until they realized she was talking to Lee, and then they hightailed it out of the room without looking back.

She wasn't loud. In fact, her voice sometimes dropped almost to a whisper, but what she said...Lee would have much preferred the rusty spoon. He sat quite still, his head bowed and gripping his knees like a naughty schoolboy while she went on at lengths about ‘irresponsible’, ‘diplomatic fallout', ‘oblivious to danger’ and ‘insane’.

Finally she fell silent, glaring at him, hands on her hips and breathing heavily.

"Lee, stand up," she growled.

Oh boy. But Lee remembered the look on Gaara's face this afternoon when he'd been walking around the wharf with nobody noticing him or staring at him in fear. He stood up, ready to pay the piper for that moment with no regret.

Temari gave him a withering look and grabbed him by the poncho. She gave him a quick hug and then she was gone with no more than a quick, hushed 'Thank you' in his ear.

Lee stared after her and then fell back limply into the chair. Women. He'd never understand them.

Temari would be furious with him in the future too, in all likelihood. Lee sighed. He really didn't want to upset Gaara's brother and sister - especially his sister - or the people from Sand, who were probably right to treat their Kazekage like a dangerous weapon. But that didn't mean Lee regretted what he'd done, or that he'd not do it again given the opportunity. Gaara had shown this afternoon that he could be trusted; and he’d also enjoyed it, as much as he could enjoy anything. In Lee’s opinion, the chance they’d taken had been well worth it.

Yes, Rock Lee was now determined in his resolve! He'd drag Gaara out again at the first opportunity. Shove him into new situations, force him to interact with people, see how the world worked outside of a Hidden Village, and drag him into taverns where he'd get hit upon and attacked by thugs.

After all, what were friends for?

Chapter Text

Lee considered himself a nature lover. He had a great respect for the animal kingdom and believed that every living creature deserved to be appreciated. But a hive full of bloated roaches the size of poodles was straining his principles somewhat. The smell alone would have been enough to knock a normal man down.

"I did warn you," Gaara pointed out as Lee gagged. Anybody else would have been smug, saying that. Gaara just sounded factual.

"Yes, I know. Aw man, that really stinks."

Gaara glanced back, as if to see if Lee was really about to pass out, and his chin brushed against the high collar of the Jounin flack jacket he was wearing. He flattened it with a flash of annoyance in his green eyes, shifting the gourd a bit so it pulled vest and collar back and away from his face. The gesture distracted Lee from the smell momentarily. It was so strange to see Gaara in ordinary Sand Jounin clothes. Not that they didn't suit him, but it was just...odd. Different. He looked like an ordinary seventeen-year-old Shinobi to start with.

Lee was dressed the same way. The Sand Shinobi outfit he’d been issued was light, tough and designed for the desert, but he still missed his form-fitting suit. He wondered briefly what he and Gaara looked like together. Two young men side by side, wearing the same uniform. A pair of regular Sand Shinobi; two team-mates out on a mission...A very, very smelly mission. Lee thought the insides of his nostrils were starting to curdle.

"I told you to stay back at the camp," Gaara said with a total lack of sympathy for the way Lee was turning green. The smell didn't seem to inconvenience Gaara too badly, but then he'd been exposed to it before.

Lee just snorted at the suggestion. He'd have said something, but he was too busy breathing through his mouth.

"I don't need any help," Gaara added.

"Course you don't." Lee waved his hand in front of his nose. It didn’t help.

"If you go back now, I won’t have to watch out for you."

"You won’t have to watch out for me anyway."

The back-and-forth was almost entirely automatic. Gaara had long since given up trying to shake Lee off of a dangerous mission. The biggest part of their attention was on the enemy, judging the best approach through the shallow canyons, rocks and sand dunes that bordered the Hive.

Finally Gaara turned.

"We'll take them from the east."

"You sure?" Lee looked at the suggested terrain with a frown.

"Less cover that way."

"Less cover for them, but also less cover for us. They'll see us."

"They'll sense our chakra signatures long before they see us.” Gaara gave Lee’s shoulder a nudge in the right direction when Lee still hesitated. “Cover will hamper my attacks. Move."

Lee wasn’t bothered by the curt order, in fact he barely noticed it. That was just Gaara. What Lee did notice was the hand that had rested briefly on his shoulder. This was a recent development. Gaara didn't touch others ordinarily. Even back in the bad old days when he used to kill people on a regular basis, he didn’t actually go and touch them to do so.

Lee didn't mention the brief shove. Neither did he comment on those occasions Gaara leaned against him to share a map, or tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. He had the feeling Gaara himself didn't notice the gestures half the time; he certainly didn't mention them either. What had grown up between them slowly, almost unnoticed, was a friendship between men, the kind that didn’t need any words.

So Lee didn't mention the brief touch, but it put him in a good mood despite the stench and the creepy crawly feeling going up and down his spine.

He followed Gaara's footsteps, a few dunes between them and the outskirts of the Hive. The air was sizzling hot. Gaara had decided not to wait until nightfall to attack. The insects, scurrying and scratching in the shallow salt basin a hundred yards away, sounded like they were frying on a griddle. The smell waxed and waned with the wind, a stench like putrid flesh combined with etching acid. Lee concentrated on keeping his presence hidden as long as possible. So far the bugs hadn't spotted them.

"We'll leave the bags here," Gaara said quietly, ditching the sack he’d been carrying, the strap slung over his shoulder along with the gourd.

There was a chittering noise nearby.

"Company," Lee said softly. Gaara didn't answer, merely motioned with a finger for Lee to follow.

Four of the insects appeared on the edge of the dune as the two young men climbed. Antennas and mandibles waved and clicked in blurs, facetted eyes tilted to take them in.

They're semi-intelligent, Lee remembered from Gaara's briefing; or rather, the Hive is, and the drones are directed by that intelligence. They feed on chakra. Too much chakra from too many Shinobi can cause them to swarm, which was why it was better to attack with the smallest possible force. Their jaws could cut through bone. The warrior drones were also venomous. And they were very, very fast.

Four black blurs shot like hurled kunai towards Lee and Gaara.

Even though he'd been ready for an attack, such speed in the animal kingdom still caught Lee a bit short. His first strike was sloppy. The pole arm he'd borrowed from Temari knocked one bug down but speared the other through the carapace instead of taking off its head. The mandibles scissored near his ear as the dying drone wiggled along the metal and tried to slice him. The other drone had hopped back onto its feet and was leaping to the attack again. Lee shook the first creature off of the short spear and burst into a Konoha Whirlwind that sent the other bug smacking into the sand from sheer wind pressure. It burst on impact into a gooey grey mess. Gaara had said to avoid contact as much as possible, to avoid chakra loss.

Lee had taken the two bugs coming straight at them. He knew without looking that the sand at Gaara's feet had leapt up and speared the other attackers coming from the sides. Lee had done a few missions with Gaara to date, he knew what to expect. Maybe it was because he and Gaara had been sparring for well over a year now, or maybe it was because of the growing friendship between them, but their two fighting styles seemed to mesh well. Another thing that didn't need words. Lee grinned. Despite the stinking grey goo on the sleeve of his borrowed shirt and the sudden furious scurrying up ahead, he was looking forward to this. He wanted to see how well they'd fight together against this new challenge.

They climbed to the top of the dune and looked down at a swarming black carpet coming towards them at speed.

Lee quickly unwrapped a few loops of bandages from his hands in case he needed to use Renge on the bigger warrior drones. "Ready?"

Sand was rippling around Gaara in growing circles. "Keep a rein on your enthusiasm."

“Oh come on, you know me.”

“Precisely.”

A short silence.

“Right, I won't take any risks,” Lee sighed under Gaara’s unrelentingly stern gaze.

For a short while after their trip to Nasaki, Gaara had acted silent and withdrawn with Lee, only answering questions. Lee had been startled and a bit worried. It was Temari who'd dropped him a hint about Gaara's state of mind. Apparently Gaara had reacted the same way with his siblings after his fight with Naruto, when he'd realized that the three of them were, in fact, family, and that this should mean something. He just didn’t know what that ‘something’ was, and that made him cautious, as if reaching for something that could break if he touched it the wrong way.

Temari’s hints - followed by various threats about what she’d do to him if he screwed up and hurt Gaara's feelings - had finally enlightened Lee about what exactly had happened in Nasaki. It also made him cautious, seeing how drastically Gaara had reacted to the simple notion of being friends. This situation might require delicate handling, or at least something a bit more delicate than a bracing Gai-Sensei-type speech on the beauty of manly friendship, which would have been Lee’s normal approach. Unsure of himself, Lee continued to treat Gaara normally while he tried to figure out how to address the problem. Which pretty much went away on its own as a result. Once Gaara realized that Lee was used to him the way he was - abrupt, brutally honest, prone to long periods of silence - he went back to normal, to Lee's relief. In the past four months, things had settled down and they'd even started arguing again.

These days they were friends, just doing the stuff friends do, like stand back to back and face a multitude of giant insects. Lee had been in Sunagakure for over a year now, and he was having more and more fun every day.

"I can't believe you told me to stay back at the camp," he snorted, sending a powerful kick into the sand at his feet that hurled the frontrunners like missiles into the others behind them.

"I've taken care of two other hives on my own before. I'm in no danger." Gaara waved a hand in a short gesture towards the bugs scurrying towards him. The sand whipped out, following his silent order.

"I mean I can't believe you'd have me miss out on a fight like this!"

"Kankuro is right. You are strange sometimes."

Sand was shooting out at the smallest twitch of Gaara's fingers, throwing bugs back, crushing them in sudden traps. Lee noted with pride how his sparring with Gaara had turned those already dangerous sand strikes into lethal bullets that required only an elegant minimum of chakra. Gaara's speed easily matched and surpassed that of the insects.

The fight was easy to start with, just a matter of squashing bugs. Then the Hive started to organize its troops. Lee and Gaara fell instinctively into their own pattern; Lee darting forward to attack one point of the enemy formations up close and hard, while the desert sand flowed around him in defense and support. Then Lee would leap back and clear the bugs out that had been getting too close to Gaara's six while the sand attacked anything lunging after Lee's retreat. Gaara’s automatic defenses wouldn’t let them hurt him, but he’d pointed out before the attack that if any of the stinking bugs got squished by the Sand he carried in his gourd, he would be forced to put up with the smell until the Sand cleansed itself and that would make him one very unhappy and short-tempered Kazekage for awhile. For the good of Sunagakure, Lee was doing his best; the bloody Sand in the gourd was just fine, but he and Gaara were getting splashed with various bits, and all in all it was getting rather unpleasant.

They were making their way towards the centre of the Hive, a shallow bowl full of discarded insect husks and the bones of past prey. The sand there was heaving and spraying upwards like water starting to boil.

"Are they beginning to swarm?!" Lee shouted, alarmed.

"Yes."

"But we haven't spent that much chakra!"

"I think they would have swarmed soon anyway. The patrols missed this nest for too long. We should make it in time though," Gaara added, voice perfectly cool and measured.

Lee gripped the pole arm and redoubled his efforts, concentrating on keeping the insects away with large, fast, sweeping blows, and clearing a path for Gaara. This was serious; if the insects swarmed, they would start to run at speed through the desert, and any village, oasis settlement or unwary travelers in their path would be instantly slaughtered. The bugs wouldn't stop until they reached a stretch of fertile land in Wind country where they would kill and eat everything, down to the blades of grass, spreading the desert before they died. Then a new hive would start to pupate among their poisonous corpses to repeat the cycle. The Sand Shinobi considered it a sacred duty to keep the desert as free as they could from these dangerous pests, but there was a lot of ground to patrol.

Gaara stopped his advance thirty yards from the center of the bowl.

"Is this close enough?" Lee asked, swatting away a large warrior.

Gaara nodded silently and extended a hand.

Lee shivered. It felt like a cloud had covered the sun. Around him, the insects suddenly paused as the Hive realized what kind of enemy it had let into its midst.

Gaara's face was expressionless. His fingers started to close, slowly.

In the centre of the bowl, the sand suddenly heaved and hissed. Chakra pulsed through the air. The insects around them started to thrum, but it was hopefully too late. By the time they fed on the chakra and got the last bit of energy they needed to swarm, it would be over with.

The sand erupted. Warrior drones the size of small ponies burst out of underground burrows and scurried towards Gaara - they were ruthlessly crushed by smashing waves of sand.

In the center of the bowl, a massive head poked up through the ground.

Gaara's fingers twitched.

The hairs on Lee's arms and neck were standing on end. The insects around him were now scurrying towards the center of the bowl to blindly help there, so he had nothing to do but watch Gaara's straight back and unreadable face as he slowly lifted his hand. His prey erupted, bloated, wriggling and utterly helpless, from the tunnels beneath the salt basin.

"You got her!" Lee gasped as he watched Gaara’s sand heave the queen out of her underground chamber. She was fighting, her stubby legs thrashing, her thick puffy body wiggling and pulsing, still laying eggs automatically. The liquid from her jaws was dissolving some of the sand; an ability that allowed her to burrow into its cool depths to lay her young. But it wasn't enough to escape Gaara's grip. Her drones were hurling themselves against the sand as it lifted her up, but they couldn't help.

Lee's mouth went dry as the amount of chakra in the air continued to increase, pouring from Gaara's body and the sand around them.

"Amazing," he whispered. The queen was the size of ten grown men and she was fighting with much more strength than that. Gaara's face could have been carved from stone for all the exertion he showed.

Gaara slowly closed his fist.

The queen's thrashing was buried by layers of sand which slowly closed in with a very final lingering crunch.

Lee let out with a gasp the breath he'd been unconsciously holding.

"Lee."

"Huh?"

"Step back."

Lee did so instantly, though he stayed close enough to defend Gaara's back if he needed to.

Gaara's hands whipped through five seals, then he pressed his palms together, fingers raised like a dagger between the narrowed dark-ringed eyes. Lee recognized that stance and braced himself.

Sand hissed and howled, whipping up around Gaara, and the chakra in the air became almost palpable. The desert heaved up towards the sky and started tumbling into the bowl and the disorganized drones at its center. The semi-intelligent pre-breeder insects were struggling out of the tunnels now. One of them could become a new queen if given the opportunity, but Gaara was going to wipe them all out in one blow.

The sand rose like a tsunami, parting smoothly around Gaara and Lee and hurtling towards the centre of the bowl. With a crash it buried and crushed the swarm in the basin, pounding into it until Lee could feel the vibrations like an earthquake through the ground beneath his feet.

Power pulsed through the desert. Lee's heart was hammering in his chest. He'd seen the Desert Avalanche once before in his life. It was as awe-inspiring as ever.

At the very far back of Lee's mind, he knew that other people would find this terrifying. The raw power, the relentless crushing sand...Lee only found it inspiring. Challenging. Maybe even exciting, in a way he could never hope to explain.

The grinding sand came to a halt and settled. The deafening roar faded to a trickle of falling rocks and pebbles, then to a hushed, breathless silence. No more skittering. Lee couldn't see a single bug left, only flat, clean desert.

Gaara judged his handiwork with a measuring glance, then he sank down into a crouch.

"Hey, are you okay?!" Lee asked, instantly at his friend's side and kneeling next to him.

"Yes. The heat and the smell are getting to me," Gaara said simply. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face, the only sign of exertion.

"Really? I think my nose shut down over ten minutes ago."

"You are lucky," Gaara said dryly as he straightened up. "Let's get out of here."

"Want me to carry you?"

Gaara gave him a clinical scrutiny as if checking Lee for head injuries.

Lee laughed. The sound echoed brightly through the air that felt cleansed and crystal clear after that avalanche of power. "Just kidding. I know you can still walk, though I'm sure I couldn't after using all that- Gaara? Camp is back that way."

"If you have the energy to joke, go and get our bags," Gaara said, walking off in what Lee knew was the wrong direction.

Lee obeyed, puzzled. He hopped back to where they'd left the bags and ran to rejoin Gaara, who'd walked up the far lip of the bowl - though it was now more of a flat surface - and was heading out into the desert. He appeared to be looking for something, head down and pausing occasionally.

After ten minutes he stopped and slipped the gourd from its leather halter. Lee waited patiently, hefting his backpack and Gaara's bag over his shoulder.

Gaara favoured the sand at his feet with a basilisk stare. It promptly hissed and moved aside, a deep basin scooping itself out of the ground at Gaara’s silent bidding.

"Now you're just showing off," Lee drawled.

There was the slightest hint of a smirk on Gaara's otherwise impassive face. Then he lifted his head, apparently satisfied.

Lee glanced at the now deep depression and realized it was flooding with water bubbling up from below.

"An underground source?"

"They always settle near water. It will be polluted any closer to the Hive, but it should be clean here. Don't drink it though. The minerals here aren't good for you."

"Okay. Why did you dig it up then? We have water in our packs."

There was the sound of a zipper. Lee turned in time to see Gaara slip off the Jounin vest.

"What are you doing?!"

Gaara stopped pulling his shirt off to give Lee a faintly puzzled look. The alarm in the Jounin’s voice had apparently surprised him.

"We're going to wash the stench off," Gaara explained as though it was obvious.

Gaara removed the shirt, or at least Lee assumed that was what the soft noise of cloth behind him meant, but since he'd spun around to face the desert, he couldn't be sure.

"Lee, what are you doing?"

"We-I-you-you can't be serious."

"I am."

"We can't take a bath here! Out in the open like this!"

"Out in the open? There's nobody around for at least ten miles. Just us."

Lee's heart started slamming against the inside of his chest. Just us...

He opened his mouth to explain why this was not a good idea. There was a reason why this was not a good idea, because otherwise he wouldn't be feeling this- this jumpy.

There was a sound of a belt being unbuckled behind him, and Lee lost even the ability to speak in a rush of blind panic he couldn't begin to understand.

"Strip," Gaara ordered in a bored voice.

"We- we should be-" Lee took a deep breath and managed to control his voice again. "We have to keep an eye out for more bugs, we could get attacked."

"They're all dead." He could hear Gaara's sandals hit the ground.

"Why don't we just take a bath when we get back to camp?" a desperate Lee asked. He was staring out at the desert, but all he could see in his mind's eye was the flash of a hard, flat belly as Gaara lifted his shirt-

"Bathe in clean water?" Gaara asked scornfully. Lee knew he could drop that line of argument right away. Gaara's relationship with his hometown was complex, but in one thing Gaara was a true son of Suna; he'd waste blood long before he'd waste a valuable resource like drinking water.

There was a rustle of cloth, a slither of Sand Armour tumbling off of a naked body, and Lee could hear Gaara move towards the water. The crushing desert heat, reflecting off of the clear sand, seemed to be creeping up to Lee’s face, crawling under his skin.

"Well, you go ahead!" he said. "I'll keep watch, just in case. I don't need to take a bath, I'm fine." He was crusted in bug blood and guts from head to toe, but that was completely beside the point.

There was silence behind him. The sort of silence that was uniquely Gaara's; it could hold its own in any conversation. Lee slowly looked around, unable to help himself.

Gaara had his back to him, up to his knees in the improvised pool. Lee's gaze cemented itself to Gaara's face, his mind completely blank again. Gaara was looking over his shoulder at Lee and his eyes were narrowed. If Lee’s brain hadn’t gone numb, he'd have recognized that expression and been ready for the inevitable.

The sand around Lee leapt up, gripped him around the waist and hurled him with commendable aim into the center of the brand new oasis.

The water had been underground; it was cold after the desert heat, almost as much of a shock as the sudden move. Lee broke the surface and struggled to his feet in an instant, the power of his movements causing waves through the entire pool. He spun to face Gaara before he remembered why that wouldn't be a good idea.

Fortunately, Gaara had moved forward until he was waist-deep in the swiftly rising water. The underground source was rich with silt, making it milky brown and pretty much opaque. Lee swallowed and recovered his ability to think, along with a good measure of indignation.

"Gaara!"

His friend glanced up from the task of cleaning out the traces beneath his fingernails.

"What the hell did you do that for?!"

Gaara gave him a 'You are being exceptionally thick today' look.

"The camp is ten miles away. You stink enough now. Half an hour in the sun and you'll be a health hazard."

"That doesn't give you the right to- to-"

"As the one who will be walking with you, I think it does," Gaara pointed out, and bent over to splash his hair with water.

Lee was panting as if he'd just come through a long fight. Something strange was happening to his mind. On the surface, Lee was embarrassed; he was also cross; he was actually willing to concede that Gaara had a point about the smell; and he was telling himself he should really turn around now and look the other way.

But those feelings seemed to scurry without further effect along the surface of a deep inner pool in which Gaara's reflection took up all the space, and Lee couldn't turn away.

Gaara's skin was the creamy colour of wild almonds. The kind of skin that would turn an even brown if he stayed out in the sun without his Sand Armour more often. His body was flawless. There wasn't a single scar that Lee could see.

Smooth muscles rippled as he moved to pour more water onto his hair. Gaara's talent being mostly Sand Jutsu, his build was leaner and sleeker than Lee's. But there was something in the economy of his gestures, the grace and measure of his movements, that seemed to speak of power and control at all times. It rippled out from him like the small waves of water ringing him.

Once wet, his hair was the rich dark red of arterial blood; it fell straighter, bleeding down onto the cream-colored skin of his neck. The water snaked from his hair, past the startling ring of his eyes, trickled down his chest, touched nipples the color of sand, then down to the flat plane of his abdomen.

Gaara said something. Lee's eyes travelled back up to his face. In the strange trance he was in, Gaara's words seemed less important than the fact that his lips had a hint of that same sandy colour that seemed to speak of the desert.

The part of Lee that was still connected to reality informed him that Gaara had suggested Lee take his clothes off.

Lee jerked back in physical rejection of the very notion, sending a small wave of water splashing out. He couldn't. That was impossible. He didn't want his scarred weapon of a body anywhere near that perfection. Lee knew what he looked like; his skin knotted by traces of old injuries, the bump of broken ribs, the ridge of scars crisscrossing muscles that were meant to be used for fighting, not to be looked at. He was all sinew and muscle and scars and grit, and no, just no.

In his trance he started to imitate Gaara's gestures, pouring water over his head, rubbing at his shoulders...there, he was washing, see?

"Take off the clothes," Gaara said a bit impatiently.

"Why? We have to wash them too, right?" Lee pointed out, scrubbing industriously at a large grey smear on his tan sleeve.

"No, we're going to burn them back at the salt basin."

"B-burn them?!"

"...You did pack your regular clothes in your bag like I told you to. Right?"

"Oh!" Lee glanced around wildly at the packs he'd dropped earlier. "I forgot we brought those." It was why he was wearing a regular-issue uniform in the first place. It had completely slipped his mind.

"Lee?"

Lee stiffened as he heard Gaara come nearer.

"What?" he asked weakly, pushing away through the sandy water. A quick glance showed Gaara closer than before - only four feet - and looking at him intently.

"Did you take a blow to the head?" Gaara asked, faint traces of concern in his voice. "It's not like you to forget details. And you’re behaving oddly."

"I'm fine!" Lee staggered back a few steps, the water gripping at his legs and waist.

Gaara stopped and straightened. The water lapped at the cream skin of his belly, but Lee could no longer look away. Gaara stared at Lee, who was doing a passable 'rabbit before the wolf' imitation, then he glanced at the pool around them.

"Is this embarrassing you?" he asked in slow realization.

Lee gurgled something before clearing his throat. "Yes. A bit," he said hoarsely.

Gaara seemed to think about that. "But you use the shower rooms in your apartment building."

That was a good point. That was an excellent point. Lee was lodged in the bachelor Jounin quarters, and the showers were communal. It was true that Lee generally waited until they were empty before showering, but when he didn't have a choice, he wasn't usually this embarrassed. Why was he being so-

Just us...

"I wasn't expecting-" Lee croaked. "I-er-..."

Gaara stared at him for what seemed to be a long time, while Lee just stopped attempting to speak and stared back, trying not to notice the drops of water falling from the dark-red hair and trickling downwards.

"I don't understand you," Gaara finally declared. "But I'm done. You can finish bathing on your own. I want to check the state of this water on the other side of the Hive. There's an oasis nearby, it might have been contaminated."

"I'll come with you, we're not sure it's safe," Lee said miserably, starting to strip as duty conquered his reluctance.

"All the insects are dead, or else they'll die soon without the Hive's intelligence. Stay here and clean up properly."

Lee nonetheless took off the vest and shirt and started to scrub the gunk off of his skin. He was keeping the pants on though. He was so keeping the pants on...

He concentrated on his actions as he heard Gaara wade towards the shore and the bag containing his regular clothes. He tried to block out the sounds of the Kazekage dressing in the background. Finally Gaara left without a word, which was usual for him.

Lee wasn't all that tired. Gaara had done most of the work back there. He knew he could sprint and catch up with Gaara before the latter got too far ahead. So he took a minute to wash his face harshly with the cold mineral water. He felt flushed, hot and feverish.

And now that Gaara was gone and his brain seemed to be working again, he realized that wasn't his only problem.

Thank god the water was cold.

This...was a normal reaction. Lee was young and he'd just been through a fight. Gai-sensei had been very candid in explaining to his male students the sort of effect danger, violence and exertion could sometimes have on youthful bodies. Yes, good thing the water was cold. And silty. And that he was wearing pants.

It had nothing to do with - creamcolouredskin - with anything else.

It was the fight. Danger sometimes did that to a man. The battle-

- dark-ringed eyes entirely focused, fingers pressed together, red hair blown back by sheer force. Power ripping the air, breathtaking, perfectly controlled. The scream of chakra suddenly released -

Lee was breathing harshly through his nose, trying to deny the way his heart was hammering in his chest, the way the heat was pooling in his body beneath the water. No, this was wrong. To be- to be turned on by something like that was just- that was not happening. It was the heat and the adrenaline. That was all.

- creamcolouredskin -

Lee triggered a mental exercise, the kind that allowed him to control pain when he was training too hard. His heartbeat slowed and his mind stepped forward to take control.

Gaara was his friend. More than that; they sparred together, fought back to back, relied on each other. It was a special closeness only Shinobi shared. It isolated them from normal people, it led to territory where things weren't clear-cut, but you controlled this or it could get distracting. With Neji-

Lee's thoughts hit an internal wall. A Do Not Go There section.

It left him dead in the mental water for a few seconds, then he slowly started the exercise over again.

Gaara was his friend.

Lee was clinging to that thought as if the pool was sucking him under and it was his only lifeline.

Gaara was his friend. He'd let Lee reach him in his solitude. He sparred with Lee -

- quick blows, breathless excitement, touch of hand on hand as he helped Lee up from the ground -

Gaara was his friend. He sparred with Lee, he talked with him at midnight when they both needed a break...he even, after a lot of resistance, let Lee accompany him on this sort of mission.

That had been quite a fight, particularly four months ago when they'd come back from Nasaki with this strange, prickly, newly-discovered thing called friendship between them. Gaara's first instinct was to protect everyone and take all the danger onto himself. It was why he regularly took these sorts of dangerous missions, and forced the Shinobi who accompanied him to stay back in a camp ten miles away. Naturally he’d tried to apply the same treatment to Lee. There had been a clash of stubborn wills as Lee had shown him clearly that he was not going to accept that. He was not going to cower in the village under the protective hand of its Kazekage, thankyouverymuch.

Lee smiled gently as he remembered the slow change in their friendship. The evolution had been gradual, almost unnoticed at times. But these days Gaara nudged his shoulder when he wanted Lee to move. These days, both the silences and the words felt comfortable. These days, when Gaara left for a dangerous mission, the people of Suna would glance behind him, already expecting to see Lee following in his footsteps.

And that was the way it should be.

Lee nodded firmly. The heat had left him - just a by-product of battle, didn't mean anything. What mattered was not letting Gaara get too far ahead of him. Lee quickly struggled out of the wet pants and scoured off the gunk on his skin and hair with handfuls of wet sand. Gaara had been correct, it would have been painfully smelly after a short while in the sun. He finished and waded towards the backpacks.

He wasn't terribly surprised to find Gaara leaning against a nearby rocky column, staring at him. It was a further sign of their friendship, strangely enough. These days, when Gaara ran into something Lee said or did that he did not understand, a frequent occurrence, he no longer shrugged it off or ignored it. He tried to figure it out. However embarrassing or annoying that might be for Lee sometimes. When it came to people’s feelings, Gaara still had all the empathy of a chunk of sandstone.

"You...can be a real brat sometimes, Kazekage-sama." Lee flicked water at him, while keeping the wet clothes strategically before him.

Gaara was looking him over curiously with no signs of embarrassment or comprehension of Lee's former discomfiture. Lee sighed internally, still bothered by his appearance compared to that pristine skin and smoothly muscled form. He grabbed his backpack and stomped around to the other side of the rock formation Gaara was leaning against. He heard Gaara stir and head out slowly back towards the salt basin, then pause, waiting for him.

He dressed quickly and followed his friend.

Chapter Text

"What are you staring at?" Gaara asked, voice barely bordering on the curious.

Lee stiffened so abruptly that the water sloshed around him.

Gaara cleared the wet dark-red locks from his eyes and looked straight at Lee, who was crouched down in the silty water. Lee felt a flash of pure panic and confusion as he glanced down at himself. Hadn't he been wearing pants?!

"Were you looking at my body?"

Lee's squawk of denial could be heard clear across the desert.

Gaara shook some of the water off, lithe muscles rippling beneath cream-coloured skin. Then he moved towards Lee.

Lee realized to his utter horror that he couldn't move away. The water seemed to have turned into some impenetrable barrier, though it wasn't stopping Gaara's advance unfortunately.

"Are we so different?" Gaara asked him coolly as he came nearer.

Lee's stutter wasn't intelligible even to himself.

Gaara moved through the water like a swan until he was right behind Lee. He leaned his chest against Lee's back and his hand drifted down Lee's arm. His fingers covered the back of the spluttering Jounin's hand, then intertwined with Lee's fingers. He looked over Lee's shoulder at their arms, side by side (skin to skin).

"See? We're the same."

Lee stopped trying to say something coherent like I wasn't staring! Stay away! What are you doing?! Instead, his eyes widened in confusion.

Gaara's skin was still the colour of wild almonds, but now that he was closer, Lee could see that it was as scarred as his own; maybe more so. Remnants of old wounds crisscrossed Gaara's arms, roughened his fingers and knuckles. When Lee leaned away a bit, he could see that Gaara's chest was covered with scars; it looked like someone had tried to stab him repeatedly in the heart, slashing the skin and marring the sandstone-coloured nipple. It was a Shinobi's body, it was human...Lee slowly looked up into Gaara's face - so close to his own - and Gaara's eyes were no longer hard and cold and empty, they were alive and warm, as human as the scarred, imperfect body, and Gaara smiled down at him and whispered "We're the same..."

Lee sat up abruptly and blinked, dazed, at the opposite wall of his bedroom.

This was getting ridiculous. It was one thing to have wet dreams about Gaara, but that one had been just surreal. Gaara's body hadn't been scarred at all. And he never smiled like that.

Lee woke up a bit further and carefully deleted the first part of that first sentence.

It was not one thing to have- it was not alright to have- it wasn't even- it was the heat. Right. He was hallucinating.

Continuously.

For the past three weeks, ever since-

- creamcolouredskin-

- ever since that bloody mission with the bugs. Not that that mission had anything to do with it. No sir. The only effect of that mission was that Lee tended to swat roaches and flies with a bit more enthusiasm than before.

Right.

Lee groaned and let his head drop onto his knees.

It was too hot. Lee couldn't sleep, hadn't been sleeping properly for over a week now. More. He was tired. Too tired to keep up all the internal walls and barriers which normally regulated his life into neat and beautiful patterns.

Yeah, he'd been having rather...involving dreams. About Gaara. And those were actually the better ones. Some of the other dreams featuring the Kazekage had been confusing. And some had been...indescribable. Lee was trying not to think about those. Those were Wrong.

But it didn't mean anything. Gaara was his friend. His best friend, actually. Lee had many good comrades in his life; he counted them as so many blessings. But he'd spent a long time in Suna and in Gaara's company by now. He was slowly beginning to understand the complex, sometimes dangerous inner territory of the Sand Shinobi. Though he was perfectly aware that there were still aspects of his friend that Lee couldn't comprehend, he now felt closer to Gaara than to anyone except Gai-Sensei.

Lee was also Gaara's friend; his only friend to date, outside of his family and Naruto. Friends, then, and Lee was proud of it. They'd become close as warriors, comrades, fellow Shinobi. Things got a little...confused when you got that close to someone. But it didn't mean anything. Gaara was a guy - all guy, Lee could now attest to that, having seen that lean but very male body without the usual layers of clothes. And Lee was in love with Sakura-san. So yeah. The dreams meant nothing.

Not that he'd ever dreamt of Sakura-san that way.

It was a testimony to how tired Lee was that that insidious little thought crept through his brain and he didn't react to suppress it immediately.

Lee threw back the clammy sheets. He'd stripped down to the skin, but it wasn't helping. He stumbled over to the window and opened it hopefully.

The dull, dead air outside totally failed to send a fresh, reviving breeze into his room. In anything it got even hotter.

Lee let his head sink down to the windowsill with a theatrical groan.

The people of Sand called it the Season of Ashes. The desert's turquoise sky took on a dull grey tinge. Humidity gathered into feathered clouds high above. The wind died. The days were cooler, if heavier, but the nights were hell as the heat stayed trapped by the growing humidity. It would last ten days, maybe more - long enough to drive Lee completely insane if he couldn't get more sleep at night. Then the temperature would plummet within hours, and the grey sky would squeeze out what felt like half a dozen raindrops, hardly worth all the fuss leading up to them. The desert would explode into chaotic and frantic colors as flowers sprouted, bloomed and died. Then life would go back to normal. Lee had been through the same season last year (minus the dreams he was trying hard not to think about).

The season would be over in a few days. Until then, sleeping would be hell.

Especially when you were having erotic dreams about your best friend because you happened to bathe with him once.

Lee lifted his head up a few inches from the windowsill and let it fall back with a clunk.

It didn't help.

What the hell was wrong with him...?

And why was he dreaming of Gaara? If his mind was going to grab the first object in its vicinity to fantasize over, surely Temari - well, no, not Temari, she was scary, but some other Sand Kunoichi would be more...appropriate.

He knew what he should do, of course. He knew how one dealt with these bodily urges. He'd had them before (though the dreams that triggered them were normally not quite so precise and vivid...and he had more success in forgetting them). Having these nighttime fantasies wasn't abnormal. Lee was young and powerful. He exercised a lot and led a healthy lifestyle. Gai-Sensei had explained to him that youth could lead to such physical reactions in those circumstances. You defeated this through vigorous exercise and cold showers, and by concentrating on the purity of the ninja way.

So the ideal solution would be to go for a healthy, tiring run around the village. Or rather, that would have been the ideal solution if Lee hadn't already done so once tonight, when he'd woken up earlier after that dream in which he and Gaara had been inexplicably sparring naked in a pool of deep water-

- he'd already gone running once after that dream he couldn't really remember all that well. He could go running again, except that it was - Lee gave the alarm clock an irritated look - nearly four in the morning, and he had to get up in two hours to go through that presentation for Captain Sanada and Councillor Omaku, and if he didn't get some sleep soon, that presentation was going to be very short and end with the sound of his snoring face hitting the table.

Lee wandered over to the stand with the water jug and basin. The water was tepid, practically skin temperature. What would really do the trick would be a cold shower, but you didn't take cold showers on a whim at four in the morning in Suna when you'd already had your daily wash. Water restrictions weren't so much a regulation as a religion in this place. Lee splashed water on his face and neck, washing off some of the sweat. Then he headed back to bed with determination in his step.

A Shinobi could beat anything with proper resolve! Even dreams. Especially those sorts of dreams. A Shinobi should control his baser instincts lest they be used against him! For each of those dreams he'd have about Gaara, he'd do a hundred laps around Suna. With extra weights on. And a backpack full of rocks.

Lee rolled around in bed until he found a spot that didn't feel too sweaty. He stretched out on his side, one hand beneath his cheek, the other on the sheet, in a I'm Sleeping Now position. The sheet was a strange creamy blue colour beneath the speckles of moonlight filtering through high wispy clouds and the humidity in the air. Lee blinked tiredly; he really was exhausted.

He realized he was smoothing the sheet with his fingers and wondering what Gaara's skin would look like under that same moonlight.

Lee sat up abruptly and, with a certain amount of deliberation, made a fist and socked himself in the head.

That didn't help either.

Determination. Willpower. Fortitude. Control the baser instincts, not that that really applied in this instance because Lee loved Sakura-san. Even if he was too much of a gentleman to dream of her in that way.

Lee settled back against the pillow humid with sweat and closed his eyes, going over everything he knew about those baser instincts and how they should be avoided.

In retrospect that had probably been a mistake. If he hadn't thought of that, he would probably have gone to sleep and dreamed of Gaara again. That would have been embarrassing and disturbing - and led to a lot of punishing training the next day - but ultimately it would have been more pleasant than the phantasm, half-dream, half-memory, that bubbled up into Lee's exhausted brain at that point.

"Settle down."

The old Shinobi with the scarred face looked sternly at the assembly. The boys were excited. There was going to be a special course that day, and the girls had been taken away to another room. The boys didn't know this sensei, but there were rumors about what he was going to teach. Fascinating rumors, for a bunch of nine-year-olds full of prurient curiosity.

"My name is Tatsuyo Daisuke, and I am here today for a special lesson. We are going to discuss sex," the old man said bluntly.

The kids boggled at him, and the braver ones laughed. Wow, they were going to talk about That.

After a very short while, the tittering and avid whispers stopped.

Tatsuyo-Sensei had been very thorough. He'd explained the reproductive process in cold, straightforward terms. He'd told them about sex, what it was, some basic information on how to do it, precautions, how it worked between men and women and between-

(In the desert heat, Lee, half-asleep and unable to control the dream/memory, flinched and bit his lip)

- and between men and men. Presumably the girls were getting a similar talk specific to their gender in another room.

Then those wrinkled lips had shaped themselves into a cold smile, and the old man had told them how sex could be used against them. They were to become Shinobi. They had to look underneath the underneath.

He told them about being beguiled and distracted from a patrol. About special Genjutsu that could be worked on an unsuspecting mind during climax. About particular poisons and diseases that could weaken or kill. About seduction techniques that could turn a man against his friends and his village.

The course had taken all day. He had a slide show too.

By the time Tatsuyo-Sensei's course was finished, the girls had already left. Sometimes Lee wondered if their teacher had really given them as much thorough information as theirs had, because the girls in his class and the following years had seemed remarkably interested in romance, which was just a watered-down version of sex with clothes on as far as Lee understood.

Lee and his peers had scattered in silence after the lesson. They hadn't looked at each other as they left, they didn't joke or play, or do anything but go straight home. Where presumably their parents had softened the message somewhat. But Lee didn't have any parents.

In his bedroom in Suna, an older Lee had wrapped himself into a sweaty ball beneath the sheet. He was almost awake again, sort of. But the memories were like dreams, uncontrollable. Like water pouring out past barriers broken by the exhaustion and the sticky heat, forming into a deep pool where things he didn't want to see were reflected.

That old Shinobi and his lessons had haunted a ten-year-old Lee when he started having sensual dreams. They'd frightened him. They were Wrong. They were a Weakness. They could lead to something Bad.

The more he fought against those dreams, the stranger and more twisted they became...

...mixing up with other desires...

Lee shook his head abruptly in the pillow and woke himself up through sheer willpower.

That was the past. He should forget all that. Most times he did, it was this bloody heat wave. He just couldn't sleep...he wondered what Gaara was doing. Working in his office, almost certainly. Maybe Lee could go-

No, that probably wouldn't help.

He rarely wondered what Sakura-san was doing anymore, whispered the insidious little saboteur in his head.

Lee shook that thought away too. Sakura-san was his special person. His Love, according to Gai-Sensei's explanation. Thank god for Gai-Sensei! Once more, his great wisdom and knowledge had shown Lee the way!

Lee settled back into the hot bed with a happy sigh. Gai-Sensei's reassuring words of Wisdom were running through his mind. They would surely protect him against the dreams.

Wonderful words...they'd shown something beautiful to Lee. He frequently remembered Gai-Sensei's Speech that day.

Lee's breathing eased, his eyes fluttered shut.

Beautiful words...words to live by...

But it hadn't started with Gai-Sensei's Speech.

Before the Speech, a paternal Gai-Sensei had given young Lee some balanced, down-to-earth advice about sex and- no, it had started before that, too.

Half-awake, Lee stirred and frowned, but he couldn't escape the memory uncoiling in his mind. He'd...forgotten just why Gai-Sensei had given him the Speech that day. Why...? What had happened that day for Gai-Sensei to start talking about Love?

It had started with...

Oh, he remembered! How could he have forgotten? It had started with that book! That stupid, horrid book.

"Did you want to borrow it, kid?"

"What?" Lee asked, startled. Then he remembered his manners. He was a Genin, twelve years old and still a rookie, while Kakashi-Sensei was a seasoned Jounin. "I'm sorry, what do you mean, sir?"

"My book. You keep staring at it." The visible eye creased into an amused crescent. "Did you want to borrow it? It'd probably teach you-"

"Kakashi, leave my student alone," Gai-Sensei said from where he was doing a multitude of one-handed press-ups (he'd lost today's challenge).

"I wasn't looking at it," Lee said stiffly. Actually he had been looking, but not because he wanted to borrow the lurid orange thing. He'd been wondering how a responsible Jounin could read such unsuitable material. Dangerous material! Didn't Kakashi-Sensei know that Lust could be a Weakness that could be used against him?

Kakashi looked at him as if he could read the thoughts off of Lee's forehead. He turned towards the book again, flipping a page.

"I see old Tatsuyo-Sensei is still teaching Sex Ed to the pre-grads. That guy's better than a chastity belt," he murmured.

"Kakashi," Gai-Sensei grunted reprovingly, while Lee's mind became one huge question mark.

"Well he is. Mind you, that's probably not a bad thing. Better than letting a bunch of hormonal, legally-adult twelve-year-olds loose on the population. But some kids are more sensitive than others, and I sometimes think he lays it on a bit too thick."

"And I sometimes think it's a pity you left the academy before that course," Gai-Sensei muttered, switching to the left hand after wiping the sweat from his brow.

"Yeah, I had to figure it all out on my own," Kakahsi said with a laugh, hefting the book. "You sure you don't want to borrow it, kid? You'd learn tons. Give those nice hot dreams a bit more consistency."

Lee- the adult Jounin Lee - was looking at the scene as if he was outside of it, half-asleep as he was. While the Genin he'd been went red and got offended, Lee suddenly wondered for the first time if Kakashi's offer hadn't been sincere, if not very well put. Something to undo the damage of that 'Sex Ed' course. He'd gotten to know Kakashi through Gai-Sensei, Naruto and Sakura-san these past few years; it'd be the kind of weird, off-the-wall thing the guy would probably do.

"I do not want to borrow it. Sir," twelve-year-old Lee answered with some distaste, his tone stiff and reproving. "And I dream of only one thing."

"And that's his ninja way- and Neji," Gai said between two pants.

In the present, Lee opened his eyes, grabbed the pillow out from under his head and stuffed it over his face. Maybe if he cut off his oxygen supply, he might forget the next bit again. Damn it all to hell! He'd managed to forget about it for seven years! Why was he remembering it now?! In all its lurid soul-searing details.

But he couldn't stop the memory.

He remembered how he'd stared at his teacher in horror. How he'd felt the blood drain from his face. Gai-Sensei knew! He knew about those shameful, twisted dreams- he knew!

"...Beating Neji. I meant," Gai-Sensei added. He was staring at the ground as he did some more press-ups. Lee looked hastily at Kakashi-Sensei who had his face buried in his book. Good, they hadn't noticed his reaction. Of course. Beating Neji. That's what Gai-Sensei had meant. Of course Lee dreamed of defeating Neji, his genius rival. Right.

Kakashi suddenly closed his book with a snap. "Look at the time. I'm going to go work on that mission report. Sorry about that, Gai. Good luck."

In the present, Lee put his arms over the pillow, pressing it to his face and muffling his agonized groan.

That younger Lee had thought he'd successfully managed to hide his reaction. He'd repressed that part of the conversation for years, along with the memory of the dreams and other embarrassing childhood episodes. Now Lee was remembering Kakashi's last two incongruous sentences. He hadn't understood their import when he was a young, inexperienced Genin, but now he realized just how fully both Jounin had read from his reactions exactly what was going through his mind. He must have been an open book to them.

Could you die from embarrassment even years after the fact?

Despite twinges of pillow-induced suffocation, the memory continued to unravel in Lee's mind.

Gai glared at the puff of air that was the only thing left of his rival, then he straightened up - without even finishing his press-ups - and looked solemnly at his student.

"Lee, what is your ninja way?"

That instantly banished young Lee's worries and confusion. The words burst from his mouth with the habit of much repetition. "I want to prove that you can become a fine ninja without the ability to do anything but Taijutsu!"

"Good!" Gai shouted, finger pointing dramatically at his student as if he hadn't heard this twenty times before. "A worthy goal! Is that more important than anything?"

"Yes!"

"Excellent. Concentrate on that! Concentrate on that with all your might and youth and spirit, and you'll get there!"

"Yes sir!"

"And then you'll find out why it's such a noble goal!"

Lee paused with his fist enthusiastically punching the air. Huh? This was new.

Gai-Sensei smiled at him. Not the sparkly smile; it was warm and a bit rueful. "You and I, Lee, we're not works of art. We're not going to build our lives for the sheer beauty of it and have no use. Yes, your purpose in life is beautiful. But it will be truly noble when you can use it for the good of others. For the good of one other. Shape your life to your desire, then use it like a sword to defend the life and happiness of another person."

Lee stared at him in confusion.

"You are young. But one day - not right away, of course, but when you're sixteen, or eighteen rather, so you can concentrate on attaining Jounin rank first- or maybe twenty, yes, twenty is a good age for- ahem. Anyway, one day you will find someone you want to protect. Someone special, the most important person to you. You will-"

Gai stopped talking and sighed. "Lee, put away the notebook."

"But-"

"Put it away and come sit over here. We need to have a talk."

Lee had managed to erase the circumstances leading up to that conversation from his mind, but he remembered every word of Gai's Speech after that.

His respected teacher had started by giving him some more balanced information about sex than that old Tatsuyo-Sensei had. Yes, Shinobi were wary of lust, emotions and baser instincts that could be manipulated, but that didn't mean they couldn't find a special person to love.

That one word, Love, changed everything.

Gai-Sensei had told Lee that making love to that special person would be a wonderful experience, to Lee's intense relief; in retrospect, those Sex Ed classes had scarred him rather badly. Now Gai-Sensei was telling him about something pure, precious and warm. Lee would be able to place his heart as well as his body in that person's hands. It would be the most beautiful moment of his existence, a moment he'd be able to protect every day for the rest of his life because he'd be a strong man and an excellent Shinobi.

When he found...that precious person...

Lee, face still hidden by his pillow, suddenly realized something. The thought hit him like one of Gai-Sensei's wake-up-call punches. Harder even.

He could remember every word of that Speech perfectly. Every single word. It had indeed been a glorious Speech. Stirring, moving. A wonderful, life-affirming Speech.

It had been a speech, Lee just now suddenly realized, that carefully avoided any mention of that special person being either male or female.

Lee lifted the pillow from his face and let it drop unnoticed to the floor. Gai-Sensei...

Lee could hear his teacher's words in his mind. They might sound pompous to others, but Lee had seen the real heart and valor that lay beneath them. Always be true to yourself, Gai-Sensei said. Always believe in yourself. Live your Youth to the full and never look away.

Lee swallowed painfully, and let the barriers crack for good.

It wasn't that the idea of- of another man turned him off or disgusted him. The small part of Sex Ed that had addressed consenting, loving sex (not that the old Shinobi had ever used the word 'loving') had treated both straight and gay intercourse equally. Some villages and countries still had social stigmas regarding that, but not Konoha.

No, that wasn't the problem.

The issue was elsewhere, and it was complex and scary, but one part of the problem was that Lee had been so tired.

Some of the other boys had gotten over Sex Ed a whole lot faster than Lee with the help of parents, friends, older brothers and a natural cynicism towards teachers and lessons that Lee had never mastered. And they were talking about girls. Not that they were doing anything about it beyond talking; they probably wouldn't for years, so maybe those 'lessons' had had some effect after all. But they talked about their dreams, laughing and joking. Breasts and fantasies and long hair and pretty faces and willing bodies.

Lee hadn't been a part of that, of course. He'd been a social reject for pretty much as long as he could remember; graceless, too earnest, different from the others by his inability to mold chakra to do even the simplest jutsus. He'd been hanging around on the outskirts of those conversations. Nobody asked him to contribute. But still, Lee had been so tired of being different once more.

So very, very different.

Neji hadn't been the first; he was just the first Lee could distinctly remember, when he let himself remember that is. They'd been thrown together on the same team, and Lee had been concentrating on him so hard-

But those dreams weren't the harmless, frivolous fantasies the other boys enjoyed. The dreams involving Neji were dark, violent, intense. They scared Lee. They were dreams where the challenge of beating his rival was paramount, but it was closely followed by something else, something darker, more exciting, shared between two willing bodies like a secret...

That wasn't what Gai-Sensei had been talking about though. He'd been talking about something pure. There was too much need in those dreams. Too much desire. Besides, Lee didn't love Neji. He knew that damn well, and there was no doubt in his mind about it either then or now, seven years later. Back then, Neji had been his teammate, even sort of a friend, but he'd also been a bit of a bastard, arrogant and dismissive and-

-and he didn't need Lee.

Lee didn't want that. And he didn't want to be different, once more. And he didn't want to feel something that intense. And he didn't want to give in to his baser instincts and fall prey to those bogeymen old Tatsuyo-Sensei had mentioned. And he didn't want to be distracted from his nindo. There were too many reasons and he just didn't want any of it.

Unfortunately his body had different ideas. But that turned out to be a trivial problem. Lee was used to bringing the mind to bear over the body.

And then he'd seen Sakura-san during the Chuunin exams.

Pretty, popular Sakura-san...

So far out of Lee's league that it was almost funny, the normally-repressed part of his mind whispered.

Pretty, popular Sakura-san. Many of the boys in her class and higher had a thing for her. Lee hadn't. What he had was Love. But not because she was pretty and popular...

...but because at the start of the Chuunin exam, Lee had seen something in her. Something hesitant, lost, vulnerable. Lonely. The way she'd been so grateful for the smallest kind word from Sasuke...Lee had wanted her to look at him like that. With need. And she did need him. She needed his protection, and she needed a friend, and she-

-she was so in love with Sasuke that she was perfectly safe.

The part of Lee that had escaped its leash in the exhaustion and the heat was now running rampant over his tender memories of those first days with Sakura-san. He was seeing them in a much different light.

What he felt for Sakura-san was true and steady, he felt no shame over those emotions; they were tender, protective and warm. It wasn't the burning need and the twisted, intense desires he'd felt in those dreams of Neji he couldn't always suppress. She didn't like him much to start with, but that was okay. He could use determination to protect her. He could show her his valor. She was a goal to strive for. One he would probably never reach.

She was quite safe.

The part of Lee that normally lurked behind his barriers whispered Gaara...

Gaara was just about as not safe as you could get.

A few choice pieces of the dreams he'd been having scrolled past his eyelids. The scream of chakra suddenly released. Lethal danger and a hidden pain. Creamy skin the color of almonds. Power at his fingertips. Fingertips on Lee's skin...

The heat of the whole night coiled into Lee's belly and slithered downwards.

Lee put an arm over his eyes, ignoring the way hot, sweaty skin met skin. He tried to concentrate on Sakura-san. But he kept seeing her as she'd been the last time he visited Konoha. A friend. A good friend. One who confided in him, and one he could confide in as well. He trusted her. His heart felt warm and tender when he thought about her. He was proud of her progress. She was now...

A strong, independent, mature woman.

One who didn't need him anymore.

Lee's fists clenched. That...he hated that thought, and it wasn't the first time it had crept up on him either. He tried to suppress it ruthlessly every time it occurred to him. He didn't want to believe that his love for Sakura-san was dependent on her need for him. That felt...cheap. Unfaithful. Trivial. His Love was truer than that.

The rest...was just a distraction. One he could no longer fight against. Not tonight. It was too hot and he was too tired. But it was okay. He was all alone, and he was strong most of the time. As long as he kept his certainties, his values, surely it couldn't hurt...just once...

The arm tightened over Lee's eyes until all he could see was red.

Just this once. He was so tired of resisting it. And it didn't mean anything as long as he remembered. Remembered that what he felt for Sakura-san...

...pretty, pure Sakura-san...

That was surely Love.

And what he felt for Gaara-

- cream-coloured skin, 'I never underestimated you', intense eyes ringed in darkness, complex and torn and still so very, very powerful...

Lee's free hand crept downward, towards the source of the heat.

What he felt for Gaara...

That was merely lust.

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, sir."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What? No," Lee answered, startled.

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

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

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

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

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

Damn. Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He interrupted himself and looked around quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, wait!" Lee shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait. Something was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What did they do?"

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stay safe. I'll protect you."

“Don’t-“

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

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

 

---

 

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

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

What had happened...?

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute.

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

...That sucked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Lee?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Dunno," Lee mouthed.

Gaara didn't look surprised at his answer.

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

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

"What happened?" he croaked.

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

"You don't remember?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You?" Lee croaked.

"Uninjured. But there's this."

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

"Lee?" Gaara said, after a minute.

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

"Lee, are you still with me?"

"...Huh...?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You...can get sick?” he whispered.

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

“What happened?” Lee mouthed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee's eyes were now open without any effort.

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

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

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

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

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

What...just happened there?

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

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

Water.

Oh.

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

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

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

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

He'd never been this close to Gaara.

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

"Lee? Are you okay?"

Lee blinked.

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

Lee swallowed and managed to shake his head.

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

"No," Lee whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Lee struggled against the darkness, though without much conviction. It was nice here. It was warm, comforting, only mildly painful as long as he didn't move, and Lee didn’t really want to leave. But the dutiful Shinobi in him was kicking his unconscious ass, telling him to snap out of it and get with the picture.

There was a chill to the air, the cool of a desert night, but Lee still felt warm, particularly down his left side. And his shoulders. And...

“Lee?”

Hey, Gaara was here too. That was nice...

“Are you awake? We have to go soon.”

Gaara’s voice sounded very close.

“Wake up. My arm is getting tired.”

Arm...? Why would Gaara's arm be-

Lee was awake instantly. His eyes shot open. He was staring at the thong of a tunic about two inches from his nose.

He was still- still in the same position as when he’d gone to sleep- still in Gaara’s arms-

Lee gave a convulsive jerk away. He rolled off of Gaara's knee and slithered to the ground with a thump.

There was only one word appropriate for the resulting sensation.

“Oooow.”

Gaara was looking down at him, face unreadable.

Lee glanced around nervously, more to avoid that direct gaze than anything else. They were still in the same rocky hideout. It was nighttime, one hour after midnight according to Lee’s internal clock. Over thirty hours had passed since they’d been attacked. It also meant he’d been sleeping like that for eight hours at least.

That startling thought was enough to make him forget how every muscle in his body was screaming at him in agony. So did the sudden, eerily tactile memory of Gaara's tongue briefly flicking against his lips...

He looked up at Gaara and swallowed.

“Um, why didn’t you put me back down?”

Gaara’s face could have been carved from black and white marble. He was massaging his right arm with his left hand.

“Th-thanks for taking care of me. I...I was a bit loopy just before I passed out. Ahhh, I didn’t mean you had to- to- er...to prop me up like that for more than a few minutes.” It was the most neutral way Lee could think of describing the position they'd been in.

Gaara stood up slowly, straightening in a way that spoke of muscles stiffened from sitting in one position for hours. Lee had gotten good at reading Gaara these past months, but he couldn’t begin to guess what his friend was thinking now.

“I didn’t mind,” Gaara finally said, as if the words were well chewed over and this would be the final declaration on the subject he cared to make.

With a massive effort, Lee managed to focus back on the problem at hand. What went through Gaara’s mind was a mystery sometimes, and Lee didn’t have the time to puzzle him out right now. He had to concentrate on the fact that they’d been attacked and weren’t out of danger yet. And he also had to concentrate on the fact that he was hurting like hell.

That at least he could do something about. He didn’t have much chakra at his command, but after a twenty-four hour rest, he had just about enough scraped together to trigger a flow of energy through his chakra points and muscles, assaulting the pain, damage and exhaustion riddling his abused body. It was an old Taijutsu technique Gai-sensei had taught him, specifically designed to help the body recover from using the Renge.

Sakura-san’s medicine had done wonders for the wound on his chest. Lee inspected it quickly, peeking under Gaara's dressings; a long slash through layers of muscle that would have seriously hampered his ability to move his arms and fight if it hadn’t almost healed by now. The nascent scar was large and ugly, the new skin still fragile and cracked after its unnatural growth, but it allowed his body to function.

A canteen appeared in front of Lee's nose.

"The last of the water. Drink it."

Lee looked up past the canteen into a pale face brushed with colour along the nose and cheeks. Under a shred of moonlight reflected off of rock and sand, Lee could see that Gaara's lips were cracked and dry in a way that spoke of sunburn and dehydration. Lee opened his mouth-

Gaara's eyes narrowed. His gaze took on a quality that reminded Lee a bit of the Old Gaara, the one you didn't argue with.

Lee took the canteen morosely. He had the growing suspicion that Gaara was learning to turn that look on and off like a light switch now that he'd figured out it was a way of getting Lee to follow at least some of his orders.

He was still very thirsty. The water was tepid and tasted flat and leathery from the container, but it went down his parched throat like ambrosia. He could feel the energy flowing through his body increase a bit as a result.

Gaara took the gourd from Lee's hands, and handed him his flak jacket and a tan shirt in exchange. Lee realized, with some chagrin, that Gaara had cut off the top of Lee's form-fitting suit to get at his wound. The rest of the uniform was kept up by Lee's Leaf belt. Worse yet, Lee knew he was going to have to leave his leg-weights here, to his sorrow; they were a personal gift from Gai-Sensei, with their symbol of Spirit painted on each section. His Jounin vest was bisected by a long, bloodied slice across the front, but at least it was wearable, and he had a clean shirt to go beneath it. A clean shirt he didn't recognize.

“Where did you get this?” Lee asked, hefting the top, then staring at the backpack in which Gaara was putting away the empty canteen. It wasn't Sunagakure issue.

"From one of the corpses. I took only the one pack that had burst open. The others might have been boobytrapped."

"You mean you went back?!" Lee's voice cracked and wavered; his throat was still dry.

"Yes, while you were still unconscious, a few hours after we were attacked. We didn't have enough water, we'd both lost our-"

"That was a stupid risk!"

"No, stupid risks are your specialty,” Gaara said with a hard, pointed look at Lee’s bandaged chest. “I waited until night had fallen. I know the terrain better than they do, I can move faster than they can. This is my country. We needed water, and besides I wanted to know what happened to my men."

"Oh." Lee bit his lip. "Did you..."

"I couldn’t search long. But I didn't find anybody. Only the enemy's dead."

"That means our escort got away!"

"That might mean that some of them got away," Gaara corrected, his voice completely neutral. "Enough of them to remove or dispose of the bodies of those who didn't make it after they defeated their attackers. Either that, or they are all dead and the enemy took the corpses and left their own fallen for reasons of their own."

"Maybe they all made it," Lee said a bit weakly. He remembered the way that Chuunin had fallen to the ground. Lee had been too far away to tell for sure, but he thought it had been Yoshiro; a twenty-year-old Chuunin who never cracked a smile, but whose eyes were often warm...Maybe he'd only been wounded...?

Gaara didn't look like he was going to bother with pointless optimism. He packed away a second empty canteen, a desert apple and a map, and discarded a few kunai from the bag with neat, measured gestures.

"If they hadn't sealed my powers, I'd have killed them all," he suddenly said. His voice was precise and neutral, but his eyes had a savage glint, colder than the moonlight.

“I know,” Lee whispered in sympathy. “I wish I could have helped our comrades too.” He knew that Gaara’s sole purpose in life was protecting the village and the Shinobi who’d accepted him as their Kazekage. Any deaths were unacceptable to him.

Lee also knew that every one of the Sand Shinobi in their escort would have gladly traded their lives for Gaara’s, and would have approved of Lee’s choice to protect the Kazekage at their expense. But Gaara wouldn’t want to hear that.

He wouldn’t want to hear the rest of that cold logic either: that he should have left the injured Lee behind yesterday and headed to safety immediately. The leader of Suna shouldn’t risk his life for a single Jounin, one who didn’t even belong to his village at that. Even now, common sense dictated that Gaara leave Lee to muddle along as best he could while the Kazekage made his way back to Sunagakure at full speed. Lee didn’t waste his breath in the defense of that kind of common sense. He knew his friend too well by now to think he could persuade Gaara to save only himself. It'd be easier to get the desert to change its mind about being dry.

"Can you carry this? I've lightened it as much as I can." Gaara hefted the backpack. That flicker of emotion was gone, there was only the Shinobi left now, planning their next move. Lee did the same. He put the thought of friends and comrades out of his mind until he and Gaara were safely back in Suna, where they would hopefully meet up with the others.

"Yes, I can manage."

"Good. I need to carry the Sand, and we both need to have our hands free. We won't have far to walk. Six hours, moving cautiously."

"Six- but Suna is two days from here."

"We're not going to Suna." Gaara slipped on his coat now that it was no longer needed for a tent. "We’re going west."

"We’re staying in the hills? Why? I mean, it’s good cover, but-"

"There’s an old hidden fort on the edge of the hills and the high desert, a base camp for raids against the flank of any army that might try to invade us. It’s not garrisoned, but it has short-range communication equipment and a clear-water well."

"Right! Good idea!" Lee exclaimed. Then he frowned. "Won’t the enemy have learned about it though? They seemed to know a lot about you and your troops."

"They shouldn’t. Its location is hidden from Suna’s civilians and anyone under Jounin level. You’ll be the first foreigner to have even heard about it. It should be safe. We'll take the risk.” Gaara ignored Lee’s spluttered attempts to thank him for his trust and assure him that he’d never say anything to anybody ever, even if tortured with red-hot pokers. “It’s a good spot for us to hole up in. When Suna realizes there’s a problem, that will be one place they’ll check for me.”

“Does Captain Sanada know about it?”

“Of course.”

“Maybe we’ll meet him there then! He’s an old desert fox,” Lee said, the Suna term coming easily to his tongue. “He’ll lead the others there to hole up too.”

Gaara was silent and oddly still, staring out at the moonlit landscape beyond their hiding place.

"That might be,” he finally said, voice impassive. “But I imagine Sanada will instead decide to head directly back to Suna to warn them, and to draw the enemy along his tracks and away from my potential location.”

That, unfortunately, sounded like something Sanada would do. Lee fished around for some optimistic comment and realized he couldn’t think of any.

Gaara hauled the gourd onto his back in a way that indicated he didn't want to speculate about it. The gesture reminded Lee of something that hadn't penetrated the fog of chemical cheer Sakura-san’s medication had plunged him in earlier.

He absently slipped the backpack on, ignoring the stinging, pulling pain from his muscles and the rip in his chest. In the light of the moon, Lee could make out strips of sunburned skin on Gaara's neck and shoulders. Gaara had also stuck two kunai in his belt earlier, a prosaic gesture whose implications chilled Lee.

"The seal's still active," Lee said quietly, his eyes straying to Gaara’s chest.

“Yes.”

"You can't hold the Sand Armor?"

"No."

“But you still have the, erm, that." Lee pointed a finger at the gourd on Gaara's back. For all it was a hulking big container full of sand that Gaara hauled around with him everywhere, this was another one of those things that was Not Talked About in Suna.

“It wasn't affected. I can’t mold chakra voluntarily, but I still have my automatic defense. I can do a little Sand Jutsu as well. I'd probably not be able to use it at all, but sparring with you has helped me fine-tune my ability to spend chakra. I owe you a debt for that.”

He looked back at Lee, intense dark-ringed eyes hovering in the pale face. “I also owe you for the way you saved my life,” he added quietly.

“Oh! Oh, don't worry about it. That’s what friends do!” Lee said, before remembering that the word 'friends' was still a bit of a hot button topic for Gaara sometimes.

Gaara looked at him for a few long seconds, then he nodded gravely.

Lee was remembering some of the, ah, completely inappropriate thoughts that had been going through his mind a few hours ago in Gaara's arms. Fortunately he'd been all but anesthetized or his body would have gotten in on the act too, and that would have been embarrassing. Time-for-that-ritual-suicide-ceremony, that kind of embarrassing.

He would have fought like that to defend a friend, that was true - certainly, it was true. Right? Yet somehow what he'd felt when he'd been curled up against Gaara's chest seemed to turn his words into a lie. Lee felt as guilty as a thief. His only consolation was that what he had stolen had no significance to Gaara, and wouldn't be missed. After all, what had Lee taken? An illusion of intimacy? The imitation of a kiss? An unintentional embrace...? I'm pathetic, Lee thought, but his thoughts were resigned rather than self-flagellating. Because however illusory, the memory left him contented and peaceful even now, and he couldn't bring himself to regret it.

Gaara led the way out of their shelter, then motioned Lee to walk in front of him. Lee moved as quickly as he could. Their enemy could be combing the desert looking for their missing prey at this very moment.

The utter exhaustion was ebbing somewhat. His muscles still ached, tears in the fibers stinging and pulsing with every step, but Lee was used to that. He’d be paying the price later, for using this energizing technique when he was this worn out, but that would be later, hopefully when Gaara was safely back in Suna. For now, he had enough reserves left to move at a good pace and keep it up for hours.

He would also have enough stamina to open the First Gate and fight again, though the price would be more than steep this time. He might well need to pay it, though. Gaara still had his Sand Barrier, but against a determined attack by several high-level Shinobi, it wasn’t impenetrable.

Lee had marched ahead when he noticed an odd sound behind him. Or rather, a lack of one sound he expected - no footsteps from Gaara - and a strange hiss, almost inaudible.

He glanced back. Gaara was walking two steps behind him, moving as silently as a ghost over the uneven terrain. And at his back, their tracks were quietly erasing themselves, sand sweeping into their footsteps and leaving no trace of their passage.

Lee grinned at his friend and got that faint smirk in return. Lee’s body was a wreck and the worst of Shukaku's powers were sealed. But together, they were far from helpless, as their enemy was about to find out.

 

---

 

 

"Here," Gaara said, as they crested a small dune and walked down the gentle slope of a shallow canyon.

"Huh?"

Lee squinted at their surroundings, but all he could see was a jumble of rocks and sand at the foot of one of many outcroppings of shale and granite in the wasteland, and no signs of fortifications or of any human presence. His eyes were burning with the new morning sun which was already starting to heat up the desert. He was tired and very thirsty.

"You sure?" he asked, bravely shouldering the pack (which had been getting heavier and heavier these past few hours). "I can't see anything."

Gaara flashed him a brief look that said as clearly as if he'd spoken aloud: 'That would be the point of a hidden fortress.'

Then he stepped around a small outcropping of rock and disappeared. Lee actually had to look several seconds before he found the small crawlspace carefully hidden by a sand-sprinkled tarp.

Gaara led them to the deep well first. He gave Lee that fixed, basilisk stare until Lee had drunk enough to satisfy the Kazekage that he wasn't about to keel over from exhaustion and dehydration. Gaara drank as well, and filled up the empty gourds with the automatic care for water that ran in his blood. Then he led Lee up a long flight of crude stone stairs, barely lit by phosphorescent strips to help their night vision in the darkness.

The fort turned out to be very small: a few rooms connected by a single long hallway hewn from rock, a tiny pantry with long-lasting provisions, a dorm stuffed with six camp beds and a small armory no bigger than a walk-in cupboard. Each room was closed by double doors of thick steel, barred further with dangerous seals. Gaara passed his hand slowly over the marks on the metal in a certain pattern, disabling the traps on the doors. He checked each room quickly, but the fort was empty. No sign of Sanada or the others.

The last room Gaara opened was the communication room. Gaara walked in with purpose in his stride. Lee felt a rush of relief as he glimpsed the equipment, looking intact and well protected against the sand that had crept into the small refuge of bare rock and steel. He didn't follow Gaara in though, politely avoiding a room which would normally require the highest level of clearance in Suna to enter.

There was a trace of natural light just beyond the communication room and Lee went to investigate. He found an observation post, with a thin rectangle cut out from the rock and surveillance equipment on a table nearby.

Lee cautiously looked out of the thin break in the rocks, camouflaged by a steep overhang, at the desert outside. They were higher up than he'd thought, with a good view of the canyons around them.

This was a good place to hole up, especially if Gaara could raise someone on the short-range communicator. He wouldn’t be able to reach Suna with that, but if there were any Sand Shinobi with receptors around, they’d be able to help. If only Sanada and the others had come here too. Lee hated to think of them striking out towards Suna, carrying the wounded and the dead, drawing the enemy away from Gaara and Lee, and maybe dying somewhere out in the desert. If only they'd show up here, Gaara would be so relieved, even if he never showed an ounce of it in facial expressions-

For an instant, Lee thought his wishes had been answered.

Then he realized that the figure he'd spotted through the observation window wasn't from Sand. The man was dressed the same as the ones who'd attacked them two days ago; no Shinobi insignia or flak jacket, just white and tan camouflage that didn't quite blend in with the desert. He had a dog at his side.

Lee's fists had clenched on the rocky sill, but otherwise he stayed silent and motionless, keeping his presence hidden. The man was sixty yards away and visibly looking for something. The dog must be following their scent, or else Lee and Gaara had been spotted on their approach to the fort. Either way, this was it.

Noise behind him made Lee spin around. Gaara had just stepped out of the communication room.

"Good news," Gaara said without the slightest smile or change to his usual voice pattern. "We only have to wait an hour or two at the most-" he glanced away, eyes narrowing. "Did you hear anything?"

An hour or two?

Then there was hope. But not if the enemy found this place. A small force could defend the fort, but not two people, one of whom had nothing but an automatic sand defense as the one ace up his sleeve. And if Gaara died-

The thought expanded in Lee's mind until it occupied every crevice.

If Gaara died...

Maybe Lee wouldn't have felt what he felt next if he hadn't slept in Gaara's arms last night. Or maybe he would have anyway. It took him a couple of seconds to recognize the single emotion that was crushing his heart as he stared at Gaara. It wasn't a feeling that Lee was very familiar with.

He was afraid. Like he'd never been before in his life.

Lee stepped away from the window and walked towards Gaara. His body felt like it was floating again, but his mind was clear and racing, churning over at speed, orbiting that single thought.

If Gaara died-

"I thought I heard a dog bark," Gaara said slowly, eyes narrowed to slits as he glanced past Lee at the observation window.

Lee reached out and put his hand on Gaara's shoulder.

"Gaara?"

His friend looked away from the window and glanced at him. The green eyes widened in their black rings. Lee didn't know what Gaara saw in his face to make him stare like that, and it didn't matter anymore.

"I'm sorry," Lee said, and hurled Gaara straight back into the communication room.

He grabbed and heaved the double doors shut, then ripped out the top of the heavy steel handles and, with the strength he'd cultivated most of his life abetted by a good dose of desperation, he twisted them and did his best to knot the rods together across the doors' opening, stopping them from swinging outwards.

He stepped away just as Gaara hurled himself against the metal on the other side.

"I'm sorry," Lee repeated, already running down the hallway towards the exit. He could hear the crash of sand hitting steel as Gaara used whatever jutsu he was capable of to get at the two bent handles blocking the door. If Gaara's powers hadn't been sealed, he'd have gotten rid of them easily. He'd have blown the doors off their hinges, reduced the wall to rubble and gone to town on the fortress itself without breaking a sweat. But at this point, Lee's measures should keep Gaara out of danger for at least a little while.

He'd go after the Shinobi with the dog first. But if there were others, and there would be, they'd figure out that they'd found their prey when their friend went missing. Lee was going to have to take them all out, or at least lead them away from here before a concerted search of the area found the fortress and Gaara, vulnerable with only his Sand Barrier to protect him.

- if Gaara died -

No, not going to happen.

Not going to happen.

 

---

 

The dog smelled him coming. The animal and its master were ready for him and put up a good fight. But Lee had practiced against Kiba, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of that kind of pairing. Lee couldn't go any higher than the Initial Lotus, but it was enough. It had to be. He couldn't lose.

He wiped the blood from his fist and straightened up. Flares of hostile intent were circling him through the rocks and canyons. The dog handler hadn't been as hard to get rid of as Lee had feared; the guy hadn't been the same caliber of Shinobi as the shock troops that had tried to take down Gaara during the first attack. If the others were also just Jounin-level and lower, getting rid of them all should be feasible. But Lee was outnumbered, wounded and already exhausted, despite the deadly energy pouring through his First Gate and slowly destroying his body. This wasn't going to be easy.

Lee tried to lead them away from the fort, but the enemy was smarter than that. They knew Lee was alone and that he wasn’t the man they were looking for. A few Shinobi followed Lee, but half their forces stayed behind to ferret around the area where Lee had first attacked them, in case Gaara was there. Lee couldn't afford to have them look around the canyons and rocks too closely. He doubled back, using the inhuman speed of the Renge to get around those who'd followed him, and attacked the rear guard. That would virtually broadcast to the enemy that he was defending something, and now they were not going to leave it alone until he killed them all.

What followed was a deadly game of cat and mouse. Most of the time, Lee could do no more than stay ahead of them and keep them distracted. But when he caught one of them isolated, then the game changed and the hunted became the hunter for a brief, violent moment.

Lee could feel his life flickering like a candle burnt down to a stub. His heart was a solid mass in his chest. He could sense them, circling closer like a pack of wolves that could feel the prey weakening.

He dropped into a loose crouch against a small rock and tightened the dressings on his upper left arm. Fortunately the kunai hadn't been poisoned. Damn, he was thirsty as well. Stupid not to have taken some water with him, but he'd left the backpack behind in the fort. He hadn't been thinking like a Sand Shinobi there. Good thing Gaara had made him drink so much from the well previously.

Gaara...he was probably still in that room and hopping mad, inasmuch as the Kazekage ever lost his temper these days...but as long as he was safe-

Lee blinked and tensed. He'd faded out for a second, and the enemy had taken advantage of his lapse.

Only three. Maybe Lee had killed all the others. He hoped so. He was on his last legs. But Lee believed he could take down three more. It wasn't in him to give up, even a little. Besides, Gaara would be bloody cross with him if Lee died.

"Will you tell us where he is?" one of the men asked. It sounded like a formality.

Lee just shook his head. They were in the center of a large shallow canyon peppered with boulders, barely a hiccup of rock in the sand. There was a man on either side of Lee, ready to attack his flank if he charged their companion. Lee didn't need to consult his little notebook on Gai-Sensei Secret Tactics and Tricks to know that this position wasn't strategically judicious.

"You're from Leaf," the man said, nodding at Lee's insignia on his belt. "You owe nothing to Sand."

Lee's mouth was too dry to answer, but he gave a good glare. Just how- how cheap, dishonorable and- and cowardly did this- this son of a bitch think Lee was?!

"I see," the Shinobi said with a slight nod. "You will be telling us soon when we get our hands on you though. You know that."

These guys had no idea. Lee might be wounded and exhausted, but his attackers would be lucky to survive their assault on him, let alone capture him alive.

The Shinobi looked like he was going to add something, but then his gaze flickered off to the right and suddenly he was gone.

Huh?! Lee twisted to follow the man's movements and caught a flash of red and black out of the corner of his eye. Lee focused on it in a surge of panic.

Gaara had just stepped around a jumble of rocks into the canyon.

No!

All three Shinobi were running towards their prey, ignoring Lee. A long knife caught the raw morning sunshine.

Lee staggered out of his crouch, reaching deep within to wrench from his body the last ounces of energy, even if it killed him-

Somebody behind him grabbed Lee by the shoulders before he could bully open his Second Gate. He was hauled back hard. Lee fell to the ground, struggling to rise.

A flare of chakra ahead made him look up wildly. One of the attackers had put on a burst of speed and flickered out of sight, to reappear right in front of the Kazekage. Gaara jerked back a step in alarm- the dagger slammed into Gaara's heart, then ripped up and sideways, severing the arteries in the chest.

Lee didn’t think of revenge; he didn’t wonder why the Sand hadn’t reacted, or worry about his own safety, caught as he was. He’d died inside.

The enemy jerked the dagger out of Gaara's body, angling it upward to slash his victim's throat and guarantee the kill-

It was hard to say what alarmed the Shinobi first; the lack of blood flow, or Gaara suddenly reaching up and grabbing him. The attacker tried to jump back, but the Kazekage's arms had become abnormally long and had knotted around him. The dagger dropped from his fingers as he was ruthlessly squeezed.

"Good job, Kankuro. Can I have my coat back now?"

It was Gaara's neutral tone, right next to Lee's ears. He was on one knee behind the Jounin with his arms around Lee’s chest, holding him back.

"In a minute, bro, in just a lil' minute," came Kankuro's voice from off to the right.

Lee looked around wildly. The puppeteer was a bit further away, a hard, vindictive half-smile on his painted features. He was making small motions in the air, and the enemy gave a cry as the Black Ant puppet - still dressed in Gaara's coat - squeezed harder. The Ant’s face was emerging from the sandy mask that Gaara must have slapped onto it. It had been a convincing simulacrum. Very convincing; Lee's heart was still squirming abysmally in his chest.

The last two attackers had tried to run, but men from Suna had appeared around the edges of the canyon and were tackling them to the ground.

"Don't kill them," Gaara ordered, voice indifferent. "We need to know who they are and who sent them."

"Gaara," Lee said weakly, craning his neck to make sure he wasn't hallucinating. Gaara was in his linen tunic and wearing a veiled helm to hide his distinctive red hair; probably a precaution Kankuro had insisted upon before letting Gaara come with them. But it was Gaara. He was alive.

"You overdid it again," Gaara told him, inspecting the crude bandage on Lee's upper arm.

"Are-...are we..." Lee tried to get his mouth moving, but it wasn't cooperating.

"Sanada nearly killed himself getting back to one of Suna's outlying patrols in less than a day. They called for help. Kankuro and Units A and B have been combing the hills and desert for us for the last few hours. We have enough men to withstand an attack," Gaara added, as if he knew what Lee needed to hear. "We're as safe as we can be. You can pass out now."

Oh good.

Lee did.

Chapter Text

Lee sat up suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch in his back.

He ached all over, but he was getting used to that. If he woke up without massive pain anytime soon, he'd probably just go right back to sleep. It wasn't even that much worse than Sunagakure coffee as a means of staying alert.

Of more concern was the way his muscles clenched and trembled from the effort of merely sitting up. That wasn't good. He had to be able to walk. He had to make sure Gaara was okay.

Lee didn't know why, but that was what had dragged him out of deep exhausted sleep. An intuition that there was something happening and that it concerned Gaara. If Lee couldn't walk, he'd crawl, but he was going to find out what the hell was going on.

He staggered out of bed and leaned against an IV stand until the room stopped pitching and yawing around him. He had a band-aid over the crook of his elbow, so it might have been his IV stand at one point, but he wasn’t connected to anything now. How many hours had he been unconscious?

A quick check showed that the cuts and minor stab wounds he’d picked up in his last fight were well on the way to healing over. That meant that the correct question was, ‘how many days had he been unconscious’. His need to check on Gaara increased.

It turned out that he could walk, albeit slowly. In fact he felt remarkably recovered, considering how much he'd used the Renge over the course of two intense days. He should have more deep muscle damage, but apart from the exhaustion and the overall ache, he didn't feel that bad.

He was in the Sunagakure clinic; he recognized the drab tan hospital clothes he was wearing, the spotless white of the walls, the smell of antiseptic and desert dust that permeated the air. He couldn’t see any of the medi-nin around, or anybody who could direct him to where Gaara might be. He hesitated at the door out of his room, leaning heavily against the wall. There was a distant thrumming in the air, almost below the auditory range. Lee headed towards it instinctively.

He limped his way slowly down a long corridor to a pair of double doors with OR1 emblazoned upon them. They led out to an observation deck above a large, circular room. Lee thought he saw people moving down below, but he could barely make them out. They were cast into violent shadows by the ball of bright blue light that dominated the chamber. It leapt up in a stable pillar towards the ceiling like leashed lightning, humming and buzzing faintly. The air smelled of chakra and ozone.

Lee leaned heavily against the glass of the observation window and squinted into the painfully bright glow. There was something floating there...

His heart jolted in his chest.

Gaara was lying in mid-air, crucified by the light; he was stripped to the waist, arms hanging at his side, head tilted back exposing his throat.

Lee staggered towards the stairs. He gripped the railing and somehow got himself down the few steps without breaking his neck, his eyes always riveted on the form of his friend. His first flare of alarm subsided as he took a wobbling step towards the light. Gaara didn't look distressed. In fact he appeared to be unconscious - not very reassuring in itself, but as the room remained empty of thirty-foot-tall raging sand demons, it had to be assumed that this was under control. Gaara looked...not peaceful, but oblivious. The complex seal on his chest, however, was writhing like an animal agonizing in a trap.

Black shapes moved into Lee's line of vision, framed by the violent light. Lee blinked the bright spots from his eyes and focused.

"Gai-sensei!"

It was alright. Everything was going to be alright. Gaara was definitely going to be alright now.

Lee tottered, and his teacher caught him by the elbow and turned him back towards the observation deck, helping him up the stairs.

"This way, Lee. We mustn't disturb them."

Lee glanced back, his eyes adapting to the harsh blend of blue light and shadows. He could make out the other people down there now. A few medi-nin, checking instruments, a selection of Sand's best Shinobi, fully armed and looking on grimly at the proceedings, and some troops from Konoha as well. They all stood well back from the center of the room.

There was a jumble of symbols drawn on the floor of the chamber, with Gaara at its center. Four people were gathered around him. Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama were standing on either side of the Kazekage, their fingers held in a seal, their eyes closed. Ebizou-jiisama and the head of Suna's medical facility had taken up position on the other nodes of the pattern of symbols, their hands in the same position as the two Sannin.

"They're trying to unlock the seal?" Lee mumbled. His tongue felt thick and awkward.

"Yeah," said someone off to Lee's left. "We’ve been at it for three hours already, and it’ll take the rest of the day at this rate."

Lee looked around. Two other people had followed him and Gai-sensei up the steps to the observation deck. Kakashi-sensei, hands in his pockets, and Morino Ibiki, who nodded at Lee when he noticed the young Jounin looking his way.

"Sit, Lee. You're shaking." Gai-sensei pushed him down on a bench opposite the observation window. Lee craned his neck, making sure he could still see Gaara from there. Then he relaxed a bit and concentrated on not passing out. Yes, not passing out would be an astute move at this point...

"You should sit too, Kakashi," Gai said archly as his rival leaned back against the wall near the stairs with a small, weary grunt. "You're pale."

"That'd be my natural coloring. I can’t sit down, I gotta go spell Jiraiya again in a few minutes. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to deconstruct that kind of seal, and he’s not a spring chicken anymore. It's like trying to unknot barbed wire in the dark. Good thing Tsunade came herself, or we wouldn’t stand a chance."

“The application of a complex and completely unknown seal on the leader of an allied village and the possessor of one of the Demon Tails justified the Hokage’s intervention,” Ibiki murmured in a reasonable voice that nonetheless suggested he hadn’t really approved of Tsunade’s visit despite this. As the head of Konoha’s security, Tsunade's absence from her village and her three-day trip here would have given Ibiki a lot of extra work and worries.

"Is Gaara going to be alright?" Lee asked, staring helplessly at the searing blue light and the figure stranded at its heart.

"Huh?" Kakashi looked at him tiredly. "Sure. Should be. Actually he was okay before we showed up, except he couldn't tap into his powers. I thought we'd be doing the kid a favor by leaving him like that; no more nightmares, no more insomnia- he'd be like Naruto, the One-Tail all but sealed off. But he demanded that we remove it. Demanded, mind you. Didn’t bother with a please, either. The Hokage looked like she'd swallowed her sake the wrong way."

"It's safer off anyway," Ibiki pointed out.

"Yeah, there'll be nasty little surprises locked into the seal. It’s not much of a choice, deciding if you’d rather have Shukaku or Orochimaru in your head."

"Orochimaru?!" Lee yelped.

"Oh yeah. This thing's got his fingerprints all over it."

Lee tilted his head back as he realized the three men were now standing over him, looking down at him seriously.

"Lee, the Kazekage told us a bit about the fight," Ibiki said. "Apparently you were at the forefront when his powers were sealed. Do you know if Orochimaru was among the men who attacked you? You'd recognize him if you saw him. His face is in our Bingo Book, and his chakra pattern and attack modes are unmistakable."

Lee rubbed the back of his neck. Orochimaru. Oh bugger. Just when it looked like they'd beaten back Akatsuki, some other power-hungry maniac crawled out of the woodworks and made a move on Gaara.

"I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid I don't remember anything that happened after I used the Renge," Lee admitted. "But if Orochimaru was among those who attacked Gaara, then I must have killed him with the others."

Silence greeted that statement.

Lee ducked his head and blushed. "I doubt he was there, of course. I couldn't take down a Sannin."

"He wouldn't be. He wouldn't take the risk himself, not unless it was a sure thing, and nobody but a fool would count on taking down Gaara of the Desert as a sure thing." Kakashi was looking at him intently. "Lee, just how many Gates did you open?"

"I'm not sure."

"Five? Six?" Gai prompted.

"Um..."

"...Seven?"

Lee mumbled something about not remembering.

Another silence.

"I saw some of the bodies the Sand brought in," Kakashi commented, scratching the back of his bushy grey hair. "High level veterans, all boosted by Orochimaru's special brand of tampering. We're not talking walkovers here. I couldn't believe anyone could take down all those guys single-handed in a short time, even though Gaara said you had. I believe him now. Paint me impressed."

"That was a huge risk, Lee," Gai-sensei said. "You're lucky to still be alive, let alone be able to walk." His tone was strangely neutral for Gai-sensei, who could normally approve or disapprove of something at the top of his lungs and never hesitated to do so.

"Was it worth it?" he added, looking at Lee searchingly.

“Yes,” Lee answered immediately. He knew what Gai-sensei was really asking. The Lotus was a forbidden technique, to be used only in extreme necessity and for the right reasons. Lee had always been ambitious and eager to prove himself in the past; he’d been tempted to use the Lotus for his own ends before. But he had not opened the seventh Gate as a challenge, to count coup on a rival or to show off. He’d done it to-

Lee looked for the word that would surely explain why he'd nearly killed himself - twice - to defend Gaara.

The answer was right there in his mind, staring back at him. He'd known it on some level from the moment that sealing jutsu had rushed over the sand towards Gaara. Lee had just never had the time to step back and think about it until now.

It was intense and complicated; not as beautiful, pure and simple as Lee had always thought it would be. It blended friendship, lust, fascination, admiration, some caution, sympathy, and so many different shades of knowledge, familiarity, closeness and trust. It had all combined and now it was in Lee's hands, he could close his fingers around it and it was his.

He would have defended Gaara to the death; Gaara was his most important person.

Lee looked at the conclusion with something like perplexed confusion. When had that happened exactly?

And what was he going to do with it now? Gaara only saw Lee as a friend. Not that that mattered. Did it? Lee was pretty used to one-sided devotion by now.

But this was different, he suddenly knew. It was more complicated than what he'd felt towards Sakura-san, it went deeper, and the plain truth of the matter was, he wanted Gaara. He wasn't a goal for Lee to strive for and never obtain. Lee wanted all of him, so badly.

A sharp dry noise right in front of his face made Lee start back and blink.

The three men were looking at him with some concern. Gai had crouched down at his side, a hand hovering over Lee's shoulder, but it was Kakashi who'd reached down and snapped his fingers in front of Lee's nose.

"Hey, kid, you okay? You spaced out."

"Er- er- " Lee blinked and tried to come back from his mental trip. What had they been talking about? Oh yeah, defending Gaara! Lee was still mightily confused, but some things were downright obvious. "Gaara is my friend! And he’s also the Kazekage of our allies of Sand! If Orochimaru was there, he's dead. And if he ever tries that again, he will be!" Even if Lee had to die to do it.

Lee sat there, with his fist raised and shaking a bit, listening to a replay of that spontaneous and horrendously brash statement, and he blushed in sheer mortification. But nobody told him off or laughed at him for thinking he could take down an enemy of that caliber. The three men were looking at him with the habit of a lifetime of fighting behind them. And they appeared to believe he had his chances.

"Well, he's lost a few good people, as well as a lot of riffraff he probably doesn't care about," Kakashi said with a glance at Gai and Ibiki. "He'll not try again. Unless Gaara is crucial for some aim of his, in which case, yeah, he'll be back. And in the next plan of attack he cooks up, he'll factor you in a whole lot more accurately, kid. He underestimated you this time. If he makes another attempt, he'll try to checkmate you along with Gaara. It won't be that easy to beat him off. But don't worry about that right now. Here, Gai, take your student back to the infirmary."

"He's not my student any more," Gai said softly, eyes shining with pride. "He's a ninja who has now matched my skills in Renge for good and noble reasons. He is a Shinobi who has my utmost respect."

And for a brief moment, Lee forgot his aches and pains, the way he was shaking, his anxiety over Gaara's safety...everything really was All Right.

"Huh-huh, he's real tough,” Kakashi said, rolling his visible eye while Gai-sensei bravely tried to stem the tide of his joyful tears. “Now when you’re done with all the macho stuff, go tuck your student into bed and fuss over him and feed him chicken soup and all that. He's looking a little ragged."

"Lee, before you go get some rest, can you point me in the direction of someone with pull in this village?" Ibiki asked. His eyes on Lee were intent.

Lee, still floating on the high of Gai-sensei's words, glanced at him questioningly.

"Orochimaru is a danger to both our villages. We thought that recuperating Uchiha Sasuke and defeating Sound would quell him for awhile, but I guess he's back sooner than anticipated and with another goal."

Lee's brain connected Sasuke, Orochimaru, Gaara and Orochimaru's special brand of immortality, and his rush of pride and accomplishment evaporated. He was instantly on his feet and waving his arms about in alarm.

"That's why he wanted Gaara?! To use his body for- for that forbiden Jutsu?! We have to stop him! Urg."

Lee sat down heavily, with Gai-sensei's hand on his shoulder to stop him from falling over.

"We don't know what he wanted the Kazekage for,” Kakashi said. “We don’t even know if the primary goal was to capture him, and killing him was the fallback plan, or if they intended to kill him all along. If Orochimaru wanted Gaara as a host for his Body Transfer Jutsu, his ultimate goal would be to get his hands on the demon inside the kid. I don’t know if he could control Shukaku merely by taking over Gaara’s body. What I do know is that the thought of Orochimaru powered by a Tail is giving me a headache.”

“I don’t think the idea is leaving any of us very enthusiastic,” Ibiki murmured.

Kakashi turned back towards the stairs. "I better get down there. Shizune's waving at me. Jiraiya probably needs to go sit down. None of us can keep up with Tsunade for more than an hour at a stretch, that woman is a machine. Gai, are you coming back when you get Lee to-"

"What did you mean when you said you needed someone with pull in this village? Sir?" Lee asked Ibiki. He had big black blotches in front of his eyes from his sudden movement earlier, but his brain was turning over double-time.

Ibiki looked at him gravely, then continued without commenting on the way Lee was swaying on his bench.

"Whatever he wanted the Kazekage for, we have just as much vested interest as Sand does in taking Orochimaru down. But the Shinobi here aren’t giving us much information. They barely let us examine the bodies, and they said they found no traces out in the desert that could help them track down Sound."

"That's impossible, I'm afraid," Lee said in a polite but firm tone. "They can read the desert like a map. If they told you they didn't find anything, then they were-...erm, embroidering a bit on the truth."

"Lying, huh? I figured. Why?" Ibiki was staring at him attentively. Behind Ibiki, Kakashi also examined him, the one eye weighing him astutely, and then he turned and left without asking Gai when he’d be back.

"Gaara was attacked. They want revenge,” Lee explained simply. “Also, they do not trust strangers much at the best of times, and now the village will close rank more than ever. When Gaara's back on his feet- but right now, Temari or Kankuro will make sure you get the information you need."

"They might if they were here. But Temari went to do damage control at the Daimyo's court and with Sand's political allies, she won’t be back for another two or three days. Kankuro's out there somewhere, I have no idea where. I was told he was on ‘extended desert patrol’."

"Probably on the traces of Sound, then. He'll be gone for weeks, unless he finds anything.” Lee bit his lip, his mind racing. “Did Captain Sanada make it back?"

"Sanada? Yes."

"How many others were with him? From our original escort?" Lee asked quietly, with a glance at Gaara beyond the observation deck glass.

"Five. All three Chuunin were killed, I was told. One of the Jounin was in critical condition, but I heard he stabilized since then and should make it. The others are more or less okay."

Lee rubbed his face savagely. Later. A Shinobi did his job first, and mourned the dead later. "But Sanada is up and about? He must be exhausted, he made it back to Suna almost as fast as I could."

"He was probably out of it at first,” Ibiki agreed. “But that was four days ago. You've been in a light coma since they brought you back to Suna, until Tsunade-sama arrived yesterday. You’ve been sleeping since. Which reminds me: Tsunade-sama wants a word with you when she’s done here. She was growling something about you giving her a lot of work on a regular basis, and how the next time this happens you’ll get nothing more than a band-aid and an aspirin to recover with."

Ibiki’s scars warped around an amused - and slightly sadistic - smile. But that was nowhere near as frightening as the thought of Tsunade-sama on the warpath in her capacity of medi-nin. She’d have the same opinion as Gaara when it came to ‘overdoing it’.

“Oh dear. Well, she can chew me out later, I guess.” Lee winced at the thought, but then he focused back on the problem at hand. “If Sanada made it back, then he's the one we need. He'll be a focal point for the Shinobi forces without Gaara or his siblings to direct them. He'll have all the information."

"Okay, I'll go talk to him." Ibiki scratched his scarred chin and glanced at the door.

"I'll go with you," Lee said, standing up slowly.

"Lee!" Gai-sensei caught his shoulder, his impressive brow folded into a worried frown. "You have done amazingly well, balancing the forces of the Renge in your body and curbing its destructive powers, but you need rest, or you could undo Tsunade-sama's healing of-"

"Please, Gai-sensei, I have to do this," Lee interrupted gently but firmly. "Our villages have to work together if we want to protect Gaara, and I'm the military liaison to Suna. Sanada trusts me, he’ll cooperate with me. Besides, I know the abilities of the Sand Shinobi. If I’m asking the questions, he won’t be able to-...um...”

“Embroider?” Ibiki provided with a smirk.

“At the very least, they should have gotten something out of the three men they captured," Lee concluded weakly.

Ibiki and Gai glanced at each other.

"They captured some? Great, they forgot to mention that tidbit of information. Okay, Lee, if you think you can walk without falling over- oh, I guess that works too," Ibiki added, a trace of amusement in his voice as Gai-sensei slipped Lee's arm over his shoulder and started walking him to the door.

Lee smiled in gratitude at his teacher, but as Gai stopped to let Ibiki open the door for them, Lee glanced back over his shoulder and looked at Gaara through the observation deck window.

He stared at the pale form hanging in the blue light. He realized he was practicing saying it in his head: 'Gaara. The man I love. The man I love.'

The words sounded strange; wonderful; a bit frightening as well. They made his heart trip at every repetition. They were as solemn and sacrosanct as a promise.

They meant that Lee was engaging in one of his self-imposed rules. If Gaara was his most important person, then Lee would defend him with all his might. If he failed, if Gaara died, then Lee would follow him. The strength of that promise was like a deal made with fate: it meant that nothing bad could happen to Gaara without Lee being there to protect him. Whether he would be able to defend Gaara, or only die trying, would depend on the abilities Lee had been honing most of his life. But the power of the Rule meant that he would at least be there to try, come what may. Surely Life could work no other way.

Lee’s more practical side knew that this was probably nonsense, but it gave him the strength and determination to walk away and do his job, leaving Gaara in capable hands behind him.

Chapter Text

"Off to practice, Lee-san?" the guard on the gate asked him with a small smile.

Lee saluted. "Just going for a little run. I shouldn't be out more than three hours."

The guard’s smile widened, it looked a bit indulgent. "Try to be back before nightfall this time, and don't forget to drop by the kitchens. When she left last week, your Hokage made it very, very clear to everybody that you were to have four solid meals a day and plenty of rest."

"I’ll be back by then, no problem! Or sooner." Lee looked up from where he'd been doing some warm-up crouches. "Say, have there been any sandstorm warnings?"

"I wouldn't let you go running if there were," the Chuunin pointed out.

"Oh. It's just..."

Lee rubbed the back of his neck. It was prickling again. Lee had been in Suna long enough now that he could feel a storm's approach as well as any Sand Shinobi. And his instincts were ticking over faintly. There was a hint of static along with the hot afternoon sunshine hammering the desert; it felt like the air was made of pieces of old dry felt slowly rubbing together.

He knew he wasn't imagining it entirely because the guard was giving the sky a thoughtful, slightly uncomfortable look too.

"There shouldn't be. Even if we'd missed it, Gaara-sama always warn us well in advance. But...Lee-san, maybe you should stick close to town today."

"I will."

Lee hesitated. Maybe he should go to the practice field instead. But he wanted to get out of the village. The mood in Suna was somber after the attack on Gaara and the loss of three good men, ten days ago. The Sand Shinobi were angry in that quiet, intense way of theirs that seemed to hang like a cloud over the desert. The fact that they had nowhere to direct their anger as yet made the mood all the more oppressive. Kankuro and his unit were following their leads with Konoha's help, but they had yet to find any definite indication of Sound's new whereabouts.

As for the practice field, it felt a bit lonely these days without Gaara to spar with...

Lee took off at a good clip, refusing to dwell on that last depressing thought. That was why he was going out running in the first place. He shook his bowl-cut roughly and brought his wandering mind to order with his best Gai-Sensei 'Forward!' pose. Right! Ten laps around the village in less than thirty minutes! Or he'd do a hundred more tomorrow, and that would be hellishly painful, weak as he still was. Go!

Twenty nine minutes later, when he crossed his self-imposed finish line, he felt a bit better. Somewhere around the sixth lap, he'd made his decision. Tomorrow he'd go and see Gaara even if he had to break down the door to the Kazekage's residence and corner him in the kitchen or wherever Gaara had been lurking this past week.

Feeling better for that decision, Lee absently struck out towards the desert; he felt like having some free space around him. The sand dunes, shale and rocks had become familiar terrain to Lee. He negotiated it as easily as a Sand Jounin, automatically avoiding slippery spots and possible snake dens.

Too bad he had to go out running alone...He missed Gai-Sensei. He wished his old mentor could have stayed longer and helped him get back into shape. He also wished Gai could have met and talked with Gaara again in better circumstances than their last encounter. But of course Konoha had been in a hurry to get their Hokage back, and Tsunade-sama, Gai-Sensei and the others had left a week ago, right after Gaara’s seal had been successfully removed.

Oh well, no sense in moping. Even if he was alone, it felt good to be out of the administration building. Lee bounced happily from rock to rock as he passed the arroyo and left the perimeter of Suna. He couldn't go too far, just in case there was a small storm brewing, but he could go to the oasis.

The waterhole was hidden amongst a jumble of sandstone two miles out from the village. It was a small pool with ten graceful palm trees around it. Gaara had shown him this place many months ago when the dates were in season. There was a game the Sand Shinobi played; the aim was to spear down the fruit with kunai, only one at a time. Every Shinobi in the village could climb the trees, or jutsu to the top, or even leap that high, but that was cheating. The only one who didn't use kunai on the dates was Gaara, the universal exception to just about every rule as always. Though even he respected the unspoken tradition by using only little darts of sand to knock the fruit down. The dates were sweet and juicy, and well worth the effort and the rules imposed in obtaining them.

Lee trotted up to the oasis, stretched a few times, then he knelt to take a drink.

The water trickled through his fingers as he tensed unconsciously. There it was again...that barely-there itching sensation between his shoulder blades, as if he was being watched. But he'd had that on and off for the last week, ever since he’d left the hospital, and he'd never seen anyone around him. As a Shinobi, Lee should be able to tell. He'd finally put it down to a case of nerves after being ambushed in the desert.

Damn it, if only he could check on Gaara, he would stop feeling this twitchy. But he’d not seen his friend since he’d left the Kazekage hanging unconscious in that beam of blue light in the clinic.

He missed him...

Lee knew he was bound to feel a bit nervous and awkward around Gaara now that he knew what he really felt towards the somber, stony-faced young man. But after a week without seeing him, not even at a distance, Lee was starting to think that feeling nervous and awkward would be a damn sight better than dealing with the quiet dejection that gripped him whenever he let his spirits flag. Fortunately, Lee was not one to let his spirits flag, or even take a dip if he could help it. A positive outlook was important in life! And he'd see Gaara tomorrow come hell or high water.

Lee bounced to his feet. He'd gone running to get away from these thoughts, but they'd caught up with him. That sort of- of defeatist attitude was not worthy of a warrior!

Maybe he could-...but the doctor had said not to. More importantly, Gai-Sensei had said not to. And he'd said it very sternly. And he'd bopped Lee on the head when Lee had tried to argue. Still, as long as Lee didn't open any Gates...surely it wouldn't do any harm to cut loose a little bit. That would make him feel better and help shake off some dust along with his worries.

He removed the new leg-weights Gai-sensei had made for him, as a compromise. He shouldn't really be doing this at all, but surely if he took off the leg weights, it wouldn't do any actual harm, right? Right!

He concentrated an instant, drawing his fists to his side and breathing in deeply. Then he burst into fluid movements. He didn't even try to follow any formal kata; he let his body scythe and strike the air at will, first a spin, then a right hook, then a leap-land-punch. Without the weights, he felt like he was flying! Lee grinned and tossed caution to the wind, ignoring the prickle of pain in his recovering muscles. He kicked into higher speed, the air whistling around him as he spun around, fist pistoning out-

His punch didn't hit air; it collided with a crumbling wall of sand that collapsed loosely around his forearm.

Lee gaped at the disintegrating barrier and at the figure standing a few feet behind it.

"Gaara?!"

The Kazekage had his arms crossed over his chest, and his eyes were cold and hard as he stared at Lee.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked softly. "You were told to take it easy for at least three weeks."

"Ahhh...Hello." Lee gave him a sheepish look, absently shaking the sand out of his sleeve and bandages.

They stared at each other across the small distance between them.

"It's nice to see you," Lee finally said, which might have been close to the greatest understatement ever made in both villages. It was as if he'd been carrying a big ball and chain around until this moment. He felt excited and happy, and hot and flushed and worried and embarrassed too. And above all relieved. Gaara looked alright.

He was dressed in his usual outdoor outfit. The long coat had been fitted with two symmetrical panels of dark-red leather over the chest. It looked quite nice, Lee couldn’t help noticing, but he knew that these were repairs, not decoration, and that the left panel covered a long gash over the heart which was still giving Lee nightmares. Kankuro and his blasted puppets...Gaara was wearing the gourd on his back, naturally. His face and eyes were unreadable.

"You look better," Lee added, when Gaara didn't say anything. "I stopped by your office last week, you know, but they said you were working from home while you recovered from the seal’s removal."

Gaara still said nothing. He was looking at Lee, yet the Jounin had the feeling Gaara's gaze was turned inward.

"I also dropped by your place a few times," Lee continued a bit more hesitantly. "But you were never there. Temari said you were taking walks alone in the desert - against her advice, she was actually quite mad about it. But anyway, I guess I kept on missing you."

He had to assume so. He'd knocked almost daily at the Kazekage's residence and nobody had answered the door, and he'd felt no presence from inside the house. Though of course Gaara could have been in, and with his almost inhuman ability to mask his presence, Lee would have been none the wiser...But Lee couldn't bear the thought that Gaara was avoiding him. There were rumors all over the village that the Kazekage kept disappearing into the desert at odd hours, and Lee had decided he'd just had a run of his usual bad luck when it came to seeing his friend.

"I guess you're out taking a walk now. Or are you training? So am I. Um, this was the first time I did anything strenuous. I am taking it easy otherwise. Only four hours of light exercise a day according to Gai-Sensei's instructions. Running, small weights, some low-speed hand-to-hand combat with the other Jounin. I miss our sparring-" Lee closed his mouth. He'd showed up at the training field every day at their usual hour, just in case, but Gaara hadn't come and Lee was fast running out of reasons he could use to explain this, however optimistic and upbeat he tried to stay.

Gaara was staring at a point behind Lee. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.

"Don't overexert yourself," he said over his shoulder, the hard tone making it an order rather than friendly advice.

"I won't..."

Lee watched Gaara leave. Okay, now he had to face the facts. Gaara could be very hard to read, but Lee, on the other hand, had gotten rather adept at reading him.

"Gaara, are you mad at me about something?"

For a moment, Lee thought Gaara would just walk away, but then his footsteps slowed and finally came to a halt near one of the rocky ledges on the outskirt of the small oasis. He didn't turn around.

"You are." Lee rubbed the back of his neck. "This is about the way I locked you in the communication room, isn't it. I knew you'd be angry about that. But you couldn't help me take out our attackers without your powers, and they could have had other tricks to get around your defences."

Gaara didn't turn around. He lifted his head as if he were about to say something, but then he started walking again, the long black coat flickering at his heels.

"Gaara?" Damn it. Lee walked after him, finally breaking into a jog. "Look, I know you're mad about that, but I couldn't- Gaara, wait."

Lee caught up with Gaara and grabbed his arm-

His back smashed into something hard, slamming the air out of his lungs. He slid down the rock ledge before he caught himself, ending in a crouch against the stone.

"What the-...hell?"

The Sand. As soon as he'd touched Gaara, it had whipped out of nowhere and hurled him back ten feet into the stony butte protecting the oasis. Lee hadn't been expecting it at all, and his convalescent body had been unable to do more than let him cushion the impact a little.

"Make that very mad," Lee said shakily, looking up at Gaara.

But the first brief flicker of emotion on Gaara’s face was shock, followed by a glimpse of something smoldering and wounded. It was gone as quickly as it had appeared, guttered like a candle and leaving the cold, unemotional expression in its place.

Lee straightened up slowly, but he didn’t make any movement towards Gaara.

"Why did you do that for?" he asked, though he didn’t think it had been entirely conscious on Gaara’s part.

Gaara was silent for a second, his jaw clenched, and then he said: “You hurt me.”

"Huh?" Lee's bewildered gaze fastened on Gaara's arm. "What are you talking about, I barely touched you."

"You hurt me," Gaara whispered and his eyes had become strangely fixed and blind. Then suddenly he blinked, glanced at Lee and turned away.

"I'm leaving," he said in a cold, precise voice. "Do not follow me."

“I’m sorry, but I think I have to.”

Gaara spun back and there was a small ripple in the sand around him.

"You will stay here," Gaara ordered harshly.

"I won't." Lee took three deliberate steps away from the rock and planted himself in a stubborn stance with his hands on his hips. He'd stay at a safe distance, but he would follow his friend until Gaara’s temper cooled and he was ready to talk.

A look of frustration briefly crossed Gaara's face, but it once again faded into the cold uncompromising look.

"Then you are an idiot."

"I'm well aware of that," Lee muttered, discreetly rubbing a spot on his tailbone that had impacted against the rock. "But I'm not letting you tromp back out into the desert with just the fact that you're mad and that I hurt you to keep me company. Look, I can see why you're a bit angry, but how did I hurt you? Talk to me, Gaara, we're friends, we-"

Maybe using a loaded word like 'friends' when Gaara was obviously upset wasn't such a good idea.

Flickers of violent emotion disturbed the cold, hard mask of Gaara's expression, and a trickle of Sand pattered from a crack in the gourd onto the ground. The slow step he took towards Lee was deliberately threatening.

"Friends. You say we’re friends."

Shit. That's what the feel in the air and the look in Gaara's eyes reminded him of: that time on the boat in Nasaki. Only this time it was worse, and Lee wasn't sure why.

"...Yes?" he hazarded.

Gaara took another few steps towards him, his eyes drilling into Lee's. Lee stayed where he was, though the safe distance between them was fast dwindling.

"Friends. What does that mean? Doesn’t it mean I have to protect you? You wouldn’t let me!"

Lee tensed as Gaara's voice unexpectedly rose. "I-"

"I nearly lost you. Twice!" Gaara was only three feet away.

Lee didn't say anything. Now he knew how he'd hurt Gaara. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious. But Gaara was sort of used to having his friend leap into danger, that's what Lee did. Why was he reacting so badly now?

Gaara was staring at him. His breath was coming shallow and quick, as if that flash of anger had cost him. Or rather the effort to rein it in.

"You're not running away?" he suddenly ground out, his eyes as fixed as a snake's.

"No," Lee said a bit redundantly.

"You're not afraid...you really are an idiot. You were afraid back then, when you locked me in that room. I could smell it on you. I guess you thought I'd let it loose if I was cornered and had nothing left to lose. That was good thinking on your part. Better to face a bunch of human killers than me."

It took a second for Lee to figure that one out. He’d not been afraid! Well, not of Gaara- oh-

"Wha-at?! No, you- Gaara, you have it all wrong!"

"You’re just like the others. All my life. Afraid of me. We have a bond, I thought we had a bond, but I couldn’t defend you, you wouldn't let me. You were scared- you left me alone and nearly got yourself killed. It hurt. It’s been hurting all this time- is it always going to hurt this much?!"

A ripple of sand shot out in a ring around Gaara, rolling over Lee's sandals, breaking like waves against the rocks surrounding the oasis and causing ripples on the water's surface. Gaara didn't appear to notice. Lee sure did, though.

He swallowed. He remembered what Kankuro had told him, a day they’d shared quiet confidences over coffee after following Gaara through a sandstorm: "The problem was that he kept everything bottled up inside - who the hell could he share it with anyway, right? - and it would build up and smolder until one look, one word would be too much and it would trigger him and bang, dead body. That’s why the Kazekage" (Kankuro never said ‘Father’) "tried to have him killed. And man, did that not work out either. Just more dead bodies."

In view of the fact that Lee had saved Gaara’s life, this would be a bit of an overreaction for a normal person, but Lee knew his friend, and Gaara was not a normal person. In Gaara's universe, he was the sole one responsible for his life, just as he was now the one who protected everybody else as well. It was his purpose. It justified his existence, which was only a million times more important to him than an actual heartbeat.

No, this had nothing to do with the fact that Lee had saved Gaara’s life; it was the pain and helplessness Gaara must have felt, locked in that room for an hour and knowing that one of his only friends was probably getting slaughtered outside.

Gaara had sunk into a crouch, his arms crossed, not in his usual deliberate gesture but as if he was trying to keep something dangerous from exploding out of his chest. His blind eyes were fixed on the sand at his feet and his lips were moving around words that were meant only for him. Just like in Nasaki. Lee could feel Gaara striving for control again, but this time it wouldn’t be that easy.

Lee had seen this side of Gaara before, but only brief snatches. Enough to know that the Old Gaara was still in there somewhere, wild and young and hurt, carefully controlled by the Kazekage. But Lee had never seen Gaara lose it this badly outside of a sandstorm before. It was painful and disturbing, to see this calm and guarded man crack like this, a wounded animal ready to lash out.

Now would be a good time to run, said a tiny little voice in Lee's head. Probably his survival instincts. Lee had never paid them much attention before and he was certainly not going to listen to them now. Gaara needed him.

"Gaara?" Lee leaned forward, a cautious eye on the Sand. It didn't pay him any attention, but then again neither did Gaara.

"Gaara, look at me," Lee said firmly, trying to keep the tension and anxiety from his voice. He sank down on one knee a couple of feet away from Gaara, ignoring the way the surface crunched beneath his leg and seemed to slither around him.

Gaara's gaze travelled slowly over the ground, crept up to look him not quite fully in the face.

"I'm sorry I hurt you. It wasn't intentional. I...maybe that wasn't the best decision I made back there." Of course it had been, and Lee would take it again a hundred times over, but now was not the time to go into that. "But I wasn't thinking straight, because yeah, I was scared, I won’t deny it, I know you can pick up fear a mile away.”

It was fall-out from his upbringing; Gaara could pick up fear, hate, disgust, despair and mania like a well-tuned radar. Too bad he couldn’t figure out other emotions quite so accurately.

“But I wasn’t afraid of you or of Shukaku." A minute flinch, surprise, hurt and anger, when Lee dropped that taboo name as if he was talking about the household pet."I was afraid for you," Lee concluded firmly, not letting Gaara's gaze drop. “You were not at your full potential and it was you they were after. I was afraid you’d try to follow me and get yourself killed.”

Gaara stared at him, and for a second Lee thought his friend had snapped out of it. But then the instability crept back into his eyes, the doubt.

This must have been gnawing at Gaara for over a week, increasing in strength, turning inward and eating at him...Gaara just didn't have any outlet for that sort of thing; not these days, when he only killed in self-defence. A nasty thought occurred to Lee. Was this the reason Gaara had been wandering around the desert? To mull and brood? Or was he hoping to be jumped by some more fools from Sound who'd let him release his feelings the only way he knew how. Lee hoped this wasn't the case; he didn't want to think Gaara had regressed that far.

"Afraid...for me?" Gaara said it like he wanted to believe this revolutionary new concept, but didn't quite dare to. Fear had been the first emotion young Gaara had come into contact with, the one that had surrounded him reliably all his life; it had become the one constant he looked for in people. But it had always centered on him, so he’d never had to learn about any kind of nuance.

"Yes." Lee’s hand was half raised to touch, but remembering how Gaara had reacted before, he curbed the gesture. He stayed on his knees on a level with Gaara, completely unthreatening, his voice calm and friendly. Everything was cool; there was no need to lash out with Sand Barriers or anything excessive. "Of course I was. You protect those around you, and so do I. That’s important to me too. You're important to me."

Gaara stared at him. Lee tried to smile reassuringly. It had all the impact of a snowflake in a sandstorm.

"I’m important to you."

"Yes-"

"That's what he said. That I was one of his important people around him."

Gaara's eyes had gone as flat as glass.

"That's what he said before he tried to kill me."

The monotone was so devoid of emotion that Lee took a second to actually register what Gaara had said. What?!

Gaara sank onto his knees, uncrossing his arms and staring blindly at his hands. The fingers were bent and rigid like claws. They were shaking.

"Yashamaru," he whispered unevenly.

Oh shit.

Lee had been trying to reassure Gaara and had ended up stepping on a landmine instead.

A rasping sound made Lee look around quickly. A large, slow ring was drawing itself in the sand around them, like the wake of a shark circling a struggling swimmer.

A crack drew a jagged line down Gaara's gourd with a small tinkling noise. The air was full of static; the sand was leaping up and clinging to their clothes. Lee could feel it creeping against his skin, stinging his eyes. He could taste it on his dry lips as he licked them.

Gaara's mouth was moving. Words like ‘alone’, ‘pain’ and ‘blood’ were tumbling out without any pattern or sense. His eyes were no longer pieces of unfeeling glass, they were kaleidoscopes circling between sanity, pain, emptiness and a primal fury that just wanted to lash out at the universe that kept hurting it. The low rumbling of the sand was growing louder as it moved more quickly around them, a tightening circle centered on Lee.

"Gaara," Lee said, trying to penetrate the growing maelstrom around them, as well as the one in Gaara's head, without raising his voice. "Calm down. It's me, Lee. Your friend. Remember? Gaara, don't hurt me, you'll regret it later when you snap out of this."

Cold, empty eyes seized his. "You are afraid of me!"

"...A bit. Because you could kill me almost by accident right now. And because at this point I could hurt you with just one word and I don't want to do that."

"Hurt," Gaara whispered, eyes tracing Lee's features as if they were a map that could lead him back to a place he'd lost. He looked so...wounded and forlorn. Lee felt a sympathetic ache twist in his own chest. "All those days...I thought it’d get better, but every time I remembered you running out to face those men, it hurt again just like the first time. Worse. It kept getting worse. Yashamaru said emotional wounds never heal. It will always hurt. I-"

There was a sudden dangerous silence. Even the circle of sand stopped for an instant in its tracks.

Gaara slowly turned his head to look down at his right shoulder. This led Lee to realize that he'd reached out and was touching Gaara in a completely instinctive effort to comfort. Instinctive and quite possibly suicidal, Lee's higher faculties informed him sharply. You're gripping someone having a psychotic episode and who's known far and wide for his aversion to physical contact. Stop doing that now and he might not hurt you too badly.

Lee swallowed and tried to withdraw his hands. But for some reason they wouldn’t move.

A moment passed. Gaara was still staring down at Lee's hand on his shoulder, while Lee's brain was getting very excited about his imminent demise and begging him to stop touching Gaara and run like hell instead.

But he didn't let go. Maybe some deeper instincts were at work.

Gaara looked back at him slowly. The emotions in his eyes shifted like layers of sand in a collapsing dune, but he seemed more focused now.

"Lee," he said in a dead-quiet, controlled voice that reminded Lee of the normal Gaara, "don't move."

Don't move? Did that mean Lee was supposed to keep his hands on-

Gaara shifted slowly. So slowly it didn't dislodge Lee's hold. He leaned forward, still on his knees. He inched towards Lee gradually, deliberately, like a tightrope walker moving out over thin air.

Lee stared at him without comprehension. Gaara was now a foot away. Lee kept his hands on Gaara's shoulders, his fingers loose.

Gaara edged forward again. He raised his right hand to Lee's wrist, but he didn't rip it away from his shoulder. His fingers were straight and tense as they felt blindly down Lee's arm. Gaara's eyes were fixed on Lee's face until his hand reached Lee's shoulder, then his gaze dropped to his fingers as they slowly moved across Lee's chest.

Lee's mouth went completely dry and he thought his eyes would pop out of their sockets.

"Um-"

"Don't move," Gaara whispered. It was not an order or a threat; it was a hushed warning. The sand was still murmuring restlessly around them. Over Gaara's right shoulder, Lee could see the mouth of the gourd, uncorked, it's opening darker than a pit. This close he could distinguish small grains of sand floating an inch above the surface of the container, picking up and refracting the light from the setting sun. Some of the Sand was out, but it hadn't reacted any further to Lee's touch this time. There was no saying how long that state of affairs would last.

Gaara's hand moved across the top of Lee's chest, tracing his collarbone. Then his fingers rose up to Lee's throat, touching the skin above his uniform.

Lee forgot his fascinated observation of the gourd and just about everything else. He stared in bewilderment at his friend’s eyes, the odd all-green pupils a bit too large and dilated. Gaara's fingers traced the side of Lee’s neck, brushed over his adam's apple, rose to his chin. They explored the line of his jaw, they passed over his cheek. They moved with a strange intent, as if they were searching for something. Lee tried to swallow, but his mouth was as dry as old bones.

Don't move, Gaara had said. Lee stayed still, his fingers digging a little into Gaara's shoulders in his uncertainty. Gaara didn't react to that, neither did the Sand. Lee could feel the material of Gaara's coat under his fingertips, and the muscles tense and tightly controlled beneath that.

Then Gaara moved forward again.

Now he was only a few inches from Lee. The sun was setting around the rocks surrounding the oasis. The golden evening light caught the side of Gaara’s face, highlights picking up an odd grainy texture instead of skin. Despite his massive confusion, Lee warily noted that Gaara was wearing the Sand Armour.

Gaara's eyes were narrowed to clean-cut diamonds in their black smudges, intense beyond anything he'd ever seen, fixed on Lee's face, searching for something...but it wasn't fear he was looking for this time. Lee didn't know what Gaara was hoping to find. Maybe Gaara didn't either.

Lee's ability to think ground to a clunking halt as Gaara slowly leaned forward once more, out of his line of sight.

Breath tickled Lee's throat. Gaara's body was almost touching his.

Lee didn't try to turn his head; he stared blindly at the edge of the gourd and the rocks beyond. He was tense as a live wire with the effort of staying still. His grip was hard on Gaara's shoulders now. But not to hurl Gaara away or defend himself. Lee was in danger, he could feel it; it had been clear in Gaara's warning. Gaara himself might not be able to control his reflexes if Lee moved now. But Lee's hands did not want to push Gaara away. They wanted to hold him, wrap the other's body against his, comfort, protect, defend Gaara against the crawling sense of menace, even though Gaara himself was the source. It made no sense...

Gaara had said ‘don't move’. Lee fought his protective instincts and kept still.

The only sounds were the creaking of sand beneath Gaara's knees as he shifted; the low murmur of the destructive circle still slowly spiralling around the two young men; Lee's breath rattling in his throat and the heartbeat knocking in his ears; the crack of stones cooling around the oasis now that the sun had sunk behind them.

Lee kept absolutely still, though his heart seized up when Gaara's mouth strayed near the edge of his jaw; not touching, but he could feel every breath Gaara drew and released on his skin like a caress. It touched his cheek, travelled across Lee's chin towards his mouth.

Lee stopped breathing. Feather-light puffs of air from Gaara's mouth touched his lips.

Gaara had said...don't...move...

Gaara slowly leaned back and put a bit of distance between them. His fingers had fallen to Lee's chest. They brushed sand off of the green uniform absently. Lee could see Gaara's face and eyes again. They were troubled but sane, hurt but under control. Gaara wasn't back to normal by a long shot, but there was less of a live threat in the air.

"This helps."

The words were so quiet, Lee wouldn't have heard them if Gaara's face hadn't been six inches away. He was staring down at his fingers splayed out across Lee's green top.

"It makes things calmer, clearer, like they’ve leapt into focus." Gaara spoke slowly, analytically, though there was a dangerous waver of tension riding on the edge of his voice. "Touching you. Being this close to you...At the start, it felt strange, dangerous to let anybody within arm’s reach. I don't normally-...Now it's like nothing I've ever felt before. But I almost lost you. I almost lost this. I can't-..."

A hand slowly fisted in Lee's uniform, twisting the cloth. The sand of the oasis stirred around them.

"You never hesitated to touch me. You seem to like it. You're not afraid. This...is a bond. But I don't understand it anymore. Something changed out there in the desert. Why did you want me to hold you while you slept that night? Why did it feel that way when you did? What changed? We were equals before. We protected each other, even when it made me mad that you followed me into danger. But you wouldn't let me protect you after that. Now you're behaving as if my life is more important to you than yours. And that hurts. But you're also behaving as if this is all normal. Lee...what is going on?"

At that point Lee could have lied. A smarter Shinobi would have tried to talk Gaara down now that he was calmer; get the Kazekage back to the village, call in his family, his people, have them take care of him.

But Gaara was still highly volatile, and Lee was not a very good liar. It wasn't in his nature to evade anyway. That quiet, direct question prompted an equally honest answer before he could think it through.

"I'm sorry I hurt you, I didn't mean to. It was a reflex. I couldn't bear the thought of them killing you. I- um, I tried to see you last week because I thought you might be a bit angry with me. I don't want that. You could have come and talked to me, you know, instead of- of- walking around in the desert and-"

One of Lee's hands had left Gaara's shoulder to make a vague gesture at the landscape around them in illustration. He froze in that position as a great big notion suddenly punched him in the brain.

"You- have you- what are you doing here exactly? I mean here, tonight? Have you- have you been following me?" Lee hadn't realized his voice could still reach that pitch since he'd hit puberty.

Gaara looked at him without any embarrassment (or denial either). He glanced at his right shoulder where Lee's hand had left him to gesture, then he edged back a bit, frowning. Some of the sanity had slipped from his eyes which were tightly focused on something entirely different than whatever it was Lee thought was wrong with being stalked through the desert.

"Explain," he murmured in a flat monotone that held faint echoes of both a plea and a threat. "Explain what is going on."

"What's going on?" Lee echoed incredulously. "You've been- you've been trailing me! Every time I left Suna, I felt- your chakra was leaking, like now, and like in Nasaki- and even in town I felt watched. Damn it Gaara! Why didn't you come up and talk to me! I bloody missed you, you know!"

Oh that's smart, a part of Lee's brain groaned; yell at the twitchy psychotic who’s already mad at you. But Lee was long past listening to anything his brain might have to say. If he were smart, he wouldn't be in love with Gaara of the Desert in the first place.

"Yeah, I missed you!" he snapped at the green eyes that had narrowed at him - still suspicious, still so ready to be hurt rather than reach out and just try to understand. "Because you're my friend! And I'm sorry if this bugs you, but that means I protect you with my life! And when you can actually do more than just be a target, I let you watch my back too, because I respect you like that, I count on you. Hell, fighting by your side is the most fun I've had since I stopped training with Gai-sensei! You- you fight like a god, Gaara. But you never underestimate me or belittle me for all that. And you're even braver in other ways, because I'm not an idiot, I know how hard it must have been to become Kazekage and defend the people who feared you all your life. You barely understand bonds and-and friendship, but you still took a chance and let me get close to you, let me become your friend- and you wonder why I would fight to defend you?!"

Lee felt something huge and solid roll off his chest. Ever since they’d gotten back from Nasaki, he'd been watching his step, walking on eggshells, avoiding dangerous words like 'friend' and trying to carefully dole out signs of affection without triggering a withdrawal and a morose silence. Lee had the nasty feeling that something in him had finally snapped. The words poured out in a great catharsis that broke against the stony expression and reserved eyes. He barely realized that he'd let go of Gaara's other shoulder and was gesturing wildly.

"And it's the little things too, I like to, well, I like to touch you too, and look at you, and talk to you at midnight- but when you're silent, it's because you trust me not to be afraid of you in those moments, so I don’t mind either. Hell, I don't even mind when you're being stubborn and hurtful and- and bossy, because that's just you, and the- the way you talk and act- I- everything! You've been so badly hurt, I hate that, I hate what you’ve been put through, but then you let me near you and you let me help you with that pain even just a little bit, and because of that, I don't want to see you die or get hurt ever again, I love you too much to let you get yourself-...killed..."

Gaara's eyes had widened until the green was surrounded by white. Lee realized what he'd just said- the actual word he'd used, though anybody who wasn't emotionally stunted could have figured out what Lee meant halfway through that spontaneous muddled outpouring. But he'd actually used the word 'love', and if Gaara could lose a part of his control over 'friend', Lee wondered just how badly he was going to snap now, on top of everything else that had been building up this past week.

Gaara sat back on his heels, putting a bit more distance between them, and his head shook once convulsively.

"No. No."

"I'm sorry-" For what? For the truth? Lee couldn't take back his words, he wouldn't want to anyway, and it would only make matters worse if he did.

"No. This isn’t- this isn't right!"

Sand washed against Lee, reaching up to his hip like a ragged wave breaking. Lee stiffened, but he didn't look away from Gaara.

"Gaara, calm down."

"This isn't right! It hurts and it burns and it needs! It wasn't supposed to feel like this! Lo- it- it was supposed to make the pain go away. Not make it worse! You- you wouldn't let me protect you! You almost died- you lo- What are you doing to me?!"

Behind Lee, a piece of sandstone ledge broke off with a sharp noise and toppled to the ground. The sand was growling and whirling around them faster and faster. Lee could see the cracks in Gaara's damaged psyche as clearly as the fissures arching across the gourd on his back. The air felt thick enough to drown in.

Gaara was staring blindly away from Lee. The expression on his face had turned dark and savage while his eyes were a storm of violently opposed feelings and confusion and occasional shreds of sanity. "It hurts! Like Yasha-...You're hurting me. Stop it. What are you doing to me?! Stop it! Stop it!"

One hand was clawing at Gaara's forehead, the other one poised as if to lash out. The oasis sand was behaving chaotically, strands pulling then tugging at Lee as if it couldn't make up its mind whether it wanted to hurl him away or keep him here and kill him. A small localized sandstorm was forming around them, the circle of speeding sand taking to the air and ripping it to dry, static-filled shreds.

Lee winced as a grainy band slithered up his chest and clawed briefly at his face. Then he raised his fist on instinct, intercepting a sharp jab aimed at his head. The sand ripped through the bandages and scraped the back of his hand raw with casual strength, then it was gone, but not before reminding him of the crushing power that had nearly killed him once before.

Lee felt a line of sweat trickle down his face, cutting through dust and sand, but his voice was strangely composed when he spoke. "Gaara, if letting you kill me could make it all better, I would die without hesitation. But it won't, it will only make it worse, so if you don't calm down I am going to have to defend myself."

"You? Defend yourself? Against me?!" the monster laughed, then an instant later Gaara was flinching with pain. "You're afraid of me?"

Lee clenched his jaw, feeling sand grit beneath his teeth. What the hell was he supposed to do or say?!

The Old Gaara and the calmer, saner man that had locked him away years ago were fighting in the stormy green eyes, and Lee felt completely helpless until he remembered what Gaara had said, how touching Lee made things feel more in focus. Gaara had been a bit saner when he’d said that, and there was no guarantee that might not just make him worse in his present state, but it wasn't in Lee's nature to just stand about when there was something he could do.

Gaara didn't twitch when Lee's hand fastened on his upper arm, but the gourd's Sand growled and erupted from its container, the automatic defence triggering. It didn't connect, didn't hurl him back this time.

Gaara's eyes were fastened on the ground. Lee ignored the vicious Sand shield hovering around him. He put his other hand on the side of Gaara’s face, trying to force Gaara to look him fully in the eye. Still no reaction. What the hell was Gaara even thinking? Well, Lee wasn't dead yet.

The next bit wasn't part of any plan Lee had formulated, inasmuch as you could say he had a plan at all. He didn't know what made him do it. Maybe it was the knowledge that he might die any second now, and if he was going to go, he wanted one last memory to take with him, one that wasn't an illusion born of a stupid need to save water.

Lee had never thought his first kiss would occur in the midst of a small sandstorm and with a wonderful, strong, tortured young man whose more psychotic personality was probably gearing up to kill him. Being in love with Gaara was bound to make his life more interesting. And possibly rather short as well.

At least Gaara reacted to this. The muscles beneath Lee's fingers convulsed and Gaara tried to jerk away, but Lee's hand on his face held him steady. Lee felt the Sand Armour against his mouth. How far past Gaara's lips did the bloody protection go anyway? It was the sort of crazy little question the mind throws at you to distract you from the fact you're doing something very, very dangerous.

When Gaara's lips opened, Lee had the undoubtedly unique opportunity to find out. Lee was rational enough to know that Gaara's mouth had opened in shock. He was breathing in short, shallow gasps that spoke of a losing scrabble for control. Regardless, Lee's tongue found the frontier between sand and flesh, just past Gaara's lips. Gaara's mouth stayed open. He was frozen in mid-motion, and so was the Sand from the gourd. Probably trying to decide just how much of a threat this was and how lethal the response should be. If this was an attack, it certainly wasn't one either Gaara or the Sand had ever encountered before

Power pulsed through the air, thick enough to taste, raw beneath Lee's fingertips as it squirmed along Gaara's skin in roiling, insane chakra patterns, but it didn't frighten him. He'd never been scared of Gaara's power; in fact it was a tiny part of what attracted him to Gaara, he didn't mind admitting that now.

And then Gaara touched him.

The contact was so light that Lee first thought it was more sand blowing against him. Then the touch firmed on his upper arms, and slowly gripped with greater and greater strength. But Gaara wasn't pushing him away. He wasn't moving his face or his mouth, frozen against Lee's lips, but neither was he doing anything homicidal.

It probably didn't get much better than this.

And for a moment Lee touched that strange feeling of peace again. That inner calm in which he felt safe and valued and close to the one person who mattered to him most...

Then he realized it wasn't only in his head.

A twister was screaming and clawing at the jumble of rocks that was trapping it in the oasis, shredding the leaves of the trees, staining the water with silt. But he and Gaara were in the eye of the storm. The chakra-rich Sand from the gourd was still frozen, half-deployed around him, but neither the automatic shield nor the storm touched him. Grains fell from Lee's body and back to the oasis floor. And as he moved his hand to cup Gaara's face, he felt the Sand Armour crumble as well.

"Shhhh," Lee whispered against the lips still frozen, unmoving, beneath his. "Breathe deeply and slowly. Calm down. It's okay." Who was he talking to, Gaara or himself?

Despite the cacophony of wind and sand blasting the rock around him, he could hear/feel Gaara swallow. Gaara's respiration rattled against Lee's lips.

"Reach for your centre. Control your chakra. It’s okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. I'd die-" yeah, that'll make him feel better. Shut the hell up! his brain screamed. He touched Gaara's mouth with his own as if he could catch back his own words. Gaara hadn't reacted. He might not even be listening at all. Lee kissed him again, moving his lips so that Gaara's moved too under the pressure.

"You're important-" no, those were the words that bastard uncle of his had used apparently. "I love-" What to say when anything could be a trap laid by Gaara's past?

Gaara shoved him away violently. Lee fell back, catching himself with one hand, ready to jump. Towards Gaara or away, he couldn't have said.

Gaara staggered to his feet, fingers scrabbling at the symbol on his forehead. His face twisted in agony, the mask of the Sand Armour cracking. A ragged scream - fury, anguish. The wind picked it up and ripped it to shreds, sweeping in tighter and tighter circles around him.

Lee recognized the jutsu too late. He scrambled to his feet. "Gaara, wait!"

The wind and sand wrapped itself around Gaara and flared as he disappeared.

Sudden silence filled the oasis. Lee staggered back and sat down with a thump. There was only the faint rustle of sand falling from the air and a few last shreds tumbling from the palm trees that had been reduced to bare standing sticks.

Lee stared about him, stunned and still high on adrenaline. When he moved, a prickle of pain made him check himself. Some injuries, all superficial. A lot of scratches and a few cuts and bruises, no real damage. He'd been lucky.

No, he instantly corrected himself, he'd not been lucky. He'd been protected.

Is this what you want? he asked himself seriously, staring at the slashes scoring the back of his right hand, the bandages ripped right through and unraveling. He's dangerous even when he's watching himself. He's so controlled, he may never let you near him again once he's recovered his senses. And he's so damaged, you might never be able to help, only make it worse. Is this something you can live with? To pick up injuries each time things go wrong (and they will go wrong)? If you do this, you won't be able to leave him. You'll have to be there for him always, even if it never goes any further, even if he can never give you anything in return...Is this really what you want?

The question was deadly serious. The answer would mark him a lifetime.

Lee leaped to his feet and raced towards the edges of the oasis. He vaulted to the top of the highest rock until he was level with the shredded branches of the date trees, and looked around. No signs of Gaara. But all Lee needed to do was close his eyes, turn slowly on himself, find the direction his most primal, animal instincts were screaming at him to run away from, and go that way.

After awhile he was following the huge pot-holes in the sand dunes, a trail of broken rocks and shattered sandstone, and the sticky-hot feel in the air that spoke of chakra and a hell of a lot of it. Gaara was heading north towards the deeper desert. Away from Suna, Lee realized. Away from Lee too. Still trying to protect them all, even if it was from himself.

Lee slowed down when he spotted the distant figure. He approached carefully and stopped at the distance he'd learned was somewhat safe from his experience during sandstorms. He wasn't going to barge into the danger zone. If he got seriously hurt, well, first of all that would be unpleasant for him, and secondly Gaara would blame himself and it would just make it worse when he returned to his senses.

Lee instantly destroyed the small voice of doubt that asked him if he was sure Gaara would ever return to his senses...Gaara would, and then Lee would be there to help pick up the pieces if he was allowed to.

Gaara was walking fast. He was probably aware of Lee following him, just like he was when Lee trailed him during a storm. He didn't turn around or react. Lee heard a few words drift towards him. Gaara was talking to himself, sometimes viciously. He sounded angry and lost. The emotions would surge, the incoherent words coming faster and faster, chakra building up until the desert would explode. Geysers would shoot up around the lone figure, or a ripple of sand would tear off towards the horizon like a deadly riptide. Lee stayed on his toes, but no threat ever headed his way.

Gaara's wild wanderings slowly turned back to the east and south. They were heading into rocky terrain again, the occasional chunk of sandstone reduced to its components when Gaara shouted or snarled at thin air. Lee bit his lips anxiously as he watched. Right now, they were circling Suna. If Gaara turned back towards his home village in this state, well, Lee loved him but he would still be faced with a very, very difficult decision.

Night had fallen by now, the moon was shining, turning the disquiet sand silver, and a new sound reached Lee's ears.

He had to grasp the rocks until his hands bled through his tattered bandages to stop himself from rushing forward when he heard Gaara crying. It was the lost, tearing sobs of a young child. Lee was running on pure instinct by now; it was telling him no, not yet, too soon. This wasn’t his Gaara yet, this was still part of the old pain welling to the surface.

"I'm here," Lee whispered, feeling tears run down his own face.

When the sand exploded up ahead, he knew he'd been right in keeping that safe distance.

"I'm here. I won't leave you alone."

Screams and chakra bled through the air.

"Even if I can never get any closer to you than this...then this is as close as I'll be. But I won't leave you alone."

The desert was alive with Gaara's senses. Somehow, Lee felt sure Gaara could hear him. If his words were of any help, it wasn't apparent.

Ugly energy soaked in blood and self-hatred and old pain split the air. It occasionally turned vicious and lethal, tearing at the rocks with cruel deliberation as if trying to carve them out and hurt them, and Lee just prayed that the troops in Sunagakure would be smart enough to man the garrison forts and protect the civilians rather than come out and investigate this entire ruckus. That would be another difficult decision for Lee, and this night was hard enough as it was.

Finally, after several cycles of violence, pain and the occasional ominous quiet, it stopped.

They were still five miles or so from Sunagakure. Gaara had never gotten any closer to his hometown. He'd destroyed nothing more than a few rocky outcroppings and the occasional small desert creature that hadn't run fast and far enough, to Lee's passing regret.

Gaara was silent now, and the chakra in the air had weakened almost to nothing. Either he was getting it back under control, or he was exhausted. He'd ended up on top of a small mesa. Lee could see him crouched up there, the gourd turning his half-seen silhouette into something strange and monstrous as he stared out into the night. What Lee couldn't see was what condition Gaara was in, and he couldn't climb up there without knowing a bit more about Gaara's present state of mind.

With some resignation, Lee sank down between two stones in a position where he could keep an eye on that distant figure. He settled down, then he got up and shoveled a bit of sand into the nook and tried again. No, it still felt as uncomfortable as all hell, poking his sore body with all kinds of hard bits and protrusions. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing at that, if he didn't want to fall asleep. Lee was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. He'd used up whatever resources he'd scraped together this past week. Hell, he'd used them up two hours ago, he'd been running on sheer stubbornness ever since. He shivered and rubbed his arms. The night was cold, the residual warmth from the sand and stones all but faded.

Lee blinked tiredly.

Then he blinked again.

He wasn't cold anymore. Great, probably the onset of hypothermia- wait a minute.

Lee sat up with a jerk as he realized he'd drifted off to sleep. The heavy blanket of sand that had been sheltering him cascaded to the ground.

Gaara was ten feet away. He was sitting on the ground, leaning forward a bit to accommodate the gourd, legs gathered up to his chest, arms tightly crossed over his knees, watching Lee over the barrier of his wrists.

Lee absently cleared the sand from his clothes and picked some out of his ear. The sense of stifling chakra and danger in the air had dissipated, and it was his friend back in Gaara's eyes, without any doubt.

“I knew you would beat it," Lee said, trying to smile, though his face felt stiff and caked with sand. "You're strong.” Stronger than all that had been done to him. Strong enough to overcome it.

"And you..." Gaara’s voice was cracked and weak, his eyes reddened and weary and without any distance in them for once. "You're utterly fearless."

Lee wished that was true. He felt himself trembling all over from the backlash of heart-thumping terror, for his own sake and for Gaara’s.

"Do you want to go home now?" he asked, straightening out and listening to his joints creak.

Gaara looked lost, like a very young boy for a second, then way too old.

"It's going to be a lot to work on," he whispered, his words slow and halting.

"Yes. I know."

"Is it always going to be this...complicated?"

Welcome to my life for the past few months, Lee thought with an inward sigh. And if Gaara thought it was complicated now, just wait until he'd thought it through a bit further. Lee was more knowledgeable about human interaction; this night had broken something, some final barrier between them, but it had also left them adrift in a huge grey zone that could lead just about anywhere, and even Lee had no idea where they were going at this point.

"Lee," Gaara said suddenly, looking him straight in the eye, "I can't promise I won't hurt you."

"I know. I might say the wrong thing, do something, and end up hurting you too. People can hurt each other when they get close. But even if you do injure me, I won't stop feeling this way," Lee added.

Flickers of emotion crossed Gaara's face and eyes. The moonlight was too dim for Lee to make them out.

"You're not afraid of pain..."

"Well, not beyond reason," Lee amended cautiously.

"What are you afraid of?"

"...Failing myself. Failing the ones who believe in me. And being alone."

"I understand," Gaara whispered.

They walked side by side back to the village where they found considerable excitement after all the pyrotechnics in the desert.

Lee fell back a few feet as the Suna Shinobi swarmed around their Kazekage. A moment of caution had instantly dissolved as soon as Gaara had nodded at Temari and Sanada, and then they were all pressing forward, asking if the village was under attack, if Gaara was alright, if there was any cleanup to do...

Lee watched Gaara walk away, surrounded by his people. The flickering lights of torches and the murmur of anxious questions faded. Gaara half glanced back, but he didn't hesitate to leave, and Lee knew why and didn't mind. Hell, maybe he needed a bit of space too after last night. Tonight. Damn, what time was it...? Almost three in the morning, his internal clock informed him, before smugly reminding him of Gai-Sensei's orders about not overdoing it, getting eight good hours of sleep per night, and a few other rules, most of which Lee had now broken.

He headed towards the bachelor Jounin barracks at a slow, painful limp. Now that the adrenaline was fading, his body was adding up tonight's damage and presenting him with one hell of a bill. And he was tired...a bit of sleep, then a quick shower and he had those Leaf reports on Sound activity to go through.

His body ached. The remains of stress were souring in his bloodstream, his nerves were thrumming. He was scratched here and there, and sand had insinuated itself into some very uncomfortable places. And his head and heart hurt as he remembered Gaara's pain, his own helplessness.

But despite all that, Lee didn't really feel that bad. When Lee made a decision, he fully accepted all of its consequences without whining or regret. He'd made his choice. He thought it was a damn good choice. There'd be a lot to fix, but determination, strength of spirit and hard work always prevailed.

Lee, the eternal optimist, fell asleep with a smile on his face and the memory of a kiss playing in his mind. It hadn’t been the best kiss in the entire world when all was said and done. But maybe - just maybe - he might have the opportunity to improve on it some day.

Chapter Text

Lee woke up with a small start. He blinked in the sunlight, yawned, stretched hugely - and the world was suddenly as friendly as a cactus.

"Ouch...damn it..."

Lee stared morosely at the ceiling. He wondered if one day he might wake up without any aches and pains. It was the price of hard work, and he paid it willingly, but it was frustrating to think that there were geniuses out there who woke up with nothing more than mild stiffening in their oh-so-perfect muscles, and then they hopped out of bed and had a perfect breakfast and solved the crossword puzzle without trying or something equally annoying. He bet Neji never dragged himself out of bed like he was ninety. He bet Gaara never woke up feeling like he'd been used as a punching bag by- whoa.

Whoa!

Lee was staring at the scratches on the back of his hands, which were shaking with shock as the memory of the previous night suddenly assaulted him. The angry, hurt words, the knife-edge of danger, the air throbbing with raw power and pain, and a shared kiss (shared inasmuch as Lee had kissed Gaara, and Gaara hadn't killed him).

Lee stared frantically at the ceiling, but it didn't have anything helpful to contribute at this point.

As shocked as he was, Lee's instincts were still fully functional. They kicked down the door to his thoughts, shoved all his memories back into the cupboard they'd sprung from, and informed him that someone had recently been in his room. That's what had woken him up, because otherwise he'd have cheerfully gone on sleeping for ages.

The intruder hadn't radiated killing intent or been anywhere near the bed, or Lee would have been on his feet and fighting immediately, but somebody had invaded his space. His instincts quivered. Footsteps were even now silently approaching the door. Whoever had been here was coming back, and now was the time to act like a Shinobi, not a love-struck idiot who'd been put through a thresher.

Lee's hand was already on his kunai holster- had in fact been there since he'd started awake and while his brain was still playing catch-up. He'd fallen straight into bed last night, he'd not undressed, washed or brushed his teeth, but he had closed and locked his door and slipped off his weapons, dropping them on his bedside table within easy reach, the habit of a dangerous profession.

He quickly palmed a kunai and closed his eyes, relaxing his body once more. It might be nothing- it was probably nothing, but anybody who might conceivably come to Lee's room would knock, not jimmy the lock. Lee wasn't taking any chances.

The door swung open with a murmur, which was a good sign; an enemy would have been more discreet. Lee cracked open an eyelid, and tensed so badly he cut himself with the blade between his fingers. He hoisted himself up onto his elbows, his mouth suddenly dry.

Gaara had just walked into his room. He was carrying Lee's basin of water, a clean washcloth and a towel. He was wearing his robe of office, which meant he'd gone home, showered and changed at some point. His eyes on Lee were stern and guarded. There wasn't the slightest hint of the creature Lee had been with last night. He was dealing with the Kazekage this morning.

Er...morning?

"What time is it?" Lee grunted, as he realized the sun was shining from the wrong direction.

"Two in the afternoon." Gaara lifted the gourd from his back one-handed and put it against the wall halfway between the door and the bed. The gesture felt deliberate, like someone putting down his weapons before a peace parley. Lee quickly slipped the kunai back in its holster while Gaara's attention was elsewhere.

Gaara stopped near the bed and stared down at Lee. He was still carrying the basin. Lee gave it a puzzled look. He wasn't sure where a basin full of water fit into the picture, but one thing was sure; Gaara was tense and tightly controlled. Lee gave him an amicable smile, to show his friend that everything was fine and that he could relax.

The smile - or rather, the pathetic attempt to move his facial muscles - informed Lee that everything was not fine. He winced and felt his cheeks with his hands. They were rough and crusted with blood and grit. He had a long scrape on his right cheek and two cuts on his left, one near the eye; from when the Sand Barrier had hurled him back, if he remembered right. He hadn't realized he'd gotten hit quite this badly. His defense and reaction times were pathetic, he was really going to have to train himself back up to-

"You completely forgot about them," Gaara stated, not bothering with a question.

"Um-"

"You never take proper care of yourself. Do you know what kind of damage those injuries can leave? If infection sets in-"

"I know."

"Desert Rot can do more than scar you for life, it can blind you or kill you."

"I know," Lee repeated, nodding contritely in the hopes of avoiding a lecture he'd already gotten from Kankuro, Temari and Sanada on previous occasions. The sort of sand-scrapes you could pick up in a violent sandstorm - or fighting a high level Sand Jounin, or Gaara of the Desert - were no joke, Lee knew that. They were superficial in appearance and easy to ignore, but they were very hard to clean, and if they got infected, well, the results weren't pretty. Lee had seen a few Suna veterans scarred by Desert Rot; they made Morino Ibiki look like a pinup.

Gaara sat down on the bed and put the basin between them. He fished a small bottle from the pocket of his robe, tipped some into the water, then picked up the washcloth.

"Don't move," he ordered, dunking the cloth in the basin and reaching for Lee's face.

He froze there, the cloth dripping water on the bed, his hand near Lee's chin, eyes widening. Lee stared back at him, his sore cheeks suffusing with red.

Last night...Gaara had said 'don't move'...inching closer...confusion growing as the distance between them dwindled...a breath like a caress brushing Lee's lips...

Lee's alarm clock ticked over, cutting the thick silence into small, embarrassed chunks. The longer it lasted, the more Lee blushed. The other memories of last night were back and throwing a party in his brain, all mixed up together: terror and longing, uncertainty and understanding, hurting and hope...

Behind Gaara's neutral mask, there was lingering flashes of that pain as his eyes traced Lee's features.

"Um. Wow. Ah, a lot to talk about, I guess-ouch! Hey- Ow! Gaara-"

Gaara had taken the cloth to Lee's face and was apparently trying to skin him with it. The warm water and antiseptic were adding their own sting to the mix. Lee knew that Gaara had to get the scabs and dirt off to clean the wounds up properly, but man, it smarted. Nowhere near as painful as some of Lee's past tribulations, but this was supposed to be first aid, not a fight! Lee loved this man dearly, but damn, Gaara's nursing skills really sucked.

The water in the basin was bloody. Gaara's eyes had gone hard and flat. Lee dismissed the discomfort of his scratched face and reached out to gently touch Gaara's wrist.

"It's not your fault."

"Then whose fault is it?" Gaara asked, the question as precise as a mathematical equation.

"If anything, it's mine."

"How do you arrive to that stupid conclusion?"

"I shouldn't have said...well..." Lee looked at him blankly. "Actually, I don't know. I meant every word I said last night. I can't regret that, even though we both got hurt. But I can't blame you for your reactions, either. I can't imagine the week you've had, what you were feeling...I guess nobody's to blame. It just happened."

Gaara dunked the cloth hard enough to splash water on Lee's bed. He obviously didn't agree.

"Hold still," he said after one last swipe. He dropped the cloth and put his hands on either side of Lee's face, half-an-inch away from the skin.

Lee was about to ask a question when he felt a strange, prickling sensation in his scratches. Gaara's eyes were closed in concentration. Lee twitched, trying to hold still, though it felt like tiny ants were crawling beneath the skin of his face.

Gaara drew his hands away. There was a fine film of bloody sand over the palms.

"That's all of it out. I should have done this last night. But I..."

Gaara stared down at the smear of red in his palms. Then he tensed in surprise as Lee gently took his hand.

Lee cleaned up the blood with a couple of swipes of the wet cloth.

"I know. There was a lot to take in, even for me," he said calmly. "We needed some time alone. And I'm the one who should have dressed these last night. I was too tired, I kind of forgot."

He could feel Gaara stare at him. A long, searching look, as if he couldn't believe Lee would move past being attacked and threatened like that so serenely. Well, Lee had told him often enough that he wasn't one to bear a grudge. Gaara should know that by now.

Gaara helped Lee clean up the rest of his scratches. His hands were the worst, though there was a long shallow scrape on his left foot, too. Gaara fetched Lee's first-aid kit and put bandaids over all the cuts, including the truly minor ones that Lee would have left to their own devices. In silence he watched Lee apply his usual wrappings on his hands and forearms.

"So!" Lee said brightly after tying the last knot. Then he stared at Gaara, completely at a loss.

Gaara got to his feet, picked up the basin and went over to put it back on its stand.

Lee scratched the back of his head. Now what?

"What do you feel for me?" Gaara asked abruptly.

...Okay, apparently they were going to start this talk by jumping in at the deep end.

Gaara was still standing near the basin's stand. His face was half turned towards Lee, waiting for his answer, but he didn't look at the Jounin.

Lee had to be honest, while hoping his words wouldn't trigger any excessive reaction; this was a rented room and furniture.

"I love you," he said simply. "Like a friend, and also a bit more. Um, rather a lot more, actually."

He thought he saw Gaara's fingers knot into fists, but as they were buried in the folds of his robe, it was hard to tell. A searing wind of sandy destruction failed to demolish everything in a ten-foot radius. That was a plus.

"You didn't tell me before," Gaara stated, voice controlled to a fault.

"Ah, no. I only figured it out recently. The 'more' bit. I knew I liked you as a friend for ages, for all the reasons I gave you last night, and others...well, what I said was really muddled, it probably confused you. But I've felt that way for awhile now. It just suddenly added up a few days ago. I...I didn't tell you, didn't plan on telling you at all, because, well, I didn't think you'd want that."

"Want...?" Gaara stared blindly at the wall. "You're right, I don't."

Lee's heart stopped.

"I don't want to feel this. Not this much. It's too strong, too dangerous. I can't control it and it hurts. It hurts to think you almost died for me. It hurts to think I injured you, and that I could do it again. I've killed people I cared about before, when they hurt me. I-...It's not safe. You shouldn't be near me, and it's painful to have you around. I start to think of all the things that could happen to you..."

Gaara slowly bowed his head. "But I can't stay away from you, either. I can't stop thinking about you. I tried telling myself I'd just harm you again...Then I realized you'd probably not taken care of your cuts, and I left in the middle of a legislation meeting to come and make sure you were alright."

That must have left quite a few befuddled councilors in Gaara's wake.

"I never felt this way before. It's like I have a hook buried in my body, pulling me towards you. It's alarming. You say you...feel something strong for me. I have to believe you, because I can't explain this feeling otherwise, or the way our bond has changed. But it wasn't what I was led to believe it would feel like."

Lee looked down at his freshly bandaged hands clutching his knees. "I'm sorry," he muttered. He wasn't sure what he was apologizing for, but he felt pretty sure there was something. "I bet this is all pretty confusing for you."

And possibly dangerous for Lee as a result. His sand scratches were starting to hurt now that they were clean. For a very superficial set of wounds, they could put up quite a fuss.

"Look, your instincts are probably right," he added. "About not having me around. I should go back to Konoha for awhile, give you some space and leave you to figure out-"

Lee's upper body hit the bed with enough force to send him bouncing against the thin mattress.

Gaara's lips were pressing against his, not so much a kiss as a blunt pressure nailing Lee to the sheets. Lee's neck was bent at an awkward angle, his upper lip felt like the skin was about to split and Gaara was clutching Lee's scraped and bandaged face too hard.

Lee distantly realized that he'd not reacted. Had anybody else jumped him like that, Lee would have punched them through a wall on instinct. But he no longer had any of those instincts in regards to Gaara, even after getting injured last night, which was rather crazy.

In fact, he had other instincts instead. His hands were digging at the robe, trying to get beneath it to touch smooth skin, and his back was arching to press his body against Gaara's as the Kazekage crouched over him, pushing him into the bed until the wooden frame groaned.

"You're not leaving!" Gaara snarled against Lee's scratched cheek. The composed, reluctant Gaara was gone; there was only raw need left in his wake. "You're not leaving! I want this too! I need it!" And his mouth crushed Lee's again.

Going too fast- this situation is completely confusing him, Lee thought frantically, while his unruly body strove to touch-feel-take. But this was wrong. Gaara was just reacting, reaching blindly for something he couldn't understand. He was completely mixed up- had no idea what he was doing- this could be dangerous for the both of them. Lee needed to-

"Gaara, wait," Lee gasped.

Gaara wasn't listening, just like last night. He was pressing his face blindly against Lee's cheek, his neck, not even using his mouth anymore. Hands fisted in Lee's top. Lee much preferred this sort of attack to being sandpapered, but he really had to apply the brakes.

He grabbed Gaara by the shoulders and lifted him away gently, trying to keep the move non-aggressive. To his relief, the gourd was still leaning quietly against the wall and not doing anything more sinister than being round and made of sand.

"Gaara, wait," Lee said more firmly. "You don't have to do this. I'm not leaving. Not if you don't want me to. You got that? I'll do what you want. Calm down."

That got through. Gaara leaned back a bit, his breathing quick and erratic, but his eyes on Lee were still steady. Good, he hadn't snapped.

"I don't want you to leave," Gaara said as if he just needed to make that nice and clear.

"Then I-"

"I want to be close to you," Gaara added in the same tone.

"Um, but you said you didn't want me around. You said it's painful-"

"It is, but it's more painful to not see you," Gaara said, a frown twisting the mark on his forehead. "I want to be this close to you."

"What?" Lee croaked, suddenly acutely aware of the way Gaara was still crouched over him, one hand sunk into the mattress next to Lee's shoulder, his legs on either side of Lee's right thigh. The other hand had settled over Lee's sternum.

"Touching you...the closer I get, the more intense it gets. It overwhelms the pain. It feels...alarming, but good, too. I feel more focused. I know it's dangerous but I can't stop. I'll protect you. When I can feel you-" the hand slowly twisted in Lee's top hard enough to cause the stitching to crack- "when I'm this close to you, I know you're here, you're alive. I won't- I won't hurt you. I'll protect you. This close, the Sand Barrier will cover us both."

Considering that they were in the Jounin barracks in the middle of Suna, that sounded a tad bit paranoid. Lee licked his lips and tried to formulate this into a coherent yet non-provocative objection, but Gaara's proximity, the leashed, somehow sensual violence of his grip, the way he was staring unblinking down at Lee, it was all very distracting.

"Um-"

Gaara's eyes narrowed to thin diamonds. "Don't tell me you don't like it," he added sharply. "You're the one who kissed me last night. You said you liked to touch me too. I'm not sure what the hell is going on, but I can still tell the difference between someone enjoying themselves and someone writhing in agony."

Lee made a dry little noise in his throat. That was about as intelligible as he was going to get at this point.

Apparently Gaara had had enough of the argument anyway. Lee's head was once more forced back into the rumpled sheets, though this time Gaara didn't grip his face quite so painfully.

Lee's thoughts were a chaotic jumble: 'Did Gaara just say it feels good?! But- but Gaara's not gay- hell, he's not anything. But maybe he is into guys and he's just now figured it out- no, stop dreaming. But he says it feels good. But he hates to be touched! Ouch, he's pressing down too hard. He doesn't know what he's doing- I should stop this-'

Gaara twisted down and settled his whole body against Lee's.

He was warm, his weight real and tangible. Gaara moved his legs, edged his body forward, burrowed himself into Lee's arms a bit more firmly, and Lee's thought processes crashed and burned.

Oh...

One arm was soldered around Gaara and was never going to move again, ever. His free hand cupped Gaara's head, holding him back a bit so Lee could reach up to the thin sandstone-colored lips instead of being mauled by them. He softened his mouth beneath Gaara's, moving his lips gently, a steady brushing. The contact sent something dark and warm washing through his whole body, twisting around his spine.

The very way Gaara was kissing him, as if he only had the faintest notion of what to do with his mouth, made it all the more exciting; it was savage and raw, and Lee felt that every touch of his, every little move he made to channel that intensity, was driving them towards something hot and dangerous and good. Gaara felt heavy. Lee could carry Gaara, his gourd and a few other Shinobi as well without breaking a sweat, yet it felt as if Gaara's weight was bearing down on every inch of his body, molding them together, nailing them both to the bed. And Lee wanted it, he wanted even more.

"This feels good," Gaara muttered against the corner of Lee's mouth, lips sending odd shivers through the skin they touched. "Why...does it feel...?"

'Don't know, don't care' would summarize Lee's thoughts at that point. He just didn't want it to stop. But those words touched him at a deep, animal level. They left a contented pleasure that Gaara was feeling the same way he did. It joined them together yet again, the same way their bodies were fitting together.

His hand gripped Gaara's hip. The play of muscles beneath his fingertips sent pulses of dark sensual current through his body.

Gaara squirmed against his hold. Lee shuddered heavily.

"Hm." Gaara arched his back a bit, then he leaned forward again. "I've seen this...I've seen people do this...is this going to lead to sex?"

It took a second for Gaara's words to penetrate the haze, but when they did, the effect was immediate.

"What?!"

A hand slammed into Lee's ribs as Gaara shoved himself away. Lee scrambled to sit up. Gaara was crouched further down the bed, back to the wall, his eyes on- some instinct made Lee look around quickly.

There was a glittering band of Sand arched around the gourd. In the sudden silence, the sound of the cork rolling across Lee's floor was louder than it should have been.

“Lee,” Gaara said, in a studiously controlled voice, “I’m on edge. Don’t startle me like that.”

“Sorry,” Lee whispered.

Gaara didn’t say anything, just glared the Sand back into the gourd. But he made a minimal hand gesture that ended with a brush of fingers against Lee’s knee, either an acceptance of Lee’s apology or one of his own.

Lee took a deep breath and shook his head to clear it. His hands were shaking, he felt hot, and he had a throbbing hard-on which wasn't going anywhere soon by the feel of it. What the hell had he been thinking?! Or doing? And Gaara had said- had said-

Gaara's eyes had closed. He had two fingers pressed to his forehead and a look of concentration on his face as if he was about to cast a complicated jutsu.

When he opened his eyes, Lee realized, bewildered, that the composed, controlled persona that normally characterized his friend had slipped back into place as if a switch had been flicked. It wasn't a mask, either; this was the real Gaara these days, stern, guarded, eerily calm. But that other creature...that was part of him too. Lee, who only had a single and fairly straightforward personality unless alcohol was involved, just couldn't cope with this gamut of changes.

"Was I hurting you?" Gaara asked, his voice concerned yet strangely matter-of-fact. He slipped down to sit on the bed, back to the wall, legs bent at the knee, a frown of concentration lingering on his face.

"Huh? What, you mean now? No."

"Why did you shout like that then?"

"Why did I-...Gaara, you asked if- if it was going to lead to-..."

"Sex?"

Lee nodded savagely. It seemed wrong for Gaara to even say that word.

"I thought the question was valid. From my experience, people doing that go on to have sex. I could feel you had an erection."

Lee's eyes trailed to his kunai holder on the bedside table. But if he killed himself right here and now, Gaara would definitely be upset.

Then what Gaara had said caught up with him. "What do you mean, from your experience? You mean you've done this before?!"

"No."

Lee started to breathe a sigh of relief-

"But I've seen it done. I know what sex is."

-which turned around and choked him.

"What do you mean...you've seen it done?" Please let him just mean he'd studied stick-figure illustrations in some manual-

Gaara gestured vaguely towards the left side of his face. "When I was younger, I used to watch the villagers in their homes with my Third Eye jutsu. I've seen people have sex a number of times."

Oh god.

Lee gathered his legs up and let his forehead sink against his knees briefly.

"Gaara...please tell me you don't do that anymore...?"

"I stopped years ago." Gaara's voice was indifferent. When Lee glanced at him, he was staring at the far wall, face composed, hands loose on his knees. "I lost interest in what humans did together, whether it was talking, eating, touching or anything. I didn't understand most of what I was seeing. It was outside the realm of my experience, I couldn't begin to comprehend it. As for intercourse, I wasn't capable of physical interest at that age anyway, I was only six."

Oh god.

"A couple of years after that, my controllers explained the basics to me. They were quite surprised to hear I already knew about it. Worried, too. They gave me a small bit of additional information, then they taught me to recognize signs of arousal when they occurred and use my chakra to control it."

"Huh? Why?" Lee asked, staring at him.

"They said that sexual excitement would be just like sleep, an opportunity for Shukaku to attack me and erode my control." A faint sneer twisted Gaara's lips. "I knew even back then that they were lying. They just didn't want me going around the village raping people at random. But I used their lessons to control my body since it suited me to do so. I didn't know that much about it, but it had been obvious from my observations that you needed two people to have sex. I had no one. I needed no one. I needed only myself. I loved only myself. I killed to exist and I needed nothing more."

In the dead silence that followed, Lee remembered the cold, lethal boy he'd once fought, and the chaotic wounded creature that had been hiding beneath the Sand Armour.

"I'm not like that anymore," Gaara said, turning his head away.

"I know!"

Another short silence, this one a good deal more intense.

The way Gaara had said that, his low voice tinged with a hint of pain, of withdrawal...Lee had reacted completely on automatic, scrambling to his knees and reaching to grab Gaara's wrist in an unconscious effort to comfort and reassure.

They both stared at their joined hands, resting on one of Gaara's knees. Lee noted, in passing, that the Sand in the gourd hadn't reacted.

Gaara moved his hand away from Lee's. He felt the skin with his fingers as if he expected to find a burn.

"People touch me now," he said slowly, still staring at his wrist. "Kankuro, Temari, Naruto...It's not always easy. A part of me still expects them to react like they used to, like everybody used to."

How would that be? Recoil in fear? Grab him in anger? Attack him and be destroyed by the Sand? Yeah, Lee could see where a lifetime of that would make a person dislike physical contact.

Gaara stared hard at his hand, then he reached out, fingers splayed, and touched Lee's cheek. It was a deliberate and completely non-sensual gesture.

"I felt the same when you touched me at first. It never crossed my mind that it would ever change. Then it did. I don't know why. It was like our...friendship. It was gradual. The first time I touched you accidentally, I expected you to shrink back. You of all people...But you didn't look scared. You looked pleased. After awhile I didn't mind touching you at all. It didn't feel dangerous anymore. It was...oddly easy. I think I even liked it."

The fingers passed over Lee's eyelids, his lips, the side of his jaw. Then they fell back to Gaara's lap.

"When you asked me to hold you while you slept, though, that felt different. It felt..."

Gaara was silent for a spell.

"I can't describe it in terms that make sense. I felt needed. I had never felt that so strongly before. I had the feeling I was close to you, but it wasn't just because we were touching. I felt...warm. As if you were holding me, not the other way around. It felt like nothing would be able to harm us. I...can't say it."

Lee stared at him. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Gaara couldn't put a name to feelings that didn't involve someone dying messily. He could describe sensations like symptoms, but not the actual emotions that caused them. But what he was saying...It was an established fact by now that Lee loved this complex, torn creature. What Gaara was saying, though, implied he felt something in return. Lee was hesitant to put a name to what Gaara might be feeling - Gaara himself wasn't even trying to, and that was probably wise.

But there was something there alright, and it sounded like it was maybe more than just being one of the four people who'd gotten close to Gaara over the years.

Lee felt both bewildered and enchanted at the short, choppy words that etched out feelings that Gaara couldn't even adequately describe. Lee...had made Gaara feel that? How? Lee hadn't done anything that might cause Gaara to feel something like that towards him. Hell, he'd tried for years to elicit a spark of this in Sakura-san without success, and- and he hadn't even realized he was in love with Gaara two weeks ago- and-

"I want that feeling again," Gaara said abruptly, glaring down at his hands in his lap. "But it seems that it comes at a price. And you almost paid it. I broke last night. I hadn't snapped that badly since that fight with Naruto. He said bonds give you strength. I know that for a fact now. I've been getting stronger ever since I stopped living for myself alone and started to protect others. But I guess bonds also open you up to pain. I'd gotten used to isolation, to people fearing me, to hate, but this new kind of emotional pain caught me by surprise. I completely lost it last night. You shouldn't have followed me out there, Lee. That was very dangerous. I didn't know what I was doing at all."

"I stayed at a safe distance," Lee said simply, not downplaying his own caution. "But I couldn't leave you to face that alone."

"Why?"

"Because I love you."

The green eyes flinched, but still no explosions of sand.

"I hurt you."

"I still love you."

Gaara didn't say anything. After a minute of staring at the far wall, he stood up and headed towards the gourd.

"I need to think about all this," he said, slipping the sling over his shoulder and chest.

“Can’t you do it here?” Lee asked wistfully, standing up as well.

“That might not be safe for you. Or your belongings.” Gaara straightened his robe and took a step towards the door.

“We can go outside," Lee suggested. "And I can duck.”

Gaara looked back at him. “No. I need to think, and your presence distracts me,” he said bluntly.

"Oh. Right."

Gaara hadn't moved towards the door though. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face turned away from Lee.

"Can you stay here?" he asked in a low voice.

"Sure, I won't follow you. We both need to think. I-"

"I mean, can you stay in your room. I-" Gaara still didn't look at him. "I need to know where you are."

Lee looked at him in surprise.

"You said you wouldn't leave. Can you promise to stay here. This afternoon. So I know where you are." Gaara's fingers tightened on the gourd's strap. "Please?"

Lee blinked rapidly. "Sure. Sure, I'll stay here if you want. Oh, except I have to go through some reports- but I'll be either here or in my office. Okay?"

Gaara nodded once, his fingers slowly releasing the gourd's halter.

"I don't want you to go back to Konoha," he said, almost to himself.

Lee hesitated, but not for long.

Gaara looked up as Lee stopped in front of him. The Jounin put his hands out slowly, making sure Gaara wouldn't be startled, and he touched the tense shoulders.

"Gaara, I made my decision last night. I promise to be with you and protect you for as long as you need me."

Then, since he was giving his word, he struck his Good Guy pose and gave Gaara a brilliant smile.

Gaara looked at Lee's extended thumb a bit oddly. Then the green eyes examined Lee for what seemed like a long time before Gaara nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

"Wow," Lee said, "please and thank you in the same day? From you? Have you been practicing on the sly?"

That earned him the familiar blank look. Then the faintest smirk twisted one corner of Gaara's mouth. It was his usual sardonic expression, but it was something approaching a smile, and the first Lee had seen since that mission in the desert had gone sour.

"I'll leave you to think," Lee said firmly, removing his other hand from Gaara's shoulder before he was tempted to do something with it. He moved out of Gaara's way and sat back down on the bed, which was as far away from Gaara and the exit as he could get without hopping out the window.

Gaara started to leave, but then he stopped short, one foot in the hallway outside.

"Before I go, we never did establish whether you wanted to have sex with me. You-"

"Gaara!" Lee yelped. "Close the bloody door!"

Gaara tensed at the shout, then looked suspiciously at the door as if to figure out what it could possibly have to do with the subject at hand.

"Just- don’t- that’s a very sensitive subject, and you should never talk about it where other people can hear," Lee whimpered. Nearly three o'clock in the afternoon. Please let all the other Jounin in the building be out in the field or on missions.

Gaara looked at Lee for a few seconds, and then he stepped back into the room and closed the door behind him with the air of one willing to play along with some bizarre foreign custom.

"Do you want to have sex with me?" he asked, as blunt as usual.

Lee pinched the bridge of his nose hard, trying to get his nerves back in order. Then he held out a firm hand in a 'hold it' gesture.

"We do not have to go there. I know you've seen it, um, done." Which put him a yard ahead of Lee, who only had some traumatic memories of Sex Ed classes, a talk with Gai-sensei and an intense imagination to rely on. But that was beside the point.

"Despite that, I don't think you really get it. And there's one thing you have to understand, Gaara. What we share is a lot more important than sex. We're friends. And I love you. A lot. Even if we never go there, I'll still be with you as long as you need me. It's nice that you like me to touch you, and I hope you'll let me do that again -within reason of course- I won't take advantage, my intentions are honorable- but it's not what I want that matters. We have to make sure that you're comfortable with all this first. And we haven't even established if you like men that way, that's a whole new topic, but that's neither here nor there yet. Feelings are what is important here. So you see?"

Lee took a deep breath and realized he'd lost his own point in there somewhere. He looked up past his hand and his chivalrous intentions, to see Gaara with his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face.

Gaara looked darkly at the startled Lee for a few seconds, then he took two slow steps away from the door. He glanced at Lee's small desk as he drew level with it; the piles of reviews on martial arts and weaponry, a half-written letter. He took a few more steps, examining the arm- and leg-weights, the green clothes peeking out of the half-open cupboard, the spare sandals nearby, the potted cactus Lee was trying to take care of; it was the fourth one he'd owned since he'd arrived in Suna. Growing cacti was harder than it looked.

Green eyes swept over the pile of books on Taijutsu, Lee's bedtime reading. He took a few more steps and his eyes fastened on Lee's bare feet. He was looking at them so intently that Lee did so too. They were just his feet, scratched, bandaged now, an old scar across one toe-

Gaara's gaze slowly travelled up Lee's body. And Lee swallowed nervously and fought the urge to edge back from that slow approach and that intent look.

Gaara's dark-ringed eyes were as focused as a sculptor's hands. Lee hadn't realized it, but people rarely looked at other people like that. As if they were detailing every inch of skin, cataloguing every muscle, memorising each move and quick draw of breath. As if trying to understand.

Lee sat frozen on the bed as that forceful gaze trailed over his knees, his thighs. He fought down the urge to put his hands in front of himself as Gaara's eyes traveled further upwards. That gaze lingered over his hips and the boner which, unfortunately, still hadn't quite gone down yet. Then Gaara scrutinized his belly, his chest, stayed a long time on one of his hands, crawled up his shoulders. He was staring down into Lee's face when he took the last step, their knees practically touching.

Lee's breath was quick and fast, and his muscles clenched in an effort to not shiver under that stare.

"You...love me," Gaara said softly, handling the word as if it were a dangerous but fascinating weapon.

"Yes," Lee answered, his voice hoarse but without hesitation.

"You want to have sex with me."

"Er-..."

Lee wanted to say that that was by far not all he wanted from Gaara- the green eyes seemed incandescent, brighter than the afternoon sunshine, searching his face, his eyes.

"You. Want. Me."

"Yes," Lee answered, staring right back and trying to gauge how Gaara was taking it.

"You need me..."

Lee swallowed and nodded once.

Gaara leaned forward and put his hands on either side of Lee's face. The gesture felt natural; it was only after a second that Lee could even remind himself that Gaara was still not used to casual contact. Not that this was casual. Gaara's eyes plunged into his.

“How did you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?"

"Kiss like you did earlier."

Lee stared at him blankly. Gaara's fingers on his cheeks felt warmer than they should be through the bandages. "Well, you just- I just touched our lips together. Gently. I'm sure there's techniques and stuff, but nobody ever taught me-”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.”

“It felt good when you did it."

"Oh-"

Gaara lowered his mouth to Lee's and pressed softly. Once, briefly, then again.

"It doesn't feel the same," Gaara said, and despite the control that was back in his voice, he sounded a bit wistful.

"I liked it." Lee's voice was husky.

"Being this close to you is like nothing I've ever felt before," Gaara said very softly, eyes still nailed to Lee's who was helpless to look away. "The thought of being even closer, of having you in me, or me in you, is actually tempting."

Gaara's fingers were not the only thing that were warm now. There was a real risk that Lee's sudden temperature spike was going to set fire to the bed.

"I don't know what sex fully implies. I know what it is, but I don't know if I'm capable of it. But I have the feeling I might want to find out. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do so. Or the desire. But now there's a door in front of me where there was only a dead end before. Even though I know we should be careful, I still want to see where it goes. I don’t know if I’ll enjoy having sex. I don’t know if I even have the capacity for it. But if it's safe for you...I think I might want to explore it some day. And I want you to get something out of this too, besides sand cuts and bruises."

"But I don't need-"

A finger touched his mouth. "I want you to get something out of this too...if I can...if it's even possible. I don't know if it will be. Ever. If we can ever get any closer than this. Even touching could be...dangerous. At this point I have a lot to think about, to assimilate. I need some time to figure all of this out. Do you understand?"

"Oh, entirely!" Lee nodded, ignoring the flashes of sensuality when the movement caused Gaara's finger to brush his lips. "Take all the time you need! I'm not expecting- I mean, I would be- it would mean everything to me if you just want to be a- a bit more than friends. The rest- it'd be great if you do want to one day, but I won't press you. Of course not. Some people spend months- years developing their feelings before they go that far. I'm perfectly fine with that! Great idea!"

Lee ignored the small part of himself that was screaming in agony. That bit was inconsequential. What was important was whether Gaara could accept Lee's love. Beyond that, what did it matter if Gaara took that long to decide whether they could have sex or not? Lee had been a virgin for nineteen years; he was used to it by now. He didn't mind. He could stand a few more years of- of watching Gaara move about in those tightly strapped clothes beneath that long coat, and- and fight and spar with him...and remember the way Gaara's body had felt when it moved against his...

Gaara leaned back abruptly and stared down at Lee with an odd expression on his face.

"I was thinking in terms of a few days," he said.

"Oh thank god," Lee blurted out.

"...You don't want to wait months and years just to touch again." Gaara was scowling. "Do you?"

"Ah...not really, no."

Lee would wait for Gaara. Forever, if he needed to. And if Gaara decided that he could return some of Lee's feelings, but just not physically, that would mean the world to him and he'd handle whatever trifling disappointment he felt about the rest bravely, like a man. But all that being said, it was also a fact that if Gaara kissed him like that again - or talked about 'you in me' some more - Lee would be dead of terminal frustration before he was twenty.

"Then why did you say-..." Gaara shook his head, visibly dismissing the incongruous piece of human logic. He tapped Lee's cheek. "Take care of these scratches. They aren't too deep, they'll heal quickly if you keep them clean."

The white robe fluttered as Gaara turned. Lee watched him go. Then he stared at the closed door for over ten minutes.

Finally he got up, changed the water in the basin, cleaned off the rest of the dirt, put on some fresh clothes and went to his office in the administration building, where he stared blindly at paperwork instead of staring blindly at doors. It wasn't that much more constructive, but the squiggles on the pages provided a minor distraction, and at least he looked like he was doing something while he waited.

Chapter Text

The afternoon dragged, as it would after you’d told someone that you loved him and he’d gone away to Think About It.

But after a couple of hours of trying to read reports upside down or staring at the walls, Lee's sense of duty finally conquered his woolly-headed speculations about what Gaara was thinking about. Whatever Gaara's decision, he would always be Lee's important person, so Lee had to protect him. That meant that he had to read through this intelligence on Sound activity in Fire country seriously, and see how it could collate to the information Suna had gathered. To work!

Lee first did some hasty administrative form-filling he'd been putting off for the past few days, just to get it out of way. Mindful of his promise to stay in his office, he didn’t deliver the completed paperwork himself. He poked his nose out the door and asked one of the clerks to do it when the man had the time. The clerk took the papers, gave Lee a long worried look and asked the Jounin if he needed to go to the clinic. After a year working in the administration compound, the staff was used to seeing Lee bounce down the hallway - or sometimes along the rooftops - to carry out the smallest task if it could get him away from his desk for a few minutes.

Lee managed to reassure the clerk, though he still got some tea, a plateful of biscuits and some concerned glances at his band-aids from a few of the administrative personnel before the novelty of an office-bound Lee wore off. Then he got on with reading and sorting the reports.

Around seven in the evening, as dusk gathered upon the desert, Lee felt a faint, barely-there itch between his shoulder blades. The same odd feeling he'd been having on and off all that previous week. At least now he knew for sure there was somebody watching him. It was nice to know he wasn’t crazy.

...Then again, if Lee thought it was nice to know that his potential boyfriend was checking in on him via a sand-crafted eyeball before going back to wandering the desert muttering to himself, 'not crazy' wasn't quite the right term to apply to either of them.

Lee didn't try to whip around to catch sight of the jutsu, if that was indeed what it was. He merely lifted his head and smiled benignly at the far wall of his office to show he didn't mind (thus consolidating the theory that 'not crazy' and him were no longer even on speaking terms) until the feeling went away. Then he went back to his paperwork.

Soon after that the last of the staff left the building after checking in on Lee one last time. She didn’t seem surprised to find the Leaf Jounin still there. Lee didn’t have as much work to do these days, since he didn’t have any missions, but he’d not been in his office all that morning and he was too conscientious to let that pass.

In the streets outside, people went about their business in the cool of the evening, but the admin compound was perfectly quiet. Lee worked on with his usual serious dedication. He’d nearly finished sorting all the reports into separate folders, with annotations in his studiously neat script. He should be done in less than an hour. At the back of his mind he was wondering if he might not pop over to Gaara’s office when he was finished, like he usually did before leaving for the night. Just to say Hi. Not intrude or anything...But Gaara might not even be there, and Lee had promised to stay-

He suddenly blinked and looked up, senses twitching. In the absolute silence of the empty offices around him, he'd heard/felt something faint. He had a coppery taste at the back of his throat and his muscles were tensing slightly.

He wasn't all that surprised when the door opened and Gaara walked in.

Lee slowly put down his pen. This...didn't look good. It was subtle, but Gaara's chakra was showing past his usually tight control, and Lee knew well by now what that meant for his friend's mood.

“Good evening, Gaara. How are you doing?” he asked politely out of habit.

Gaara had stopped halfway across the large office, his arms straight at his side. He was dressed in his coat; he must have changed before going out into the desert to think. The gourd's leather halter was slung over one shoulder instead of buckled across his chest, as if he'd just grabbed it and come right over.

He looked like he was about to say something, but instead he turned and walked a few steps to the left, as if he was going over to inspect the sports equipment Lee had, to the clerks' dismay, installed in his office. But he was watching Lee from the corner of an unblinking eye. The control tightening his movements wasn't that of the calm, reserved Gaara Lee was used to; there were traces of the other one, struggling to slip his leash.

Gaara's eyes flicked over the weight machine, the much-thumbed books on etiquette on a nearby shelf, the safe, a picture on the wall...his eyes always returned to Lee. He turned and headed back at a tangent towards the desk. Lee had the distinct impression of a caged tiger looking for a way out to attack someone who'd been baiting it with a stick.

Gaara stopped a few feet away and held out a piece of paper towards Lee.

"I found this on my desk," he said in a voice that was too soft and neutral for Lee's liking.

Lee stared wide-eyed at the document. Of all the things to bring up, he hadn’t expected some kind of complaint about his usual inability to fill in forms properly on the first try. Lee squinted at the piece of paper, tilting his head a bit, then a bit more - Gaara was holding it sideways- to see what it was.

Gaara righted the piece of paper with an abrupt gesture that spoke of a dangerous amount of tension coiled up behind the control. He took two steps towards the desk, holding it out. It did look familiar, now. It looked like-

Ooops.

"It's my sick leave form," Lee said, his voice calm but his mind racing. "As Kazekage, you get a copy as a courtesy, since I'm-"

"It says you expect to be available for missions in two week's time," Gaara said in a perfect monotone.

"Oh, well, only C-rank missions for awhile, I know I have to take it easy-"

Gaara's eyes had gone hard and a bit dangerous. "You are not going on missions anymore."

“I’m sorry, but that's not an option."

"You said you wouldn't leave me."

I'm an idiot and I should have seen this one coming, Lee thought as he stood up. Gaara's chakra was leaking and flaring. Nothing major yet, but Lee suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

Still, he had to be honest.

"I will stay here as much as I can, but I have my duties. I am a Shinobi-"

"No."

"I am a ninja, Gaara. A Jounin of Leaf. If Tsunade-sama has a job for me, I'll do it."

"You could get killed."

"Um-"

"I'll come with you then," Gaara stated harshly, the piece of paper crumpling as he crossed his arms. "You'll be safe if I'm there to protect you."

"Wha-at? Gaara, you're the Kazekage, you can't come on routine C-rank Leaf missions, that's-"

A pulse rippled through the air. The pile of painstakingly ordered reports toppled over and slid to the floor, the windows rattled and the glazed-sandstone teacup on Lee's desk cracked. Dust fell from the ceiling. The motes drifted through the air towards Gaara and startled swirling slowly around him.

"Gaara, calm down."

"I can't. I can't go with you."

Gaara's eyes were wide and blind, and he was backing away as if he was being cornered by something only he could see. "I can't go with you. I have to protect Suna too. There's so much to do here, to defend it- but I can't let you-"

"Gaara-"

The gourd slipped from his shoulder as Gaara fell back against the wall. A thin trickle of sand leaked from it as it hit the floor. The cork had tumbled to the carpet and a fine grainy mist was hovering around the opening.

"-I can’t let you go alone, you'll get killed. You never retreat, you always fight until- I have to protect you. But I can't leave Suna- I can't make a choice. Lee, I can't just make a choice! I can't do this! I have to- this hurts, it-"

Gaara looked up blindly- then started back against the wall as he realized Lee was standing right in front of him.

"It hurts because you are afraid. Now get a grip."

Gaara was staring at him in dangerous confusion. Sand leaked out of the gourd and growled against the carpeted floor. Lee didn't spare it a glance. His whole attention was on Gaara.

"You're afraid to lose me and you're afraid to lose Suna, but you're going to have to face that fear and deal with it. Now please calm down, before-"

"I'm not going to let you leave." Gaara's eyes were vicious slits.

"You will," Lee corrected him sternly.

"But you could get-"

"Killed! It's a risk! That's what having bonds is about. When you care about something, it hurts when it's in danger."

"I'll protect you!" Gaara snarled. Sand hissed through the air as if it wanted to shape itself into a cocoon around them.

"You can't. Not all the time."

"I have to! You take too many stupid risks!"

"And you don't take enough! You try to control everything- protect everything. Will you only care for me if it's a sure thing? If I promise never to die?! That won't work, and you’ll never get close to me or anyone if you can't see that. We have to take risks in life, Gaara! We have to move forward, change- take chances! Otherwise we stay still and rot!" Lee's palm slammed into the wall near Gaara's left shoulder.

They stared at each other while the Sand stirred with dangerous tension.

Footsteps- then someone hammered on the door.

Lee leapt away, spinning and falling into a defence stance between that noise and Gaara. The sand hissed and reared up like small snakes around him, ready to defend and attack.

"What's going on in there?!" someone asked loudly.

"Nothing, we're-" but the door handle was already turning.

One of the compound guards stepped into the room, then pressed himself back against the wall near the doorframe, hands flickering towards his weapons.

"It's okay," Lee said loudly, trying to bring his voice back under control. "We're fine."

The sand was moving restlessly around his feet. The man's eyes widened even more as he took in Lee and Gaara, the latter still up against the wall and staring blindly at nothing. Apparently, Lee's definition of the word 'fine' didn't quite match the guard's.

"Kazekage-sama?"

Gaara didn't answer, but he looked up. The Chuunin lost a slight edge of his tension.

"Is everything okay, sir? Do, er, do you need me to...?" The man's eyes flickered nervously to the sand.

"No," Gaara answered after several long seconds. "Leave."

"Yessir." The guard fled.

Lee went to the door and glanced down the empty hallway before closing it. "Probably went to fetch help. Can't say I blame him."

Gaara slid down the wall to sit on the floor. Arms braced against his gathered knees, his fingers pressing his face and temples as if he could physically force his chakra and his reactions back into his head. Lee could feel Gaara striving for control. From the way the Sand was still moving sluggishly around him, he wasn't there yet. Great. Temari was probably going to show up here with Sanada and a few others in a matter of minutes, and Gaara was having a small meltdown.

Lee went down on one knee next to him, hand hovering near Gaara's shoulder. Gaara had told him what his touch did...but Lee still couldn't quite bring himself to believe he could have that kind of effect.

Gaara stirred and peered up at him over the barrier of his fingers.

"Why can't you stay here? Why won't you let me protect you? I'm ten times stronger than you are." He sounded almost plaintive, which was really not a note Lee was used to hearing in Gaara's voice.

"No you’re not," Lee retorted automatically. Gaara was surely only five times stronger than he was. If that. Lee had almost beaten him once-

"Why do you want to go on missions? Your village has other Jounin, and you're useful here."

"We're always short on manpower, and that's not the point anyway. Gaara...Think about it. You know me. Do you think I'd be happy if I was cooped up somewhere, however safe?"

Gaara looked away and didn't answer.

Lee pulled the much-rumpled form from Gaara's fingers.

"When I said I would be with you as long as you needed me, I didn’t mean physically joined at the hip," he said gently, smoothing out the paper. "I will stay by your side as much as I can. But you have to let me do this too. If you don't, you'll be injuring me as much as you ever could physically."

"And what do I do if you die?" Gaara asked in a listless monotone.

Good question. Lee stared at the form blindly. He'd taken a vow himself, to protect Gaara or die trying. But he accepted that there were times fate would not allow him to do that; not just missions, but all sorts of circumstances could result in Gaara being in danger and Lee unable to help or not even there in the first place. Life tended to be that way. But go tell that to Gaara...

"I don't know," he whispered helplessly. "I'm sorry...but that's just one more thing you'll have to think about."

Lee wondered sickly if Gaara would take days or even another hour to think about Lee’s feelings for him now. Gaara had gone a bit haywire at the idea of Lee returning to Konoha earlier, he'd reacted on instinct, but now he was seeing the bigger picture. Lee knew what his own heart wanted, but he could see it from Gaara's perspective too. Why would Gaara contemplate a relationship with someone when it had brought him a few brief moments of a good, warm feeling...and also pain, confusion and the very real possibility of massive suffering in the future?

A noise and a brush of familiar chakra from the courtyard below made Lee glance at the window.

"Gaara? Can you get up? Temari's coming."

Gaara rubbed his forehead with his fingers, eyes blind, and didn't answer. He'd either not heard or couldn't care less.

Lee dropped the paper, stood up and walked quickly to the door, slipping out and closing it behind him, a hand firmly on the knob just as Temari appeared at the top of the stairs.

"Lee? What is-" Temari's face tightened as she stared at him.

"Hi! Don't worry, please, everything's-" Lee's attempt to placate was cut short as Temari reached over and ripped off the bandage from his right cheek.

"Ow," Lee muttered a bit pointedly, rubbing the reddened skin, but Temari wasn't listening. She was staring at the scratches.

"What happened?" she asked tightly.

"It's nothing."

"This-" Temari swiftly looked over her shoulder. There were three guards and a senior Jounin in the hallway behind her, but not close enough to hear. She continued in a low voice. "This happened last night, didn't it. I saw you two come back together - but I wasn’t paying attention, I hadn't realized what state you were in. You need to get those cleaned, they could-"

"-get infected, I know, don't worry. Gaara helped me with them earlier."

Temari stared at him. Then she reached out and shoved at the door, pressing until Lee let the knob slip from his grasp rather than make a fight of it.

Temari looked at her younger brother sitting against the wall inside Lee's office. Gaara had straightened up, back flat against the wall, legs folded, hands on his knees. His face was blank, but Lee could feel the way he was concentrating, gathering his control back and thinking. Fortunately he didn't look manic or distressed. But there was still some Sand scattered about him, and Temari could read him well enough too. When she turned to Lee, her eyes were hard.

"Explain."

"Ah. Well..."

"I haven't seen him this bad - and I haven't seen him do that to someone's face - in years. What. Happened."

Lee took a deep breath and faced the young woman squarely.

"We had a misunderstanding. It was kind of my fault. He's a bit upset. But he's okay. And I'm fine. If you want any more details than that," he added as Temari tried to interrupt with a question, "you'll have to talk to Gaara directly. If he wants you to know, he'll tell you."

Despite his firm tone, he felt more nervous now with Temari staring at him, than when he'd told Gaara to get a grip a few minutes earlier. Temari was smart as a whip and she could lash out with that fan of hers fast enough to catch even Lee off guard from a cold start.

"A misunderstanding."

"Yes."

Temari's eyes searched his. There was tension in her stare and behind it, though she was trying to hide it, Lee could tell she was very worried.

"So this has nothing to do with the cursed seal they removed last week?"

Lee blinked, suddenly realizing just how Temari and the other villagers were perceiving all this without knowing that Gaara had only run aground of some emotional shoals. Considering the departure from the calm, controlled Kazekage they were used to these past few years, Lee could quite understand their concern.

"Oh no! That's got nothing to do with it! I'd tell you if it was- but no, Shu- he's not- that's got nothing to do with it. You have my word on it."

Temari looked at him as if she could peel back the skin of his forehead and read what was going on through his brain.

"Okay. A misunderstanding, was it?"

"Yes."

A muscle in Temari's jaw clenched. "I went out into the desert today. Mighty big potholes for a misunderstanding."

"He was upset," Lee said weakly.

"You were there all along?"

"I followed him at a safe distance."

Temari glared pointedly at the scratches. "Not safe enough."

Lee tilted his head. "You think this is the worst he could have done?"

"Not by a very long stretch. But I never thought he'd do that to a friend."

Temari didn't wait for him to answer. She marched through the door, walked over to Gaara and knelt down before him. She was close enough to interact, to let him feel her presence, but not close enough to press or threaten; a distance Lee was very familiar with. It reminded him that he wasn't the only one who knew Gaara. He wasn't the only one who loved him. He felt guilty about hiding the cause of all this from Temari. But things were just so complicated already...Lee didn't want the siblings' well-meaning interference on top of all that. If Gaara needed his sister's help and support, he could tell her, and Lee would accept that (and get ready to dodge an outraged blow from her fan, no doubt). But that would have to be Gaara's decision.

Temari was talking in a low voice. Lee looked away, not wanting to intrude. He glanced at the Jounin and the guards who were staring at him openly. They didn’t look hostile. They must have concluded from Temari’s reaction that the two men had had another one of their occasional arguments, nothing more. Lee was the only person in the village who dared to disagree - loudly - with Gaara; he was certainly the only one who would stand his ground and go right on arguing once the Sand came out. There was something like horrified respect in their eyes that made Lee blush and look at his toes.

When he heard Temari’s soft questions stop, Lee glanced back into the room. She was still three feet from Gaara and she appeared to be waiting. Gaara's face was turned away. He said a few words that didn't appear to satisfy his sister at all, but she stood up without a further word and headed towards the door.

"What are you going to do now?" she asked Lee when she was level with him.

Lee hadn't thought that far. "Talk him through it, I guess."

"Talk him through it."

"Yes."

Temari closed her eyes briefly, and then she said in a voice appropriate to talking to a three-year-old: "Okay. I am going to go and sit down in the hallway right over there. If you need anything, shout. Or scream."

"Oh, he's not that bad-"

"I know. But sometimes I don't think you do. Kankuro has a scar bigger than my hand across his ribs from the last time he tried to talk Gaara through something. Granted, it was back before the Chuunin exam. But I prefer to play it safe. I'll be right - over - there."

"Thanks, Temari," Lee said softly. Not for the unspoken offer of help and protection, which he truly believed he did not need, but for her trust. She always treated him like a potential goof-up who would bring embarrassment to the diplomatic post he held and to Sunagakure and Gaara by association if she didn't watch him and badger him ceaselessly. On the other hand, she treated Kankuro that way too sometimes. Lee didn’t know where he stood with her as a result. But there were times - like now - when he had the impression she considered him a bit like a kid brother; the good-natured screw-up one she'd never had, unlike the dangerous, way-too-intelligent youngest brother she did.

As one of Gaara's only friends, she trusted Lee to do the right thing and to not get himself killed. That meant a lot to Lee. Once he and Gaara figured things out, Lee made himself a solemn promise to return that trust in kind by telling Temari and Kankuro the truth.

Temari didn't answer his thanks directly; she just rolled her eyes in a show of irritation, shoved him through the door and closed it after him. He heard her hectoring the guards outside. She'd chase them off, then she'd wait outside the door and make sure they were both okay.

"Gaara?" Lee walked over to him slowly, judging Gaara's mood.

Gaara looked up, and Lee sank down to sit facing him with some relief. The usual Gaara was back; a moody, thoughtful version, but the calm was no longer a tightly controlled mask over chaos, it was Gaara's usual reserve.

"Temari is right," Gaara said. "You don't know just how bad I can get."

"Really? I'd say I've had a good demonstration already once before, during the Chuunin exam." Lee patted his left leg in illustration. He felt sorry for the flinch of pain in Gaara's eyes, but he wasn't going to pretty things up.

"It obviously didn't sink in," Gaara bit off. "The way you don't fear me, your ability to forgive me and forget when I hurt you, that is...precious to me. But it doesn't say much for your survival instincts."

Lee made a vague gesture of tossing something over his shoulder (probably his survival instincts). "Don't worry about it."

"One of us has to." The green eyes flashed with tension and a deeply buried pain. "Lee, if you are unable to realize how dangerous this can be for you...then I don't see how I can accept-"

“I know exactly how dangerous this is for me,” Lee interrupted, alarmed at where Gaara was going. “And that’s considerably less than what you’re making it out to be. Now I’m sorry I snapped at you, but I stand by what I said.“

"You really do have no survival instincts."

"If you were going to kill me, you would have done so last night," Lee said bluntly. "You didn't even hurt me all that much. Get this through your head, Gaara: you are not going to kill me. Stop telling yourself that because we both know it's not true. You're just trying to hide from your fear and pain behind that excuse."

It was a good thing Lee really did believe that and ultimately trusted Gaara’s self-control, because otherwise the rare blaze of fury in Gaara's eyes would have made him run for his life.

"You have no idea what-" Gaara cut off his angry snarl, pinched the bridge of his nose and screwed his eyes shut. The brief flare of chakra snuffed out like a candle. The Sand had rippled into the beginnings of a spiral, but now it fell back on the floor listlessly. "Lee, stop doing that."

"Doing what? Putting you on the spot? Making you face stuff?"

Gaara didn’t answer. His eyes had opened to slits and his green pupils were tracking the Sand crawling reluctantly back into the gourd.

“I have to. Make you face this stuff,” Lee said, his words simple and straightforward, though inside his chest he could feel his heart sinking. “Gaara...if you don’t want this, if you don’t want me...then that’s fine. I won’t press you into-...whatever. Even if you did want to be with me...I would never ask you for more than you could give me. I know some things don’t come easily to you. That’s okay, I can accept that, I can even accept that I won’t be anything more than a friend to you, but I won’t let you live like this either. I never will.”

Gaara focused on Lee’s vague gesture that encompassed him, the wall, the gourd, his anxious sister waiting outside.

“I spar with you when nobody else dares to. I argue with you when you’re being a stubborn pain in the ass. I drag you out and shove you into new situations. I come with you on missions and force you to work as a team. And you know why? You and everybody else in Suna knows that yes, you are powerful, dangerous and not entirely stable yet, and I am aware of that. But what I know is that you’re strong, too. You’re a genius, and you have tremendous strength of spirit and adaptability. You overcame your past to become the Kazekage! To change yourself and the meaning of your life so radically, it must have taken an effort and a courage the rest of us can barely understand.

“But now you’ve stopped. As soon as you had something to lose, you stopped moving forward and you’re doing nothing more than protecting it. You protect this village, but you won't let them get any nearer to you. You let them treat you like something dangerous, and you don’t try to change their minds. You won't even let yourself see how much they also like and respect you now.“

A raw flinch brushed Gaara’s face, but an instant later there was only icy uncompromising calm as he stared straight into Lee’s eyes.

“They are right to fear me. You have no idea what I’m like inside.”

“That would be because you don’t let me or anyone else close enough to see,” Lee countered, trying to keep his own frustration in check. The Rules of Diplomacy were pretty definite on this: you were not allowed to shake the slightly unstable leader of another village by the shoulders until he could see what was in front of his nose.

“You think I’d be afraid of you? Is that it? Yes, you’re right, I don’t know everything you’ve got locked up inside, but I’ve seen enough to have a good idea six years ago, and last night too. I’ve seen you get pretty bad. I’ve seen you rise above it too, both times. I’m still here.”

Gaara was giving him that hard searching look again. His eyes didn't leave Lee's as he extended his hand towards the Jounin, palm up.

Lee reached out in response to that gesture. He felt a flutter of hope as he placed his hand in Gaara's. Was this going to be a manly handshake to seal their new understanding?

Gaara's fingers slipped beneath his, gripped his wrist and lifted Lee's hand until it was in front of Lee's bewildered eyes. Lee found himself staring at the lumpy bandage covering the deepest cut he’d picked up in the storm yesterday.

“You're right,” Gaara said abruptly. “If I didn't kill you last night, I won't kill you tomorrow unless you physically assault me. I’ve conquered that much control over myself. But I have, and I will, harm you. Don't you even care?”

Lee stared at the bandages, briefly remembering the first time he'd started to wear them when he'd become a Genin, to give himself some protection and to stem the inevitable bleeding when he trained.

"Have I told you about my self-imposed rules?"

Gaara's fingers released Lee and his hand dropped back to his knee. He gave the Jounin a puzzled and irritated glare.

"Yes. You did,” he said, in a voice that implied he hadn’t been impressed. “They're some form of incentive to succeed."

"It's more than that. Yes, it's an incentive, it adds pressure to what you are doing. You feel a good deal more clarity and focus when there are severe consequences to avoid. And if you fail, those consequences are also a form of training. That's the Double Power of the Rule!"

"If you start talking like your interfering teacher, I will not be responsible for my actions."

"Hey! Don't insult-...please don’t say that about Gai-sensei. Now, what's important is that this rule would cover us if we accept this challenge."

Gaara stared at him as if Lee’s eyebrows had turned fluorescent.

“Our challenge isn't physical: it's to get closer than friends, to form a new type of bond, preferably without any grievous bodily harm being involved. I think you’re strong enough to do this, to control yourself and open up to me without losing your head or injuring me. And I am not going to make it easy on you by letting you wrap me up in cotton, or by tiptoeing around your temper and insecurities.”

The Sand made an interesting little hissing noise in the gourd. Apparently the Kazekage didn’t like to be told he had ‘insecurities’. Lee was willing to concede it hadn’t been the right term - ‘massive childhood trauma’ was closer and still not entirely adequate - but Gaara was speaking before he could correct himself.

“So if I fail to control myself, you get seriously injured? What kind of stupid-“

“It’ll be my failure too, if I do something to really upset you. But for what it's worth, I don't think you'll lose your control like you did last night again. People like us rise best to the toughest challenges. Why, look at how much you’ve improved already! Last night you threw me against a rock and sandblasted me. Tonight you only broke a teacup. You see?”

Gaara’s marked brow wrinkled as if Lee’s logic was physically hurting him.

“If one of us screws up - and it could be me, Gaara. I’ve started fights with you before when I should have kept my temper, or said something dumb when I should have shut up. I consider hurting you and your feelings to be just as big a matter as you injuring me physically, you know. If one of us screws up and harms the other, the remorse at the pain we caused will be the price of failure. It will be an incentive to get it right next time. But there will be an immediate benefit too. Pain is a good tool to hone your reflexes and teach you what not to do. And it'll show you for real what I've been telling you all along: that I won't leave just because you hurt me. And if the fight was my fault, well, maybe it'll show me that you won't lash out just because I hurt you. Isn't that something worth knowing?"

Gaara let his face sink into his hand. "And I thought I was the one who was borderline insane here..."

“But I told you, I don't think you'll snap that badly again,” Lee continued on blithely. “I think you'll learn to control yourself, even in this new type of situation. Oh, you might take a small swipe at me if you get angry or upset at some point, but I’m not saying I won’t try to dodge. I’m not dumb. And as for me, I’ll-“

Lee stopped abruptly as he realized he had one hell of a concession to make on his side too. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then took another one for luck.

“As for me,” he continued in a low voice, “if we do get together, then I guess I better change a bit too. You're right, I don't retreat from a battle, and I go full out or more on my missions. It’s my goal to challenge myself, to force myself to become the best Shinobi I can be. But...that strength isn’t just for show, it’s to defend someone important. You. So...I guess I better start being careful on missions. It’s not just my life anymore. If I get injured overdoing it, I’ll be making you suffer too.”

The decision wasn’t trivial. Lee still felt that urge to prove himself burning inside of him. More than ever, actually, because now he wanted to prove himself worthy of Gaara. But that wasn’t something he could do with a Whirlwind or two. Looked like the Lotus was back to being a forbidden technique again unless Gaara himself was in danger. Lee solemnly nodded and saluted a past he was burying, ignoring the strange look that earned him.

“I promise to take better care of myself from now on,” he said gravely. “I’ll do my duty, but I’ll try my very best to come back to you without any injuries.”

Gaara looked at him steadily for a minute, his face expressionless.

“And outside of missions?” he finally asked.

Lee looked at him without comprehension. “...I’ll be careful crossing the street-“

“If we are both in danger again like we were two weeks ago,” Gaara elaborated in a voice that could have etched his words into glass, “will you stop me from fighting? Will you throw your life away to keep me safe?”

Lee stared at him. The mere memory of that desperate hour fighting around the desert fort had caused a flash of raw reflexive fear to jolt his system. If Gaara died- The question wasn't hypothetical, either; Orochimaru was still on the loose, and his intentions towards Gaara were as yet unknown.

“I want to protect you,” Lee mumbled.

“And you don’t see how that might work both ways?”

“But you were helpless-“

“You were hardly fighting fit either. You not only kept me out of the fight, I wasn’t even nearby to see what had happened to you. I’m not an idiot, I was well aware of my limitations - something you still have to work on, in my opinion. If I’d been there, I could have done something- but I wasn’t even there. You could have gotten killed and I wasn’t even there!” The Sand rattled around in the gourd and when Lee rubbed his bowl-cut ruefully, a faint static charge made the hair cling to his fingers.

“Okay, seen like that-“ Lee muttered, and cowered a bit before Gaara’s pinpoint-pupil stare.

An awkward silence settled between them. Lee could distantly hear a faint, regular tapping noise; Temari’s fan striking the ground as she patrolled the hallway outside.

“Before...all this happened...we fought well as a team,” Lee said slowly as if he was building something delicate in the space between them. “You said it last night; we were equals. You watched my back and I watched-“

“I watched your back and you constantly leaped right into danger until I hauled you back and told you to stop overdoing it,” Gaara stated.

A heavy mutual stare ensued.

“I guess we’d have to find that again,” Lee conceded, scratching the back of his neck. “That balance. Not be overly protective, and trust the other to do his bit. Back to back, working together to defend each other.” Said like that, it didn’t sound too bad. “Er, you might have to keep on reminding me not to go overboard. For a little while. Until I get used to the concept. Gai-sensei says I have a lot of natural energy and enthusiasm.”

“I know,” Gaara said acidly. “As for reminding you, have no fears in that regards. I will not let you be that foolish again, not now that you’re such a crucial part of my existence.”

Lee stared at him, caught completely off-guard by the implication. “You mean you- you're ready to give us a chance?”

“I probably didn't have a choice from the start,” Gaara answered, staring somberly at the fists he’d clenched on his knees. “It wasn't something I could just think about and will away. I am feeling what I am feeling. The door's open now. And if I close it again...even if it was possible, the damage would be considerable. I can't do it. Turning away from this would take something away from you too. I can’t do that either.”

Lee stared at the tousled red head. This man...was so strong. He'd faced his fears and was taking that leap of faith. He was going to let Lee lead them forward, push him towards something that Gaara was barely equipped to imagine.

Lee felt as if that door had just opened before him too. A gate leading to something he could barely imagine either. Lee tried to keep a positive attitude in all things, but he suddenly realized that deep inside, he'd assumed Gaara would turn him down once he'd thought it through. But now...this was it. Gaara was placing a part of himself in Lee's hands. Lee's thoughts started to spiral like the Sand had last night. No more all-out missions; no more moments of being intensively alive in that life-and-death instant- but then again, defending each other, fighting back to back, that sounded like the best thing in the world. If Lee could stand it...the thought of Gaara in danger still made his fists clench and his body burn.

And how about...sex. Gaara's concentration earlier had been on accepting - or not- Lee's feelings. He'd treated sex rather cavalierly, like potentially pleasant collateral. This attitude rather startled, even alarmed Lee.

In fact, there were a lot of things that were starting to alarm him now that he was looking through that open door. He was going to be responsible for someone else's happiness. Someone already so damaged, so badly hurt in the past...Lee schooled his features, trying to keep his concern out of his expression, as that would really send the wrong message. Gaara could sense fear, and very easily misinterpret it. Lee calmed his heart which was doing strange things in his chest, and concentrated on his goal, his new challenge. Lee had to be brave too now; brave for them both.

“But I think you were wrong,” Gaara suddenly said, interrupting Lee’s agitated thoughts. “About having to move forward or rot. Stability and safety is not necessarily a bad thing. I would have been perfectly content simply watching over Suna until the day I died. And now...you'll be on missions, in danger, and I won't be there to help. It's driving me insane." Gaara's fingers gripped the mark on his forehead as if it was still burning him. Lee didn't think Gaara was speaking metaphorically here; Gaara usually said what he meant, nothing more and nothing less.

“Oh, come on, you are not insane! You have to be more positive. You are...you’re merely high strung.”

That could have come out a bit more intelligently, Lee thought, wilting a bit under an unblinking stare.

“...You're right. Compared to you, I really am quite rational.”

If Gaara's biting retorts were back, Lee could start to relax.

“Let's get one thing clear,” Gaara said icily, catching Lee in the middle of a relieved grin. “I don't like those 'rules' of yours. I don’t want to hurt you at all. So I'm asking you to be careful, or there'll be nothing but pain in this for both of us. I can control myself and my instincts, but not if you startle me or if you hurt me in ways I don't expect. I spent many years of my life as a monster. The lack of sleep, the effort to control what’s inside of me - I'm still unstable. You know this. When you hurt me - when you of all people hurt me - Lee, I've killed in these circumstances before. I can still fall back on my old behavior patterns very easily when I'm unsure or wounded. And that will always be dangerous. Is that something you can live with?”

“Gai-sensei would have a lot to say about that pessimistic and defeatist attitude of yours.”

Lee shrugged off the heavy stare that earned him. He was being a bit hypocritical, he knew, because he’d asked himself pretty much the same question last night. But now that he’d accepted the risks, he didn’t want Gaara to blow them out of proportion.

“You have to believe in yourself. You’ve got a lot more self-control than you give yourself credit for. And I wasn’t planning on- on torturing you, you know.” Though he was sure Gaara probably didn't think so after the amount of anguish and confusion the last twenty-four hours had cost him. Gaara had spent the last few years building an environment that spared him from pain and gave him some stability, and Lee had caused havoc within that.

Gaara was going to have a lot to worry about in the coming weeks, but at least he shouldn’t have to worry about Lee! Lee reached out and patted Gaara’s hand bracingly (survival instincts were indeed highly overrated).

“Don’t underestimate me. I think there’s a reason I’m the one you let this close to you already. I’m a good warrior, I’ve faced off with you already, and I’m your friend. I can tell what mood you’re in after a year of getting to know you. I'm the one who knows when it’s okay to talk to you and when it’s better to shut up and let you think. I know what distance to follow you in sandstorms, and when I can tell you to get a grip and when I have to leave you alone to do so. Please rely on me. I'll try not to put you into a spot too often.”

“...But often enough to keep me moving forward?”

Lee nodded seriously.

“Very well. It's not like I have a choice. I’ve had first-hand experience in just how persistent you can be once you’ve set your mind on something,” Gaara muttered with considerable perspicacity.

He rose, grabbed Lee by the elbow and hauled the Jounin to his feet without any appearance of effort.

“I need to go talk to my sister. She’s worried, and rightfully so.”

“Will you tell her? About this?” Lee asked bravely. Temari’s fan surely couldn’t hurt that much more than what Lee had been through last night. He could take it! He hoped.

“No,” Gaara said after some deliberation. “Not unless we think we need a guardrail or something. Temari’s taken over Kankuro’s duties while he’s hunting Sound. She’s taken over some of my own as well. She’s keeping a hand on Suna and its politics, she’s got to deal with Orochimaru's machinations and now her little brother is apparently losing his mind. She’s under quite enough stress as it is. And she knows just how hard it was when I got closer to her and Kankuro six years ago. I don't want to cause her any more worry."

“Your call,” Lee said, trying not to sag with relief.

Gaara rubbed the dark circles of his eyes. "I hope she doesn't take much reassuring tonight. I need some rest. I haven’t been getting much lately, and it’s been a long two weeks since we left for that mission out in the desert. You need some sleep as well. It’s late, and you’re still convalescing.”

“Good idea!” Lee turned towards the pile of papers on the ground. “I’ll go as soon as I’ve re-sorted those reports-“

Strong fingers caught him by the back of his vest and spun him a hundred and eighty degrees so he was facing the door and not the desk.

“I meant now, Lee.”

“But-“

"You promised you'd take better care of yourself. Only a few minutes ago."

“That’s not what I meant by-“

“But you did promise,” Gaara pointed out with cold logic. “And you always keep your promises as long as you can’t wriggle out of them on some technicality and go do something stupid again.”

“Hey, that’s cheating,” Lee huffed.

“It probably is,” Gaara answered without a flicker of remorse or hesitation. A hand in the small of Lee's back guided him firmly towards the door.

Chapter Text

Dear Gai-sensei.

I hope you and your team are well. I hope Ryota's Ninjutsu has improved as you hoped it would. He sounds like a determined young man from your letters. I'm sure that with your guidance he will become a great ninja.

I myself am recovering well.

Lee absently chewed on the end of his pen. He was wondering about that. The way he'd gotten himself knocked around in the desert last night was worrying him. He'd been sparring against Gaara for over a year at a very high level. He should have been able to dodge the Sand Barrier's initial blow, even if he hadn't been expecting it at all. Gai-sensei had told him it would take time to get back to his previous form; a couple of months, maybe longer. Still, Lee just didn't feel like he'd made that much progress at all. What if-

But that wasn't why Lee was up at four o'clock in the morning writing a letter to Gai-sensei. That concern could wait another day.

I find myself in need of your advice. You always said I could write if

Lee crossed that out. He didn't need to remind Gai-sensei of his promise to help and guide him. Gai-sensei would always be there for him.

I find myself in need of your advice. What should a man do if he's in love with someone. And that person accepts those affections, wants to be close and build a relationship, but due to circumstances in his past, probably doesn't really know what love or a relationship even

‘His’ past...Lee stared at the word with something like unnerved fascination.

He'd finally come to terms with the fact that he liked men and Gaara specifically. But seeing it written down like that...it made it very real and immediate. Like it was taking something hypothetical and making it flesh. Um, flesh, yes, that was part of the problem.

The subject of sex still made him...not nervous, but confused. Gaara didn’t seem to think it was a big deal, which completely boggled Lee. Lee was quite divided about it himself. Part of him wanted to be sure. He couldn't say exactly what it was that he wanted to be sure of; just Sure. But another part of him really wanted it. Really, really wanted it. Lee was starting to suspect that Hormones were involved.

This deep feeling of need had first captured him when Gaara had kissed him. He'd felt something like it before in dreams, and in Gaara's presence, but it was ten times stronger now. He would have liked to dismiss it as just another attack of lust, but deep inside he wasn't so sure it was that simple...

That was also a subject for another day however. Lee was going to have to work his way up to discussing that with his respected teacher. It wasn't the real concern either. And from the four previous pages crumpled up in the wastebasket, and the corrections on this one, the more immediate concern was quite hard enough to put into writing without worrying about that.

He'd stopped trying to make a clean copy now. He was crossing away and rewriting until he found the right way of expressing himself, then he'd rewrite the definite version without all the scribbled-out bits. He'd been at it since he'd given up on sleep a few hours before. He had a couple more hours to sort out his thoughts before the post opened in the morning.

The desk's lamp emitted a faint buzz and flickered. Suna's generator for civilian consumption was a bit sparky at night, unlike the top-of-the-line generator that fed the admin building, the ramparts and the defense center, which could withstand any number of hostile jutsus.

Lee doodled a little 'high tension warning' symbol in the margin, his mind blank.

He should be sleeping. He'd told Gaara he'd go to sleep after their discussion in Lee's office earlier. He'd said he'd take better care of himself. He'd promised, in fact. Okay, Gaara had twisted that around a bit...

Lee found himself smiling. Clever, underhand bastard. 'You always keep your promises'. Gaara knew him too well.

Yes. He knew Lee well. Gaara trusted him to keep his promises. He trusted Lee with a lot of things.

Lee ground the pen into the doodle.

He'd sounded so confident earlier when he'd told Gaara to face his fears and take a chance. When he'd told Gaara of the Desert to get a grip.

To the 'I myself am recovering well' sentence, Lee added 'but I think I must be going crazy'.

Gaara hadn't struck out at him, or punched him in the mouth. For some reason the thought that his behavior was risky hadn't fully crossed Lee's mind when he'd stood up in front of his friend and barked at him like that. Lee wondered if it was because, deep down, he'd known Gaara wouldn't hurt him. Or was it because he would have gladly accepted a few more bruises if it meant Gaara wouldn't end up curling in on himself and going back into isolation?

And Gaara had accepted his offer. His love. They were going to build something together- what they were going to build was still to determine, but it would involve defending each other, mutual support, opening up, sharing - sex eventually, Lee's bloody Hormones reminded him - and Gaara had looked at him and accepted him. Him. Rock Lee.

Gaara...

Lee turned the page over with a deliberate gesture.

Dear Gai-sensei

I hope you are well. I am doing fine, but I need your advice.

I have fallen in love with Gaara. I think I've loved him for months now, though it didn't exactly feel like the mighty pure and youthful flame of Love that you described in your speeches. This is going to come as some surprise to you. Though not the fact that I am in love with a man, I think. I may be wrong, but I think you saw this in me for awhile now. Maybe you should have mentioned this before, because it was a bit confusing for me a few months ago

Lee paused a second and tried to imagine, just for the sake of the argument, the kind of conversation Gai-sensei would have had to have with him to get that fact out in the air. He winced so hard, he broke his pen. No, Lee thought, wiping ink from his fingers with one of the discarded sheets of paper, it was much better for Gai-sensei to have given Lee the speech on Love - the one that had ultimately helped Lee accept the pull he felt towards Gaara, as well as his orientation - rather than try to be that explicit with a wide-eyed, twelve-year-old Genin.

Well, this was just a draft. Lee chucked the leaking pen in the garbage, picked up a new one and put it back to the page, but he found he couldn't continue until he'd crossed out all the previous paragraph. It was just too distracting, imagining Gai-sensei reading something like that. And maybe answering in a letter of his own- no, better stick to the point.

Dear Gai-sensei

I hope you are well. I am doing fine, but I need your advice.

I'm in love with Gaara. At the start, I thought it was just physical attraction. It made things very confusing for awhile. But now I know I love him. He's an amazing person. I hope one day you get to know him as well as I do. He's very strong in both body and spirit. He's defeated things I can barely imagine. He's been badly hurt in the past, and he's cautious about reaching out. When I said I loved him, he reacted

Lee frowned at the lamp. Gaara had reacted in several ways. First, he'd nearly killed Lee, or at least he'd certainly lost it badly enough where Lee's death had been a possibility, though Gaara himself had protected his friend from his worst first instincts. Remembering that scene, Lee wished he could attribute part of that reaction to Shukaku. But he remembered what Naruto had told him about the demon. It might attack Gaara's sanity when he let his guard down, it might make him more dangerous and unstable, it gave him a hell of a lot of power, but it didn't directly influence him. No, that had been all Gaara, unfortunately.

As had been the Gaara who had thrown himself on Lee at the very notion that the Jounin might go back to Konoha. And the Gaara who had said how powerful Lee's touch was for him. And the Gaara who had lashed out in fear and broken a teacup in Lee's office a few hours ago. And the one who had said he never wanted to hurt Lee again, and who trusted him.

When I said I loved him, he reacted in a rather complicated way. I think he's confused about all this. He's willing to try to get close to me, but it seems that everything I do hurts him. That’s bad for him, and potentially dangerous for me, which makes it bad for him all over again because he’s got this thing about not hurting me anymore.

Lee reread that last sentence and sighed. Good thing this was just a draft. He’d polish it up later.

So I need to know what to do and say to not hurt him or scare him anymore. I need to lead us both firmly forward, towards the promise of our youth, as you described it once. But I'm at a bit of a loss. I don't know exactly what to do. My heart says that I want to protect him, defend him, die for him if need be. Like I almost did two weeks ago, and I do not regret it. But Gaara doesn't want that now, and I can see why. Anyway, next time I suspect he will be the one protecting me, since he is five times stronger than I am when his powers aren't sealed. And none of that really matters when we're not in danger. So how can I

Lee stilled his pen. He slowly looked up at the wall in front of his desk, senses reaching. He glanced over his shoulder at the window. There was nothing to see except a slice of sky the color of deep indigo.

Maybe he was imagining things. He'd been thinking too much about Gaara tonight. And he really needed some sleep; he was getting a bit frazzled.

Lee had been a Shinobi for too many years to fool himself. He slowly crumpled the page, balling it up thoroughly. He dropped it in the wastepaper basket, stood up and headed towards the window. He thought he saw something small and round disintegrate into sand as he approached.

A tepid night breeze trickled in as he opened the pane. Lee leaned on the sill and looked down, already knowing what he'd see. Gaara was looking up at him from two stories below.

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Gaara made a 'come down here' gesture. Lee nodded.

I guess I'm in trouble, Lee thought, glancing guiltily at the desk's lamp. He went to collect his sandals and his Jounin vest and then, rather than chance waking any neighbors by going out the front entrance, he jumped out the window, landing without a sound next to Gaara.

"I tried to sleep," Lee said in a hushed voice even before his feet hit the ground, "but after waking up at two this afternoon, my internal clock's completely skewed." And he'd had a lot on his mind, too, but he didn't want to burden Gaara with that.

Gaara's scowl dissipated. Apparently that was an acceptable excuse for a chronic insomniac.

They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds.

"Patrolling the village?" Lee asked completely redundantly. Gaara didn't bother to answer.

"Care for some company?" Lee added, because he always asked. It was only polite. If he'd set his mind on going anywhere with Gaara, then he usually did so even without a 'Yes' and unless the Kazekage specifically ordered Lee not to (and even that was negotiable). But still, it was polite to ask.

There was the faintest nod from Gaara, which was more than enough encouragement. Lee fell into step as his friend walked away, silent as a ghost drifting between islands of neon light and stretches of darkened streets.

"You look tired," Lee said after awhile.

Gaara slowly turned his head to look at him. "You are the only person in this village who would be able to tell. Apart from my siblings, perhaps."

"You said you were going to get some rest," Lee pointed out, trying to keep concern from his voice.

"You said you were going to get some sleep," Gaara predictably countered, though he said it absently.

When Lee was tired, it made him dull, dozy and prone to saying things without thinking. When Gaara was tired...well, that was a matter of national security.

"Maybe you should go home then?" Lee suggested carefully. "What are you doing out here anyway?"

"Coming to terms with a lie."

Lee gaped at him. "W-what? What lie? Did someone lie to you? Wait, you don't think I lied to you, do you?" Lee had been a tad bit arrogant earlier, and perhaps he'd tried to sound more confident than he was - a frequent failing of his, actually, but he'd never intended to-

"No." Gaara looked at him, eyes slate grey in the darkness. "I have a lot of duties, concerns and problems. Only a few of them have to do with you."

"...Yes. I should know that," Lee said quietly, staring at the faint plumes of dirt and sand kicked up by his sandals. "Sorry."

Gaara didn't respond, but then again he rarely did.

"Anything I can help you with?" Lee added, not expecting anything, and he wasn't surprised when Gaara didn't answer.

Gaara walked on in silence and Lee followed, strands of anxiety, speculation and thought weaving through his tired brain. Gaara led them to the southern rampart and climbed up to the watchtower to check with the guard. The Kunoichi on duty wasn't surprised to see her Kazekage; he frequently patrolled the village for an hour or two each night. She hadn't expected Lee to be there though. He occasionally walked around the village with Gaara, but not at four in the morning. Good Sand Shinobi that she was, she didn't comment or even look at them a moment longer than necessary to verify their identity before bringing her vigilance back to the desert beyond the high stone cliffs.

Gaara led Lee further along the wall to a point halfway between two guard stations. He stopped, one hand resting on the carved stone, checking for signs of danger. Lee propped himself up on his forearms against the rampart, doing the same automatically, though some of his attention wandered to Gaara's profile cut out against the pre-dawn sky.

He didn't know how he'd guessed that Gaara was tired. The dark-ringed eyes weren't any more smudged than usual. The eyes might be reddened, but the light was too bad to tell. Gaara's face was as composed as the statues of former Kazekages that guarded the entrance to Suna's main gate. His stance was a picture straight out of the Shinobi's manual on combat readiness, carrying the gourd as if it weighed nothing at all, just like when he was younger and it looked so ridiculously big on him.

So composed. So self-contained. Yet that other Gaara was in there too, the one that ripped at what it wanted to get close to, the one that clung too tight, or thrust away. So complex. Lee felt that deep nervousness again, that responsibility.

"I'll do my best to make you happy..."

The whisper had slipped out without any volition, an extension to his tired thoughts. Gaara didn't react for a second, but then he turned towards Lee with a start.

"What?"

"Nothing. Just thinking out loud." Lee straightened up and stared dutifully at the desert around them.

"...What did you say?"

Lee glanced at him owlishly, blinking his tired eyes. "I said, I'll do my best to make you happy."

"Happy?" Gaara repeated as if he'd never heard the word before.

"Well, yes. That's why people get together. Become a couple. Get close like this," Lee added, since Gaara didn't always know the meaning of colloquialisms unless he’d heard them in a well-defined context at least once before.

Gaara stared at him until Lee finally turned to face him fully with a 'Yes?' look on his face.

"You...does that make you happy?" Gaara asked slowly.

Lee cocked his head. "Yes. Yes, it does. I told you last night why I like to be with you. Even just this, hanging out with you right now...yeah, I'm happy," Lee said, leaning against the rampart again, chin in his hand, staring out into the desert.

There was a long moment of silence. Lee glanced up at his friend, but even he couldn't read what was going through Gaara's mind at this point.

"I'm going to do a perimeter sweep," the Kazekage said, his voice oddly distracted as he turned away.

"I'll go with you." Lee didn't bother to couch it in terms of a question this time. He was a bit worried about Gaara.

Gaara jumped over the parapet without answering and Lee followed. They walked in silence for awhile, heading into the ravines around the cliffs protecting Suna. This time the silence had purpose; Gaara was thinking. He could think for a long time like this, without trying to fill the silence with needless verbiage, until his words were fully formed and ready in his mind. Lee had learned to be silent during these moments.

They made their way to the far reaches of Sunagakure's defenses, well out of view of the ramparts. Lee was glad when Gaara turned to walk the perimeter without going out into the desert. He didn't like the idea of the Kazekage wandering too far from his power base and his soldiers, what with Gaara being tired, Lee still far from the top of his form and Sound out there somewhere.

"Someone once told me that being loved would make the pain go away. That was the lie I was coming to terms with tonight."

Lee had been expecting some kind of statement, but that abrupt declaration left him speechless for a few moments.

"Who told you this?" he finally asked.

"Nobody you know."

So it wasn't Naruto, Temari or Kankuro. That only left a couple of likely candidates and Lee, remembering something Gaara had said in his psychotic moments the night before, said "Yashamaru?" before thinking it fully through.

Gaara stopped.

Lee let his stance shift ever so subtly into defense while he weighed Gaara's reaction carefully. Gaara was tired, he was still under the influence of the last twenty-four hours, and that name was probably as dangerous as 'friend' or 'love'.

The moment passed. Gaara was staring straight ahead without moving.

"I have a confession to make," Lee mumbled guiltily. "Months ago- not that long after I came to Suna - when I was back in Konoha for a mission, I talked to Naruto about you. I was hoping we could become friends, and I wanted to understand you. He told me about-...your uncle. I didn't realize that he'd be saying something you’d probably told him in confidence."

"Naruto has never been able to keep his mouth shut, even when he got his jaw broken during the Jounin exam two years ago," Gaara said. He didn't sound upset.

"Was Yashamaru the one who said that?"

A single nod was his answer.

"Oh. Tell me? Please?"

Gaara finally looked at him, just a glance, then he started walking again.

Lee followed automatically. That had probably been a bit too general a question. He wasn't sure exactly what he wanted Gaara to tell him, actually. The circumstances of that conversation with his uncle? Yes, that'd be a pleasant memory to dig up, with Gaara already tired and destabilized by too many days of confusion and stress.

...everything I do hurts him...

"When I was young-..."

Gaara stopped speaking as if the sound of his own voice had startled him.

He turned to face the desert, washing up like the sea against the ten-foot-high bluff they were on. Lee watched him carefully.

"When I was young - as soon as I could talk - I was given most anything I asked for as long as I studied and kept some control over myself. But nobody ever touched me. That's what I noticed first, when I finally put my finger on why I was different. The way they looked at me and never touched me. Even my caretakers only kept contact to a brief minimum."

The words were simple, straightforward and without self-pity. Gaara could have been describing the life of a distant acquaintance, one he didn't particularly care for.

"That’s when it started to hurt. I needed something and I couldn't say what. I was never normal, but that was when I started to become unstable. Unmanageable. And it got steadily worse. Then Yashamaru said that to heal the pain, I would have to receive love. It was the only thing that would make it go away."

'Receive love', Lee reflected. Dear Uncle Yashamaru hadn't said anything about giving it, apparently. Lee wasn't surprised. It confirmed something he'd intuited. Gaara might not even understand that the concept of giving love could apply to him.

Lee had realized at some point during this frantic, muddled and very, very long day, that he would probably be saying 'I love you' to Gaara repeatedly, and that he would not get the same words in return. Not now. Maybe never. If in the future this ever weighed on him, then Lee would remind himself how Gaara had held him while he slept that night in the desert, and how it had made Gaara feel; how Gaara had protected Lee from the demons inside his head; how he was answering Lee's question now, when opening up was still an unknown concept to him, and sharing a meaningless exercise.

Gaara might never be able to express what he felt in words, and Lee had said he'd never ask Gaara for more than he could give. But Lee didn't feel like he was being shortchanged. No, not at all.

"His words helped. Especially when he said-" and Gaara stopped abruptly.

"S'okay," Lee muttered. He had a good idea what Yashamaru had said. That he loved Gaara, that Gaara was his important person.

"What he said gave me something I'd never had before,” Gaara added in his usual monotone. “Hope that things could change. Then roughly four hours later, I killed him."

"In self-defense!" Lee exclaimed. "He attacked you!"

"I was in no actual danger," Gaara answered, voice neutral. "I lashed out. Deliberately."

"You were attacked, you were really young, who could blame you," Lee muttered loyally. He knew he was probably being unfair. Yashamaru must have had some kind of desperate reason for his act, and he hadn't stood a chance against the Sand anyway. It had been murder. But when he thought of how much damage had been done that night, for once in his life, Lee didn't feel like being fair.

Gaara continued speaking as if Lee hadn't said anything.

"During the years of murder that followed, I was receiving love, or so I thought. I was receiving it from myself, since there was nobody else to give me this thing that was supposed to make the pain go away. I did what pleased me and I thought that was what it was all about. The killing frenzy helped. You knew what I was like."

Lee remembered vividly, and if he ever forgot, the occasional nightmare would remind him.

"When Naruto beat me, he helped me to realize what bonds were meant to be. Anchors. Strength. I lowered my expectations. It would be enough if they gave me a reason to live. But still, at the back of my mind was the thought that if I just tried harder, if I proved myself worthy, then maybe I would be loved by those I protected, and the pain would go away. A part of me still wanted to believe him," Gaara concluded. He was frowning. Lee had the impression that Gaara himself hadn't planned on saying this much, and was surprised at the words that had come out.

Lee thought of Gaara's endless vigil over his village, the way he walked its streets at night, like now. How he'd nearly died protecting them from Deidara's bombs. "Gaara, the people of Suna-"

"Now you love me. And I don't even know what that means." Once more, Gaara continued as if Lee hadn't spoken at all. "You love me, but the pain is still there, the things inside my head are still there. When you said that, it...broke me. I'd still had that hope, even after all those years. I expected...a lot from being loved. I was thinking about this these last few hours, trying to bury this once and for all."

Gaara finally turned towards Lee, his eyes searching his face.

"But now you say you want to make me happy?"

"Of course. Everybody wants to be happy," Lee said softly.

"Want?" Gaara's lips curled into an ugly half-smile. "What I want is contradictory. It is also abnormal. It might even harm you. You will not understand it. You’re my friend, Lee, but deep inside, you know this. You of all people know this. The way I behave these days is only a part of me. I have constructed a semblance of normality around me like a shell. It helps me interact with others. It gives me some stability. But underneath it I’m still the creature who went into that hospital room while you weren't even conscious and tried to kill you. That’s what I’m like inside. I might not act on those impulses any more, but that’s how I think. I’m not a normal human being. You’ve breached the shell. You’re going places I don’t let other people go. That creature inside does not have normal needs or wants, or anything a human being like you can even understand."

Gaara looked lost, staring at Lee like he had the previous night, as if Lee might hold the secret that could allow him to grasp something fundamental.

"Happiness...I understand the concept intellectually, I see it in others. But I'm not like them. I don't have the capacity for it. Don't say this is going to happen. Don't...don't lie to me, Lee. Don't be like him. I-"

I've really got to do something about these weird reflexes I've picked up, Lee thought. I should know better than to grab him after what happened last night.

But then again he firmly believed that the worst that could happen was that he'd pick up a few more sand scratches. And he'd give several inches of skin and a pint of blood right now if he could just hold Gaara close for a few seconds longer.

"Lee."

Lee's face was pressed against Gaara's cheek; his words were one long mumble. "I know I'm sorry I know I shouldn't startle you but I really wanted to-"

A shake of Gaara's head silenced him. It was slight, but it nudged Lee's jaw. Lee still held on, though he couldn't do more than loop one arm around Gaara's shoulder and put the free hand on his waist, because of the gourd. He was staring right at the cork. Gaara had started and fallen back a step before Lee had managed to close the distance between them, but the cork was still planted firmly in the mouth of the container, so at least Gaara hadn't been seriously alarmed.

Gaara was ominously still, but he wasn’t struggling. Lee didn't move either and kept quiet.

"...not normal..." Gaara whispered, so low the faint creak of sand around them and the dawn breeze almost covered it.

"Normal isn’t all that great," Lee muttered, mouth on automatic. "I run around the desert in legwarmers to build up my heat resistance, and I'm sure there'll be people who will tell you that's not normal either. I will never lie to you, Gaara. I promise, I won't do that. I- I’m not clever, and yeah, I don’t understand you all that well sometimes, but I- I feel you inside, I can't explain it. I make mistakes too, I also hurt you these last two weeks, but we can both learn, and I can't promise you that I'll make the pain go away but I will try."

Then Lee stopped babbling and just held on. They were Shinobi. A comrade's hand on the shoulder, silently urging one to move forward despite fatigue and fear, said more to their kind than declarations of love or friendship. No ninja was normal. Gaara was just on one extreme end of the scale. One day, Lee would succeed in making him see that. And if Gaara was willing to reach out on his end, then Lee would be there to meet him halfway, however he managed it.

Lee's thumb was drawing the pattern of tension it found on the back of Gaara's neck. Slowly and by degrees, the rigid lines of Gaara's body unbent. His neck bowed beneath Lee's gentle caress, until Gaara's chin was resting on his shoulder. Something seemed to leave Gaara. It trickled from him to sink into the sand and rock beneath their feet.

"I don't know what you expect of me. Or of this bond." The words were soft in Lee's ear.

"To tell you the truth, I don't really know either," Lee admitted, letting the hand on Gaara's neck slip to his shoulder. "But you know what? We'll just have to figure it out."

"I don't know if I can be happy. I hope you won't be disappointed if that doesn't happen-"

"Never!"

"-but this feels good," Gaara finished simply, his hand reaching up and settling on Lee's shoulder in something that was half illustration, half a return of the embrace.

Lee felt something loosen in him. He slipped his other hand between the curve of Gaara's back and that of the gourd. His hand brushed the hardened Sand. He absently wondered if anybody else had ever touched the thing deliberately before.

This was it, he realized. This was what he wanted, and yeah, he wanted all of it, even if he couldn't understand it all either. He wanted to hold the touch-starved child-killer; the dangerous, demon-ridden man; the Kazekage; the friend; the lover, too, because that was a part of the whole as well. He wanted all of it, he wanted Gaara, so badly.

Something small and furry scurried from one stone to the next twenty feet away. Lee tracked it with his eyes and senses automatically; one of the desert gerbils that nested in the rocks. The sky was a light neutral color. It was going to be day soon, the sun rose quickly in the desert.

Gaara shifted, then straightened. He waited until Lee had removed his hand from between the gourd and his back, and then he stepped away.

"I have to get back." Gaara's fingers lingered on Lee's arm before falling away with a gesture that looked way too weary for Lee's peace of mind. "I need some rest."

Lee reached out and touched the red hair near Gaara's temple. The locks were rougher and coarser than he'd expected. "Are you okay?"

Gaara glanced at him, and for an instant Lee thought he would turn away and not answer like he usually did. But Gaara didn't turn away.

"Yes. But he's getting restless," he said in a low voice.

Gaara never talked about his 'guest', nobody in Suna did. Lee didn't know how much it cost Gaara to say those few words out loud to someone who actually mattered to him, but he could make an educated guess, and Lee would have hugged him again for that small step if he hadn't been so busy panicking.

"We have to get you back! Do you want me to carry you? Oh, you're probably faster than I am right now- or can you rest here? I'll keep watch over you! I'll defend you with my life! Er, or rather I'll defend you very vigorously and with the intention of both of us surviving."

Gaara stared at him, and then the corner of his mouth crooked upwards in that small smirk.

"Don't worry," he answered, turning back towards the village, "I've got a margin. But I had better deal with this without any more delay. I think I can rest now."

Lee forced himself to walk instead of gallop. He trusted Gaara to know what taking care of the Tail required. Gaara did look okay. Tired, but more relaxed than he'd been when Lee had jumped out his window earlier. Lee allowed himself to unwind as well and enjoy these few minutes together.

Gaara paused as they reached the rampart and took one last look out into the desert, eyes narrowing against the sliver of sun dancing like a rope of fire on the horizon.

"Can you make it back up?" he asked, turning back to Lee and nodding up at the ramparts above their head. "Or should we go through the gates."

"Oh please," Lee snorted. "I'm convalescing, not dead."

"You're tired too. You stumbled twice on the way back."

"I couldn't see properly," Lee answered with great dignity. "We don't all have the eyes of a cat and an innate ability to walk over sand, you know."

Gaara snorted softly. There was the slightest displacement of air and then he was standing twenty feet above, on the rampart. Lee followed, a bit less gracefully but without stumbling of course, what a silly suggestion.

"You need sleep," Gaara announced over his shoulder, already a couple of feet away.

"No point, it'll be six by the time I get back. I'll pull a redeye."

Gaara glanced back without stopping. "I've heard the men use that expression before. What does it mean?"

"It's what we do after long patrols. It means I'll run a few laps around Suna, drink three cups of that sludge you people call coffee and then work and train through the day to stay awake. I'll crash tonight, and sleep through till morning. It'll get my internal clock back on track."

Gaara's eyes narrowed, but in the end, all he said was: "If you say so."

Then after a moment of silence, and perhaps a brief internal struggle, he muttered: "Just don't overdo it."

Lee nodded seriously and thumped his chest. "I won't! I promise!"

Gaara didn't comment, he just nodded wearily at the guard as they passed her. She was looking at Lee and appeared to be amused for some reason.

They jumped down to the streets of Suna and made their way to its main intersection.

"Mind if I walk with you as far back as your place?" Lee added brightly, because he always did ask; it was only polite.

Gaara looked faintly puzzled, an expression only three people in Suna would have been able to decipher. "It's out of your way."

"I don't mind. I'd like to." Lee hesitated, glanced at Gaara and added a bit more intentionally. "I'd really like to."

The Kazekage looked at him without comprehension.

Lee wondered if he should explain- but he wasn't very good at talking about sentimental stuff without using broad romantic declarations. And it would be really easy to say more than he meant that way, or say something that could be misinterpreted by a man who had very little background to interpret them correctly. It just...words were surprisingly tricky when you thought about it-

Gaara reached out and nudged Lee to the left, in the direction of Lee's room and away from the street leading back to the Kazekage's residence. Lee decided he shouldn't feel all that disappointed. Gaara might have opened up a bit, but he was still the same inside, which meant aloof, stubborn and doted with all the empathy of a scorpion who'd just had a bad day-

In a voice that suggested that Lee was being humored, Gaara said: "If you're coming with me, move. We'll detour by the gate. I need to talk to the Jounin on duty before I go rest."

"Okay!" Lee glanced at Gaara with a bright big smile. "Thanks."

"No need to thank me," Gaara said softly, still visibly puzzled. The hand on Lee's shoulder was still there.

 

---

 

Lee put the training weights - the small twenty-pound ones - on the desk. He had water, a towel, his weapons and a lot to think about. There had been volumes of communication in that hug earlier. A whole understanding set out in a language they were both barely beginning to learn. Lee had made a few heavy promises these last few hours, and he would have to think carefully on how to fulfill them.

But he wasn't moving to pick up his sport's bag. He was staring at the pen on his desk.

He reached down, took out the balled up piece of paper from the wastebasket, then he dropped it back in and picked up a fresh sheet and sat down.

Dear Gai-sensei

This will come as a big surprise to you, but Gaara and I have realized we care deeply for each other, and we have decided to get together. It won't be easy, but we're both brave, determined and in the full springtime of our youth. We will give it our best. I am sure we'll make mistakes, but as you taught me, we will learn from them and they will make us stronger. If we fail, then we will not have deserved this victory. But I don't think we will fail. I love him. I will try, with all the determination you taught me, to make him happy. He's going to have to learn what that means, and what he wants for that to happen. I think I am going to be learning quite a lot as well. We're both going to change. I think that, with each other to rely on, we will change into the kind of men we could really deserve to be. If that makes sense. I have never been as good at speeches as you, Sensei, and I am a bit tired, but I think you understand me.

Thank you for your help, Gai-sensei.

Respectfully, your student,

Rock Lee

Lee reread the letter a few times, then he went to burn it along with the drafts. He didn't think he had ever had the intention of sending it in the first place. He desperately wanted Gai-sensei's guidance and approval, but this was the one situation he was going to have to figure out without his teacher's help.

Without Gai-sensei's help, but not alone.

Gaara was a genius who’d conquered himself and Suna’s fears to become Kazekage, and Lee was a splendid beast of hard work and determination who'd become a Jounin despite not knowing any Genjutsu or Ninjutsu; a couple of impossible feats between the two of them already. Together, they could surely conquer this new challenge. They could do this! Right!

Lee hopped out the window for the second time that day and hurtled off towards the training grounds, suddenly full of energy again.

Chapter Text

The start of Lee's week had been intense, to say the least. He'd been tossed against a rock, scratched and bruised, threatened with sandy death, kissed, tantalized and argued with. He'd had Gaara accept his love and open up to him a bit too. That was almost as traumatic as the rest, in a strange way.

And it was only Wednesday.

Nobody would have blamed Lee for approaching the Kazekage's residence a bit diffidently after all that. Not that Lee did, of course. He strode right through the courtyard and rapped hopefully on the door.

"Gaara? You in?"

Silence.

Just as he was about to knock again, he felt a faint flicker of chakra from inside the house. The Shinobi equivalent of an acknowledgement and an invitation to enter.

Lee tried the door and found it unlocked. He slipped off his sandals in the lobby and hopped up the three small steps into the large reception room. He looked around expectantly, but to his surprise, Gaara wasn't anywhere to be seen. The robe of office was hanging - a bit carelessly - from the knob of a sword hilt, one of the weapons of past leaders decorating the walls of the richly furnished room. No signs of its owner, though. Lee craned his neck to see if Gaara was in the kitchen off to one side, getting some tea or a late lunch. Nobody there either.

"In here."

The quiet words answered the question Lee was about to voice.

Lee had never been in this room before. He looked around with great curiosity. It was barren compared to the reception area. There was only a double bed, a small undecorated cupboard, a long, low writing table shoved into one corner, covered in papers and books, a cushion next to it for kneeling while working, and that was it.

Gaara was on the far side of the bed, sitting in the open window, his back propped against the large sill. He was wearing simple pants and a sleeveless red tunic, a rare informality. The gourd was leaning against the wall beneath the window. Gaara had gathered his knees to his chest, resting his arms against them, his face turned away. He was staring out over Sunagakure. Lee didn't know what Gaara could be watching so intently; he'd just walked through the village, and anybody who had half a brain was hiding indoors from the fierce, early-afternoon sunshine.

Lee studied Gaara's profile for a moment, because on a purely superficial level, Lee enjoyed looking at Gaara. But on another level, he was trying to judge his friend's mood.

Distant, was the first conclusion that popped into Lee's head. Gaara looked like he was wandering the twisted paths deep inside his own mind. But he didn't look tired or in pain. He didn't look like he wanted to talk, either. Beyond that, Lee couldn't guess. He'd seen Gaara like this before. He normally left his friend alone in these circumstances. But Gaara had invited him in. And Lee had the feeling, which he could in no way justify with any logical observation, that even now Gaara was trying to let him come closer.

Lee had spent hours in Gaara's silent company before in the desert, on missions or at night in his office when the Kazekage didn't feel like talking. Lee didn't mind getting monosyllabic answers or none at all for awhile, especially if it meant he could continue to admire the view. Maybe his presence here would give Gaara the impetus to stop brooding.

"Did you get a good rest yesterday after I walked you home?" Lee asked politely.

After a few seconds, Gaara's chin dipped a fraction.

"Good! I slept over twelve hours last night myself. But I did manage to get some good work done during the day while trying to stay awake. I finished re-sorting those reports, and I've been working with Sanada on correlating information." Sanada had been nice and ignored Lee's frequent yawns. "A summary should be on your desk sometime tomorrow."

Gaara nodded faintly, still without looking around.

Lee hesitated between the cushion in the corner and the bed. The bed would be better, if Gaara didn't mind. It was only a few feet away from the window and Lee could sit down facing his friend and talk without craning his neck.

He sat down, and then got to his feet again. He turned, prodded the bed suspiciously, and sat back down gingerly. He shifted his weight around and grimaced.

"Good God, Gaara, do you sleep on this?"

His antics had at least drawn some of Gaara's attention. Green eyes were studying him incuriously.

"No," Gaara finally answered, seeming a bit more focused.

"Good for you. I'd rather sleep on the floor." The thin mattress was lumpy and worn even through the sheets. The platform beneath it was slanted in a way that would be a long-term danger to a warrior's posture, and the legs creaked.

"But you can sleep these days. You told me so. Right?" Lee prodded the mattress. "I mean, when you said you needed to rest yesterday, I assumed-"

"I sleep." Gaara was still looking at him, and Lee thought the whole question had at least had the merit of distracting him. "My mental resistance has increased over the years. I can sleep for two or three hours without ill effects."

"Oh. And you can do that on this bed?" Lee asked incredulously. He shoved against the ground with his feet and the whole thing wobbled and groaned alarmingly.

"No. I don't lie down. I do it over there." Gaara jerked his chin towards the cushion near the writing desk. "It's an old habit."

"So the bed...?"

"An old one."

"Didn't they give you a better one when you took office?"

"They did. I let Temari have it. She has back problems."

"I see."

Gaara looked at the scenery again and Lee went back to admiring his own view: Gaara's profile cut out against the desert sky, the curve of the neck, the arms in the sleeveless tunic. It was a very fine view, in Lee's opinion.

"I thought you'd be back in your office today," he finally said, testing the ground. "But your aide told me you'd gone home before noon."

At least that got a reaction, however small. Gaara's lips tightened.

"Yes. I've had fifteen hours of work a day ever since I took the position of Kazekage, but not this morning."

"What do you mean?" Lee asked, perplexed by Gaara's unusually bitter tone.

"I've scared them," said Gaara, still looking out over the rooftops of the village that fell away from the elevation on which the Kazekage's residence was perched. "Considering my behaviour these past few days, I can't say I blame them. There was a small conspiracy of paperwork shuffling around me this morning, aimed at leaving me with nothing to do today but go home and rest some more."

"I'm sure they meant well," Lee ventured. Inwardly, he groaned. Yes, the admin staff had had the best of intentions, he was sure. Gaara had certainly needed a break yesterday. But now he needed something to keep him busy. An insomniac sleeping two to three hours in twenty-four had more than enough time with only his own thoughts for company. Giving him yet more time to brood wasn't going to help.

Lee got to his feet with a decisive gesture.

"It you want to reassure them, you need to work at it! Skulking around here isn't the way to do it. And it's not improving your mood."

That got him a faint scowl. Lee felt encouraged, as it was more of a response than he'd expected if Gaara was really plunged deep into one of his dark silences.

"I know!" Lee's fist punched the air with enthusiasm as the sudden idea hit him. "Let's go spar! That'll cheer you up!"

The scowl turned into an outright stare, as if Lee were some strange new animal in an exotic zoo.

"You think a tiring, sweaty, dangerous activity will cheer me up."

"It always cheers me up," Lee pointed out.

"Yes, that's why most of this village thinks you're as crazy as I am," Gaara said, turning back towards Sunagakure's skyline.

"You're exaggerating. Nobody here thinks you're crazy. Or me, for that matter. Come on, Gaara, it's a good idea. It'll show people you're okay, it'll cheer you up, and training is never a waste of time. Let's go!"

"No."

"Now don't be pig-headed."

Gaara didn't even dignify that last statement with an answer.

"Fine," Lee said, switching tactics. "Give me three good reasons why you'd rather hide in here instead of going out and getting some exercise with me."

Gaara didn't look away from Suna's streets, but he raised his right hand, two fingers and a thumb extended.

"If there's a way of showing my people that I've not gone completely insane, it won't be by fighting with you during the hottest part of the day," he said, the thumb folding back into his palm.

"Oh, but they know-"

A finger folded back methodically. "I don't want to strike at you with Sand again, even if it's just for a match."

"What?! But-"

"And you," Gaara concluded, still without looking around but pointing the last finger at Lee, "were supposed to take it easy for another two weeks. At least."

Lee's mouth stayed open.

"We could just do a simple match? Going slow...?" he finally suggested not very hopefully.

Gaara continued to stare out the window, body still, face unreadable. Lee examined him, then nodded to himself.

There was no reaction behind him when he turned away from the window. No indication that Gaara would care if he left. In a way, it didn't matter if he cared or not. Lee couldn't spend his days second-guessing Gaara. The man was hard to read at the best of times, it would be pointless. More importantly, it would be sort of dishonest, in a way; a bit like manipulation.

So it wasn't worry over what Gaara might think, but purely Lee's own decision to sit back down on the bed instead of leaving. If his friend wanted him to go, Gaara would have no compunction in saying so. Until then, Lee was going to stay right where he was because he wanted to.

He curled his bare feet beneath him and straightened his back, after twitching around a bit to get comfortable. One of his green uniforms was in the wash, the other needed a good bit of work with needle and thread after Gaara's flare-up in the desert oasis two nights back, and the third one had been ruined by inconsiderate Sound ninjas. Gai-sensei had promised to send him replacements as soon as he could get them manufactured, but Lee was reduced to standard Leaf Jounin wear in the meantime, and it just wasn't the same thing.

"I've finished my work for this afternoon too. They're also keeping my load light during convalescence," he told Gaara while settling down. "I'll do a few chi exercises, then I'll go train when it gets cooler. I'd love your company if you're up for it. It'll make you feel a lot better."

He took one last peek at Gaara's profile before closing his eyes. It wouldn't help him empty his mind for meditation, but it was such a pleasant distraction to battle against.

Lee concentrated on his breathing, on the slow movement of chakra and chi, and started to undo the strands of worry that were anchoring him to the material plane. Gaara would be okay. He was strong. Hell, he was practically back to normal already, just a bit more somber and morose than usual. He-

Huh...?

Lee's brow creased. He conscientiously smoothed it and made another stab at serenity, but his mind balked again. There was something odd trying to get his attention. Not a threat though...a presence...?

Lee opened his eyes instinctively to find Gaara examining him from a few inches away, leaning over the bed without touching it.

"Waaah!" Lee lunged away instinctively, which is not something one should do from that stance. He ended up in a tangle of limbs on the creaking bed. "Gaara! How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me like that! Are you trying to get punched?!"

Gaara observed him as Lee unknotted himself. His face was unreadable. Then he kneeled on the bed and put a hand on the mattress near Lee's thigh. Lee blinked at him owlishly. Gaara crawled onto the bed and sat down opposite Lee, who'd managed to get himself straightened out.

"...Did you want to meditate with me?" From the way Lee's heart rate had begun to accelerate, he already knew that wasn't what Gaara wanted.

Gaara leaned forwards, eyes open, looking straight into Lee's. Lee opened his mouth to say something- though he would never know what it was he had been about to say. Lips brushed his, then Gaara sat back a fraction, his face two inches away.

It wasn't a torrid kiss by quite a long stretch. But neither was it the innocent and comforting gesture they'd shared yesterday morning.

"Um..."

Gaara stayed where he was. He appeared to be waiting.

"I guess...if this makes you feel better," Lee heard himself say.

That was apparently what Gaara had been waiting for, because the last word was muffled.

Lee tilted his head and made it more of a kiss. This was okay. They'd done this before. Just a kiss. Gaara probably wanted a bit of- of nearly innocent comfort...and Lee knew that, even if he wouldn't have dared to ask for it, he'd been longing for this too.

Gaara's fingers were on Lee's upper arms, warm even through his shirt. Lee himself didn't know where to put his hands. He fumbled a bit, then settled them lightly on Gaara's ribs.

A breeze rustled the curtain near the open window. The bed creaked as their weight shifted slightly. Gaara's mouth brushed Lee's cheek, his chin, then his lips again. Lee didn't let him move on, pressing their mouths together more fully again.

This wasn't like yesterday's hug; this was soft, sensual, a shared caress. But it was also a peaceful moment. They were together, safe and sound, and Lee felt...warm. Valued. Protective and protected. He'd touched this briefly before when he'd gone to sleep in Gaara's arms after ripping open seven Gates to protect the person he loved. But this time nobody was actively trying to kill them and Lee didn't have multiple injuries to contend with. It made the whole thing entirely better.

Breath brushed his cheek, slow, steady and appeasing. Red hair tickled his forehead. Lee caught a flash of green pupil when he took a quick peek through his lashes; Gaara's eyes were open. Lee preferred to keep his closed. It enhanced the other senses, highlighted Gaara's breathing, the soft creaking of the bed, the small shifts in the muscles of Gaara's back and sides as Lee's arms crept around his waist.

Gaara kissed the corner of Lee's mouth, then he rubbed his face against Lee's cheek like a cat and put his arms around Lee's shoulders. Lee breathed in and out slowly, wrapping his arms more tightly around his friend. Boyfriend, Lee corrected himself with soft wonder. It had been hovering at the back of his mind for a couple of days now, but this suddenly made it real. His body was tingling all over, but it was a comforting, undemanding feeling, it just warmed him and left him feeling happy.

That feeling of peace had expanded around them like a bubble. In that little space and in that short moment in time, there were no more questions, problems, doubts, underlying mania and misbehaving Sand.

"Closer," Gaara said softly.

"Hm?" Lee blinked. He'd buried his face against Gaara's shoulder. The red tunic smelled like cupboards and Gaara's skin. Lee let his fingers drift up Gaara's spine, rumpling the cloth. He felt Gaara shiver against him. They were pressed closer together now. Lee's fingers pawed at the cloth again, the gesture unconscious. He only realized he was doing it when Gaara fell still.

Gaara leaned back, rolled over onto his knees, increasing the distance between them. Despite the blazing hot sunshine outside, Lee suddenly felt cold as Gaara's hands left him. But Gaara didn't say anything. His fingers dropped to the edges of his tunic and he pulled it off over his head.

In the very far reaches of his brain, Lee remembered that sudden and extreme temperature changes were bad for muscles and joints. The way he'd gone from feeling cold to feeling like he was about to fry couldn't be good for his health. The way it seemed to be independent of the actual temperature in the room was also of concern.

He stared wide-eyed at Gaara's bared chest. The skin was as smooth and pristine as he remembered. Ah no, not quite. Lee felt an odd tingly feeling in his stomach, a queer mix of amusement and fierce protectiveness, as his eyes traced faint tan lines on Gaara's neck and arms; a little memento of their time in the desert. A small patch near Gaara's shoulder had peeled.

Lee licked his lips. That tingly feeling was growing at an alarming rate, turning into breathless excitement. He'd seen Gaara's body before, and then he'd dreamt about it quite a lot. But now...

But now, presumably, he was allowed to touch.

His hands hesitated an inch away from skin the colour of wild almonds. His fingers looked bigger than they usually did and the bandages binding them felt tighter. Gaara glanced down, then he moved forward so that Lee's fingers slid all by themselves across his chest.

He watched Lee's fingers trail over his skin for a few moments, eyes serious and attentive. Then he looked up slowly. He leaned forward and touched the buttons on Lee's shirt with something close to a frown of concentration. Then his fingers went to work at Lee's collar.

Lee hadn't expected that, but he couldn't really dwell on it. In fact Gaara could have proceeded to cut Lee into cat-food at that point and Lee wouldn't have done anything more than stare, entranced, at his own fingers caressing smooth skin. It slid beneath his hands, warmer than he'd thought. Why had he assumed that Gaara's skin would feel cool...? There were no scars to catch Lee's calloused fingertips, just the occasional dip between lean muscles.

Lee's eyes were beginning to prickle. Sooner or later he was going to have to blink. But if he blinked, he might miss something.

Then Gaara leaned forward and pulled Lee's shirt down his arms, removing the Jounin vest at the same time, and that broke Lee's odd trance.

Lee dragged the shirt and vest off his forearms and bandaged hands to free them, wishing distractedly that he'd put on a t-shirt beneath his shirt today- or at least taken a shower this morning, water-restrictions be damned. His arms crossed diffidently over his chest. But all of Gaara's attention seemed to be on the large, red scar across Lee's chest, the skin still shiny and fragile.

Some of Lee's awkwardness faded beneath the clinical scrutiny, and he glanced down at the long gash. Sakura-san's medicine was wonderful when it came to getting a wounded Shinobi back on his feet quickly, but man did it leave one hell of a mess. Lee was stretching the skin and rubbing liniment in it three times daily so that the epidermis and muscles regained some elasticity and would not hamper him in his wider arm movements.

Gaara put one finger on the scar, the sensation numbed by the accumulated tissue. Lee didn't really register the contact as anything other than analytical until Gaara's finger wandered and started tracing older wounds.

Lee swallowed and tried not to tense or hunch in on himself. Gaara seemed absorbed by the faint speckles of dark hair peppering Lee's chest, crisscrossed into patches by faint scars. He traced the latter as if he was following a map. The gesture was both innocently curious yet still sensual, making Lee shiver.

"You've seen me bare-chested before," he mumbled. It was sort of an objection to the intensity of Gaara's scrutiny. "Twice. More than that, actually, I used to spar without my top sometimes." Before he'd had to compare his worn weapon of a body to Gaara's. After that, he'd kept his shirt on.

"Hmm. This time it's different." Most of Gaara's attention was on what his fingers were doing. "This time it's for me."

Lee stared at him, once more caught between charmed pleasure and that wobble of disbelief that he could be the object of such fascination and attention.

"But you seem to mind," Gaara said, finally looking up slowly. "Why? You don't seem to dislike looking at me, or touching me."

Definitely not! Er, what was the question? Lee blinked, and realized he'd raised his arms around himself again. Gaara's hand was flat on his scarred chest near the shoulder. He could probably feel the tension in Lee's frame.

Why did he mind? Lee knew he had a body that many Shinobi would envy from a purely physical standpoint. But that wasn't what mattered when it came to attraction. What he had to offer in a relationship was his strength, his faith, his spirit, his romantic desire to protect his most important person- he didn't think it was really looks, even though he tried his best to resemble his handsome teacher. He was a thing of battles; you'd have to break down the word 'romantic' and reconstruct it from the ground up to be able to apply it to Lee's scarred body instead of his heart.

More perniciously, there were other words haunting him...Rather a plain child, isn't he? Clumsy drop-out. Fish-eyes! Loser. Freaky eyebrows. Ugh, those eyelashes creep me out!

"It's nothing," Lee said as he listened to those voices from his childhood. "It's stupid."

And it was. Because if there was one thing Gaara was not, it was superficial.

Lee nodded apologetically at Gaara's intent, questioning expression. "Don't worry about it, please. It's just, I've had people make fun of my looks, so I guess it's made me-"

"Who?" Gaara asked, eyes narrowing to dangerous slits.

Lee's internal alarm blared. That 'Who?' wasn't an offer to listen to Lee's old woes. That 'Who?' wanted a name, an address and an estimate of the target's defenses. Replacing the faint memory of jeers was an eerily precise echo of Gaara's voice, six years ago, saying 'If the one you admire is insulted, you become enraged'.

"Oh, just some kids when I was growing up- can't even remember who now-" Lee said in a voice he tried to keep from being too high-pitched and jittery even as he did a seated hop that put their bare chests in close proximity. That would hopefully distract Gaara from whatever it was he was thinking about.

Gaara's attention focused back on what his fingers were doing. His thumb stroked an old puncture wound on Lee's left biceps, picked up during a minor battle in Snow Country. He muttered something about 'don't see what's to make fun of'.

Lee tilted his head. "What did you s-hah?!"

Gaara had shoved him without any warning onto his back, his eyes as intent as his fingers.

"The scar tissue you've accumulated is displeasing. You need to work on your defense. But your body...particularly your shoulders and arms...you have strength, power and endurance. You can actually challenge me. When you move, it draws and holds the eye like a well-balanced weapon. I fail to see what's amusing about that."

It was nice to know that in a world where Lee didn't match the canons of beauty - or smashed them repeatedly, according to some - Gaara thought he looked okay. Granted, it was in the context of comparison to something lethal that killed admirably well, but that was probably Gaara's only point of reference anyway.

I guess I lucked out then, Lee thought, fingers tentatively caressing Gaara's cheek, brushing the dark rim beneath one eye with his thumb as if hoping it might come off.

He gently pulled Gaara down for a kiss, but after their lips brushed Gaara leaned back and returned to exploring Lee's chest. It was terribly, wonderfully distracting. But Lee's fingers had their own mission: to find some flaw or imperfection in Gaara's skin. Despite a very thorough investigation, the pads of his fingers only touched smoothness. Sasuke had injured Gaara in the sternocostal region during the Chuunin trials. Lee repeatedly tested and caressed the area, but he couldn't find any trace of a scar. The way Gaara's muscles tensed, shivered and flowed beneath his fingers was terribly distracting though, he might very well have missed it. Better check again.

Gaara's lips brushed his. "Closer," he said against Lee's mouth.

Lee's mind was somewhere else entirely by then, drunk on Gaara's weight against his chest, the feel of Gaara's fingers, the red of his hair...It wasn't Gaara's request he responded to, it was the brief flicker of Gaara's tongue when he'd said Closer, tantalizingly near.

He pushed Gaara away gently, following him and rolling over so he was the one leaning over Gaara. The bed, against which they were lying sideways, squawked under the shift of their weight like a prim, elderly aunt who had caught them doing something reprehensible. Neither of them really noticed.

Lee's mouth was open when he kissed Gaara again. A jumbled memory of their first kiss...wondering how far the Sand Armour went...Lee's tongue explored the inner edges of Gaara's lips once again. Gaara didn't move, either in alarm or participation. His lips were slightly parted. On the second swipe, Lee's tongue touched teeth.

Gaara opened his mouth by degrees. Lee let his tongue drift further.

The temperature in the room was doing funny things again. Especially when Gaara's tongue finally licked his.

Closer...

Lee might have initiated the next move, but it was like sparring with a friend; a strike expected a parry, led to it. Both of them knew how the other moved by now. So Lee was the one to roll over and cover Gaara's body with his own, but Gaara's hands on his hips steadied him, encouraged him.

Lee's legs and hips flexed, moving against the man beneath him. A shift in stance and his hard-on slid along Gaara's thigh. Pleasure, hot and sudden, made him blink and jerk his body again.

Gaara's left hand had seized up around his hip. Then it slid lower. Lee moved again. It was quite without conscious input from his brain.

Oh...

Even with his eyes closed, Lee could feel Gaara's gaze fastened on his face, watchful and curious. Fingers on Lee's hip pressed him forward.

Lee moved again under the silent order.

Gaara didn't make a sound, but his mouth was touching Lee's cheek, and the Jounin felt a sudden small catch in the flow of breath against his skin.

Lee's senses slowly spiraled out from the pleasure twisting his gut into hot and happy knots. He could feel Gaara's body beneath his, warm and close. Their bare chests touched. Lee was putting his weight on his forearms, but he could reach out with one hand bent at the wrist to touch the red hair and comb a finger through the rough locks. He could feel Gaara's fingers on his body, pressing him forward blindly.

And he could feel...Lee's hip was against the juncture of Gaara's legs, barely touching, but he could still feel a distinct hardness there.

...That certainly answered a few questions about Gaara's sexuality. He had one, for starters.

Okay, Lee thought with determination and some regret, I think we better stop here. This is already waaaaay past 'just a kiss'.

"Wait," he said, lifting his head, the word breathless.

The fingers on Lee's hip became borderline pressuring. Gaara's eyes narrowed. Despite the aching throb between his legs and the rather embarrassing position - now that his brain was working again...despite this, Lee couldn't help a rueful grin. He'd seen that look before. It was one reserved exclusively for Lee. It boiled down to 'I can't believe you're not doing what I'm telling you to do'.

Lee shook his head to clear it. Strands of his hair stuck to his forehead. The room's temperature had gone completely loopy ever since Lee had rolled over onto Gaara and started moving like that.

"We should stop-"

Then he was blinking up at tousled red hair and diamond-shaped eyes.

Lee said "Hey!" long after the fact in Shinobi time measurement. It was embarrassing because in a purely physical match, Lee was both faster and stronger, and Gaara shouldn't have been able to blindside him and roll him over like that. Though of course Lee had been rather distracted.

They stared at each other. Lee had scrambled up onto his elbows. Gaara's hands were plunged into the mattress on either side of him. Their faces were a few inches apart.

Lee felt his scalp prickle. He knew what Gaara was going to say before he said it.

"I don't want to stop."

Lee swallowed. "But we can't-"

"I want this."

The bed creaked as Gaara's weight shifted. When he spoke, it was with the slow, steady tone with which he delineated battle plans.

"I've tried to think it through. But I don't understand what you're feeling. I don't understand what I'm feeling. It's intense and confusing and- Touching is a part of it though, and I think I can understand that."

Lee opened his mouth- Gaara cut him off with a curt gesture.

"I know it's not all. You said that already and I figured out that much by myself." There were traces of anger and frustration in Gaara's voice. Lee's instincts told him to hold his tongue and listen. "If you just wanted sex, you'd go to the house near the west wall and pay for it."

Lee made a very undignified noise that would come back to haunt him later. "You know about that?"

Gaara had been about to continue; his eyes narrowed in irritation at the obviously bone-headed interruption. "The bordello? Of course I know about it. It's controlled by the village for security reasons. Same as Konoha's."

Lee winced. As a Jounin, he did know that, but he'd never connected that small fact with Gaara actually knowing about it...Emotionally, Gaara was a wasteland, but that didn't make him ignorant of the way things worked or of what might control and motivate people. As a Shinobi and a leader, he couldn't afford that.

"You don't go there-" Gaara started to say.

"Of course I don't!"

A pause, that informed Lee that that had been a statement, not a question.

"You don't go there. You are here with me. You want to have sex with me."

Another pause.

"Don't you?"

Good question.

Lee suddenly knew what he wanted, and why he'd felt so torn over this. What he really wanted was for Gaara to throw himself into his arms, declare his everlasting love for Lee, promise to be his always, and then they could most definitely have sex.

But that was never going to happen. Never exactly like that. If Lee couldn't see that, then he wasn't looking at the real Gaara; he wasn't accepting Gaara for everything he truly was.

And Lee couldn't say he didn't want to have sex at all. Because that would be almost entirely a lie. It would be denying that queer mix of love, lust and longing that made him reach out to Gaara in the first place. He still had a hard-on, for all this conversation was as pleasant as an ice-cold shower. Deeper than the physical need, Lee simply wanted Gaara to touch him gently and help him forget the cuts and the bruises. He understood Gaara's first violent reactions and he accepted them and he still loved him, but he wasn't about to claim that it had been particularly pleasant.

Lee took a deep breath. He'd promised Gaara he wouldn't lie to him.

"I do want to," he said, trying not to choke, "But I think it's too soon to go all the way. To soon for us to have sex." Lee forced himself to spell out, because he wasn't sure Gaara would understand what he was getting at otherwise, and he had to be clear.

Gaara nodded. Lee stared at him for a stunned second before realizing that yes, Gaara visibly agreed with him. Relief made his arms wobble and he slumped back onto the bed.

"Good! Good, I'm glad you see that. So, when you said you didn't want to stop, you meant...?"

Gaara sat back on his heels, his body warm against Lee's thighs, and the green eyes rested thoughtfully on the bulge in the Jounin's slacks which still hadn't gone down, damn Hormones...

And Lee suddenly had a really good idea of what Gaara had in mind. Probably something else he'd seen when he was six, spying on the villagers, or else he'd figured it out based on the vague explanations on male physiology and arousal that he'd received years ago.

Lee's flinch was strong enough to cause the bed to echo it with a sharp, shocked squeak. It stopped Gaara from actually saying it out loud, which was good because Lee didn't need any mental scars to match his physical ones.

Lee opened his mouth to say no, no way, what the hell are you thinking- and by the way that bloody well does count as sex-

"Please?" Gaara whispered.

Lee stared at him, mouth still open.

"I want something I can understand, even if it's only a part of what's between us." Gaara's voice was barely audible. "I want something I can share with you. I want to prove to myself that I can do this, that I can touch you, that there's some way I can reach out to you where you won't end up injured-...Please?"

There wasn't the faintest trace of embarrassment in Gaara's eyes. Why would there be? He'd never picked up the social conditioning most others had acquired by the time they were eight. The little of propriety and manners he knew, he pretty much ignored; he barely remembered to say please and thank you most times. He only remembered them when it concerned something conditional, something he needed and that was completely outside of his control to obtain, something important...

It probably wasn't the act itself he was reaching for. The reason he wanted this was not something a 'normal' person would understand. It would be a product of his twisted past which would make sense only to one who'd shared it. From the way he was looking at Lee, a hint of vulnerability disappearing as his expression changed and grew hard and withdrawn, he did not expect Lee to understand and he did not expect Lee to agree.

"Okay," Lee said.

Lee's brain froze from the sheer audacity of that single word. But he felt strangely calm about it. He loved Gaara deeply. The more he discovered the inner landscape that Gaara had scornfully dismissed yesterday as abnormal, the more Lee loved him. Gaara said he wanted this, and if Lee was going to doubt Gaara's honesty, his ability to reach out for himself or to know his own limits, then they were doomed before they even started. If this turned out to be a mistake - and Lee's sense of what was Right and what was Wrong and what was Proper was insisting it probably was - then they'd face that mistake together and sort it out later.

Gaara was staring at him.

"You understand?" There was a thread of hope in his voice, something Lee hadn't heard from his friend very often.

"A bit. I think," Lee answered honestly. He'd seen Gaara at his best and at his worst and at various stages in between, he knew his way around a part of the inner maze...he couldn't claim to fully understand why Gaara wanted this, but he could feel the outline of those reasons in his mind.

Gaara nodded, accepting that as one accepts a compromise. He shifted back a couple of inches and let his hand rest squarely on Lee's erection through the cloth of his pants.

"I've never masturbated. I know how it works in theory, but you might have to show me what to do. I don't want to hurt you."

There was a short silence. Lee stared at him, eyes even rounder than usual. All he felt was astonished. Though he expected embarrassment to rise up at any moment and possibly make his head implode.

But no. The only thing he felt was his heart tripping in his chest, the barely-there pressure of Gaara's hand on the hard-on which was getting uppity again, and a faint sense of wonder at Gaara's usual ability to be completely and utterly direct. Lee's incredulous eyes went from the hand resting against his groin to the faint frown that was starting to draw a line between Gaara's eyes.

"You've done this before. Right? You do know how it's done?" Gaara asked.

"Huh...yes." Lee's voice sounded like it was coming over a great distance. Okay. Now. Surely now he was going to just curl up and die.

He felt only that strange calm still, like a quiet white space where his usual mess of confusing feelings were supposed to be. In that strange clarity, he noted the way Gaara was looking at him again with renewed trust and expectancy. Still no curdling embarrassment, guilt, doubt, mortification-

"I think I sprained something," Lee mumbled.

Gaara's hand was withdrawn sharply. "What?"

"Nothing..." Lee's mouth twitched into a crooked smile. He had a feeling this blissful state of affairs was only temporary, but right now, all he could see was the crazy humor of the situation. And Gaara.

Gaara's approach to sex was about as subtle as his Desert Coffin, but what did Lee expect? More importantly, what did he want? Would he want Gaara to pick up all the baggage Lee had had to struggle with?

Lee reached up, took Gaara's face gently in his hands and pulled him down. The kiss that followed was the most erotic they'd shared yet. Lee, still in that state of grace, was actually a bit impressed with himself.

He didn't say anything; he didn't need to. A touch, a nudge in the right direction...Gaara settled back on Lee. He was moving slowly but without hesitation, imitating what Lee had done earlier, Lee's hands guiding him.

Just this to start with, Lee decided. They'd done this a few minutes ago, it would be familiar to Gaara, and to Lee as well. Lee still felt oddly composed about all this, but this was new to him too. And he didn't want to screw this up. Just this to start with...bodies touching. Then when the time felt right, he was going to have to show Gaara exactly what to do with that hand.

Gaara's mouth left Lee's and he shifted a bit, trying to get a balance that didn't involve letting his whole weight rest on the Jounin. The bed muttered and complained and was steadfastly ignored by both young men.

Gaara's movements happened to press his thigh against Lee's erection a bit harder than Lee had anticipated initially. The surprise was unpleasant, but the feeling of almost-too-much-but-not-quite pressure was shockingly good, it made him jerk and writhe, and that felt even better so he did it again.

Gaara tried to straighten up and put a few inches between them. Lee bit his lip and forced himself to relax. He'd been gripping Gaara's shoulders.

Green eyes studied him attentively, and then Gaara moved the same way again, not quite as hard but completely deliberately. He was apparently a very fast learner. It probably came with the whole genius territory. Lee's hips jerked again. And again.

Lee's knee bent, giving him better purchase, rubbing their bodies together even more and getting the angle absolutely right, spot on. Gaara's thigh was rubbing against a seam that was pressing and pulling- just right...

Lee was going to be so embarrassed by all this later...But right now it felt good. Even better than when he did this himself because now he had Gaara in his arms and Gaara's breath on his throat and Gaara's weight on his body-

Gaara was staring down at him. Lee screwed his eyes shut, because that was a bit too-...too much. Gaara wasn't moving more than a slight flex, just enough to nudge Lee higher as Lee moved against him.

The bed muttered as Gaara shifted his weight onto one hand. Fingers brushed aside the hair that had fallen into Lee's eyes when he'd tossed his head back. They smoothed it away, cupped his cheek. Gaara's mouth touched his, but Lee was breathing too heavily to return the kiss. Just- just right-

Lee's hands were hard on Gaara's body, stopping him from moving altogether as Lee arched against him. He hoped he wasn't gripping too hard- he would never hurt Gaara, but he shouldn't alarm him either, that would be bad, though right this instant Lee couldn't remember why.

It wasn't just the last few minutes. It was almost half a year of hidden longing and desires that suddenly came violently and unexpectedly into focus. Gaara's weight was solid and real in Lee's arms and against his body, his friend- this was Gaara-Gaara, his most important person-

Fingers caught in Lee's hair. Gaara's breath was short and irregular against Lee's mouth. His friend-Gaara- his friend- boyfriend- lover-

Lee tightened his grip, pressing Gaara's body against his, arching his back and hips as a crescendo of pleasure hit him.

He ended up with his face pressed against the cream-colored skin of Gaara's shoulder, panting.

Wow.

Oh.

Uh....

He released his hold, arms suddenly limp, and fetched up against the thin mattress, staring up at Gaara. Ragged breaths peppered the space between them. Gaara was looking down at him, lips slightly parted, eyes wide and hungry as he watched Lee.

Lee opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. He probably looked like a fish.

"I...um, I..."

"Yes, I think you did," Gaara murmured, the corners of his mouth curling upwards.

The tip of his tongue flickered over his lips.

"You enjoyed it." The green eyes were still huge and fervent as they traced Lee's features. Gaara's fingers relinquished their hold in Lee's hair and brushed his cheek, as if he had to touch to allow himself to believe this was real. "You enjoyed it. I made you feel that."

Lee had a spreading spot in the front of his pants which was going from body-warmth to tepid, his face was going to be red for a week and he had the feeling that Doubt and Embarrassment were going to come back at a gallop soon. He was rather worried that things might get awkward or complicated between them now. But with Gaara staring at him like that, Lee couldn't begin to regret it.

Gaara kissed him. It was suddenly hard, savage and a bit uncertain, as if he wasn't quite sure what was supposed to happen now.

Lee broke the kiss first, still out of breath. He knew what was supposed to happen now.

"Um...."

Lee put his hands on Gaara's hips and nudged him away. Gaara obeyed the silent command without hesitation, rolling onto his side. Lee looped his arms around Gaara's waist, pulling them closer together into a loose hug. Gaara's eyes were near his now, looking at him steadily.

"Gaara...would you...is it okay if I..."

Lee struggled desperately as those cool green eyes watched him without any signs of embarrassment. Or comprehension. The Jounin stifled a groan. Lee had always been a well-mannered young man with a very proper form of speech. And there was just no polite or formal way of asking someone if you could jerk them off.

Lee touched the smooth skin of Gaara's chest. He still couldn't quite believe that he was finally allowed to do that and Gaara didn't mind, even enjoyed it- Lee didn't let himself get too distracted. His fingers brushed a nipple the color of sandstone, then they drifted downwards. They touched Gaara's beltline, and a grip like a vice fastened on Lee's wrist.

"No."

Lee glanced up. The young man who'd opened up a bit, who'd expressed a rare desire, who'd wanted to share something with Lee and even said please, was gone. There was the familiar control back in its place, hard and uncompromising.

Lee didn't feel surprised in the slightest. Gaara had wanted to do this for Lee, he'd wanted to touch something, maybe make this 'love' thing between them a bit more tangible. The need had pushed him past his usual reserve and caution. But he'd never intended it to be mutual.

The grip on his wrist was almost painful, but Lee didn't pay it any attention. He reached up slowly with his free hand, the movement a bit cramped in the short space between them. His fingers were tender and undemanding as they brushed Gaara's cheek.

"It's your choice. You don't have to if you don't want to. But...to tell you the truth, I'd like...to...I guess this is what you meant earlier when you agreed it was too soon to have sex, as in together. That was probably true, but I still let you do- no, that's not what I mean. But you see, I guess that's why I want it, because it's together," Lee concluded pretty much incoherently.

Gaara's face was a mask, unreadable even to Lee. If he knew how hard it had been for Lee to ask for this, he gave no indication.

It felt as pleasant as poison, but Lee knew he had to ask for what he wanted because Gaara would not be able to figure it out otherwise. What Lee wanted was completely confused and it scared him a bit; but want it he did, and in a way, Gaara had the right to know that. That 'getting close' and 'opening up' stuff cut both ways.

Then again, Lee had said he'd never ask Gaara for more than he could give. This was getting too complicated, it was making his head hurt. Lee bit his lip and looked away.

"Don't worry about it," he said, trying to smile reassuringly. "This is really new for you. I said I wouldn't push you too fast. Maybe think about it for, um, next time?"

He tried to draw his hand away. The fingers wouldn't release him. Lee glanced from the grip reddening the skin of his wrist to Gaara's face, still unreadable.

Then Gaara nodded once and released his hold.

It had only been a nod, but somehow Lee knew exactly what Gaara had agreed to as if he'd spelled it out. His heart tripped a beat, then sounded off loudly in his ears.

He focused on Gaara's eyes. "Are you sure?"

Gaara held his gaze. "If I tell you to stop, you will stop." It wasn't a plea, it wasn't a threat, it was a statement of fact.

Lee nodded seriously. That went without saying.

He took a deep breath, as discreetly as he could. Then he crawled to Gaara's other side, so he could use his right hand. Gaara's eyes followed him. Lee touched his bandaged palm to his lover's cheek, a simple gesture to reassure both Gaara and himself.

Lee removed his hand from Gaara's cheek and stroked the smooth chest, still marveling at the fact that he was even allowed to do this much. He felt Gaara relax infinitesimally at the caress, but he was still pretty tense. Lee's fingers moved slowly down to Gaara's pants. Gaara didn't say anything, his eyes never leaving Lee's face. Lee was completely unable to read him, which meant Gaara was tightly controlled.

Gaara didn't twitch when Lee's fingers brushed the hardness just below his low-slung beltline. In fact it was Lee who flinched slightly, nerves twanging. He turned to watch what his hand was doing. He wanted to make sure he was doing it right, and it was easier than facing that direct stare.

His fingers smoothed the skin on Gaara's abs, slipped beneath the cloth, touched the tip of Gaara's erection. His eyes were drawn to what his fingers were doing and his blink reflex was fried again.

Gaara's breath hitched. Despite all his control, his hips twitched ever so slightly into Lee's movements, and Lee suddenly remembered just why he was doing this.

Gaara's erection was clearly outlined against his pants. They were pretty tight- Lee thought that looked rather uncomfortable, and realized his fingers were already feeling at the buttons on the heel of that half-formulated thought. He fumbled, and then caught himself. You either do this or you don't, he told himself sternly. There was no place for half-measures in a Shinobi's life.

He leaned back and removed his hand. There was an increase of tension from Gaara, but he didn't say anything or make a move. Lee lifted his hand to his face and jerked at the knot of his bandages with his teeth- then he gave up and, with his other fingers, ripped right through the tough bands all the way down to his wrist with a strength he normally didn't use for anything mundane. Gaara watched him but didn't comment.

Lee's bare hand caressed the hard belly and then worked at the fastening of the pants. He kissed Gaara again before he turned his head to see what his fingers were doing.

Gaara was strangely on edge, even more than Lee expected him to be. Lee wanted to stop and ask him what was wrong, but he had the feeling Gaara would have already told him if he was ever going to. Maybe Gaara was just conscious, as a good Shinobi should be, that Lee could kill him or cripple him in three different ways in this position. Lee was having a hard time forgetting that himself. He hadn't felt this clumsy and inexperienced since his school days.

Lee knew without looking that the gourd was behind him, leaning against the wall beneath the window only a few feet away. He was always very aware of the Sand's location and state these days. It was a good indicator of Gaara's more hazardous moods, and if there were any danger to Lee it would come from there first. A quick glance showed him that it was still corked and quiescent, but now was not the time to accidentally scratch Gaara on the- well, anywhere delicate, really.

Lee pushed back layers of cloth which kept trying to spring up again. He could just scoot down and tug Gaara's pants off, but that felt like they were going too far (though that begged the question of just where he was drawing the line, considering what had happened before and what his fingers were doing right now).

Gaara slowly moved. Just an inch, pushing back with his arms and arching his back. The movement dragged his pants back under him a bit and gave Lee room to maneuver. Lee decided to take it as a good sign. Gaara had seen Lee come before, he seemed to have a fairly good grasp of what was going on and he was willing to participate.

Short curls the color of beaten copper started just below the beltline. Gaara's erection was not quite full yet, the dry tip easing from the ring of skin. Lee's fingers felt up and down the shaft, more curious than immediately intent on stimulating. His eye measured against the size of his hand automatically. Gaara was a bit bigger than he was. But other than that they weren't any different. Lee's fingers explored down a bit further, and everything was perfectly normal - and why had he even wondered if there would be anything odd? Damn those old Suna gossips and their malicious, superstitious garbage; he'd tried not to pay them any attention, but their scurrilous rumors had apparently lingered at the back of his mind.

His thumb felt gently at the soft skin drawing back from the tip. Gaara's eyes, still fixed on Lee's face, widened a fraction.

Lee looked at his roughened, scarred fingers. He should probably wrap them around-...he'd done this before a few times on himself. True, it was beyond strange, doing this to another man- wanting to do this to another man so very, very badly. If Lee had had any remaining doubts about his sexuality, he could put them to rest now. But at least he knew what to do, so why was he hesitating?

Gaara's tension, the gourd behind him, his own inexperience and the simple knowledge that he could crush stone with that hand were roiling around in his chest, making his breath fast and uneven. He could injure Gaara very, very badly with just a clumsy twitch of his hand - not that he would - but he could. Along with his strength, Lee had developed his control until it was exquisite, but he wasn't in the top of his form right now, what if-

Calm down. He just had to...wrap his fingers (gently!) around Gaara's erection...Or he could-

No. No way could he do that. He didn't know how to do that.

But there was a picture in his mind now, intense and erotic. Something deep inside him responded at a visceral level, and he'd started to move before he could give himself the chance to think it through and shoot it down.

He kissed Gaara on the collarbone, then on the smooth, hairless pectorals and the abdomen. His movements were slow, to not alarm his lover, and dreamlike, to not alarm his brain which was trying to formulate some kind of objection to what he was half planning. Chances were, Gaara had also seen this done before when he was spying on the villagers, so he wouldn't be completely caught off-guard.

Lee slid down to his knees off the side of the bed, kissed Gaara's hipbone and then before he could give himself any time to think about it, he let his lips touch the side of Gaara's erection.

Gaara didn't move. But he was so tightly controlled, Lee wasn't surprised.

Relax. Please let go. Let me do this for you, please...the words were running through Lee's mind, and a small part of him was wondering if he should stop. But stopping now would be admitting defeat, something Lee was notoriously bad at. Besides Gaara would undoubtedly take that the wrong way.

His tongue trailed down the tightening skin of the shaft where his fingers had explored. There was a slight taste, musky, meaty, and a smell at once familiar and different than his own.

Gaara's breath caught in his throat and there was the slightest ripple of muscle beneath Lee's fingers, a twitch upward. Lee's heart felt like it had caught fire.

Closer

He could still hurt Gaara if he wasn't careful, but he would be careful. Very careful. It was even more unnerving now since he didn't really know what he was doing, but he could use Gaara's body as a guide. His left hand had settled on Gaara's stomach, feeling the tension of the muscles there. His right hand was no longer a deadly weapon, it was a sensitive instrument resting on Gaara's hip, measuring the slight twitches of movement. He was listening to the subtle hitch and draw of Gaara's breath. It told him what worked and what didn't.

If Lee listened even more intently, he could hear something else. His heart beating hard. The quick flicker of blood through Gaara's skin near his ear. And words -you in me in you in me in you- running through his mind like a frantic pulse, an endless poem.

Lee let his tongue wander back up towards the head, trailing over the sensitive corona.

Gaara jerked. Lee instantly froze.

His friend's hand was hovering near Lee's cheek. Lee could feel no movement from the Sand behind him and there was no immediate sense of danger. If he doesn't want this, I trust him to let me know without actual bodily harm, Lee decided. He slowly let his mouth cover the tip.

Gaara's breathing went oddly ragged. This probably wasn't a bad sign. Lee's body felt strange; his skin was burning and his stomach was knotting with tension and excitement, and though he was breathing regularly through his nose with all the control of a Taijutsu specialist, he couldn't seem to get enough oxygen into his body. His blood was fizzing and he felt dizzy.

He let his tongue explore. Emboldened, his fingers finally followed, very, very lightly and tenderly. He had a musky taste in his mouth. He had the feeling this wasn't going to last long.

He stopped moving again when Gaara's hand touched his head. Gaara's fingers were tense but extremely gentle. They did not push him away. They touched his hair, his ear, drifted down to his cheek, his lips, felt at the juncture between them. Lee licked at the bumpy shape in his mouth. He was only taking in the tip and an inch or so, and he didn't really feel like doing anything else for now. This was already almost too much for him to assimilate.

The fingers against his cheek were shaking. Lee licked again and sucked slightly.

Gaara's breathing became completely uneven, short, sharp gasps. Lee could feel the skin and flesh tighten further beneath his fingers. He pulled down gently on the shaft, felt it start to throb.

Gaara didn't make a sound. He stopped breathing, his hand whipped away from Lee's face to fist against the covers, and his hips twitched.

Lee felt something - salty, coppery - on his tongue. The unpleasant aftertaste startled him and he instinctively let it dribble from his mouth, getting some on his hand and Gaara's pants accidentally.

He wiped his lips, feeling completely buzzed by what he'd let himself do. He had a feeling that long-delayed embarrassment was going to jump him any second now and then he was probably going to die, but right now he felt a flicker of satisfaction.

That flicker became a brief blaze when he lifted his head. Gaara's body had loosened up and lost all that sense of tight control. His eyes were still open, his lips parted as he tried to catch his breath. He was staring at the ceiling.

"I knew they were lying," he said, his voice rough and a bit uneven.

Lee didn't know what he'd expected Gaara to say at this point, but that wasn't it. "What?"

"My controllers. They were lying when they said that having an orgasm would damage my control. I knew it."

Except that to Lee's ears, practiced at deciphering Gaara's neutral tones, his lover sounded ever so slightly shaky and relieved...

"...Good," Lee said, which was probably lame to the extreme, but he was damned if he knew what else to say.

He straightened up, on his knees next to the bed, and grimaced.

"...Gaara...?" His voice sounded strange to his own ears "Can I use your bathroom, please?"

Gaara's eyes had fastened themselves blindly on the window. But his hand moved and gestured in the direction of a door to the right near the cupboard.

"Thanks." Lee stood up gingerly. He made his way to the door, walking with a tight gait that stopped the wet spot from smearing too badly.

The bathroom was as bare as the bedroom. There were two towels, one folded, the other on the rack, a shower and what was probably the only personal bathtub in Suna. Being Kazekage had its privileges. A toothbrush and paste in a cup next to the sink. A first-aid kit. A brush with a few red hairs caught in the bristles. Soap and shampoo and a black bottle on a small shelf. That was it. No decorations, no gels, no bath salts, no shaving equipment- did Gaara shave? His skin always looked perfectly smooth, but he was eighteen, he should-

Lee leaned heavily against the edge of the sink. He'd just had sex with Gaara (that counted as sex, right?!) and he didn't even know if Gaara shaved or not! For some reason that incongruous detail seemed to epitomize the confusion that had suddenly overcome him, making his legs shake.

Lee rubbed his eyes savagely with the hand that wasn't messy, his mind coming to terms with what had just happened. He was feeling embarrassed now. It was a rather pallid embarrassment though, nowhere near the crushing wave he'd expected, but maybe it was just waiting for him to remember every moment in greater detail and cut him up into little squirming pieces at its leisure.

What he mainly felt was a mixture of confusion and almost panic. Exacerbated by the fact that despite all this, he still couldn't really believe that what they'd done was all that wrong- sudden, too sudden, but not wrong. 'I made you feel that'. No, Lee didn't regret it, which probably made him a- an amoral, degenerate-

Lee frowned at the sink, finally cornering the origin of his anxiety. The problem was, Lee had had a Plan. If it had a name, you could call it the Springtime Flowering of Love.

Love was an absolute, full of Youth and Certainty. It did not have grey areas. Love might be sudden and immediate, but it came to flower after a long period of getting to know each other, a meeting of heart and mind. No secrets, no arguments, no awkward fumbling, only Pure True Devotion that lit the way and made everything clear. Of course in Lee's Plan, part of that time would be spent persuading the object of his affections that Lee was worthy of such. There would be dates, candle-lit dinners, and the chance for Lee to prove his valor. And romantic gestures, gifts and long talks. Ardent confessions, complete understanding, respect and propriety and absolutely no touching-

- jerking off, his mind supplied helpfully. Blowjob, it added.

- and all that only three days after he'd declared his love to- agh!

Of course, Lee realized intellectually that this Plan of his had been conceived long ago, inspired by Gai-sensei's romantic words, when sex had still been a frightening unknown, before he'd even met Sakura-san. Sakura-san hadn't fit all that well into the Plan, even though Lee had tried his best. And Gaara? The Plan and Gaara were like oil and a fire jutsu.

Lee rinsed out his mouth, trying somewhat ineffectually to not think why he was doing this, not notice the strange aftertaste in his mouth or look at his scalding red face in the mirror. Then he wiped out what he could from his pants. Deep inside, a twelve-year-old Lee was insisting that Love should be simpler, purer and not so...messy...

He washed his hands carefully, wiped them on the towel, straightened up and took a fleeting peek at himself in the mirror. He was still red in the face. He idly picked up the black bottle he'd noticed earlier and examined it. He knew he was stalling, but he just didn't know how to behave now.

Then he registered what he was seeing. Aftershave? He looked around again, in case he'd missed something, but there was no razor anywhere and no drawers to hide it. The seal on the bottle was broken, but when Lee opened it curiously, none had been used. The scent was oddly familiar. Kankuro. This was the aftershave the Sand Jounin wore sometimes when he wasn't on duty.

Lee had a vision like a brief movie rolling through his mind. Gaara making some incurious comment to Kankuro about the way he smelled. Kankuro dropping off a bottle of the stuff in Gaara's bathroom in that 'oh well, I had an extra, and you might actually need it some day, squirt' style of his that had been part of the delicate and unspoken negotiations that had re-established Gaara and Kankuro as brothers over the years. Gaara opening it and drawing back, eyes narrowing at the scent which would smell strong and aggressive directly from the bottle. Putting it back on his shelf with a frown. But not throwing out the gift from his brother.

Lee stared blindly at the bottle. He didn't know everything there was to know about Gaara, even though they'd been friends for over a year now. Gaara was a very private person, and he kept himself tightly wrapped up and under control. Lee didn't know many of the little details, or some of the really big problems either.

But he knew some things that counted a lot.

As for the rest, maybe Love wasn't knowing after all. Maybe Love was finding out. And getting over the shock when things didn't go according to plan. Or according to the Plan, but Lee knew he could scrap that one, it had never stood a chance from the start with Gaara.

He put the bottle back on the shelf, glanced down and sighed helplessly at the wet spot on the front of his pants. He should be okay if he wore his shirt out on his way back to his room.

It seemed strange to think of such trivial details after he'd just had sex. He was going to go back to his place to change sooner or later. Then he would go out and train, hopefully dragging Gaara along with him, and life would go on pretty much as normal.

Lee shook his head at himself in the mirror, smoothed down his mussed hair as an afterthought, and turned towards the door. He shouldn't be worried that this moment wasn't anything like he'd imagined it to be, he should be worried about his...lover. His occasionally unstable lover whose reactions to intimacy and closeness could be unpredictable. Yeah, that was more a cause for concern than the fact that the world was still merrily ticking over quite normally after one Rock Lee had just given his first blowjob.

Damn, he had at that, he'd just given his first- later! He had to check on Gaara.

Gaara had moved, to Lee's vague relief. He was lying full length on the bed, pants fastened again, apparently unconcerned that they were due for a trip to the laundry basket. His eyes were still on the window though, and he didn't turn when Lee came in, or even twitch.

Lee joined him on the bed, moving slowly and settling down close but not actually touching him. He wondered if Gaara had found the understanding he was looking for.

"Gaara? Are you okay?"

"Yes. I didn't realize...It was intense." Gaara's words were slow but steady, his eyes thoughtful. He had one arm pillowing his head, the other draped loosely over his abs. "I knew it was safe. But I rather wish I’d known it was this relaxing before. It would have made my adolescent years a bit more bearable."

Lee laughed. He really couldn't help it. It came out marginally more amused than hysterical so he didn't try to stop himself. Gaara glanced at him, a slight scowl on his face. He flicked his hand up, punching Lee lightly on the shoulder: cut it out, Jounin, you're not allowed to laugh at the Kazekage's expense. Neither the scowl nor the gesture was serious. His mood had improved.

Lee caught the fingers and brought them to his mouth, though he was still chortling too hard to give them much more than a brief kiss. It was a soppy and romantic gesture that Gaara wouldn't understand in a million years, but Lee decided to do it anyway. Gaara had unintentionally reminded him that it was important for Lee to get something out of this relationship too, and if Lee wanted to be soppy and romantic after their first time, then Gaara was just going to have to put up with it.

Gaara predictably didn't get it, but he didn't seem to mind (probably because he didn't get it). He turned his face back towards the window. One finger uncurled from the Jounin's light grip and caressed Lee's cheek, the gesture idle and relaxed. Lee absently traced in his mind the months of small touches and gestures between them, like a long negotiation neither had been aware of, that had led to the untouchable, distant Gaara being able to do something like that and barely even notice.

Lee knew there would be some awkwardness and complications ahead as they plowed their way through this and other aspects of a relationship, but he suddenly had a vision of what the future might be like. Of a time when it wouldn't be daunting or embarrassing any more. A time it would become known, familiar and comforting; when they could take a break from the world and crawl into each other's arms and defend each other in a way that had nothing to do with fighting...

Closer.

"Gaara-..."

Lee paused. He'd wanted to share that small epiphany, but he didn't think he could put it into words. It sounded borderline cracked when he tried to, a product of the endorphin rush.

The green eyes flickered towards him, waiting for his question.

"Do you shave?"

That got Lee the greatest reaction yet by far. Gaara blinked, stared at him, withdrew his fingers from Lee's hand to hoist himself up on his elbows and look down at the Jounin with a puzzled frown.

"What?"

There were a million questions, some of which Gaara was not yet in a position to answer. Might as well start with this one. Besides, Lee was curious.

"Do you shave? I didn't see any razor in there."

"...No. Something about the Sand Armour interferes with hair growth." Green eyes skipped down Lee's chest, following the trail of dark hair growing thicker near the beltline.

"Not everywhere though." Lee affectionately ran a finger through Gaara's tousled red hair - maybe the sand protection was what made it so rough? Then his gaze traveled south to the faint trace of copper visible at the edge of Gaara's pants.

Gaara followed the direction of his glance. "The Armour covers me like a cup there."

"Oh, right, that would be more comfortable-"

"Lee, why the hell are you asking me this?" Gaara interrupted as if he just couldn't stand the curiosity anymore and it had finally defeated the Kazekage's fabled disinterest.

"Just wondering," Lee answered with maybe the slightest of smug grins as he settled down against the lumpy mattress and put a proprietary hand on his lover's bare stomach. Gaara let him, still staring at him oddly.

Chapter Text

'Guardian Three' was, as his codename indicated, the third of the four ANBU bodyguards responsible for the Kazekage's direct protection in Suna. As it turned out, protecting the current Kazekage was a surprisingly cushy job. Gaara of the Desert was just about as far from an easy target as one could get, after all. The four-man special taskforce was principally on the lookout for poisons and entrapping jutsus; their leader had little to fear from anything else.

As an ANBU of Sunagakure, Guardian Three was highly trained, physically, mentally and emotionally. He was tough, analytical and calm in a crisis. He'd quickly sorted out the important facts of what he'd just seen into a five-point list which he'd presented to his leader, Guardian One, as soon as he was able to report in.

Guardian One had called in Guardian Two, and they’d asked him a series of questions, but the key points of the list were clear enough and went something like this:

Fact #1: I was observing the Kazekage's residence from Lookout Point 2. Gaara-sama was sitting at his bedroom window, so I kept a watch on the room and the grounds around him for possible snipers.

Fact #2: At 13:44 hours, the Leaf Jounin Rock Lee entered the premises.

Fact #3: They talked for a few minutes, then they ended up on the bed and the Kazekage made advances to the Jounin. The Jounin did not object.

Fact #4: I remained at my post and insured that no harm came to the Kazekage during the encounter that followed.

Fact #5: Because my loyalty is to the Kazekage, not to the ANBU high command or the Council, I have only reported these facts to the members of my cell and my leader.

Fact #6: I'm going to need a long vacation after this. Maybe therapy too.

Guardian Three didn't actually add that last bullet point out loud. It was nonetheless quite valid.

He'd been initially pleased to see Lee climb the road towards the Kazekage's door. He'd remained vigilant, naturally, but he'd allowed himself a mild hope that Lee's presence might cheer Gaara up a bit. Three had been watching over Gaara-sama for a couple of years now, so it had been obvious to him, seeing his charge sitting at the window for over an hour staring out at nothing, that the young Kazekage hadn't been in a very happy place.

According to Three's observation, Gaara was in a much better mood now. The same couldn't be said for his hapless bodyguard. He'd been forced to watch the whole thing because Rock Lee might be the most straightforward and amiable guy this side of anywhere, but he was also a very dangerous killer. A large part of Three's stress came from the fact that if Lee had reached up and snapped Gaara's neck, neither Three nor even the Sand would have had the speed to stop him at that range. Gaara was the only person in the village who could take on that Konoha Jounin single-handedly in close combat, and Gaara-sama-...well, Three was ready to bet his leader hadn't had attack, defense and strategy at the top of his mind right then.

Three had considered going in there and getting Gaara out of a potentially risky situation, but the Kazekage was a man who chose his own risks and didn't take kindly to interference. He was also an eighteen-year-old who apparently liked weird-looking but adorably earnest male Jounin, and would probably peel the skin off of any ANBU who would stop him in the pursuit of same. Three had let a mixture of respect for his leader's decisions and old-fashioned self-preservation keep him in Lookout Point 2, but he'd been on tenterhooks the whole time he was watching his Kazekage roll around the bed with a foreign Shinobi in legwarmers.

He really was going to need a long vacation after this. Probably in Suna's Ninja Sanatorium for Work-Related Injuries.

As an indication of how frazzled the young ANBU was, Three didn't actually register the complete lack of staggering surprise around him until he'd answered all of Guardian One and Two's questions and stood waiting for their reaction.

His two colleagues were sitting around Guardian One's kitchen table, staring at it through their masks. Sand Shinobi were famous for their composure, their icy control over their own emotions, but there were bloody limits.

"You knew about this?!" Three exclaimed.

"Yes. I was on duty a couple of days ago when Gaara-sama went to visit the Leaf at the Jounin barracks," One answered absently. He didn't elaborate on what he'd witnessed, but Three could now make an educated guess.

"Why didn't you say anything?!"

"It wasn't clear what was going on. A lot of stuff happened out in the desert, as you know."

The four ANBU watched Gaara's place of work and his residence so that he could let down his guard and rest in his own village. They didn't follow him outside of Suna or on missions unless requested. But they would have had to have been deaf, blind, and possibly dead as well to miss the massive chakra discharges that had ripped through the sand and stones around their village a few days back. Nobody had known what to make of it. Gaara's guardians, as well as many other Shinobi, had been all ready to rush out into the desert to look for their Kazekage and to hell with standing orders. But Temari-san had taken command of the forces that night in her brother's absence and kept every man inside the walls and at strategic places around the civilian shelters.

Guardian One's fingers drummed against the table. He didn't reprove his young subordinate for his outburst, possibly out of sympathy for the afternoon Three had just had. "I told Two what had happened, since he had the next shift. I would have told you and Four as well...but then the Kazekage and Rock-san had some kind of argument shortly after that, and it wasn't clear where that had left the relationship, assuming there even was one. Two and I decided to wait and observe."

"They made up," Three pointed out acidly.

Two tapped his mask with a thoughtful gesture. "That crazy Leaf actually got down and blew the Kazekage?"

Three wished he could be that blasé about it. The other two men were older than he was by more than eight years, maybe their greater experience and maturity was showing. Or maybe it was because they only had a second-hand account to deal with, while Three was still getting these mortifying images playing through his mind: Lee slipping to his knees by the bed, his hands on Gaara's body, that bowl-cut trailing down to- Three wondered if the Sanatorium rooms were padded.

"Yes, as far as I can tell, he did," he answered in a reasonably professional tone of voice.

"The guy knows no fear, I'll give him that," One grunted. "Rock Lee has lived here for well over a year now, and we all know that he's far from being an idiot, despite appearances. He must have gathered by now that there might have been...some risk involved. We certainly thought there might be."

Up until now the whole village had assumed, rather optimistically, that Gaara was asexual. He'd never shown the slightest hint of interest in either gender before. Apparently he just had particular tastes. Very particular.

"I'm sure there were risks the first time they screwed," Two stated with a touch of hard, dry humor. "I bet that's what happened three days ago when he tore up the desert. He tumbled the Jounin, lost it and they both got burnt. Lucky for us that Leaf survived, I'd hate to explain that situation to Konoha."

"Oh no, I'm pretty sure this was their first time," Three corrected him.

He shifted uncomfortably as both men stared at him, but he trusted his intuition in this. Guardian Three was only a little older than Gaara, and he'd gone through something like this all that long ago himself. He had recognized the way the two young men had moved: Shinobi assurance mixed with caution, slowly discovering each other in a way their extensive training as fighters and killers had not fully prepared them for.

If his cell leader asked him how he knew this, Three would dutifully answer. He would explain the parallels between what he'd seen and his own experience as proof of his assumption, and then he would wait for his girlfriend to find out about it and kill him very painfully.

But Guardian One didn't ask for details. He reached up and slipped off his mask. His sun-beaten face was calm.

The two others stared at him, then followed suit, removing their own masks. This meant that something very important was about to be said.

"Where's Four?" One asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"She took over from me watching the house. I didn't tell her anything since Lee-san had left by then."

"We'll have a talk with her when her tour of duty is over."

Guardian One was silent for a long time, scratching the stubble on his cheeks. His shift wasn't until midnight; he'd been asleep when Three had burst through his door after Lee had gone home.

"We tell no-one," the veteran ANBU finally declared.

With those four words, a very important decision had been made, and not just about discretion. It couldn't be put into words - it would require discussing things that were Not Discussed in Sunagakure - but his meaning was clear.

The four special ANBU were in a unique position in the village. The first loyalty of every Sand Shinobi was to Sunagakure. But the prime obligation of the four guardians was Gaara's protection, not Suna's. The village would be worried about what the flurry of emotions inherent to a relationship might do to Gaara's self-control one day. Nobody thought it very likely that Gaara would unleash Shukaku on his people anymore, but the Sand Shinobi never took any risk that wasn't fully justified. Their concerns might be valid, but the duty of the four ANBU guards was to Gaara-sama, not to cater to Suna's anxieties and superstitions.

Their Kazekage watched ceaselessly over Suna and asked for nothing in return. For their sake and through the sheer strength of his will, he'd changed from an unhinged, dangerous monster to a powerful leader they could all follow. He'd nearly died for them. In Three's opinion, the young man who patrolled Sunagakure's streets alone night after sleepless night deserved at least four people who, in turn, had his wellbeing at heart.

Not that their help was all that useful. Gaara possessed the Ultimate Defense, after all. If that was beaten, the opponent was too high a caliber for them, as Deidara had chillingly demonstrated over three years ago. Not only had they been nowhere near strong enough to challenge the Akatsuki physically, the fight had been simply too high above their heads - literally - for them to defend Gaara. They'd watched helplessly as he defended them all instead and paid the price.

Well today, they might actually be able to protect him. There was deep, abiding respect for Gaara in the village, but there lingered some fear and suspicion as well, from the superstitious, from Shinobi who remembered Gaara's death-toll, back when there had been regular attempts on his life, from councilors appointed by his war-driven father who didn't like Gaara's peaceful policies. The Kazekage was impregnable, not to say oblivious, to that ill-will, but he was also a young adult who'd just reached out to someone for the first time, and that made him vulnerable. Especially since his choice of partner for this tryst was a foreigner from a village they'd been at war with six years ago. His decision might put Gaara - and Lee - through a lot of grief if it leaked out.

But it wasn't going to leak out. Not before Gaara himself decided to let the village know. His guardians would defend his right to make his own decision in this matter without outside pressure. Even though it would take quite some doing to keep this under wraps in a village full of Shinobi who specialized in spying, assassination, infiltration and all manners of things sneaky.

The two ANBU nodded solemnly, agreeing with One's decision. Guardian Four would be of the same mind as well.

Guardian One rubbed his chin, staring blindly at the table. "We're all going to be pulling double and triple shifts for awhile. Keeping this quiet will mean a lot of work...Three, you know Gaara's aide, right?"

"Yes, he was my Jounin cell leader before I made ANBU."

"He's in the best position to stumble onto this or notice any change in Gaara's behavior and habits. I want you to stick to him like fleas to a dog and run interference as much as you can. Chat with him, offer to help him out with some of his duties, throw the odd 'security sweep' his way; whatever it takes. Make sure he doesn't, ah, interrupt anything, or get enough information to start putting two and two together. Four can cover Gaara-sama's sister. They were in the academy together, they know each other. She can keep Temari-san distracted."

"Won't be too hard. Temari-san's busier than hell, she hardly has the time to see her brother as it is. I bet she'll be the last to know anyway," Two said.

"You'd have lost that bet then. She talked to me yesterday, tried to get information out of me regarding Gaara-sama's state of mind and recent activities. She asked me specifically if her brother and Lee-san were getting along alright, and if they'd had any quarrels."

"Damn, she's sharp."

"She's worried, and I don't blame her. I don't think we'll be able to keep this hidden from his sister for any length of time, or from Kankuro-san either once he gets back, but we'll do our best. Four will certainly have her hands full. I'll manage the Kazekage's upper cadre and the other ANBU, and make sure they don't get wind of this. That leaves you with the dirty job, my friend," One concluded, nodding at Guardian Two.

"Sheet duty, hm?"

"Yes. Make sure you get there before the cleaners do and don't leave anything for them to find. Gaara-sama spends most of his time in the office anyway, it should be easy to remove any evidence when he leaves, today and in the future too."

"How about the Leaf's laundry?" Two asked, completely poised (Three permitted himself a brief flash of irritated envy).

"Well, that's the flaw," One admitted. "We can't go near Lee's office, room or belongings because of his diplomatic status, and we also can't be seen hanging around him or watching his movements and security too closely. That'd attract more attention than we could handle. We'll have to hope they'll be discreet, or else use the Kazekage's room."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll both come to their senses," Two sighed.

"Lucky...?" Guardian One's black eyes lost their focus for an instant, turned inward. "...Three, you were there. Tell me, first impression...I don't think it's his style, but is there any chance that Lee is playing with him?"

"Playing- Oh no! It's obvious they're both-...um, deeply attached."

Three suddenly wished he had his mask on. That had been a very un-ANBU-like exclamation. The faint flush on his cheeks was probably not very professional either. The two older men looked at him impassively, but he could just feel them grinning inside.

"Good," One said softly.

They'd been looking after their leader for some time now; Guardian One had been his silent, invisible shadow since the day of Gaara's accession four years ago. They remained distant, vigilant, professional...but Shinobi were human, too. They'd never admit it out loud, but they knew they'd all developed a small amount of protective attachment to their young charge over the years. If Lee was stupid enough to hurt Gaara - well, chances were they’d be sending the Jounin back home in a sand-encrusted full-body cast in that case, but if he managed to escape unscathed, then he would have four Sand ANBU who would want to have a little chat with him.

But Three didn't think that would be necessary.

Lee still irritated or confused some of Sand's Shinobi. And he certainly had an interesting set of foibles (but then again, so did most powerful Jounin in Three's experience). Despite this, many in Suna had come to respect him for his strength, endurance and willpower. In fact, Three suspected a lot of his colleagues rather liked the guy, and not just for his qualities as a Shinobi. Lee was serious, so intense it was almost tiring to watch him at times, but when you got to know him, he was also honest, open and friendly, even when he was kicking your ass in a sparring match. Especially when he was kicking your ass. Crazy Leaf...

Three didn't know the man personally, and he had to stay vigilant and impartial either way. But he'd observed Lee as he interacted with Gaara. You could tell a lot about someone when you watched them unawares, particularly when they thought they were alone with a friend. Three didn't judge Lee's qualities as a Shinobi, beyond 'strong enough to challenge Gaara' and 'crazy enough to challenge Gaara'. But he'd come to the private conclusion awhile back that, whatever else he was, Rock Lee was a good guy. The kind who wouldn't toy with anyone's affections or give in to the attraction of a cheap fling. Quite the contrary...

One and Two started making lists of potential problems and people to watch. Three listened attentively, taking mental notes. But in the back of his mind, he dwellt on what he'd seen through that window (once the really embarrassing stuff was over).

The two young men had been stretched out side by side on the bed, talking together softly. Every small detail, Lee's smile, Gaara's solemn eyes fastened on the Leaf's face, the occasional touch...even a tough, analytical and somewhat calm ANBU had had to admit that there had been a lot of affection and tenderness in evidence in that room.

Three wondered absently what his girlfriend was doing right at this minute. He hoped she was okay. He'd heard from her last week, a quick coded message. She was still in Water country, slowly closing in on Sound's whereabouts with Kankuro-san's team. They should be back in a couple of weeks if things went well.

"If this happens again, do we have to be there?" Two's voice faltered; he must have remembered he wasn't wearing his mask, and the faint look of discomfort on his face was now visible. Three felt vindicated, though of course he didn't let this show on his expression, which he kept studiously straight and serious.

"If they get physical again, concentrate on their surroundings and only give them the occasional check," One decided, not commenting on Two's reaction. "If something goes down between them, we'll have to rely on Gaara-sama's defenses. We've confirmed by now that Lee can't use ninjutsu or genjutsu, so he can't do anything that Gaara can't parry. Or rather, at that proximity Gaara has a chance of parrying him, while we wouldn't, however closely we watched. But let's not get paranoid. I'll trust the Kazekage's instincts in this. And we owe Lee-san for Gaara-sama's life. Let's leave them alone, and watch out for interference and threats to his residence or office, same as usual."

Since Three and Two were tough, emotionless Shinobi, they didn't actually breathe sighs of relief. Three thought he might even make it without that long vacation if he didn't have to watch again in the future. Especially if Gaara-sama remembered to draw the curtains next time. Maybe there was a way of leaving him a subtle hint about that...? Lookout Point 2 was the only spot in Sunagakure from which you could get a view inside the Kazekage's bedroom, but you could never be too careful or too discreet (or too thoughtful about your ANBU bodyguard's peace of mind).

"One advantage to all this: the way those two fight as a team, Gaara-sama's defense is now all but guaranteed while they're together, and they'll probably be together a lot," Two said with a dollop of dry humor.

Three realized he was nodding in agreement while already making plans for a modified patrol route that would take this new factor into account. As if having the Kazekage bedding Rock Lee, Konoha Jounin, deadly and amiable from his bowl-cut down to his legwarmers, was already a solidly accepted fact and perfectly normal.

Yes, the Shinobi of the Sand were certainly the most resourceful and adaptable of all the Hidden Village ninja, and here was surely the ultimate proof.

Chapter Text

Lee was halfway between the one-hundred-and-fifth and one-hundred-and-sixth press-up when movement off to his left made him glance up. Gaara was walking towards him at a deliberate pace. Very deliberate. Lee's movement slowed, his arms holding his body sword-straight without any conscious effort four inches from the ground as he watched the Kazekage approach.

Gaara stopped a few feet from him, crossed his arms severely and said: "What else do you want?"

Lee scrambled to his feet as fast as he could, which was faster than most Shinobi could blink. "What? Nothing! I didn't say anything. Did I?"

Gaara stared at him and Lee reread the situation. The question had been completely abrupt, but there’d been no aggression behind it. Gaara had meant it as a straightforward query.

"Sorry, what do you mean?" Lee asked a bit more calmly.

"Earlier you explained at great length," there was a slight stress on the 'great', "that sex was not the only thing out of this bond that you wanted. So, what else do you want?"

Lee breathed out in silent relief. Oh, was that it?

Earlier today, they'd had what Lee thought of, a bit self-consciously, as their Second Time. It had been overall better than the first; the feelings and sensations were not so unexpected, there was less fear and caution and more enjoyment involved. Which didn’t mean it hadn’t still felt pretty damn strange, touching someone else like that.

Everything was strange these days: on the one hand, there was the total novelty of it all. Lee walked through his days in a daze with the same loop of words constantly reeling through his mind. 'I have a boyfriend. A lover. Gaara. My most important person. The man I love. We're together. We had sex. I can't believe it- I have a boyfriend!' and so on and so forth.

On the other hand, maybe the strangest thing was how normal life still was. Neither of the young men changed their routine in any way. To Lee's intense relief, there was no strain between them after that first unexpected time together. There wasn't a miraculous flow of Love that made everything Better, either, but Lee had matured a lot in the last week and so he wasn't all that surprised. Lee felt that they were closer now, but it felt like the closeness of best friends who now shared an intimate secret more than anything else.

It was a secret, in a way. They didn't discuss it with anybody, or with each other. Lee had guessed pretty rapidly that Gaara would need a few days before he would want to talk about what had happened, or possibly repeat it. His friend- boyfriend- lover actually- needed to internalize this. He needed to think back on every aspect of it, take some control over it. It was his nature. Lee didn’t mind a short time-out to come to grips with it either for that matter, seeing how he’d freeze up several times a day with his mouth open and his cheeks a nice solid red when a particular detail suddenly came back to him.

At least Gaara had stopped brooding, though that might have had nothing to do with Lee at all and everything to do with Gaara's staff recovering from their misguided attempt to shelter him and force him to rest, and burying him under a small avalanche of backed-up paperwork and duties instead. A busy Gaara was a less morose Gaara. And there was more than enough work to go around.

For instance, there was all the information that an annoyed Kankuro was sending back to Sunagakure for analysis. The Sand Jounin had been gone over a month now, and was looking at a few more weeks in foreign and hostile territory to hunt down tenuous leads to Hidden Sound that usually petered out when he got to them. The tone of his reports was getting pugnacious.

Gaara and Lee had spent all morning together, organizing some inter-village cooperation to get Gaara's brother a bit of support on his mission. Konoha had as much interest as Suna in hunting down Orochimaru. They'd grabbed lunch from the admin compound kitchen and gone back to Gaara's house to eat it and have some tea in a quiet place while they talked.

The Second Time had followed quite naturally. Lee had seen it coming this time, and felt somewhat more prepared and ready. He'd even managed to get that speech out first, the one Gaara was referring to. The one where he explained that he was happy they were comfortable enough with each other to fool around, but that he didn't want sex to be the only thing they shared. Lee had been rehearsing that speech in his head for three days, ever since he’d left Gaara’s home that first time, and he was pretty proud of it. It had been clear, a lot more concise than Gaara seemed to be suggesting, and very positive. Gaara had listened to him patiently and agreed with him, to Lee's relief. Then they’d ended up on the bed again and things had gotten breathless and strange and sticky once more.

Lee’s speech had been quite polished, but thinking back on it, it would indeed have left some unanswered questions in the mind of a young man who’d had no experience or interest in this sort of human interaction before. Gaara must have tried to think it through, and then he'd gone in search of Lee to get him to fill in the gaps. Fortunately the training grounds where Lee had been working out were empty at this time of day, especially with the entire unit A and a few others out assisting Kankuro in his hunt.

Lee was caught a bit flat-footed, but he crossed his arms over his chest and nodded wisely. This was actually very promising on so many different levels. So far it had seemed that Gaara's contribution to getting close had always boiled down to his intense desire to not hurt Lee. Maybe their physical intimacy had helped assuage that fear and he was now thinking beyond that.

"What I want..."

Lee took the time to think out his words thoroughly before answering; he was trying to learn this ability from Gaara. It avoided any potential pitfalls. The trick here was to say things concisely and clearly, not say more than you meant, and to be absolutely honest.

"Gaara, I'm perfectly happy with things the way they are right now. I like hanging out together, going out with you on patrols, working side by side, having lunch like we did earlier..."

What we did after lunch was really nice too, Lee's libido wanted to add, but he had more control than that. That would just confuse the issue at this point.

Gaara looked at him thoughtfully. "Good," he said.

Just as Lee was about to relax and pat himself on the back, Gaara added: "But we did all that when we were friends, too."

Lee hesitated. "Yes. Yes, we did, but that's not- I mean, we're still friends, as well as, um..."

He glanced around. Still no sign of anybody, but evening was falling, the Shinobi left in the village would show up for their daily training soon. "...as well as a couple," Lee added softly, and felt as if he'd bellowed it from the rooftops.

Gaara started to scowl. "So what else do you want?"

"I told you-"

"You said sex wasn't the only thing. What else? We're boyfriends, so what does that mean I should do? What do people in a relationship do with it?"

Lee had taught Gaara the words for 'this new type of bond'. But having Gaara use them so naturally, without any hesitation or shyness - and out in the middle of the bloody village-

The mild surge of panic short-circuited Lee's thinking processes, and what tumbled out of his mouth was what he'd have said if Gaara had asked him that question a year ago and Lee would have thought vaguely of Sakura-san and answered.

"I don't know! Gifts, holding hands, flowers, dates - Er, no, not flowers. Definitely not flowers."

Sakura-san's flowers had been the single trembling ray of light in the dark period after his injury six years ago. Lee had decided back then that the day she accepted to go out on a date with him, he'd bring her the biggest bouquet in Konoha as thank you and commemoration. But things had changed - oh boy, had things ever changed - and now the idea of giving flowers to Gaara was as ludicrous as, well, as the idea of Gaara giving flowers to Lee. As for the notion of walking around the village shyly holding hands...Lee couldn't even wrap his head around that one, it was just too surreal.

"Tokens of affection," Gaara said thoughtfully, staring at the distant rampart. It sounded like he'd read the sentence somewhere once and had only now figured out where it might fit into his life.

"Yes. But don't worry about it." Lee took a deep breath, let it out. "Gaara, did I give you any impression in the last few days that I want more than what we're doing right now?"

"No," Gaara answered, his gaze still contemplative. “You sometimes look a bit startled or surprised, but you mostly seem to be enjoying yourself.”

Then he looked away and Lee thought he saw a flicker of something uncertain and uncomfortable in Gaara's stance before the control came back. "But I can't be sure. I know how you fight, I can read your anger or your fear, but this...I don't understand this well enough. I don't really understand what you feel and why you feel this way. I might not be able to tell if you're unhappy."

Lee remembered the distant Kazekage he'd met over a year ago, detached from the people and emotions around him, content to defend Suna and let it justify his existence. That man hadn't particularly cared for anyone's happiness, much less his own, as long as everybody did their job.

"I promise that if there's anything I really want, I'll let you know," Lee said solemnly.

Gaara's attention had been fully focused on him again at the word 'promise'. He examined Lee attentively and then nodded, sealing the deal.

"In fact, if we’re talking about something I’d like..." Lee did a few stretches. "I'd really like to spar, if you have the time."

"No." Gaara's expression had gone hard.

"Just an easy match, no roughhousing. I've gotten a lot better, and I need to-"

"I have no intention of fighting with you now or at any time in the future. I told you this three days ago."

Lee stared at him, arrested in mid-stretch. "You're not serious."

"I am perfectly serious. I never want to strike at you with Sand ever again."

"But Gaara!"

It was their first argument since that teacup had shattered in Lee's office. It was fairly minor compared to some of the blow-ups they'd had back when they were friends. It ended rather abruptly when Gaara turned and walked away, leaving Lee to stutter at his receding back. Lee gave up on following, since that would have entailed trailing Gaara through the village arguing out loud, and Lee's sense of discretion proved marginally stronger than his combative spirit for once. Damn stubborn...

It felt like a compromise- worse, it felt like giving up, and Lee hated that, but after a couple of hours training harder than he should have, he decided to shelve the sparring issue - for now- and remember that Gaara's reaction was his way of protecting Lee from what he saw as a danger to the Jounin. It was a sign of caring.

Maybe Lee was being a bit stubborn about this himself...but he hated to give up on the combat that had been the highlight of his training days and an exciting, real and very strong bond between them. It had made them into a team, and Lee wanted to keep that entente they'd developed in battle. But he couldn't be too dramatic about it without really hurting the obstinate, uncompromising genius-idiot Lee happened to be in love with, and Lee wasn't about to do that ever.

During the reconciliation that followed - and which proved quite interesting in its own right - Lee forgot the conversation that had started the argument in the first place.

 

---

 

Lee carefully sealed the envelope, then realized he'd gotten the forms mixed up and he'd put the one he was supposed to file away into the envelope, while the one he was supposed to mail was staring up at him from his desk.

"Damn it..." Normally the admin staff did this sort of paper juggling. But since Lee was still on sick leave and barred from missions, his conscience nagged him to pull his full weight with the office work he was presently consigned to.

His door opened without a knock or a sound of footsteps outside. Lee wasn't caught entirely off guard though; he'd picked up a faint hint of a familiar presence a second before the knob turned.

"'Morning, Gaara," he mumbled around the pen in his mouth as he ripped open the bloody envelope.

He dropped the paperwork and pen on his desk and smiled up at the approaching man - then he stared blankly and without comprehension at what Gaara put firmly in his hands.

"...Thank you?" Lee's politeness came to the rescue. "They look good."

Gaara nodded once. "They're not quite in season yet, but I found some in the marketplace that were ripe."

And I'm sure the vendor gave the Kazekage the best, Lee thought, rifling through the small bag. They did look good for this time of year.

"Is this what you want?" Gaara asked.

Lee blinked. Want? Had he expressed a particular desire for- no, not that he could remember.

"Want?"

"You said you didn't want flowers."

It took a minute - and the mention of hand-holding and how Gaara didn't see the point of that at all - before Lee realized that Gaara was alluding to their conversation of a couple of days ago. He felt reality crumble around him as he stared at the paper bag of fruit in his hand.

"Oh. Ah. Um, when I said 'dates'..."

The mistake was fairly easy to make in hindsight. Gaara had heard the term 'dating' before, Lee was sure of it, but it would just be a word to him. Naturally when Lee had blurted out that stupid list two days ago, Gaara’s mind had reached for the more familiar meaning of the word ‘dates’ first, especially since it had come in conjunction with the words flowers and gifts.

Lee glanced up to see a slight line form between Gaara's eyes, and he realized he was in the unenviable position of not wounding Gaara's feelings without lying to him.

Though it was possible that a straightforward explanation might not wound Gaara's feelings at all. When it came to navigating the strange inner landscape hidden within the Kazekage, Lee was often at a loss. Chances were, Gaara would just shrug it off as one more strange and idiotic human custom he'd misunderstood. But Lee could only imagine how he himself would feel if his first gift - token of affection, Gaara had called it - was refused, or at least turned out to be not at all what Lee had had in mind.

"What I meant was..."

Desperation is the mother of inspiration. Though later, Lee would credit his brainwave to his long association with Gai-Sensei, who could make anything sound beautiful, dramatic and meaningful, even the time of day.

"When I said dates, it wasn't just something like this I had in mind. But if you share them with me, that'd be what I meant."

It came out a bit awkward - oh, for his sensei's gift with words - but Gaara didn't look suspicious or hurt. He stopped frowning and nodded once again.

"Great! Shall we sit up on the roof of your home? It'll be nice this time of day, we can have an early lunch-"

"I have to meet with that delegation from Tea Country," Gaara answered.

"Oh."

"Bring them by this evening when you drop by my office," Gaara added, turning to leave.

"I will! And thanks!"

Gaara didn't answer, as usual.

Lee looked at the closed door for a minute, then at the small bag on his desk.

"Dates," he said incredulously.

It probably didn't mean that much to Gaara. Lee had suggested a gift and Gaara had given him a bag of fruit. Still, it was a gesture Gaara wouldn't have even thought to make a week ago. Lee decided, as he dreamily stuffed the wrong paperwork back into a new envelope, that there could be no harm in indulging in a moment of warm pleasure. No harm at all. He was also going to have to figure out a way to reciprocate.

But no flowers. No, definitely no flowers.

 

---

 

"Lee-san?"

Lee glanced up, shading his eyes from the late afternoon sunshine.

"Hello, Captain Sanada. How are you?"

"...Fine. What are you doing out here?"

"Just sitting here." Lee patted the low wall that circled the grounds in illustration.

"Are you alright?" Sanada asked, scrutinizing Lee carefully.

Why was it that people assumed that if he wasn't training like a maniac or slaving away at his desk, he had to be at death's door?

"I'm fine. Thank you for asking!"

"But what are you doing here? You were already here fifteen minutes ago when I left the compound."

Lee couldn't tell him. And he wasn't about to lie. He gave Sanada a grin which hopefully didn't come out as too deranged, and said nothing.

Sanada looked like he was about to insist Lee come in from the sun, but in the end he turned back towards the admin building's doors.

"Come talk to me if you have any problems," he said gruffly, already three steps away.

"Of course," Lee answered, honestly pleased. The manner had been brusque, but he thought the offer had been entirely genuine.

You've got good people in this village, Gaara, Lee thought, glancing up at the window four stories above.

Of course those good people were starting to think Lee had definitely snapped. He'd been out here more than fifteen minutes; almost an hour now. Staring at passing admin staff and guards with that bright serious 'Yes? Anything I can help you with?' look that mostly discouraged comments on the fact he was just sitting out here in broad daylight with no visible reason.

He’d grabbed a chair from a conference room and sat down next to Gaara’s office door when he’d first decided to wait. Maybe he should have stayed there. It would have been more comfortable, and he would have been immediately aware of any change in the situation. But after a few minutes of sitting in front of the only exit out of the Kazekage’s office, he felt that this was putting too much pressure on Gaara. Cornering him.

Maybe leaving had been the wrong decision. Sometimes, Lee's instincts were reliable when it came to dealing with this side of Gaara, and sometimes they left him floundering. He just did what he hoped was best in the end. That should count for something. At least one would think it would count for something.

Calm down, Lee thought, noting his thoughts were getting mournful and a bit bitter. It's just the way he is. Maybe he just had a lot of work to do today?

No. Of course not. If Lee had dropped by Gaara's office to chat and the Kazekage had been really busy, he'd have told Lee to leave him alone. End of story. There wouldn't have been Sand stopping the door from opening. There wouldn't have been that faintly sinister feel from inside the room.

What did I do? Lee thought pathetically, then mentally slapped himself. He couldn't think that way. It might not be his fault at all. Gaara had a lot of demons trapped in his head. Anything could have triggered him. An overheard word, something innocuous that Lee had said, a look of fear, a superstitious sign or the full moon last night. This had happened on occasion before they'd become lovers.

The truth was, Lee had hoped deep inside that it would not happen anymore. And that had been foolish of him.

Should he have waited outside Gaara's door, if only to make sure the staff were okay...? Most of them knew that if the door didn't open, they should steer well clear. But Lee didn't like the idea of some new secretary innocently insisting, or knocking a bit too loudly, or-

No, stop that, Lee thought, appalled and angry with himself. What, you think he'd hurt his own people now?

Lee moodily kicked the wall with his heel. He’d chosen this spot strategically. Whether Gaara left by a window, the main gates or the roof, he should notice Lee down here, if only from a distance. Maybe when Gaara stopped...doing whatever it was he was doing, maybe he would...In the seven days they’d been together, they’d always made the time to see each other even briefly at noon and in the evenings, surely Gaara would make the effort tonight. If he was able to.

Lee stared blindly at a large crow pecking at some garbage in the gutter on the other side of the street. The late-afternoon sun warmed Lee's hair and forehead, while beneath all that two sides of an argument wound their dreary way through his mind for the third or fourth time.

I want to help...I hate to see him like this...

But I can't help. Not with some things.

This bites.

I knew going into this that it would be hard from time to time.

Yeah, but somehow knowing that doesn't make it feel any better right now.

If only-

Lee's senses pricked. There was the slightest feel of a presence behind him, but no noise. Normally anyone coming across the admin compound grounds would brush pebbles and sand, easily audible for a Jounin.

The crow glanced up from the gutter, hunched itself briefly and suddenly shot up towards the sky in a clap of black wings. Lee licked his lips and glanced around.

Gaara drew level with him. He'd swapped his robe for an ordinary jacket and the gourd was slung over his shoulder (because of course that thing was always with him, it was never locked out of the room, Lee found himself grumbling, completely unreasonably.)

Gaara didn't glance up at him. But he stopped walking once he was two steps past Lee. He didn't look back. He just stood there. Lee hesitated, unsure of what was expected of him and really wishing he didn’t have to be guessing all the time.

Oh what the hell. Go on instinct.

He hopped down from the wall and moved to Gaara's side about three feet away, a safe distance. Gaara was still for a second. His face was utterly composed, his eyes oddly blank. It was the mask he wore when he had to hide what was inside. Lee was one of three people in Sunagakure who could even tell it was the mask and not Gaara's usual expression.

Gaara started walking again. Lee followed.

Were they heading towards the training grounds? The ramparts? The desert? Maybe Gaara wanted to talk about whatever it was that had suddenly made him completely close up today. But Lee didn't think so. One day. Maybe.

Gaara shared his body with Lee. He shared his time, some of his meals, his occasional thoughts, his presence and some tentative new feelings. But he didn't share the things that coiled inside of him like snares. Not yet. Maybe never.

Lee wondered if he might resent being locked out like this one day. Not now, but in a few months. Or in a few years. The thought of years together made him briefly dizzy, as if he'd stepped through a small door to find himself unexpectedly in a huge open space.

If Gaara always came to find him afterwards, even while he was still deep within the darkness, even if Lee couldn't do much more than follow him in silence...then Lee thought he could live with that. Time would tell. Weeks, months or years- it was unwise for Shinobi to plan too far ahead, but Lee thought they still had quite a few good days and bad days still to come.

Chapter Text

When he was a lot younger, before coming to Suna, Lee had occasionally daydreamed of the moment he'd ask his loved one to become his in body as well as mind and heart, and she actually said yes. He hadn't thought much of the moment that would follow because that made him uncomfortable, but the actual proposal and her acceptance would be the height and expression of their True Love, as inspired by Gai-sensei's speech on same.

The moment would be Perfect. There would be sunshine, showers of petals, birds singing in the foliage outside the window and roses on the palanquin bed. Lee would be down on one knee. The Lady - who was sometimes Sakura-san in his imagination, but not always, sometimes she was just this pure, angelic figure - would gently take his hand and say something so sweet, so beautiful...

"Let's try anal sex," Gaara suggested out of the blue.

The scene in young Lee's head had changed every time in the detail, but one thing that had remained constant was that the Lady had not been a brutally blunt, demon-ridden male redhead. Also, it was always Lee doing the propositioning.

He stared at Gaara who continued eating the dango he'd gotten from the cafeteria as if he'd said nothing out of the ordinary. Gaara didn't even make eating the dango look hot. Lee's inner pervert was almost non-existent, especially compared to other Konoha notables, but he still felt off-kilter that, after dropping that bombshell, Gaara didn't do something a bit more suggestive while eating dumplings off of a stick. But Gaara just bit into them and chewed.

They ate almost all their meals together now whenever they could, a moment they saved for each other in otherwise busy days. Work was not discussed by unspoken agreement. But this wasn't a subject that had come up before either, or that Lee had expected to come up over a quiet, pleasant lunch in their secluded and sun-sheltered spot on the roof. A bit of forewarning would have been nice. Especially before he'd taken a large bite of food.

"Mhuah?" he mumbled helplessly.

"We have some experience to build on. We've both climaxed. Several times now," Gaara added with the faintest hint of a satisfied look. "But we’ve not tried penetration yet. Lee, swallow what you have in your mouth, you look ridiculous."

Lee knew he looked like one of Suna's desert gerbils right now, but if he tried to swallow the mouthful that was distending his cheek, he would surely choke and die. He finally forced it down with the help of half of his bottle of water.

When he looked around again through watering eyes, it was to find Gaara scrutinizing him.

"You don’t want to?" Gaara asked. He’d apparently not expected this reaction from Lee.

Lee made a noise that was half a cough, half a whimper. Want to? Of course he wanted to. He wanted to so badly he was dreaming of it at night, he was zoning off during the day thinking about it, he was-

It was his fondest hope that he’d be able to ask Gaara to try eventually. In fact the scene in his mind's eye had been slowly tending towards the one he'd imagined in his youth, with Gaara now cast in the main role. Though without roses or the palanquin bed. Or birds singing, since the only birds that came into Suna were crows and small desert vultures. But Lee's proposal would have been much the same, and when he finally dared the question, it would be the pinnacle, the Perfect Moment. All that.

It never occurred to him that Gaara would ask first, although that might stem from the fact that Lee had expected to be the one to ask for it (beg for it, technically). And though Lee had been ardently wishing for it One Day, it hadn’t been anywhere on his mental calendar to even ask yet.

"It’s not that I don’t want to..." Lee fished around for words in what felt like a major demolition zone instead of his brain. "But...do you think we’re ready? We've only been together like that for ten days."

Ten days since that moment they'd touched on Gaara's bed for the first time. Ten very, very nice days. Occasionally upsetting, confusing, nerve-wracking and fascinating, ultimately nice days. Those ten days had done a lot to help Lee get over his last hesitations about sex, Love conquering the demons of the past in the best of romantic traditions. But what Gaara was suggesting was- was- apart from very tempting, it was-...a bit sudden.

Gaara looked at him in a way that suggested that Lee’s tentative objection had completely lost him. "We’ve tried the other ways of having sex at least once. We should try this." He made it sound like they were going through a checklist. "That way we’ll know what we can do with each other, what we might like or not like. I don’t like not having clearly defined boundaries."

"That’s because you’re a control freak," Lee muttered, still a bit under the shock.

Gaara didn’t deny it. He was perfectly still, staring thoughtfully at the sun-baked roofs and towers of Suna spreading out below them. When he spoke again, it was slowly, as if tentatively testing his own emotions and finding them sound, if somewhat unfamiliar.

"I’m curious, too."

Lee stared at him, surprised and utterly disarmed. Curious? Gaara was hardly ever curious. Too entrenched; too cautious; too paranoid. When Lee had realized a few months ago that Gaara was truly trying to become friends, one of the signs of this was an embryonic curiosity about Lee, his ways of thinking and the reasons behind some of his actions. In retrospect it had probably been a forerunner of things to come.

Lee didn’t want to discourage Gaara's curiosity, but there was a difference between being inquisitive and being rash.

"You are aware that this, what you’re proposing, is a bit more...complicated than what we’ve done up until now, right?" he asked carefully.

That earned him an attentive scrutiny. "A bit, yes, but you didn’t make it sound that difficult."

Lee looked away quickly, his face a fetching shade of red at the memory. He picked disconsolately at what was left of his lunch; it had started out as a rice ball, but when his fist had clenched in shock- well, now it was more of a rice pancake. Gaara had sat him down a few days ago and gotten everything Lee knew about gay sex out of him. Lee didn't know what burned him the most in retrospect: the fact that he'd had to say some very, very crude things, or the fact that it hadn't taken very long to say them at all. When it came down to it, his information didn't go much further than 'lube, stretch, go slow'.

And that would have to be enough, whenever they decided to try this. Either of them acquiring an instruction manual on homosexual intercourse would make the Suna gossip's headlines in less than three minutes, and Lee, for one, really didn’t want that. They hadn’t discussed this much, but they still shared a feeling that this was their secret, their struggle, and they didn’t want any interference. Gaara knew his emotions could still be dangerous and volatile. He trusted Lee with them now to some extent, but he didn't want anybody else to get in the line of fire. As for Lee, his sense of propriety informed him that the first people they would have to tell would be Gaara’s siblings. The thought of their reaction, particularly Temari’s, wasn’t infusing Lee with any sense of urgency to come clean either.

So their options to do research were severely limited, but they knew the essentials. And Gaara was curious. In view of that...now or later, what difference did it make?

Lee wondered how much his libido was contributing to this decision. Because he wanted this too. He wanted it so badly...

He didn’t know why it was preying on him like that. He should be happy with what he had. Sure, there were still awkward moments (as far as Lee was concerned; Gaara didn't know what awkward meant). There were arguments and setbacks, problems and no-go-zones. And though the Sand hadn't struck once in the past ten days, it was still in the back of Lee's mind and probably a lot more present in Gaara's.

Yet Gaara was changing by cautious increment. He was conquering his fear of injuring Lee. He was discovering things that he wanted other than the raw necessity of justifying his existence, and that he could reach out for these things without necessarily getting hurt. He was slowly starting to test his limits. This bout of curiosity was just one more sign that Gaara was moving out of his isolation and into Lee’s life.

Despite the problems they still had, Lee knew deep down that these ten days he'd spent watching Gaara gradually discover new feelings and trust himself and Lee with them, were probably going to count as some of the best days of his life.

As for the physical side of their relationship, no complaints there, since the memory of a red head in his lap kept coming back to him at various moments of the day, giving him spontaneous erections that had made him temporarily give up his beloved sleek uniforms and opt for something a bit more discreet in the groin area.

Yet every time they'd touched...every time they'd sunk together into that moment that was just for them, that protected them from the outside world and the problems, confusions, doubts...Lee had that whisper in his mind again. Me in you in me in you in me...

"What are you doing this afternoon?"

"...This afternoon?" Lee tilted his head towards his boyfriend absently. "Training once it gets cooler. My stamina is getting better, but I still-"

"What are you doing at two o'clock?"

"Dunno. I think I was going to work on-...why?" Lee croaked, suddenly paying a lot more attention to the conversation.

"I have some free time this afternoon."

"Oh." The syllable barely made it past Lee's throat.

"I've got what we need. Even a decent bed now, since the old one seemed to bother you. Can you make it?"

No! Say no! This should be a revered moment - we should be waiting for months, longing for it, the pinnacle of the Springtime Flowering of Love-

"Yes," Lee heard someone say. It had sounded suspiciously like his own voice.

"Good." Gaara fastidiously brushed the crumbs off of his fingers, picked up the dango sticks and hoisted the gourd over one shoulder. He checked their surroundings perfunctorily, kissed Lee's frozen mouth and headed towards the roof's door.

 

---

 

When Lee showed up at Gaara's at two o'clock, his head was still spinning.

He knocked. He still knocked, even though Gaara had told him repeatedly that he could let himself in. But Lee's formality was bred deep into his bones, and he wasn't going to just walk into Gaara's home unannounced, whether it was simply to wish his boyfriend goodnight before going back to sleep at the barracks, or whether it was to- to do what they were apparently going to do this afternoon.

The faint chakra flare of acknowledgement had come from the bedroom, to his absolute lack of surprise. Lee kicked off his sandals and headed that way as if he were sleepwalking.

He reached for the doorknob- and froze. The gourd was leaning against the wall just outside the door. In Lee's dazed imagination, it looked as reproachful as a puppy locked out of the bedroom. A very, very dangerous puppy. Lee swallowed, turned the knob and walked right in, closing the door a bit too quickly behind him and leaning against it.

Gaara was sitting at his desk in training slacks and a linen tunic, one leg curled up on the cushion, the other folded at his chest. He was reading something. He glanced up, put down the scroll, switched off the desk's light and got to his feet gracefully. The raw afternoon sunshine creeping beneath the thick curtains illuminated the warmth of the red tunic and his hair as he stood. Although he was probably completely unaware of it, it looked very tempting and caressable, but Lee had something else on his mind right now.

"I noticed the...ah..." Lee jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

Gaara's interrogative look faded into one of comprehension. "I think we'll both feel more comfortable without it in the room."

"Are you sure? You won't feel a bit vulnerable?"

"Vulnerable? No. If I was in actual danger, it would pulverize the door and be here in a second. But that second might be the time you need to react and get out of the way. Not that I think that will be necessary. But it's good to know."

"...I think you've been thinking about all of this a bit too much."

"I am not putting you at risk again," Gaara said firmly. "You can call me a control freak, but this is non-negotiable. Now come in. We can't do anything if you stay glued to the door like that."

Lee mentally walked through the first five steps of the complicated Eagle Flight kata, something he frequently did when he thought it best not to say the first two or three things that came to mind. He shoved himself away from the door. Gaara was composed, watching him move forward. By contrast, Lee had the strangest feeling he'd just grown an extra arm and leg or something equally grotesque.

Gaara picked up a jar from the desk and tossed it at Lee.

"Will this do?"

Lee caught it and stared at the label.

"...Yes, this is the compound I'd heard about. Er, where did you get this? You...didn't buy it at the store, did you?"

"Do you think I do my own shopping? I put it on the list and my aide got it for me."

Oh, what a relief. Not.

"Did he ask you why you wanted it?" Lee asked, his voice at a higher pitch than usual as he imagined Gaara's severe, silent, hawk-faced aide picking up a list of the Kazekage's household necessities and staring at the one particular item he would never have seen there before.

"No. It's not his job to ask. Besides," Gaara frowned and glanced at the window, though the closed curtain blocked his view of Suna, "after my shows of instability these past few weeks, they're back to treating me like they did when I first took my position as Kazekage. Like I'm some protector demon-deity to obey and placate and never question. I could ask my aide for a sacrificial dagger and a goat, and he'd provide it without a word."

"I think he would have a few questions."

Lee, more familiar with how Sunagakure saw Gaara than Gaara himself was at times, was damn sure that a request for either lube or a goat would cause tremendous speculation. Fortunately the one kind of lubricant compound Lee had heard about and mentioned to Gaara was one that had a great number of uses for Shinobi; they could apply it to tripwires to avoid friction slowing a trap mechanism, they could use it as base for camouflage paint, they could anoint their kunai with it to draw in absolute silence, they could rub it into aching muscles...and of course one other use that was a regular garrison joke whenever the well-known lubricant appeared. The fact that the aide had bought a large jar with the instructions 'massage small handful into affected area and let dry' on the back indicated he'd probably not figured out what his boss was really going to use it for.

"Anyway, this will do fine," Lee sighed, glancing down at the ingredients again and making sure there was nothing toxic or scented in this formulation. "You'll be using it on me, of course."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll be, ah, taking me."

"No I won't."

Lee blinked as he looked up from the jar. He hadn't expected any argument on this; not from Gaara. Lee had known since he'd first allowed himself to hope they could have sex like this one day, that he'd be on the bottom to start with.

"You have to."

"No."

"But- why?"

Gaara's eyes narrowed. "I want you to do it."

Lee rubbed his forehead. "Well you have to have a better reason than that. Because I don't think that would be a good idea. To start with, you'll feel more in control if you're, um, doing it. Don't tell me that's not a factor," Lee added in a mutter. "And besides, you have to understand that this is different than what we've done before. This, um, this type of- I mean-"

"Anal sex?" Gaara supplied in a voice that made it clear he was getting tired of having to guess what Lee was saying half the time.

"...Yes. That. You see, it's fairly established by now that I, well, like men. But we're not sure at all about your preferences. Obviously you like what we've done so far, but I'm not sure that really means anything. When it comes to...um, being on the receiving end, I think orientation really does make a difference. You see? Now, since it's established that I'm gay, and we have no idea if you are or not, for this first time I think you should take me. Makes sense. So we'll do it that way. Okay?"

"No."

"Are you even listening to me?"

"Yes."

"...Have I told you how much it annoys me when you do that?"

"Yes."

Lee felt a vein start to twitch in his forehead. He'd thought it was rather generous on his part to offer to do this first; not that he minded of course, but he wouldn't mind it being the other way around either. He hoped one day to ease Gaara into it, to be able to make love to him, even if it was just once, just to see if Gaara really hated it or- but right here and now, there were too many reasons why it was going to be in this order.

"Fine. I didn't want to say this, but..." Lee took a deep breath and released it, "we have some practical concerns here. In regards to your Sand Barrier."

Gaara's eyes flickered towards the door. So did Lee's; he couldn't help it.

"You see, this sort of- anal sex." Why did it feel as if his mouth was going to curl up and die when he said something like that? Gaara didn't seem to have any problems. "It can be painful. It is painful. The first time, that is. Now, thanks to my training, my resistance to pain is one of the highest in both our villages, while you can count on your fingers the number of times you've been physically injured. That's why it really makes sense for you to be on top."

Gaara stared at him and then his eyes narrowed to slits. "So you think I'm weak."

"Wha-at?! No, that's not what I- you're one of the strongest men I know!"

"Well then," Gaara said smoothly, turning towards the bed.

"But-but Gaara!" Lee clutched his hair. "What about the Sand? If I hurt you-"

"You would have to hurt me considerably to get me to lash out at you. I do have some control over myself," Gaara said, looking back at him. "And more than anything in my life, I never want to injure you again. That resolve will protect you."

Lee was struck dumb by the intensity of the look in those green eyes.

"Your physical control is better than mine," Gaara continued, voice flat, monotone, unbending. "If you go slowly, it won't hurt, and neither of us will be at risk."

"I heard it can hurt even if you go slow," Lee countered, trying to get back onto solid ground.

"It stings a bit, but hardly enough to get me to harm anyone, much less you," Gaara said, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring. "The muscles stretch with only minimal discomfort. I tried it in the shower yesterday, and even though fingers are not the same as-"

Lee didn't hear the rest. Once he'd figured out what Gaara was saying, he had to go sit down.

"- doubt it can be that painful, if people do it for pleasure-...Lee?"

Lee clutched the edge of the bed as if he thought it might buck him off. "You-...tried-..."

His heart was slamming against his ribs and choking him. His imagination had seized upon Gaara's practical words and was conjuring the kind of fantasies he'd never had the audacity to even dream of...Gaara, face to the wall, eyes sliding shut as he arched sensuously against the shower tiles, his hand slipping behind his back, his fingers reaching down to-

Then Gaara was straddling his lap, pressing against the hard-on that was fast dragging all the blood from every inch of Lee, except his face which had to be a very exceptional shade of red right now. Lee opened his mouth to protest- Gaara kissed him deeply, savagely, and moved hard against him.

Lee thought he was going to black out. His hands were on Gaara's ass, trying to get him to move like that again, and he could still see it- Gaara's eyes closed in bliss that almost looked like pain it was so intense as his fingers moved, panting as the water cascaded down- agh!

He accidentally bit his tongue when Gaara shoved him back to lie on the bed. It snapped him out of his fantasy-induced trance. He gasped in some air and caught Gaara by the shoulders as his lover made to kiss him again.

"W-wait-"

Lee fished around desperately for all the reasons he had lined up, but they seemed to have vanished when his brain flat-lined.

"But...why?" he asked plaintively. "Can't you give me one reason?"

Gaara stared down at him. When he finally spoke, his voice was reasonable, almost gentle.

"Lee, if you'd asked me half a year ago, I would have told you I had no sex drive to speak of. These desires I now feel...I don't understand them yet. I don't know what to do with them. For this first time, it's safer to rely on your reactions and instincts, and for me to take the passive role."

"Why?" Lee yelped, panic washing through him. "I haven't done it before either! I'm not a genius, I never get anything right the first time, I-"

"You don't have to be a Taijutsu master to get this right. Civilians have sex all the time. From the number of kids running around this place, they're quite good at it. You know what to do. Humans have it wired in here." A warm fingertip pressed against Lee's forehead.

Lee took in a steadying breath and let it out again. He knew that when it came to these new feelings or impulses that Lee had awoken with a touch, Gaara still didn't trust himself. He trusted Lee. Lee wasn't sure that the 'passive' role was any less daunting, but this was Gaara's choice, and Lee had to respect his lover's evaluation of what he might enjoy and what he felt like trying. They could give it a shot, and stop at the first sign that it wasn't going well.

But all that aside, there was one thing Lee wanted to be absolutely clear on.

"Gaara, you've been mistreated since you were a baby and you've got a demon bound up inside you, but you're still human."

A flicker of sadness crossed Gaara's face as his fingertips brushed Lee's cheek.

"Make me believe that," he whispered.

Aha! A challenge! Lee didn't know about showing Gaara his humanity, but he did want to make Gaara feel good. If he didn't, he'd- he'd- he'd perform-...he'd think of something suitably gruelling later, when Gaara wasn't rubbing against him like that.

He lifted Gaara away and rolled over onto the bed with him. He lifted up the linen tunic, the pads of his fingers trailing over the smooth skin beneath it. Gaara’s hands caressed Lee's sides and ended up at his buttons.

Lee didn’t pay too much notice to the disappearance of his clothes. Having Gaara stare at him with that hungry, attentive look a few times had cured Lee of whatever physical shyness about his body he might still have harbored. He was almost getting used to being naked by now. He was not getting used to seeing Gaara pull off his own clothes, though, or being allowed to touch that breath-taking body. But then again, Lee had no intention of ever becoming used to that. He wanted it to be a fresh wonder each and every time.

Gaara sat back and slid off the training pants he’d been wearing, and Lee's heartbeat went soaring. They’d been this far before; they’d explored each other’s bodies, curious and cautious, on one of their three previous times. It didn’t make this moment any less bewitching and unnerving, especially in view of today's ultimate goal.

Lee's eyes watered as they roamed over the strong, lean frame. His fingers followed closely. Gaara slipped down to lie beside him, no sign of modesty or embarrassment in his movements. He touched Lee’s face, caressed his throat, then the green eyes dropped to Lee’s hands which were smoothing the skin of Gaara’s chest and hips.

Lee watched his fingers caress the bump of a hipbone, sweep up to linger on muscles and creamy skin. He dropped a kiss against Gaara’s hard belly, feeling the heat from Gaara’s skin warm his flushed face. He...had that strange urge again; to lean over and- and nibble on that flawless skin. To make a small, human mark on that demon-possessed body usually encased in Sand. He didn't, of course. He always treated Gaara with extreme gentleness and made sure never to hurt him or startle him. Out of love and out of a small part of self-preservation as well.

Then Gaara moved into his arms, and Lee's thinking processes concentrated on the breathtaking fact that they were both completely naked and pressed against each other. No, he was just never, ever going to get used to this...

His thumb lightly circled a nipple the color of sandstone in the dim, warm light. Inexperience still clung to him, unsure of what Gaara might like or dislike, unsure he was doing it right, if he’d notice if he was doing it wrong. So many ways of touching, so many places to touch- Lee had had no clue there were so many possibilities. Sex-ed had really fallen short in so many ways, in his modest opinion.

A kiss lingered while hands explored. Lee's fingers trailed over hard muscles, caressed the firm lines of Gaara's back, his hipbones, his thighs. Then his palm fit over Gaara’s erection. His lover’s breath trickled out against Lee’s throat before Gaara kissed the edge of his jaw. Lee’s fingers were steady and careful, his body responding better than his mind was to uncertainty and excitement. Even when fingers found his own hard-on and made sure it got a whole lot harder.

He was kissing a beautifully delineated collarbone - and resisting the urge to nip it, dammit - when Gaara finally squirmed out of his arms. Tension tightened the muscles of Lee's shoulders, but he let Gaara move to the side of the bed where he'd dropped the jar of ointment earlier.

Gaara scooped out some of the lubricant, letting the run-off spill from his fingers.

"Er, do you want me to do that?" Lee asked, sitting up slowly. He’d be able to reach that, um, area a lot easier than Gaara could, and of course Lee would be able to see what he was doing.

Gaara glanced at him in surprise, and then ever so briefly his eyes flickered towards the door.

"I'd better do it," he said quietly.

Lee's apprehension cranked up a couple of notches. He tried to keep it out of his body language.

Gaara got to his knees facing Lee and slipped his hand behind his back, and Lee managed to forget about everything around him including the bloody Sand as he realized he was going to get a re-enactment of his earlier fantasy right here and right now and for real.

Gaara arched forward a fraction, arm dipping down, hand out of sight. After a few seconds, he glanced down at the open jar he was still holding. "It's a lot easier with this than with soap," he said prosaically.

Oh good. Lee was glad to hear that. Nonetheless, now would be a good time to put a moratorium on Gaara's straightforward and blunt approach to sex. Lee wasn't sure how much information he could handle right now.

Even without the commentary, it was almost more than Lee could handle. Gaara’s movements were slow, but without any trace of diffidence or shame. Lee could see the muscles of Gaara’s forearm moving, and he realized he was naming each muscle in his head in an attempt to focus on something that wasn't going to leave him quaking.

Gaara’s back arched a bit. There was a faint flush on his cheeks, darkening his face and lips like sunburn; it was excitement, not embarrassment. Lee had by now figured out that Gaara was physically incapable of the latter. Gaara had little self-consciousness and absolutely no idea just how amazingly erotic and discomforting it was to watch him do that.

Lee’s propriety was torturing him with red-hot pokers, telling him he should look away from the body offered to his eyes without any sign of constraint. But where else was he supposed to look? And every flicker on Gaara’s face or in his posture - determination, caution, a sudden flash of discomfort - would rivet Lee’s eyes helplessly to the sight, turning his brain into an anxious mulch of worry and desire. There was a tightness to Gaara’s lips now, it spoke of a bit of effort and something that was not entirely unlike pain, and Lee was having to try hard not to fidget or wince every time Gaara inhaled sharply, or frowned, or-

"Relax," Gaara said, most of his concentration on what his fingers were doing. "I've seen you more at ease in a fight."

"Yes. Sorry," Lee said automatically.

Gaara's green eyes drifted over his face. "Why are you so nervous?"

"I've never done this before!"

"You told me that everything we’ve done this last fortnight was new to you too, yet you seemed pretty composed while doing it."

"Er..." That was true. Sure, Lee had felt awkward and unsure, but he'd fallen back on Shinobi instincts gained during his training, a mental space where actions were measured and self-doubt was not allowed, only caution. Why did he feel so wired now?

Because this was It. This was the moment. He was going to make love to Gaara, to the person who counted the most for him. Lee had been getting a crash course in Reality versus Romance this past fortnight, but a small part of him had been clinging to this moment still. He'd wanted it to be magical. He'd wanted it to be romantic. He'd wanted it to be Perfect.

It probably wasn't going to be. But there was something that mattered a lot more than Perfect. He rose up onto his knees and cupped Gaara's face with his hands.

"I love you," he said softly, with everything he had.

Gaara's movements stopped and he stared at Lee.

Lee kissed him, letting his hands drift down Gaara's arms, his back. When he broke the deep, gentle kiss, they were both breathing more rapidly.

"Closer," Gaara said, his voice its usual monotone but his eyes as deep as the sea. "I want us to be as close as we can be."

"Now?" Lee quavered, tensing up again.

"No, give me another minute." Then he leaned forward and kissed Lee, putting down the jar and letting his free hand brush scars and skin and shivers.

It felt a lot longer than a minute. When Gaara's fingers trailed over Lee's erection, time seized up and snarled itself into knots. Gaara's hand left Lee panting and wracked with pleasurable shudders, clinging to Gaara's shoulders. There was a click of fingernails against glass as Gaara reached out to the jar without looking away from Lee. Then his hand was back, cooler and slick. Lee closed his eyes and stifled a whimper at the extra layer of sensations. He could feel Gaara's gaze on him; Gaara always looked at him in these moments with something like hungry desire, as if Lee's pleasure was more real to him than his own.

Gaara finally leaned back, removed both his hands from their tasks and wiped his fingers on the sheet. He turned away from Lee and started to lean over onto his hands.

Lee reacted and caught him by the shoulders, twisting him around again in a rustle of bedcovers that knocked the jar askew.

"Wait. Wait. Um..."

Lee rescued the ointment and screwed the lid on with tense fingers while he tried to formulate his thoughts. Gaara looked at him steadily and without a comment.

"I...I want to see your face. I need to see your face, and make sure I'm not hurting you."

Gaara seemed to weigh that thoughtfully.

"That would be a good idea. But how would we do that? The few times I observed two men having sex, there was always one on hands and knees-"

"I'm sure it's possible." Lee's voice was determined. He was rather wishing he'd studied porn as assiduously as Kakashi-sensei had at one time suggested, but he'd rather figure it out - and see Gaara's face - than rely on Gaara's past as an innocent voyeur as a guide. That just creeped him out on so many levels.

"Trust me, I'll figure it out," Lee said, mind working fast, knowledge of movement and anatomy flashing through his mind. They were both pretty flexible-

Gaara nodded shortly once, as if his trust in Lee was something self-obvious that hadn't needed any words to ensure it. Lee's trust in himself wasn't at an all-time high, but Gaara waited patiently and with utmost confidence, and he really couldn't fail that now, could he?

He gently eased Gaara down onto his back, head on the pillow, then he shifted down and nudged Gaara's legs to bend at the knee.

"Can you...tilt your..."

Gaara lifted his hips, and finally his legs too, under the pressure of Lee's fingers. His lips were a firm line tight with vestiges of tension and restraint. Lee had felt it beneath his fingers as they touched, he could see it in Gaara's body language. His lover wasn't quite as self-assured as he might appear superficially, but there was no hesitation as he followed the suggestions of Lee's hands.

Lee crept nearer, his thigh bumped Gaara's, and this was it, this was real, he was actually going to do this, and though he knew deep down that he was as ready as he'd ever be, his heart was beating as hard as when he opened his first three Gates.

"Tell me right away if this hurts," he said, voice more severe than he'd intended. Most of his concentration was on his fingers guiding his erection towards the ripple and dip of flesh they'd found, awkwardly slick with lube.

It took a few small changes in their position and a press forward a bit more firm than Lee liked, before he felt something give. He supported the curve of Gaara's body with his own, his arm curling around Gaara's leg, pushing it back a bit, propping them into position. The other hand sunk into the mattress near Gaara's ribs. Lee felt his balance, making sure he was absolutely in control of every movement he might make. He hadn't thought this moment would feel so much like moving through a brand new kata, one you absolutely had to get right the first time. 'Humans have it wired in here'? Not really...

Lee's attention was split and scattered, eyes on his lover's face, hunting for signs of pain, ears open for a scrabble of Sand at the door, body feeling its way forward. It was different than mouth or hand; less moisture, more pressure. Lot more pressure. Lee stopped, and the band of muscles gripped him more than he'd thought it would. How much were they supposed to relax? Maybe Gaara hadn't done this bit properly - dammit, Lee should have made sure-

"Come on," Gaara said. "It doesn't hurt." But to Lee's ears, his voice sounded taut and controlled.

Lee moved forward again. The tightness coiled like a ring about half an inch from the head of his erection. The movement wasn't any easier than that first push.

"You can go deeper," Gaara muttered, shifting his head against the pillow.

"Don't want to go too fast," Lee mumbled, cautioning himself more than answering.

"You aren't."

"...You sure?" He could move, but it felt nowhere as easy and natural as he'd hoped it would.

Gaara didn't answer. His eyes had narrowed. A sign that Lee should get on with it. Now.

Lee moved again, barely. At the back of his mind was the knowledge that he always had to try, try and try again before overcoming his challenges, but he couldn't do that here, this was Gaara, his lover, he didn't have the luxury of getting it wrong. And it felt like he was forcing his way in-

The word 'forcing' struck ugly, alarming echoes in his head; memories of sex-ed class, the ones he thought he'd gotten over. All the ways you could do this wrong, all the ways it could be abuse- rape- Lee froze.

"Gaara- this-this isn't right! I'm hurting you, this is too-"

Lee started when a hand landed hard on his mouth. He stared past the fingers gagging him. Gaara was looking up at him with an echo of a familiar and worrisome pinpoint pupil stare.

"When we first met, you kicked me through the Sand Barrier," his lover said in his unhurried, dangerous monotone. "You cracked the Armour, punched me repeatedly and hammered me into the floor hard enough to leave a crater. Even the Sand couldn't absorb all that impact; I was black and blue all over for days after that. That hurt. This does not hurt. Now, to use your phrase, get a grip. And- and-" Gaara's borderline-lethal look melted into a frown. He took his hand away from Lee's mouth and squirmed against the sharp bend of his waist and hips. "And do something..."

"Wh-what-"

"I-" Gaara leaned back against the mattress again, moved his shoulders. "I don't know- but do something!"

Lee took a second to draw a steadying breath. Gaara didn't look distressed; he looked a bit fidgety and increasingly annoyed, but not in any pain, and there was no hiss of Sand at the door or anything alarming. This...was apparently normal. Now- instructions- there wasn't anything he was supposed to do now, that he'd forgotten- no? And the pressure around his erection was growing. Like a tightening heat band. Lee twitched his hips back a bit, instinctively-

Instantly Lee knew what he had to do. What he needed to do.

He let his body reach for what it wanted, though he kept a tight rein on it. He didn't want to hurt Gaara. He pressed in again. It felt less forceful this time. He drew back and pushed in again-

- Gaara's eyes widened.

Oh...

...damn...

The best part though-...

Pleasure curled through his nervous system with every small push forward.

Glide of flesh in flesh, immediate and real and intimate, coiling hot and violent in his gut.

But the best part was...Lee fought to keep his eyes focused, because this, this right here, this was the best part.

Gaara's lips were parted. The expression on his face-...It wasn't entirely pleasure, he looked...surprised, too. There was also more control and discomfort there than Lee would like. But...

But...

But the way Gaara's eyelids flickered and his mouth opened wider in a silent gasp at Lee's thrusts...It joined them. It was as if the pleasure coursing through Lee was flowing directly into his lover's body and back again like the tide, as if some last barrier between them had finally crumbled.

His usual modesty had melted into something primal. Lee watched Gaara intently and without any self-consciousness. He didn't miss the minute ways Gaara moved in response to the thrusts into his body, or any twitch of expression. Fist tightening on the sheets- go slow. Flicker of eyelid- that's better. Lips parted in a silent gasp- he likes that...

Gaara was almost entirely still beneath him apart from the sharp lift and fall of his chest, but there was the slightest nudge from the leg pressed against Lee’s hip when Lee moved in and stopped. It pushed Lee on, then relaxed with him, the tide moving them both.

Lee’s breath and heartbeat were loud in his ears. He could feel every muscle in his highly trained body forming a whole, moving exactly as he wanted them to. As Gaara wanted them to.

He licked his lips. He wasn't going to come before Gaara did.

Gaara blinked, then his eyelids slid closed - shudder of discomfort and pleasure entwined-

Lee was not going to come before-...uhn...good thing he loved a challenge.

Gaara finally moved. His hand reached up and blindly fastened on Lee's supporting arm. Fingers gripped convulsively.

This wasn't going to last long. Gaara's breathing was getting shallow and ragged, a familiar pattern; it was a sound Lee was beginning to know and love as much as Gaara's heartbeat and the way Gaara spoke to him sometimes when they were alone.

Gaara made a small sound, a hissing gasp. Not pain, not quite pleasure either, and beyond both.

Fingers felt like a blind man's, up Lee's shoulder, his neck, touched his cheek as Lee leaned forward into that touch. Lee turned his head, nuzzled at the palm.

Gaara's leg was pressing him to go further, but Lee kept the movements slow and measured.

It felt...

- I hope I'm not hurting him -

...just...

- I hope I'm doing this right-

The warm pressure caressed and squeezed him, in-out, in-out; sensual and maddening.

Gaara arched his neck against the pillow. He was shaking.

It was too much. Watching Gaara- keeping absolute control over his body- the pleasure growing with each gentle thrust until it just- Lee couldn't handle it all. Too new, too sudden, too real-

The only thing left was the control he had over his movements. He would never hurt Gaara. Everything else was sudden, shocking, intense pleasure as he twitched his hips in-out-in and came.

Fingers drifted over his face, touched his closed eyelids as he threw his head back, shuddering heavily. Gaara groaned softly. There was absolutely no pain in that sound.

Lee was panting, his forehead pressed against Gaara's chest. He could feel his spine complaining at the angle he'd bent himself into. He'd slumped when his supporting arm had gone a bit wobbly, something that normally didn’t happen unless he'd been training for days. His whole body felt warm, pleasantly heavy.

Gaara was touching his back with gentle fingers. Lee breathed deeply the scent of their combined bodies.

Then Gaara poked him in the ribs and squirmed a bit. Oh, right.

Lee used his body like a tool, pulling out of the warm, slick place, sliding himself down numbly. His mouth barely touched Gaara's erection- his lover jerked and moaned, a low sound Lee was going to remember for a long time. In fact it was about to become his sworn duty to get Gaara to make that sound again in the future.

Gaara's body twisted and tensed beneath Lee’s fingers and then his lover came beneath his tongue. Lee swallowed and waited until Gaara was panting, body loose against the sheets, then he lifted his head and wiped his chin absently, mind numb. His body, now let off the leash he'd had it on from the start, slumped against Gaara's, head pillowed on his lover's chest, and everything was quiet and good for a minute.

Then Gaara nudged him.

"On my leg," he muttered, as if saying all the words in that sentence was an effort he was not inclined to make.

Lee moved, practically in a dream, rolled them both around until he was on his back and Gaara was lying against him, body against body, close and safe and nothing bad had happened, quite the contrary...

"Gaara?" Lee stirred, his conscience prodding him to make sure. "Was that...are you okay? Are you feeling sore?"

There was a long silence. Lee craned his neck, but he couldn't see Gaara's face from that angle. Just as he was about to struggle to sit up, Gaara whispered: "I feel warm..."

Lee craned his neck and squinted, not wanting to jolt Gaara if there wasn't any immediate injury to attend to. His lover's head was a tousled red mop from that angle. He appeared to be kneading his chest gently. His movements looked slow and languid, without any trace of alarm, and Lee let his budding tension evaporate.

"Yes, it is hot in here. We should open the window," Lee said with a vague look in that direction. Wouldn't hurt to get some fresh air in. Except that would involve removing Gaara from where he was lying half-sprawled on Lee, and getting up.

Hmmmmm-no. Heat wouldn't kill him. And Lee decided that he liked Gaara right where he was.

There'd been the slightest snort from his lover. As if Lee had said something unintentionally amusing.

A scratching noise made Lee glance at the door. A trickle of Sand wormed its way under the jamb, then formed itself into the vague shape of a hand and scurried across the floor. Lee watched it with some concern, but it skirted the bed, crawled up the wall and disappeared behind the curtain. He could hear it fiddle with the latch, and then the curtain blew towards them with a faint waft of air. Lee glanced from the window to Gaara in surprise, to see Gaara's fingers relax and rest once more on Lee's stomach. Though Gaara had the ability, he rarely used his Sand for anything trivial like that. A good Shinobi always kept his weapons sheathed and hidden until needed. Besides, Gaara's relationship with his powerful weapon was complex and fraught with dangerous feelings; he knew how people feared its appearance. Offhand, Lee couldn't ever remember Gaara using the Sand for anything other than attack or defense.

But Gaara knew Lee didn't fear him or the Sand. And apparently the Kazekage didn't feel like budging either just right now. Lee felt a quiet contentment as he caressed Gaara's shoulder and smiled.

A syrup of thoughts trickled through his brain. I did it. I just had sex. Real sex. Wow. And it was amazing. I hope Gaara enjoyed it. I hope I did it okay.

"So...um, did you like it?" he asked, the question slipping out without much forethought. "I'm sorry that didn't last very long- but I wasn't too rough, was I? You sure you're not sore?"

There was a few seconds of contemplative silence from Gaara.

"It can last longer?" he asked, in a voice that sounded decidedly interested.

"I think, yeah." Lee scratched his head. The delightful heaviness in his limbs was fading.

Gaara was silent for a few seconds, then he lifted his head and Lee blinked into intense green eyes. "It felt...I could feel you moving. In me. And the pleasure it gave you...I could see it. We were so close...I gave you that..."

Then he paused. Lee didn't know what kind of face he was making: he was touched by Gaara's words, but he was also a bit embarrassed, and confused, and still rather worried, and it was probably all there and mixed up in his expression.

"You meant, how did it feel physically," Gaara said with a small smirk, letting his head sink back against Lee's chest. "It didn't hurt. I told you it wouldn't. There was some discomfort, but it was trivial compared to the sort of pain we run into on the battlefield. Discomfort isn't even the right word...Mainly it felt..."

Gaara's hand twitched against Lee's skin in something akin to frustration, then it settled back on his abs with a minimal caress of the thumb across the ridges of Lee’s muscles. "It was not what I imagined it would be, but it felt good. I liked it."

Lee took that at face value; with Gaara, it was a safe thing to do. He felt something unwind deep inside of him. Relief, pleasure. A bit of pride, too.

They were silent and mostly still, except for Gaara slowly wiping up various wet spots with a corner of the sheet in such a way that he didn't have to remove his head from Lee's chest to do so.

Lee listened to the faint whisper of the curtains letting in a welcomed afternoon breeze, lazy and fat with heat but still a relief. A woman was shouting a few streets away, telling some kid to stop teasing the dog. Crows were squabbling on a nearby roof. The Kazekage's house sounded utterly silent by comparison. Only their breathing, soft and unhurried now.

Finally Lee twisted his neck and looked down at the slice of Gaara's face he could see. The dark eyes were shut, two black smudges against pale skin, the mark on his forehead buried in spilled strands of red.

"So do you feel more human?" he asked, only partly teasing.

A slight crease formed between Gaara's eyes. "If I say no, what stupid rule did you impose on yourself?"

"...To do it again?"

The corners of Gaara's mouth twitched up. "That is an acceptable rule," he declared, rolling away and onto his back in a stretch, one hand still lingering against Lee's chest. "I want to do it again too."

Lee's youthful energy came back in a rush. He hauled a startled Gaara back into his arms and buried his face in a creamy neck with a happy grin on his face. After a few seconds, fingers hesitantly threaded themselves through his hair, wandered over his shoulders and back.

Then Gaara stirred and moved away from Lee's arms. Lee made a drowsy sound of protest and wiggled over on the bed, keeping his arms around Gaara and tugging back gently.

"I have to go," Gaara announced a touch regretfully as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "We're organizing the next series of patrols for Unit B starting tomorrow. I have a meeting in half an hour and I have to shower first. Some of my Jounin have very sensitive noses."

Made perfect sense; much more sense than Lee's desire to continue to stay wrapped up together in a hot room, skin against sticky skin. But...

"Can I join you? It'll save water," Lee added virtuously, his hands still glued to Gaara's hip. Lee wasn't much of an aesthete outside of martial arts, but he thought that the contrast of the darker tan of his scarred fingers against Gaara's unblemished and gloriously naked skin was something that should be put in a museum. A private museum.

"It's not a big shower," Gaara said, looking down at him doubtfully.

"I can make myself real small."

The thin sand-coloured lips quirked. "I don't believe that."

But a hand grabbed Lee by the wrist, hauled him out of the bed with lazy strength and dragged him towards the bathroom. Lee followed with a happy grin.

It hadn't been perfect, he had to admit. Too short, too nerve-wracking, too awkward, too damn new- But then again, if it had been perfect, they'd have nothing left to figure out. Nothing to work on together and improve. If it had been perfect, there'd be no chance of making it better through hard work, dedication and a great number of repeated attempts.

Lee found himself thinking that perfect wasn't all that it was made out to be after all.

Chapter Text

Lee's inner romantic had taken a severe pounding these past two weeks, but it was not entirely defunct yet. It had spent all morning trying to persuade him that, the day after Gaara had given himself to Lee like that, the least Lee could do was show up with a bouquet of flowers the next morning. And maybe a small haiku on eternal love was in order. Fortunately Lee's common sense shot both those suggestions down. Gaara and flowers just didn't go together. Gaara and love poetry didn't belong within the same realm of existence.

So he was heading towards Gaara's office empty-handed. His inner romantic was trying to make him feel like an ungrateful cad, but was having only mitigated success. In truth Lee was distracted, and had been distracted all morning. He'd tried to work, only to be constantly reminded of the previous day's encounter by just about anything: the breeze ruffling the curtain, a loosened bandage showing a hint of flesh at his wrist, the beat of his own heart...the suggestive shape of the stapler...he'd never noticed how it looked like two bodies joined together at one point before, closing in for-

Needless to say, he hadn't gotten much work done. So not only was he empty-handed, he was also running late. His inner romantic had disavowed him. And he was still very distracted. When Gaara's aide stepped out of the Kazekage's office unexpectedly, Lee almost bowled him over.

"Lee-san," the aide murmured and made to walk on by before the expression on Lee's face arrested him. Lee had taken one look at the man and spontaneously combusted as he remembered the aide’s shopping expedition and his unwitting contribution to yesterday's event.

"Um, hello. Hot day," Lee croaked, waving a hand in front of his flushed face.

The Sand Jounin looked at him quizzically but didn't comment. He was exceedingly professional, like all Sand Shinobi, and taciturn and quiet even by their standards.

"Go on in, he's free," was all he said. "I have a dispatch for your inspection after you've eaten lunch. I'll be in my office."

"I'll be there," Lee said, then when the aide had left without a further word, he leaned against the wall and thumped his forehead with his fist. Hot day? Right. This was why they never gave him any undercover work. Hopefully a ferocious blush was not going to be enough of a clue to lead the aide to conclude that Lee was sleeping with the man's boss.

Lee took a few deep breaths as if he was about to start one of his more stringent exercises. Then he knocked on the office door and walked straight in, trying not to feel so nervous. This would be the first time he'd be seeing Gaara after they'd showered and gone their separate ways yesterday. Though he wasn’t about to spring poetry on his boyfriend - who knew how Gaara of the Desert would react to that - Lee still felt odd pretending this was just any other ordinary day.

A busy day, rather. There were papers all over Gaara's workspace, on the side-table, on the floor, and there was even a powder-blue folder recklessly perched on top of the gourd leaning against the nearby wall. Gaara was seated at his desk, riffling through a stack of papers as if looking for one in particular.

- Lee remembered water dripping from Gaara's darkened red hair as Lee pretended to help him clean his back, while really just using the excuse of a bit of soap and water to indulge in that intoxicating body until he thought he was going to drown...

"Good morning, Gaara! Sleep well?" Lee said, trying to sound casual. Which would have worked if it hadn't been a quarter past twelve already and addressed to a man who hardly ever slept, well or otherwise.

Gaara nodded fractionally in greeting. He found the paper he was looking for, drew it out of the pack and set it aside.

"Sorry I'm late," Lee added, trying not to read anything into Gaara's attitude because he knew that this was the way Gaara behaved most of the time anyway. "Ready for lunch?"

Gaara closed the folder on the errant form and leaned back in his chair, eyes finally resting on Lee.

"Not today," he said a trace regretfully. "I have an appointment."

"Oh, that's okay." The fact that Gaara did look a bit put out about it was reassuring. Or at least Lee hoped it was. His inner romantic was suggesting that flowers would have bought him a better reception, but now that he was actually looking at the stone-cold reality that was Gaara, Lee knew to his core that this was nonsense. And Lee felt oddly content at the thought. It was, after all, the real Gaara he’d fallen for in the first place; the one who didn't even know what romance was and wouldn't much care to find out.

"I'll be eating with Temari," his boyfriend added, crossing his arms and frowning at his desk. "She said she had a surprise for me."

Lee blinked.

"Some political thing in all probability," Gaara stated. "She's bringing someone to lunch with us. She wouldn't tell me who. She said he might not make it in time, so it would be a 'surprise'. I think she's been working too hard."

"You may be right." People didn't spring surprises on Gaara, least of all Temari, who should know better.

Lee balled his fist in a decisive gesture. "Right then! I'll go grab a box of bento at the cafeteria and get back to work right away, I have loads to do." Then he remembered the forms he'd filled in pretty much at random this morning while thinking of the way Gaara had arched his neck against the pillow, mouth open- "Or maybe I'll go train. I can work a double shift tomorrow. Do you think you'll have a bit of free time this evening?"

"That depends on what Temari has in mind exactly. I'll try to make the time."

"You know where to find me if you do."

"Working in your office, training, eating or sleeping," Gaara said, listing the options on the fingers of one raised hand. "You lead a very simple life." A trace of approval belied the dry remark. Gaara liked order and simplicity. He also liked to know where he could find Lee in case he suddenly had one of those dark moments, when he had to check up on him and make sure Lee was still safe. Lee had felt that creepy sensation of being watched again on a couple of occasions these past two weeks. As far as Lee was concerned, it was just one of those things you got used to.

"You know me!" he laughed, rubbing his neck and feeling inordinately pleased for no reason he could adequately explain.

Gaara nodded fractionally. The look in his eyes was the same as when they'd been in bed together yesterday. Intense, still and deep, and entirely focused on Lee who was suddenly blushing again. And he had the urge to...This wasn't the time or place, though. But he really wanted to...and they wouldn't be spending lunch together today, wouldn't be seeing each other until this evening at the earliest...

Caution and desire had a brief struggle in Lee's head and desire won out, as it usually did in these circumstances. Lee walked over to his boyfriend after a cautious glance out of the open window. From this angle, it wasn't easy to see into the office, but Lee always checked. He circled the desk, put one hand on the back of the Kazekage's chair and tilted Gaara's chin up with the other.

It was just supposed to be a simple affectionate kiss. But Lee's mouth lingered as Gaara's lips softened and parted beneath his. Fingers touched Lee's hair, kept him near as their mouths caressed. Lee didn't really think he and Gaara were all that proficient at sex yet, they still had plenty to learn, but they were getting the hang of kissing in Lee's modest opinion. Of course, more practice never hurt.

His hand drifted from Gaara's chin to cup his cheek, skin smooth and warm beneath his scarred fingers. Gaara tilted his head and the kiss got even better.

Gaara broke it first, but it was to stand up, kick back his chair impatiently and move their bodies together.

Lee had always been aware of Gaara's touch, even back when they were friends and a casual nudge to the shoulder was a breakthrough. And he knew when his own touch was unwelcome, when he should keep his distance. It still happened, though not often. When it did, Lee respected that. He had the feeling neither he nor Gaara had much of a choice in the matter. The rest of the time though, he was free to steal the occasional kiss or a brief caress. Gaara would often give him this look when he did so; an almost scientific scrutiny, as if trying to figure out what the human wanted now. But he allowed Lee to touch. He even liked it. He'd even take the first step on occasion, if he felt like reaffirming their bond or pleasing Lee. And maybe out of a growing curiosity to figure out why it felt so good in the first place, the lack of tactile sensation, of contact with another being that had characterized Gaara's childhood creating a void that pulled him forward.

Lee's eyes darted towards the window without breaking the kiss. He hooked an arm around Gaara's waist and took a few steps back, dragging his lover with him until the Jounin fetched up against the wall, out of line of sight. He'd barely settled with his back to the stucco that Gaara's body was once more in full contact with his, one leg slipping between his thighs and hands settling warm and intimate on his hips. Lee breathed in quickly, trying to keep his heart and body under control.

He reached up, framed Gaara's face with his hands and dropped a solemn kiss on the parted lips.

"Thank you," he whispered. "For yesterday. It was...It meant a lot to me. Thanks."

Gaara looked at him oddly, but didn’t say anything and kissed him again instead, which was fine by Lee. He had probably not needed to say anything at all, but he'd wanted to. And maybe his inner romantic would now shut up and let them get on with some more making out.

Lee tried to behave professionally in the Kazekage's office, he really did. Gaara's position commanded his respect, and it felt inappropriate to distract his boyfriend while the latter was trying to work and fulfill his responsibilities to his village. And of course Gaara's door was rarely locked, so there was always the chance someone might walk in on them.

Maybe that was what made it so irresistible. The illicit pleasure of doing something risky and forbidden. Fortunately people knocked before entering the Kazekage's office, which would give a Jounin like Lee plenty of time to be all the way across the room and innocently admiring the decorative calligraphy of Sunagakure's Laws on the wall before the door actually swung open.

One of those venerable scrolls was getting slowly pushed askew by their entwined bodies as the kiss deepened. Lee's legs were braced a couple of feet apart; purely for balance, of course, and to take a bit off of their small height difference. No other reason. The fact that this let Gaara press against him in all sorts of interesting ways was purely a coincidence.

He could feel Gaara's body against his, warm and real, and it made him think of yesterday. He let one hand trail down Gaara's back. It brushed the Kazekage's robe aside and snuck under the shirt Gaara wore beneath it. The unbandaged tips of Lee's fingers trailed across smooth skin with something akin to reverence.

This wasn't quite as nice as having their time together, eating lunch in their secluded spot on the roof. And Temari was going to show up any second now, so Lee had to go, and that was going to be a bit frustrating. But right now, right this instant...it was wonderful. Lee could feel familiar stirrings as Gaara's fingers kneaded his hips. Damn Hormones, surely one day they would be satisfied.

There was a sudden displacement of air.

"Hey, Ga- whoa!!"

A short, intense silence followed.

Everybody in Suna knocked politely on the Kazekage's door before entering, including his siblings. But apparently the latter were also allowed to jutsu in if the fancy took them. Lee rather wished he'd known about this beforehand. He also wished he'd known Kankuro was coming back today. It would have been awkward enough with just Temari, but Lee's bad luck had really outdone itself this time.

Gaara took half a step away from Lee, who jerked his hand out from under Gaara's shirt as if he'd been electrocuted.

"You're finally back," Gaara said, dark-ringed eyes fixed on his brother. "I was starting to think there was some problem you couldn't communicate in a report. Are you injured? Did you find that Sound HQ you were closing in on?"

"Sound?" Kankuro croaked, his eyes perfectly round and fixed on an empty spot two feet to his brother's right, a space devoid of Rock Lees or anything disconcerting.

"Yes. Did you find them?"

"Who?"

Temari still hadn't said anything. She was staring at them fixedly, eyes wide, jaw clenched and nostrils flaring. As for Lee, he was regretting his inability to do ninjutsu like never before, because if there was ever an occasion to disappear in a puff of smoke, this was certainly it. The only one who didn't seem disturbed by any of this was Gaara, who was examining his brother with a trace of growing concern.

"Kankuro, are you alright?"

"Am I...?" Kankuro closed his eyes, shoved back his hood and savagely scrubbed his head. "Well I thought I was."

"How long has this been going on?" Temari asked in a very quiet voice.

Gaara looked at his sister, then at Lee, then back at his sister again.

"A few minutes before you showed up," he answered shortly.

Lee cleared his throat. "About two weeks," he said when Temari looked completely confused at Gaara’s answer.

"Two weeks? I see. Can I ask-"

"But- I mean- you're gay?!" Kankuro blurted out.

There was another silence, and then Temari reached over without looking and cuffed him. It was a testimony to Kankuro's state of shock that he didn't even try to dodge.

"Hey!"

"Will you please keep up with this conversation?!" Temari hissed. Her hawk-like gaze was still fixed on the pair. Lee had the feeling she was trying to figure out how to tackle this. Gaara waited, unperturbed, and Lee tried to shrink back into the wall and disappear.

"You could have told me," Temari finally said. She was talking to Gaara exclusively.

"I didn't want you to worry about something else. You have enough to handle," Gaara answered matter-of-fact.

There was a glint of fury in Temari's eyes at that, but she kept herself under control.

"I see. I'd have rather known, though."

"You know now."

The response sounded insolent, but Temari would know, as did Lee and Kankuro, that it hadn't been meant that way at all; it was just a straightforward answer.

Temari closed her eyes briefly, and when she opened them and focused on the unfortunate Lee, she was much calmer. As calm as a blade slowly sliding from its sheath.

"Lee, I need to speak with you," she said in a way-too-quiet voice. "Kankuro?"

"You don't need me around to talk to Bowl-cut," Kankuro said quickly, hands up in a 'hold it right there' gesture.

"No."

"Right." Kankuro darted an apologetic glance at Lee, relief showing through the war paint. "I got these letters for Gaara, and-"

"Later," Temari said, her eyes like ice. "Right now you need to have a little talk with your brother. He never got the academy seminar, so he probably has a lot of questions for you."

"A talk? Seminar? What are you- fuck no! Temari! Wait, you can't ask me to- how the fuck should I know how they’d do it, I'm straight! I don't know anything about-"

Temari had walked over, grabbed Lee and hauled him out of Gaara's office, ignoring Kankuro's horrified protests.

Her fingers were like claws on his wrist as she pulled him into the conference room down the hall. It was empty at this time of day, though Lee was ready to bet that one look at Temari's face would have emptied the room of any occupant in a second.

She turned towards him, one hand on her hip. The other was behind her back, lightly tapping a nail against her fan.

"Two weeks. Hm?"

"Yes," Lee answered hesitantly. He wasn't sure why that was the first thing she was focusing on.

"So that huge disturbance in the desert over two weeks ago...that 'misunderstanding', as you called it...?"

Lee flinched. She'd put it together even faster than he'd anticipated.

"That really was a misunderstanding," he said carefully. She was staring at him in an unblinking way that reminded him of her brother, and not in a good and happy sense. "Gaara was upset at something I'd done, at a risk I'd taken. We had an argument, and I sort of screwed up and accidentally...um, I told him that I was in love with him, and he- well, he- he didn't do it on purpose- I mean, it was a bit of a shock, considering. Um."

"In love with Gaara. In love with Gaara," Temari said as if she was trying to do differential calculus in her head using the letters of those words.

"Yes," Lee said, straightening up and trying to look serious, honest and determined, when all he wanted to do was hunker down behind the conference room table and get ready to dodge. "I'm in love with your brother."

Temari gave him a very long look, and Lee realized that the anger was a reaction to the shock, a veneer over some deeper concern.

"If it was anybody else who said that..." she muttered. "But I've known you for over a year now, and nobody's that good an actor. But Gaara...he told me years ago he wasn't even capable of-...of..."

With what appeared to be some effort, Temari recaptured the icy fury that had driven her until now.

"Have you both gone out of your minds?!"

Lee opened his mouth, then closed it again as he realized he couldn’t out-and-out say they hadn't, considering some of the highlights of their relationship to date. When a declaration of love left potholes in the desert the size of a garden shed, sane people would have had second thoughts about the whole thing right from the start.

"And you- and Gaara- do you have any idea what kind of position this is going to put both our villages if you two actually decide to- to have-" Temari gestured wildly, giving Lee no clue to what she might be trying to say, "-and if you get-"

Temari stopped abruptly as the door opened. Kankuro stuck his head into the room, then he got shoved forward and Gaara followed him through the door and closed it.

"You can't be done already," Temari said, ice in her tone.

"Ah. Turns out, Gaara don't need it."

"What? What do you mean?"

"Apparently they figured it out on their own already," Kankuro explained, walking over to the wall to glare murderously at a portrait of the second Kazekage, probably to avoid looking at Lee or Gaara or his sister. Beneath the paint, his face was rather red. Presumably Gaara had told him exactly how they’d ‘figured it out on their own’. Lee sympathized; in life, there was direct, and then there was Gaara, who could punch holes through a wall with his brutal, strangely naive honesty.

"Oh," Temari said weakly. "Oh."

Lee thought she'd be furious, but the expression behind the shock was relief, which told Lee what one of her concerns had been. The quick and automatic clinical glance she gave him confirmed it.

"Um, it went fine," Lee managed to mumble, trying to meet her eyes without wincing.

Those three words hung in the air as if Lee had given them both an accurate description of the event with sound effects.

"Right!" Kankuro said loudly as if that could banish the mental images that had probably run through his mind for a brief moment. "If you guys don't need me any more, I'm going to go home and forget today ever happened. I got a bottle that'll help. I'll either drink it, or I'll use it like a blunt instrument, but either way, I'm gettin' amnesia.” Kankuro turned around and marched towards the door. “I'll drop my report on your desk, Gaara, wasn’t anything that needed immediate going-over.”

"Kankuro."

"Oh no, sis. No way in hell. I don't know what you want, but it's no, as in N-fuckin’-O."

"Don't you have something to say to your brother?"

"Huh?" Kankuro glanced back from his sister to Gaara, who looked the same as he always did: as calm and self-contained as a kunai. "Like what? It's a bit too late for the 'don’t rush into it' speech, and there's no point to the 'don't get her pregnant'."

The absolute tumble of the temperature in the room caught his attention. It made even Gaara shift and look at his sister in alarm.

Kankuro stared at her and something passed between them, the unspoken communication of siblings. He sighed loudly, turned and walked up to Gaara who was staring at him, still silent, arms crossed over his chest.

"Let's get this straight," Kankuro growled. "I may have gone a bit tense, seeing you and Bowl-cut clenching against the wall of your office, but I don't really care which way you swing. And Lee's cool. Good Jounin. Got guts." He reached out and slapped Gaara roughly on the shoulder once. "Welcome to the human race, squirt. Have fun."

"Kankuro..."

The puppeteer stopped with his hand on the doorknob and looked back at Gaara. The latter appeared to dismiss the question he'd been about to ask. He just looked at his brother and quietly stated: "It's good to have you back after all this time."

Kankuro's look of pleased surprise was quickly covered by a world-weary smirk.

"Yeah, I'm glad that's over. Those damn Sound bastards were harder to find than sand fleas in the Greater Wastes. But we did find them. Looks like the problem goes deeper than we first thought. We're going to have to smoke them out carefully. Read my report and we can talk it over tomorrow. We've got more work to do, and I have letters from Tsunade and others, but they can wait. Right now I need to go take a shower and get drunk."

The door closed on those last words.

Temari sighed and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling as if looking for a small reserve of patience that might be lurking there.

"What Kankuro was trying to say, and would have said if he wasn't numb between the ears, is that we're glad you found someone, Gaara. Even though it's a...surprise."

Temari was silent for a moment. One hand was still behind her back, twitching her fan in and out of its harness with little creaking noises, a habit of hers that made anyone who knew her a bit nervous. Her eyes were closed, her mouth pinched and she looked like she was trying to reorganize her thoughts and her view of the world by sheer willpower alone.

"I...We'll discuss this later. It's good news though. Yes, of course it’s good news! Just tell me when something like this happens, Gaara. Please. I was...I was rather worried."

Gaara examined her in silence for awhile, face inscrutable. "I can see that," he finally said. "I'm sorry."

"Oh." Temari made a weak 'never mind' gesture she obviously didn't mean. "Don't worry about it, and we'll talk about all this when I- I mean, when Kankuro and I have had a chance to, ah, get used to the idea. I..."

Temari looked at them both and her expression slowly changed, from lightly dazed to serious and guarded.

"I do have one request," she said, and she sounded like the Jounin rather than the bewildered sister. "It's something I want you two to promise me. Please be discreet. Very discreet. Don't let anybody else know what's going on. Don't ask me why," she added with a small cutting gesture as Gaara made to speak. "There are reasons. Please."

Gaara glanced at Lee, who nodded quickly. At this point he was willing to promise Temari anything. She was taking it ten times better than he ever thought she would. Lee had counted on being discreet anyway. He didn't want to jeopardize his relation with the Suna Shinobi he worked with and who'd become his friends, not before he and Gaara were entirely certain where they stood as a couple. They'd been careful up until now. Except for the bit where Temari and Kankuro had caught them making out in the Kazekage's office.

Damn, they wouldn't be able to make out in Gaara's office anymore.

With Temari looking at him with that particular glint in her eye, waiting for him to say it out loud, it seemed a minor sacrifice.

"I promise," Lee said quickly. Gaara just nodded, it was almost more of a shrug.

"Right." Temari lost some of that dangerous look about her, and she smiled at her younger brother. "I was hoping to surprise you at lunchtime with Kankuro's return, Gaara, but I think you trumped me there. We'll have to get together with him later, once he's sober, and see what our plans regarding Sound will be."

"I'll go read his report." Gaara moved towards the door, but Temari stopped him with "Just a minute."

She carefully settled her fan fully back into its harness as if this required all her concentration. Then she turned around and gave Lee a sudden hug, startling him nearly to death. She dropped a couple of sisterly pats on his shoulder and whispered: "I won’t tell you what I’ll do to you if you hurt him, because it will be indescribable. And I don’t need to, right? Because you won't.”

Lee shook his head quickly.

She released him, gave him a warm smile, walked over to Gaara and gave him a hug as well, to the latter's surprise. Lee saw her lips move near Gaara's ear. Then she was throwing the door open and marching out, muttering something about stopping Kankuro from getting totally smashed even if it meant she had to empty the bottle herself.

Gaara stared at the door, then at Lee. He'd caught the shock, tension and muted, confused approval from his siblings, but Lee didn't think Gaara really knew what to make of any of it.

Lee smiled at him. He was trying for reassuring, but it came out a bit weak.

"We did have to tell them sooner or later. That went rather well!"

Gaara frowned at the door. "What did she say to you?"

"She asked me to take care of you," Lee paraphrased carefully. "What did she say to you?"

"That if I ever got really upset, I was to come talk to her or Kankuro before doing anything permanent. Presumably she meant if I got upset with you, but in that case wouldn't you be the one to resolve the issue? What could she or Kankuro do?"

"Be there."

Gaara gave him a look, the kind that requested that Lee make sense now. "Be there? They're there already, except when they're on missions. What do you mean?"

Over a year ago, the Kazekage that Lee had known had never asked that sort of question. He'd never bothered with subtleties such as figures of speech, and rarely tried to understand the finer details of the way the people around him interacted.

Welcome to the human race...

"It's a family thing. Don't worry about it. If you ever need them, you'll understand."

Chapter Text

Kankuro had to hunt around, and for a panicked moment he thought he’d made a mistake and didn’t have that bottle of Wave Country rotgut anymore. He finally found it, stuck under the kitchen sink for some reason.

He broke the seal and eased off the cap as if the liquor inside might explode. He’d gotten drunk a grand total of twice in his life. It wasn’t something you made a habit out of when you had his kind of job.

He knocked one back then and there with an exaggerated shudder. It was some kind of weird barley distillate mixed with an unknown citrus fruit. At thirty percent, it didn't get you drunk fast enough to help you get over the taste. He put down his glass and headed towards the shower. Then he doubled back and took another one for the road.

He scrubbed his wet hair and scalp until it ached, trying to not think about- about it.

He’d only caught a glimpse, but a Shinobi had perfect recall for details, even when he really, really didn’t want to, so he kept seeing flashes of his little brother pinning Rock Lee to the wall - don’t think.

Lee had had his hand up Gaara’s shirt- just forget about it.

Not that he’d actually looked, but there had been tongues involved, he just knew it- ugh- and- and a certain hint of hip grinding- damn it stop visualizing!!

When he came back out into the main room, dressed in clean trainers and a towel around his neck, it was to find that Temari had snuck in and was drinking out of his glass. The gall. The only reason he didn’t kick her out of the house was because she’d picked up the clothes he’d dropped on his way to the bathroom, the sort of fussy gesture that reminded him that Temari was his sister. Yeah, they were family, kin, bound by ties of blood, so he had to put up with her and one day he might even forgive her for making him give Gaara The Talk. Right after she died horribly, of course.

But the situation called for commiseration among people who’d just been through the same shock.

"Well," Temari said coolly, tapping her nails on his counter.

"Well," he echoed ironically as he got a new glass from the cupboard.

"Rock Lee, huh?"

"Shut the fuck up, I’m trying not to think about it."

Kankuro grabbed the bottle while his mind sped like a hamster on a wheel. Gaara. Gaara had fallen for someone. Gone the distance too, and let someone in. Ugh, stupid innuendo. Not thinking about that. But yeah. The all-powerful Kazekage; utterly controlled, dangerous, untouchable- lying panting on his back and taking it- notthinkingabouthat! God. Gaara. His little brother. Gaara had had sex. With a guy. With Rock Lee! Gaara! Gaara had fallen for someone- had Kankuro really returned to the right village?

Temari pushed her glass at him for a refill. They were teacups, not really what should be used for this type of alcohol but who the fuck cared.

"I like Lee. So do you," she challenged.

"Sure," Kankuro answered loudly, spilling drops as he put the bottle back down with a clunk. "He’s okay. But he’s Lee, for fuck’s sake! He’s-he’s- come on!"

Lee was just this energetic green streak in the background as far as Kankuro was concerned. Alternatively cheerful, stubborn and oh-so-earnest, sometimes all three at once. But he'd become Gaara's friend, and for that Kankuro would have put up with a lot more weirdness than Lee's constant self-imposed challenges. Crazy Leaf, always practicing like a maniac. But he was okay to chat with if you'd had a hard day and just felt like not thinking about the darker side of being a Shinobi for awhile...In fact, he’d sort of become Kankuro's friend too, though the Sand Jounin didn't like to admit it to himself, because sometimes friends died, and also because, well, he was Lee, all bowl-cut and legwarmers and grand declarations. He was easier to tease than treat as a bosom buddy, but yeah, Kankuro did like the freak most times.

But Lee and Sex just didn't go together in Kankuro's mind. It was almost as unimaginable as Gaara and Sex. And the thought that Lee had gotten it on with Kankuro’s little brother...Gaara, Lee and Gaara, Gaara and Lee, K-I-S-S- oh for fuck's sake.

Kankuro took another drink, glumly aware that the full breadth of the shock still hadn't penetrated his mind, probably because it was too big. He was counting on the alcohol to dull things until he woke up tomorrow with a hangover, and all this would have settled down in his head as something he could possibly get used to.

"There’s nothing wrong with Lee. He’s a serious and dedicated Shinobi. You’re just jealous because he found someone before you did," Temari sniffed.

Kankuro spilled alcohol all over his chin and boggled at his sister as he wiped it away. “What the fuck? What does that mean? I see plenty of action.”

"Oh please, as if those...indiscriminate flings of yours did anything to you above the beltline."

“Well at least I’m getting laid,” Kankuro pointed out. “How’s what’s-his-name? Still dancing around with ‘just friends’?”

Temari shot him a look that would have rendered a lesser man to jelly, but Kankuro had grown up with Gaara of the Desert, so he just smirked.

He knew his sister was rather taken with ‘That Guy’, which was how Kankuro had mentally dubbed the Sand Jounin in question. She was waiting for That Guy to make a pitch and take her out, because she was too proud to be the one who asked first. But since That Guy was worried about Gaara’s reaction, nothing was happening. Which proved how stupid That Guy was. Gaara didn’t even know he existed. He should be more worried about Kankuro, who was starting to think that a man who couldn’t deal with the chick’s younger brother being the head of his village, a demon-possessed powerhouse and a one-time homicidal psychopath was probably not worth his big sister’s time.

Kankuro opened his mouth to mine this familiar vein of sibling rivalry some more...when the thought struck him. From the way Temari suddenly emptied her glass, it had struck her too.

Kankuro poured some more for both of them in silence and stared at the vile, yellowish drink.

“Our caustic, Tail-ridden, one-time nutjob of a little brother got shacked up before either of us,” Kankuro finally said. “What the hell happened here?”

“They’re not shacked up,” Temari muttered sullenly into her glass.

“You know that’s just a technicality,” Kankuro said, and then noted how he’d had to negotiate the word ‘technicality’ like it was foreign territory. Finally this stuff was kicking in. It had to be, because for starters he could see some humor in the situation. “I mean, this is Lee we’re talking about. You could use him for definitions of the words dependable and faithful. And if nothing else, he’s as tenacious as a, um, well, as a rock, haha, and Gaara’s now gonna hang onto him like a limpet, because who else would have the guts to feel him up like that, so really, all we’re waiting for is to have a party where the Kazekage comes out to the village - oh man, that’ll be fun - and-“

"We tell nobody." The words cracked around Kankuro's small kitchen area like a whip.

Kankuro stared at her. This wasn't the sister he could tease, this was the Jounin and Gaara's second in command speaking.

"Why?" he asked, eyes narrowing, mind stirring out of its gathering haze.

Temari spoke crisply, but her gaze was turned inward. "There could be consequences. For both of them. Consequences we cannot afford at present. Not right now. We need a few months. At least. And I don't know-...it's going to take some negotiating. I'm not sure how Suna will react, either. Everybody's been worried about Gaara-"

She suddenly broke off and bent her head so that her blond bangs hid her eyes. Her mouth was pinched and tight. Kankuro looked at her in alarm.

"You okay, sis?"

"Yes, of course," Temari snorted. She rubbed her nose viciously, making it redden.

"Yes, of course, sure, why not. Look at me, Tem."

Temari's head shot up and she glared at him as viciously as the drink scrubbing the enamel from his teeth. Kankuro upheld the glance and looked at her. Really looked at her. He'd been too busy before, getting his worn-out unit home, giving her a summary of the situation, popping off to see Gaara, suffering a major cardiac incident in Gaara's office, Lee and Gaara, Gaara and Lee...

And Temari. Who, now that Kankuro was examining her, looked a lot closer to a meltdown than he'd seen her in ages.

Temari tried to keep up the bold, steely stare that characterized her, but Kankuro told her with no more than a snort to cut out the bullshit. That didn't work on brothers. Temari's eyes flickered away from his and she rubbed her forehead. Her voice tried to be steady but her lips were trembling and she looked really tired.

"I have to admit, Kankuro, I-...I'm glad you're back. There’s been so much going on here. I thought I was going crazy. Well, no, I thought Gaara was going crazy, which is a whole lot worse. Now I know he was just sleeping with Rock Lee. Whoopee. What is this stuff? Tastes like citric acid. Do you have anything stronger?”

“You’re the one who just said you liked Rock Lee,” Kankuro pointed out mildly, still waiting.

“I think they’re both crazy. I’m just glad Gaara didn’t hurt him. Seriously, it’s been scary here." Temari's voice had fallen to barely more than a whisper. "He went ballistic on a stretch of desert two weeks ago. Sheer destructive frenzy. I could feel it build since they removed the seal, but I didn’t know what the problem was or how to defuse it. And then his chakra went completely wild, we could feel it a mile away, it felt like-...You know. I kept everybody inside the gates and ready to-..."

Temari stared at the table and Kankuro poured her another drink.

“S’okay,” he muttered.

He knew what she was saying, though this wasn’t something they discussed. Since they’d become Genin, he and Temari had lived with a somber possibility before them that they might one day have to protect their village at the cost of fratricide. Though it felt more like a technicality back then. Their job had been to half-bait, half-cajole the dangerous creature that shared their bloodline into finishing missions and not ripping the head off of anyone he fancied, themselves included. You didn't feel brotherly towards that. Except on the highly rare occasions when you caught him sleeping and his face reminded you of the half-forgotten face of your dead mother...

These past few years, the possibility had become a distant thing, a bad memory, as Gaara changed both radically and in other, more subtle ways. Kankuro had watched the dangerous creature slowly reach out to them, become both family and their Kazekage, a man Kankuro respected and whose leadership he followed. The thought that the possibility of that choice was there again, suddenly before them, would have been hard to bear now that Gaara was no longer an unstable, wounded monster but truly their brother. And Temari had faced that possibility alone. Kankuro hated Sound right now as much as he'd hated them when he'd heard of the attempt on Gaara's life.

"And now I find out I was worrying for nothing." Temari laughed, a tad bit hysterically but it banished the bad memories. "It just turns out he's screwing Rock Lee!"

Kankuro was glad for the distraction from his darker thoughts, ones he tried not to dwell on. That was the past.

He shook himself and muttered a derisive, “Other way around, sis, other way 'round,” before he emptied his glass and filled it again.

He was getting completely buzzed. But he could still remember every goddamned word from their ‘talk’ earlier. Kankuro still hadn’t figured out which part of the ‘talk’ he was most desperate to forget: the sheer shock-induced vapidity of his ‘You see, Gaara, when two people really like each other a lot’ speech, or Gaara's answer to that.

Temari watched him with progressively wider eyes.

“You’re joking," she gasped. "Are you saying that Gaara is the one who got-...um..."

“Why don’t you go ask him? Trust me, he’s not shy when it comes to the details.”

“Are they both insane?!” Temari burst out. “What about the Sand Barrier?”

“Can we please not talk about this anymore? Or ever again? They managed. Lee’s still alive and not missing any essential bits. ‘nuff said.”

Temari stared at him for a long time, then her gaze became thoughtful, in a not entirely sober way.

"Which do you find most disturbing?" she mused. "The fact that Lee is sleeping with our little brother or that he’s sleeping with Gaara of the Desert? I’m having a hard time deciding."

"Both?"

They were silent for a spell, trying to fit this piece of knowledge into their lives. It was just such a massive change to what they’d thought was the way the world worked.

Not that Kankuro was necessarily unhappy about this change, far from. He'd been hoping that Gaara might one day show some interest in chicks, because when all was said and done, Kankuro did kinda love the scary overbearing little bastard, and girls were part of what made life fun. But his brother’s emotional control had seemed so absolute and central to his current character. Kankuro couldn't imagine him falling for someone. It was like imagining the desert deciding to kick back and chill. And what chick would give a chance to a guy prone to staring fixedly at people until they did what they were told or passed out...? Come to think of it, Rock Lee had never taken any shit from the Kazekage, and fought him toe to toe. It was almost inevitable. In a really fucked-up kind of way.

"Kankuro?"

"Huh?"

"Can you give me a brief rundown of the situation before you get completely toasted?"

It took Kankuro a few seconds to realize Temari was referring to the Sound thing, and not their little family trauma.

"Oh. Which bit?"

"All of it."

Kankuro sighed with the drama of a brother being unfairly put upon by unreasonable sisters, and gave her the telegraphic version.

"It was long and hard, even with Konoha giving us a hand. After dozens of false leads, our combined forces tracked Sound down in Stone Country. But they're in there deep, and they have some sort of alliance with Iwagakure. We didn't spot Orochimaru, but we know he's there. We think he's taken over someone's identity again. Maybe the Tsuchikage if we're really fuckin' unlucky, and don't that bring back old memories. So we pulled back before they realized we were onto them. They're not going anywhere, they're planning something big. Probably a war. Tsunade gave me letters for Gaara, but me and my Konoha counterpart, we know what they'll decide and we've already taken steps.

“This time we do this right. This time, we take it slow, infiltrate all levels of his operation, find Orochimaru, cover every single one of his possible boltholes and then wipe him off the map. He's not getting away again. It'll take months to get the info we need, and a lot of high-level guys. We'll have to keep security real tight, too, because there are signs the snake has eyes and ears in both our villages, damn his hide. So we set up counter-information units, and a spy network around the Stone capital and Iwa, and along-"

He stopped speaking as he noticed Temari's frown of concentration.

"What?"

"What are the chances that they’ll send Lee out?"

Oh boy. Kankuro hadn’t thought of that.

"Don't know. Both our villages are still kinda undermanned for a really big operation if we want to keep the cash coming in with regular missions as well."

"And these will be joint missions between our villages. This is exactly the sort of thing Lee's post was created for. Damn." Temari had leaned her fan against the counter, and she was rapping a quick tattoo on its wooden frame with her fingernails. "I can’t think of a way to get Konoha to not haul him out into the field once his sick leave is up. That's the day after tomorrow if I remember right."

Kankuro watched her in silence.

"Konoha must not realize what’s going on either, or they’d have pulled him back to Leaf faster than you can say ‘diplomatic pitfall’...But if Lee leaves on a mission, that's hardly better than having him recalled. We have to find a way-...In the short run, perhaps I can have our clinic run a check-up on him next week. I'm pretty sure he's not mission-fit at present, whatever he says. But in the long term, we have to find a way to-"

"Tem..."

She continued to stare at the counter and mutter to herself until he repeated her name again, and then she glanced up distractedly.

"Temari. We can’t protect him from this." He wasn't talking about Lee.

Temari stared at him, her mouth turned down in the corners in an expression of immovability that reminded him of their little brother.

"Gaara is not stupid," Kankuro told her steadily. "He’s emotionally stunted and he's still unstable, but he’s not stupid. You know him. You know he's thought this through. I don’t know how badly he’d react if-...well, let's just say I really don't want to see Lee get himself capped at this point."

In part because, as much as he wouldn’t admit it out loud, Kankuro did like Lee, and he didn't want to lose a friend...Now that the alcohol was relaxing some of the strictures a Sand Shinobi kept around his emotions, Kankuro was even ready to concede that Lee was near the top of his very short list of guys he would not kill if he caught them pawing his little brother. Kankuro’s main concern, though, as a Jounin of Sunagakure, was Gaara-related fallout in the case of Lee's death, because that was the kind of emotional hurt that could put holes in buildings. But...

"But Gaara's made his choice," Kankuro concluded, as he had concluded over an hour ago already when meeting Gaara’s steady gaze. "And we can’t protect him forever."

"We failed to protect him for twelve years," Temari whispered, glaring holes in his counter, not that he was fooled by her expression.

"That wasn’t really our fault," Kankuro told her gruffly. "We were kids. What the hell were we supposed to do, huh? We were able to help him after that. After Uzumaki did what we couldn't do and pounded some sense into his skull. We helped him find his place in the sun, and we protected him from the worst of Suna's reaction, from situations which he wasn't up to coping with yet. We helped him get this far. But now...now, he's got to take his chances like the rest of us."

Temari blinked quickly, but then her face was all resolute determination again and her fist hammered the counter.

"You may be right, but we can protect them for just a bit longer!"

She leapt to her feet with a show of decision while Kankuro smirked at her choice of words. 'Protect them', huh? Damn, enough liquor, he was maudlin. Kankuro immediately disregarded his own decision and took another shot.

"I have a lot to do," Temari announced, fastening her fan on her back with a bit more concentration than was usually required. "First off, I must have a word with his bodyguards."

Kankuro choked on his drink. "Oh shit, I completely forgot about them. Do you think those poor bastards saw anything? What do you think they know?"

"Nothing, if we’re very lucky, but I don't feel lucky," Temari grumbled. "I need to know who they told. Then I need to know how to shut everybody who knows up. And then-"

Kankuro watched with interest as his sister swayed gently and grabbed the counter for balance. They'd emptied half the bottle between them already. Shinobi tended to metabolize poisons rapidly, but this stuff kicked like a mule.

"Maybe you should do that later," he told her with a smirk. "You look a bit wasted."

"I am not wasted," Temari declared with dignity.

"Neither am I. I can still remember Gaara telling me what Rock Lee did to him before I begged him to stop talking, so I know I'm definitely not shit-faced enough."

"I don't have the time to get drunk," Temari declared scornfully.

"Too late, I'd say. Come on, intimidating people into shutting up can wait until tomorrow. Have another drink."

"You may need to look at this situation through the bottom of a bottle, brother,” Temari told him haughtily, “but I do not feel the need to squander my mental resources-“

"Did you get a good look as you jutsued in? I could swear they were tonguing each other. Isn't that the last thing you ever thought you'd see Gaara do? Oh, and our little brother knows how to give head now. Don't that beat it all?"

Temari stood frozen to the spot for a few seconds, staring at him with round, horrified eyes. Then she went very red, giving him a look of pure loathing as she sat down and reached for the glass he'd just filled.

"You are a vile and disgusting creature, and I cannot believe we're related."

"Yeah, we're a weird family."

"Since we both know he’s dependable, Rock Lee is also somewhat part of our family now," Temari declared, getting some of her own back. "He's virtually your brother in law."

Kankuro thought that was immeasurably funny, which had to mean he was well on his way to completely drunk.

"Make that a very weird family," he said cheerfully. "Hey, he'll fit right in."

"You may be right. Don't you have any sake? This stuff is horrible."

At the bottom of the bottle was a long yellow worm. Years later Kankuro would still feel queasy at the sight of one, and he never did figure out if it had been put in there on purpose or by accident.

Chapter Text

Gaara's eyes were on the door which had closed behind Lee, but he turned around when Kankuro slung his pack and puppet scrolls to the ground with a thump of sheer annoyance.

The Sand Jounin rubbed his chin and looked at his brother. Just say it, he decided. The kid’s old enough. Just treat it like anatomy.

"So, bro, I bet you have some questions." I know I do, Kankuro mentally added. But they would have to wait until he could say 'You and Lee' without hyperventilating. He wanted to walk out of the room right now and try to forget the whole thing, but Temari would catch up with him and skin him for skipping out on The Talk. Besides, as Gaara's older, more experienced male relative, it was probably Kankuro's duty. So Talk there would be. A very, very quick one. Clinical, clear-cut-

"Temari thinks you need details. So here it is. You see, when two people - two guys - sometimes it's two guys - ...like each other a lot, and start kissing like that, they feel like, hah, getting closer-..."

Kankuro stopped as he realized he was addressing Gaara of the Desert like a six-year old who'd just asked where babies come from. Though Gaara's homicidal tendencies were under control these days, that didn't mean he had any more patience than before for fools or babbling idiots, and from the frown on his face, Kankuro was skirting one or the other.

"I like kissing."

Gaara said it in a ruminative tone of voice which did nothing to cushion the shock of having him admit something like that.

“Okay,” Kankuro said after clearing his throat.

“So does Lee. Though I don't know why. Contact between two mouths - germs, saliva, food particles - is not something people should enjoy when you think about it.”

Kankuro hadn’t thought about it. He hoped to god he wouldn’t think about it next time he tried to kiss a girl.

“You get used to it,” he said with a lofty assurance he in no way felt. “But you see, after awhile, people-...guys, you know, like Lee, expect...something more than just kissing.”

Kankuro reflected on that sentence and realized, to his regret, that he was going to have to kill Rock Lee for having such designs on Kankuro’s innoc- inexperienced little brother.

"Do you mean sex?" Gaara asked suspiciously.

No, on reflection he was going to have to kill Temari, then himself.

"Yeah. That. You’ve heard about it..."

"My controllers gave me a brief speech about sex when I was eight."

Wonderful.

"What did they say?" Kankuro asked with great reluctance.

"Just the bare basics. It was quite insufficient. They never mentioned fellatio, for instance."

Kankuro’s ears splintered. The cracks spread across all of his head, which then imploded. Or at least that’s what would have happened in the real world, but he'd apparently left that behind; he must have taken a wrong turn on that exit to Suna.

"You know about that?" Somebody - who almost sounded like Kankuro, or at least Kankuro after he’d had a really bad day - asked slowly.

"I do now. But it was a surprise when Lee did it to me the first time, which is why some prior information would have been useful."

There was a mental image Kankuro did not want.

"I don't know why people do that. It's even less appealing than kissing. At least saliva is more or less neutral to taste; semen is not. Yet when I did it, I found the act strangely exciting and I'm not sure why," Gaara said thoughtfully.

Actually that first image was most welcome, and Kankuro desperately wished it would come back.

"You guys went a bit fast," he mumbled, and wondered what some of his past one-night stands would have to say about that comment.

A look of guilt and embarrassment failed to cross his little brother's composed features and unwavering gaze. "That’s what Lee thought too, but I didn’t see why we should wait. I did ask him to tell me more about sex after that first time, those details my caretakers had assumed I would never need to know. I didn’t want too many more surprises."

Kankuro realized that Lee must have been fielding these questions on a regular basis for the last two weeks, and his admiration for the Leaf Jounin went through the roof.

"Um. Okay. Well, hey, you’re young. Apparently. So I guess you got curious and decided to experiment." Kankuro wondered how come his mouth was still moving when his brain was non-functional. He shook his head sharply and scrubbed his hair and tried not to think of his little brother going down on Rock Lee and giving him head. He concentrated on the fact that he was now on the last stretch, and he would soon be done with this and then he could go somewhere quiet and bash his brains against a wall.

"Did Lee...happen to mention anything else?" he asked with tremendous lack of enthusiasm.

Gaara looked at him stolidly, waiting for a bit more information than that before he answered. I can’t believe I’m even contemplating the possibility of having this conversation with my Kazekage, Kankuro thought, staring at the carpet.

"Um. You see...ah...are you absolutely sure you’re gay?"

Gaara's eyes had strayed back towards the door and he spoke absently. "Lee wondered as well. We never did determine it. I do like having sex with Lee, and he’s a man."

"That qualifies," Kankuro croaked. "Um, you see, at some point, one day, you guys might want to go further and..." Kankuro made hand motions at waist height that were so vague even he could not have guessed what he was trying to say, and he thought he knew.

Gaara stared at the gestures, his attention torn away from the door.

"We've already used our hands," he said.

"Ng. No. I meant..."

"Anal sex?" Gaara guessed, looking more closely.

Kankuro froze like a rabbit.

Gaara was staring at his brother’s hands, puzzled. "That’s not how you do it, you know."

"...Huh?" Kankuro whimpered.

"Or is that another position?" For the first time since this conversation began, Gaara looked at him intently and with a question apparently on his mind. "Do you know of any? Lee wanted to see my face when he took me, which was reasonable, and I know you can do it on hands and knees, but I wondered if there are other ways that might be less awkward to-"

Then Gaara interrupted himself and went to fetch his brother a glass of water from the carafe on the sideboard.

Kankuro gratefully drank it down, wishing it was something a good deal stronger, then he put down the glass, coughed one last time, shouldered his pack with a determined air, and said: "Okay, talk’s done. Let’s go find Temari before she does something to Lee that your Sand Barrier somehow missed, and she can handle it from here on out."

Gaara followed him without a word, for which Kankuro found himself eternally grateful.

Chapter Text

Lee was a heavy sleeper, a drawback for a Shinobi. When he'd made Chuunin rank, Gai-sensei had mentioned he would try to train him out of it, presumably by ambushing Lee in his sleep until the young Shinobi developed the ability to catnap like other ninja.

But strangely enough, the training had never happened. Lee had woken up one day with his bedroom in odd disarray and his pillow on the floor, but no signs of his teacher. Then Gai-sensei had said something about Lee having the best reflexes in any circumstances in all the Hidden Villages - which was flattering - and told Lee to sleep as soundly as he wanted to. Lee wasn't sure why his beloved teacher was letting him get away with such a flaw, but if Gai-sensei told him he could sleep, then he most certainly could.

It generally took Lee a few minutes to wake up even when he'd sensed danger. Fortunately he'd never been attacked in his sleep before. Though there had been that odd occurrence on the way to a mission three years ago when he woke up to find the inn floor littered with unconscious bandits...He'd assumed Neji had dealt with the ruffians and was toying with him by refusing to admit it.

Still half-asleep, Lee reached up and, on the second try, managed to rub his nose. He yawned widely and glanced around. It was the middle of the night; he could make out the dim shapes of his wardrobe's sliding doors, the shelf with his training weights, the basin and jug on their stand-

His nerves were prickling.

He sat up abruptly as he realized there was someone sitting in his chair at the desk. He didn't hurl himself at the intruder though. His senses and the odd tingle he always felt in the chest area identified the shadow-upon-shadow sitting there.

"Ga-" Lee bit his lip and glanced at the wall behind him.

The Jounin barracks had been built knowing it would house a dozen hair-trigger killers (or rather at this point in time, eleven hair-trigger killers and one Jounin who slept nice and soundly). The walls were thick, with built-in wardrobes, cupboards and storage closets between each room to give them further isolation. That being said, Lee knew that a raised voice could still be heard by neighbors who trained their hearing for battlefield conditions.

"Gaara? Everything okay?" he whispered. They'd promised Temari to be discreet.

The dark shape didn't move, but his breathing was regular and there was no smell of blood or anything untoward. Lee could make out his lover's profile; that other bumpy shape leaning against a leg of the desk was the gourd. A tiny patch of moonlight blurred by heavy curtains fell near the door. Lee noticed an extra pair of sandals there, so Gaara had come in that way. Damn, Lee was going to have to ask him how he managed to pop Lee's lock each time like it wasn't even there, this was twice Gaara had let himself into Lee's room as if the Jounin had left the door wide open.

"What are you doing here?" Lee quietly asked.

"Your cactus is dying."

The words were barely audible. Lee switched on his bedside lamp so he could see Gaara's lips when he spoke.

"Yeah." He glanced at the small green lump in its terracotta pot on the desk and sighed. "I don't know why they keep on doing that. This is the fifth one I've had."

Gaara hadn't lifted his fixed gaze from the dying plant. He hadn't even blinked when the light came on. There was something in his stance that made Lee look at him with concern.

"You water it too much." It was barely a movement of the lips and throat.

Lee shook his head seriously. "I give it the exact amount of water I found indicated in a book in Suna's library."

"That book would have been written with our rock gardens in mind. Higher water loss in those conditions." Fingers touched the needles which had started to lose their sharpness and sag a bit. "Its roots developed in a barren wasteland. You kill it with too much kindness..."

"Oh. I'll water it less then." Lee's eyes strayed to his bedside alarm clock. Why were they talking horticulture at two in the morning?

He started at a sudden breeze against his bare chest. He blinked up at Gaara who was standing a few inches from the bed, looking down at him. Behind the Kazekage, the desk's chair swung on its axis in silence.

"It's too late," Gaara said, hard unblinking eyes fixed on Lee's. "At this point, the loss of what you've given it would be just as fatal."

"Oh." Lee looked up at him owlishly and wondered if they were talking horticulture.

"If you give it more nutrients, sandier ground and a bigger pot, it might survive," Gaara added a bit more prosaically, glancing back at the plant.

"Good, I'll do that, thanks" Lee said, mouth on automatic. He had the feeling that the health of his cactus was the furthest thing from Gaara's mind right now.

On instinct, he moved a bit to one side and patted the bed beside him. "Want to sit down?"

Gaara stared down at the freed space as if he didn't understand Lee's gesture. Oh yeah, there was definitely something amiss here.

Just as Lee opened his mouth to ask a question, the Kazekage moved and sat down slowly. Lee made some more room as Gaara settled beside him. He wasn't looking at Lee anymore.

Lee leaned forward so he could see Gaara's face, shadowed by the light from the lamp.

"So?" he asked brightly - and very quietly. "What's up?"

"I wanted to see you. You sleep very heavily."

"Ah yes, so I've been told." Lee rubbed the back of his neck in contrition.

Silence filled the room again. Lee blinked sleepily. Gaara might be an insomniac by training and nature, but Lee needed his seven hours a night. Not that he wanted his boyfriend to leave, of course. Maybe Gaara wouldn't mind if Lee dozed a bit more, though? Actually, having Gaara in his bed while he slept was quite appealing...

Lee's dull gaze drifted around the room when Gaara's features proved unreadable. He looked blankly at his cactus. He'd have to remember to get it a new pot...His uniform was hanging from the clothes rack next to the desk, all cleaned and pressed because tomorrow - today, technically - was the end of his sick leave and he was officially back on duty, even though he-

Oh.

Lee rubbed his eyes tiredly. He'd have clued in faster if he'd been a bit more awake.

He put an arm around Gaara's shoulder and leaned into him.

"You know I won't be getting any mission right away. Right? I'm still not fully recovered," he whispered.

Gaara made no sign he'd heard. Lee wrapped his arm further around Gaara. Then he tugged gently and lay back down, pulling Gaara with him and enfolding him into a loose hug.

He caressed Gaara's cheek, the ball of his thumb brushing the black stain near the eye socket as if once more hoping it might come off with a bit of care and attention. When that seemed to have no effect, he leaned forward until his mouth was just an inch away from Gaara's ear.

"When I do get a mission - and it probably won't be until the end of the week at the earliest - it'll be C-rank. Delivering a message or something."

"I've ordered injured men out on missions before," Gaara said, voice completely neutral. "I've ordered them on missions when I knew they'd likely not come back."

Lee closed his eyes in pain.

"I know," he said very softly. "When the need calls for it, yes, we have to do that. But in this case, you're worrying for nothing," he added firmly, refusing to let that reality of a Shinobi's life darken his outlook tonight.

Gaara said nothing.

Lee moved back a short space so that he could look Gaara in the face. "I'm not going on a mission in the morning, Gaara."

Still nothing.

Lee frowned. "Unless you know something I don't...?"

In the chiaroscuro painted by Lee's small bedside lamp, Gaara's lips were the color of a sandrose, and his eyes, as he looked away and shook his head against the pillow, were more grey than blue-green.

"...When you know there's a chance you might lose something important," he said softly, his voice a monotone, "then the fear of it takes on its own reality. In my life, the worst has always happened fairly reliably."

Lee, being pretty damn unlucky himself, had to concede that Gaara had a point there. But now their luck had surely changed! They'd both survived that ordeal in the desert despite the odds and Orochimaru's machinations, and they'd found each other and built something together through many a potential pitfall.

Of course the difference in their natures meant that Lee thought this was proof positive that they were definitely on their way to the bright Springtime of their Youth, while Gaara was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Lee leaned forward and spontaneously dropped a gentle, unassuming kiss on the firm line of Gaara's lips. Gaara didn't respond, but at least he was looking back at Lee when the latter moved away again. Lee opened his mouth to add more reassurances...

Then he realized that he could say as much as he wanted to, but the one thing he could not do was guarantee that he didn't have a mission tomorrow. It was unlikely, true, but with Kankuro's return yesterday, the two villages were about to get very busy. Konoha would probably not send him out on an arduous mission, but since they were now setting up a spy network and surveillance in a foreign country, this would require a lot of ninja, and even the wounded might need to put in several weeks of basic groundwork.

Several weeks away from Gaara...

Lee wouldn't hesitate to perform his duty, but he felt an odd wobble in the chest at the thought. Suddenly tomorrow seemed a whole lot less friendly, and logic had little to say about it.

He stared at his lover, a feeling of helplessness trying to insinuate itself into his mind. But he shook it off. He was probably being short-sighted, but he didn't want to dwell on what might happen. Morning was still far away.

He tilted his head and kissed Gaara again. Gaara was motionless in his arms for a moment. Then he moved abruptly, took Lee's face in his hands and returned the kiss with almost alarming hunger.

Lee's hands had already taken the initiative, even as he lay dazed by the sudden ferocity of Gaara's response. His fingers were sliding down his lover's back. Gaara's mouth left his and he arched against Lee's touch. Dark-ringed eyes flickered shut.

Lee's hands fastened on Gaara's waist, touched the familiar double belt looped over that black coat and around the lean muscles of Gaara's belly. Lee swallowed. He'd had fantasies about doing this for months now...

He could feel every brush of cloth, sheet and fingers along his skin, he was almost shaking with the sudden onslaught of desire and sensations. To think he'd wondered if the physical part of their relationship might cool down now that they'd actually had sex...

His fingers knotted in the belt and he jerked Gaara close. Damn, he'd really wanted to do this- if it turned out this was nothing but a dream, then Lee would walk two hundred laps around Suna on his hands as soon as he woke up. The punishing flow of blood to his brain would teach that miserable pack of neurons to not tantalize him like this.

Gaara's breath rasped against Lee's lips. His hands were firm on Lee's face, holding the Jounin still as Gaara pressed their mouths together.

"Lee-" His voice was a harsh, breathless whisper, punctuated by hard kisses to Lee's lips and face. "Stop playing- with my belt- and take it off."

Lee whimpered. Oh man, this had to be a dream! This just wasn't fair, he was going to wake up any minute now, alone and horny-

His fingers, which were apparently smarter than he was right now, were already plying the buckle and delighting in slowly removing the belt.

Gaara's left hand slid from Lee's face, down his chest, curled over his hip in a possessive grip, then eased down the thin slacks Lee had worn to bed that night. The fingers dwellt on his thigh, finding scars that must have already started to feel familiar. Then the hand curved up and caressed a hardening erection.

Lee hoped his neighbors couldn't hear the way he was breathing right now, because it sounded awfully loud to his ears. Neither of them was all that skilled in technique yet, but the advantage of being nineteen was that it didn't seem to matter much.

Gaara leaned forward again. Lee opened his mouth expectantly, but Gaara's lips ended up near his ear, brushing the skin beneath it and making Lee shiver even more.

"I would have dressed lighter if I thought we were going to do this."

It took a moment for Lee to realize Gaara was referring to his coat and tunic, which Lee's fingers - still off on their own happy trip - were having a heyday untying and removing as slooooowly as they could.

"No," Lee croaked, trying to keep his voice low despite what Gaara's hand was doing, "this is- hm- this is okay. This is fine."

Lee licked his lips, not because they were dry but because he was afraid he might be drooling. His tongue flicked against Gaara's cheek, and he felt the body against his shudder. He slipped his leg between Gaara's which opened for him, pressing and rubbing against his thigh. His hand eased the coat off of Gaara's shoulder.

Then he lost his hold when Gaara sat up to drag Lee's pants off. Apparently tired of waiting, Gaara proceeded to quickly undress himself, to Lee's disappointment. That disappointment promptly evaporated when a warm weight settled back in his arms.

Gaara leaned in to kiss him again, but Lee was distracted, looking down at his own hand drifting across a smooth chest, touching a nipple the colour of sand on pale stone...A heartbeat flickered beneath his palm...You in me in you in me...

He looked up hesitantly into the green eyes observing him. He said, so softly it was almost less than a breath: "Gaara, can we...have sex, please?"

Gaara looked at him steadily and tilted his head as if to say, what is it that we are doing now?

"I mean, can we try...um...that again?"

His lover opened his mouth in a silent 'ah'. He leaned in again - body warm and close against Lee's- and whispered: "I didn't bring the lubricant."

Lee shivered again. This whispering business was unexpectedly sensual. It took him a few seconds to forget the feather-touch of Gaara's lips against his ear and focus on the message.

"That's okay, I have something we can use."

Lee squirmed out of Gaara's arms and crawled to the end of the bed. He dipped his hand into his sports bag and fished out the liniment he used to stretch the scar tissue on his chest. It was thicker than the stuff Gaara's aide had innocently gotten them, but its base was the same compound, it should do fine, and at this point Lee wasn't going to be picky.

"Here," he whispered, happily diving back into Gaara's waiting arms. "And this time, you're using it on me."

"No." The word was immediate and spoken at normal volume which sounded shockingly loud in the night-time silence of the barracks. Lee instinctively put a finger to his lips, then reprovingly tapped Gaara on the nose, ignoring the dangerous look that earned him.

"Not this again. Come on, Gaara, you saw me do it, it's easy."

Gaara didn't look wary so much as stubborn.

"I don't think it was as good as it could have been," he murmured with his usual cutting honesty. "We were both too tense. I want to try it again now that we know what to expect. I want-"

"And I want to know what it feels like so that I can be sure - in my gut - that I'm not hurting you," Lee countered as firmly as he could while speaking softly.

Gaara was silent, and Lee knew his argument had scored a point.

Then Gaara leaned in close to Lee and put his mouth to the Jounin's ear. A trickle of breath caressed Lee's hair.

"But I want to feel you move in me again," Gaara whispered.

Lee managed to stifle a whimper. He didn't really need any more stimulation right now.

"Next time," he choked out with some effort.

Gaara leaned back with a frown.

"Tomorrow," Lee added gently. "Since I won't have a mission."

Gaara took the tube of liniment from Lee's fingers with a gesture of capitulation. "Here," he murmured, "I'll show you how to use this."

"I can manage!" Lee yelped, and got a hand over his mouth and a cautioning look.

Lee did actually want this. He was curious to experience this, feel Gaara in him, and see if it felt as good as Gaara had intimated. But he didn't want Gaara to have to put his fingers-...there. Maybe that didn't make much sense, but Lee wasn't in a state where he could put that much logical thought into it.

He took back the tube before Gaara could object and gave it a nervous squeeze which, considering what a nervous squeeze from Rock Lee could do, predictably spilled a good quantity over his fingers. And thigh. And sheets too, but they were due for a wash anyway. He edged away and, blushing but steadfast, put his arm around his back and felt around his ass.

The fact that Gaara was looking at him steadily wasn't helping Lee's composure. In fact it added a whole new level of nerve-wracking and embarrassing to the business, but since Lee had been unable to tear his eyes away from his lover last time, he couldn’t very well complain now. Distracted, Lee barely noticed what he was doing. He fingered the hole, felt the resistance - wondered briefly, as he tested the tightness and the stretch of the anal ring, how on earth this was supposed to feel good for the guy getting it...Then his mind automatically connected to the muscles he was touching and ordered them to loosen up and stop strangling his fingers.

Okay, that was better. He made sure to spread the liniment around as much as he could and as deep as he could reach. Then he realized he didn't know what came next.

Gaara caught Lee's half-puzzled glance.

"Go slow," he cautioned. "You could hurt yourself otherwise. Make sure the muscles loosen and you can move your finger around easily."

"Oh that's done." With some relief, Lee removed his fingers and maneuvered himself to lie down on the bed.

"You've barely started."

"But I can-..." Lee paused, reminding himself that it had taken Gaara nearly ten minutes to get this far two days ago.

"Let me check," Gaara murmured, after examining Lee's face attentively for a few seconds.

Lee scooted back in a hurry, mouth open to object-

Gaara's hands settled on his thighs, firm and steady. "Let me check. I don't want to hurt you."

"But-"

Gaara's mouth sealed away Lee's automatic objection, pressing him back down against the pillow. Fingers touched his ass, found the lubricated ring of muscles and caressed them.

Lee was still gagged by the kiss, but his eyes went very wide.

Gaara touched him gently, insinuated a finger into Lee. The Jounin shuddered. When he'd done this, it had been completely mechanical. But this...was a caress...in a surprisingly sensitive place...The sensation was unique, too different to anything he'd felt before to be called 'good', but 'good' seemed to be hovering in the wings, waiting to be coaxed out by the gentleness of Gaara's touch.

Then Gaara broke the kiss and the touch became more forceful, fingers spreading out and stretching. Lee shuddered again, because this wasn't bad either, quite the contrary.

"How did you do that?" Gaara asked slowly.

"Huh?" Lee's breathing was all over the place, as Gaara's fingers continued to test for resistance they were all but failing to encounter. "Mmmhu-muscle c-control-..."

"You will teach me that trick," Gaara muttered into his ear.

Lee would be ready to teach Gaara every trick in the book as long as he didn't stop doing what he was doing, not before Lee could figure out what it was he was feeling. The sensation was surprisingly difficult to categorize, but Lee loved a challenge.

He wasn't a happy Shinobi when Gaara took his fingers back. But before he could complain, his lover's weight settled over him, an arm nudged his knees and hips up, and something larger than fingers poked him. Lee's breath rattled in his throat and his heart rate soared, but it was from anticipation and excitement and some left-over embarrassment that wasn't quite sure what to do with itself; there was no fear. Rock Lee didn't fear much, especially not pain, and after feeling Gaara's fingers, now he really wanted it.

The feeling of Gaara's erection sliding past the muscles as he pressed in gently was even more indescribable than fingers, a mixture of the delicious and the bizarre. Lee's spine tingled when Gaara pressed a bit upwards. And it was Gaara...Gaara moving in him...making love to him...taking him. Lee's skin was alive with prickles of pleasure and elation, but-...

Gaara's rhythm was slow, the movements shallow. Lee canted his hips upward a bit, trying to increase the penetration. Gaara paused; Lee could see a sudden tension in his lover's eyes, in the set of his shoulders. He smiled reassuringly and forced himself to lie still. Gaara still didn't trust his instincts. He was imitating what Lee had done to him last time and no more. And it felt good, but-

But Lee wanted...more, he wanted something-...he didn't know what, but more of it.

Gaara's face was blank, a mask of concentration and control, without any flicker of pleasure. When he pushed in ever so gently and stopped, Lee's breath hitched. He squirmed instinctively as Gaara pulled back. It threw his lover's rhythm. Lee cursed himself inwardly, but it just wasn't his nature to lie there and do nothing.

Gaara stopped moving and they stared at each other in the light of the bedside lamp. There was a moment of unspoken communication. Lee smiled gently, touched his lover's face. Gaara lost some of his tension and looked thoughtful.

Then he slipped out and rolled over, dragging Lee with him. His hands settled on Lee's hips. Lee was on his knees straddling his lover. He felt faintly embarrassed at giving such a full-on blatant view of his aroused body. This also meant they could no longer fully rely on their previous experience to guide them, but Lee had to admit that this position, for all it was brand new and untested, had a lot of possibilities.

A hand on his neck forced him to lower his head to Gaara's level.

"I don't know what you want," Gaara whispered into Lee's ear. "Show me."

The words made Lee quiver, he wasn't sure why. But the anticipation was suddenly back full force. His fingers found Gaara's erection and he moved until he could feel the tip against that suddenly very sensitive bundle of nerves and tingling anal muscles.

"But Lee," Gaara added, voice a bare murmur yet still managing to be stern, "don't go too-"

Lee felt the hard head and then the skin of the shaft slide into him, one fluid, beautiful wonderful full penetration-

"-fast," Gaara finished in a tight voice. He'd flinched and folded up until his head was almost touching Lee's chest as he gripped Lee's shoulders underhand.

Ooops. No pain- but he had gone a bit farther than he'd intended, Lee realized, feeling short curls and flesh against the curve of his ass. It felt good though, the sheer presence of that hardness in him...it felt...oh man, Gaara had been right last time, it just couldn't be described.

"Lee," Gaara growled, traces of concern behind the exasperation.

"It's okay, I'm fine, it doesn't hurt," Lee mumbled, eyes wide and blind, concentrating on the strange feelings shooting up his spine, down his thighs and deep inside.

While Lee tried to come to terms with it all, Gaara slowly relaxed and lay back down. Lee took that as permission to continue experimenting. He lifted himself up again, using the muscles in his legs for both power and balance with unconscious ease.

The feelings crashed into him, jarring and wild. Lee's mouth was open around a gasp, partly in surprise and partly because the pleasure tingling through his body felt like it had playfully punched him in the lungs. He hadn't thought that anything could rival the feeling of that long inner thrust inside, because that felt so strange and good - mainly strange yet very good-

But the sensation of having that hardness move out of him was also indescribable - and also good - in a quite different way. Lee did it again to compare. His toes were curling and his breath was coming out completely mangled, but he barely noticed.

Completely different. Going out- wonderful, like a release, leaving the muscles to relax, tingling and firing sensual messages up and down his spine. But going in- forcing that hard-on back into himself- it beggared description. A feeling of hot pleasure, of completion; challenge to take in more, harder, to feel it jab upward, deep inside, intimate-

Gaara's hands were hard on Lee's hips - adding to the strains of pleasure- and he was whispering to slow down, to avoid injury. Lee nodded absently and his rhythm didn't change one bit, his eyes wide with wonder at the range of weird, wonderful, filling, stretching feelings he was getting out of this.

Still no pain though. In the bemused state he was in, Lee felt a dash of regret. Most of his professional life, Lee had pushed his body to the edge as a matter of course, and the motto 'no pain, no gain' was welded deep into his muscles and bones. He thrust himself down harder, unconsciously reaching for some discomfort, some sign that he was reaching a limit that could challenge him. But damn - it felt so weird and so tight and so good, he kept forgetting what he was trying for every time his inner walls were pressed and his nerves screamed with sudden shudders of an odd pleasure that he'd never felt before.

This was-...just- stop!

Lee froze. His hands had been resting on Gaara's chest, and something strange had happened beneath his fingers; a bizarre chakra pattern had flashed through Gaara's body. It had felt abnormal and reeked of restraint.

"What-"

"Shhh." Gaara reached up and quickly touched a finger to Lee's lips.

Lee blinked repeatedly, arrested in mid-motion. Gaara didn't look distressed at all, he didn't appear to be in pain or upset, but the ripples of that power were still humming through his body and beneath Lee's palms.

"What was that?" Lee hissed.

"Nothing. Keep moving," Gaara ordered in a soft voice.

"No, that was wrong, what hap-"

"Nothing. A way of using my chakra. To control myself."

"C-control?" Lee glanced automatically at the Sand, still leaning against his desk. It was awfully close, now that he thought of it. "Did I hurt you?"

"Hurt-" Gaara rolled his eyes briefly, a very human gesture Lee hadn't seen him make very often. "No, Lee. The way you were moving...I didn't want it to end too quickly. You looked like you were having a lot of fun," Gaara added gravely.

Lee's cheeks had already been a solid red ever since he'd asked Gaara if they could have sex again; now he could feel the flush creep down his neck and up to his hairline.

"Move," Gaara ordered. His hands were on Lee's hips, urging him down.

Lee licked his lips and eased down fully onto Gaara's erection. The sensations fired up again and tried to distract him, but he was still a bit too frazzled. In that breathless moment before, he'd completely forgotten himself. His self-consciousness, the fact he didn't really know what he was doing, even the awe and wonder that he was having sex and this wasn't a dream at all...it was all coming back now.

Gaara's eyes flickered shut and his fingers tightened on Lee's skin. Lee obeyed their unspoken request, shuddering at the feeling of Gaara moving in him. Gaara bent one leg at the knee, pressing upwards a bit. Lee's breathing started going all over the map again as that inner pressure triggered another flash of bliss- oh right, probably the prostate, he remembered that from sex-ed-

Gaara propped himself up on one arm, caught Lee by the neck with his free hand and hauled their faces closer together.

"Move the way you were before," Gaara ordered, keeping his words to a tight controlled whisper. "And make that sound again."

"What s-sound? My neighbors-"

"I don't care about your neighbors," Gaara growled. "Move."

Lee closed his eyes, breathed in, out, and decided to go for it, throwing himself back into it with slowly renewed enthusiasm and the sort of indomitable attitude which characterized him. But he stayed silent, out of discretion and also in part because he was now listening out for any sound he might make, trying to figure out what noise had made Gaara stare at him so hungrily.

Lee lost sense of time. The bed squeaked and counted out the seconds to the rhythm of their movements, but Lee's senses were overloaded and he couldn't focus on the amount of noise they might be making.

The various strains of pleasure were blending together violently. He couldn't tell the difference now between thrusting himself onto Gaara's erection or pulling himself off again, it was all one single feeling of pulsing hot satisfaction tightening the muscles. Gaara's fingers were on his body, gripping his thigh, caressing his chest and leaving trails of pleasure. He was staring at Lee unblinking, as if he'd never be able to tear his eyes away again.

Lee's breath rasped in his throat, he was starting to feel dizzy and- and- and now he wanted more again.

It was true that Lee had more instincts in regards to sex than Gaara had. His fingers did not need any instructions, they were on his erection before he was consciously aware of it, punching him through the barrier and finishing him off.

He probably made some kind of sound again. Fortunately, in that single shuddering moment of completion, he would not be able to remember it.

Lee went limp slowly, his body trembling with the aftershocks. He slumped forward.

Then he found himself shoved backwards. He stifled a yelp as he landed flat on his back on the bed covers, Gaara still inside him. And also over him, and shoving Lee's knees up with his shoulders. Gaara's mouth crushed his. Lee was being bent into a rather awkward shape, testing his flexibility. But since his muscles had apparently turned to mush, it wasn't really a problem.

His hands flat on the bed for balance, and Gaara's weight pinning him, left Lee unable to move much, but he didn't mind now. With languid delight he watched his lover's face as Gaara moved in him three- four times- curls of tired pleasure wracked Lee's body in response. And then Gaara pressed into him and came.

Oh man, just when you thought it couldn't get better...too bad Gaara hadn't made that little moan again. His lips were a firm line, face tight with concentration as he reached for his climax. Lee still had high hopes to coax that noise out of Gaara when their positions were once more reversed. Lee now had a few good ideas to try out on his lover to insure it.

He felt Gaara shift and slip out from inside him. Still no pain or discomfort. Yeah, next time for sure Lee was going to apply the lube to Gaara himself, and make sure his lover was properly ready. Of course, it could just be Lee's greater resistance to pain and muscular control that had made the difference. Still, it couldn't hurt to try, and besides...it had felt shockingly good, having Gaara caress him like that, his fingers stretching and stroking Lee inside and out...Hmmmm....

Gaara was lying on him full length. Lee shifted and relaxed pleasantly. The position wasn't particularly uncomfortable for him; his muscles and bone structure could resist a lot more pressure and weight than Gaara's. He wrapped his arms around his breathless lover and let his mind wander while he contentedly basked.

...Wow, he'd really liked that. It had been better than the first time. It had lasted longer too. Gaara had been right, they'd been too tense before, they'd not really known what they were doing. But now...Lee had a much better idea. And so did Gaara, for all his supposed 'lack of instincts'. That last bit had seemed to be pretty instinctive, hah. Would it be even better next time? And the time after that? And the time- no, it better not; both he and Gaara had jobs to do that involved them getting out of bed...

Gaara's breathing had eased, caressing the skin of Lee's neck.

Lee's yawn broke the gathering peace and quiet.

"Sorry," he murmured apologetically to the ceiling, which wasn't really in a position to excuse him.

Gaara shifted and moved, to Lee's regret.

"You need to sleep," Gaara said softly, voice near toneless.

Lee found himself gathered up firmly. Gaara shook the sheet out in an impatient gesture, then he settled back against the wall on the side of the bed, and bundled Lee against his chest, the covers around the latter's legs.

Lee blinked sleepily, trying to figure out what had just happened.

"Sleep," Gaara ordered, pushing Lee's head down against his shoulder. As an afterthought, he used a fold of the sheet to clean up a few splashes of semen on their stomachs.

Lee let him, staring at the headboard and the lit lamp by the bed. He recognized this. Gaara had held him like this once before, when they'd been in the desert, after that attack by Sound. 'I felt as if nothing would be able to harm us', Gaara had told him afterwards.

Yes. Here, now, they were safe. Until morning.

Lee didn't bother reiterating his logical argument against his having any kind of mission before another week or so. He didn't say anything. He reached up and caressed Gaara's face, his fingers gently tracing the mark on Gaara's forehead.

Then he curled up against his lover and waited for morning with him.

Or at least that was the plan.

Nobody else would have found the position all that comfortable, but Lee could fall asleep standing up in a tree. He could even fall asleep whilst running at a gentle trot. And the way Gaara's chest moved beneath him as his lover breathed softly, the warmth of his skin...Lee was out like a light barely five minutes after Gaara had taken him in his arms.

He woke up abruptly, startled but aware of where he was and with whom.

"Hm..." Lee rubbed his eyes and glanced around. He was still in the same position, but Gaara had shaken him. "Whu...S'it time to getup?"

Gaara didn't say anything. And then Lee heard footsteps stop right outside his door.

He blinked at the solid wood as someone rapped on it, someone who obviously meant business.

"Lee-san?"

Lee's eyes automatically checked the security. Gaara had locked the door behind him last night fortunately.

"Yes?" he mumbled. The sun was shining dimly through the curtains, it looked to be a bit before six.

"Special dispatch for you from Konoha."

"...For me?" Lee's brain felt numb.

"Yes sir. I'd have left it on your desk, but it had Tsunade-sama's personal seal on it, so I thought you'd want it ASAP."

Lee finished waking up in a hurry. Personal seal? But Tsunade-sama only sent letters with her personal seal when- Lee suddenly hoped the Information Desk Chuunin had made a mistake on that.

"Okay, give me a second."

He got up quickly. He didn't dare look at Gaara. He didn't want to let his lover see the faint worry in his eyes- but there was no need to worry! The Chuunin had been mistaken, it was obvious. Shizune's seal was very similar to Tsunade's, the uninitiated could easily confuse them. Or maybe it was a diplomatic dispatch...yeah, that was it.

He slipped on his pants. He needed a shower, but that would have to wait. He gave himself a quick check in his small mirror in passing, smoothed his hair and went to unlock the door.

He opened it a crack and slipped out quickly. Gaara wouldn't be in the line of sight of the ninja outside, but Lee wasn't taking chances.

The Chuunin messenger looked at him with some surprise. Normally Lee threw his door wide open and invited people in. But the man didn't comment or ask questions, good Sand Shinobi that he was. He just saluted and handed Lee the scroll.

"Thank you," Lee said automatically, returning the salute. That was Tsunade's seal alright, but that would make it a diplomatic dispatch for sure, nothing sinister here, of course not.

The messenger nodded, turned and walked off.

Lee was about to go back inside his room when a noise made him glance up. His left-door neighbor opened her door and stepped out into the hallway.

Izakaya-san was a small woman, muscular for her stature, and with a formidable presence which belied her size. She was a tartar of a senior Jounin-sensei who had terrorized several teams of Sand Genin into becoming Chuunin over the years. Lee froze as she favored him with a Look. Strangely enough she seemed ever so slightly disappointed to find Lee's door closed, and his body language - glued to the wood with his hand defensively on the knob - indicating he wasn't going to open it again until everyone was gone.

"Don't worry," she said tartly as Lee cowered before her, "you were a lot more discreet than some of the other young studs in this building. I barely heard a thing and got back to sleep reasonably quickly. But these are the bachelor quarters; is this likely to be a regular event?"

Lee shook his head so hard his hair went flying. From now on he would only contemplate having sex in Gaara's isolated residence and very, very quietly at that.

"Pity. It would do you good. You could always move out. You're a member of Konoha's diplomatic corps, the Kazekage would probably arrange an apartment for you if you asked him."

"That's okay," Lee croaked.

She left with just a nod. The courier was waiting for her at the end of the hall. He asked a quiet question. Izakaya-san answered with a crude gesture that nobody above the age of thirty should even know, much less be allowed to employ. The courier snickered as they both left.

Lee turned once more towards the door, with the firm intention of hiding under his bed for a few hours-

There was a real possibility that he was actually asleep and that this was all a nightmare, Lee reflected as his right-door neighbor opened his door.

Naito Daiki was two years older than Lee, a severe, sinister Jounin who Lee felt pretty sure was part of Sand's ANBU. There was nothing in his demeanor to indicate that there was anything out of the ordinary, or that he'd even noticed Lee, who was doing a repeat of his 'glued against the door' performance. It was just a bit of an odd coincidence that Daiki would choose this moment to go about his duties.

He didn't even glance at Lee as he passed the Leaf Jounin, or do anything beyond give the faintest nod, his usual greeting. It seemed even more ludicrous to think this man could be curious about Lee's love life than it had been to believe that of Izakaya. Lee was about to relax-

Then the brown eyes flickered in the tanned-to-leather face. "She wouldn't have a sister, would she?"

"Who?" Lee asked dumbly.

Daiki was already halfway down the hallway by the time Lee figured it out and turned a rare shade of crimson. He took some small consolation in the fact that he and Gaara had been quiet enough to disguise the gender of Lee's late-night guest. As for the rest, humiliation never killed anybody...

Lee slipped back into the room after one last suspicious glance around. He leaned against the door once it was closed and safely locked, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Then he saw Gaara, and the relief died and grew cold in his heart. Gaara had also slipped on his pants, but then he'd gone back to sitting against the wall on Lee's bed, his face turned away, staring at nothing. He looked fatalistic, waiting for an inevitable blow to fall. It reminded Lee of the scroll he held in his hand.

He licked his lips and turned it around. He'd already identified Tsunade-sama's seal. The other side of the scroll...he felt only a dead weight in his chest, not even any surprise. The name on the scroll was his own, 'Jounin Rock Lee'. This was not a diplomatic dispatch then, since those were addressed to 'Office of the Konoha Envoy'.

The only thing that was sent to Lee directly were missions. The only time Tsunade sent a mission herself was when it was A-rank or higher.

It was as if it were someone else's fingers checking the seal, breaking the security tag and unrolling the scroll.

He felt a flicker of surprise as he glanced down the paper; the message wasn't encrypted. It was just plain text, and no secret symbol to indicate that there might be a code hidden within the words.

And then he started reading the actual words, and his eyes became progressively wider and wider.

He was staring at the signature, mouth a soundless 'oh', when the letter was suddenly ripped from his fingers. Lee started back in shock, bumping his head against the door.

Apparently his reaction had been too much for Gaara to bear while stoically waiting for Lee to give him the verdict. Gaara held the scroll open, fingers tight on the stretched paper as if braced for the worst, eyes hard as they went quickly over the missive, picking out the highlights-

Then he blinked and read the letter more slowly, a rare look of surprise flickering on his face before the mask settled once more.

"'Lee, I just found your name on the roster of Availables for next week's missions.'" Gaara read out slowly, his voice void of any inflections. "'Listen up you freak I spent a lot of hours and energy fixing you up twice now-'"

Lee suddenly remembered a few details in that letter- oh damn! He leaped into action and snatched the scroll out of Gaara's hands.

"Ah, Gaara, this is- um, you know, diplomatic-"

Gaara blinked at his empty fingers, and then he continued as if he still had the scroll in his hands.

"'-you are not going on a mission for at least two more weeks, and then you'll be getting nothing harder than baby-sitting duties if I have my say-'"

Agh! Damn geniuses and their photographic memories! How far along had Gaara gotten...?

"G-Gaara-"

Gaara's voice was its usual monotone, eyes narrowed appraisingly.

"Then she calls you a freak again. 'You constantly overdo it'. Tsunade and I see eye to eye on that. 'I order you as your Hokage to take it easy and heal though why I should have to order you to do this is beyond me.' Her punctuation isn't very good. Or else she's really annoyed at you. 'You are going to get some proper rest or I'll get that mannerless red-headed brat to-'...That would be me."

"Gaara, you weren't supposed to read that part," Lee whimpered, covering his eyes with one hand, the scroll crumpling in the other.

"'-that mannerless red-headed brat to clap you up in the clinic under sedation until your brawn finally catches up with your brain.' Does she always hector like this?"

Lee peeked out between his fingers, but Gaara's expression was inscrutable.

In a weak voice, Lee said: "Tsunade-sama's directness is, um, part of her qualities."

"If you say so." Gaara turned away from Lee and crossed his arms over his chest severely. "I'd better make sure you rest and heal. It might mean war otherwise."

"No! No! She didn't mean it like that!" Lee was waving his arms around in horror - diplomatic incident!

"She sounds serious. I'm not taking any chances."

Gaara glanced over his shoulder. Lee was graced with the first true smile he'd ever seen from his friend and lover. It was small, merely a gentle upward curve of Gaara's lips, but it was far from the twisted smirk Lee had come to know. It changed Gaara's face, it was warm and real and- and- and Lee was in serious danger of falling in love all over again.

Gaara turned fully towards him and slipped his arms around Lee, holding him fast, one hand stroking Lee's left shoulder and the nape of his neck.

His mouth was right next to Lee's ear. In a whisper, intimate like last night's, he said: "I would have let you go, you know."

"I know," Lee answered just as softly, a lump in his throat. His arms had fitted themselves around Gaara's waist where they belonged.

"I know you better now. I can...feel you inside, as you said to me once. I know what the look in your eyes means when you fight. I see the way you move. The joy of it. The pride in your rank and duty. Even though I want you safe, I can't take that away from you. When that mission finally does come, I will let you go."

Lee nodded, face pressed into Gaara's hair.

"But I'm glad you're not going today," Gaara finished simply.

"So am I," Lee whispered.

A few motes of dust tumbled in silence through the beam of light getting around the curtains, as ephemeral as this moment. Lee held Gaara close and etched every detail in his mind, to keep when he or Gaara finally left for that mission. They would perform their duty, because it was more than a duty, it was their life, their reason for existence; it was, in fact, one of the connections between them, the thing that made them who they were. But they needed this moment too. Then it would be okay...

Gaara shifted, leaned back, reached up for Lee's face and suddenly Lee was pressed back against the door hard, and a kiss seared his lips.

"Hm- The neighbors-" Lee protested in a gasp when Gaara broke the kiss. It was pretty obvious what his lover had in mind. "We have to be discreet, we promised Tem-"

Gaara's hands were pressed into the door on either side of Lee's head. The Kazekage's voice was precise and left no room for objection. "This is tomorrow, you don't have a mission and I want you in me."

After all, Lee rationalized with the kind of speed normally associated with the Renge, his neighbors had already heard all they were going to hear and they'd left for today anyway. He had all these ideas of things he wanted to try with Gaara- and you never knew what tomorrow might bring. Right! There wasn't a moment to lose!

It turned out to be a very nice morning.

Chapter Text

Lee hurled himself upward, fist lifted to ward off one tendril of sand, kicking away another as he tumbled back to the ground. The sand hissed at him in a long tendril like a whip. He rolled and vaulted over it, skidded beneath the next lash, preparing his counter-charge.

Too late. The attack dissipated, leaving only innocent-looking dunes and a creeping sense of menace, as if the desert was staring at him and deciding where it would leave his carcass for the vultures.

Lee spun around, all senses reaching, though his lungs were heaving so hard he didn't dare rely on his hearing too much. He was hot, tired, there was a residual ache all up and down his right leg from his previous muscle injuries, and his chakra was burning and flaring through his body like lava. He was filthy and scratched and he had sand in his eyes and in lots of other places.

This was the most- the most wonderful, romantic present he'd ever been given!

Not that Gaara had put it in those terms of course. He’d just suggested, darkly at that, that it was time they started sparring again. When Lee had pressed him to admit that he’d missed their matches too, Gaara hadn’t answered. All the Kazekage had said in the end was that it was 'inevitable'; meaning, Lee guessed - he was getting good at interpreting Gaara's curt, sometimes disconnected words and thoughts - that Gaara had now accepted that Lee would be leaving on a mission sooner or later, and had decided he would train the Jounin himself and make sure he was up to it.

Lee was applying the full power of his Youth to laying Gaara's fears to rest in this matter.

There!

Lee dived away on pure instinct, a second before the massive dust devil erupted around him. He dodged backwards, across the dunes and rocks, leaped-

A small localized sandstorm marked his target. Lee raced towards it, but it shimmered and it was suddenly three dunes away. Lee, face serious and eyes bright with battling fervor, effortlessly accelerated. He'd dropped the leg weights after their first bout this morning, and he felt like he was flying.

The cat-and-mouse game resumed, though the cat and the mouse swapped roles after every attack, every dodge. A mile fell beneath their relentless running battle, scarcely noticed. The small cyclone paused to press forward an attack. Lee put in a burst of speed, closed in on the dust devil and the figure it protected. The barrier tried to push him away, but he ploughed through-

The thing that looked at him briefly before melting away was a sepia-colored replica of his lover. Sand Clone. Gaara was a much smarter fighter now than when he was twelve, and knew better than to present a stationary target to a hand-to-hand combat specialist. Not when a decoy could serve a much better purpose.

Lee arched through the air, absently dodging a grasping grainy hand the size of his torso. He voluntarily kept his back towards a tempting stretch of dunes...

He felt/heard the sand shift behind him. Despite the vicious attacks focused on him, Lee enjoyed a flash of triumph. He leaped up, using one of the sandy punches as a booster to propel himself up and over in a flip.

Gaara was emerging from the dune, sand pouring from him like water, dark-ringed eyes intent on Lee's last position.

Lee frowned even as he twisted into an attack. Clumsy. It was unlike Gaara to leave an opening like that.

His boyfriend saw him; so did the Sand, hurtling from the gourd, but Lee was too fast. He managed to break through that barrier with enough inertia left to grab Gaara and bear him to the ground. The gourd disintegrated, cushioning Gaara's fall, but it hadn't needed to. Lee had slammed his hand down and clung to his lover to avoid plowing him into the dunes.

They stared at each other, both breathing heavily, faces a few inches apart.

"Pay attention," Lee said sternly, letting go to straighten up and wave an admonishing finger under Gaara’s nose. Gaara had given him no quarter this morning, and no openings; this was the first bout Lee had actually won, though he’d managed to battle Gaara to a standstill right before lunch.

Gaara just looked up at him in silence.

Lee grinned, unable to keep up any kind of serious mood when he was feeling so darn cheerful. He stood up and extended a hand towards Gaara, who ignored it and got to his feet by himself. The dunes around them shifted, and then Gaara’s chakra-rich Sand suddenly shot up in a graceful curve and consolidated into the familiar container on his back.

"Want to take a break?" Lee asked, watching the Sand slink away into its residence. Was it his imagination or did the stuff seem surly at having been defeated...?

His boyfriend nodded, and followed him towards a spot of shade under a rocky overhang nearby. They'd headed out a few miles from Suna, to have room to fight and to avoid damaging anything the villagers felt they might need in the future. The two young men had reached the edge of the deeper desert, stretches of low ravines, crags and dried arroyos battling the dunes for dominance.

A heap of sand slithered on ahead of them and covered the hard rocks with a comfortable cushion. Lee sat down with a grateful sigh as he slipped off his rucksack. He unpacked his third and last flask of water, and drank a quarter of it in one long gulp. He corked the bottle and tossed it to Gaara who caught it without looking. The Kazekage only took a few sips with the automatic care for water bred into his bones.

Lee drank some more when Gaara handed it back, and then packed the water away, glad his bag would be a bit lighter when they started fighting again. This was battle-conditions sparring, a violent game they'd indulged in before the attack by Sound and all the messy emotions that had followed. They weren't limited to a practice ground, and they fought like Shinobi, using the terrain, distance, retreats, tricks and advances, as they would in a real fight. In the spirit of things, Lee had packed all the necessities he would be carrying if he were out on a real mission. He could have made do with a lighter pack and returned to the village for more water and food at noon, but that would have been cheating.

He sighed and stretched, feeling the good burn in his body. He was nearing the limits of his current stamina, but he still had one last good bout in him before they packed it in for the day. Too bad Gaara had forbidden the use of the Lotus. But Lee could still win! If he didn't, he'd perform two thousand punch-kick combos tomorrow morning, before that meeting with the Council.

"That shower is going to feel good tonight," he commented as he absently scratched at some sand in his uniform.

Gaara didn't answer.

Lee finally looked at him with a bit more attention. A silent Gaara wasn't all that unusual. But there was something a bit...busier, for the lack of a better term, in this silence. That sort of comment made sense when you knew Gaara. Sometimes Gaara was silent because he didn't feel like talking, and sometimes for reasons that Lee couldn't even begin to understand, and sometimes he was silent because he had something on his mind and he was trying to work through it. This silence was of the latter variety, and Lee thought it must be something serious if that was what had distracted his boyfriend during their last match.

Maybe Gaara was moody because they were sparring. Lee knew his lover was determined not to hurt him, and had been trying to capture and immobilize Lee so far, but the Jounin had still picked up some small scratches. Then again, those were mostly from this morning, gained during that running battle around the salt basin just before lunch, and Gaara hadn't appeared to pay the minor injuries that much attention at the time.

But it did seem to involve Lee. Gaara wasn't looking at him, but Lee felt himself to be at the centre of some attention nonetheless. Maybe it had been something Lee had said. What had they talked about last? Oh yes, termites.

They’d stopped at noon for food, rest and to let the worst of the midday heat pass. They’d been talking about survival tactics in different climates. Gaara had mentioned that Sand Shinobi routinely supplemented desert rations with scavenged resources such as snakes, cactus tubers and termites.

Lee had said something along the lines of ‘ew’.

Gaara had pointed out that they were a good source of nutrients.

Lee had said that he was quite willing to concede that, but before he ate a termite, he’d have to be at a point where he would die if he didn’t.

Gaara had countered that when Leaf Shinobi lived off the land, they scavenged the forest for fare such as mushrooms.

Lee had said he didn’t get what Gaara was getting at.

Gaara had said he’d eat anything to stay functional, but if he had a choice, he’d pick a bug over a fungus. Lee had noted that fact with interest; he hadn’t known his boyfriend had a thing about mushrooms. They weren't grown and eaten in Suna so the subject had never come up before.

The conversation had meandered a bit after that, as it tended to when they were just talking together in a quiet spot out of the crushing noon heat. Since Kankuro’s return ten days ago, both Lee and Gaara had seen their free time disappear, taken up by the organisational requirements of putting together a large-scale attack in utmost secrecy. They still had quick lunch-breaks together and that was about it. It had been an unequaled luxury and pleasure to take this whole day off to hang out and spar and talk (and hopefully do something else later, back at Gaara's place, that had also been put on hold for awhile, and which Lee was starting to miss just a little bit).

The only thing that had come from their earlier discussion was that Lee had declared one of his self-imposed challenges after lunch. Since he'd just won the first bout of the afternoon, termite was not going to be on the menu anytime soon.

Though if this was what had made Gaara so quiet, distracted and thoughtful, Lee would be willing to maybe try one small -

“How did you know you were in love with me?” Gaara asked suddenly.

...Okay, so it wasn’t about termites.

Lee was a bit befuddled, but not all that surprised. He'd fielded a few other strange questions these past few weeks, out of the blue and always with utmost directness. Gaara was trying to understand him; had been trying to at some level or other ever since they'd become friends. Sometimes it seemed it was humanity at large he was trying to understand, or perhaps just himself.

“How did I know?” Lee echoed. Gaara's completely flat tone had given him no hint as to what Gaara wanted in the way of answer. And it was a rather broad and intangible subject.

"What made you aware that you wanted to be more than friends?" Gaara elaborated, correctly interpreting Lee's hesitation.

"Oh." Lee blushed a bit, though not all that much. It was amazing how inured he'd become to straight talk about such subjects these days. Must be the company he kept. "To tell you the truth, ever since I came to Suna I’ve, um, noticed you. Like...thewayyoudress. Not in any bad way! But- er, the way you dress, and move. And then I started to have, er, fantasies after that time we bathed together – harmless! Just dreams! I can't control-"

Gaara's progressively more puzzled expression cleared up.

"I meant emotionally," he said with a touch of dryness to his even tone.

"Oh."

"Though we'll come back to those fantasies after you've answered my question."

Lee gulped, and hoped that answering the first question would distract Gaara from the second.

He started to think, hoping the slight color would fade from his cheeks. Emotions...? How had he realized what it was he felt towards Gaara?

That was easy. It had all come together when that Sound jutsu was speeding across the sand towards his friend. When Lee had fought tooth and nail and opened seven Gates to defend his beloved.

"When you were under attack, I knew you were my most important person and that I would die for you!” he declared loudly, before remembering that that was a No-no.

The temperature seemed to drop despite the blazing hot sun outside their shelter, as green eyes pinned him to the ground, but Gaara didn’t lose it this time. He took a breath, released it, and then merely looked morose.

“You’d die for most of your friends,” he pointed out quite accurately.

“Well, yeah,” Lee admitted, rubbing the back of his neck, “but not deliberately. I mean, I might, but it’d be accidental, while I was trying to save them. But you...I...”

Lee looked away. It was thirty-five degrees in the shade, why was he feeling cold?

“Without you my life would be...without a center.”

He glanced quickly at Gaara to see how his lover, still occasionally unstable, was taking this, but at a deeper level it was just because Lee needed to make sure Gaara was still there by his side, and not fallen in the desert with a knife through his heart.

Gaara was there, and from the way he was looking at Lee, he knew exactly what the Jounin was saying.

The air felt stifling and silent around them as they struggled out of the darkness they’d wandered into.

Lee shook his head firmly. “Of course this won’t happen, because I’ll defend you with all my strength. Fighting side by side, there is no enemy who can defeat us! We-“

“So love...” Gaara’s mind had apparently returned to the first subject. He was looking across the desert, a thoughtful expression on his face. “So love is a very negative emotion,” he concluded.

“Wha-at?!”

Gaara glanced up in surprise as if wondering how Lee could be startled by his evaluation. “It does seem to involve a mutual death pact."

"No-no-no! A lot of people don't see it that way. And it's positive! Positive. It’s glorious and uplifting and um-..."

"So what does it feel like?" Gaara asked, gaze unwavering. "How do you know you're in love with me?"

Can we please go back to beating each other up? Lee thought piteously.

But Gaara had asked him a straight and very valid question, so Lee would have to answer.

"Let's run for a bit while I try to explain," Lee suggested, looking to gain some time. "We're going to cool down otherwise."

"Do you want to train some more?" Gaara asked, getting smoothly to his feet.

"Yes please! If you don't mind."

Gaara scrutinized him. "Your stamina has improved yet again. You're virtually back to normal."

"Yep! All healed and ready for action!" Lee said, thumping his chest with his fist. Gaara looked a whole lot less enthusiastic, but he didn't comment. He must have known how hard it had been for Lee to take it easy and heal these past five weeks while wrestling with the paperwork. The Jounin was used to a more physical lifestyle. Gaara himself, for all he bent to his work with complete dedication, rarely lasted more than three months without opting for some kind of S-rank mission to get him outside of Suna. Gaara always took the more dangerous missions on himself to protect his troops as was his duty, but Lee felt pretty damn sure his lover didn't mind getting away from the desk to pound stuff up now and then.

They started running at a gentle pace. Gentle by Shinobi standards; they darted from rock to rock, staying in the shade as much as possible.

Lee hadn't forgotten Gaara's question and he was damn sure his boyfriend hadn't either. Gaara was just giving him the time to think his answer through. So think he did, but Lee had the sinking feeling it would take more than a short run to work this one out.

Because love, like a lot of things that were obvious, wasn't easy to talk about without grand romantic declarations, and that wasn't what Gaara had asked for. Which was a pity, because Lee was quite good at those. Whereas communicating clearly and logically about emotions, the way Gaara would like...not so good.

How did he know he loved Gaara?

It was there, in his chest, in his blood and bones, this huge, trembling feeling of-...of what exactly? He needed Gaara. He needed him like- like- like the bars of a nunchaku needed the chain between them! Lee nodded firmly, then rewound that last sentence through his head and realized his inner romantic had been caught napping. Maybe it could come up with a better metaphor, and help out a bit too. How could he put this need into words? Why exactly did he need Gaara so desperately?

He felt close to Gaara. He liked it when they talked, when they sparred...But Lee felt close to Gai-sensei, too. He missed his teacher terribly, even after all this time. The two Leaf Jounin had a lot in common and they understood each other perfectly. On some levels, better than Lee and Gaara did. Though the couple's understanding was already great and beautiful and improving all the time, Lee told himself sternly. But was that what defined love? It felt more like a consequence, when he thought of it like that.

Friendship, respect, trust, honorable rivalry...they were all true, and Lee cherished those feelings, but he felt them towards other people as well. He just felt more towards Gaara, but the demarcation line wasn't clear.

Even this feeling Lee called love wasn't all that clear-cut when he thought about it. He loved Gaara, of course. But he also loved - in a similar yet not-quite-the-same way - his teacher Gai-sensei, and the memory of his parents, and Sakura-san still had a very special place in his heart. He was going to tell Gaara about that one day, since Lee wanted to be Open and Honest in his Relationship. He would tell Gaara about his childhood crush for Sakura-san in the near future, at a time when Gaara was able to understand such things, while being fully assured of Lee's undying love and loyalty. Yes, Lee would definitely tell him. Sometime in the next decade, for sure.

Lee had the creeping feeling that the only thing that distinguished his love for Gaara from any other and that could be summed up in one word was Lust, and that was just not something he was going to say out loud, or even admit to himself. It wasn’t even true. Lee knew his own heart, and he knew, with simple honesty, that he’d have always loved Gaara and been by his side as long as Gaara needed him, even if they’d not been able to get physical in the end. Sex had helped them get closer on one level, conquer some barriers and Gaara’s fears - and it sure was nice - but it wasn't necessary. It certainly wasn't what defined love.

Gaara landed lightly on a wide sandstone ledge and straightened up. He had a dark look about him when Lee screeched to a halt at his side.

"I didn't think the question would be that hard to answer," he said.

Damn it, Lee had taken too long, or else Gaara had sensed his inner struggling.

"Well, it's complicated," Lee said, making a show of stretching and bending. "Emotions are hard to put into words, it’s like..."

"Colors," Gaara suggested. He stepped off the ledge, landing like a cat on the sandy ground below, and walked slowly across a small plateau to the desert's edge.

"What?" Lee followed, leaping a bit wide to catch up and land in front of his boyfriend.

"You cannot describe the color green," Gaara said, dark-ringed eyes on the sand in front of his feet, "but a normal person can still recognize it at a glance."

"Um..." Lee's mind had lost itself for a few seconds, trying to come up with a definition for the color green. "Emotions are more complicated though, and they get mixed up and twisted around. People have a hard time figuring out what they're feeling sometimes."

Gaara made a rare gesture of irritation, which probably meant he agreed and didn't like it. "Human beings are senseless creatures. These passions that move them are central to them, they can be a major weakness or a source of great strength. It shouldn't be this difficult to understand them."

Which was perfectly true. If that had been the case, Lee would have not had such a very hard time of it a few months ago; he'd have immediately recognized his feelings towards Gaara and known what to do with them. Still, Gaara's irritated expression at this inadequate engineering of the human psyche made Lee grin as he walked.

"I grant you it would be a lot easier if love were red or something, but I don't see quite how that would work," he teased.

That earned him a sour look. "I'm not good at metaphors," Gaara answered in a dead-flat monotone that declared that what he was good at was killing people in a number of messy ways, and that made up for his lack of verbal finesse.

"Oh, no, it's not that bad an image," Lee said loyally, trying to fight down the grin, which only got worse at hearing a grumpy Gaara.

Gaara did not mark the humour, or appear to be appeased by Lee's concession. Lee looked at him closely as they walked through the ravines, and the grin disappeared of itself.

"I do know I love you," he said quietly but firmly, because he was worried that Gaara was getting weirded out by his inability to answer, and well might he be. "It's there. This feeling. I can't put it into words, but I'm sure of it. One hundred percent."

He thought that would surely lighten Gaara's mood, maybe even earn Lee a hint of that smile that melted him each and every time it appeared, all too rarely. Instead, Gaara stopped walking, put his hands on his hips and before he bent his head to stare at the sandy ground, Lee caught a glimpse of something hard and injured, turned inward.

And he suddenly knew why Gaara had asked him the question in the first place.

Lee felt like punching himself in the head. What a blind idiot he was! He should have seen this coming. He'd have found a better way of answering, he'd have said- he didn't know what he could have said, but he could have avoided accidentally hurting Gaara, and spared his own feelings as well. Lee had never needed to hear Gaara say this, but now that the question was out there, he had the bad feeling the answer was still going to hurt him a little bit.

But since he was Rock Lee, he didn't turn away and pretend nothing had happened. He walked back towards Gaara and lifted his lover's chin with his fingers.

"It's okay. It's okay if you don't feel the same way."

Gaara looked away. His face was back to unreadable. But Lee could feel him inside, feel Gaara's pain and self-hatred, in a way that Lee couldn't explain.

"I would be surprised if you did," Lee added, trying to sound firm. "To put it bluntly: your childhood was horrible, you had nothing in your upbringing to make you feel this." How could a man blinded at birth understand colors?

Gaara looked at him, gaze clear, hard and uncompromising, very familiar to Lee. The Jounin looked away first. He was beginning to understand how Gaara thought. His lover had let him into the inner space beyond the control, beyond the boundaries of the stable, restrained Kazekage. Gaara wasn't going to use his past as an excuse for his present limitations. What Lee had just told him was that Gaara’s heart, his emotions, were stunted and he could not feel what a normal person would feel, and just because there was a good reason for this didn't make it any better.

Lee abruptly shook his head and waved his hands around widely, as if he could battle wounds and history as effectively as he fought off his enemies.

"Look, it's not- love- Gaara, it's obvious that you feel a lot towards me. Right? The way you behave, the way you let me close to you- and remember what you told me? How it made you feel when we touched?" He would have felt embarrassed and presumptuous at one time, bringing that up like this, but he was thinking differently now that Gaara had let him in. And he could still feel the pain in his friend and he wasn't going to stand for it.

Gaara was scrutinizing him closely. "Yes. That's true. Is that love?"

"Huh. It could be," Lee mumbled, not sure there was even a possible answer to that.

Gaara's gaze was at its usual blowtorch intensity and about as easy to bear as he scrutinized Lee's face.

"I do feel a lot towards you," he said slowly and without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. "So much it borders on the dangerous at times. But I know what these feelings are; even the bad ones, the wish to keep you safe against your will, or kill those who've injured you. You are important to my existence, like my village and my family. A part of me resides in you. If I died, you would miss me, your life would be less for it. I would feel the same way. It's a bond, an anchor, a reason to survive. But I felt this way towards you when we were friends too, to a lesser degree. And a part of it is merely a response to your feelings, to the fact that I need someone to feel that way towards me."

Gaara turned away and brought that clear, hard gaze to bear on the desert as he stepped away. "I wanted more for you," he said simply, the lack of inflections in his voice making his tone sound impassive. "I was hoping I could feel this. To be able to give this to you."

"Maybe you will one day," Lee said awkwardly. The fact that Gaara only wanted to feel love for Lee's sake...saddened the Jounin and made him feel strangely helpless, though he couldn't explain why.

It was an empty consolation. But Gaara glanced over his shoulder and speared Lee with that intent searching gaze again.

"What do you mean?"

"Well..." Lee suddenly realized his words had meant more than he'd first thought. He scratched the back of his head - it always seemed to help him to think better - and he answered slowly, working through it as he spoke. "I love you more now than when I first realized it. Because I know you better. At the start, I was pretty confused. But things are clearer now. Maybe your feelings for me are mixed up with a lot of stuff from your past, but that could change. Maybe in a few years..."

He couldn't quite finish that thought under Gaara's sceptical gaze.

"I doubt it,” the Kazekage said abruptly. “Pain is pain. When I was a child, it took me awhile to recognize what I was feeling, since I had no physical experience to compare emotional pain with. But it never changed. I just got used to it." Gaara spoke clinically and without the slightest trace of self-pity or regret.

The wave of Lee's hand batted away all that darkness, because that was the past, and Gaara was going to feel differently from now on if Lee had anything to say about it. His voice became progressively more enthusiastic and positive as he forged on.

"Yes, but emotions aren't like that. Pain is simple, and you bear with it and conquer it and move on, but real emotions move on with you. And they- they don’t come alone. They're all mixed up with other feelings, which go with them, fuel them even. I love you, but along with that, I respect and trust and care for you, like a friend as well as more, and I, ah, also sometimes feel a few things that aren’t quite as, um, uplifting.”

Such as jealousy when he saw that pair of ditzy young Kunoichi who, in contrast to a village full of respectful and wary Shinobi, appeared enamored with Gaara’s looks, title and brooding attitude. Lee also felt a certain amount of not-so-gracious satisfaction when Gaara, completely oblivious to their occasional attempts at flirtation, gave them a strange look and told them to get on with their jobs.

“I worry about your safety, a bit more than I should considering you’re stronger than I am – a bit stronger, that is. And sometimes I lose my temper too fast. I always take what you say more seriously because I care more about what you think of me. And-”

Gaara was giving him a strange look. "Yet you say love is a positive emotion."

"Absolutely!" Lee's fist was brandished high. It startled a watching vulture that had landed at a prudent distance, apparently in the hopes they'd suddenly drop dead. "Love is the greatest emotion there is! It gives you strength! It gives you hope! It makes you selfless and brave! When you smile at me- like you did earlier - I could do just about anything!"

"...I smiled at you earlier?"

Lee put his fist down again. "Yes. When we drew a stalemate at the salt basin just before lunch." He felt mildly disappointed that Gaara could have forgotten, since that small smile had been the highlight of the morning for Lee.

Gaara's face was a mask but his eyes had widened in what looked like confusion, and Lee realized it wasn't that his lover had forgotten, but that he hadn't realized he'd smiled like that in the first place.

"Did I look dangerous?" Gaara asked slowly.

"What?! No! No. It's- it's a wonderful smile. It makes me feel happy," Lee concluded in a red-faced mumble.

Gaara's expression became even blanker while his fingers drifted up to his face, touching it as if expecting to find the muscles frozen into an insane rictus.

"I don't smile at people," he said absently. "It makes them nervous. Except for you and my siblings, and Naruto because I don't think he's got the brains to be afraid of anything much. But when I smile at any of you, it's always been voluntary."

Lee assumed Gaara meant that sardonic smirk which denoted the fact that the Kazekage had found some unexpected irony in a situation.

"Do I smile at other people without realizing?" Gaara's hand still lingered near his mouth.

"Not that I've noticed. You, um, look less intimidating when you're pleased with their work, and they go away happy."

"Do I smile at other people like I smiled at you?" Gaara asked with his strange direct candor.

"Not that I have ever seen," Lee answered softly.

For a brief moment Gaara looked intrigued. But then he abruptly turned towards the desert. He made no extraneous gesture, but a thin crust of sand at his feet rustled away from him as if it was cringing.

"Is that love?" he asked with a hard glance at Lee over his shoulder. From the tone of his question, he was not expecting Lee to be able to answer, once again.

Lee sighed and glanced up at the endless blue sky for assistance.

"What did you feel towards me after I was injured by Sound, and you were holding me that night?" he countered with his own question.

"Warm. Safe. Content," Gaara answered promptly. "But I know those feelings. I’ve felt them before. A couple of times."

"Yes, but they were kind of weird considering the circumstances, right?"

"So that's love?" Gaara asked, eyes narrowed and hard.

Lee couldn't say, though he really wanted to. He thought it was some kind of love, surely...but to be honest, Gaara's feelings at present might just be the contentment of an outcast animal finally allowed to join the pack. Since Lee couldn’t define love adequately even to himself, what hope did he have of identifying Gaara’s sentiments, twisted and blunted as they were by his past?

"I don't know. I...You know, I think I was attracted to you, and then in love with you, for a long time before I realized it. I felt so much towards you, it just got confused. And I think all people are like that deep inside. The thing is, the more you think about it, the less it will probably make sense. It's just not something you can reason out, you know, even for a genius such as yourself. In my case, it all came together when you were in danger. It's how I realized what you meant to me. That’s how you know how deep your feelings go. But don’t worry about it, because I think what we’ve got is already-"

Gaara was staring at him.

"So I might recognize this emotion on the day I come close to losing it?" he interrupted coldly.

"...Yes?"

"So love is a very stupid emotion," Gaara said in a flat voice.

"Er..." Put like that...

Gaara turned back to stare at the desert as if it had personally annoyed him and he was contemplating a Requiem.

Lee sighed. He'd made a hash of explaining it. He should have let his inner romantic take over and given Gaara the Speech that Gai-sensei had once given Lee. Surely it would have made everything crystal clear.

Or maybe not...In the long, contemplative silence that followed, Lee remembered his youthful belief in Love. Well, it was as powerful as he'd thought it would be. But it was also frightening and terrible and wonderful and painful and warming and confused and friendly and full of embarrassing desires as well as all sorts of other stuff he'd never even imagined - and no wonder he couldn’t explain any of this to Gaara. Maybe it was too complex for someone who'd grown up on an insane cocktail of pain, fear, hate and little else. Gaara had barely started feeling some of the happy emotions in life at the age of eighteen. Maybe it was too late, maybe there was too much damage.

But if that was the case...so be it. Lee realized, to his surprise, that he would have no problems accepting that, because they already had so much. Even if he was damned if he could put any of it into words.

Lee tended to burn with certainty rather than brood over philosophical matters, so this was all a bit alien to him. But he found himself distantly wondering how much his own love would change and evolve as he grew older. How much he would change with it. Because love had certainly changed Lee's life - though it hadn't made it miraculously euphoric or pain-free as he'd once believed. Happier for sure, but it seemed that pain had more power over him now, since Gaara's wounds now counted as his own. In the final tally, maybe the one thing love had done for him so far was make him a little wiser. And tomorrow...

A faint breeze, hot and heavy with afternoon heat, brushed them, drying the sweat on Lee's face and making him smile with pleasure.

Gaara stirred and glanced back at him.

"You think it could happen one day?" he asked, and if it was anybody else that might have sounded wistful. But being Gaara, it only sounded blunt. And that was fine by Lee, because that was his Gaara, and maybe that was what Love was about in the end.

"I know it can!" he exclaimed, aiming a victorious thumb at his boyfriend and banishing all doubt. It would! Maybe Lee didn't require it, but he wanted Gaara to feel this great, energetic, youthful feeling called Love one day, and with a lot of work and determination-

"You're an optimist," Gaara stated.

"Well, yes," Lee had to admit.

Gaara looked at him in his inscrutable sphinx-like way, and then turned away with a snort.

He stared out into the desert, but Lee wasn't getting any sense of depression or instability from his lover. Gaara had changed a lot these past few weeks, from the young man who'd put holes in the ground when the word 'love' had first popped up, to someone who could take Lee's waffling and his own fractured and blunted emotions with something like equanimity, even a measure of resigned acceptance. Lee felt suddenly sure that one day Gaara would, at the very least, have the emotional maturity to look at this question again, and this time find the answer within himself. In the meantime, best not brood on it.

Lee concluded his reverie with a firm nod, and realized that Gaara was looking at him from the corner of his eye.

"Next question," Gaara said.

Lee stared at him, eyes perfectly round. Huh? Next question?

Gaara turned towards him slowly, looking at him with a strange anticipation, much like that vulture had earlier. Lee couldn't imagine what kind of question was coming after all that, and from the look on Gaara's face, he expected Lee to find it even harder to answer, and this time the Kazekage would not accept any kind of compromise or evasion. What on earth could Gaara consider more challenging to answer than-

"About those fantasies."

Lee made a run for it. He was ten feet away before the startled desert sand could react and hurl itself after him.

They both got in a lot of good training that afternoon.

Chapter Text

Lee checked his equipment again. It was easier on the nerves than watching his boyfriend stand on top of an electrical pole two streets away. Not that Gaara would fall. He was a Shinobi after all, Lee reminded himself, and then reminded himself again when the gathering wind made the metal pole vibrate.

So, equipment check. Lee was wearing tough Sand Jounin clothes, gloves, and boots too; he wasn't used to the latter, his toes were complaining.

He glanced up again almost reluctantly. Gaara was still standing on the crossbar near the wire connector, straight as a sword, arms crossed, the gourd a familiar part of his silhouette. The growing wind suddenly blasted his coat out behind him. Lee forced himself to calm down and to stay hidden behind the large decorative terracotta pot that was giving him some shelter on the roof he'd picked. The electrical pole was the one on top of Gaara's house, the highest point in the bloody village no less, and the whole of Sunagakure was tumbling vertiginously at Gaara's feet, but even if he fell, he'd be able to catch himself; he was the Kazekage after all, and besides he wasn't going to fall in the first place, even if the wind was picking up something fierce.

Lee conscientiously checked his water pack in one pouch, his rations and weapons in another. He had a thick outer cloak that gave him an extra layer of protection, a veil to cover his features and brand new sand goggles. He also had standing orders from Kankuro and Gaara to not use any of the above and to stay safely in his room, but Lee was choosing to ignore those.

Well it hadn't actually been an order from Gaara. Not directly from Gaara, Lee told himself reassuringly as his conscience tried to prick him. It had just been a hurried note telling Lee to stay indoors and not follow him. It hadn't even come with a please. Gaara was probably expecting him to ignore it. Right.

Lee's eyes were drawn to the distant figure again. He wondered what Gaara was feeling right now. Lee hadn't seen him in two days, and he missed him more than he reasonably should for a mere forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours since Gaara had trailed off in the middle of a sentence, stood up, made his way slowly to the window and, in a queer voice full of restraint and expectation, had said: "There's a sandstorm coming."

It was the first storm of the autumn season and it was early, so there had been a lot to organize. The herbarium had to be sealed and boarded, houses and roofs caulked, storm shutters checked, outlying patrols warned...

Lee had stayed out of Gaara's way by tacit agreement, just making sure that his boyfriend knew he could call upon the Jounin if he needed anything at all. Lee hadn't been surprised when Gaara did not avail himself of the offer. The Kazekage had been very busy, but the real reason they kept their distances during those two days was that approaching sandstorms made Gaara twitchy, irritable and a bit strange. Lee knew better now, but during last year's storm seasons, Lee hadn't always had the wisdom and knowledge to back down and leave well enough alone. It was hardly his style anyway. They'd had some pretty spectacular arguments as a result.

But despite this, when the storms struck, Lee would always go out and follow the Kazekage, 'watching his back' as he put it. There was no conceivable reason why he would stop doing so now that they were friends and lovers. Really, what were Kankuro and Gaara thinking? (Fortunately Temari was in Konoha working with Tsunade on their plans for Sound, because she would have made it abundantly clear what she was thinking, and then would probably have locked Lee in his room under guard to boot).

Lee watched the distant figure of his lover and Gaara watched the approaching storm. Lee could see it coming now. It was thundering towards Sunagakure like a tsunami in this waterless land. The wind was already buffeting him, sending forerunners of sand to gather in the folds of his cloak. The air smelt of dust, dry wind and ozone. Lee made sure that every inch of his skin was covered by the clothes, cloak, gloves and veil, and pulled on the goggles.

In his mind he was rehearsing the various stages he'd become familiar with during the previous storm seasons. Gaara would stay on his roof for a little while after the storm hit (though hopefully not on that bloody electrical pylon), while his chakra gathered and grew wild and dangerous, reminding Lee of the Old Gaara. Then the Kazekage would stalk off into the storm.

And Lee would follow him at a safe distance.

The distant figure casually stepped off of the pole's crossbar into thin air, giving Lee a mild heart attack. Gaara dropped gracefully to the roof, approached the balustrade and stared out at the wave about to hit.

Lee frowned. Gaara's chakra felt different than last storm season; it was more modulated. It normally rose with the savage wind.

The early-morning sunshine was dying, devoured by jaws of encroaching dust blown ahead of the storm. Lee stared until he couldn't see Gaara anymore, but he could feel a faint pulse of chakra from that direction if he trained his senses hard enough.

Let go, love, Lee thought, feeling a tiny flare of wild power seething from the man he could no longer see. Let go, it's okay. I'll be right here with you, and I'll make sure you're safe.

At least that had been the plan. Then the storm hit.

 

---

 

With an inward sigh, Lee thought of the citizens of Suna huddled inside their homes. Nobody deliberately went out into sandstorms. Nobody but their Kazekage and an idiotic Leaf Jounin who just couldn't bear to leave him by himself.

The wind lashed at Lee, showering him with sand at high velocity. Even through the thick clothes and cloak, it stung a bit. Lee barely noticed since it would take considerably more discomfort than that to register with him. His only concern was getting lost. Gaara had predicted that this storm would be violent and last the day, and Lee wanted to be sure he spent that time as was his self-appointed duty, watching Gaara's back, not staggering around in circles and running into things.

It was proving more difficult than last year. Gaara's chakra was flaring and leaking, but it wasn't the insane boil that had drawn an alarmed Lee out into the storm that first time. In the fury of the elements, Lee had lost Gaara twice now, and only found him through luck and by hurtling forward blindly in what he hoped was the right direction until he picked up traces of his lover again.

Lee felt something looming to his right. He narrowed his eyes through the goggles. It was ten in the morning, yet the sunlight was almost gone. He couldn't see very far, but he could sense something large and dark up ahead. He walked forward prudently, and a wall of granite detached itself from the flowing sands.

Ah, he knew where he was then, Lee thought proudly. He recognized this particular battlement, a piece of rock anchoring a brick wind-wall that directed the fury of storms away from- wait a minute, that meant that Gaara was heading towards the canyon and the desert beyond. Damn it-

Lee frowned, twisting on himself and glancing over his shoulder. The wind appeared to be blowing from all directions at once, buffeting him, ripping the cloak around his legs. Through the fury of the storm, Gaara's chakra seemed to be coming from behind him. But Lee had been following the Kazekage. Hell, he must have gotten turned around again.

He left the slight shelter of the outcropping, stretched out a hand and his senses and moved towards the sinister tingling in the air that was his lover. He didn't want to lose Gaara in all this, especially if the Kazekage was heading out of Suna's immediate defence perimeter.

The aura was behind him again.

What the-

Lee felt his skin prickle beneath the tough clothes.

The wind hissed, pushing the sluggish sand against his legs. Lee realized he could see a couple of yards ahead now. He could make out the stone outcropping to his right and the wall dropping away from it, even though he was several feet away. The wind was dying.

That meant he was in trouble.

Lee swallowed and glanced over his shoulder. The wild, pulsing chakra was all around him now. He still couldn't see much, just the dark shape of the rock a few feet away, and the wall of sand and wind around him. He did a full turn on himself-

Gaara was standing right in front of him, well into his personal space.

Lee yelped and jumped back instinctively. Gaara didn't move. Around them, the sand-heavy wind seemed to be laughing wildly.

"G-Gaara?" A shiver of tension ran through Lee's body. Gaara had always ignored him during previous storms.

"Why am I even surprised?"

Gaara's voice, barely audible above the howling gale, held an unusual edge of irony. It matched the cruel, crooked upturn of one corner of his mouth. His eyes were wide, pupils small and hard, and he didn't seem to notice the sand blowing against him.

He took a step closer. Lee took a step back, trying to make it look casual. He could feel the presence of the rock escarpment behind him, boxing him in.

"I guess I'm not surprised at that." Gaara came to a halt not even a foot from Lee. Eyes narrowed and the smirk widened. A finger reached out slowly, as if daring Lee to bolt. It touched the edge of his goggles. "You always disobey my orders."

"Um-"

"Why do I like that?" Gaara's finger fell from the goggles and pulled the veil away from Lee's face.

Lee couldn't answer for a rather technical reason. He quickly lifted his hand to cup around his nose to avoid breathing in sand and dust. The other hand reached for his veil to pull it back up.

There was a soft 'woosh', and Lee's ears suddenly rang.

He gasped, fingers still fishing blindly for the edge of his veil, which was hanging limply near his face instead of being blown straight out by the wind. As he gaped like a suddenly landed fish, Gaara reached over and lifted up his goggles, settling them against Lee's forehead.

Lee glanced around wildly. The sand from the storm had come to a screeching halt in a circle around them, arrested ten feet away by the massive chakra exerted by his boyfriend. The sand's unnatural immobility was acting as a makeshift wind breaker, allowing rough breezes and small dust devils to curve through their shelter, but bending the full force of the storm around them. Lee tried to imagine the kind of power that could do that and ran out of estimates.

"Hi Gaara," he said a bit weakly, focusing back on his boyfriend. "I'm sorry to have interrupted your walk." You can go on doing whatever it was you were doing, was the message Lee hoped to convey.

Gaara stared at him, as if his words had been in a foreign language that he knew, but it required his concentration to understand Lee's meaning.

Lee hesitated. He didn't know how to handle this. Last year he'd followed Gaara like a naturalist followed a tiger through a jungle; trying to not let his presence impact on the dangerous creature in its natural habitat. In turn the Kazekage had ignored him - though Lee felt pretty sure Gaara had known he was there - and had continued walking in the near-solid sand with that wild look in his eyes and power wrapped around him, dangerous and volatile. Lee had kept to his safe distance with utmost respect. He'd known even back then that Gaara was unpredictable in these circumstances, and might well try to wing him just for the fun of it if Lee got too close.

Gaara had never turned around and come after him, though.

Lee looked at the other man as clinically as he could. Gaara didn't look menacing; he didn't look like he was even angry at Lee, despite his first words. He was studying the Jounin and he looked fairly rational, though the pulse and ebb of chakra around him told Lee that he might not have quite the grip he appeared to. He seemed...different. His hair was wild and wind-blown, and seemed a starker shade of red in the half-light, his eyes were wide and oddly fixed, his mouth curved, more expressive than it usually was, but of what emotions Lee could not tell. He seemed brighter, somehow. Beautiful, dangerous and just...more.

Lee realized that he hadn't actually thought how Gaara would behave if they ran into each other in the storm. It had happened before, during the previous storm seasons. On those occasions Gaara had ignored him and Lee had crept away, chilled by those traces of the Old Gaara he saw. But now...he'd not factored their relationship into this.

Gaara's fingers picked at the edge of Lee's cloak, as if he was examining Lee's protective attire. "Interesting," he murmured.

Lee swallowed, in part to clear his ears, which were aching from the sudden change of pressure and from the beat of the wind hammering air into their refuge. Gaara's power pushed upwards and let a faint reflected sunshine leak through the storm above. In that charged atmosphere, Gaara's words were utterly clear despite the wind howling around them. The air inside the bubble was dead and hollow, and each sound- the creak of sand beneath Gaara's sandals, the flutter of his coat, Lee's quick, shallow breaths - sounded abnormally loud.

"I can feel you following me," Gaara said, removing his hand and staring at Lee, unblinking. He was still too close to Lee, closer than Gaara normally stood to people. It was keeping Lee off-balance. "It's annoying. Like a mouse scurrying under the floorboards."

"Mouse?" Lee huffed before his brain could tell him to shut the hell up.

The ghost of a strange smile briefly twisted Gaara's lips. "Mouse," he murmured. The power emanating from him seemed to curl around Lee, mocking the Jounin with the difference between their levels. "But maybe..."

Something flickered across Gaara's face, a frown, then the strange expression was back again and Gaara's fist slowly knotted in Lee's cloak.

"Maybe we can play. Show me you're not a mouse. I know you can. That might be fun." Gaara's voice was no longer quite a monotone, but it had inflections Lee had never heard before.

"Play?" Lee said cautiously. "What do you mean?"

"A sparring match. You're always hounding me for one." Gaara's eyes twitched to one side briefly. Flickers of expression lit his face and disappeared too fast for Lee to follow, as if Gaara was listening to objections, encouragements and laughter on the wind that Lee couldn't hear. "How about it?"

"I-"

"Or you can go."

Lee found himself pressed back against the stone outcropping, Gaara's hand shoving him back contemptuously. "We either spar, or you leave, but I will not have you trailing after me like a little mouse." The fist shoved him back again as counterpoint.

For a second Lee was almost tempted. His heart beat faster, his fists itched in their gloves at the idea of taking on Gaara when the latter might actually really cut loose and stop being so terrified of hurting Lee. Plus the 'mouse' thing burned a bit. But no. Lee wasn't that crazy or that stupid. Fighting with Gaara in this condition would be way too dangerous, and if Lee got injured, Gaara would blame himself.

"Gaara, we can't spar, we're in the middle of a sandstorm," he pointed out in a reasonable tone.

Gaara's lips twisted and he stepped back, dropping his hand from Lee's cloak and turning away dismissively. "Then leave, Leaf. Run away, and don't stop running until you get home."

"Home- Konoha?" Lee asked dumbly, since Gaara had mentioned 'Leaf'-

The sound that erupted in their bubble of air was like the feral snarl of a saw biting into granite. Chakra flared like sudden wildfire. Lee's arms were in front of his eyes, protecting his face from the crash of sand. It hadn't been aimed at him, fortunately, but it had scarred the stone around him and knocked down part of the brick wall a few feet away. His muscles hummed, ready to wrench him out of danger- but the wild chaotic surge of power was already fading. With what sounded like a growl, the chakra-rich Sand of the gourd eased itself away and back into its container.

Lee lowered his arms prudently. Gaara's face was six inches away, he was staring at Lee unblinking and he had both fists knotted in Lee's cloak now.

"You will not leave this village," Gaara said in a low dangerous growl. "If you go, you will go back to my home, my bed and wait for me there."

Lee's heart was still in his mouth, but he ignored it, and the violent grip and the way the cork still hadn't slipped itself back into the gourd's opening. Because he realized that what Gaara was giving him was an out. Lee had a choice.

He'd never actually wondered much what Gaara looked for in these storms; why he let his power boil out from him like this when the wind started to blow. He didn't really know how badly Gaara lost it. It was tempting to think he walked around in this fury and let the Old Gaara loose, or maybe even parts of Shukaku, but then if that was true, he really would be dangerous, and he would not be giving Lee the option to leave now.

However strange and unhinged and wild this Gaara was - however much Lee liked to think of this as the Old Gaara...it wasn't, not really. He was as feral as his younger self had been, as dangerous perhaps, as volatile as the thing that had lurked beneath the Armour years ago, but this wasn't the child-killer who'd maimed Lee; this was the young man who was his lover. And since he was giving Lee a way out...conversely, it meant that Lee couldn't leave.

"I'm not going. But I'm not sparring either!" Lee added hastily. "I'm sticking with you though. Orochimaru might have heard that you like to walk around in storms- and I know there are often strange creatures- erm, animals walking around in these sorts of- I mean-" Dammit, he was getting tongue tied under that unblinking gaze. "Anyway, I'm not leaving. Maybe we can, um, walk around together? If you don't want me following. But I'm not leaving you alone out here. You need someone to watch your back."

"Watch. My. Back." Gaara said it as if trying to fit the words into an order that made sense. And then he laughed.

Lee went right back to feeling one hundred percent undiluted worry, because he'd heard Gaara laugh once before, pretty much like that, and Lee had almost lost the use of his limbs and his life as a result.

But the laugh became a more relaxed chuckle - still completely at odds from his usually serious Gaara. It made him sound a bit like Kankuro. The look he was giving Lee was weird, but it wasn't manic, and Lee's sense of danger crept back to somewhat acceptable levels.

"Watch my back. Lee. Lee...This is the one place I don't need you to watch my back. Not here. They can't get me here."

Lee was about to ask a question, one of many, but he hastily closed his mouth and eyes as a brisk, sandy wind broke through Gaara's barrier. Lee protected his face with one hand and glanced around cautiously through his fingers. The sand was curling loosely around Gaara in a helix, as the Kazekage took two steps back. He had one hand out, and the sand looped around it obediently.

"I like it out here...the power..."

Gaara stepped away and turned. He idly jerked at the harness that loosened the gourd on his back, and he swung it down to the ground with a challenging thump, eyes hard on the storm around them as if he was watching an advancing enemy. The wind blew and raged in a circle around them.

"They would never attack me in a storm," Gaara said over his shoulder. "This is my domain. They know their limits. Human limits. The sand would leech the blood from their bodies before they got within a hundred feet."

"Huh-" Lee sneezed as some dust tickled his nose. "Who-"

Gaara spun around away from Lee and threw out his hands, fingers twisting into claws.

"You should have known your limits. You shouldn't have tried to kill me. You were too weak! You never stood a chance!" Gaara suddenly shouted, and the storm and sand screamed with him.

The spike of power that ensued made their shelter ring like a bell. A momentary avalanche of wind and sand swept through it. Lee was knocked back against the rock, and he let himself fall, glad to have its solidity at his back. He stayed crouched as the wind died down. The sand drifted to the ground, curled and played at the Kazekage's feet, danced for him as he glanced at it.

"They're dead now," Gaara said. "They all died and they never even scratched me. And the rest of them left me alone, they were terrified-...You're not afraid of me though. Are you?"

A slightly unsteady note had entered Gaara's voice as he glanced back, and Lee fell over himself to answer. "No! No, of course not."

"Good...Because...I can..." Gaara's face had gone still, eyes wide. "I can...protect us. I can protect us."

"Oh that's good, um, Gaara, who-"

Gaara spun around and was crouched in front of Lee before the latter could utter more than a startled gasp. Lee overbalanced, trying to reign in his fight-or-flight reactions, and sat down with a thump. The power roiled off of Gaara, an almost palpable thing. Lee had never seen him move so fast.

Gaara's eyes were fever-bright, there was a look of concentration and wonder on his face. "Do you understand? Lee! Do you understand?!"

"Uh-"

"I can protect us! They will never harm us! I can protect us both! Do you see? Do you see?!"

Lee, mouth hanging open, stared at his lover. Hands grasped his shoulders and shook him sharply, making his teeth click.

"Do you see?" Gaara asked, eyes intent on Lee's face. "I can protect us both. I can protect you, Lee. I can give this to you. I can give this. They will never touch you!"

"Who? Sound?" Lee asked weakly. He didn't think Gaara was talking about Sound.

Gaara got up and spun around-

An unimaginable blast of pure power shattered the strange calm of their eye of the storm. It screamed through the still air, hurled itself out, smashed the wall of sand around them and shouldered back the winds wrapped around their cocoon, leaving a large concentric ring of roiling dust and eerie, breathless silence.

Lee felt a prickle in his sinuses as the massive chakra pulse dwindled. A heartbeat- then the wind and sand came rushing back towards them like a killing tide. Lee scrambled to get his goggles and veil on, but the power of the storm once more crashed and broke against the wall of chakra surrounding his lover. A weak wind sprinkled Lee with a few handfuls of grit and a piece of dried cactus, and then it curled up obediently around Gaara's feet.

Gaara was panting harshly. It sounded like excitement as much as exertion.

"There," he told the invisible enemy out there. "Don't come near him. He's mine! He's mine."

Thank god we weren't in the middle of the village, Lee thought, his heart still thumping with shock. That blast of raw power might have knocked a house down. Or perhaps not; the conical shape of Suna's houses protected them against the strongest storm winds, and might have deflected some of that intensity. Lee was just glad it hadn't been put to the test though.

"He's...mine..." Gaara repeated hoarsely.

Then he turned towards Lee, and apparently 'they' were forgotten, whoever they'd been. Gaara's concentration was on Lee exclusively. Lee held himself still, sitting back to the rock, ignoring his survival instincts which were telling him to get casually to his feet, edge away and then start running like hell.

Gaara walked towards him with the slow, dragging steps of a sleepwalker. The storm pressed against their shelter, sending sand and a few gusts to blow Gaara's coat about his body and Lee's cloak against the rock behind him before they were sealed off again.

Gaara crouched before him. His eyes had never left Lee's.

"You're mine," Gaara said, but this time the affirmation held within it a tentative question.

"Yes," Lee said firmly.

A sharp inhale parted Gaara's lips; he leaned forward and the sigh that followed was sensuous. He caressed Lee's bared cheek with the back of his fingers.

"I've never had anyone who was mine before..."

Gaara's eyes dropped to Lee's throat, his chest. His hand followed his gaze; he pushed aside the thick cloak and dragged his palm and finger's down Lee's sternum with the brash delight of a child who'd been told not to touch and was doing so anyway.

An instant later, that same hand was fastened around Lee's chin, jerking his head up. So fast! Lee blinked, more in surprise than pain, though if he'd been an average person the wrenching gesture would have hurt a little.

"But it had to be you. You see that. Right?"

This was a different aspect of Gaara yet again. There was something cold and ancient about him now, and his eyes held the wisdom of crows on a battlefield.

"What?" Lee whispered, and wondered why he was still bothering trying to keep a toe-hold in this conversation, if it could be called that.

"It had to be you." Gaara's voice flowed easily and with undertones of steely certainty. "The others wouldn't dare. They're afraid of me."

Gaara said it with a cynical satisfaction which made Lee blink. Apparently this version of Gaara didn't worry about the fear he generated; it sounded like he enjoyed it.

"And there aren't many who could challenge me as you do. Who would have the guts to do it. Maybe Naruto. But he was afraid of me too, to start with. And he frightened me...He beat me, he broke me inside..." The last words were a mutter.

"But he's your friend now," Lee objected automatically, then spluttered as sand got into his mouth, blown on one of the faint breezes that made it through the wall of sand and power.

"And Sasuke...the first person to make me bleed...he had very beautiful eyes. So intent. So desperate. He was lucky to survive, though, because he really wasn't strong enough. I can't believe he's still alive. Something that brittle should have broken long ago."

Lee wondered if Gaara had even heard him.

"But you...Even back then." The grip on his chin tightened, possessive, and something in Gaara's unblinking stare made Lee swallow and stare back in fascination.

"Even when I was in the darkness, living only for myself, I still noticed you, Rock Lee. During the Chuunin exam. You were the first. You touched me. You made me feel pain. You were glorious."

The fingers abruptly released him. They rose to trace Lee's nose, his cheeks, his lips...

"I wanted to kill you so badly afterwards," Gaara added, his voice soft with longing and shot through with malice that was so pure it was strangely innocent.

Lee stared at him, chilled as much by the dark desire in that voice as the words.

"...but he stepped in and stopped me. He protected you both times." Gaara's face twisted into a dangerously fixed expression. "He had you, you had him. Beloved comrade..." it was barely more than a movement of the lips.

Wham!

Gaara's fists had slammed into the stone on either side of Lee's head.

"But you love me more than him now. Don't you?!"

"Yes," Lee answered hoarsely, mouth dry with the sudden shock. He wondered if it was his imagination or if he'd really felt the rock crack beneath Gaara's blow.

"Yes," Gaara murmured sensuously. "Yes, you do."

Lee nodded vigorously, with a silent apology to Gai-sensei. Not that he didn't love Gaara more than his teacher. Sort of. Well, it wasn't the same thing at all really, not the same kind of love, he did love Gaara more, but it sounded wrong to put it in those terms-

That being said, arguing semantics at this point would be calamitous. As well as really, really stupid.

"You love me." It was a straight statement, but behind it lurked a hint of awe and wonder that captured all of Lee's attention again. "And you dared. You dared to reach out and touch me again, and get even closer."

The wind and sand whispered around them. The storm's mindless fury seemed a lot further than just a few feet away. Gaara's words fell into that strange near-hush, slow, with pauses between the sentences as if other, unheard voices were whispering in his mind. "You touched me. You opened the door. I didn't know. I had no idea...how you could make me feel."

"Um, Gaara-"

A kiss interrupted Lee's self-conscious mumble. It was hard, and teeth unexpectedly nipped at his lip. Lee started, and licked at the small sting without thinking when Gaara leaned back. The green eyes were fixed on his tongue and Gaara's mouth opened in a soundless, breathless 'hah'.

Lee suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

"Look," Gaara whispered.

The throb of chakra in the air rose sharply; so did Lee's eyebrows. It reminded him of the way Gaara's power had crashed around him earlier.

"Look," Gaara ordered again, getting to his feet with that grace that made Lee's blood do funny things in his veins - not that this was the time or place, and he hoped Gaara understood that.

He was looking, but he didn't see anything. What was he supposed to be looking at? Uh...

A lazy circle drew itself in the sand, centred on Gaara who stepped away and lifted his arms. Pure chakra, plowing the ground. It curled around Gaara, brushed his feet, rose around his body slowly. The sand followed it, rising like a veil, wisps rising to cling to it through sheer static. The power felt almost solid to Lee, five feet away. It drew itself up around Gaara, swirling slowly. It seemed to solidify around the Kazekage who lifted his arms higher, tilted his head. His eyes slid shut.

"Hmmmm."

Lee blinked. Then his eyes went very round.

Gaara let one hand trail down his other arm, slowly and sensuously; he touched his throat, let fingers trace the collar. Something dark, a thick shadow in the half-light, followed the track of his fingers, swept up to Gaara's face, caressed his neck and shoulders. Pure chakra, pulsing on the edge of visible like a heartbeat.

Bloody. Hell.

Lee just sat there, staring, too amazed at the sight and the rippling power in the air - the sheer sensuality but also the amazing strangeness of the scene- to know how to react.

Gaara let his head fall to one side, his lips a sensual line, slightly parted. The power dripped off of him, then curled back to stroke him. It caressed the small of his back where Lee's hand rested when they made love...wrapped around the lean muscles of Gaara's belly, up his chest...slipped down his arms to catch his legs and stroke the inside of his thighs beneath the coat...

Gaara's flat tones were underscored with a faint purr. "This...is what you gave me. I understand it now...pleasure..."

Lee made a noise akin to that of a small desert rodent. He had meant it as some form of protest. Because this was just wrong. It, well, it had to be.

Wrong but very, very alluring.

"Shukaku doesn't understand this..."

Lee tensed, but Gaara had said that as if it was an inside joke they shared.

"Sh-Shu-"

"He doesn't have a body. He only understands pain and destruction. Those are his pleasures. But this...this he doesn't understand. And he can't do anything about it." Gaara's voice was one long smirk as his hands drifted down his chest, his hips, rose to caress his arms and shoulders. "I use his power, he can't stop me, and he hates it. He rages and tears at me, but I'm stronger now. I can control him. And this...this understanding you gave me, this pleasure. It makes me feel human. This is what helps me to remember that I'm not him, and he's not me..."

"Are you sure this is okay?" Lee mumbled, torn between worry and utter fascination at the sheer amount of power pulsing from his lover and engulfing him in caressing waves.

"Is he making you nervous...? Don't worry, he's never getting out again." Gaara stopped moving, his dark-ringed eyes deadly serious, almost fanatically so. "I'll protect you, and my brother and sister and my village. I'll protect you all, even from Him. He'll never come near you, Lee. I swear."

"Okay, okay," Lee said quickly. Gaara had years of practice staying in control; in fact, it took him that 'fake sleep' jutsu and some effort to let Shukaku take over. And this young man before Lee had a lot more determination and reasons to keep on top of his demon than the crazed child-killer from years back. Considering what it was exactly that the power was doing, it was obvious that it was Gaara in the driver's seat, not the Tail. Lee was nonetheless relieved when the levels of chakra in the air started descending back to normal levels - normal for Gaara, which was still hugely off the charts for an ordinary human being.

Lee felt something crawl beneath him. He jerked his hands away from the ground instinctively, ready to leap up-

The sand in a small radius around Gaara was moving towards him like filings towards a magnet. It crawled around Gaara's sandals, insinuated itself up his body, beneath his clothes.

Lee's mouth was already pretty dry, what with the wind and dust leeching the sparse moisture from the air, but now he felt like something was going to crack.

Gaara lifted his hands, watched lazily as the sand rippled over his skin, caressing his palms and leaping up into small, rather disturbing shapes before his eyes. Lee could see the tight coat rustling here and there as the grains coiled and caressed his lover.

"Have I ever told you what the Sand Armour feels like?" Gaara asked dreamily.

"No," Lee croaked, his eyes welded to the sight before him.

"When I was young, I thought this is what a hug must feel like," Gaara said, a flicker of sadness crossing his face- then his lips parted in a silent gasp as the sand touching him beneath his clothes did something that Lee couldn't see but was unfortunately able to imagine quite vividly. "Hmmm. But then when you touched me, when we got together, I knew that wasn't it. When the Armour touches me, it feels like-..."

Gaara blinked and focused on Lee. And then he smiled. It was sensuous and scary in equal parts.

Lee nervously held up his hands in a warding gesture. "Now Gaara-"

This time he saw Gaara move, though the Kazekage was still amazingly fast. Lee's reflexes were honed to perfection- but they were battle reflexes, and he was afraid to hurt Gaara if he tried to keep him away. Gaara was on his knees between Lee's legs, his hands fastening on Lee's face, before the Jounin could figure out how he was supposed to react.

"What are you-"

Gaara pressed a kiss to his lips - and something slithered onto Lee's face. Lee started back and bumped his head against the rock behind him. Gaara caught his lips again, one hand on Lee's cheek, the other settling at Lee's waist. The grains rasped over the Jounin's chin and throat, not quite as harshly as he'd feared in that first instant, but it still felt like getting brushed with sandpaper.

More sand slithered up his legs, his hands; it wiggled and slipped beneath his clothes, popping open the careful arrangement of cuffs and buckles that normally kept sand from the storm from getting into his outfit.

Lee whined in protest, lips clamped shut as sand passed over them- then Gaara's tongue was forcing his mouth open, rough and without compunction.

Lee had his eyes screwed shut. He could feel the Armour moving over his body. It-...scratched, it stung a tiny bit, it-...it was heavier than he'd anticipated, and he only wearing a section. No wonder this chewed up Gaara's stamina when he wore it.

A strand as big as a handspan rolled up his chest, engulfing one nipple and dragging at it, harder than any caress Gaara had ever given him, and unexpectedly pleasurable. Lee stiffened as if he'd been shot and his eyes flew open. Gaara kissed his eyelids shut again.

"Feels good, doesn't it?" he whispered.

Well, no, it didn't, Lee thought, bemused. Not bad, but not that great, either. Apart from the thing with the nipple- but he'd much prefer Gaara's hands doing that, in the right place and time which this was not.

The sand encased the small of his back, the top of his thighs, scratching the skin ever so slightly, a strange but not unpleasant feeling. Still, hardly as delightful as Gaara made it sound. Ah, but Gaara was used to this sensation, and to him it meant protection; it meant the assassins who had trailed him when he was younger couldn't get at him, that nothing could hurt him...maybe that was why he associated it unconsciously with something pleasant. Lee felt a bit more lenient towards the heavy coil slowly making its way up his back and rippling across his waist.

He opened his eyes cautiously. The sand had left his face. He edged forward, and put his mouth to Gaara's ear.

"Maybe we could...you know...go back to your place now?"

He could still feel sand and energy drifting over his lover's body, and he'd rather be applying those caresses himself.

Gaara whispered something.

"Hm?" Lee murmured, nuzzling Gaara's cheek.

"I like it out here. I feel alive," Gaara answered, barely audibly. Lee only heard him over the storm's distant howl because their faces were touching, carrying the vibration of his words.

"But- hah!"

Gaara's hands had grabbed his thighs and jerked him away from the rock, hard, spilling him to the ground. Lee had the reflex to tuck his chin into his chest or he'd have smacked his head on the stone directly behind him.

Sand hissed and leaped at him. Lee struggled to get up- it felt heavier now and it was moving over his skin like a small avalanche, knocking his arms out from under him, rolling him from side to side on the ground as it slithered beneath him and flowed into his clothes. The whole ground shifted, it felt evanescent, slowly collapsing yet always there. The sand boiled and hissed beneath them.

"Gaara?!"

His only answer was that smile again; carnal, sensuous, dangerous and delighted. And then there was a massive ripping, tearing noise.

Lee was hunched up defensively, arms raised in a parry, legs bent to protect his belly - and other sensitive areas. Nothing badly damaged, but he had scrapes along his forearms and shins. Oh, and he was pretty much naked except for his short boots, gloves, the goggles pushed up on his forehead and a few remnants of torn bandages on his wrists and around his torso.

"You shouldn't have moved," Gaara told him reprovingly, looking with fascination at the red scratch marks on Lee's skin. "I wasn't expecting you to move like that."

Lee choked and spluttered. The stiff breeze within their protective bubble pushed around bits of tan cloth which had once been tough protective linen. Since the desert sun was blazing somewhere far above their heads and the casket of sand that encased them, the wind wasn't all that cold, but it was still raising goose pimples on his bared skin.

Gaara grabbed Lee by one wrist, lifted the Jounin's hand and leaned forward. Lee's protests turned into a strangled gurgle as a tongue traced one of the scratches from his elbow up to his palm.

"G-Gaa-"

His hand was forced back until Gaara's fingers caged his against the ground. This put their bodies in close proximity, Gaara kneeling over Lee who was floundering on his back in the dirt and sand. Gaara reached for the other arm with his free hand and applied the same treatment. Lee was filthy, covered in sand and dust, scratched and- and shivering with the sensual pleasure of that caress.

"You can't be thinking of...of...Gaara, the- hn!" Gaara was licking at the pulse in his wrist, just below the short gloves. "The southern garrison is only s-sixty feet from here!"

"I don't care about them. I only care about you," Gaara said, voice full of dangerous desires as he placed Lee's hand with singular deliberation on the ground and looked down at Lee's naked body.

"But-"

Lee tried to squirm away- and realized that the hands Gaara had forced to the ground had sunk into sand and were now stuck there. There was a bit of give, but it tightened if he tried to lift his arms, relinquishing one limb a little only to grip the other one deeper, like quicksand. He should be able to wrench his hands free if he really tried to- what was Gaara doing?!

"Gaara-wait-No!"

Gaara had crawled back, fastened a hand around Lee's ankle and leaned down, and was now licking his way up one of the scrapes on Lee's calf up to a tender part of his knee.

"No," Lee groaned, jerking helplessly at his imprisoned hands. He distantly realized that, as ways of getting Gaara to stop, moaning like that was probably counterproductive. The grip on his ankle had tightened and the tongue quickened at the sound, exploring areas he felt pretty sure hadn't been sanded.

"You're mine and I want you," Gaara said in a voice that was soft, but brooking no argument. "Here. Now."

Lee was breathing heavily, his body burning with desire and scrapes and heat.

"What if I say no?"

The words fell hard and stern in the heavy air. It got through even to Gaara, who stopped moving. Lee could feel him lift his head away from the path he'd been licking, though the Jounin didn't look.

"No?" Gaara sounded irritated and confused. "Why would you say no? You want this." He grasped Lee's hardening erection in illustration.

Lee didn't flinch, didn't blink and didn't glance down at his lover. He was staring straight up as he lay on his back, arms anchored to the sandy ground. The sky above him was ragged and dark, the sunlight scratched to pieces by the storm winds and sand above their heads.

"What if I say no?" he repeated.

Hard fingers grabbed his chin again. Gaara hauled him up by that grip until he was looking down into Lee's face, forcing eye contact.

Lee stared right back and waited. Gaara's face was unreadable to him, not because it was set and controlled like it usually was, but because it was a shattered mosaic of a picture that would make no sense to a normal person anyway.

Gaara's eyes narrowed. If he was looking for signs of fear or repulsion, he would be disappointed. But what he would find was determination. You could build a wall with Lee's determination. It would reach from here to Konoha. This was not going to happen unless it was his will as well as Gaara's.

Gaara hurled him back. Lee managed to brace for it, but his head still rapped on the ground - and nearly knocked on the stone outcropping behind him- with enough force to make his eyes water. But he refused to believe Gaara had meant to do that quite that violently.

And his faith was rewarded when Gaara sat back on his heels instead of leaping on him. There was a faint sneer of contempt on the usually inexpressive face.

"If you say no, you can run off. You will go straight home, and you will not move from there. When I come back for you later, you had better not say no."

That might have sounded like a threat, but the tone had been too annoyed and petulant for that.

Lee felt the dust and sand on his face crack as he grinned. He had the nasty impression that the wave of relief that had washed through him had finally destroyed what was left of his sanity.

Gaara wasn't the only one who could move like lightning. The sand left small abrasions on Lee's skin as he ripped his arms free, but he barely felt it. The Sand Barrier hissed from the gourd, Gaara's hands darted to break Lee's hold on the front of his coat- Lee hauled his beautiful, dangerous thing into his arms and kissed him. That is, it would have been a kiss, and a very passionate - if slightly deranged - one at that, but Gaara had moved in a way Lee hadn't quite anticipated so Lee's mouth ended up making contact with Gaara's cheek instead of his lips.

It was stupid and hazardous, startling Gaara in his present condition, but Lee was stark naked and expecting to get screwed a stone's throw from a garrison full of soldiers in the middle of a sandstorm, so really, what that said about his intelligence and risk evaluation...

And he trusted Gaara. Even this Gaara. Lee knew that his lover believed himself to be a monster inside, but Lee had now seen further into that inner landscape than he'd been allowed to ever before, and whatever insanity and wildness lurked there, he hadn't found a monster. Gaara had given Lee enough outs to prove that. This was his Gaara, but without the restraints he usually imposed on himself, and Lee wanted him, especially after that little display with the chakra and sand caressing him...oh that was going to be fodder for a few steamy dreams to come, Lee knew it.

Lee was flat on his back again, and Gaara's body moved against his greedily and hard. Lee had fortunately landed mainly on his cloak, which hadn't been too badly ripped by the sand, but his shoulder blades were pressed against unprotected ground. Bugger, more sand burns. Oh well, they'd heal.

This wasn't the gentle caresses they usually shared, this was as subtle as a fist fight. Gaara's hungry body ground Lee into the sand, which was gripping and sucking at him again as if it was on the verge of pulling them both under. Lee paid it no mind. He was giving as good as he got, his hands forcing Gaara down into a kiss like a bite, legs looping around Gaara's to force his lover to grind into him even more.

Gaara broke the kiss and leaned back. Lee was about to haul him down again when the sand jumped on him, virtually tying him to the ground. Lee protested wordlessly as it captured his hands again. No fair! A thick coil of sand washed over him like a wave, dragging against his skin and nipples again until he thought he was going to shout with sensory overload. Gaara was watching him, unblinking, eyes alight with lust that seemed to devour every flinch and gasp he got as he groped and rubbed and used mercilessly.

Gaara's hand slid sensuously through Lee's hair- and gripped hard, jerking the Jounin's head around to face him. "You'd better not change your mind, because I won't stop now if you-"

"If I tell you to stop, you will stop." It was not a plea, not a threat, it was a stern statement. It was the words Gaara had used the first time he'd let Lee bring him off.

Gaara blinked. Flickers of emotion crossed his normally impassive expression, recognition among them. And then he smiled. It wasn't the small, warm smile Lee kept in his heart like a secret. This one was as clean and cruel as a sword's edge, but it was for Lee and for Lee alone.

"Yes. Yes, I would stop, because it's you."

"Well then," Lee said, with an impatient 'get on with it' look he normally used when Gaara was being a drag about sparring.

Gaara's eyes slitted with feline pleasure. "It could only be you. The only one to dare..."

"Huh?"

A crushing kiss put an end to talking for awhile.

This was probably going to hurt a little bit, Lee thought without any particular trepidation. Gaara wouldn't hurt him deliberately, not now, not ever, but he was kind of wild right now - Lee's heart underlined that statement with excited beats. But that was okay. Lee didn't fear a little pain.

Well, within reason. Or rather, not in a certain area which would be excruciatingly embarrassing to have to clean out later, especially since he'd probably need Gaara's help to do it...maybe Gaara would let him use his mouth...? No. To put it crudely, Lee was going to get fucked, unless he called a stop to it all and went home. But that would be giving up, and Lee just didn't know how to do that and had no intentions of learning now. He was rather looking forward to it in the dark part of his mind where his deeper fantasies coiled. But there was one small condition that they needed to agree on first.

"G-Gaara." Lee tried to make his voice sound determined instead of quaky with desire. For both their sakes, he had to maintain a bit of control over this. "Gaara, you can- oh! Look, stop, just a sec- you can control the sand so please make sure I don't get any, um, in there."

"Yes," Gaara said against his skin, "that would be uncomfortable while I'm moving in you."

Lee nodded in gratitude, and then realized Gaara hadn't actually said whose comfort he was concerned about, his or Lee's. Oh well, it was the end result that counted.

Gaara straightened up on his knees, staring down unblinking at Lee, who was lying panting and achingly hard on the ground. His lover stared for what felt like a long time. Lee finally blinked and stirred, and realized the sand was no longer pulling at whatever part of his body sank into it. He lifted himself onto his elbows, wondering if Gaara's restraint had returned, and trying not to feel too disappointed at the thought.

Gaara's hand rose, he made a circling motion in the air with one finger, slow and deliberate. Lee swallowed as he realized it meant 'turn over'.

They'd never done it like this before. Lee was tense with uncertainty and excitement as he slowly got to his knees facing the rocky outcropping behind him. It was only when a feather-light kiss dropped onto his shoulder that Lee realized what kind of trust it had demonstrated for a Shinobi to turn his back on such a ball of unstable chakra. But he did trust Gaara. And he wanted this.

Familiar hands drifted down his sides, lingered at his hips. Then they left him and Lee heard the jingle of a belt buckle, making his heart jump. It also helped him to suddenly remember another rather important detail, well, important for his comfort. He looked around hastily- a hand grabbed his neck.

"Stay still."

"Um, okay, but can you see my weapons' pouch?" Lee rolled his eyes around to try to catch a glimpse of it. It had disappeared along with his clothes. "It's got my first aid kit in there. Um. And something for. Um. Lubrication."

He felt a prickle of tension run up his spine; Gaara hadn't sounded all that patient. Lee was disobeying the unspoken order of the hand clamped on his neck and turning his head to look around, and he still couldn’t see his pouch-

There was a slithering sound, and a rustle of sand nearby. The pouch erupted from a small dune, which gathered up and hurled it towards them. It slammed into the hand Lee had instinctively brought up to protect himself from the missile.

"Hurry up," Gaara murmured.

The contents of the pouch went flying as Lee emptied it out. He grabbed the small tube of suntan lotion, a crucial piece of equipment for a Leaf in Sunagakure. It was heavy-duty stuff, thick and oily and meant to resist sweat and hours of effort. It probably wasn't something he would want where- um, where the sun didn't shine, as Kankuro would surely mockingly phrase it, but Lee didn't have much choice, and it was better than-

A hand caressed his butt and gripped, reminding him of the pressing nature of their business.

Lee squeezed out half the tube in one shot and started to lube as quickly as he could. He thought he caught a strange semi-purr from Gaara at the sight. Lee closed his eyes and concentrated on loosening his anal muscles as much as he could.

A hand settled on his back, right between his shoulder blades, and shoved him down hard, bending him over. Lee gasped and threw up his free hand, to stop his face from slamming into the rock outcropping before him. The hand covered in lotion was buried an inch into sand now, to keep him on his hands and knees.

Two fingers jabbed into him.

"You want me," Gaara murmured.

"Actually-" the fingers parted, hard and abrupt, and Lee bit his tongue. He could do with another five seconds, really-

The fingers weren't even there to help him. They were there to guide Gaara to the mark. A long, hard thrust pushed Lee against the rock. He gasped, dazed at the power, the flickers of pain, the sheer taut pleasure.

Gaara barely paused. He was pulling out and then thrusting in again, even harder. Lee's arm flexed - every muscle tensed, resisting that movement, pushing back against the ground and the stone outcropping. His body was shaking with shock and pleasure. This was it. This was the thing he'd been reaching for, the time Gaara had taken him.

Another hard thrust. Lee's body felt like it was going to shatter with pressure and bliss.

Hands were gripping him by the hips, sure and strong, and he could feel Gaara's body press against his when his lover thrust into him. Gaara's breathing was deep and harsh, his movements utterly sure. Sand curled about them, crawling up Lee's legs-

"Gaara- don't get it in-"

The sand didn't seem to care what he wanted or not, but there was no sudden sensation of abrasion where Gaara was penetrating his body, so hopefully his lover was controlling every particle with that bloody immense power of his. Lee sucked in his belly and shifted as the sand gripped him around the waist; it was falling off his body then leaping on again as if clinging to him with static. The wild chakra that had first drawn him out into a sandstorm was now surging into his body, riding him along with his lover.

Gaara made a noise of need and hunger deep in his throat. There was no attempt to be gentle or subtle, just thrust after thrust hammering into Lee's body. Lee fought back instinctively, shoving back, his mouth open in a soundless gasp, air curling in his lungs but he still felt as if he was drowning in the chakra and dust and power and pleasure and force. He licked his lips, then his mouth opened to pant some more. He was shaking. And he wanted...there were no words for what he wanted, dark images from his more hidden sexual fantasies, the ones keyed in to battle and training, struggle and rivalry...and he wanted- he wanted Gaara to- to acknowledge him- to- Lee wanted to fight, to resist, yet not resist, he wanted-

"Is that all you've got?!" he shouted, angling his head against his arm to throw the challenge over his shoulder.

Gaara was a dark figure behind him, barely visible in the growing obscurity of the storm encroaching on their space. But Lee could still see an edged grin that sent shivers down his spine.

Gaara didn't thrust; he wrenched, hauling Lee back hard onto his erection. Lee's hand scrabbled at the rock as everything shifted around him abruptly. He caught himself, bent over sharply at the waist, his face a few inches from the ground- Gaara slammed into him again, and this time the angle was- was- oh-

Lee made a noise he'd never thought himself capable of. He was kneeling in the dirt- one arm thrust out kept him from biting sand, the other still clung to the stone outcropping, fingers gripping the rock until it frittered beneath them.

"Yes," Gaara said, dark satisfaction and desires and a strange sort of possessive tenderness in his voice, and Lee's mind echoed that, yes-yes-yes!

What was left of Lee's reason chose this moment to remind him that there was going to be a tally for this wild crazy thing they were doing, and Gaara might remember events a bit differently unless Lee made it very, very clear he was participating of his full free will. He should- should reassure his lover that- huh! Ah!

"Harder!"

There was a harsh, greedy laugh behind him, a shocking reminder of the Chuunin exams. It electrified him, but that memory held no more fear, no more darkness for him now, he had taken it in and accepted it, all of it.

"Glorious," Gaara breathed.

...That hadn't been what Lee had intended to say to reassure Gaara. But it probably worked.

It wasn't going to last long. Lee's body was on the edge, he was fighting it off tooth and nail already. Gaara's breathing and movements were getting chaotic, alternatively slamming Lee forward, hauling him back- and suddenly stilling! Lee nearly screamed as he realized why Gaara had frozen; because the bloody sand that had been lustily crawling all over them had tightened like a straightjacket, binding them both together around the chest and waist, stopping all movement.

There was a dangerous growl over Lee's shoulder.

The burst of power hurled the sand away and wrapped it around them like a miniature tornado. Lee could feel sand prickling against his skin, his closed eyelids, falling from his hair when he threw his head back. Chakra was thick enough to taste. It danced along his skin, erotic and wild.

Gaara reached around Lee and hauled him up until the Jounin was pressed back against Gaara's chest, sitting straight as Gaara thrust into him. Something dragged down his chest in a rough embrace- hands- sand- fingers- claws- no matter, the small abrasions on Lee's skin felt like a fierce caress and he wanted all of it, all!

Lee came hard over the sand, his body jerking against Gaara's.

The rest was a blur. Getting thrust forward again- an inch from rocky concussion- hard movement inside him, against him, power and pleasure and-

Lee didn't know if it all stopped very abruptly or if he blacked out for a moment. Probably the latter.

The power in the air was decreasing rapidly. Lee was flat out on the ground, panting fit to bust his lungs, dust tickling his nose. He'd landed face against his forearm, fortunately, or he'd have sand up his nostrils and down his throat. He was sore, the kind of sore that came from good, hard practicing, though there was a bit of an ache and a lot of tingling in an area which rarely saw any practice. In Lee's half-conscious state, he felt nothing but a tired satisfaction at it all.

Gaara was a warm weight against his back. An unmoving warm weight. Lee stirred, and then sneezed as wind sent sand to prickle against the skin of his face.

"Hmm. Gaara?"

Gaara barely moved and didn't respond. Lee twisted around, sat up gingerly. An arm wrapped around his waist. Gaara made a grumpy noise and curled up against him, hauling at him as if he were a disobedient pillow.

Lee stared down at his lover. "Oh no. You're not going to- not here. Gaara?"

Too late.

This was the inevitable end of Gaara's trips into the jaws of these storms. Lee had followed him enough times to be familiar with his friend's patterns. Chakra would boil and scream and curl in around Gaara who played with it and the sand and winds. Then, when the storm started to die, so did the massive power. The Kazekage would end up curled in a corner somewhere, legs pulled up to his chest and head resting on his arms. Not asleep, but only half-conscious. Kankuro had told Lee he'd seen his brother like this a couple of times, and it was nothing to be alarmed about; the Kazekage would keep control of Shukaku even in this state. But it was safer not to approach him and to just leave him alone.

Lee didn't know if it was the result of fatigue after a chakra expenditure that would kill a small team of Shinobi, or if Gaara's drowsiness was simply a response to the calming of the storm. Either way, Gaara would stay immobile, unresponsive for an hour or two until the storm had fully passed, then he would get up and slowly make his way back home before people started to fill the streets of Suna once more. He'd stay locked away for twenty four hours, and when he re-emerged he acted as if nothing had happened, and so would everybody else.

This time, the lethargy had taken him a considerable time before the storm ended. The winds were still howling around them, louder and louder as Gaara's chakra dwindled and their shelter started to fail. Lee looked about helplessly. Then he shook himself. Enough! Now was the time to act before they were at the mercy of the elements.

His lover was awake, of course; he blinked and scowled as Lee moved, and his arm tightened on the Leaf's body. But when Lee shook him gently the eyes did no more than blink, and there wasn't much awareness in them.

Lee detached himself from his boyfriend, scrambled to his feet and grabbed his cloak, the only piece of clothing he had left. The fastenings had been torn and there were a few rips in it, but overall it was still intact. He knotted it shut, covering himself. It fell as far as his boots, so he should be okay. Fortunately, what with the storm and the wind and their Kazekage on the loose, the inhabitants of Suna were going to stay safely indoors for the rest of the day, so nobody would see him like this. Lee pulled on his veil and goggles, and made sure he had as little bare skin exposed as possible, between his gloves, his footwear and the fall of his outer cloak.

He did his best to get Gaara dressed again, belting the coat over the rumpled clothes. Then he scooped his lover up in his arms and cradled his head in the crook of his neck, hoping to protect Gaara's face from the blowing sand. Though it turned out to be somewhat unnecessary. Gaara wasn't entirely with it, but his power still shoved out and protected them both a bit.

Once his lover was safely in his arms, Lee turned to where Gaara had left the gourd and gave it a heavy look. He could swear the thing was looking back at him. Was it safe to approach with Gaara like this? Was it even safe to leave it behind, or would disintegrate back into sand, slither after them and maybe try to get Gaara back...?

Lee gave it a suspicious glare, but he edged up to it, maneuvred Gaara against his body and one knee temporarily, and then hooked an arm through the gourd's strap and lifted. Nothing bad happened, except that Lee now had two motionless objects to carry. He was rather tired after the morning he'd just had, and not looking forward to hauling the bloody heavy pack of Sand around. Oh well, no use complaining...

The gourd stayed remarkably well-behaved all the way back to the Kazekage's residence through the wild howling storm.

 

---

 

Lee dropped Gaara off on the bed. His lover made a loose grabbing motion in his direction that was never completed, and lay on the covers, eyes almost closed.

The cloak, boots, gloves and goggles marked a trail to the bathroom. Lee crawled into the shower and turned it on full blast. His skin felt weird, he was sore pretty much all over and his eyes were grainy with fatigue as well as sand. At least he didn't seem to have any sand where he really didn't want to have any sand. The rest was perfectly acceptable to someone who practiced hard out in the desert most days. He sluiced himself over thoroughly with his eyes almost closed and without much attention, mind still in a warm, fuzzy and post-orgasmic place.

He stepped out after ten sacrilegious minutes under the flow. He wanted to get back to Gaara or he'd have stayed even longer, Suna's water restrictions be damned. But man, his skin felt-

He glanced at himself in the mirror and froze.

"What the hell?!"

His disbelieving fingers traced his chest, his stomach, his thighs, which were now mostly - but not completely - free of hair. Sand Armour. The bloody Sand Armour. Gaara had said it interfered with hair growth- but Gaara had been wearing it regularly since before puberty, so he might not realize that it did a bit more than 'interfere'.

Lee laughed, a ragged hysterical sound as he brushed his bare legs, the tension from the past few hours releasing in chagrined amusement. Aw man...

Then with a sudden nervous gulp, he jerked his gaze up to his face in the mirror and scrabbled with his bangs- but fortunately his eyebrows were still there. They weren't his best feature, according to some, but they helped him look like his handsome teacher, and Gaara had said they made Lee's face distinctive, so he was glad to still have them. The Armour had mostly kept away from his face once Gaara had started kissing him. Lee absently felt his chin and realized he wouldn't have to shave for a few days. Silver lining.

He went back to the bedroom and fished out a pair of Gaara's trainers; a bit too small on him, but they'd do. Dressed as he was, it would be wise to get back to his room before the storm ended and people started leaving their shelters...

He glanced at Gaara curled up on the bed and thought: screw it, I'm staying here.

He fiddled with Gaara's belt and coat, got them off of his lover and made him comfortable. Gaara frowned and blinked slowly. Lee wasn't sure how conscious he actually was of his surroundings. The Sand in the gourd nearby seemed to be watching Lee's every move, but didn't interfere.

"You...are a pest, Kazekage-sama," Lee whispered tenderly as he noticed how their arms were now strikingly similar bar Lee's tan and scars. "If you were going to shave me, you could have at least done a better job. Now I have patches all over."

Gaara mumbled "What?" but his attention seemed to wander before Lee could answer.

Lee stumbled onto the bed, cuddled up against the warm body, and was fast asleep in a second.

 

---

 

He woke up to find that all was not well with the world, inasmuch as he was alone in bed, his shaved and reddened skin itching, and Gaara was sitting in a tight knot, knees to chest on his cushion in the corner, staring at a dagger embedded in the low desk in front of him.

Lee got up slowly, feeling stiff and scratched, but no more injured than that. The creeping sensation trickling down his spine had nothing to do with his physical state.

"Hey, Gaara," he said, trying to sound casual as he walked slowly towards his lover, gauging his mood.

The wind was still blowing outside, throwing handfuls of sand against the storm shutters. The light was dim, the afternoon sunshine still obscured by the sandstorm. In the gloom, Gaara didn't move, didn't glance up.

Lee settled down on the floor three feet away, not wanting to give his lover the impression of being cornered. The Jounin wasn't picking up any dangerous vibes here...then again, after what had happened in the storm, his sense of risk might have become blunted.

"You okay?"

Gaara was silent for a spell, then his mouth twisted. His voice was back to its dead-flat monotone. "I'm fine. I am not the one who was mauled by a lunatic."

Lee winced.

There were several ways he could handle this: gently reassure his boyfriend, or sit by him in silence to show his love and understanding, or even leave Gaara to think it over...

Lee chose option D. He hauled himself up and plunked down right onto the cushion next to his boyfriend, obliterating whatever safe distance there'd been between them. "I'm fine too. I picked up a few scratches and my storm equipment is toast, but that's all."

Gaara had stiffened at his proximity, and Lee thought he heard a faint scrape from inside the gourd, propped up against the wall on the other side of the low desk. It was more a movement of agitation than defense or anger, Lee judged, having honed his instincts in regards to the behavioral characteristics of containers full of twitchy chakra-rich Sand.

Lee leaned forward and tried to catch Gaara's eye. His lover was still staring fixedly at the knife, a fact that rated a lot higher on Lee's personal Bad News scale than whatever the Sand thought it was doing.

Gaara's voice was soft, unhurried and toneless. "I promised I would never hurt you again."

Lee's voice in comparison sounded way too loud. "You didn't. I'm fine."

Gaara didn't move.

"I am!" Lee said as if Gaara had vehemently denied it. "Seriously! Though I'm a bit mad at you for shaving me. And for doing such a sloppy job of it. You do know I take showers in the barrack's communal bathrooms, right? What the hell are the other Jounin going to say?"

He thought he caught the slightest twitch of the green eyes towards his partially plucked chest, but Gaara did not respond to his humor. Lee stared at him, waiting for a response, and then he huffed, squared his shoulders and stuck his arm right in front of Gaara's nose.

"For the love of- stop moping and look. They're just scratches and they're not even bleeding. Okay, that one there is a bit- but I get worse than this when I train. Gaara, these- these are love bites!"

The green eyes flashed towards his in surprise. This time Lee held his gaze and refused to let Gaara look away.

"It's not serious. Okay? Don't take it like this. I'm barely scratched."

Gaara's gaze went from his face to the red marks on his forearm.

"I know," he finally said, to Lee's surprise. "I..."

The Jounin frowned, suddenly sensing that there was another, more serious problem behind Gaara's concern for his bruises.

"I never wanted you to see that part of me," Gaara finally admitted, looking steadily at the knife again.

Lee stared at him. In the silence that grew between them, the wind outside sounded loud and harsh.

"Maybe I felt like you trusted me even with that part of you," Lee finally said.

Gaara didn’t respond right away. But then he turned slowly and looked at Lee instead of the blade.

Lee scratched his head and wished he had his teacher's famed gift of speech. Oh, he could manage a romantic declaration or a gallant challenge, but this? He'd just have to muddle through.

"I think the way you behave these days is amazing. The control you have over yourself, after what you've been through. And I know you do it so you can reach out to me, to all of us, and to protect us too. Keep us safe from what's inside you. But I don't need that. I don't underestimate how dangerous you can be, but I can handle it. And...this part of you that I saw out there...I know why you didn't want me to see it, because I won't lie, some of it's not pretty, some of the things you've survived and that still haunt you. But it's you, the same way my scars aren't pretty but they're a part of me, and they don't turn you off, now, do they? I think we're way past getting hung up on stuff like that in each other, right? Your mental scars or my physical ones. Um...am I making sense...?"

From the way Gaara was looking at him, probably not.

"I just don't regret following you out there," Lee said firmly, "because it showed me a part of you that you don't let me see normally, and I...felt as if you trusted me with it. You didn't show me this last year. Even now we're together, you usually shut me out when that part comes to the surface. But you let me see it today, and I'm glad. That part of you is pretty wild. But you always had enough control where I never felt threatened. I never felt the need to put a safe distance between us. You would have let me go if I'd asked you to. I know that, and if you think about it, deep inside you know that too. And...it was nice to know that even deep inside, in that wild place, I mean something to you. Something important."

The wind growled and scratched bad-temperedly at the window's shutters.

"I could have told you that," Gaara finally said.

"Um, yes," Lee answered, not able to put into words the thought that Gaara could say that as much as he wanted to, but the real proof had been in that madness outside that had caressed Lee and acknowledged him and whispered 'It could only be you.' The same way Lee could always assure Gaara that he wasn't afraid of him, but it only really penetrated that complicated mind when Lee followed him into storms and did crazy fearless things around him.

Gaara's green eyes dropped to Lee's chest. He was pulling and smoothing the hem of his tunic, a strange gesture for Gaara as Lee could never recall him fidgeting before.

"I like your body," Gaara said, almost in a whisper, "even your scars, though I don't like the way you were hurt."

"Thanks." Lee was a bit intrigued. There was something subtly...different here.

"I hope your hair grows back," Gaara muttered, eyes still fixed on Lee's chest.

"It probably will." Lee grinned. "If not, you'll have to help me get the rest off, because right now I look mangy."

"...Will you follow me out there again?" The question sounded almost reluctant.

"Yes. Don't ask me not to," Lee answered simply. "I'm not stupid, I won't take too many risks, and if I really feel there's some danger, I'll fall back. But I won't leave you alone."

Something deep moved in Gaara's eyes. Lee wasn't sure what emotions were stirring there. Then his lover nodded once, and there was a lot behind that single gesture.

"Right." Lee leaned over, slowly wrapped his arms around his boyfriend and pulled them together until Gaara was leaning back against his chest. "Better?" he whispered.

Gaara didn't answer, but the way he relaxed slightly into Lee was all the response needed.

"Good. Now," Lee said gently, "are you ready to tell me what that knife is doing over there?"

"An old experiment."

Gaara reached for the knife. Lee tensed. Gaara plucked it from the table and stared at it.

"I wanted to remember what pain felt like." The knife twitched in his hand, he tapped it against his fingers- still those odd, tense gestures Lee had never seen before. In the gourd the sand shifted, rattling a warning like a snake.

"Oh." Lee carefully took the knife from Gaara and tossed it away. "For that, I can take you to the practice field tomorrow, open a Gate and punch you through the Sand Barrier a few times, if that's what you want, but please don't play around with a knife like that again, okay?"

"Why not?" Gaara said listlessly. "The Sand won't let me cut myself."

Because it's creepy and it's scaring me, was what Lee wanted to say.

"Just don't. Please?"

"Very well." Gaara glanced over his shoulder at Lee. "Can I ask you a question now?"

Lee wanted to pursue this, but it was only fair. "Sure," he sighed.

"I hurt you."

Not this again. "No, it really wasn't that-"

"But you seemed to enjoy the sex."

Lee had been about to explain again how his injuries were very, very minor and Gaara should stop brooding over them, when his brain caught up with what Gaara said. As a result, Lee's response came out something like 'Guwah?' He'd been hoping - rather stupidly - that Gaara wouldn't actually remember that part in too much detail.

Lee felt his cheeks turn a bit warm, but no more. He'd been with Gaara for well over a month now; his tolerance for straight talk on sexual matters had gone way up as a result. He explained with only a little mumbling and hesitation that of course he liked it gentle and slow, but that there was attraction to rough sex too. The endorphins, the light edge of pain he'd find during training, the challenge...

"So this is a turn-on?" Gaara finally asked, unblinking eyes tracing every inch of Lee's face.

"Well, yes."

"You'd do this again?"

"Ah, sure-"

"Will you do it to me?" Gaara whispered, gaze still intent.

But Lee liked to be gentle with Gaara, who'd been through enough in his life. There was also the Sand Barrier to consider, and Gaara's new and raw emotions to take into account, he reacted so violently to things sometimes-

The objections were on Lee's tongue, but his libido mugged them with shatteringly intense images: of his teeth gently scoring perfect cream-coloured skin, leaving human marks on the unworldly purity; his beautiful and dangerous creature beneath him this time, shuddering and clawing and shouting his name...

"Your nose has gone very pink," Gaara observed.

Lee cleared his throat.

"I take it that the notion appeals to you."

"Only if you want to," Lee croaked.

Gaara didn't answer. His eyes drifted towards the window, and Lee finally interpreted the odd restlessness he'd felt from his lover.

"It's not over, is it?" he asked calmly.

"No, there's still a couple hours of storm left."

Lee hadn't been talking about the storm. Gaara's control had almost entirely returned - maybe shocked back by coming to his senses next to Lee and remembering some of the particulars of what had happened. But the feral thing inside was still awfully close to the surface, barely skin-deep.

Gaara moved until he was on his knees between Lee's outstretched legs, a hand leaning on the wall near Lee's head, but he wasn't looking at the Jounin, he was still staring at the shutter as if he could see the screaming wind outside, the wild whips of sand lashing Suna and the desert, unbridled and free.

"When I'm out there...it's...like I no longer have to keep watching myself all the time," Gaara said, turning back to Lee and fixing the Jounin with an unblinking stare. "It's hard to try to act like a human being. Harder still when everybody else seems to be so much better at it without effort. Out there, I can be something else. I can breathe. Nobody's around, nobody can hurt me, and I can't accidentally hurt them either. So I can...be. I can burn out the frustration. The storm is so powerful, I fight it, I bend it to my power...but it's also so great that it's as if my actions are finally insignificant, harmless, and I can play. It's frightening and reassuring. I guess for humans that would be a contradiction, but for me...out there...I don't have to keep the normal part of me in control, I can let him slip in with the rest and then contradictions mean nothing anymore, and I can do whatever I want..."

He was staring at Lee as if hoping this would make sense. In a way it didn't. In another way, it did, and either way the simple effort to share that much, to open that side of himself, touched Lee more than anything.

"Do you need to go out more? We can if you want," Lee said, just before he remembered that his storm outfit was now scattered over half the desert.

"We can if you want," Gaara said in an eerie parody of Lee's own words. Strange currents were slipping through the green eyes, it was his Gaara and it was also that other one, and they were both the same person. Lee was learning to live with contradictions too, since he was in love with one.

"We can if you want," Gaara repeated, staring down at him, arms on either side of Lee's head. "Or...if you're not afraid...."

"Never," Lee whispered and meant it. Cautious, yes. Prudent, fascinated, at a safe distance yet always drawn in. Never afraid.

"If you're not afraid, then you can help me get the last of this out of my system by doing me. Hard."

Lee looked up into the sane/insane eyes and managed - barely - not to salute as he answered: "I accept the challenge."

Chapter Text

Lee was just starting on his third lap around Suna when he noticed a night-time shadow that was more than a shadow near the gate. He screeched to a halt and then trotted back a few paces to see what Kankuro wanted.

"Yo," the Sand Jounin said in greeting. "What did you do this time?"

"I beg your pardon?" Lee asked, startled but always polite.

"What 'self-imposed challenge' is this for?" Kankuro elaborated, a hand gesture indicating a circuit of Suna.

"Oh, nothing, I'm just exercising."

"At ten PM?" The thick lines painted over Kankuro's mouth took on a dubious twist. "Are you going to start training like crazy all night long like you did before Sound winged you? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I don't think that's healthy."

'Oh, no, I was only training like that because I was trying not to have wet dreams about your brother' was the answer Lee was not going to give Kankuro in this lifetime.

Before he could stutter something out, Kankuro waved his own question away. "Never mind. I was looking for you. Temari wants to see us at Gaara's, ASAP."

"Temari?" Lee was at the Sand Jounin's side in a second. "She's back from her talks with Tsunade-sama? What news does she have of Konoha? Is everything okay over there? How about our joint plans? Did she bring back any letters from Gai-sensei?"

"A Jounin from her escort showed up at my place ten minutes ago to tell me she's at Gaara's," Kankuro answered with a show of weary patience. "He said considerably less than you just did."

"Oh."

"Just come along. She'll want you for some inter-village cooperation thing. She'll want me because she's got something to nag about. It took me long enough to track you down, I don't want her screeching about punctuality on top of it all."

"Right!" Lee walked through the gate and trotted up the street leading through the village to Gaara's residence perched on the heights. Kankuro followed at a lazier pace.

The streets of Suna were busy as people went about their evening activities. The village would be full of life until midnight, when people went to bed. They'd get up at five or six and work until eleven, then rest out of the sun and heat until mid-afternoon. Suna had its own rhythm. Unless you were a Shinobi of Suna, in which case you had the rhythm you were told to have. Lee saluted several patrols coming back tired and dirty from the deep Desert, and a weapon smith working on a large ballista that had been damaged by the sandstorm a few days ago. The man looked like he was getting ready to pull an all-nighter.

Kankuro walked at his own speed, forcing Lee to fall back regularly and wait for him. Despite his mention of Temari's irritation, or perhaps because of it, Kankuro appeared to be in no hurry to be seen rushing through the streets of Suna at his sister's bidding.

The two Jounin made their way towards Gaara's house in silence, which felt awkward to Lee. It had been over four weeks since Kankuro had returned and caught Lee pawing the Kazekage in the latter's office. Things had gotten very busy after that. True to her word, Tsunade-sama had not given her Envoy any missions, but Lee had more than enough work on his hands, helping Suna's upper cadre coordinate the efforts of two Hidden Villages in setting up a secret attack on a third. What little leisure time Lee had, he spent practicing, or with Gaara - or practicing with Gaara if he could pry the Kazekage away from his desk.

As a result, Lee hadn't had time to sit down with Kankuro and figure out where he now stood with the man. Kankuro had been a friend before The Office Incident, but now it was hard to tell. He seemed pretty nonchalant for someone walking through the village with his little brother's lover, but then again nothing ever fazed Kankuro. That is, nearly nothing.

They'd arrived at the Kazekage's residence before Lee could find a way to broach such a sensitive subject, but he made himself a promise to corner the Sand ninja around a pot of coffee one of these days, and see if they could settle things between them.

The light was on in the kitchen, so Lee headed that way. He hesitated as he crossed the threshold of the brightly lit room. Temari was standing at the central counter, her nails clicking against the fan on her back. She looked tired, travel-worn and aggravated. Gaara was standing at the kitchen window opposite the door, his back to the rest of the room, staring out into the darkness with his arms crossed over his chest. The gourd was on the floor at his side, and it seemed bigger than it usually did.

"Hey," Kankuro tossed lazily at his sister. A flicker of the heavily painted eyelids was the only indication he'd picked up on the underlying tension as well.

"Sit down, the both of you," Temari said curtly, then she caught herself and smiled at Lee. It came out a bit forced. "How are you? You're looking a lot better."

"I'm fully recovered, thank you," Lee said cautiously, sitting down as she'd told him to. Kankuro slipped his bound puppet scrolls from his back with a thunk and leaned them against the counter.

"Yo, Gaara, got anything to eat?" he asked hopefully, glancing over at his brother. Gaara didn’t answer or move.

"This is no time to think about your stomach," Temari snapped. "We have a situation.”

“So I gathered, but that’s no reason to face it hungry.”

"I'll get right to the point,” Temari said, ignoring him. “There is a rumour circulating around the upper cadre in Konoha that Lee and Gaara are an item."

That brought her brother's attention back to her pronto and cemented Lee's.

"That rumour originated here in Suna, and I'm going to figure out who started it, let me assure you," Temari added, lips tight and eyes narrowed dangerously, staring out the door as if she was ready to go hunt down the culprits immediately. "At this point it has even percolated through to a few well-informed politicians in the courts of both our countries."

"How serious a rumour?" Kankuro asked, intrigued. Lee just stared at her, jaw hanging in the wind and eyes glassy.

"I heard it from Tsunade herself. She told me because she thought I'd enjoy the joke," Temari said sourly. "She finds the whole notion hilarious."

"Yeah, I bet," Kankuro smirked, just as Lee finally got his mouth working and blurted out: "Does Gai-sensei know?"

Temari sighed shortly, as if the two young men had reacted pretty much as she'd expected. She pinched the bridge of her nose and appeared to gather her thoughts, and Lee felt something cold creep up his spine for no reason he could name.

The refrigerator clicked and started to hum in one corner. Gaara still hadn't turned away from the window.

"I'm afraid it's not a joke," Temari finally said, addressing Lee. "You should take this seriously, before others do. So far it's just a rumor- and far-fetched for anyone who doesn't know you and Gaara. They're not actually basing this on anything solid. Just on the way you saved his life, and the fact you two spend a lot of time together and are close. I'm ready to bet not even the rumormongers seriously believe you two are sleeping together."

"But we are," Lee said, bewildered.

"Yes, I know, that’s the problem. Sooner or later, the brighter ones are going to connect a few more of the dots and realize it's way more than a rumor or a joke. And at that point the hierarchy in both our villages are going to have a lot to say about this. You're a diplomatic and military envoy, you're supposed to remain impartial and defend your village's interests in our Alliance while dealing objectively with Gaara. Konoha won't like Gaara's influence on you. Suna won't like your influence on Gaara."

"Temari, I would never-"

"I know that!" Temari snapped, interrupting Lee's exclamation. "But the people who will use this against you and Gaara don't care. And this rumor...the little I've heard of it..." Her eyes flickered towards Gaara's back and she concluded quickly: "Let's just say that it has a nasty little spin to it. Malicious. And no wonder, considering who I suspect is behind it."

"Behind it?" Kankuro asked her sharply.

"Yes. This is not just happenstance. Gaara and Lee have been discreet, and hell, they've only been together for- what, a month?"

"Month and a half," Lee corrected distractedly.

"I've worked at the Daimyo's court long enough to learn how this kind of gossip spreads, and I can tell you this rumor is not getting as far as it is all by itself. Someone is making sure it gets above all to the people who have an ax to grind against Gaara, or Tsunade, or our villages. This is being deliberately spread by someone who wants Lee recalled, maybe even disgraced, and Gaara embarrassed and the Alliance between our villages shaken."

Temari looked at them as if she expected them to jump to some conclusion and figure out who she was talking about. Lee and Kankuro were both giving her blank stares which apparently annoyed her.

"Orochimaru!" she snapped. "Remember him? The one who tried to grab Gaara? Whose men were defeated because Lee was there? Whose hideout our combined villages are planning to attack?!"

"Oh, that Orochimaru," Kankuro muttered. The irony sounded like a reflex.

"He's learned of our plans despite our efforts," Temari said crisply. "We knew he would. That snake has too many spies. We've blocked his bolt-holes, but we're not ready to attack yet, and he's trying to out-maneuvre us. I've spent the last month putting out fires all over the place, even while I was in Konoha. Little things that are distracting us from our planned attack. Messenger hawks gone missing. Supply lines attacked by bandits. The Daimyo suddenly deciding he wants a courtesy visit. His chancellor getting ideas about taxes we might owe. Stone Country recalling its ambassadors from Wind and Fire. It's been like juggling knives for a month now, and I know Konoha has been under the same kind of barrage."

Temari started to pace, hands behind her back wrapped tight around her fan.

"Orochimaru is using all means to destabilize us and distract us. He only wants to delay us until Sound's plans are ripe. Spreading a rumor like this is just one small weapon in his arsenal, one it costs him virtually nothing to use and which can spread mistrust between allies. Especially in Konoha, I'm afraid," Temari added, with a somber glance at Lee. "Tsunade has rivals in her village. With her reputation and her long absence from Leaf, making her Godaime was not without objections. And she came under a bit of fire when she stood by Gaara's decision to appoint you as Envoy, Lee. This makes this rumor into a nice little venomous weapon for that snake Sannin of yours. The fact that it's true will just be a huge bonus for him. It makes it extremely undeniable in the face of questioning. It's made even worse by the fact that Lee didn’t warn anybody in Konoha. As he should have, according to their rules," Temari concluded, drawing up on the other side of the counter from Lee and drilling him with a hard gaze, hands on her hips.

"Rules?" Kankuro blinked in surprise. "They have rules about this?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact they do. A Leaf ninja who has a relationship with someone from another village must inform his superior officers. I checked their statutes myself while I was over there. Discreetly."

"You mean they actually have a law that says 'if you bone a Shinobi from another village, send in Form X90 in triplicate'? Fuck, do we have a rule like that? We only have boring, legal stuff-"

"No, we don't," Temari answered, looking irritated at the interruption. "I think we did at one time, years ago, but it was removed."

"Our father would have removed it."

Temari, Kankuro and Lee stiffened and turned towards Gaara, who had spoken for the first time since Lee had come in. His voice was as cold, clean and barren as sheet ice. He still hadn't turned around.

"He believed in the absolute strength and purity of our village and its bloodlines," Gaara continued without any trace of feeling or inflection.

"Um, yes." Temari's voice sounded oddly human and harried, falling into the silence that had followed that cold statement. "Under-...the former Kazekage, a Suna nin who had an affair with a Shinobi from another village could expect demotion, exile or a hell of a lot worse," she added quietly for Lee's benefit.

There was a vicious snort from Kankuro as he glared at the kitchen clock on the wall. Gaara made no further comment. Lee wondered if his lover had been aware of Suna's attitude when they'd gotten together. He might have, but Gaara, who had a hard time remembering he was fully a part of the village or indeed the human race, tended to think rules never applied to him, whether they were in his favor or not.

Lee rubbed his forehead; he had the beginnings of a headache. "I didn't realize...In Konoha, we sort of-...it's not that we don't respect the rules, but our Shinobi are given leeway to interpret them. It’s sort of accepted that when a Jounin lives abroad for any great length of time, he or she has a few week's grace to- to report-...there's not actually a firm time limit on that, as long as there's no pregnan- well, that's not an issue here. I was going to tell them when I next went to Konoha, but I couldn't put this down in a letter and I wanted to tell Gai-sensei first," Lee finished in a rush.

Temari sighed and made a placating gesture of the hand.

"Don't get me wrong, Lee. I'm glad you haven't warned them yet. It gives me a chance to fix this."

She suddenly looked tired again. She wandered over to the counter and poked without much interest at a couple of dirty plates in the sink.

"I was hoping I'd be able to keep your...relationship with my brother a secret for a few months. By that time...well, you know what it's like in a Hidden Village. It would have eventually leaked out, but by degrees, until it became a secret everyone knows about but nobody discusses. Quietly accepted, never mentioned, like a lot of secrets in Suna. I'm not sure how Konoha would have reacted when it eventually reached them...but from my observations, you do indeed have 'leeway' to interpret your own rules. Konoha is more lenient than we are. I thought that as long as you showed them you could still do a good impartial job even if you two had been involved for several months, then they could ignore the whole thing for the sake of our alliance."

"But you don't think that'll work now?" Kankuro asked, watching his sister's back attentively.

"No. The rumor spread too soon and to all the wrong people. This is being used by Tsunade's rivals and the Fire Daimyo's hounds to embarrass her, and at the worst possible time. We cannot afford any problems in the alliance, not now when we're so close to crushing Sound. So, here's how we're going to play it," Temari said, turning around with her old brisk attitude firmly back in place. "Kankuro?"

The puppeteer looked up in surprise.

"I need two of your most trusted men in the communication department at all times. I want to make sure that all messages from Konoha are now transmitted directly to you, me or Gaara. We'll claim it’s an additional security measure. This will allow us to intercept communications that might recall Lee for disciplinary hearings."

Kankuro did a two-finger salute that looked lazy, but his voice was gruff and serious when he muttered: "Done."

"I'll handle things from the diplomatic angle. The idea is to keep Lee here as long as we can," Temari continued, addressing the counter before her like a general addressing her troops. "There's no shortage of excuses we can use. He is the Envoy between our villages, after all, and he's needed here. And as long as he's here, Tsunade's enemies can't drag him down to humiliate her and her administration. Once we've finished with Sound, I can concentrate on this problem, find out who's been spreading rumors, and figure out a way of forcing Konoha to leave him-"

Temari had been staring at the counter while giving Gaara's back the occasional fleeting look as if judging his reaction to her words. She did spare Lee a glance, and abruptly stopped talking when she caught sight of the look on his face.

Lee took a deep breath and, in a remarkably even tone, said: "So if I understand right, you want me to hide out in Suna and indirectly lie to the authorities of my village with Gaara's help?"

The kitchen clock ticked. It sounded awfully loud in the thick silence. Neither sibling looked at Gaara in a way that made it obvious his reactions were on both their minds. But Gaara said nothing, didn't even twitch.

"Lee," Temari said, trying hard to sound calm and casual, "let's discuss this at a later date. I don't think you realize how extremely bad this could be for your career if it gets out now and under these circumstances. But we don't have to take any decision tonight, and- and this is a bit of a shock to you, I understand that-"

"Temari."

Temari looked up nervously, though she tried to cover it immediately. Lee didn't blame her. Gaara's voice was hard and flat on the surface, but there was something beneath it, deep, dark and dangerous haunting the brightly lit kitchen.

"I need to speak with Lee. Alone."

The siblings glanced at each other and then at Lee.

"Gaara, I think we should call it a night." Temari took a step towards him, licked her lips. "This will all look better in the morning, and I know I can find a way to negotiate-"

"Thank you," Gaara said softly. "But I need to talk to Lee now."

Temari looked like she was going to argue some more, but Kankuro got up quickly, hauled his puppet scrolls over one shoulder, grabbed her arm and lead her to the kitchen door.

Lee stared blindly at the counter. He couldn't believe how radically his whole life had just shifted. He felt like he'd gone for one of his night-time runs and found himself tottering on the edge of an abyss.

"Gaara...I...I don't know where to begin, I'm-"

"Lee."

"Yes?"

"If you want to leave, then you have to do it now. Do it quickly. Leave Suna tonight and don't let me see you go."

Lee stared at the straight back. He'd wondered - in a hypothetical way - if Gaara would ever let him leave if Lee wanted to. Now he had his answer. There was a very dangerous tension emanating from his lover, Lee could feel it like the echoes of a distant but terrible battle. But Gaara was letting him go, if that was Lee’s choice.

His chair scraped against tiles as Lee pushed it back. He walked slowly over to his lover, put his hands on Gaara's shoulders. A slight hitch in that dangerous tension and chakra...Lee gently enfolded him into a hug, pressing himself against Gaara's back.

"I'm not leaving," Lee whispered. "I mean, I might have to leave shortly to sort this out, but I'll come back. I promised to be here as long as you needed me."

"Think about yourself." The words were harsh, and Lee hugged Gaara closer, knowing they must have hurt.

"I am thinking about myself," he murmured. "I need you, Gaara. I'm happy with you. If I left you...I couldn’t, even if I hadn't made that promise."

"Maybe you should." Gaara's voice was ragged with tension. Lee knew what kind of strength it took for his lover to say those words, and what it was costing him. "Because if I ever had to choose- between you and the safety of my village- I-"

"You would choose them and I would not expect it any differently," Lee said, staring sternly at Gaara's reflection in the window. "That does not change my decision. I'm not going anywhere, Gaara. I don't care about my career. A hot-headed loser wasn't going to get very far up the diplomatic ladder anyway, even if I'd wanted to. Don't worry about me, okay? Konoha isn’t as stringent as Suna on these matters, and our villages are allies. I’ve been doing a good job here- and if they don’t want me as envoy anymore, fine. We'll still manage to be together. We only live a few days from each other at the most. But that’s worst-case scenario. I may not be a good diplomat, but I am good at fighting, and I'm going to fight this tooth and nail."

Lee straightened up and turned Gaara around to face him. "If I understood what Temari said, most of this- this bloody mess is due to some conniving politicians and maybe even Orochimaru. I'm not going to let that kind of bastard push us around. And I'm sure Tsunade-sama will side with me on that. She always says politicians are the reason why she drinks."

Gaara's face was unreadable, the mask of control absolute. He stared at Lee for what felt like a long time.

"You don't realize...they could demand that..."

"What?" Lee asked, as Gaara's voice faded.

Gaara just looked at him. Lee felt oddly naked beneath that scrutiny and not in a good and interesting way either. He wondered what cold, precise thoughts were going through his lover’s mind.

"You're right," Gaara suddenly said, and he sounded more like the Kazekage now. "The easiest way of putting this behind us and disarming our enemies is for us to discuss this with Tsunade directly."

"Right! We'll defeat the darkness of rumors by facing it head on with the light of Truth and Love!" Lee said with a firm and enthusiastic pose, before his thoughts screeched to a halt. Wait a minute! Us?!

"Whoa, Gaara, you- you want to come with me?! But it's a three day trip-"

"We'll travel fast. We should be back here in five days if we pace ourselves well. I can nearly match your speed if I strip off the Armour, lighten my Sand and use my chakra to boost my stamina."

"But-but-"

"It is imperative that I go with you. There is something only I can discuss with Tsunade, and I need to do it directly,” Gaara said cryptically, marching towards the kitchen door. "You and I are not the only ones concerned by this. Orochimaru's machinations are putting our alliance at risk. And the longer we delay, the greater the chances of him succeeding."

"But-" Lee repeated, and then ran to catch up as Gaara was already at the foot of the stairs.

"Temari and Kankuro can take over my duties as they do when I'm on a mission. Now move," Gaara added impatiently over his shoulder.

Lee trailed after his boyfriend as the latter went up to get a few things from his bedroom. His head was spinning and he was frightfully worried that this was a bad decision on Gaara's part for a whole host of reasons big and small. Temari meant well, but it wasn't possible for Lee to hide out here and lie and sneak around. It would be playing Orochimaru's game, and he wasn't about to do that. Lee had to go back to Konoha, that was self-evident. He'd leave tonight. But first he had to talk Gaara out of this.

Ten minutes later, when Gaara opened the door to the residence, Lee was half-way down the list of reasons why this was a Bad Idea. Gaara still hadn't answered any of them, which meant he had a full head of that cold determination which could make him kill a lot of enemies in a ridiculously short time.

Then Gaara stopped so suddenly that Lee bumped into him, interrupting his latest argument with a startled 'oof!' It wasn't Lee's attempts at dissuasion that had arrested his lover. Kankuro was between Gaara and the exit to the courtyard, leaning against the decorative wooden arch near its entrance, hands in his pockets.

"Note my complete and utter lack of surprise," the puppeteer commented, glancing at the flasks of water slung over Gaara's shoulder.

Gaara pulled away from Lee, circled his brother and turned to face him fully. "If you think you’re going to stop me, you’re about to find your feet encased in a pair of sandy boots that will only dissolve sometime tomorrow morning," he stated.

Kankuro waved his hand as if he was swatting away some annoying fly. "I ain’t stopping you. But I’m not letting you run about the countryside by yourselves either. It's far-fetched, but maybe Orochimaru anticipated you'd react this way and is planning on trying to grab you again."

"He’d have to catch us," Gaara said in an unhurried, deadly voice, "and he'll regret it if he does."

"Huh-uh. I'd actually like to see that. So I’ll be going with you, just in case I get the pleasure, and we'll take a couple of friends along too. That should give us a group big enough to watch out for any other kinda trouble, and small enough to avoid it if possible."

Kankuro didn't wait for Gaara to comment. He shoved himself away from the frame as if he regretted the effort already, brought his fingers up to his mouth and whistled loudly, the noise shocking in the night time.

"Oy," he said loudly to the thin air. "Your Kazekage needs to go on a trip without an official escort and nobody the wiser until we hit the border."

Lee stared at him as if he'd gone barking mad- then he twisted around on himself as he felt a presence materialize behind him. He stared into a flat, white mask of one of the Sand ANBU.

"Sir." The voice was muted through the metal, addressing Gaara. "I'll go get Guardian One and we'll accompany you." There wasn't a please or a thank you tacked onto that statement, Lee noted.

Gaara stared at the masked man, then at his brother. The ANBU suddenly disappeared, apparently taking Gaara's silence as acquiescence.

"You won’t be able to keep up with us," Gaara said abruptly.

"We’ll do our best," Kankuro answered, "and we’ll trail after you. We’ll only be a few hours behind you at the most."

"I wanted you to stay here and watch Suna in my stead."

Kankuro was tightening the straps holding his scrolls onto his back. He answered without looking up. "We’ll let Temari do that, and then when we get back she can skin us all for being reckless, boneheaded males. She gets such a kick outta that."

Gaara examined his brother's painted features for a short while, and then nodded. He gestured at Lee to follow and leapt off into the darkness.

"Um, Gaara, who was that ANBU?" Lee asked, as they neared the wall. He had the strangest feeling that he'd already seen that man, or rather felt his presence, just traces at the very edge of his perceptions, as if the ANBU had been in the act of leaving when Lee went to see Gaara.

"Bodyguard," Gaara answered shortly, eyes on the darkness ahead of them.

"Oh."

Lee concentrated on running, but he made a mental note to ask Gaara about it later, because he was curious. How long had this guy been watching over...? Lee followed this thought through to its logical conclusions and suddenly decided he wouldn’t ask Gaara about the ANBU, because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to live with the answer.

And they ran.

---

 

"I'm here to see Tsunade. Now."

With that introduction, Gaara went straight over the wall, leaving Lee to trail after him spouting excuses to the various Konoha ANBU who had materialized around them in the hopes he could stop this from ending in violence.

"Sorry! It's okay! This is Gaara-sama, the Kazekage of Sunagakure. Tsunade-sama knows him. Foreign dignitary- means no harm- Don't- please don't stand in front of him- No!...Sorry about that, make sure you wash those scratches out well or they can get infected. Please nobody else grab him like that- Gaara? Wait! Sorry please let us through!"

Fortunately it was well past midnight by the time they'd made it to Konoha on the second day, so there weren't too many potential obstacles to get in Gaara's way as they walked towards the nerve center of the Hidden Village.

They'd made exceedingly good time, but the pace had tested even Lee's strength, and he was more used to purely physical feats of endurance than his boyfriend was. Gaara had been perfectly silent these past two days, not that they'd had the breath for chit-chat. He never complained, and refused all of Lee's offers to take a break and wait for Kankuro and the two ANBU to catch up. Lee didn't know why they were in such a great hurry, but something in Gaara's silence and in the relentless rhythm of their race had drained the questions out of him. He could barely wonder now what they were going to say to the Hokage, or how embarrassing this was going to be; he could only worry about his lover. Gaara was tired, and that was dangerous. To start with, it made him even less civil and patient than he was ordinarily, which was hardly all that much to begin with.

But the ANBU of Konoha were no fools. They shadowed their unexpected visitor as they had since he and Lee had passed Konoha's outer perimeter, but they made no attempts to stop him. They also ran on ahead and made sure the other guards Gaara might encounter were forewarned not to ask for his papers or try to turn him away. Especially violently. Lee glanced back guiltily, though he could no longer see the wall and the guard station they'd passed. Fortunately that Chuunin patroller hadn't been more than lightly sanded when his hand had been slapped away. He really shouldn't have tried to push Gaara around like that anyway; that had been rude.

There was only the ANBU in the administration building, which probably meant they'd discreetly evacuated whatever Shinobi and assistants might still have been working there so late at night. Lee led Gaara up the familiar staircase and along the hall. He remembered walking down this same corridor when the Godaime had summoned him to tell him about the surprising assignment to Suna nearly a year and a half ago. Lee reached the Hokage's office, politely knocked- Gaara came up right behind him, opened the door, took Lee by the wrist and pulled him into the room before the Jounin could protest.

Tsunade-sama was at her desk where she spent most of her time, Shizune a familiar presence at her side. Morino Ibiki, the head of Konoha's ANBU, was at her other shoulder and speaking to her quietly. She'd obviously been waiting for them, she must have known of their presence as soon as they'd entered Konoha territory. But she still managed to look extremely surprised as she noticed their joined hands.

"Shizune, get out my largest bottle of booze. I'm going to need it," the Hokage growled, her head sinking into one hand.

Shizune didn't oblige. She was clutching some folders to her chest and staring at the Kazekage. Gaara's effort at making it to Konoha in so short a time had eroded his usual control, and his chakra was leaking. Even Lee, who loved him dearly, had to admit that Gaara's unleashed presence was a bit alarming. For a sharp and sensitive medi-nin like Shizune-san, it must feel as pleasant as a migraine.

Ibiki straightened up and bowed.

"Kazekage-sama. Is your escort outside our territory, waiting for you?"

"No, but they'll be here in a few hours," Gaara answered, eyes flicking towards the Leaf Jounin.

"I'll see that my men know it." Ibiki made a gesture at someone behind Lee. A sense of movement, and they were alone in Tsunade-sama's office with only Ibiki, Shizune and one other ANBU standing discreetly in the far corner.

Tsunade-sama was staring at them fixedly. "So you two brats decided to give me grey hairs," she suddenly snapped with the tact and diplomacy that characterized her leadership.

Gaara let go of Lee's wrist and crossed his arms over his chest. The movement brought Tsunade's attention fully on him, much to Lee's relief.

"Temari told me there is a rumor circulating about Lee and me," Gaara said without even a greeting.

"Rumor? Is that what it is?" Tsunade asked derisively.

"No," Gaara answered, since he tended to miss things like sarcasm when he was in this kind of dangerous, single-minded mood. "It's true. Lee and I are lovers."

Lee went bright red and Shizune fumbled one of her folders, but nobody else in the room looked particularly shocked or surprised.

"Really?" Tsunade-sama drawled, eyes hard. "Strike me sober if I saw that one coming when you two burst into my office hand in hand."

"Were you planning on recalling Lee?" Gaara interrupted, the monotone barely lifting at the end to mark a question.

"Yes I was, actually. I thought the whole thing was a joke, but I wanted him back here so that he could stand up before the Konoha council and tell them to stop smoking whatever they'd put in their pipes. More fool me, I guess."

"Are you going to recall him now?"

"Now more than ever," Tsunade answered shortly.

Gaara didn't look surprised at her answer, but Lee certainly was. Surprised and horrified. He'd concentrated on running these past two days, the rhythm and pulse of his chakra and the burn in his body distracting him. He'd had one goal in mind, on which he'd focused entirely; get back to Konoha, talk to Tsunade-sama, explain, and then it would all be All Right.

Lee had never contemplated the fact that it might not be All Right even after they'd explained.

"I will not have him prosecuted or sanctioned just because some politician is playing a powergame against you," Gaara started to say, voice flat, unhurried and with disquieting undertones.

"He won't be," Tsunade-sama interrupted. Her eyes had flashed and she'd crossed her fingers beneath her chin with the deliberation of a warrior drawing a weapon. "It was my decision to send Lee to Suna. I'll accept the consequences. I won't make a scapegoat out of one of my own men. I'll protect him. Even from his own bad decisions."

Her eyes rested briefly on Lee, cold and stern and with just a flicker of regret. Lee had the feeling this conversation had dangerous undercurrents he could not see but that were just waiting to pull him under. His own bad decisions? What was Tsunade-sama talking about?

"He's coming back to Suna with me," Gaara stated. Once more Lee had the oddest feeling he'd missed half the conversation, yet his ears were wide open.

"Just like that?" Tsunade snapped. "What did you suggest, that he become a missing-"

"I would be very careful about what you say next," Gaara said softly.

"Are you threatening me?" Tsunade asked with a ragged smile that showed a lot of teeth.

"No, I'm warning you. There's a difference."

Lee closed his eyes and lifted a hand to call attention to himself, while he tried to think of a way he could possibly apologize for his boyfriend's behavior without having to cut off his little finger in atonement, or some other ancient ritual of exoneration.

Everybody ignored him.

"Kazekage-sama," Tsunade said, her fingers tightening on each other. The honorific had sounded anything but polite. "You may be the ally of my village, but Lee is my responsibility, and-"

Then she tilted her head, sat back in her chair and her hands slid apart to flip up as if she was tossing something away.

"Fine. Whatever. If he's no longer a Shinobi, then he'll drop beneath everyone's radar and I won't care what he does. He can go back to Suna with you as a civilian. Would that work for you, Kazekage-sama?"

What...?

"Not acceptable."

Gaara's words had cracked around the room like a whip almost before Tsunade had stopped talking. He hadn't even glanced at Lee. But his hand had fastened on Lee's fingers, nearly crushing them.

The faint pain was a slender lifeline that he clung to. He was dizzy, and his body felt hollow and cold. He barely noticed how the ANBU in the corner stiffened and Ibiki's hand casually dropped beneath his coat as Gaara's chakra flared and burned.

"I thought you might suggest that," Gaara said in a voice as cold as a death threat. "It's what Suna would expect of him if he were one of ours. But for Lee, that is not possible. Being a Shinobi has always been his dream, the justification of his existence. And he is an excellent Shinobi. Stripping him of that is not an option."

Tsunade was staring at him. There was surprise in her eyes.

"Yeah, I know," she finally said. Her eyes didn't leave Gaara, but she made an irritated 'stand down' gesture at Ibiki, whose hand drifted out from under his coat again. "I should know, I'm the one who put him back together again six years ago when someone almost took that dream away from him. Remember that? You know, it's funny, I could swear you were involved."

Lee felt Gaara's flinch through the hold on his fingers. He squeezed Gaara's hand instinctively.

Tsunade stared at them both, her face unreadable, and then she shook her head.

"Even if Lee said he'd accept such a solution, I wouldn't let him," she concluded without her previous biting sarcasm. "I'm glad you see that too, Gaara. But beyond that, I'm afraid you are being rather short-sighted. You're eighteen, so I guess that's normal. You obviously realize that Lee is of Konoha and you are of Suna, and that this fling of yours can’t possibly have a future, but you're still hoping the world will turn out the way you want it to." There was something tired and bitter in Tsunade-sama's expression now, but her anger at Gaara seemed to have passed. "I learned when I wasn't much older than you are that it just doesn't work that way."

"We have to make it work that way," Gaara stated shortly.

"You're not listening, kid."

"We have to. I need him. And Lee has told me that he needs me too. But I cannot ask him to do this. I will not make him choose between me and his dream. We have to find a way out of this. Please."

Tsunade stared at him, and Lee hoped she finally realized that Gaara might be blunt - his voice was still a cutting monotone as charming as the buzz of a drill - but that behind it there was a real plea he just could not formulate any other way.

"Ugh, children!" Tsunade growled, scrubbing her ash-blonde hair. Then she was distracted by Ibiki who leaned over to whisper in her ear.

"Gaara," Lee said softly, staring at his lover's profile. Gaara's eyes were fixed straight ahead, and to anyone else his expression might have appeared cold, but Lee could read past that now.

"We'll find a way out of this." Gaara's voice was soft and for his ears alone. "I promised I would never hurt you again. I will not hurt you again."

"I know," Lee whispered, squeezing the fingers that grasped his own.

"Give me a break, Ibiki," Tsunade groused loudly, bringing their attention back to her. "You know I don't give a dog's fart about those sons of a sick goat in the Daimyo's court. They can go hang for all I care. But internally, do you know how bad this is going to look? And in regards to the other Kages, and to the Council-...oh, sod it all."

Tsunade sighed heavily, and turned her glare from Ibiki to Gaara.

"What exactly are you suggesting?" she asked with ill grace. "I'm warning you right now, I'm probably not going to like it."

A dazed and puzzled Lee caught the quick glance she gave the two lovers. Strange...her tone said 'I don't like it'; her eyes seemed to say 'please persuade me'.

"Lee will be detached in Sunagakure as a Jounin of Konoha, without any harassment or stain to his reputation," Gaara answered, a picture of icy composure once more. Lee had been concentrating on running these past two days, but Gaara must have been making this list in his head. Maybe he had expected most of this conversation. "He'll accompany me on any mission I might have. I've never been able to stop him from coming with me, I doubt you'll be able to, for all you're his superior officer. He will still receive missions from Konoha, as well as joint missions as decided by whatever new envoy you send us. But I request a right of veto on any S-rank mission you might give him, and I'll accompany him if I can."

"Gaara!" Lee squawked, horrified. How could his lover expect Tsunade-sama to agree to any of that?!

Tsunade stared at the Kazekage, brown eyes wide for a few seconds. And then she smiled. It was an expression that Lee would have gladly run away from.

"I see," she purred. "Lee?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama?" Lee quavered.

"Since it turns out you are indeed sleeping with this nuisance, and this whole rumor thing is serious, we need weapons to defend ourselves against any enemy who might try to use it against us. So I want you to go with Ibiki and tell him absolutely everything there is to know about this little tryst of yours. Take your time. It appears that the Kazekage and I have a lot to talk about." Tsunade-sama's eyes hadn't left Gaara's.

"Um, can't I stay and-"

"Out," Tsunade ordered without looking at him.

"Go, Lee," Gaara said softly without breaking eye contact either, but his fingers squeezed Lee's once before nudging him in the direction of the door and releasing him. "I'll come find you when I'm done here."

Oh dear.

Lee followed Ibiki-san in a daze induced by fatigue, an ebb in stamina and extreme worry that his boss might try to strangle his overly-blunt boyfriend at some point in the next few minutes.

He sat down mechanically where Ibiki pointed, but he didn't pay any attention to his surroundings until something plunked down in front of him.

Food!

"Is this for me?" Lee whimpered, his fingers hovering over the plate of cold meats, rice balls and dried fruit.

"Yes. I figured you'd be hungry if you ran fast enough to leave the Kazekage's escort several hours behind."

"Thank you so much itadakemasu," Lee mumbled, his mouth already wrapped around a piece of beef.

They'd ended up in the admin compound kitchens. The large room, where cooks prepared banquets for visiting dignitaries, was huge, silent and dark around them. Some food was always available and a pot of tea was kept brewing all night for the Hokage; Lee knew this because Gaara had the same arrangement. Ibiki had taken the seat opposite. He was sipping some of the fragrant green tea. Lee noticed a steaming cup near his own hand, and grabbed it and drained it in a second despite the piping hot liquid on his tongue. Then he stuffed an entire rice ball into his mouth and chewed reverently. Gaara, grim and driven, had not let them rest or eat anything other than soldier pills these past two days, which even for Lee was a bit of a strain as he didn't have Gaara's huge chakra to rely on and turn into stamina.

"How long have you and Gaara been having sex?" Ibiki asked calmly over the rim of his cup, and then leaned back to avoid getting rice coughed up over him.

"Wh-wh-what?"

"Tsunade-sama did mention you would have to tell me about it. Remember?"

"Er, yes," Lee croaked, toying with a dried apricot on his plate, his face a brilliant red.

"Then let us begin."

The hour that followed was one of the most uncomfortable in Lee's life. Ibiki didn't just want to know how long Lee had been sleeping with Gaara; he wanted to know exactly when each encounter had occurred, where, what had happened before and after, how noisy they might have been, where they'd gotten the lube...Ibiki-san seemed remarkably conversant with the ins and outs of it all. Lee continued to eat because his body desperately craved it, but Ibiki's relentless questions seasoned all the dishes with utter embarrassment. Lee reminded himself that this was for the good of both villages, buried his face in his plate and answered as honestly as he could.

Fortunately the questions soon went from the details of Lee's indiscretion to more important facts. So he and Gaara had been sleeping together for a little over seven weeks. Who in Suna had known? Who could have found out? Who could they have told? How had some politicians in the two Daimyo's courts and Konoha discovered this when it appeared that the greatest part of both villages were still in blissful ignorance?

Lee discovered, as he answered, that he knew a great deal more about Suna and its politics than he'd have thought, even though he'd never really thought about it that much. And from the trend of Ibiki's questions, he learned more about Konoha's inner rivalries than he'd ever wanted to know. Apparently Tsunade-sama's brand of tough hands-on leadership was highly appreciated by her Shinobi, but a lot less by the civilian leaders and councilors that managed the part of Konoha keeping its small army functional and running. And she didn’t get along very well with the politicians at the Daimyo's court, who liked to think they were in control of this dangerous little place on their map rather than acknowledge an equal footing.

Lee was left staring at the demolished plate of food.

"Gaara said I was an excellent Shinobi," he muttered despondently. "But if that was true, I would have seen this coming. I knew I had to warn the Hokage- I would have as soon as I had a mission back here. I expected to get yelled at, maybe have to renounce my post and- and see Gaara less often, but I never thought...I can never look underneath the underneath as fully as I should."

"True, though some would say you saw further than most when you looked at Gaara," Ibiki said, pouring himself some more tea. "Yes, you got yourself into a mess, and it's probably true that a Shinobi with the emotional control we try to teach would not have fallen for him, or would have tried to gain some advantage out of the situation. I doubt such a man would have gotten anywhere near Gaara, though. We are no longer merely the Daimyo's spies and assassins, as we were before the First founded Konohagakure. We are a village, a whole. We still need infiltrators and killers, but we also need warriors. You're one of the latter, and nobody in this village would say that you are not a good Shinobi for that. Not within Gai's hearing, anyway. For what it's worth, the Hokage trusts you implicitly. It's why she let you take that post out there in the first place, even though you're obviously not cut out to be much of a diplomat."

Lee had at least the knowledge that he'd never let his feelings for Gaara interfere with his work in Suna. He hadn't betrayed that trust. It soothed his conscience a bit.

"If anything, I blame myself," Ibiki added, though he didn't sound particularly contrite. "I'm the paranoid bastard who's supposed to keep an eye out for the sort of problem a warrior might miss. I - and Gai and Kakashi - noticed that your affection towards the Kazekage was running dangerously deep when we removed Orochimaru's seal on Gaara's powers, a couple of months ago. There were notes in your file that you were inclined towards your own gender...but your profile also indicated that you are capable of amazingly strong friendships. We hoped it was no more than that. And of course, even if you did have a crush on him, it would never have occurred to me that Gaara of the Desert could respond to that. So when I heard some disturbing news out of Suna, I treated it like a dangerous attempt at destabilizing our envoy. I didn't think it was actually true."

"You mean the rumors that we were together?" Lee asked, blinking sleepily. The food, the warmth of the kitchen and the fatigue of the trip were wearing him down.

"No," Ibiki answered slowly. "That I might have believed. With a stretch of the imagination. It was the exact nature of the rumors we heard that made the whole thing sound unlikely."

Lee looked at him with a twinge of curiosity. "What rumors exactly, sir?" He remembered Temari mentioning the gossip had had an ugly spin to it.

Ibiki looked at him in silence, then he sipped his tea and answered without the slightest inflection: "That the Kazekage had seduced you in an attempt to turn you against Konoha."

Lee blinked at him-

Then his chair hit the ground with a smash and the wood of the table splintered beneath his fingers. "What?! That's a lie! That's- despicable!"

"Of course. That's the point. Don't shout, Lee. My ANBU have had a busy night already."

Lee mumbled a halfhearted apology and righted his chair, temper still boiling.

Ibiki shrugged. "It was the spin they used to make it look as bad as possible. Quite masterful. Two young people screwing each other isn't that big a deal. Amazing, yes, seeing who's involved, but hardly enough to make a village-shaking scandal out of it. Someone went to great lengths to make sure this sounded as sordid as possible."

"Orochimaru," Lee ground out.

"Maybe. Or one of his allies. Or some other enemy altogether. We will find out who eventually," Ibiki murmured, and surely somewhere their enemy must have felt the cold shiver of someone walking over his grave.

"It's a good thing you came forward, the both of you," Ibiki added. "It could have gotten messy otherwise. Though of course, we know you, Rock Lee. We would never have made you a Jounin or let you to go to Suna if we thought you could betray us that easily. And we believe in Gaara's commitment to the peace. He would not move lightly against our envoy or us. On top of that, Gaara would not really be adept at seducing anybody. Hell, he's hard put to be polite and diplomatic at the best of times. The very idea of the Kazekage trying to turn on a charm offensive is enough to make me wish I was drinking something stronger than tea."

Despite his respect for a superior officer, Lee still bristled on behalf of his lover, though he couldn't exactly deny Ibiki's point.

"You said Temari is the one trying to debunk this on the Suna side, correct?" Ibiki asked, changing the subject.

"Yes sir."

"Good. I'll coordinate with her and see if we can figure out where this originated. We might even be able to find us a spy or two if we can track this down. The important thing is that this should not cause any kind of friction in our alliance."

"Do you think it could?" Lee asked, his third cup of tea creaking under his suddenly tense fingers.

"The rumors certainly weren't pretty. But since the pair of you have now indicated that this thing is serious, not a gambit on Suna's part to gain control over you...now it's just embarrassing all around. We'll try to keep it quiet until Sound goes down, if the two of you could please keep that in mind and continue to be discreet. More discreet than bursting in on us all and plowing through the village together like you just did. We'll figure out something to explain Gaara's presence here, since it will be all over the village by morning. After we've defeated Sound...Tsunade-sama will need a new Envoy in Suna. And she's going to lose face over all this, though I think she's going to find a way to recoup that."

Ibiki fixed him with an uncompromising gaze before Lee could inquire how she was going to do that exactly.

"You are about to lose several points on your security clearance, Jounin, whatever the Kazekage has to say on that matter. I don't know if you'll be getting many missions to start with. But I think Tsunade-sama will eventually recognize that having one of our soldiers live so far west might come in handy. Save on travel time, especially in case of emergencies. Suna might not see it quite so positively. Our villages were enemies six years ago, and now you're sleeping with their leader. You might encounter some hostility from people you live and work with. As for Gaara, he might also meet with considerable disapproval. It could affect his efficiency as a leader."

"Oh no! His people respect him way too much to-..."

Lee's gaze dropped from Ibiki's piercing sceptical one to look into the muddle of leaves at the bottom of his teacup. "Um, those councilors who don't respect him as much as they should, well, they're sort of still scared of him, so I don't think they'll be able to do much," he acknowledged in a mumble.

"So I gathered. But he has a weakness now. It will be up to him to keep them in hand. I suspect that won't be too hard. Speak of the devil..."

Lee felt it too; a flicker of chakra from the other side of the door. It was much calmer and less strained than previously. Lee hoped that meant all had gone well with Tsunade-sama.

"I might have a few more questions for you, Lee, but the debriefing is over for now," Ibiki announced, getting to his feet. "I'll let the two of you go get a bit of rest. You'll need it."

"Thank you, sir. And...I'm sorry. For all the trouble."

"Yes." Ibiki stood staring down at him until Lee stood up to face him. "This day may have more far-reaching consequences for you than you can imagine, Lee. And I hope you realize, from here on out there is no turning back."

"Never been very good at it anyway, sir," Lee admitted.

A wintry smile crossed Ibiki's ruined features. "Yes, I know. Which reminds me, go and say hello to Gai before you leave, because for the Hokage's peace of mind she's going to pretend you no longer exist for awhile. It might be a couple of years before you can come back to Konoha to visit."

Lee nodded with tired resignation and headed towards the door, after grabbing a few rice balls and an apple from the remains of his meal.

Gaara was waiting for him in the hallway outside, leaning against the far wall, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest. The gourd was on the ground at his side.

"Gaara." Despite common sense assuring him that the Hokage wouldn't harm the leader of another village except out of the severest provocation, Lee felt awash with relief at seeing his boyfriend. "Here, I got you something to eat. And we-"

Gaara turned away, hoisting the gourd into its halter. "We're leaving."

"Kazekage-sama," Ibiki murmured as he followed Lee out of the kitchen. Gaara's eyes flickered dismissively over the man, making Lee wince at the lack of civility, but Ibiki didn't seem to particularly mind. He left as discreetly as one would expect the leader of the ANBU to leave, melting into the shadows in the blink of an eye.

"Gaara, we should rest first, and here, eat this-"

"I'm not hungry, and we'll rest outside of Konoha territory," Gaara answered, marching along the hallway towards the distant doors.

"Why? Ibiki-san told me we can rest here, they have guest rooms. I'll stand guard for you-"

"I'm not staying here a minute more than I have to. That woman," Gaara added neutrally, "I would hate to have her as an enemy."

"Huh? You mean the Hokage?"

"Yes."

"I don't understand. She...she is letting me go back with you, right?" Lee asked anxiously.

Gaara snorted. "Of course, but she made me pay for it."

"Pay?" Lee asked sharply, accelerating so that he was walking a step ahead of Gaara and looking back into his lover's face. "What do you mean?"

Gaara shrugged. "She has the control over something we need. She's going to make sure she gets something in exchange for not exerting that control. What is there here that is so surprising?"

"You mean she- she asked you for- for something-"

"Naturally. You have nothing to offer her, she already has your loyalty. It's why I had to come with you to Konoha. I have the power to bargain with her," Gaara added. The mask had been on when Lee had exited the kitchen, perhaps for Ibiki's benefit, but now Gaara's fatigue was showing through. "She knew better than to ask me for anything that would compromise Suna's safety or standing. But that didn’t stop her from rolling out a long list of 'favors' she wants from me. She has quite a lot more imagination than I would have thought. Next time I'm at court, or at the various Chuunin and Jounin exams, she wants me to scare a few people into line for her. Her words. She said I would be good at it."

"What?! Who?"

"Some of the people who've been helping further this rumor, to start with. I'll do that with considerable pleasure since that will protect you as well as Tsunade," Gaara said, a faint trace of the murderous in his voice. "There's also the Exchequer of Fire Country, the mayor of- she gave me a list and instructions. She also wants to know when I leave on missions out of Suna, something my own council would be furious to learn that I've promised her, so we'll have to keep that quiet. She said she might have little side trips for me. Probably some dirty work she doesn't want her name attached to."

Lee caught Gaara by the shoulder and forced him to stop as he stared at his lover, aghast. "What are you saying?!"

Gaara looked at him steadily. "I'm saying that you and I are about to become her errand boys for the foreseeable future. I'll have to work overtime back home to make sure I can take more time on my regular trips and missions and make the occasional detour."

Gaara walked on, but Lee stood frozen on the spot, the words 'Oh my god' tumbling numbly from his mouth.

There was a pause in Gaara's footsteps as he realized Lee hadn't followed.

"Gaara...I- I never- you shouldn’t have had to-"

Gaara was suddenly in front of him, both hands firmly on either side of Lee's face, forcing eye contact.

His lover spoke slowly and with utmost deliberation. "If I did not have Suna to take care of, she could have made me her personal lapdog for the rest of my natural lifespan, and I would have been happy to oblige as long as we were together. I've had to pay in blood and pain for everything good in my life. So have you. What she wants from us is insignificant in comparison to what we'll gain. Don't you agree?"

Lee put his hands over Gaara's and nodded.

"Good. Can we leave now? Before she thinks of something else to ask for?"

"Sure," Lee whispered, smiling weakly at Gaara's suddenly cranky, tired tone, the emotions open and free for Lee to read. "Thanks..."

Even that caused a look of slight irritation to cross Gaara's tired eyes, as if the mere suggestion that Lee owed him gratitude for his help was borderline insulting.

"Come on," Gaara said, hand slipping into Lee's as he turned towards the door. "If we start now, it won't take much more than two days to get home.

Chapter Text

Kankuro cursed little brothers, bowl-cutted Leaf Jounin, that stupid thing called love and the distance between Suna and Konoha. Particularly the latter.

Where the hell was his Kazekage?

Kankuro was bone-tired and annoyed, and he wanted a shower. The air in this forest-bound village felt too damp and stifling, even though the temperature was cool enough. Kankuro wanted some real food, a good bed and twenty four hours of sleep. Since those were out of his reach, he'd have settled for just five minutes to lean against a wall to catch his breath, but he was damned if he was going to show a weakness to the three Konoha ANBU who were escorting him, so he wasn't even going to get that.

The ANBU ahead of him leapt forward towards another roof barely visible in the pre-dawn conditions. Kankuro followed, and so did the two at his back. A few people walked through the streets below, but they didn't look up at the movement above, any more than they did in Sunagakure. It appeared his guides were leading him towards the centre of the village, towards the Administration buildings, the barracks, and probably the jails. Kankuro let loose a few more choice mental curses, though he kept his face carved into a mask of uncaring.

His three silent shadows hadn't told him where Gaara was, and that worried Kankuro as much as it pissed him off. By his calculation, he was only two-three hours behind his brother; he'd made a pretty damn good time if he said so himself. He'd left Gaara's bodyguards as backup outside of Konoha territory, and ventured to the border alone. The ANBU had picked him up there with absolutely no sign of surprise or any pointed questions, which meant Gaara had indeed arrived before him and warned them of his arrival. Kankuro was a foreigner here, without travel papers, so he had to obey their silent injunctions, but if someone didn't tell him where his brother was real soon-

Kankuro started to leap towards the next roof, and then caught himself short. His escort had stopped. He glanced at the white masks in surprise, and then followed the direction of their gaze and looked down at the street below.

Gaara! And Lee. Thank god...

"See 'em. Thanks for the walk, fellas. And for the sparkling conversation," Kankuro threw over his shoulder before dropping down into the street ahead of his brother and Lee.

They both looked unharmed. Kankuro could feel other ANBU about, but there was no hostility or killing intent in the air, and the cork was in the gourd. The Sand Jounin felt that knot of tension over his spine relax for the first time in nearly three days.

"So, did it go okay?" he drawled, straightening up and putting his hands in his pockets.

"Yes," Gaara answered shortly, almost murderously.

Hell, Kankuro thought, if that's how he takes it when it goes fine, what would it have been like if it had gone badly? He didn't voice the quip, though, because there was always the possibility his brother might give him a straight answer, and Kankuro would sleep better at night not knowing.

"Is the problem all sorted?" he asked lazily, trying to spot and count the high-level Shinobi around them without being overt about it.

"Yes," Lee said, after a small hesitation and a look at Gaara that Kankuro couldn't interpret. Gaara nodded once in agreement.

"Cool."

Kankuro let the two walk on and fell into step behind them. That's when he noticed they were holding hands. That was almost cute. In a really bad contact-embarrassment kind of way. Damn it, they were in the middle of a foreign village - not that that would be any less mortifying in the middle of Suna. Act tough, guys.

A second glance informed him that this wasn't 'skipping along the road' hand-holding, it was an anchoring death grip, and it wasn't even clear who was anchoring whom because they both looked pretty ragged. The sooner they got out of this village-...wait a minute.

"Hey, guys? Where we going? The gate's thataway."

"We're going to see Gai-sensei," Lee said, giving Kankuro a quick glance over his shoulder.

"Reeeaaally." Oh, this day just got better and better.

Kankuro thought of objecting, maybe pointing out that it was four in the morning, and not a time to get senseis out of bed, so maybe they could come back another day. But something in Gaara's silence, in the small line between Lee's impressive brows, and the way their hands gripped, triggered Kankuro's instincts, and he decided to keep his peace. They'd go see Gai-sensei, and hopefully the man wouldn't be quite as weird as Kankuro remembered him.

Kankuro kept a hold of that slim hope until Lee had diffidently knocked on the door of a suite of small apartments, and it burst open to reveal the man himself, larger than life, big eyebrows and bowl-cut and all, in pea-green pyjamas decorated with small yellow stars.

Kankuro rubbed his eyes and debated waiting for them at the gate. But Gaara was his Kazekage; Kankuro had sworn to lay down his life in his defence, all that. What kind of Shinobi would he be if he left his leader by himself with a strange (make that a very strange) Leaf ninja?

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

A sane one, Kankuro concluded, dropping his pained gaze away from the enthusiastic and technicolored hug. Gaara would be perfectly safe. And somewhere in this joint there had to be an open eatery and breakfast with his name on it-

Kankuro's hands shot to the straps on his shoulders as he suddenly felt/heard/sensed a presence behind him. He spun around. Karasu was half off his back, and his left hand was wrapped around Kuroaki's scroll. Son of a bitch! How had this guy gotten this close without them hearing him!

"Yo," the guy said, barely looking up from where he was pulling on his gloves. He wore a mask over part of his face, a headband over one eye, and an air of having seen it all. It was the latter which triggered Kankuro's memory. Three years ago or more now, when Gaara had been taken by Akatsuki, this guy had come with the Konoha contingent. Kakashi. Hatake Kakashi, Naruto's Jounin cell leader.

At Kankuro's back, Gaara's Sand growled in its gourd and there was a small 'tck' noise of the cork edging out of the container's mouth. The Kazekage had been startled too, and that wasn't a good thing in the present circumstances.

"Gai," Kakashi added, apparently oblivious of the reaction of the two Sand nin, "why don't we take this inside before you wake up the whole neighbourhood?"

"Good idea! Oh, a thousand apologies, Kazekage-sama, I was so caught up with greeting my beloved pupil that I forgot my manners. Welcome! Please do me the honour of entering my residence!"

Gaara was his usual polite self: he didn't answer the apology, or the greeting, or Gai's courteous gesture. He just stared at the Leaf Jounin as if he were an interesting new species of bug until Lee walked past his teacher, and then he followed. Fortunately for Kankuro's peace of mind and Suna Shinobi pride, they weren't holding hands any more.

"After you," Kakashi murmured to the Sand Jounin, making a gesture towards the door.

Kankuro didn't budge. "What the hell are you doing here?"

That probably wasn't much more polite than Gaara's reaction, but Temari was the diplomat in their little family; Kankuro was just the guy who'd been running for three days straight through desert, savannah and forest, and who didn't like being startled.

"I'm Gai's next-door neighbour. We've met before-"

"Yeah, I remember." The man's stats and details had been retrieved from the mental filing system every ninja kept in their head. Copy-nin Kakashi, genius of a thousand jutsu, with an impressive number of recorded kills. No wonder he'd been able to get on their six like that.

The visible eye curved into a friendly line as the man repeated his gesture of invitation. "Come on, let's go in, no need to disturb the other neighbours."

None of those other neighbours had poked their heads from their doors to see what Gai was bellowing about at this ungodly hour of the morning. Apparently they were used to it. But that didn't make standing out in the hallway any more useful or judicious. Kankuro looked at the open door reluctantly, but he really couldn't leave his leader alone with two foreign Jounin under these odd circumstances, so he put a hand beneath the strap keeping his weapons on his back, squared his shoulders and entered the Beast's den.

It was so very much like Lee's room in the Suna barracks it was almost creepy. Kankuro looked gloomily at the training weights, the books on martial arts, the green uniform hanging from the door of the dresser...the only difference was the style of the sparse furnishings, a lack of cactus and the presence of several full-length mirrors (good god, why?!)

I should have gone for breakfast, Kankuro thought, but put his back against the wall near the door, attentive and dutiful. The other guy, Kakashi, sprawled into a low seat a few feet away, looking completely at home. What he was doing here in the first place was a mystery, but neither Lee nor Gai commented on his presence. Gaara hadn't either, though he'd positioned himself where he could keep an eye on both Leafs and have a clear strike without endangering Kankuro or Lee. Since that was Gaara's usual approach to diplomacy, Kankuro didn't pay it much note.

"Gai-sensei," Lee interrupted his teacher's magnificent and loud greeting mid-stream, in a tense voice that brought Kankuro's attention back to him. "I'm sorry, we can't stay very long."

Thank god, Kankuro thought, seeing a light of hope in the darkness.

"But before we go, I have something I need to tell you," Lee added, face all screwed up.

Kankuro concluded that the light in the darkness was a fire jutsu coming at him full blast. If he'd known it was going to be this kind of visit, he'd have definitely gone for breakfast, or even waited for them outside the door and out of earshot of anything really cringe-worthy that was sure to follow.

Still...now that he was here...The thought insinuated itself into his mind. This nutcase over there was one of the most important people in Lee's life, and if he didn't take Lee's confession well...or if he disapproved of Gaara...Kankuro realized he was going to have to stay, because there was always the possibility that his brother or Lee might need moral support in a few minutes. Damn it, Kankuro concluded, slouching against the wall and getting ready to weather the worse; family sucked.

"You have to leave already? But you must have only arrived a few hours ago at the most." Gai looked honestly unhappy at the thought. "Were you here on a diplomatic visit? If I'd known, I would have-"

"Um, something like that. Gai-sensei, there's no easy way- I have to tell you- I'm gay!" Lee blurted out.

Oh, smooth.

Gai stared at him wide-eyed for a few seconds- Kankuro's attention was drawn to the side by a small noise, and he glanced down to see that the other Leaf Jounin had produced a book from somewhere and was flipping through the pages.

"Well, Lee, this is quite a surprise," Gai said gravely. Then his face seemed to explode into this huge shiny smile. "But I am glad! Glad that you have found yourself and grasped the full flower of your youth-"

"You don't look surprised," Kankuro muttered to the masked guy, tuning out the speech.

"Hmmmno. I was pretty sure the kid swung that way," Kakashi murmured. "Gai had a clue as well, but he was being polite and pretending he didn't know until Lee told him. Might have been hoping he was wrong and that he'd get some big-eyebrowed pseudo-grandkids one day. Do you want this seat?"

"Huh?"

"Did you want to sit down?" The Jounin flipped the page over, he'd not glanced Kankuro's way since they'd come in. "You look a bit tired and footsore, leaning there."

Kankuro decided he didn't like this guy. Way too cool for having been awakened at four in the morning to hear Lee confess his sexuality to the Lord of Eyebrows over there. Kankuro normally admired cool, but today he was all cooled out, what with the three day trip and the worry and Gai's pyjamas and all the rest.

He realized that Gai had fallen silent after his long and enthusiastic endorsement of gayness in general and Lee's in particular. Now Lee was straightening up and taking on that 'Challenge' position, which meant the corker was about to arrive.

"Gai-sensei, I've found my special person. The one for whom I would d- I mean, defend with all my strength, and who'll always be in my heart. Um-ah-you see-" and then he very unadvisedly put his hand on Gaara's shoulders and nudged him forward as if that was easier than saying it. To his credit, Gaara didn't blink or let an expression cross his features.

Gai staggered back in a way that could only be described as 'theatrical'- Kankuro's eyes were once more drawn to the other Jounin who'd tilted his book to better catch the light from the overhead lamp.

"You're still not surprised," he hissed at Kakashi.

"I have eyes. Two of them. One of them's quite good," the other Shinobi said, still without looking up.

Kankuro's attention returned to the main event. Gai had finished his stagger and was now examining Gaara with a serious look on his face. Gaara was staring back in a way that made Kankuro's nerves prickle ever so slightly.

"I see. Kazekage-sama…in the circumstances, may I call you Gaara?"

Gaara nodded slowly.

"Gaara. Do you return my adorable student's affections?"

Oh damn, he just had to ask-

"Yes."

Kakashi lifted his head from his book, looked at Gaara and then glanced over at Kankuro.

"I'm a bit surprised now," he offered helpfully.

Bastard, thought Kankuro, trying to hide the fact he was a hell of a lot more surprised than Kakashi appeared to be. From a couple of their conversations this past month, Kankuro knew that his brother was still struggling with a lot of the basics, and that a concept like 'love' was as alien to him as the far side of the moon. But then again, big-brows had used the word 'affections', not 'love'...and maybe Gaara had finally figured that much out at least. And of course, being Gaara, he would just say 'yes' without the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

"Wonderful!" Gai threw his arms wide- for a heart-stopping second, Kankuro thought he was going to hug the Kazekage, but apparently Gai had the survival instincts you'd expect in a Jounin, and only made an enthusiastic gesture in Gaara and Lee's direction.

Kankuro found himself wondering how his and Gaara's own father would have reacted, which was a very strange thought indeed. Maybe the dead could see what happened to their descendants. Maybe their father was watching this scene right now. If that was the case, the bastard was probably spinning in his grave. Good.

"Congratulations to you both!" Gai actually had tears of joy in his eyes. "May this youthful love strengthen the bonds between our two villages until nothing can-"

"Ah, we're not supposed to tell anybody. Not just yet," Lee said quickly, with a glance at Kankuro and Kakashi as well.

The green loony stopped dead in his tracks, and in his eyes Kankuro could read a quick and probably very accurate assessment of that statement and what it meant; after all, the guy couldn't be as crazy as he appeared, because Konoha still had some standards for their Jounin, surely, and so he had to be able to add two and two as well as anyone.

"It's only until the attack on Sound," Gaara said, voice its usual charming monotone. "After that we won't care who knows."

"Well said!" The Beast bounced back quickly. "And then we shall celebrate openly the wonderful-"

"He seems to have taken it well," Kakashi murmured, putting away his book and getting to his feet. Kankuro wondered if the purpose of Kakashi's presence here had mirrored his own; potential moral support for Gai, his fellow Jounin. It must have been obvious, spotting the three of them knocking on Gai's door just before dawn, that something heavy was about to go down.

"-match worthy of my beloved pupil-"

"He's going to go on like that for awhile," Kakashi commented. "At some point, he might even get serious, and that's even worse. Do you want some breakfast?"

Kankuro might not hate this bloke after all. "Hm, okay," he said, with the air of one granting favours.

"Splendid. Gaara-sama?"

Gaara had been staring at the Green Beast with eyes a trifle wider than usual in their dark rings. He glanced back slowly in Kakashi's direction.

"Would you like something to eat? I live next door; Lee can come over when he's finished."

Lee was standing there, eyes wide and as full of stars as Gai's pyjamas, drinking in his sensei's every word. Gai hadn't missed a single beat despite having Kakashi speaking in the background. He was now talking about the Springtime of Love. Kankuro hastily tuned him out again, because having someone talk about the Springtime of Love in reference to Gaara of the Desert was a bit too traumatic for four in the morning.

Gaara appeared to think the offer over, and then he shook his head shortly and turned back towards Gai.

The single visible eye widened and briefly lost that 'seen-it-all' air that clung to him as much as the mask. Kankuro smirked, since he wasn't surprised at all. He knew his brother; he could read beyond the mask. Gaara was tired, in unfamiliar territory, and something earlier today had alarmed him; from the way he'd held Lee's hand before, it had probably concerned the Jounin. Gaara's protective instincts were now on Full, and it would take something more important than breakfast or more terrible than the Green Beast of Konoha to get Gaara to let Lee out of his sight for another few hours.

"You mentioned some chow?" Kankuro purred, hands in pockets and relishing the brief reversal of the situation.

"Hm-hmm, right this way." His opponent had recovered fast, but Kankuro still felt this victory to be his.

Kankuro followed him out the door, with a last glance back. Gai and Lee were having some kind of back-and-forth, where Gai was barking out enthusiastic questions - Kankuro caught 'to have and to hold' before his hearing shut down again out of self-preservation - and Lee was answering 'Yes Gai-sensei!' with his fist and his voice raised high, face shining with serious fervour. Gaara was standing next to Lee and looking on, impassive. Not only did he not seem to be having second thoughts about shacking up with that chip off the old crazy block over there, he seemed to be listening attentively, as if there was something here he was trying to understand.

Kankuro followed Kakashi, lured out by the promise of food. But at the back of his mind, he was doing something very unusual for him. He was praying. Kankuro was used to facing life and death situations without relying on divine intervention, but in this instance, he was praying to the Gods of their barren desert home that whatever was in that room wasn't contagious and that his Kazekage wasn't going to go all round-eyed and start talking about the Springtime of Love. Because if there was ever a reason to go missing-nin, that would be it.

Trusting that there were some things that were against the very laws of nature, Kankuro closed the door behind him, and concentrated on the possibility of breakfast.

Chapter Text

Lee bounced along the rooftops, filled with the slight euphoria of one who'd exercised a bit more than the doctors advised, but enough to knock the cramps out and get the blood flowing. His arm hurt a little bit, but a warrior did not stoop to notice such minor details.

He landed on the roof's parapet a few feet above his open window. He could have just as easily come in through the front door, but he couldn't pass up the chance to practice one of his sensei's signature techniques. He leaped down, somersaulted in mid-air and vaulted into the room with a splendid Dynamic Entry kick.

And then he screeched to a halt on the hardwood floor. His room was empty! Except for the furniture that had been here when he'd arrived- but all of his things were gone.

Three minutes later, Lee was at Gaara's house, making spluttering noises.

"About time you showed up," Temari told him sternly, hanging a green uniform in the closet. "I can't believe you were out training that long. Didn't the medics tell you to take it easy?"

"But-whu-why-didn't we-I-"

All his belongings were in boxes and crates stacked near the door of the large room, or else had been put away. Temari breezed past him to pick up some more clothes. Kankuro was sorting out a knot in an electrical cord, sitting in the chair by the desk. There was no sign of Gaara, but presumably he knew about this, this being his house and all.

"What are you gaping at?" Temari asked, breezing right past him again. "We agreed that you should move in here when the time was right."

"Is that now?!" Lee blurted out, finally recovering his coherency.

"As good a time as any. The new Envoy's arriving tomorrow, and we're giving him your old room. We let it be known that you're looking for a new place, but that you're staying with Gaara in the meantime because you're injured and need a bit of help managing. Everybody knows that you two are friends, so it doesn't sound too weird. It will get them used to the idea, so that when they finally figure it out, it will be too late to say anything openly, and we'll have kept up a modicum of appearance." Temari gave him a Look. "Of course, for appearance's sake, we had to put you two in separate rooms. You and my brother will respect this arrangement for the time being."

Since this was Temari, she didn't add a 'hope you don't mind', or 'play along please'. She really didn't have to.

Lee scrubbed the back of his neck, trying to fit this turn of events into his head. Sure, they'd talked about this before, the four of them; the subject had come up only a few days ago, while they were on their way back from Stone Country with the forces from Sunagakure. It hadn't been a very long discussion at all. Temari had seemed to think it was obvious that after Sound's defeat, the two young men would move in together eventually. Kankuro had whispered that she was compensating for something. Lee hadn't understood, and Kankuro had shut up when Temari had glanced his way. Lee had been a bit dazed at the suggestion, but he'd been fine with it, since he'd assumed that 'eventually' would be in a few months, not two days after they got back.

At the time, Gaara had simply said 'fine', adding that he was tired of creeping around to have sex, and that was when Temari had quickly changed the subject and it hadn't been brought up since.

Lee didn't mind this happening now, once the shock had abated somewhat, but he was glad the siblings were putting him in this room. A guest room, he supposed, though it was bigger and better appointed than Gaara's was, in a wing a bit off from the reception room, up a small flight of elegant wooden stairs. Temari seemed to think that the two lovers would be yearning to share a bed right off the bat. Lee thought of the nights of the full moon, of Gaara's sleepless habits, of the darkness that could still lurk, savage and dangerous, beneath his control at times. No, it was probably good they had their separate territories to start with. One day, they could actually move in together and live as a couple, but this was a fine compromise for now. They had the time...their whole future, if their luck and their youthful determination stayed true. The thought made Lee a bit dizzy, as it had every time it had occurred to him since that trip back from Konoha over two months ago.

"This okay, man?" Kankuro asked, looking up at Lee. His tone said very clearly: 'I thought we should ask you first, but my sister put me up to this. Still, with two of us standing up to her...'

"Oh yes. Well no! You two should have waited for me and let me help! You did all the work!" Lee exclaimed, turning around and reaching for a crate.

The reaction was immediate.

"Put that down at once!" Temari growled right in his ear. "Are you insane? Do you have a thing for pain? Don't use that arm!"

Lee dropped the crate at once, heart thumping. When had Temari mastered the Instant Transport Jutsu? He could have sworn she was across the room near the dresser, fussing over a stain in one of his green outfits. He turned towards her with what he hoped was a conciliating smile rather than a flinch when he caught the deadly gleam in her eyes.

"The arm is fine, Temari."

"The arm is broken, Lee."

"Only a little bit. It's a lot better now, the medi-nin have encouraged bone growth in the break, and-"

He'd illustrated his point by waving his cast around in a wide gesture. Temari's glare informed him that if he ever did that kind of movement around her again, she'd put his entire body in a splint until the bone was completely mended. Lee carefully slipped the arm back into its sling again, trying to act as if he used the support all the time, when in fact he'd been doing without it most of the day. He'd actually been hoisting weights with that hand during his training earlier, trying to strengthen the biceps without using the forearm too much, but if Temari ever found that out, she'd quadruple the size of his leg weights and pin him to the ground.

"That's why we didn’t wait for you," Temari told him, still bristling. "We didn't want you aggravating your injury, so we helped you move in."

"What she means is, I moved you in and she told me where to put stuff," Kankuro commented from under the desk as he plugged in the lamp. Lee was actually glad to hear this; Temari had also been injured during the attack on Sound, a blow to the side which made it painful for her to lift her left arm or bend. It would have been really unchivalrous for Lee to have let her do all the work in those conditions, although it wasn't as if she'd left him much of a choice.

Temari seemed to misinterpret Lee's dubious look. "Don't worry, Kankuro can move everything around again if the order I put them in isn't to your liking."

There was a muffled "Oy" from beneath the desk.

"Are you sure?" Lee asked, staring dubiously at his cactus plant which had found a new home on a display case meant for a delicate bonsai.

"Of course, it's absolutely no problem. Kankuro, get out here. Is it the dresser? I though it would look nicer near the window, but we can move it-"

There was a muffled thud from under the desk and Kankuro emerged, rubbing his head. "Now wait just a min-"

"No, no, it's fine as it is!" Lee said hastily. "What I meant is-....are you sure Suna is ready? For this?"

Understanding lit Temari's eyes. "Now's the time to do it. At this point we can still pretend that you two are just friends, and people will have a hard time questioning this arrangement openly, even if those damn rumours continue to spread."

"Gimme a break, half the village knows already," Kankuro sniffed, back under the desk and plugging in the cord from Lee's electric tea-kettle.

"What?!" Lee squawked.

Kankuro crawled back out, dusted off his knees and stood up, giving Lee a twisted smirk.

"Sorry, buddy, it's no longer a secret. Between the rumours, our spontaneous trip to Konoha a couple months back and everything- though I gotta say, what topped it off was the snakes."

"What snakes?" Lee croaked, half of his horrified mind going over the looks he'd been getting from the Shinobi he'd met recently, which he'd supposed up until now to be looks of sympathy for his injuries. Oh dear, he'd even told Izakaya-san, his neighbour, to not worry about him, that he was in top shape and exercising daily with Gaara. He'd only meant stretching and gentle callisthenics, of course. She'd stared at him and made the strangest face and said 'oh good' before turning around and hurrying off...

"The snake-things that attacked us when we broke into Sound's base," Kankuro explained, oblivious to Lee's stunned expression. "The guys who morphed into those big snakes, after Orochimaru had put the poor bastards through that lab of his. His trump cards. Those ugly sons of a bitch would have done us a lot of damage, if you n' Gaara hadn't taken them out." Kankuro was hauling Lee's weights onto their special reinforced stand with an appreciative heft. "You gotta let me borrow these some day. Anyway, the way you two ploughed through those critters together, attack, defense, one giving ground while the other pounded them like clockwork...all of Unit B was there, and for a Shinobi, it was like watching the pair of you make out."

"Kankuro," Temari growled, shooting her brother a scandalized glare.

"Well it was. Until that one snake-guy did for Lee's arm. Anybody dim enough to have missed the making-out part would have clued in when they saw the look on Gaara's face. Scared even me. A bit. That was one dead snake-guy in the end."

Lee made a strangled noise that was part embarrassment, part distress at the memory. The resistance had been stronger than they'd anticipated. He'd had to open three of his gates, but the enemy seemed to know his moves all too well. They'd waited for the moment when his strength ebbed and Gaara was shielding him to launch a concerted attack on the Kazekage that would get around even the Sand Barrier. Where Lee found the energy to suddenly be between Gaara and danger was beyond him. All he knew was that the next moment, he was slammed against a wall, his arm was broken, and there was a look on Gaara's face. The rest...well, that had indeed been one very dead snake-guy. Orochimaru's seals and forbidden jutsus had not only turned his men into monsters, it had given them an extremely advanced healing ability, but that could not compensate for being, well, 'shredded' would be an adequate word...

He hadn't actually thought of what might have been revealed by the chakra screaming through the air in lethal rage, protecting him in plain view of all those Sand Shinobi dealing with the more conventional Sound troops around them.

"Do you think they mind?" he croaked.

"Some of the guys in my unit were morbidly curious," Kankuro admitted carelessly. "I didn’t actually confirm it for them, but I didn't really need to. They seemed okay with it for the most."

For the most. Great. Lee had the feeling he was going to be ruminating over that 'most' and who it might exclude for the next few restless nights.

Then Temari stepped in front of him with her hands on her hips and a stern look on her face.

"Lee, you are going to meet with some hostility. I think that's inevitable. You're mature enough to not let any provocation get to you," she said in a grim voice that was more an order than a compliment on his level-headedness. "And they'll get used to the idea. It's not like we're giving them a choice, because-"

Temari broke off, reached past Lee to pick up the last of his uniforms and marched over to the cupboard.

"If anybody gives you more trouble than you think you can handle," she said with her back turned, "you just inform me. Kankuro and I will help you deal with the matter. We think you and my brother make a good team, and we won't let anybody mess with that out of some stupid left-over rivalry between our villages or for some imagined slight to Gaara."

It had been said with her head firmly in the dresser, so he couldn’t see her face, but it still made Lee feel a bit better about the whole of Sunagaruke knowing about his love-life, or on the verge of finding out.

"You shouldn't get any grief from my guys." Kankuro grabbed another crate and made a face as he discovered it was underwear. "You're putting this away yourself, man."

"Of course."

"I'll just carry it over here, you can stow them away in the drawer."

"Thanks." It wasn't the placing of the crate of underwear he was talking about. But Sand Shinobi didn't like to discuss emotional topics, so Lee let it drop. One day, he would find a way to thank them for their support.

 

---

 

Lee wandered into the kitchen, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that, in a way, it was now his kitchen too. Their kitchen. What a revolutionary concept...Everything looked different, somehow, and Lee felt like an intruder, something that had never even occurred to him when he was just over here having lunch with his boyfriend.

Lee had all the materials out for a sandwich before realizing that, despite the cumbersome feeling of being a stranger here, he already knew where everything was, and was making plans for filling up their fridge which was starting to look a bit empty.

He started putting together a sizeable snack. He'd not eaten since lunchtime, apart from ration bars, and it was almost midnight now. The siblings had left, with most of his belongings put away. The room still looked chaotic, but Lee would have the opportunity to tidy up in the coming days.

Lee hesitated, glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall, and then stared thoughtfully at the tidy pile of sandwiches. He nodded firmly to himself and assembled some more slices, with different ingredients and a lot less wasabi and radish.

A few minutes later he landed in the courtyard of the administration compound. He trotted up to the guards, gave them his usual salute-

- and remembered that if Kankuro was correct, they probably knew.

The guards were giving him strange looks. But that might have been because he'd gone a strong crimson colour and had nearly tripped over his own feet, and was now balancing the stack of sandwiches on a plate like a juggling act.

"You okay there, Lee-san?" one of them asked dryly.

"Y-yes! Of course! Never better!"

The guard gave him a steady look, and then went back to scrutinizing the night around them. "He's in his office," was all he said.

"Thank you," Lee croaked and hurried on, trying to shake the feeling he had the words 'Sleeping with your boss' emblazoned across his green uniform.

Five minutes later he knocked on the door to Gaara's office, relieved he hadn't encountered anybody else.

"Come in."

Lee opened the door and poked his head and the plate of sandwiches in. "I brought something to eat. Are you hungry?"

Gaara put down the paper he'd been reading, leaned back in his chair and stretched. There'd been a slight nod somewhere in there too. Lee went to put the plate down on the desk and pull up a chair.

"The ones on the left aren't too strong," he said as Gaara reached for a sandwich.

The Kazekage selected one from the left pile and bit into it. He looked tired, Lee judged. He knew the Kazekage had not slept since their return from Sound. There were a lot of details to take care of: injured forces to tally, missions to reassign, diplomatic fallout to manage. Names to carve into the smooth sandstone wall near the village's central well, Suna's version of the memorial stone. Their losses had been light really, considering what they'd been up against. But Gaara would rather have had no casualties, a sentiment Lee shared.

Lee, who had been merely injured - a trifle, whatever Temari said - had made it his duty to try to cheer up his boyfriend, keep him distracted and get him to eat regularly and take as much good, healing exercise as possible. And sleep, too, eventually. Maybe he could find a way of coaxing Gaara out of the office and back home to take a nap, if the Kazekage didn't have too much work on his plate.

"Is that anything I can help you with?" Lee asked hopefully, nodding at the paper Gaara had put down. Gaara shook his head.

"Oh." From the quality of his lover's silence, Lee had the feeling Gaara was planning another sleepless night, whatever Lee said about it. "Well...do you want me to go? If you need to work-"

"I need a break," Gaara said softly. "Stay."

"Okay," Lee agreed readily enough. He grabbed one of his own sandwiches and took a bite. The wasabi stung and made his eyes water, but Lee was too distracted to truly appreciate it as he suddenly realized how naturally he'd thought of the Kazekage's residence as 'home' earlier. Their home...

He swallowed the bite and gave his lover a sharp look.

"Did you know your siblings moved us in together?"

"Yes."

"They did it without letting me help," Lee grumbled.

"Good."

"Hmf."

The silence that fell while they ate was companionable. Lee glanced at Gaara discreetly and felt better about the whole move thing. Not that moving in with the man he loved bothered him at all, but he was worried about other people's reactions. Ibiki's warning kept coming back to him. He wasn't concerned on his own account, but if Gaara's choice did something to damage his political influence or his reputation in Suna-...no, that just didn't bear thinking about.

It wouldn't happen! Lee would never accept being a liability to Gaara, and now that they'd done it, that they'd taken that step into the future together (or rather, been shoved forward by Gaara's sister), now Lee was even more determined! He would prove himself, he would show all of Suna that he was worthy of their Kazekage, nobody would be able to say that he was bringing Gaara down-

"Lee."

Lee blinked. Gaara nodded fractionally at Lee's hand. The Jounin followed the direction of Gaara's gaze, and realized that his fingers had clenched into a Fist of Resolution. Which was a pity for the sandwich he'd been holding.

"Oops."

Gaara wordlessly handed him a napkin. Lee could feel his boyfriend's gaze on him as he cleaned up the squashed bread and fillings as best he could with the other hand that was in plaster up to the palm.

"Don't worry," the Jounin said firmly, continuing his mental conversation aloud. "There's nothing to worry about. They'll all be fine with it. Um, you're not worried about Suna's reaction to my moving in with you. Are you?"

Gaara seemed faintly surprised at the question. "No."

"Good! Good. Er, why not?"

The Kazekage shrugged, picking up another sandwich. "We've been together for nearly four months now, and I haven't harmed you, or cracked and unleashed Shukaku or anything drastic. What would they have to worry about?"

Lee rolled his eyes. "That you've gotten together with someone from another village? That I might spy on you? That I might- might use my influence to- to-"

"Anybody who knows you will realize you are incapable of something like that," Gaara interrupted calmly. "Over the time you've spent here, my people have come to respect you. They'll understand that neither of us will compromise ourselves or our villages over our relationship, and neither of us would ask the other to do so. If they don't understand this, then they'll learn."

That had slightly ominous undertones...

"You sure?" Lee asked a bit dubiously.

"Considering how many people complained when they learned you were no longer the Envoy from Konoha, I'd say that your position in this village is well established."

They didn’t know that my position involved living with you, hopefully until we're old and grey, Lee felt like pointing out. Then he remembered that if Kankuro was right, many of them did, in fact, know. "Oh."

"Several high-level Jounin have told me they'd prefer to continue working with you, when they learned you'd still be posted here," Gaara added. "You'll be doing a lot of the work, as well as regular Konoha missions."

Lee wondered if Tsunade-sama had known about the attitude of the senior Sand Jounin when she'd discussed sending her new Envoy to Suna. Maybe that was why she'd changed the post of Liaison, making it largely diplomatic in nature now. The new Envoy would only live in Suna for a month in every four unless duty required him to make the trip; Lee was expected to be his factotum, and do some of the actual work, even if his security clearance no longer covered information on high-level diplomacy or involve him in any serious decision process. Lee didn't mind, as long as he was still useful. He would be glad to have a friend from Konoha around too, though he was just as glad, for the sake of that friend, that the latter wouldn't be living in Suna permanently; his teammates would miss him.

Lee had nearly polished off his sandwiches, and was thinking of going to get some tea and fruit from the kitchens, when he heard noises from outside the building. The sound of running feet. Gaara turned his head towards the window. The lone runner screeched to an audible halt in the courtyard below the window.

"Hi guys! This the admin compound?"

Gaara's office was several stories up, but the window was open to the night breeze, and that voice was loud, cheerful and bright. And also familiar.

There was a small silence from outside. Gaara glanced at the clock on his desk and shook his head in faint exasperation.

"Who are you?" the guard finally asked, more quietly than the first speaker but Lee's ears were pricked now.

The first voice was back, as clear and flamboyant as a trumpet. "I'm the new Envoy from Konoha! Uzumaki Naruto! Uzumaki's the name, diplomacy's the game, ha-ha. Say, is your boss around? I have letters for him. My first inter-village cooperation mission. Bring him letters. Well, those letters are brought. B-rank mission. I think Granny Tsunade should have made it A-rank. There are a lot of Sound guys who managed to get out of Stone Country and are forming up bands of outlaws on the borders. I didn't see any - lucky for them - but I might have. I might have had to fight my way through twenty of them. Thirty. Is Gaara around?"

"...We weren't expecting you until tomorrow. Sir."

"Oh? Yeah, I heard that Fuzzy-brow and Gaara made it from Suna to Konoha in about two and a half days, and Fuzzy-brows can make it in two if he pushes himself. Anything those two can do, I can damn well do too. Made it in two days and, um, seven hours, I think. Left at five on Monday...it's what, midnight now...? Um, yep, seven hours! How's that?!"

Gaara and Lee were at the window by now, side by side as they looked down into the courtyard. The entrance was off to their left and in a different wing, so they could see the sentries on the steps but only the back of the new Envoy. Lee recognized the guard who'd spoken as the one who'd been on duty that night when he'd arrived in Suna nearly two years ago. The Sand Chuunin was examining the Konoha Shinobi before him, dressed in the orange jacket that was almost as loud as he was. The guard's expression, as he turned to nod at one of his colleagues, was that of a man who's already seen it all.

"We'll send someone to warn Captain Sanada, sir. I'll show you to your office. And then you can go give the Kazekage those letters. He'll be at his desk. Lee-san should be there as well, if you need to touch base with him."

"Cool!"

"Unless you're tired?" the guard added as if remembering a useless formality.

"Me? Tired? Nah!"

Lee thought Naruto stumbled up the steps more than he climbed them, but he was straight as an arrow again when the guard glanced back.

"You know, I still don't understand why Tsunade-sama chose Naruto-kun," Lee reflected, glancing at Gaara. "If this is going to be a mostly diplomatic position now, wouldn't someone a bit more...um, older and more..." Lee was trying to find a way of saying 'respectable' without actually saying it. He admired Naruto greatly, and he was proud to count him as a friend, but Naruto was...not exactly politician material. Though that Uzumaki's the name, diplomacy's the game motto sure was catchy; Lee wished he'd thought of that one.

"This is part of the price we're paying to keep you here," Gaara said dryly. "Tsunade is apparently serious about grooming Naruto to succeed her as Hokage one day. We all know he has the guts, the strength and the spirit, but he needs polishing. She wants him to learn to deal with courtiers and diplomats, and she'd rather not have to teach him herself. So this is another favour I agreed to do for her."

"Oh, I see. Well, I'll help you! We'll make him the- the finest diplomat ever!"

"No, Lee, you won't be helping me-"

"Don't say it!" Lee exclaimed, rounding on his boyfriend and hefting a Righteous Finger. "We agreed! Maybe you had to hammer out that deal with Tsunade-sama, but I will help you pay it! We're in this together!"

"Yes, we are," Gaara said softly, and Lee promptly forgot his speech, his Pose and even what he'd been arguing about. All his life...it felt as if all his life, he'd been waiting for someone to say those words to him in just that way...

Then Gaara shook his head. "That was not what I meant. You won't be helping me, because we're to let Temari teach him. My task...our task is to make sure he listens, and take him to the Daimyo’s court and put him in situations where he can practice. In fact, Tsunade told me I was under no account to infect him with our brand of diplomatic relations."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

The corner of Gaara's mouth twitched, but he didn't answer as he turned back towards the desk.

There were some noises down the hallway. Naruto was going to be sharing Lee's office - well, officially it was Naruto's office now, but Lee would be working in it most days anyway. There was more than enough room for the two of them, and Lee felt sure Naruto would want to use his training equipment as well. The Leaf Shinobi seemed to be commenting about something in a loud voice that echoed through the empty corridors. Occasionally Lee heard a softer voice which sounded like Sanada's. Lee couldn't make out the words, but the tones were those of politeness, respect and extremely well-practiced patience.

"Lee."

"Hm?"

Gaara was leaning against the back of his chair, looking down at his desk.

"We're going to need more sandwiches. A lot more."

Lee nodded seriously, then slipped the uninjured arm around Gaara's waist and gave him a one-armed hug. "You cut up the meat and fixings, and I can assemble them with my good hand."

"Done."