Actions

Work Header

Warmth

Chapter Text

Lee woke up with a start, which wasn’t something that happened much unless he was being attacked. At first it didn’t occur to him why this had happened, as he was still in his bed at the inn, all was quiet, and he wasn’t picking up on any malicious energy. It took him almost a minute to realise why he’d stirred from such a peaceful sleep, which was embarrassing enough considering he was a shinobi. It was especially so considering the disturbance was actually Gaara, who’d apparently decided that the inn’s master suite wasn’t adequate and was now burrowing himself under the covers against Lee’s back.

“Gaara?” Lee croaked, blinking into the darkness.

“Go back to sleep,” Gaara muttered. How the hell had he crept in so silently without waking Lee up? That was worrying.

“But… why are you in my bed?” A quick glance up at the window told him it was the dead of night.

There was a moment of silence. “I can’t sleep,” Gaara replied slowly, as if he was trying to placate a child.

Lee blinked a few times while he let this sink in. Something about it didn’t make sense. “But… you hardly ever sleep,” Lee mumbled, his eyes falling shut again.

Gaara sighed, his breath tickling the back of Lee’s neck and making him shiver. “Fine… well, if you must know, I can’t get any work done in this place.”

“Why not?

His lover was silent for another moment. “S’too cold,” he murmured.

“Huh?”

“I said, it’s too cold,” Gaara whispered.

Lee felt a smile pull at his lips. He rolled over and felt around in the darkness for his lover’s form. When he found it, his smile turned into a quiet giggle as he realised that Gaara was wearing his coat over his linen undergarments.

“Hn… I guess this is where I should feel vindicated for all those times I complained about the heat in Suna, and you told me I needed get used to it,” he muttered, trying not to laugh.

Gaara scowled.

Lee chuckled and pulled his lover closer. He wrapped his arm around his waist and eased Gaara’s head into the crook of his neck until his chin was resting against the kanji burnt onto his forehead. Gaara nestled closer to him, bending his legs to slot them between Lee’s and letting out a sigh.

“Better?” Lee asked softly, arranging the blanket so it came right up to Gaara’s jaw.

Gaara nodded fractionally.

It was silent for a few minutes and Lee allowed himself to bask in them, enjoying them fully. He had to admit – although Konoha could get pretty cold at this time of year, the winters in Snow Country were really something else. The inn they were staying at en route to the conference wasn’t the most luxurious; in fact, the wooden building was rather shabby and there was an icy draft creeping in here and there. But it was the only one around for miles, so they had taken the opportunity to rest after two days of constant travel through the bleak countryside.

Lee had been professional throughout the mission so far, as he always was, and especially when he was accompanying Gaara. Given that this was a diplomatic mission, Lee’s formality was in overdrive. They’d stayed in separate rooms at Lee’s insistence, even though Gaara had told him that their relationship was obvious to pretty much everyone at this point and he wasn’t going to sleep anyway. In fact, Lee had barely touched his lover since they left the meeting with Hokage-sama in Konoha two days ago, and he was starving for it.

Apparently Gaara was too, because he let out a long, relaxed groan of pleasure soon after Lee threaded his fingers through his hair and began scratching his scalp slowly. It was one of Gaara’s sweet spots – one of Lee’s personal favourites in fact, as it was the first one he’d discovered.

“You know,” Lee whispered, letting his other hand stroke up and down Gaara’s back suggestively. “If you’re that cold, I know another way I can warm you up.”

He felt Gaara furrow his brow against his neck. “Really?” he asked. “That’s unusually bold of you. You realise that my brother and Naruto are asleep in the next room, and that Yuya and Akito are only down the hall?

“We’ll be quiet,” he said softly, smiling against Gaara’s hair, but he didn’t expect his lover to agree.

Gaara didn’t reply. Instead, he tilted his head up and gently caught Lee’s lips with his own. The sound of their kissing sounded loud in comparison to the hushed tones they’d been talking in before and it sent a tremor of excitement through Lee’s body. He brought his hand up to cup Gaara’s face, his movement allowing a chill to rush under the blankets and make them both shiver. He tilted his head to one side, slipped his tongue inside his lover’s mouth, and slowly started to lean over him a little.

Lee felt a hand travel down his side, over his belly, and then Gaara’s fingers began to play at the dark hair leading down to his waistband. His fingernails scratched through it gently, making his muscles quiver, then dipped under the fabric to slide over Lee’s growing erection.

“Hn,” Lee huffed, his fingers tightening in Gaara’s hair.

Breaking the kiss, Gaara watched his face in the dim light coming in through the window as he began to rub at Lee’s cock. His fingers travelled lower, cupping his balls and sliding back up again, tracing the sensitive vein with a fingertip. Lee was letting out quiet gasps, his legs melting open wider until he was straddling Gaara’s thigh. He started to thrust into his lover’s hand fractionally and Gaara’s eyes flashed with arousal that shuddered through him, his gaze wondering down Lee’s body and focusing on the way his hips were moving.

Something was stirring deep inside his lover and Lee felt his body began to react accordingly. Gaara kept stroking Lee’s cock slowly, letting his fingers tease the sensitive tip, moaning softly at the hiss of pleasure Lee released. Lee pushed their faces closer together as Gaara began to pant. His hand started to pull and stroke at him a little harder, aided by the small amount of slickness that had gathered at the tip.

Lee gasped and made an odd sort of choking noise, and then he abruptly shifted until he was leaning back enough to get to the fastenings on Gaara’s coat. He pulled at them impatiently and Gaara paused in what he was doing to help. He pulled it off his body and threw it off the side of the bed, then pulled off his linen shirt and pants while Lee undressed himself fully. He settled between Gaara’s legs and let his warm hands travel down the smooth skin of his chest, sides and belly, before finally reaching the deep red-brown curls at the base of his half-hard cock.

Gaara once said that it jarred him slightly to feel how rough the skin of Lee’s hands actually was; he was used to his touches being accompanied by the bandages. There were dips and scars all over them—Lee’s knuckles were extremely calloused and often scabbed or bruised, and there was a large, bumpy area of scar tissue across his right hand where he’d broken it on a mission a few years ago. Gaara had also said he didn’t like all the reasons they were there—he thought his boyfriend pushed himself too hard unnecessarily, and the thought of someone hurting Lee filled Gaara with a rage that almost obliterated his consciousness… But nonetheless, they were a part of him, and Gaara couldn’t imagine him any other way.

Gaara’s eyes flicked down to what Lee’s hands were doing. They were currently wrapped around his shaft tightly, pulling on his erection slowly and firmly. Lee felt himself twitch as Gaara arched his back and whined, a shudder wracking his body.

“Focus,” Lee whispered, with a smirk that Gaara could just make out. Lee could always tell when his boyfriend’s mind was going to strange and often dark places.

Gaara blinked and nodded, and shifted a little on the mattress, lying back fully with his head on the pillow and looking down his body at his boyfriend. Lee smirked as Gaara’s eyes widened slightly when he bent his head down to lick and nip at his abdomen, kissing his navel playfully. His mouth travelled down his quivering muscles and over the jut of each hipbone. He paused to kiss the little beauty spot just above the left one… he had a fixation with that particular mark that Gaara didn’t really understand. Then his dark head moved lower and Gaara’s hips jerked involuntarily.

Lee’s lips caressed the sensitive head of his cock gently, just barely touching him, the pleasure almost ticklish. Gaara shuddered violently.

“Huh—nn,” he gasped, and gripped Lee’s shoulder while the other fisted in the bed sheet.

It was hard to see in the semi-darkness, but they just about caught each other’s gaze as Lee flicked his eyes up. Gaara bit his lip and panted through his nose, trying to keep himself from moaning as Lee wrapped his lips fully around him and gently sucked.

He flailed a bit, arching his back and spreading his bent legs a little wider as Lee increased the pace. Lee kept his movements slow though, careful not to over stimulate his boyfriend—he’d found that this was easily done with Gaara. His thumb and forefinger held his shaft still at the base while he sucked and his other hand moved lower. His free hand slid below his boyfriend’s ass slowly, cupping the curve of his body and squeezing gently. Then, slowly, he brought his thumb down to rub over his lover’s entrance.

“Lee—”

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “I know.”

He pulled away momentarily to reach over the side of the bed for his backpack. He rummaged around in the side pocket for a few seconds until he found what he was looking for. It was a medicinal gel he’d been using for a very itchy patch of sunburn he’d sustained while training in the desert a week ago. It was a natural remedy that was widely used in Suna, so Lee felt confident it wouldn’t irritate either of them.

Gaara watched him, hawk-like, as he rubbed a generous amount between his fingers, trying to warm it up before he brought one hand down to his boyfriend’s entrance. He rubbed one finger against him slowly but firmly, and gently pressed inside. He was panting. Gaara lifted one leg and bent it at the knee as he watched Lee’s face curiously. It always seemed to interest him to see Lee become wildly aroused yet so intensely precise and careful in his movements at the same time. Lee had surmised that his control was down to his proficiency in Taijutsu, but…

“More,” Gaara muttered. “It doesn’t hurt.”

Lee’s eyes flicked up to meet his and he nodded. He pressed his ring finger against him along with his middle and pushed. Gaara shivered at the stretch, and then sighed as his body relaxed and adjusted. He panted softly as Lee slowly worked him open, letting out a stifled whimper as Lee gently caressed the head of his cock, then added another finger and parted them.

Finally, Lee pulled away. There was the sound of some shuffling as his boyfriend got to his knees, then a slick noise as he rubbed the rest of the ointment over his erection. A few moments passed and then Gaara felt him press against his entrance gently. Their bodies were lit by just a dim light from the lantern outside, which was bathing the room in a bluish glow. It highlighted the outline of Gaara’s jaw and cheekbone, the flex and curve of his muscles, the flicker of Lee’s thick eyelashes as he looked between their bodies and guided himself to the mark.

“Ah,” Gaara gasped, lifting his hips a little and reaching for his boyfriend’s wrist where he was gripping his hip.

Lee let out a quiet hiss of his own as he sank in fully. Goosebumps appeared on his skin where Gaara was touching him, and then a shudder wracked his body. Gaara sighed and let his head fall back onto the pillow, closing his eyes and trying to adjust to the feeling of being filled.

He lifted one leg up a little as Lee bent over his body to kiss him, panting through his nose. Then he wrapped his arms around Lee’s neck, rolled his hips up and let out the most delectable groan. Gaara’s cock twitched against his muscled abdomen and Lee shuddered.

“Lee,” Gaara breathed desperately.

Lee had drawn his hips back, their faces still pressed together, and then nudged back in again. He began to move slowly, gasping, his body tight as he fought not to move too fast. Gaara shivered and lifted his legs to wrap them around his body, completely encasing him. Lee smiled and closed his eyes. In moments like these, Gaara seemed to want to pull Lee so close to him that they merged into one. It made Lee feel like he could melt with love. His heels were digging into his hips a bit and his fingernails were leaving marks in his shoulders. Lee didn’t mind; in fact, he was deeply aroused by Gaara’s marks on his body.

He gradually built up the pace until he was rocking his hips back and forth lightly. He sat up a little and let out a sigh of pleasure, his eyes falling closed as he tilted his head back and felt the pleasure course through him. He shuddered as he felt lips on his throat and he tilted his head back down to catch Gaara’s lips with his own. Lee groaned as Gaara sucked on his tongue, his ears prickling as the bed squeaked and knocked against the wall quietly.

“Lee,” Gaara moaned, louder than Lee expected.

“Shh, shh,” Lee whispered, cradling his boyfriend’s beautiful head in his hands and pressing their faces together.

If Gaara heard him, he paid him no attention. He spread his legs wider and reached down to grip Lee’s ass cheeks firmly. “Harder,” he growled, his eyes alight with something primal.

As always, Lee was helpless to oblige. He arched his back and began to thrust deeper and harder, his eyes fixated on the way Gaara’s eyes rolled back and his face darkened to a pretty scarlet that almost matched his hair. He grimaced and arched his back sharply as he felt him flutter around his cock, a choked sound escaping his lips as a jolt of pleasure wracked his body.

“Gaara—!” he gasped, then bit his lip to hold back the moan that would’ve escaped had they been at home.

“Lee,” Gaara sighed in response, his pliant body laid out on the bed before him like a river.

Lee kissed him with a quiet moan in his throat, shuddering as Gaara’s fingers trailed from his hair, over his shoulders and down his back softly. They broke apart reluctantly and Lee straightened up a little. He braced himself on his arms either side of Gaara’s body on the bed, then began to piston in and out harder than before. He closed his eyes as his boyfriend let out a gasp and a whimper, then opened them again through his furrowed brow to watch him arch his back and writhe. Lee smirked and changed his angle until he was dragging against his sweet spot as much as possible. He trailed one hand from his cheek to his neck and chest, then down his abdomen and closed it around his cock.

“Lee-!” Gaara breathed, and grabbed him by the back of his neck to bring their faces close together. The small space between their open mouths was peppered with their heaving breaths as they stared each other down, but Lee didn’t stop his movements. He thrust deep and hard into his boyfriend’s body, his hand not slowing as he moved.

It took only a few more thrusts before Gaara’s breathing sped up to almost an alarming rate and he arched his back high off the bed. Then, shaking, he went rigid and squeezed his eyes shut as he spilled over his belly. The rattling cry he let out would surely be heard by their neighbours, but Lee could only moan as he watched him come apart, distracted from the need to be quiet but still thrusting, moving himself along with his lover.

Gaara’s body was just beginning to relax when Lee’s own orgasm hit him like a whip. He gasped and groaned as he came, his hips jerking helplessly, his eyes screwed shut.

It took a few moments for them both to recover. They lie panting against the mattress for a few minutes, sweaty and luxuriously spent.

When their breathing had evened out, Gaara began to stroke Lee’s back gently. Lee lifted his head from the crook of his boyfriend’s neck and kissed him gently, cradling his face in his hands. They laid there for a few minutes until Gaara shifted and Lee rolled onto his back. He pulled Gaara with him to gather him against his chest, but Gaara stopped him.

“No,” he whispered. “You need to sleep.”

Lee frowned. “Can’t you stay here?”

“I’m not going to sleep.”

“I know, but… can’t you lie here with me..? At least until I fall asleep,” Lee murmured.

Gaara regarded him thoughtfully. “Are you sure? I thought it was ‘unprofessional’, as you put it, for us to share a room on a mission?”

Lee looked a bit sheepish. “Well… You’re already here,” he mumbled.

A small smirk twisted Gaara’s lips, but his eyes were still soft and misty from the intimacy they had just shared. Lee really didn’t want him to leave… “Alright,” he whispered. He pulled a tissue from the box on the small table beside the bed and cleaned them both up as well as he could, then settled back down against Lee’s chest. Lee wrapped his arms around his boyfriend protectively and sighed.

“Do you feel warmer now?” he asked, opening one eye and smiling.

Gaara pinched him gently. “Go to sleep.”

Lee grinned.

*

Lee yawned as he stretched his arms above his head. His back gave a satisfying crunch. The weather in Snow Country was bitter, but it made for a unique challenge to test his stamina against. He’d run seventy laps around the inn before he even heard the others begin to stir, and his cheeks were now thoroughly reddened from the cold.

He slipped off his shoes by the door and then slid it open. He stepped into the dining quarters to the sound of Kankuro and Naruto bickering. It was a normal occurrence, although Lee had been concerned when Naruto first joined them in Konoha that the two men would actually come to blows. Since spending a few days in their company however, he’d quickly realised that their quarrels were rather light hearted, almost brotherly. Gaara was not perturbed enough by it to say anything, so Lee had decided not to give it much thought.

“I swear if I have to share a room with you again I’m going to ask for a pay rise. Your farts are an occupational hazard,” Kankuro grumbled.

Naruto snickered into his teacup. “That’s just the price you pay for the honour of having Uzumaki Naruto escorting your brother to his fancy conference.”

“Oi, its Kazekage-sama to you, Uzumaki,” said a voice from the door. Akito was one of two Sand Jounin who were accompanying Gaara on this trip along with Kankuro. He was a little shorter than Lee and rather stiff and formal in his manner. In fact it was a little off-putting, but Lee was never one to judge someone so easily. Besides, he was deeply loyal to Gaara in a way that made Lee keen to befriend him.

Naruto was about to reply with another crass remark when Lee stepped fully into the room. Then he gave a rather lurid smile and Lee’s eyes widened, knowing what he was going to say before he even said it. “Oh, good morning, stud,” he teased, sniggering. “Where is he? Walking it off? Or is he still in your bed, waiting for round two?”

“Naruto,” Kankuro growled, and elbowed him in the ribs. “That is my kid brother you’re talking about.”

“Well I wasn’t the one screwing him so hard last night the bed was hitting against the wall,” Naruto shot back. “By the way, Bushy-brows, not cool. I can sleep through a lot for a Shinobi, but even I woke up when I heard that racket.”

Lee scratched the back of his head and then glanced at his friend sheepishly. His face was so red it was almost purple when he sat down to eat, and it wasn’t just because of the cold now. The innkeeper’s elderly wife had been around with their breakfast already and was off somewhere in the back now. He picked up his chopsticks and poked at his food, trying to ignore the conversation going on around him. If he said nothing, maybe they would drop it…

“I’ll say,” came another voice from the hallway, “I got back to sleep quickly enough but… Jeez, I was this close to banging on the wall. I would’ve if it wasn’t my boss you were screwing.” Yuya, a lean and very pale man, was making his way down the hallway. He was still straightening out his grey top and like the rest of them he had not yet fully equipped his armour or weapons. His grey stringy hair was in disarray, not yet tied back into its usual ponytail. It was still a little dark outside, though they would likely be leaving before long.

 “I’m sorry,” Gaara said gently from behind him. Lee had heard the door open and close behind him and he was aware of Gaara’s presence somewhere nearby, but he still jumped a little when he felt his hand brush his shoulder in passing. “We’ll try to be more discreet next time.”

“Next time?” Naruto laughed.

Yuya shot Lee a teasing smirk, while Akito ate in silence on the other side of the table, his sharp eyes glaring at Naruto. Kankuro’s mouth was a firm line and he looked visibly uncomfortable.

Lee glanced at him and was stunned, as he always was, by his boyfriend’s complete and total lack of embarrassment. If anything he looked... peaceful. Replete, even. Like the open discussion of his sex life was more than bearable if it meant that others were comfortable enough with him to rib him (and by extension, his unwitting boyfriend) for it. Nevertheless, Lee felt some of his own embarrassment dissipate, replaced by warmth in his heart for Gaara’s happiness.

Lee coughed and shifted as Gaara sat down. “I—um, yes. Sorry,” he said stiffly, looking down at his bowl and trying to ignore the burning of his cheeks.

 “I want to leave in the next hour,” Gaara said when they had finished eating. “It’s another two days travel from here, but if we leave soon we should be able to make it by midday tomorrow.”

There were murmurs of assent and a salute from Kankuro as they piled up their dishes. They returned to their rooms to gather the rest of their things, paid the innkeeper for their stay, and then set off.

The conference was some kind of trade meeting between the Kages of Sand and Snow. Lee wasn’t one hundred percent sure of the details exactly, but it involved long and lengthy legal discussions and complicated language that made Lee grateful he wasn’t a politician. He found himself zoning out a few times as they leapt from tree to tree, darting through the sparse woodland of the snowy pass. On the other side of the mountain range was the village, but it would take some time to get through all the winding valleys before them.

Lee could feel them long before he heard the kunai pierce through the air. They leapt out of its vicinity long before the tag exploded, though in real time it was barely a second. The tree the blade had struck gave a creaking groan as it lurched to one side, damaged but still retaining most of its branches. Their enemy was not very high calibre then; Lee knew that exploding tags were deadly whatever their quality, but being on a team with Tenten had made him appreciate the real variation in craftsmanship.

It took him only a moment to realise his tactical error when he saw Gaara now on the other side of the valley. There was a large distance between them, but Yuya and Kankuro were with him, so Lee wasn’t overly concerned. Barely a moment seemed to pass before a trio of men dressed in white and grey filled the space between them. Six on three; two to one—Lee immediately picked off his opponents’ weaknesses and strengths from their size, posture, and the weapons they were using. He would take the one facing them – he was wielding tonfa, a weapon Lee himself was rather fond of. He was also highly aware of its weaknesses, which he made quick work of in the ensuing fight.

Opposite him he saw sand appearing from the gourd, but it didn’t get a chance to strike. Yuya had used his prowess in water release to take them down.

Lee almost sighed. Bandits were always unsatisfying. They rarely had any interesting jutsu and their fighting style was usually intermediary at best. He tried not to let it get him down for the rest of the day, however, and instead focused on the sense of contentment that was emanating from his boyfriend.

Although it wasn’t visible to anyone else, Lee knew Gaara had been feeling somewhat cheerful recently. Their relationship was stable and happy, things were relatively peaceful in the world, and he was well respected and liked by his people. More obvious than that however was the contentment he felt from the small group of friends he had made in the village. He would always have his friends in Konoha of course, and in some ways this was enough for Gaara - but Lee knew how important it was to also have comrades in close proximity. The early days of their relationship had taught Lee that this was also important to Gaara.

Indeed, Yuya and Akito had become rather good friends of Gaara’s, and they were perhaps the fastest friends his boyfriend had ever made. Gaara’s other friends in the village were rather dotted around in different departments and although this didn’t appear to concern him very much, Lee knew his boyfriend was aching for a sense of inclusion. It was a longing Lee was rather familiar with, even though he had found what he was looking for long ago.

As the mountains began to give way to snowy foothills, they started playing a game of what could only be described as ‘ninja tag’. It was something a lot of ninjas did on long treks through the countryside on missions. Up ahead, Naruto was ‘it’ and he was currently pursuing Yuya across a snowy ridge. They darted from little crags peeking out from the snow for a better grip. Yuya leapt from a boulder to a tall, horn-like stone when another Naruto appeared in front of him and almost knocked him off the stony wall.

Naruto’s shadow clone bopped him on the head playfully. “Tag! You’re it.”

“Oi, oi! That’s cheating! No shadow clones allowed,” Yuya yelled, glaring down at the real Naruto who’d leapt from the ridge down onto the snow-blanketed hollow of the pass.

“I never agreed to that!” Naruto said with a laugh.

Yuya gave an annoyed grunt. “You’re goin’ down, Uzumaki,” he sneered. At once they were off again, displacing flurries of snow as they darted across the low, undulating hills before them.

Lee heard a low sound. It sounded like… chuckling? But Gaara was next to him, and he never—oh...

He glanced behind him to see Gaara wearing a small smile on his face and looking at the ground as he walked. Lee felt a smile pull at his own lips, a little twist of elation in his chest.

He fell back to walk in line with him. “Are you… smiling?” he said softly, slipping his hand into his boyfriend’s as they walked.

Gaara squeezed his hand gently and locked their fingers together. He gave Lee a sideways glance, and the corner of his mouth was upturned slightly, his eyes glinting with amusement.

Even though it was freezing cold, Lee felt his heart melt with warmth that radiated down to the tips of his toes. He returned the small smile with a grin of his own and placed a kiss on his boyfriend’s cheek.

“Hey lovebirds, hurry up, will you? The Yukikage won’t be happy to know we were late ‘cause you two were canoodling the whole way here,” Naruto called back.

Lee blushed and pulled away slightly.

“Very well,” Gaara said, and then dashed from Lee’s grip.

Lee grinned as he followed the shadow of his partner darting from rock to rock.

*

They were met at the entrance to the village by a dignitary Gaara seemed familiar with. He was accompanied by a pair of stern-looking shinobi who nodded at them in greeting. Gaara walked ahead of them and they made their way to the main administration building. A couple of hours of official greetings and preliminary meetings later, they were finally shown to their living quarters for the next few nights.

It was a large suite with four bedrooms coming off of a central living room. It was richly decorated with antiques and traditional furnishings – apparently this was the house used for other visiting high-level diplomats.

“Oh man, I didn’t know heating could feel so good,” Kankuro sighed as he fell onto a soft couch with a grey pelt slung over the back.

“You too?” Lee asked, unfastening his kunai pouch from his thigh and placing it on a small sideboard. “Gaara has been bothered by the cold as well.”

Kankuro smirked. “Yeah, he’s not a fan. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was having a hard time with it when we came to that Winter Festival in Konoha last year.”

Lee smiled fondly. “Yeah, I remember. He didn’t even want to leave my room when he came to visit me. I told him it would be lazy to stay in bed all day, but—” he stopped and blushed a little when he realised what he’d said.

“Dude, I really don’t need to know the gory details,” Kankuro said, holding up one of his hands. “But it’s good to know he didn’t disappear off somewhere dangerous.... Temari was close to calling a search party, you know,” he added.

“Really?! I’m sorry, we should’ve told you! I did mention to Gaara that—”

 “Hey, chill out man. I calmed her down. I think she was just on edge because she was going to see Shikamaru that weekend. I know Gaara can handle himself. Besides, I’m glad he got a break from all those meetings. I was starting to worry about that insane workload of his anyway,” he explained, then let out a loud yawn.

Lee nodded and scratched the back of his head as he looked at the floor. That night… had been their first night together. His blush only darkened as he remembered it.

He was snapped out of his thoughts by an odd flicker in the atmosphere. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it wasn’t just him that felt it because Kankuro sat up on the couch.

“Did you feel that too?”  Lee asked.

“Yeah,” Kankuro replied, and stood up. He placed a finger to his lips and walked over to the window. It was dark outside, but the small garden was lit by a few lanterns here and there. “Can’t see anything…”

“Perimeter sweep?” Lee asked, already putting his kunai pouch back on.

“Yeah,” Kankuro replied, his eyes trained on the gardens and the dense forest beyond. “I’ll stay here and keep a look out.”

Lee nodded and slipped out through the sliding door silently. He hopped up onto the roof to look out into the lantern-lit darkness, but he couldn’t see anything. He leapt into the trees and began to circle the grounds of the residence, his eyes quickly adjusting to the darkness and his ears listening out for the slightest disturbance.

The strange bristle in the air had gone, but Lee wasn’t about to assume it was nothing. However, there was no sign of it now, so once Lee had done a thorough search of the surrounding areas without finding anything, he had no choice but to return.

“Nothing,” Lee said as he stepped back inside the house half an hour later. His cheeks were a little red and he shivered.

“Nothing what?” Gaara asked from the dining area. Apparently his meeting hadn’t taken very long.

“There was a weird chakra flare just now, not long before you came home,” Kankuro explained, and settled his puppet scroll back against the wall. “Lee went out to do a perimeter sweep and I kept a lookout, but there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.”

Gaara didn’t reply. He gazed out of the window with a little crease between his eyes, which he often got when he was deep in thought.

Lee walked over to him and placed his hands on his shoulders from behind. There was a lot more tension in his frame than Lee was happy with.

“Hey,” he said softly, rubbing a small circle into his shoulder gently. “You okay?”

“Yes,” Gaara finally said. He was watching his reflection in the darkened glass of the window.

Lee nodded. He trusted Gaara to tell him if something was up, so he decided not to press the issue.

A little while later, Naruto finally returned. He’d been given what had been described as a ‘small dispatch’ to deliver to various Snow Country officials, but was actually a backpack full of scrolls and letters. He stomped into the room, muttering something about being a glorified delivery boy and his wasted potential.

“Goddamn perverted—can you believe Kakashi-sensei would send me on a mission like this?! I thought he would actually send me on some cooler missions once he became Hokage, what with him being my sensei and whatever. But nope, delivery duty. A-gain,” he grumbled, and flopped down into an armchair huffily. “I can’t believe it’s even a B rank.”

 Lee frowned. “Naruto-kun, those messages are probably just as important. Besides, Snow country is a little too far away for it to be a regular C or D rank. We did get attacked by bandits on the way here, after all.”

“Pfft, those guys? They were like swatting flies. They were hardly strong enough to challenge a single one of us on our own!”

Lee couldn’t help but agree with him there.

“It’s getting late,” Gaara said abruptly. “Do you mind if I skip dinner and head straight to bed? The conference starts early tomorrow and I need to sleep.”

Lee blinked. “But Yuya-kun and Akito-kun aren’t back with dinner yet. Aren’t you hungry?”

Gaara shook his head. “No. I had to accept a lot of food in my meetings today. It’s rude not to accept their hospitality.”

“I see,” Lee said softly. “Well, I can join you if you need me to help you get to sleep,” he added quietly, so the others couldn’t hear. They were already bickering about something unimportant anyway.

“It’s okay. I’m really tired. It shouldn’t be too hard for me to drift off tonight.”

“Okay,” Lee replied softly. He was about to move aside for Gaara to walk past him, but instead his face was cupped by a pair of cold, soft hands and then Gaara’s lips were on his. It was only a short, soft kiss, but it made Lee’s whole head feel like it was tingling.

“Goodnight,” he said softly.

“G’night,” Lee mumbled, still a bit taken aback.

“See ya in the morning,” Kankuro called after him.

Lee tried to put the unsettled feeling to the back of his mind, but he still had trouble getting to sleep that night.

Chapter Text


Lee had assumed, based on his previous trips escorting both Gaara and Hokage-sama to diplomatic meetings in the past, that the conference today would likely just be a few hours of discussion, paperwork, pleasantries and other official goings-on. In this instance, Lee was wrong.

Three hours later and he was still standing with his back to the wall, a few feet behind his boyfriend as every single person at the table took turns to discuss why they were there. To his right was Kankuro, who from this proximity looked like he could fall asleep, but from far away would look no different to how he usually did. It was the only time Lee felt envious of his face paint. To his left, Naruto was standing with his back rigid as he kept his arms folded and bounced his knee, his mouth twisted into a frown. Lee looked down at his friend’s leg and smiled in pity. He himself had struggled to keep still for this length of time.

Maybe there was some way to ask Gaara if he could slip out for a quick perimeter sweep? Or wait… no, Yuya and Akito were outside the conference hall keeping watch. Damn. Maybe he could see if they would switch duties..?

…No, he had to stay. He’d promised Gaara he would stay close to him during the rest of the trip. If he didn’t stay here for the rest of the conference, he’d do three-hundred one armed pull-ups! He set his jaw and nodded in determination.

The conference lasted another four hours, but to their relief, they didn’t have to stand around the table the entire time. There was a recess in which Lee was able to head outside to do a few laps of the building. It was good to get his circulation going again and Gaara was on the balcony overlooking the gardens, so he could keep an eye on him each time he passed.

Later on in the afternoon there was a reception. Naruto more or less commandeered the buffet table and Kankuro headed out to keep watch - although Lee suspected that he was just eager to get the hell out of the conference hall for a few minutes, especially if it meant not having to play nice with politicians. Lee sometimes wondered himself how Gaara was able to put up with the level of formality he presented to everyone around him. Then he would remember how little time had passed since he was crushing people with sand almost for the hell of it, and it didn’t seem like it’d be that difficult for Gaara to impress himself upon others after all.

“Oi, I heard there’s a hot spring here,” said a voice from his left. Yuya had taken Kankuro’s place guarding Gaara, and he was a lot more talkative than he was.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You think you could convince Gaara to head over there after this? My feet are killing me from patrolling this place all day,” he added in a whisper.

A long soak in a bath sounded like heaven to Lee, especially since baths were more or less unheard of in Sunagakure, where water use was rigidly limited. Cooling off in the onsen after a particularly gruelling training session or a mission was one of the main things he missed about Konoha. It struck him that Gaara had probably never even visited one, and he was suddenly very eager to take Yuya up on his suggestion.

“Sure,” Lee said with a grin.

They followed Gaara to the other side of the room, watching him as he made conversation with Snow’s politicians and dignitaries. Most of them were as reserved and polite as Lee expected them to be, but one in particular seemed to break with the protocol. He was a brawny man who reminded Lee of the Raikage a bit, but with paler skin and darker hair. He had a deep, booming voice and towered above Gaara by at least two feet.

Lee had yet to be introduced to anyone at the reception, which wasn’t unusual. Political discussions like these were not the arena of shinobi like Lee. Ninja bodyguards were like heavily armed elephants in the room—to be seen, but not acknowledged or heard unless it was necessary.

He watched Gaara’s robe-clad form walk with the imposing man who looked like he’d spent far more time on the battlefield than in conference halls. Lee’s defensive instincts went up a few notches as a result, and he watched his boyfriend carefully for signs of threat. Not long passed before Gaara and his new companion were walking toward them however, and Lee straightened up subconsciously.

“—and these are my bodyguards for this evening. Rock Lee, of Konoha, who is currently posted in Sunagakure on Hokage-sama’s orders, and—” Gaara paused as Lee bowed sharply at the waist, “—Hamadate Yuya, a Jounin of Sand, who is also joining me.”

Lee’s head was still bowed, so he didn’t notice the way Yuya had stiffened beside him. He straightened up slowly as the conversation drifted on. He glanced between the man—Ryutaro-san? Lee was terrible with names—and Yuya, who was looking down at the floor darkly, a lock of his dull grey hair curtaining his face.

“Have we met before?” Ryutaro asked, his eyes searching Yuya’s face.

Yuya didn’t meet his eyes. “I don’t believe so,” he said after a long moment.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his brow furrowed as he looked Yuya up and down. “You look awfully familiar.”

Lee shifted and glanced at Gaara, whose eyes were fixed on Yuya’s face. It was almost alarming how inscrutable he was even to Lee.

But Yuya didn’t flinch. He only looked up at Ryutaro and smiled coldly. “I honestly don’t believe we’ve ever met. I’m glad to have met you now though, Ryutaro-san.”

It was a diplomatic answer that didn’t seem to appease Ryutaro-san at all, but his formality stayed him from making any further comment.

*

It didn’t take very much convincing at all for Gaara to visit the onsen. It was something of a novelty to desert-dwellers, although from the way Kankuro was enjoying himself, you would be forgiven for thinking he’d died and gone to heaven. He was more or less submerged in the far end of the turquoise pool and hadn’t said a word since he got in.

“You want me to-?” Lee asked, picking up a soapy cloth.

“Hm?” Gaara asked, looking at Lee questioningly. His hair was wet and melting down onto his face from where he’d poured water over his head.

Lee smiled at him. He didn’t look anything like he did earlier: fully decked out in his official robe of office and his handsome face partially obscured by the wide brim of his hat, he’d looked every part the intimidating military leader he was. Now, naked save for a towel hanging loosely around his waist and a patch of soap bubbles on his shoulder, he just looked like any other twenty year old shinobi, enjoying an evening at the onsen with his friends.

“Your back. Want me to wash it?” Lee asked, still smiling softly.

Gaara nodded and shifted on his stool until his back was facing Lee. His skin was pale and wet with steam and water. Lee reached out to touch and smiled at the way his rough, scarred hands, complete with bruised knuckles and tan lines, contrasted with the smooth flesh of Gaara’s back.

He jumped a little as he heard Gaara sigh and lean into his touch, then stopped caressing him and began to wash his back as he had intended. His face was slightly pink.

“I wish we could do this at home,” Gaara murmured. “I like the idea of bathing with you all the time.”

Lee smiled. “Well, we still could,” he mumbled.

Gaara leaned back and Lee’s arms instinctively wrapped themselves around his boyfriend’s torso. He shivered when Gaara turned his face toward his and whispered against his neck.

“It’s not quite the same though, is it? We can’t take our time like this…”

“I guess not,” Lee replied, his soapy fingers threading themselves through firm muscles.

Their mouths found each other naturally and Lee sighed as Gaara kissed him languidly, his hands coming down to cover Lee’s. Lee pulled away first though – or rather, jerked away.

“What’s wrong?” Gaara asked, frowning.

Lee’s face was pinker than it was a moment ago. “Um. Maybe… Maybe we should carry this on later..? Somewhere more… private,” he said, shifting uncomfortably.

It was silent for a moment and Gaara blinked a few times. “Did I make you hard?” he asked.

Lee winced. Room volume, as always… it was a good thing they were alone in the wash room, but Lee was still mortified.

“Shh, shh…” he hissed. “I… I think you’re ready to rinse off.”

He gently pressed Gaara away from where he had been leaning against Lee’s chest, and then turned to finish washing himself off.

Gaara didn’t say anything, but he gave Lee a funny look as his boyfriend essentially began to scalp himself with shampoo. 

The onsen itself was built into a mountainside where there was an extensive series of natural hot springs. As expected, they had been given one of the more extravagant suites. It was an elegant room with stone carvings around the large, deep bath, and a beautiful view across the hills surrounding Yukigakure. It felt clammy near the water, and the whole room smelt like winter jasmine and magnolia blossom. It was dusk now and the lanterns were illuminating the village like stars.

“Man, this is doing wonders for that ingrown toenail I had taken out the other week,” Naruto said, somewhat ruining the ambience of the moment.

In retrospect, it would’ve been much more pleasant if Lee had had the forethought to ask Gaara to come here together, just the two of them. It certainly would’ve been romantic, not that Gaara really had much of a mind for romance. Nonetheless, Lee’s overactive imagination was providing a myriad of wistful mental images…

“You have an ingrown toenail and you didn’t think to warn any of us about it before we brought you along to the onsen?” Kankuro groaned. “Every time I think you can’t get any more disgusting, you have to go and prove me wrong.”

“Is it even sanitary to be sharing the same water as you?” Akito asked, glaring across the water at Naruto.

“Hey, did you guys not listen? I had it taken out the other week. It’s not even there anymore!” Naruto lifted his leg out of the water just enough to wiggle his toes. “See! Nothing!”

“Did you really have to bring it up? Let us enjoy this! It’s easy for you when you don’t live in the goddamn desert. We get to have one shower every other day and spending more than twenty minutes in the shower is a finable offence,” Kankuro explained.

“That’s bull,” Naruto muttered.

“It is not! Tell ‘em, Gaara,” Kankuro shot back.

“That’s not quite right,” Gaara replied, his brow creasing.

“Ha!” Naruto said with a mean grin.

“Huh?”

“You can get banned from the communal showers if you consistently take more than fifteen minutes, but I think there’s something like a three-strike rule. A lot of the newer housing blocks have shut-off valves after a certain amount of water has been used anyway,” Gaara explained. “As for older places, well… there’s not much we can do to stop people using as much water as they want as long as they pay for it, but I don’t think many people in Suna have it in them to waste the water. It’s too precious.”

“You have a lot of faith in the villagers, huh?” Yuya drawled from where he was half-slumped at the other end of the bath.

Gaara glanced over at him, and then looked pensive for a moment. “I never really thought of it that way,” he said. “I suppose I just know how I view things, and being around people from other villages has made me realise that I’m—how should I put it?—I’m very…Suna… in my ways. I know that sounds odd. I just know that in certain situations, I can rely on my own perceptions when I’m judging theirs, is all.”

“Gaara of the Desert, man of the people,” Yuya said, and then chuckled. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

Gaara stared at him for a moment. Then he smirked.

There was a short period of relaxed silence, which was punctuated only by lazy plumes of steam floating up into the night sky.

“Hey, do you think we could see into the women’s baths from here?” Naruto chirped.

Lee frowned, his brow furrowing in annoyance. “Naruto-kun… Do you really have to do this every time?” he sighed, and lifted his head up from the stone he’d leaned against.

“Look Bushy-brows, you might be batting for the other team now, but I’m still as hot for the ladies as I’ve ever been. Besides, Jiraiya-sensei always said that hot springs made girls a little looser, or—was it madder..? Anyway, the point is, we have a perfect chance here to catch a peek at what Snow Country women are like under all those layers!” Naruto explained lecherously, wading out into the middle of the pool and toward the ledge overlooking the mountains. He had a perverse grin on his face that his sensei would be proud of.

“What, like they’re going to have three boobs instead of two?” Yuya deadpanned, examining his nails. “I don’t know why you’re so keen to play peeping tom. You see one naked girl, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

“Yeah, because I like looking at them to compare and contrast, dude,” Naruto sneered. “Damn, what a buzz kill. You’re worse than Gaara.”

“Perhaps Kazekage-sama has a greater sense of propriety that stays him from prying on unsuspecting women while they are bathing,” Akito snapped, glaring at Naruto harshly.

“Pfft.” Naruto waded over to Kankuro and elbowed him playfully. “Hey, how ‘bout it, Kankuro? I bet they won’t even mind if the Kazekage’s brother is peeking at them! Come oon… I know you want to!”

The only response he received was a vague waving motion of Kankuro’s hand as he lay with his head resting on the stone behind him, a damp cloth over his face.

Naruto groaned in annoyance.

“Naruto-kun,” Lee sighed. “Why can’t you just enjoy the water and relax? We’re going home tomorrow. It’s a long journey back.”

Naruto sighed and flopped back into the water, then gradually sank down until just his hair and eyes were visible above the surface.

Gaara’s lips twisted into a small smile.

*

“Whew!” Lee sighed as he flopped down onto the bed. “That really hit the spot!”

Gaara smiled as he undressed and hung his clothes up by the door. Even though they had just spent several hours in the onsen, naked, Lee was still very appreciative of the view this afforded. He was even more appreciative when Gaara turned around and walked towards the bed. He settled down beside Lee and draped himself half across him, tangled their legs together and buried his face in Lee’s neck.

Automatically, Lee’s hands found their way into Gaara’s hair and his waist, where he gently stroked his bare skin in the way he’d wanted to earlier. It wasn’t long before they were kissing again. Lee groaned as Gaara climbed on top of him fully and slotted himself between his legs, where kissing turned into slow, gentle lovemaking.

Afterward, Lee rested his head on Gaara’s chest and closed his eyes. He would’ve drifted off to sleep quite easily like that, had Gaara not spoken up.

“Do you think I’m a bad person?” he asked, his voice barely above a murmur.

“What?” Lee asked, trying to sound more awake.

Gaara was quiet for a moment. “Do you think I’m a bad person?”

“No, of course not,” Lee replied, tilting his head up to face his lover and then closing his eyes. “Where did that come from?”

Gaara’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling, and he didn’t speak for several long minutes while he chose his words. “Sometimes I wonder how I can even call myself a good person after all the awful things I did when I was younger. If I can ever really be a good person, after I caused so much pain. It’s hard to—Lee?”

He glanced down at his boyfriend, and then smirked slowly. He had fallen asleep in Gaara’s arms, his cheek pressed against his pectoral muscle.

Gaara smiled and stroked his hair.

*

Something nudged Lee in the shoulder hard. Then, a few seconds later, it happened again.

“Nnh… what? Ga—Kankuro? What are you—” Lee grumbled, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his palm and turning to face him fully.

He was silenced by a palm covering his mouth. Lee glanced around momentarily, looking for Gaara. He wasn’t there. He was probably working, or perhaps out for one of the midnight walks he sometimes took.

Kankuro pressed the index finger of his other hand to his lips silently and motioned for Lee to follow, before he hopped up onto the windowsill of the room and out into the night.

Lee got dressed quickly and followed. He closed the sliding pane of the window behind him silently and joined Kankuro up on the roof, still tired but much more alert now. “What’s up?” he asked quietly.

Kankuro wasn’t wearing his face paint, which told Lee that he had not long been awake either. But clearly there was something amiss, because he wouldn’t wake Lee up at this time for nothing.

“Yuya’s gone,” he said simply.

“Gone?” Lee asked. “Gone where?”

“I don’t know. But I intend to find out. I checked Naruto’s room and Akito’s not there either, but I couldn’t get Naruto to wake up,” he explained.

“Shouldn’t we take him to the hospital?” he asked, alarmed. “He could have been poisoned at the conference!”

“Lee, I don’t think he was poisoned—definitely not at the conference, anyway. More like at dinner.”

“Huh..?” Lee asked.

Kankuro gave him a long, hard look. He seemed to be waiting for him.

“Kankuro-kun, you’re worrying me. What’s going on? Where’s Gaara? Whe—”

Kankuro sighed and rubbed his face. It was weird seeing him without his face paint. There was such a resemblance between him and Gaara. “I really hate this job sometimes... Look, Lee, I think either Yuya or Akito has been slipping us some kind of sleeping draft. From the way I felt after they slipped it to me at dinner the other night, it’s not an amateur sauce either. I doubt they gave you any, considering your sensitivity to alcohol, and seeing as you already sleep like the dead, giving you a sleeping draft would probably put you in a coma. No, they’re smarter than that, and they know way more about us than they should, which is going to make this even harder than it already is.”

Lee was struggling to comprehend everything Kankuro was saying. Yuya or Akito…? He really hoped it was a big misunderstanding. Lee thought a lot of his friends, and Gaara—oh god, Gaara—he was going to be heartbroken...

“B-but… why? Why betray us like this? Wait—which one of them has been doing it?”

“My money’s on that son of a bitch Yuya. I think he’s been in contact with someone in Snow, but I don’t know who or why. But considering he was so keen to accompany Gaara on this trip, I don’t think it’s anything we want to see come to fruition. I’m hoping that Akito caught on and left just before me to head him off, rather than being in on the whole thing too. We should catch up with him soon if we get going,” he explained.

Lee looked down at the snow-blanketed gardens before them and swallowed a lump in his throat. There was still a small amount of light coming from the lanterns, and the snow was falling gently. It was a shinobi’s lot in life to deal with betrayals and deception on a regular basis, but this betrayal—to—to befriend someone so kind, so good-hearted and—and vulnerable and strong as Gaara—only to be working against him the entire time—suddenly, Lee didn’t feel quite so friendly toward Yuya anymore.

He pushed his feelings aside and focused on the goal in front of him. They set off at a brisk but silent pace, following the faint chakra signature of their former friend. It was painful to think of him like that, to think of someone who had shown Gaara such patience and friendliness… as a traitor; an enemy who, if it came to it, Lee would have to kill.

They stopped some distance beyond the village walls at a snowfield flanked by forest on one side and mountains on the others. It was hard to see in the moonlight, but Lee could tell that there were two people standing several hundred yards away from the tree line. They hadn’t detected them, then. That was good.

…But they weren’t fighting either. Quite the opposite, in fact. Both of them seemed calm. That didn’t bode well for Akito, then.

“What’s our first move?” Lee whispered, his voice barely audible.

Kankuro glanced at him. “Stake out. I want to know who they’re meeting.”

There was a long period of silence as the two of them waited. The moonlight was illuminating the ridges and points of the mountains and the snow was glinting softly. They could just about hear their voices carrying across the snow field, but they were so far away that they could barely make out the odd exclamation. But every now and then, the unmistakable burst of laughter could be heard. Lee gripped the branch he was holding so tightly it actually snapped.

“Calm down,” Kankuro whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Lee whispered back, his nostrils flaring and his jaw set. “I just… don’t understand why they would do this to Gaara.”

“Me neither. But we have to keep our cool if we’re going to protect him.”

“I know.”

There were a few minutes of silence. The only sound was of the trees rustling and the wind whistling through the mountains in the distance.

“Kankuro…”

“Hm?”

“Does it seem like… it’s gone just a bit too quiet all of a sudden?”

Kankuro didn’t respond, but Lee saw him shift, glance over his shoulder, and then his eyes widened.

“Lee, look out!” he yelled, before shoving Lee to the side and making him lose his balance.

Lee found his grip on the tree just in time to see Kankuro’s body launch back from the branch and fly through the trees, dislodging snow and snapping branches in his path. Lee dashed through the canopy to catch his friend’s body. Kankuro groaned in pain as Lee pulled him up to the top of a creaking pine.

“Are you okay?” Lee asked, still gripping him by the shoulder.

“Yeah… Fuck, that bastard is fast,” Kankuro groaned, stepping away from Lee and straightening up with a wince of pain and rubbing his chest.

“Are you bleeding?” Lee asked.

“No, I’m wearing mail,” Kankuro replied, rubbing his chest where Akito had attempted to stab him with something sharp. Sure enough, Lee caught a glimpse of the wire mail most shinobi wore under their clothes, with a significant lack of blood accompanying it.

“What do we do now?”

“Now, we find them and kick their asses all the way back to Suna,” Kankuro growled, hauling himself up and setting off through the trees.

What followed was a deadly game of hide and seek. Lee caught glimpses of shadows in the snow, felt wisps of air against his skin that felt unnaturally disturbed. He could feel Kankuro somewhere nearby—then heard him shout momentarily as he fought off a storm of Akito’s chakra senbon, followed by a morbid silence.

“Kankuro!” Lee called, leaping up to help his friend. He couldn’t get there fast enough to see what was happening. Kankuro was kneeling on a thick branch.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like where this is going,” Kankuro replied, and stood up.  

Lee couldn’t see much detail in the semi-darkness, but Lee could tell he was in more pain than he was letting on.

“I had no idea Akito could move that fast,” he said, a hint of awe in his voice. “He sure kept that under wraps. Sneaky bastard… if he can keep up with us in combat without even using his full speed, I don’t know want to know what other surprises they’ve got in store for us…”

“No, you don’t,” said a voice from somewhere up above. “So why don’t you be good little boys and scurry back to your Kazekage, hm?”

“Yuya!” Lee growled. He leapt up with his trademark speed and launched a fist into that smug bastard’s face. It connected with a satisfying crunch, but Yuya was back on his feet long before Lee wanted him to be. They battled tirelessly until they were some distance away from Kankuro, leaving Lee on his own with his enemy.

They met each other blow for blow, but Lee couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being played with. It only incensed him further, and it wasn’t long before he was opening his first gate.

“What do you want?! Why did you betray Gaara?!” Lee yelled, his voice echoing across the snowy clearing they’d come to.

“Betray...? You really are as stupid as you look. Though I suppose I can’t blame you. You barely know anything about that little boyfriend of yours, do you? Have you any idea what he’s capable of?”

Lee set his jaw. “I know more about him than you ever will!” he shouted, and launched into another complex sequence of kicks and swings. He lost his sense of time; the moments stretched into hours as he found himself mentally repeating his promise to Gaara that he would always protect him.

By the time they parted again, heaving for breath after breath, Lee’s body was thrumming with chakra as he stood on the precipice of opening his fourth gate. Meanwhile, Yuya was leaning against a tree on the far side of the clearing, his tall frame shaking and his shoulders rising and falling as he fought for his breath. He was bleeding; a long stripe of blood trailed from his hairline and down his nose to his drip from his chin, splitting his face in half. His armour was broken at one shoulder from one of Lee’s kicks and he was red and bloody all over from the combo Lee had hit him with. Lee knew from experience that he would be black and blue tomorrow. But he was still standing, and Lee felt a new rage inside him as Yuya smiled, baring his bloody teeth at Lee as he laughed maniacally.

“Moron,” Yuya spat, his face crumpling into spiteful glare as he spoke, his eyes dark like two cigarette burns. “You know nothing, nothing at all. You…you eat with him and protect him, call him your friend—stand by while he leads that village of cowards who are too afraid to stand up to him—”

“Shut up,” Lee growled, his eyes flaring with rage as he sank down into a battle position.

“—and worse still, you even go to bed with him!” Yuya said this with a sneer of disgust. “You share his bed and let him—let him touch you, that—monster, you let him—”

Yuya didn’t get to finish his sentence. Lee’s body had moved before he even thought about it, reacting on instinct to launch a kick so sharp into Yuya’s stomach that he actually tore through the trunk of the tree he was leaning against. It gave a cacophonous groan as chips of wood flew out around him and sent the entire tree swaying backwards into the canopy behind it.

Unfortunately this dislodged a blanket of snow from the upper branches of the trees, and Lee had to leap back in order to escape being trapped under the small avalanche. 

By the time he recovered, he found himself alone in the clearing. Damn it. He glanced around and then darted up to one of the branches for a better look.

It was too dark, the forest too silent after the violence that had just splintered the air. He listened out for a disturbance, and then focused his energy as well as he could to sense Yuya’s chakra. He felt for it in the space around him, and then set off in the same direction.

He ended up back in the snowfield, and he looked out ahead. He could just make out the suggestion of slopes and hills, occasional trees, but… no people. The trail he’d followed brought him here, but it was like it had just vanished into thin air… Bastard. He’d cloaked his chakra.

Lee took to darting along the edge of the forest until he could feel even a hint of it, but it wasn’t long before he almost barrelled into Kankuro emerging from the tree line.

“Kankuro!” Lee called out.

Kankuro stopped in his tracks and turned to face him. He watched as Lee skidded to a halt before him, panting slightly.

“Have you seen Yuya?” Lee asked, looking out into the snowfield.

“No,” Kankuro sighed, leaning forward on his knees as he looked out ahead. “Have you seen Akito?” he asked.

“No,” Lee replied, looking back at his friend.

“Figured.”

Lee looked Kankuro over, and realised that there was something in the way he was holding himself that spoke of someone holding back their reaction to the pain. Unfortunately for Kankuro, Lee was far too familiar with that feeling to miss it.

“You’re injured,” he said pointedly.

“I’m fine,” Kankuro snapped back.

“You’re not. If you di—”

“I won’t.”

“Kanku—”

“I said I won’t,” Kankuro snapped harshly. “I’m not going let those pieces of shit get to Gaara. It would be too shameful. I would never forgive myself if I went scurrying back to the village right now, injured and asking for help from an ally. I’m going to fight and you’re going to help me and we’re going to bring them in. Right here, right now.”

Lee let out a shaky breath and swallowed. It was impossible, arguing with Kankuro. In fact, the only people Lee had ever known to win an argument with him were Gaara and Temari. Everyone else sort of did as he said. He was reluctant to let him fight, but they didn’t really have much of a choice right now. The last thing they needed was to turn on each other when their enemies were so determined to destroy them.

“Fine,” Lee replied finally. “But don’t leave my side. We can’t let them separate us again.”

Kankuro finally looked away from him and nodded. “Right.”

They began scouting the area for signs of the two of them, but it was no use. Their chakra signatures were only residual now, which meant that they had fled.

Kankuro led them toward the mountains on the other side of the snowfield, through the snowy pass into the foothills they had traversed a couple of days ago, then up the slope of a mountainside. They hopped deftly over a crevasse and through a thicket of pines until they came to a large, flat expanse of ice atop one of the smaller mountains.

As they travelled, hours passed with no sign of Yuya or Akito, and Lee was becoming reluctantly certain that they had lost them. But then Kankuro was yanking him behind a tree and into the well around it.

They looked through the trees into the distance, and Lee could just about make out the suggestion of three figures. One was the silhouette of Yuya, his unusually tall height and slight figure distinguishing him from the other two figures. Lee noted, with no small amount of satisfaction, that he was leaning on the figure beside him, whom Lee assumed to be Akito. He could see the long strips of cloth that tied Akito’s forehead protector to his head flapping in the icy wind.

To the side of them was a smaller figure. If Lee had to guess from the way they carried themselves, the person was female, but it was hard to tell in the low light.

Lee glanced at Kankuro, who was looking through the leaves of the broad cedar they were standing beneath, his head just peeking above the edge of the tree well.

“How did you know to come here?” he whispered, wondering what had put the determination in his friend’s step as he led them both to this clearing.

Kankuro regarded him briefly. “We came by this place when we exited the pass on the way here. I saw it and thought it looked kind of like a mesa. It seemed like it would be a good place to hide… there’s enough elevation to see some distance in the daylight, and enough flat space on top to hide out without being seen. When Yuya and Akito fled, I thought they might come here. It’s the kind of place I would go if I was on the run from an enemy but wanted to know when they might show up on my heels. Guess we got lucky,” he explained.

Lee smirked wryly. “No,” he said. “We didn’t get lucky. Your expertise in the field and as a shinobi of the desert has proven invaluable.”

Kankuro glanced at him sidelong and then nodded.

“We need to think about how we’re going to make our move. It’s not going to be easy considering they have another guy against us two, and worse still, we have no idea what their fighting technique is like,” Kankuro explained in a low murmur.

“Maybe they’re not a shinobi,” Lee said weakly. “Maybe they’re a civilian.”

Kankuro scoffed. “Ever the optimist... Lee, I don’t know if this is another shinobi or not, but I’m not going to attack them as if they’re not out to kill us too. It’s not worth the risk. If they’re meeting in secret like this, it can’t be for anything good.”

Lee swallowed and nodded. It wasn’t the time for optimism. Yuya and Akito had betrayed them, and he was going to bring them in regardless of his own hurt feelings on the matter.

He peeked out through the leaves once more to watch the three of them standing there, discussing something in quiet tones. As his eyes adjusted, he could also see the outline of a tent somewhere behind them along with the dim glow of a camp fire. Whoever it was had been here a while, then.

“Alright, here’s what we’re going to do,” Kankuro explained, his voice now in firmly in Commander mode. “I’m going to find my way behind their camp. Then you’re going to ambush from the front when I give the signal. I’m going to use Black Ant to trap at least one of them, which means you’re going to have to deal with the other two for a minute while I do that. I’ll try to catch the newcomer to neutralise the threat of unknown attacks. But if I can’t, I’ll try for Yuya – Akito’s chakra senbon fuck with my chakra strings too much. Once I’ve immobilised them, I’ll come give you a hand. We clear?”

Lee nodded. “Don’t worry about me. Focus on capturing the newcomer. I’ve already injured Yuya substantially and Akito will be no match for my speed, especially if I take my weights off.”

“Okay,” Kankuro said, watching Lee curiously for a moment as he sat down to remove his weights. “I can’t believe you still wear those.”

Lee glanced up at him and grinned. “I like the challenge.”

“Uh huh,” Kankuro deadpanned.

Lee stood after he buried his weights in some snow and pulled his legwarmers back down. He almost bounced on his feet – he already felt so much lighter without them on, and it was a delightfully freeing feeling.

“Right, I’m going to head around the back of the camp now. I’ll pull on the flap of the tent with one of my chakra strings when I’m in position. Hopefully they won’t notice. You think you’ll see it from here?” he asked.

Lee nodded and tightened his forehead protector. “Yes. Go.”

Barely a second seemed to pass before Kankuro disappeared silently into the darkness. Lee kept his eyes trained on the trio up ahead and waited.

For a few minutes, there was no sound apart from the rustling of trees in the wind with the occasional voice being carried on the breeze. The night air was even colder than it was in the day and it made his lips feel cracked and dry. Lee could see the tent a little more clearly now, the glow of the camp fire casting shadows across the canvas.

Then, as he watched it, he saw the pinned flap of the tent move one, two, three times, pulling unnaturally towards the left.

Lee closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and launched into action.

He was so fast, they barely saw him coming. Akito was fast enough to register his Konoha Whirlwind a split second before it connected with his shoulder, but not fast enough to dodge it effectively. Yuya barely had time to react to his attack before Black Ant was appearing out of the darkness and grabbing him by the chest.

Lee didn’t register what happened to him next, because he knew Yuya was Kankuro’s second choice target, which only meant the newcomer had managed to dodge Black Ant. Damn it.

Akito was fast like Kankuro had said, but to Lee, who was used to training with Gai-sensei, he was small fish. Lee easily dodged his chakra senbon with a level of sequential processing that made him a worthy rival of a Hyuuga genius.

However, one of Lee’s flaws as a shinobi was his tendency to become overly absorbed in the rhythm of Taijutsu to the point that he ignored all other threats on the battlefield. Akito had barely hit the ground after a sequence of Lee’s punches had left him grappling with defensive moves when Lee felt it.

Something sharp was trying to pierce his chest from behind, but he was able to dodge out of the way in time to make it slide under his arm and across his ribs instead. It was... huge, like a sword, but… there was no one behind him. He winced in pain as he felt his skin split with the blow; his tender underarm was stinging and throbbing with pain and his blood pulsed in his ears as he felt steel scrape his rib bones.

“Argh!” he screamed, tumbling forward and bracing himself on a rock. He glanced behind him.

“Lee!” Kankuro yelled. Lee could vaguely see Kankuro and Black Ant facing off with Yuya, who was in the process of using his specialised water release to freeze Black Ant’s joints.

“I’m fine!” he yelled back, and turned to face his opponent.

She was the third person Lee had seen. She was quite short and had bushy pale hair that stuck out at odd angles from beneath a bandana. She was using some kind of chakra string technique not too unlike Kankuro’s puppet strings, but instead of puppets she was using them to control a pair of blades – one of which had sliced across Lee’s ribs and underarm.

Lee’s hand slipped on the blood he’d spilled onto the rock below him as he pushed himself up and off of it. He was going to need all the energy he could get, and he was already pushing against his third gate in preparation.

“You’d better quit while you’re ahead,” she called out, her chakra strands illuminating her face slightly. “You’re not going to last long now my poison is in your system.”

Lee panted and glared at her. Did she really think he was going to let a little bit of poison defeat him?

“Well then,” Lee replied, smirking. “Let’s see how long I can last!”

The fight seemed to last forever. By the time Lee was finally making headway with his new opponent, the sun was beginning to rise over the mountains, illuminating the snow around them with a silvery shine.

He was dodging a blade that was aimed at his neck when he felt a roundhouse kick connect with his knees and sweep his feet out from under him. He landed on the snow with a dull thud and let out a sharp groan. His ears were ringing and he could hear the sound of Kankuro fighting with Yuya somewhere nearby.

When he finally regained his bearings, he was unpleasantly surprised to see that Akito had regained consciousness and was now standing beside the woman Lee had been fighting with.

He grunted as he stood up and assumed his battle stance once more. He watched the two up ahead as the woman heaved for her breaths and Akito struggled to hold his stance. Lee too was becoming weary – the lack of sleep and the distance they had travelled, along with the fighting and now the poison, were getting to him. They had to finish this soon.

“Why are you doing this?!” he shouted. “Who are you?!”

Akito stared at him while his companion glanced at him quickly.

“Stay out of this, Lee,” he answered finally. “Kaede has already poisoned you. I do not wish to injure you further.”

Lee almost rolled his eyes. People were constantly pushing him aside, which he was more than used to by now. However, he still found it mindboggling that people really thought he wasn’t going to fight them if he found out their quarrel wasn’t really with him.

“You know I’m not going to do that, Akito,” he replied. “You’re plotting against the Kazekage, who is an ally of my village and a dear friend of mine.”

Akito glanced behind him to where, from the sounds of it, Kankuro was finally getting somewhere with Yuya.

Lee was prepared for it this time. He saw Akito make for them, and he was about to dart after him when a tendril of sand whipped Akito back before grabbing him around his middle.

Up ahead, another tendril was gripping Kaede around her arms and binding her, forcing her to release her chakra strands and drop her weapons. Behind him, Lee could hear Yuya screeching and swearing as another sand limb immobilised him.

If there was one thing that never ceased to amaze him, it was Gaara’s ability to mask his chakra. He made the delicate art of ambush seem almost effortlessly beautiful.

“Gaara!” Lee cried, smiling an awkward smile at his boyfriend, who was floating on a cloud of sand up ahead. Illuminated by the rising sun, he almost looked like one of the paintings of previous dignitaries that decorated the halls of Suna’s main legislative building.

He didn’t respond and his handsome face was inscrutable as he gently lowered himself to the ground. Lee heard Kankuro huff and slump down on the ground somewhere behind him, but he was too focused on his boyfriend’s face to pay attention to anything he might’ve said.

“Are you hurt?” Gaara asked before he’d even hit the ground. His eyes widened as he got closer and he realised that Lee was bleeding profusely from the wound under his arm.

“I’m fine,” Lee replied automatically, although in reality he was seriously injured and had poison flowing through his system.

“You’re injured.”

To most people, it would’ve sounded like an unintelligible growl, but Lee was used to his boyfriend’s vernacular at this point and he was able to make out the words.

“Oh that—well, yes, she did mention the poisoned sword thing, but—”

Poisoned?” Gaara hissed, and whipped around to face the girl Lee had been fighting a few minutes ago. Then he raised his hand in an all too familiar gesture.

“Gaara, no—” Lee stuttered. “She might be the only one with the antidote!”

Gaara froze and his sand did the same just as it was reaching Kaede’s knees.

Lee let out a shaky breath. “We need to get them back to the village.”

“No,” Gaara replied.

“No?”

“No. They’ll be here any minute.”

“Who..?”

Gaara had turned on his heel and walked towards Kankuro and Yuya, leaving Akito and Kaede firmly encased in a pair of sandy bindings.

Lee followed him and made his way over to where Kankuro was sitting, Black Ant in a crumpled heap on the floor and looking rather worse for wear.

Gaara continued to where Yuya was tightly encased in his own bindings, but unlike Akito and Kaede, he was fully encased in sand up to his neck. Gaara stopped in front of where he was suspended several feet above the snow and folded his arms.

“You are going to tell me why you have attacked my brother and boyfriend.”

Yuya sneered and spat, his brow furrowed.

Gaara’s eyes flicked down to where Yuya’s spit had landed on the ground.

“I’m waiting.”

“Fuck you!” Yuya spat, his voice trembling slightly. “Kill me if you want! I don’t care! I don’t have anything left thanks to you!”

Gaara was silent, but his brow creased slightly. “Elaborate.”

Yuya smirked and let out a cold, humourless laugh. “Yeah, I guess I would have to be more specific with you,” he said. “Gaara of the Desert.”

Gaara’s face was impassive and he stared while he waited for Yuya to continue.

“Fucking murderer,” Yuya breathed, his breath becoming a hoarse whistle as he began to struggle.

“It’s only going to get tighter,” Gaara said finally, and when Lee glanced down at his hand he could see his fingers were clawed in an unmistakable gesture.

“Are you going to do the same thing to me that you did to him?” Yuya asked, a maniacal grin splitting his face.

“You know, I’m getting really bored of having to guess whatever it is you’re trying to say.”

“Hamamura Hiroto!” Yuya spat, tears streaming down his face. “My brother, you piece of shit, the one you killed!”

Gaara was silent. There was no reaction that Lee could see.

Yuya was silent for a minute as he stared at Gaara’s face, and Lee watched his expression shift from incomprehension to bitter amusement to rage.

“You don’t even fucking remember?!” he screamed.

Gaara didn’t respond.

Yuya laughed. “This is unbelievable… You murdered him in cold blood. You… you crushed him with your sand—and… and you didn’t even need to! He was… he was out on a B rank… his second one ever… they were just delivering a message and you… you killed him for it!”

Finally, Gaara shifted. “I remember,” he said finally. “I was eleven. I remember.”

“Oh, well thanks,” Yuya sniffed, a tear rolling down his bloodied, bruised face.

“I remember. He was part of a three man squad delivering a message to Iwagakure. They were enemies of Suna at the time. The Kazekage—my father—was intent on destroying their communication lines in Sunagakure,” he explained. “He thought our neighbours were plotting against us by allying with Iwa.”

Yuya didn’t say anything. He looked exhausted.

Beside him, Lee could feel Kankuro sit up, his face pensive as he listened to his brother’s words.

“We were in the canyons south east of Suna, patrolling a route commonly used by emissaries from the south. We weren’t expecting anyone, but the Kazekage obviously knew otherwise and didn’t tell us. We were ambushed. I was—”

Gaara paused and Lee noticed his frame tense up. He could hear the misery in his boyfriend’s tone, though to everyone else he was as monotone and expressionless as always.

“I am a former Jinchuuriki. I was… unwanted… by my father. He saw me as a failed experiment and he spent much of my childhood trying to have me killed,” Gaara explained.

“Oh poor you,” Yuya croaked.

Gaara paused and then continued. “I believe he was hoping the emissaries en route to Iwa would be too highly powered for me and my siblings – who were thirteen and fourteen at the time – to defeat. He would’ve been right if it weren’t for my unnaturally lethal abilities. My brother and sister were getting overwhelmed, although they wouldn’t admit it. I was being told to hold back. I didn’t want to. I decided to finish it.”

Yuya was silent for the first time since Gaara had arrived.

“Do you want to know more?”

Yuya glared at him.

“Do you want me to tell you that he screamed? That I enjoyed it? That he begged for his life, and that it only made me enjoy it more?” he asked, his eyes cold and boring into Yuya’s like nails.

“You’re a monster,” Yuya growled.

“It’s been said,” Gaara replied, his voice growing colder. “I was created to be a monster. I lived only for myself, and killed so I would feel that my existence was justified. Your brother’s death was able to satisfy that hunger in me for a few weeks. I think it was the crying.”

“Stop it!” Yuya cried.

“I think you lost your right to give orders when you defected from your village, infiltrated mine, wormed your way into the higher echelons of power in our military, dragged your friends into your little quest for revenge, thus ending their otherwise promising careers, poisoned my friends, and then conspired to poison me while I was in your village, where my powers are hindered by the natural environment.”

Lee stared at Gaara’s back, and his eyes widened. Had he known all along? Then why...?

Yuya sobbed and let out a strange, strangled laugh.

“God damn it,” he whimpered.

“Unfortunately for you, Yuya, I am not as stupid as you think I am.”

“No, you’re just a murderer,” Yuya spat. “You killed… you killed him… He was seventeen. He practically raised me...” He was mumbling incoherently now, his voice barely audible. Whether it was the fatigue, or something had finally snapped in his psyche, was impossible to tell.

Gaara stared at him. Lee thought he saw something twitch in his face, but it was barely a second before it was gone.

“He was… all I had left,” he finally whispered.

Lee glanced around as he felt the approach of something monstrous and large. From then it took barely a handful of minutes for them to become surrounded by a large taskforce of half a dozen scary looking shinobi.

“Hamamura Yuya! You are under arrest for desertion and conspiracy to assassinate the Kazekage, an ally of Yukigakure!” The voice was loud and booming, and it echoed across the open space like a clap of thunder.

Lee glanced around wildly, looking for the source of the voice. It sounded familiar.

“Right on time,” Gaara said.

Lee glanced up at Yuya. His head was hung low between his shoulders, his dull curtain of hair obscuring his face.

“Surrender now or we will be forced to resort to lethal measures!” the man yelled.

“I think he’s pretty subdued, man,” Kankuro drawled.

Lee glanced over at the man who was leading the force. It was Ryutaro-san, the head of Snow’s intelligence division, who Gaara had introduced them to at the conference yesterday.

Gradually, Gaara released his sand bindings on Yuya, Akito and Kaede, and watched as they were placed in new ones by the Snow ninja. Yuya’s face was still pointed at the ground.

Gaara took one last look at him, turned away from him and then spoke lowly. “If it’s any consolation, I am sorry for what happened. But this is the world we live in. I’m not the same person I was back then, and I’m trying to make sure that no one else ends up like me.”

Yuya didn’t respond. Lee had the feeling that there was nothing that could be done to make him fight again. With his dream of revenge destroyed, all he had left to focus on was the crushing emptiness of his loss.

Lee was mournfully watching the Snow shinobi cart Yuya off when Gaara unexpectedly appeared in his field of vision.

“Come. We need to get back to the village and get you to the hospital,” he said curtly. It was really more of an order.

“Oh—b-but Gaara, I left my weights over by that tree there—” Lee stuttered, but Gaara ignored him.

Gaara was leading/dragging Lee away in the direction of the Snow ninja when Kankuro piped up.

“Hey, what about me?! How about some concern for your big brother?!” he yelled.

Gaara stopped and glanced over his shoulder. He looked from Kankuro, who was perched against a rock, to Black Ant, who was more a pile of miscellaneous puppet parts than an actual puppet at this point. Yuya had really done a number on his joints with that ice attack.

“It looks like you have a lot of work on your hands,” Gaara replied, before he slung Lee’s good arm over his shoulder and then walked them both onto a large cloud of sand. “I’ll leave you to salvage your puppet and collect Lee’s weights. Don’t be too long. We have to leave later today.”

Kankuro scowled as he got to work collecting as much of Black Ant as he could salvage.

*

 

 

Chapter Text

Once they returned to the village, they were met by the Yukikage and an entourage of his security council. It came to light that Yuya and his friends had defected from the village two years ago, and along the way they had committed a series of crimes in addition to the ones they had committed in Suna. Gaara and the Yukikage spoke at length about how to proceed, and they didn’t leave the Council Chambers until almost mid-morning.

Lee tried to get Gaara alone to talk to him about what had happened, but Gaara only insisted that he remain at the hospital until the antidote to the poison had been administered fully and he’d had his other wounds tended to as well.

Apart from that, however, Gaara was silent.

His silence stretched for the rest of the trip and the entire way back to Konoha. After spending the entirety of his way back from Snow complaining about being ‘left out of all the action’, Naruto left them with a fond but sombre farewell. Lee didn’t miss the brief whispering in Gaara’s ear when Naruto grasped him in an awkward bear hug, but he didn’t hear what was said. Naruto’s whining was annoying, but at least it filled the tense silence. Lee found himself almost missing it on the remainder of the journey. Then, finally, when they were met at Suna’s gates by the captain of Gaara’s personal guard and Councillor Saburo, Gaara gave only a curt nod, seemingly ignoring their many questions about Yuya and Akito. The messenger hawk from Yukigakure had only recently delivered the news, and it was apparent from Councillor Saburo’s frazzled appearance that the council, along with Suna’s military, was still scrambling to do damage control for the breach in their defences.

Lee watched after him as they walked into the village proper with a concerned look on his face. He wanted to follow his boyfriend to his personal chambers, crawl into bed with him, and hold him while he processed the events of the last few days. But that wouldn’t happen—their duties were too important, and any stretch of time spent away from Suna meant a colossal backlog of work for the Kazekage when he returned.

Instead, Lee decided that he would use their few hours apart to process it alone before helping Gaara through it. He declined Kankuro’s offer of accompanying him to the izakaya, where he usually drowned his sorrows after a particularly tough mission; to the point that Lee now took ‘come on Lee, let’s go let off some steam’ as code for ‘come with me so I can get irresponsibly drunk and won’t have to find my own way home afterwards’. Not that this bothered Lee; usually he would happily tag along, but he just didn’t have the energy tonight.

He headed home soon after saying waving Kankuro off with an excuse about being too tired. This earned him a funny look, as Lee tended to use fatigue as a kind of flaw that warranted an insane training routine rather than an excuse to not go out. But other than this, Kankuro didn’t question him.

Lee’s apartment was just across from Suna’s large, apparently famous library, and just down the street from the main legislative building, so it wasn’t like he was that far away from Gaara anyway. Still, even as he took a brief shower, changed and then face-planted the bed, all he could think about was his boyfriend—more specifically, what could be going through his mind in light of all that had happened over the past few days.

Gaara’s silence was troubling Lee the most. At this point, Lee would be rather comforted by crying, shouting, or even throwing things in frustration and rage—how he would expect any sane person to react to such a huge betrayal. But given Gaara’s general lack of sanity, it was impossible for even Lee – who was arguably closer to Gaara than anyone else – to predict.

Lee sighed and fiddled with a stray thread on his thin blanket, wondering how many nights he would spend here this week. These days, he spent most of his time at the Kazekage’s estate, to the point that Gaara had begun questioning why he was paying bills for a place he rarely spent two nights in a row sleeping in. Lee smiled faintly. He really hoped he could help Gaara figure this out. They’d come too far in Gaara’s recovery to let a setback like this take them back to square one—not that Lee doubted Gaara’s ability to bounce back! But still, it was worrying considering Gaara’s history with loneliness, isolation, the repeated attempts on his life by his father, and now his friends…

Lee huffed and buried his face in his pillow, searching for some lingering scent of his boyfriend from the last time he stayed there. But it only smelled of that musty, unlived in scent of Suna’s dry sandstone buildings. He sighed in disappointment.

…Maybe silence was Gaara’s response to it. Anyone less familiar with the Kazekage than Lee would probably just be grateful for the lack of dead bodies and destroyed terrain. But for Lee, who liked to think of himself as one of the lucky few people to know Gaara intimately enough, his reluctance to say anything more than strictly necessary was just as troubling.  

Lee rubbed the last of the water from his eyes and decided to take a brief nap, if only to stop thinking about it all for a little while.

*

A few days later, Lee finally finished writing his report and took it down to the administration office. On the way back from delivering it, he decided to head to the bazaar to get something nice for his boyfriend to have for dinner. If Gaara didn’t feel like talking, Lee wondered if food would cheer him up. If Lee knew one thing, it was that curry had a magical way of brightening even the blackest of moods!

…Of course, Gaara had made it abundantly clear the last time Lee served him his favourite curry dish that he would consider a ban on ghost chilli if he made him eat it again, so curry was definitely off-limits.

By the time he was on his way back, the market was beginning to pack up for the day, but the food vendors were still out. Near the bridge, Lee came across Akiyama-san and his daughters. Gaara had mentioned a while back that he had bought food from their stall several times, so Lee figured that he’d be able to find something there.

A short time later, Lee was standing on the doorstep of Gaara’s private residence with two bento boxes. He didn’t think that Gaara would be here at this time of day since he was usually at his office until the early hours on busy days, but he figured he would check anyway. When there was no reply to his knocking, he peered through the round window to see if there was any activity inside. When he saw nothing, Lee frowned. He had his own key to Gaara’s residence (something that Gaara had had to jump through an absurd amount of hoops to sanction), but Lee had never felt right using it—especially when Gaara didn’t even seem to be home.

He sighed, collected their bento and headed over to the legislative building, the only other place his boyfriend was likely to be. He waved to the kunoichi guarding the entrance – who was only there as a formality, really, as the place was being surveilled constantly by dozens of ANBU hiding in the shadows. She gave a small smile and a nod and Lee headed in.

He was on his way up to Gaara’s office on the top floor when he heard the ruckus coming from the main assembly hall. Lee walked over to the galleried hallway connecting to the huge sandstone staircase and overlooking the hall, and then peered over to watch.

At the head of the round table, Gaara looked very small and, to Lee’s surprise – exhausted. To his left, a member of his advisory committee, Councillor Kazuyo, was leaning over the table and yelling at another councillor – Councillor Isamu maybe? Lee couldn’t remember all of their names. There were various high-ranking members of the military in attendance too, including Temari and Kankuro.

Huh, that was weird. Lee hadn’t known that Temari was in town. He’d barely spoken to Kankuro since they’d returned from Snow last week, but he looked even more exhausted now than he had after several days of travelling.

In any case, it seemed as though they were all mostly just shouting at each other. Temari was rubbing her temple like she usually did when she had a stress headache, and Kankuro was bouncing his knee in annoyance. Lee had heard through the grapevine that Kankuro was on a short administrative leave; his fight with Akito had left him with a few broken ribs and a small pneumothorax, which he was predictably not very happy about.

Gaara would constantly try to regain some kind of order, which would work for a few minutes, but then it would rapidly deteriorate into more discord and shouting as soon as someone said something another disagreed with.

It was apparent even to Lee, who was not versed in politics of any kind, that this meeting was going nowhere. He tried to follow what was going on, but they were constantly referencing all kinds of statutes by numerical codes that he had no hope of understanding. After twenty minutes or so of listening to them go around in circles, he decided that he would go wait by Gaara’s office until they were done.

He swung the cloth holding their bento in it slightly as he walked down the galleried hallway, and then sat down on the cushioned bench just outside the entrance to Gaara’s office. It was much quieter here than in the main assembly hall, but there were a few people coming and going. They gave Lee some funny looks, and Gaara’s aide, who was heading out of his own office, stopped to tell Lee that the Kazekage was in a meeting and probably wouldn’t be finished for several more hours.

“Oh, its fine, I’ll wait,” Lee said, swinging his legs a little bit and lifting the bento he’d brought. “I brought dinner.”

Gaara’s aide looked at him strangely, but forced a smile and then carried on down the hallway.

It turned out that Gaara’s aide hadn’t been exaggerating, but it was Temari, not Gaara, who woke Lee up about three hours later with a gentle nudge of his ankle with her foot. Lee woke up gradually, blinking blearily as he registered where he was.

Temari was standing in front of him with her arms folded and a raised eyebrow.

“Temari—?” Lee said, and then yawned. “Whuh time is it?”

“It’s ten p.m.,” she deadpanned.

A glance out of the window confirmed this. It was pitch dark outside.

“What are you doing here, Lee?” she asked.

“I could ask you the same question,” Lee replied.                                        

Temari lugged her fan over her shoulder and set it down against the wall. “I came as soon as I heard about those little Snow bastards from Naruto,” she explained, sitting down next to Lee on the bench. “I arrived this morning.”

“I see,” Lee replied. “How bad is it?”

Temari began counting things off on her fingers as she spoke. “Well, the Council is mostly trying to use this as leverage to diminish the influence of the military on government affairs, the military is trying to use it as an example of why they need more funding for surveillance, Councillor Isamu and his cronies want to expel all foreign-born shinobi from Suna—even the ones who grew up here and fight under Suna’s emblem—at least until the investigation is over, and the advisory committee wants more cooperation from foreign intelligence agencies rather than less. So, as you can see, we’re all on the same page,” she explained, scoffing sarcastically. “Oh, except I guess pretty much all of them want Yuya and his little friends extradited to Suna to stand trial, but that probably won’t happen. They’re already going on trial in Yukigakure for deserting their duties and a load of other crap they pulled before they even made it to Suna.”

Lee frowned. “What a headache.”

“Tch. Tell me about it,” Temari said, shaking her head. “If I have one piece of advice for you, it’s to never go into politics. It is never worth it, trust me.”

There was a brief silence.

“Temari… how does Gaara seem to you?” Lee asked.

Temari glanced at him with a frown. “Gaara..? Same as always I guess. Maybe a little more tired. He’s mostly interested in trying to get them to sign off on this new bill he wrote up that will improve conditions for children who have been orphaned by conflict. It’s pretty ambitious actually, but as I said to him, he needs to focus on the inquest first.”

Lee felt his heart do a little somersault in his chest. “I see.”

“Why? Has he said something to make you worried?”

“No, it’s just… Well, I’ve hardly seen him since we got back. He didn’t say anything the whole journey back from Yukigakure, and… I don’t know how much time you spent with Yuya and Akito, but… they were friends with him, Temari. He… Gaara trusted them. I don’t know how he’s taking it, but it can’t be good—even if he did figure out what was going on before anyone else. But I don’t know how to help him, because I can’t tell how he’s feeling. He hasn’t said anything; I haven’t even been able to catch a moment alone with him. I came by today with dinner hoping we could talk, but obviously he’s too busy right now.”

Temari listened to him with a worried expression, and then she looked a bit sheepish. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t even think about how he’s taking it. I was mostly worried about the breach. I guess I’m not winning any sister of the year awards, even after all this time,” she said with a bitter laugh.

“No, that’s… You are looking out for him, Temari, just in a different way. I just…” Lee began. “I guess I was just worried that he might… backtrack… a little. Not too much! I don’t doubt his sanity that much. But I just don’t want him to go back to how he was when we first fell in love – better, but still… jaded, still too scared to really trust anyone outside of his family and Naruto. When Yuya and Akito befriended him, and even sparred with him, he was so… happy. He didn’t show it, but I could see that he felt like he’d achieved something he’d always wanted. It was like he’d achieved his dream… I was so proud of him.”

Temari looked away, a deep frown etching her handsome features.

“Now, I don’t know where this leaves him. What if he never tries again? What if he… what if he starts to think I’m out to get him too? That I want revenge for what happened in the Chuunin Exams, and that I’ll—”

“Lee, stop it. You’re jumping to conclusions. Gaara does not think that. If he did, then he’d probably have taken Councillor Isamu up on his plans to expel anyone from a foreign village. Anyway, you’ve been his friend since you were kids—you were one of his first friends—and you’ve had plenty of opportunities to get your revenge, if that’s what you wanted. He knows you. He trusts you, I daresay a lot more than he ever trusted those little rats from Snow,” Temari said sternly, gripping his shoulder.

Lee nodded, but his face was still downcast.

“Look, I can’t stay long. I’m due back in Konoha in three days, and I’ve got some paperwork I need to go through with Councillor Kazuyo. I wish I could send Gaara home with you now, but he’s too busy setting up the inquest. He sent me over to grab some files,” she explained with a snort. “That’s an errand boy’s job, but I suspect he wanted me to take a break before I strangled someone.”

Lee nodded. “Would you… would you mind giving him this?” he asked, lifting up the bento box. He could grab some ramen on the way home – Gaara would need the energy more than him. “It’s bento with yakitori gizzard. I got it from a stall in the market he likes.”

Temari smiled warmly, and took it from him. “Sure,” she said. “Go home and get some sleep, Lee.”

*

It took a few more days for the furore over recent events to cool down enough for Gaara to get any kind of free time.

The Council was still in uproar over the assassination attempt on their Kazekage, and as expected, everyone was trying to take advantage of it to further their own agenda. Gaara wasn’t concerned over the callousness of this behaviour considering that he could’ve been killed—after all, Gaara was a shinobi and he risked his life for them on a regular basis—but the constant shouting was becoming a little tiresome. Oh well, occupational hazard.

He was sitting in one of Suna’s larger greenhouses where many of Suna’s citizens—shinobi and civilian alike—took advantage of the long hours of sunshine to grow myriad plant species. It was humid as hell and Gaara fostered a continuing concern over whether the water usage was justified considering they lived in the desert, but it remained one of his favourite places nonetheless.

…Especially in the quietest corner, where the plants being treated for pests and diseases were kept quarantined. People tended to avoid that area due to the strong smell of pesticide that permeated it. To Gaara, who was used to tending his own gardens (both indoor and outdoor), the smell was tolerable. Hidden away behind some drooping palms, there was a small wrought iron table and chair set that had seen better days. On days when he could steal a moment where no one was pressing him to read/write/send something, he would sometimes sit here with a flask of tea and do sweet, sweet nothing.  

Today, he was using his alone time to sit with his head rested on a binder that had been shoved at him by a frazzled desk clerk on his way out of the building. He was meant to read something inside it, but he was uncharacteristically shirking his responsibilities in favour of five minutes of silence.

If he wanted to, he could disappear into the desert to do this, and nobody with any survival instincts would think to follow him, and he could have all the alone time he wanted.

It was tempting, especially today. It had been tempting the moment he’d returned from that frozen hellscape to the wild emptiness of the desert. Something inside him had been hungry for the desolation. He’d missed his emotional twinning with the sandy expanse of nothingness that he’d long thought came from Shukaku, but had discovered upon having the tailed beast torn from his body, was actually just him. It made him feel at peace with the desolation he felt inside, the desolation that was borne from the enforced solitude of his childhood… As if he wasn’t truly alone when the desert was there: always far lonelier than any human could be.

Always more of a friend than any human could ever be.

Always more loyal than any human could ever be.

…But disappearing for an impromptu wander of the desert would mean being away from Lee for even longer, and as much as he craved the emptiness, it was also becoming unbearable to be away from his boyfriend.

Love was a strange emotion. At once he was ravenous for it, and too overwhelmed by the vulnerability it demanded to tolerate it.

…Especially when his efforts to embrace it regardless of the hazards were met with betrayal and pain.

Gaara wondered what Lee would make of his slight regression to his younger years, sans all the blood and death? He’d be… disappointed. There was something rather devastating about having Rock Lee disappointed in you, which Gaara found odd. He had wanted to kill Yuya, Akito and Kaede the moment he’d learnt that they’d hurt Lee and his brother despite the fact that until recently, he’d considered the former two to be his friends. There had been no hesitation, yet he couldn’t handle the prospect of Lee being upset with him for that same mercilessness.

He didn’t even know what to make of those urges himself, honestly.

A small voice in the back of his head told him that this proved that Lee was making him weak, but he’d stopped listening to that part of his mind a long time ago.

There was that other part of his mind that was still too loud though; the part that ached for the deeper desert, the Demon Desert as it was known. From all the emotional exhaustion of the last couple of weeks, Gaara was finding it too difficult to ignore.

Gaara lifted his head up and sat slightly slumped in his chair with his arms folded, his hair a mess from how many times he’d run his fingers through it in aggravation while working today. He wondered what Lee was doing right now. Gaara glanced up at the sky, and realised it was getting to the cooler part of the day. He wondered if he was training down by the arroyo by now. Lee had been training there a lot lately. He said the rock formations around it made it an interesting place to practice his dodge accuracy when moving at speed.

He should really go and find him, like he promised he would in these… darker moments.

The problem with this was that being in the village meant meetings and being hassled by demands. Leaving the village meant being without Lee anyway, who had his own responsibilities and did not have the luxury of being scary enough to get away with shirking them occasionally. Gaara didn’t have it in him to pull his boyfriend away from his training either, as it made him so happy.

Gaara stood up slowly and stretched his back out. He groaned and closed his eyes, before bringing his fingers to the bridge of his nose and squeezing, as if he could wring out the tension that had been building and building ever since he first suspected his friends of betraying him.

When he straightened up, he’d made up his mind: go and see if Lee was by the arroyo. If he wasn’t there, Gaara was heading for the desert, the disaster zone that was Suna’s current political climate be damned.

Because if he couldn’t go to Lee, who else could he turn to?

Who else could look the monstrous side of him in the eye and still love him regardless?

*

One of the more annoying things about working in Suna was the fact that, in addition to his usual shinobi duties, Lee was also given a lot of extra tasks to complete that he would never have to do in Konoha. Most of it revolved around diplomatic duties which usually took the form of paperwork and advising Gaara or Kankuro in certain things, but occasionally he would have to meet with important people or something like that.

Today was one of those days. Lee was trying not to think of all the training he was missing out on – or worse still, being able to finally catch Gaara – and instead focused on the bi-annual conference with all the other diplomats working in Suna he was currently being bored to tears by.

Though in all honestly, ‘conference’ was far too formal a term: they were in an izakaya, and at least half of the attendees were drunk off their asses.

He didn’t realise it of course, but according to Naoki-kun, Keiko-san was flirting with him, and Lee should know better than to reciprocate because Naoki had been trying to get her to go on a date with him for several months. He didn’t seem to realise that Lee wasn’t even remotely interested anyway. Oh, and there was a rumour that Sayako-san was pregnant by her supervisor, but she was denying it to anyone with the balls to ask.

Lee almost rolled his eyes. He never understood why the hell these things became so gossipy. Then again, it might be because gossip in Suna was generally frowned upon (the elders said it was bad luck), so the foreigners in Suna were apt to take advantage of people they deemed to be more tolerant of it.

Lee was stirring his juice with a chopstick and had stared at the poster on the far wall of the izakaya for so long that the brush strokes of the kanji seemed like they were moving. As soon as Hitomi-san started balancing teacups on her face while Natsuko-san cheered her on, Lee decided he’d had enough. He stood up without another word and slipped out before anyone had a chance to notice.

How the hell these people were ever considered for diplomatic posts, he had no idea.

Of course, many people would probably mention his green jumpsuit and orange legwarmers at that, but that was beside the point.

Lee hopped over the stone wall that the izakaya’s entrance was carved into, and began darting across the smooth round rooftops of Suna’s buildings, deftly avoiding the many electrical wires and pylons that connected them. The sun had set over the horizon an hour or so ago, so it was a little harder to see. But Lee knew his way to the arroyo by heart by now. It was currently his favourite place to train, but he hadn’t trained there at night yet. He couldn’t wait to find out how much harder those funny fingers of rock were to dodge in the dark!

It was gone midnight by the time Lee was finished. He didn’t know exactly how he could tell, but he’d trained at night enough times to get a kind of sense of what time it was despite the lack of sun in the sky.

Getting into bed that night felt like falling asleep on a little cloud, and his sleep was deep and restful.

It was just as well, because by morning, it seemed as though all hell had broken loose.

Kankuro met him at his office, to Lee’s surprise. His hood was pushed down and his hair was more messy than usual. He looked… scared. It was a look he’d seen before, but Lee had never seen his friend this worried off the battlefield.

“Kankuro?” Lee asked, clutching a pair of scrolls he’d picked up from his pigeon hole.

“Lee,” Kankuro sighed, turning away from a harassed-looking chuunin who worked in Lee’s administration building. He looked very expectant. “Please tell me you’ve seen Gaara.”

Lee felt like someone had just dropped a cinderblock on his stomach.

“…No?” he said. “Um, why? What’s happened?”

Kankuro groaned. “No one’s seen him since yesterday. According to his aide, he said was heading out for some fresh air, and then he just didn’t come back.”

“What?!” Lee replied, his eyes becoming impossibly wider. “Where could he have gone?!”

“Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better, in fact,” Kankuro replied, placing one hand on his hip and rubbing his forehead with the other.

“Oh man. This is bad. I knew I should’ve tried harder to speak to him! We haven’t been able to get any time together since we came back from Snow, and I knew something was up with him,” Lee cried, slumping down into a nearby chair.

“Lee, you need to calm down. I’m going to organise a search party. Do you have any idea where he could’ve gone?”

“The only place I can think of is into the desert.”

“Oh, well, that narrows it down,” Kankuro scoffed.

Lee looked a bit sheepish. “Have you checked the greenhouses? Sometimes he goes there to get some space,” he said.

“It’s worth a look,” Kankuro replied. “I have to keep the Captain updated, and then I’m going to personally kick the asses of every one of Gaara’s ANBU for letting him slip past them… when we’ve found him, of course.”

Lee was staring at the desk in front of him, worry etched into his face.

“Lee?” Kankuro asked.

“I promised him I wouldn’t let it get to him… I let him down.”

Kankuro looked a bit confused, and very troubled. “What are you talking about?”

Rubbing at his nose violently, Lee continued in a quiet, broken voice. “I promised I’d be there for him if he needed me, and I wasn’t, and now he’s disappeared, probably into the desert to do god-knows what…”

Shifting a bit uncomfortably, Kankuro sighed and placed a large hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Lee, buddy. I am not a pep-talk kind of guy, but you have to listen to me. I won’t pretend to know the intricacies of what you have with my brother, but I know that sitting here getting upset about it isn’t going to bring him home. So, not to be too harsh or anything, but you have to nut up. Get your shit together, and meet me by the village gate in half an hour.”

Lee shook his head and set his jaw in determination. “Right,” he said.

Kankuro gave him a pat on the shoulder and then left, muttering something about little brothers under his breath.

The search party comprised of Gaara’s personal ANBU bodyguards, several high ranking jounin (including two with ninken), Kankuro and of course, Lee. They set out towards the command post that bordered Suna’s western frontier at a quick pace, the low early morning sun making it a little easier to gain speed. Kankuro was keen to make it there before the midday sun made travelling at speed impossible. They would convene with the garrison manning the command post and go from there.

Lee had suggested taking his weights off and opening a few gates to get there before them, but Kankuro had made it clear that this was not a good idea; if Gaara was in trouble, he would need to conserve his chakra.

This was obvious in hindsight, but Lee’s worries were making him desperate. He trusted Gaara not to do anything stupid. Even if he was having a bit of an episode, to the point that he thought it would be a good idea to disappear into the desert without notice, Lee knew and believed in his boyfriend enough to know that he wouldn’t get himself into trouble on purpose.

According to the Commander of the western garrison, a number of their more sensitive shinobi had sensed the Kazekage’s chakra approaching them the previous evening. However, despite efforts to locate him, they had been unable to track him down and lost his signature a short time afterward. The only thing they could tell was that he was heading deeper into the desert, specifically towards the Demon Desert.

“Well, that’s just great,” Kankuro sighed, flopping down into the Commander’s chair at the head of the table and folding his arms.

“So what? We just follow him into the Demon Desert until we find him,” Lee said with a shrug from where he was looking out of the window, as if he would see Gaara strolling up to the command post door.

Both Kankuro and the Commander looked at him dubiously.

Lee turned to face them. “What?”

“No offence Lee, but you’re not exactly... prepared… to spend that length of time out there,” Kankuro replied carefully.

“What? I’ve been out there loads of times. I’ve even been out there with you,” Lee said.

“Yeah, but this is different. You’re not looking for a bandit or a missing nin or whatever asshole you’ve had to hunt down out there before. Gaara is basically in his element out there and he can mask his chakra better than anyone else in any of the Hidden Villages. It’ll be like trying to find an invisible needle in a very, very big haystack,” Kankuro explained.

 “But Gaara won’t hide from me,” Lee replied, as if it was obvious.

It was quiet for a moment while the others considered this. “With respect, Kankuro-san, Lee-san may have a point,” the Commander said.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Kankuro said, closing his eyes.

“Well what else are we going to do? Do you think he’ll want to speak to you?” Lee asked. He winced immediately. He hadn’t meant for it to come out like that, but it didn’t make it any less true. Lee knew that Gaara wouldn’t show up for anyone other than him if his mental state was this bad.

If it bothered him, Kankuro didn’t show it. “Probably not, Lee. But I know he’s alright out there. You? I’m not so sure about. And the last thing I want to do is send you back to Konoha in a body bag, and then have to explain to the Hokage why I let an underprepared, way-too-emotionally-invested envoy from his village go out into a highly dangerous area of the desert that even I don’t like heading into.”

“You could try having a little bit more faith in me,” Lee replied with a frown.

“That’s not the point, Lee! I know you’re a good jounin, but you have to listen to me when I say that this isn’t a good idea.”

Lee sighed and let his head fall back against the wall. “Well, like I said, he’s not going to show for you. You don’t understand him when he’s like this. I do. I can talk him down.”

Kankuro was silent and closed his eyes.

“How about this: I will head out into the desert—”

Lee—”

“—and you follow behind with the others at a safe distance, just to make sure that there are no threats.”

Kankuro sighed and looked at his hands as he considered this. Then, closing his eyes, he spoke again. “Alright, fine. But you pull back the second I tell you to, okay? If you don’t, I’m going to personally smack the shit out of you as soon as we get back to the garrison.”

Lee was practically out the door before Kankuro had even finished his threat.

*

In Suna, children were told stories about the Demon Desert to teach them about the dangers of the place they lived. If they misbehaved, the giant snake from the Demon Desert would slither into their beds at night and swallow them whole, leaving just their regurgitated skeletons behind. If they didn’t eat all their food, the sixteen-legged tarantula of the Demon Desert would creep up the stairs and hide under their beds, ready to pounce on them when they got up in the morning. The list went on.

To Lee, some of these stories were pretty morbid and, in his opinion, fostered an unhealthy fear of wildlife.

…Then again, a giant red scorpion that could launch half a platoon of highly skilled shinobi almost a mile across the desert with a flick of its tail probably didn’t count as wildlife in the typical sense.

“Still feeling that idea to head out here alone?” Kankuro yelled, his fingers contorting as he directed his puppet.

Lee didn’t answer, instead focusing on subduing their enemy.

Once they’d overcome the beast, they regrouped, tended to their relatively superficial wounds and carried on. Lee stayed some distance ahead so that Gaara would know he was at least somewhat isolated from the group should he decide to make an appearance.

They were making their way alongside a large red sandstone bluff when Lee felt the slight splintering of the air around him, the telltale sign to a shinobi that they had company. He didn’t know if the others felt it too as they were some distance behind him, but they probably did.

He slowed his pace to a leisurely stroll, already anticipating Gaara’s arrival. He didn’t appear quite as quickly as Lee expected him to, and for a few minutes he was concerned that Gaara was just hiding away, watching him, and that he wouldn’t even show himself.

It was only when he was turning a corner to pass the northern tip of the bluff that he felt Gaara’s presence spread from a mere static in the air to a full blown torrent of chakra. Lee started a bit as he felt it, taken by surprise despite his awareness of his boyfriend’s presence. Lee immediately realised why Gaara had waited: he had taken a turn into a large cleft in the sheer sandstone wall of the bluff, where the rest of the platoon wouldn’t be able to see him for the few minutes Lee would be out of their sight.

Lee glanced around to find his boyfriend, but there was still no sight of him. Then his eyes caught sight of a small amount of sand fluttering unnaturally near a narrow crevice in the sandstone, and Lee smiled. With Gaara, this was as good as a beckoning finger.

Lee jogged over to it and slid himself sideways through the small gap, then shuffled along between walls of stone until he came into a sandy grotto. The sand getting into his sandals felt much cooler here, and it was a relief from the sweltering heat of the midday sun outside. He continued on through the dark space, which was tricky as his eyes still hadn’t quite adjusted fully to the sudden lack of light. He followed the fluttering of sand that slithered across the grotto like a snake, then through another small passage of sandstone until he came to a plateau.

What was on the other side was really quite breathtaking.

There was a waterfall cascading down from a plateau near the top of the bluff and into a pool that it had carved for itself out of the bedrock over a long period of time. It settled into the pool several feet below the ledge Lee was standing on. The water was a crystalline, azure blue, and after spending all day travelling in the desert sun, Lee was incredibly tempted to just dive in to cool off.

He glanced up to see where the water was coming from, bringing his hand up to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight that poured in from the crack at the top of the bluff. The hiss of the waterfall seemed loud after the calm of the desert outside, but it was mostly just the echo he could hear. It was such an isolated place for an oasis that much of the succulent plant life growing around the water’s edge was undisturbed by animals.

Lee jumped a little as he heard the slithering sound behind him become much louder. He turned fully when he saw the sand taking the shape of a human figure, and then gradually his boyfriend’s face emerged from the waterfall of sand.

“Gaara,” Lee sighed, somewhat relieved.

“Lee,” Gaara replied, his voice flat. “What are you doing out here?”

“Looking for you,” Lee replied, as though it was obvious. “You didn’t exactly give us a lot of notice when you decided to come out here.”

Gaara didn’t answer that. His face was impassive, an unsettling reminder of his younger days. Lee didn’t like it.

“I was worried about you. I’ve—I’ve actually been pretty worried about you since the mission to Snow. We haven’t had a chance to talk about that,” Lee added, stepping a little closer.

“What is there to talk about?” Gaara asked, his voice oddly more… robotic than usual. “We were betrayed. I discovered the betrayal before anyone was seriously hurt, and the conference was productive.”

Lee looked at Gaara softly. “You were betrayed.”

“You were friends with them too, as was Kankuro, and many others in Suna who came into contact with them.”

“Gaara,” Lee said gently.

Gaara stared at him.

Lee approached him carefully. “I know this hurts you more than it could hurt anybody else. What do you have to gain by pretending that everything is okay when it’s not?” he asked, looking at his boyfriend imploringly.

If he was getting through to him, Gaara’s eyes gave no hint of it. He simply stood there with his arms folded, his face still.

Losing patience a little bit, Lee huffed. “So what? You’re just going to sulk out in the desert about it?”

“I am not—” Gaara began, but he stopped and clenched his jaw. “There is nothing to talk about, Lee. You should not have come out here.”

“Why not? Maybe I felt like seeing my boyfriend after a week of no contact, too,” Lee replied. “Did you even think of that?”

Gaara didn’t say anything. Lee knew that Gaara rarely felt any form of guilt – he wasn’t even sure that it was a part of his emotional vocabulary. But he knew that Gaara had to be missing him too.

“I did come looking for you. You weren’t where I thought you would be,” Gaara replied.

Lee frowned. “Oh? Where did you think I would be?”

“Training.”

“Where?”

“By the arroyo.”

“Oh. Did you think to check the indoor arena? What about the outdoor one? The gym? Ishizaki-sensei’s dojo? The izakaya your brother drags me to after work sometimes?” Lee asked, tilting his head to the side and folding his arms.

“…No,” Gaara replied, looking out over the oasis.

Lee looked at Gaara in annoyance. “So you didn’t look very hard, then.”

“I have nothing to prove to you,” Gaara snapped, turning away from his boyfriend.

“I wish you had tried harder,” Lee snapped back. “You promised you would come and find me when things got like this.”

Gaara didn’t answer that.

“Gaara… I really wish you would at least acknowledge that you’re hurt by what Yuya and Akito did to you… You really cared for them, I know you did.” Lee approached his boyfriend until he was standing just behind him. He smiled as he felt the red spikes of hair brush against his chin, then placed his hands on Gaara’s shoulders and rubbed gently.

It was only then that Lee realised how stiff Gaara’s body was. He could always feel tension in the smaller man’s frame, but right now it was like touching stone. He examined the small amount of flesh visible at Gaara’s nape to see if he was wearing the sand armour, which he didn’t seem to be. Lee didn’t let the rigidity of his boyfriend’s body hinder his touch. He felt Gaara’s frame loosen a bit as he worked his thumbs into his deltoids anyway, but there was still something off-kilter inside him, and Lee was determined to help him figure it out.

“Please… Please come back to the village with us. I want to help you through this. I can’t imagine how much pain you’re in.”

Suddenly, he felt Gaara’s shoulders begin to shake. Lee thought he was crying for a moment, but he realised, with no small amount of confusion, that Gaara was laughing.

It started off a silent chuckle, but it soon exploded into the brittle, deranged laughter that had once haunted Lee’s dreams. He let go of Gaara’s shoulders and took a step back.

“Gaara..?”

“Pain?!” Gaara barked. “They were nothing to me. I wish I had killed them when I had the chance!”

Lee blinked, stunned. “You… you don’t mean that...”

“Don’t I?” Gaara snarled, turning to look over his shoulder at Lee. His eyes looked darker than Lee remembered seeing them for a long time.

Lee swallowed, but he didn’t turn away. He didn’t think he knew how to.

“If you think trying to scare me is going to make me give up on you, then you’re wrong. Frankly I’m a little upset you would even consider that,” Lee replied, folding his arms.

Gaara walked away from him and hovered around the edge of the small plateau they were standing on. He was mumbling something.

Lee watched him for a few minutes, wondering if Gaara had even heard him.

“Gaara,” Lee began softly, wondering if his boyfriend had managed to get a handle on his emotions enough to speak to him properly. “Please come with me back to the village. I’m worried about you. Everybody is… and… I need you to come home with me, please. You… you need me—”

“I don’t need you! I don’t need anybody!” Gaara snarled, snapping his head around almost unnaturally fast.

Lee was silent, a little shocked.

Gaara stared at him. He didn’t seem to notice or even care that Lee’s eyes were beginning to shine with tears. Gaara’s own eyes had lost the vicious, piercing glint that they’d had before, as if he’d shocked even himself with his words. Now they were dull like sea glass.

Letting out a shaky breath, Lee swallowed the lump in his throat. He really hadn’t anticipated just how deeply Yuya’s betrayal had wounded his boyfriend. Seeing it reflected in the rawness of Gaara’s breakdown was jarring to say the least.

“He didn’t…. He didn’t mean anything he said either… Yashamaru… He… he wanted me dead too… For killing his sister… Mother…” Gaara muttered, barely audible. The sand at their feet gave a strange shuffle, as if answering a call.

Lee knew Gaara’s past all too well, so he felt a bit stupid for not noticing the parallel sooner. He closed his eyes as he felt a tear roll down his cheek.

“Gaara…” he choked out. “Please… please come back… I know it’s hard, but you have to try. If not for yourself… then for your village. Please. They need you, even if you don’t think you need them.” He wasn’t sure what he was asking to return: Gaara’s emotional equilibrium, or his physical presence in the village.

Gaara didn’t seem to hear him. Lee knew that the others were probably losing it out there, but there was no way he was leaving his boyfriend alone in this state. There was still no response from Gaara though; he simply stared out over the oasis. Lee sighed and sat down on a nearby rock.

After a few minutes, Gaara seemed to notice him again. He frowned at him, his eyes a bit more focused now.

“You’re still here?” he groaned.

“Yes,” Lee replied, as if it was obvious.

Gaara huffed.

“So that’s it then? You’re not coming back?”

“Will you please leave me alone?” Gaara snapped.

“Not until I know you’re coming back. And if you don’t and you run away from me now, I promise I’m going to keep scouring this desert looking for you. I don’t care if it kills me.”

Gaara looked at him sharply. Lee knew that his boyfriend knew he meant it.

“I’m serious, Gaara. You can’t just give up because being vulnerable got more difficult all of a sudden. You have to keep trying. I’m not going to let you just walk away from it. Gai-sensei said that the sea doesn’t wear away the cliff in one blow; it crashes against it again and again to carve more space for itself.”

Gaara growled—a strange, animalistic sound that not many people had heard him make and lived to tell the tale.

Lee would’ve smirked if he had it in him to be mischievous. He knew he’d hit the right nerve. Or maybe it was just that he was emulating Gai-sensei and his grand speeches, which often annoyed Gaara when he was in his darker moods. 

“Look, the others are not far away. Let’s go out and meet them, shall we? They’re all worried. Especially your brother,” Lee said softly.

Gaara didn’t say anything for a long moment. He seemed to be thinking.

“…Gaara?”

“I am not coming back.”

“What?! But you can’t just—”

“I’m not ready,” Gaara muttered. His voice was near a whisper, and he sounded very small and vulnerable all of a sudden.

The rapid changes in his lover’s emotional state were almost enough to give Lee whiplash.

“If…” Gaara began.

“…Yes?”

“Will you meet me by the arroyo?” Gaara asked, peering up at Lee almost shyly.

“…When?” Lee murmured.

“…Soon. I don’t know when. At night,” he replied. “I’ll be ready.”

Lee’s gaze softened. “Okay.”

Gaara didn’t say anything else. After giving Lee a long, unreadable look, he began to dissipate into his ephemeral sand form once more. Lee watched him float up and slip through the gap in the rock above them, the sand flowing in graceful arcs.

*

The days that followed seemed to drag on like nothing else. Not that Lee was ever one for administrative duties, but knowing that Gaara would return soon, and most likely at night, was making the time spent at his desk seem to go even slower.

Kankuro had been beyond annoyed with Lee for giving him the slip like that, but when Lee told him about their conversation at the oasis – albeit a watered down version of it – he’d soon let the subject go. At this point, Kankuro would just be happy for Gaara to get back so he no longer had to fill in for him. The last time Lee spoke to him, he had been on the verge of ordering the assassination of two particular Council members who would not stop antagonising each other. Or so he had said, anyway.

Still, at least Lee could still train. That never ceased to make time pass more quickly. He’d begun working faster at the office so he could finish early and head out to the arroyo to train, just on the off chance that Gaara would show up before sunset.

Lee chewed his lip as he drew lazy squiggles in the corner of the page he was writing on. He was meant to be detailing his contribution to the upcoming transfer of a Konoha-born criminal back to Fire Country for trial, but he just couldn’t focus on anything else but his boyfriend’s return. Lee glanced up at the clock and his mood soured a little bit more when he realised that he still had an hour and a half left.

He wasn’t going to get anything done today, he realised. He didn’t usually skip out on work early – Lee was dutiful to a fault – but he just couldn’t stay here and do nothing. Besides, he didn’t want to rush his work, and he figured that he wouldn’t finish it today anyway. He tidied up his desk and collected the papers he needed to send off, making some excuse about heading over to the aviary to check if some urgent post had arrived yet. Barely anyone else in his office noticed him leaving, apparently a lot more absorbed in their work than Lee was.

Hopping over the rooftops toward the entrance to Suna felt more liberating than Lee could remember it being before. He made it to the arroyo in what felt like record time, leaving a trail of little dust clouds in his wake.

Gaara, however, was nowhere in sight.

Frowning, Lee called out his boyfriend’s name a few times just to make sure he wasn’t obscured by a cactus or a rock, and even made sure to check here and there just in case. But there was no sign of him. Lee focused his mind to check if Gaara’s chakra signature was there, even residually, but… nothing.

Oh well.

Lee began doing some warm-up stretches, and then set to going through his usual routine.

The time passed a lot more quickly now, as it usually did, and by the time Lee had completed the complex routine of kata, cardio and muscle building exercises, the sun was beginning to set.

Panting, he wiped the sweat from his brow and walked over to his backpack to pick up a rag. He wiped his face and rummaged around for a bottle of water, and then sat down to drink it while he watched the sun set over the horizon.

Lee’s eyes felt heavy as he watched the sky gradually become darker. He was still sitting upright on the ground, but as he had trained himself to sleep while running (among other things), it wasn’t long before he was drifting off to sleep.

He woke up with a start to much cooler weather, his senses prickling violently as he registered a powerful chakra signature approaching him. Lee was not a sensor type, so although he could feel another’s chakra like any other shinobi, he wasn’t able to sense it as keenly. However, when that chakra belonged to Gaara, his lover and best friend, who he had been pining for like a lost limb, it was rather impossible to ignore.

Gaara appeared before him in the same jutsu he had the other day. Like a dust devil at first, and then a waterfall of sand that gave way to his striking face, illuminated by the moonlight and the dim glow of Suna’s lanterns on the horizon behind them.

“Gaara,” Lee breathed, feeling as though a weight was rolling off his chest.

Immediately, Lee could tell that Gaara didn’t seem half as disturbed as he did the other day. His face was its usual impassive mask; the only sign that anything was wrong was that his eyes were lacking the radiant peace Lee had often coaxed from him when they spent a few hours alone.

Lee couldn’t help but smile.

He stood up slowly, stretching his back a little as he took a few steps closer. Gaara didn’t seem upset by this, so he continued until there was just a foot or so between them. He slowly brought his hands up to Gaara’s face, watching his eyes for any sign of distress. Gaara just peered down at his hands and made no move to stop him, so Lee kept on, finally bringing them up to cup his face.

Ever so lightly, he tilted Gaara’s chin up so he could look him in the eyes fully.

“Everything okay?” he murmured, his dark eyes searching his face.

Gaara looked at him wearily. It seemed as though he was trying to hold himself together, and the stony façade was crumbling a bit. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but stopped himself. He only nodded once.

“Good,” Lee whispered. “Can I…?” he began, and stepped forward to wrap his arms around his boyfriend slowly.

Gaara stepped into his arms fully, taking Lee by surprise. He wrapped his arms tightly around Lee’s chest and buried his face against his pectoral muscle.

Smiling, Lee embraced him tightly. He sighed, his breath making the short spikes of hair tickling his chin flutter slightly. “I missed you,” he whispered, and rested his cheek against Gaara’s forehead.

Gaara tilted his head up a little so Lee’s lips brushed the kanji on his forehead. “Missed you too,” he muttered.

They stood like that for a long while, simply basking in the closeness of one another. It was like coming up for air after a long time spent underwater, and Lee hummed at the warmth that was emanating from deep inside him.

“It’s okay,” he whispered, gently stroking Gaara’s head. “It’s all okay.”

A moment later, Gaara was pulling back slightly, but not far enough to break their embrace. He looked from Lee’s eyes to his mouth, and gently brought one hand up to stroke Lee’s lower lip. Then, without any further warning, he leaned up and pressed their mouths together.

They kissed gently, sweetly even, in a way that made Lee’s legs feel like they’d turned to jelly. He moaned into it softly, tilted his head to the side and deepened it.

With the first brush of tongue, Gaara seemed to grow suddenly more impassioned. He reached up to cup the back of Lee’s head, and began to suck his tongue into his mouth even more, slipping and sliding his own along it greedily.

Surprised, Lee’s eyes flickered and he shifted a bit. He closed his eyes and lost himself to the kiss, feeling as though he was being pulled along with the current. He should really—stop—they-they needed to talk!

“Wait,” Lee said, pulling away from the kiss with a slick noise that made him shiver. “Don’t you—Shouldn’t we discuss everything first?”

Gaara scowled at him and shook his head, then moved in to kiss Lee again.

Lee turned his mouth away, earning himself an even deeper scowl. “I’m serious, Gaara! You can’t just disappear into the desert for days then just—just jump me the second you come back!”

It occurred to Lee that Gaara was the Kazekage and could, in fact, do as he pleased to a large extent, but that was beside the point right now.

Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t want to talk right now. I haven’t touched you in nearly two weeks. I need…” he trailed off, as if unable to find the words for what he needed. “I need to feel… closer…”

Lee swallowed and felt his cheeks burn. Looking down into his lover’s eyes, it was very difficult to ignore the intensity that stared back at him.

It was very difficult not to get turned on by it, too.

“Touch me, Lee,” Gaara said, his voice low with need and his fingers tightening in the fabric of Lee’s jumpsuit.

Lee’s heart was pounding away in his chest. It was impossible to deny his arousal. He let out a nervous breath he didn’t know he was holding in. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he caught Gaara’s lips in his own once more and all but devoured his mouth, moaning deeply. Gaara responded with the desperation of someone forced to sit through a week’s worth of tedious meetings before wandering the desert alone for several more days afterward.

A small gasp broke their kiss as Gaara pushed Lee up against a nearby boulder, but they were latching onto each other again in no time. Lee buried his fingers in Gaara’s dusty hair, dislodging sand particles and combing it back from his face as he cupped his head tenderly. Gaara braced himself against the rock with one hand planted against its surface for balance, but the other one was resting against Lee’s pectoral muscle and caressing it softly.

The same hand slithered down possessively and he let go of the rock to hold onto the back of Lee’s neck. Lee broke away from their kiss with a gasp when he felt Gaara’s hand at his crotch. He huffed as he felt him rubbing along the length of his cock through his jumpsuit. It was almost embarrassing how quickly Lee got to full mast when Gaara touched him…

Any thoughts of embarrassment were soon eclipsed by pleasure though as Gaara’s hand moved lower to cup his balls, and then up again to try and fully grip his cock through the fabric.

When he didn’t succeed, Gaara let out an impatient growl and fumbled for the zip at the back of Lee’s neck with his other hand. He pulled it down swiftly and Lee shuffled around to pull his jumpsuit down over his shoulders. He’d abandoned the flak jacket a short while into his training routine, finding it easier to practice his kata without it. This made it significantly easier to push the top of his jumpsuit down just enough for Gaara to free his hard-on from his underwear.

Still, Lee was a little unprepared for the sudden pleasure that struck him when Gaara grabbed him and gave him one firm pump. He moaned loudly and his legs buckled below him. His back burned a little as he slid down the rock face to the floor, pulling Gaara with him until they were a tangle of limbs on the sand.

Above him, Gaara got to his knees and let go of Lee’s cock. He unfastened the buckles holding his coat around his body and then pulled open the loose, draping red fabric that Lee had become so fond of. He shrugged it off of his shoulders and then lifted the mail shirt from his body and over his head, revealing his own smooth, pale skin beneath.

Lee reached for him and pulled him into his arms. Gaara kissed him, wrapping his arms around his neck and moaning as he stroked his tongue against Lee’s erotically. Lee sighed as Gaara lie down on top of him, the feeling of their bare chests pressing together making him shiver. A warm, peaceful pleasure settled into his belly as Gaara hooked a leg over his hip and began to grind against him awkwardly.

“Gaara—” Lee gasped, and reached around his lover to grab his ass and pull his hips in closer. This close, Lee could feel Gaara’s heart thudding against his ribcage, the only indication of his desperation other than the full hardness currently prodding against his belly.

Gaara hummed low in his throat as Lee began to pull at the other belt around his boyfriend’s hips. He unbuckled it quickly and shoved Gaara’s waistband down over his narrow hips until his cock was freed from its confines. He looked down between their bodies with a deep breath and groaned. He wrapped one bandaged hand around Gaara’s shaft and began to pump him firmly.

The whimper of pleasure Gaara released went straight to Lee’s cock. He felt himself twitch powerfully and he let out a breathless moan of pleasure. Gaara’s hand was joining his now and Lee moaned as he realised what he was doing; he shifted so their cocks were aligned and then wrapped his hand around them both, humping into the tightness of his fist.

“Oh—Gaara—” Lee gasped.

“Hnn…”

Gaara’s teeth sinking into his neck was unexpected, but very pleasant. Lee let out a shuddering gasp as he felt his lover bite him harshly – it was painful, but compared to the injuries Lee gave himself when he trained, it was negligible. Gaara lapped and laved over the area as if to apologise and then seemed to search for Lee’s lips once more.

Lee moaned as he kissed his lover once more, the taste of his mouth strangely addictive. He held Gaara around the waist and pulled him close, trapping their erections between their bodies and rubbing himself against the lean muscles on his boyfriend’s stomach.

“Lee—” Gaara breathed, and pulled the leg hooked around Lee’s hip a bit tighter to increase the friction. He let go of their cocks and brought his hand up to rub a nipple with his thumb.

They both moaned breathlessly as they found a kind of sweet spot, with just the right amount of friction and pressure to rub against just the right spots. Every now and then, Lee’s fraenulum would catch on the edge of Gaara’s belt and it would send a searing hot pleasure through his body for the briefest of moments, and he would moan loudly enough for Gaara to growl possessively in response.

Once they had a rhythm going, the intensity of their movements increased. Gaara was grunting and growling every time he felt Lee pulse against him, and there was a growing wetness between their bodies. They rutted against each other like dogs, and the sight of Gaara riding him in this way after so long barely seeing each other was almost overwhelming.

Lee knew he didn’t have the patience to keep going for too long—which was unlike him—but Gaara seemed all too aware of this and was keen to get him there.

“Come—come for me, Lee—I want—I want to see it—I want to see your face—” Gaara growled, his voice jumping a little from the force of their rutting.

Lee felt the pleasure crawling up his back, his balls pulling up close to his body. He held Gaara impossibly close as he thrust his hips back and forth fiercely.

“Ooh… Gaara, I’m—” he breathed out, shuddering violently. He suddenly pushed his lover back into the sand and began to rut against him in an imitation of fucking, stopping Gaara’s thrusts completely. He screwed his eyes shut as he rubbed against him harshly, and within moments he came with a strangled grunt that dissipated into a stream of desperate, high pitched moans. His cum spilled out in sticky streaks over Gaara’s taut abdomen and Lee shuddered at the sight.

Below him, Gaara was watching, enraptured.

It took Lee a few moments to catch his breath. He panted over Gaara’s body, his head hanging between his muscular shoulders as he braced himself on his hands over his lover’s body. His hair was a dark curtain obscuring his face, but he flicked it out of his eyes and pushed it up to wipe the sweat from his brow.

He didn’t have much time to recover however, as he’d barely sat up when he heard an excited growl from the man below him, right before he was suddenly flipped onto his back. Then Gaara was above him, his legs hooked over either side of his body.

With a devious, slightly menacing smirk, Gaara shuffled forwards on his knees until he was straddling his chest. Lee glanced down to where Gaara’s cock was resting against his pecs, and then he returned the smirk with a coy smile.

“This again?” Lee asked. His cheeks were a bit pink, and not just from the afterglow of his orgasm.

Gaara bit his lip and nodded. He shifted and pulled his pants down to further expose his erection to the cool night air, and then sat down lower so the head of his cock was prodding the centre of Lee’s chest.

Lee reached forward to grasp Gaara’s hips tightly. The movement meant that his pectoral muscles were pressed together a bit more and created a tighter crevice. Gaara moaned, a ragged, desperate sound, as he began to thrust between the two firm orbs of flesh. He even reached down to rub and pull at Lee’s nipples.

The blush on Lee’s face was one of embarrassment, but it was nothing compared to the first time they’d done this. Gaara was not shy about his admiration for Lee’s muscles, and if Lee had had any doubts about it regardless, he could well and truly put them to bed once his boyfriend had asked to fuck his pectorals.

Gaara’s hands spread out on Lee’s chest to brace himself, but he didn’t press down too hard. He covered his cock with one hand and began to thrust into the tight space with ragged breaths, his hips jerking back and forth wildly as he lost himself to the pleasure. His face was redder than Lee’s own, but Lee knew there was no embarrassment there; he wasn’t sure that Gaara knew how to be embarrassed.

It took him barely any time to reach the precipice at all. Lee was stroking up and down his chest, marvelling at his lover’s beauty in the bluish moonlight. He rolled a nipple between his thumb and forefinger and stroked across the sparse trail of hair that led down to his crotch, scraping his fingernails through it indulgently.

Gaara’s hips juddered violently and Lee glanced up to watch his face contort in pleasure. He let out a choked sound and a series of raspy moans as a warm, wet feeling spread across Lee’s chest.

A few moments later, when the convulsions in his body had slowed and finally stopped, Gaara slumped against him slightly. He braced himself on the rock beside them and slowly shuffled back a bit so that he was sitting more in Lee’s lap. He glanced around, still panting, to find the rag Lee had used earlier, and gave them both a cursory wipe over before flopping down on Lee’s chest.

Lee wrapped his arms around his shoulders tightly and placed a kiss on top of his head. He stroked his hair away from his face a little bit where it was sticking to his temples with sweat, and exposed the kanji on his forehead.

It wasn’t their most graceful tryst. In fact, Lee felt sure that he’d have a few grazes and sand burns tomorrow. Gaara didn’t often get injured by sand, but Lee was willing to bet that he was going to have some nasty friction burn on his knees by tomorrow. He rubbed one knee affectionately as if trying to make it better.

“Gaara?” he said softly. “Are you awake?”

Gaara didn’t reply, but he shifted a bit.

“You don’t want to talk yet?”

Gaara shook his head fractionally.

“But we will, right?”

A nod.

“Right.”

They lie like that for a short while. Lee stroked the smooth skin of Gaara’s back and breathed in the earthy scent of his hair and his skin. He was warm with Gaara on top of him, so the chilly night air didn’t bother him as much. He counted constellations while he listened to his lover breathe, accompanied by the sound of a gentle wind blowing sands nearby. Somewhere in Suna, a short distance away, a dog was howling. It was a romantic, peaceful moment, and Lee allowed himself to bask in it while it lasted.

Then, after a few long, languid, minutes, Gaara finally spoke. “How do you do it?”

Lee was so relaxed that he almost didn’t hear him speak. “Hm?”

“How do you do it..? How do you… how can you lie here with me… like this… After what I did to you..?” he asked, his voice barely above a murmur.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Lee said gently, his brow a little furrowed in confusion. He was reluctant to interrupt whatever it was Gaara was trying to say.

“Why don’t you try to kill me?” Gaara’s voice was unnervingly flat when he asked this.

“Gaara—!”

“I nearly destroyed your career. Your dream. Everything you’d built your life around… I nearly destroyed it. I nearly—” Gaara gasped, as if just realising something. “I… I nearly killed you... I… I tried…”

“Gaara… that was so long ago,” Lee replied, craning his neck a bit to get a better look at his boyfriend’s face. “Why are you bringing this up now?”

“I…” Gaara began, but seemed to choke on whatever he was going to say. “I don’t think… I don’t think I’m a good person, Lee… I don’t think I have it in me.”

Lee felt his heart melt and he stroked Gaara’s cheek with the back of his fingers soothingly. “Is that what’s been bothering you..? What Yuya said..?”

Gaara didn’t say anything. His eyes were fixed on a point in the darkness beyond where they lie.

“Listen to me, Gaara. Yuya is a very, very damaged person. I won’t lie; he has a right to hate you for what you took from him. But he did not have the right to take your life. And he doesn’t have the right to rule you in this way,” Lee explained firmly.

“But what if he’s right?”

“He’s not.”

“Then why can’t I do what other people do? Why don’t I have what other people have?” Gaara said, looking up at Lee with a hard gaze.

Lee didn’t know quite what to say to that. He opened his mouth to speak, but Gaara continued.

“Ever since I was a child, all I’ve ever wanted was to feel like I belonged, that I was wanted. I know I have more now than I ever did before, and I don’t know what I would do without it now, if what I have with you, Temari, Kankuro, and Naruto, were to disappear. But at the same time, I…” Gaara trailed off. “What I had… with Yuya and Akito… it was the first time that I felt like… like I was a part of something. Not just a leader, or a brute force like I am on missions, but… just…”

“An equal?” Lee suggested softly.

“…I suppose so, yes. It was the kind of relationship I imagine I may have had with my siblings if… if things had been different.”

Lee didn’t say anything for a moment, but he stroked down Gaara’s back once more and pulled him closer in silent comfort.

“I guess it just confirmed some things to me, that’s all. I just… I don’t think they were the kind of things I wanted to be confirmed,” Gaara finished with a sigh.

“What things?”

“That I can’t… that I’m not capable of normal relationships, with… with normal people. I’m too… damaged,” he said with a scowl, as if he wasn’t able to articulate what he was feeling accurately enough. “The fantasy was nice while it lasted, though.”

“Then what do you have with me?” Lee asked.

“Well… You’re not exactly normal…”

“Hey!”

“It’s hard to explain. I just… I want to feel accepted by people. I want to feel accepted by them… I want them to believe I have good inside me.”

“Gaara, they wouldn’t accept you as their Kazekage if they didn’t respect you.”

“That’s different. I took this job on because I wanted to give my life meaning by protecting people, rather than hurting them. I didn’t do it because I thought it would make me friends with everyone,” Gaara explained, flicking a stray clump of sand off of Lee’s arm. “They know I’ll protect them, because I’ve proven that I can and will. It’s not the same thing as friendship, though. You and Naruto have proven that to me.”

Lee watched him for a few moments. “Do you want to know what I think?” he asked, tilting his head to the side to look his lover in the eye.

Gaara looked up at him again.

“I think you need to make peace with the fact that this might be it for you... that you might only ever have me, Naruto, and your family. But that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You can’t control if other people like you or forgive you for what you’ve done in the past, nor can you base your opinion of yourself on whether or not they accept you. Just like I can’t control that I can’t use my chakra like everybody else. What you can control… is whether or not you try to make something out of what you’ve got,” Lee explained.

Gaara looked at him thoughtfully. When he made no move to respond, Lee continued.

“What I’m trying to say is… the fact that you tried is a success in itself. The Gaara I met when we were kids… he never would’ve tried. But the Gaara I know now, the Gaara I fell in love with… he tries. He tries because he wants to make his life mean something more than pain and death. He wants it to mean something good. And that… That, Gaara, is a victory.”

Gaara seemed to consider this carefully. He didn’t speak for several long minutes.

“What if trying isn’t enough?” he asked finally.

“It is.”

“How do you know that? What do I do when I have nothing else to give?” Gaara asked.

Lee shifted a bit. “Gaara… if I stopped training when I was exhausted, I wouldn’t be here with you right now. I would’ve dropped out of the academy and I’d never have achieved my dream of becoming a great ninja. But I didn’t. I kept going even when my hands were bleeding and it hurt just to breathe. Gai-sensei said that this is what made me a splendid shinobi: my intentions were what defined my spirit, not the outcomes, although it was wonderful when I succeeded.”

The way Gaara was looking at him was unreadable, but Lee had the feeling he was getting through to him.

“Do you understand what I’m saying? I don’t try because I expect to succeed right away. I try because if I don’t, then it means I’ve given up on myself, and I just don’t know how to do that,” Lee explained. He stroked Gaara’s face delicately and looked deeply into his eyes. “You almost gave up on yourself, and I don’t want you to do that ever again. I don’t want you to go back to who you were when we first met. So don’t… don’t give up yourself, Gaara. Keep trying, even when it seems hopeless. Especially when it seems hopeless.”

Gaara looked at him for a long time. Lee felt a little uncomfortable under such an intense gaze, but he didn’t look away. He stroked a few locks of hair out of his boyfriend’s face while he waited for his words to sink in.

“You okay?” Lee asked after a minute or two.

“I think…” Gaara began, still frowning a bit, but thoughtfully now. “I think you’re right. Everything you said… makes sense.”

Lee grinned. “Good,” he whispered.

“How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You just… you make it all seem so… Never mind.” Gaara shook his head, his brows furrowed.

Lee smirked. He knew what he meant.

Gaara gave a small, weary smile in response, and leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on Lee’s mouth.

“You ready to go home now?” Lee asked, ruffling Gaara’s hair gently.

“I think I’d better. I’ll probably be removed from office if I don’t get back soon,” Gaara replied.

“That’s if Kankuro isn’t tried for treason for assassinating members of the Council first,” Lee said.

Gaara paused in reaching for his coat to shoot Lee a concerned look. “Is it that bad?”

Lee chuckled as he wiped the last of their cum from his chest with his rag. “Are you surprised? I think you and Temari hogged all the political genes in your family.”

Gaara mumbled something under his breath and began making quick work of getting dressed. Lee pulled his jumpsuit back on properly, took his flak jacket from his boyfriend and collected the last of his things while Gaara finished wrapping his coat around his body.

“What time is it?” Gaara asked as they began walking back to the village.

“I don’t know. I came down here a little earlier than usual in case you showed, so probably not that late,” Lee replied. He slipped his hand into Gaara’s and smiled as he took it without question.

“Alright. I wonder if Councillor Masa finished the draft of my bill? I asked her to have it on my desk by Monday, but I daresay she’s dragging her feet a bit as she was so sceptical when I discussed it with her…” Gaara trailed off. He muttered about work things for the rest of the journey back, occasionally asking Lee about things he didn’t know the answer to.

Lee smiled at his boyfriend. It was good to have him home.  

*