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The Pattern of Living

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“As long as habit and routine dictate the pattern of living, new dimensions of the soul will not emerge.”
- Henry Van Dyke

I.
-
For Rock Lee, comfort could always be found in routine. Repetition, with little, orchestrated variations; pleasant incremental shifts building one upon the other over time, creating harmony and promoting a sense of self centering. The familiar ease of his morning routine was balanced with the different obstacles that came with each new day. Generally these obstacles presented themselves in the form of knocking a stack of books off the nightstand, hip checking a table, or perhaps he had run out of kitchen matches with which he would’ve lit the range to cook rice porridge. Small, simple problems that painted each morning with a new and interesting range of feelings and sensation.

On this particular morning, the dawn was quiet and brought with it a particularly lovely breeze. Lee stood at his balcony for many minutes just listening to the leaves in the trees and the occasional rattle of a power line knocking a pole. His little third story walk up faced away from the looming cliff face that towered over the village, with its seemingly omniscient eyes of past hokages. Secretly, he had always found the batholith to be more than mildly disconcerting. Instead, his was the view of the forest's edge off a large park with a few shorter, surrounding buildings, peaceful and tucked away near the outer edge of Konohagakure.

With the refreshing lungful of air through the nose, this morning, Lee decided, he would take a few laps around the village. After all three series of the King Pigeon kata formations. But before that, some dedicated core work. And maybe a good, thorough round of press ups. Nothing to kick start the day like a few hundred press ups!

He wandered quietly to the kitchen as he thought of the numerous different ways to challenge himself that day - one handed press ups, thumb and fore finger press ups, handstand press ups! - and prepared himself breakfast. Another easy ritual that never failed to bring him comfort. This beautiful morning called for something special! There was some leftover tofu calling to be doused in soy sauce and spicy oil, and perhaps a soft boiled egg to go with his rice?

Below, neighborhood chickens were startling each other awake. A few months ago he had spied his neighbor re-shingling their roof, a large job for one man to do by himself. Lee had all been too happy to offer Tsuneo-san a helping hand. As it turned, there was careful and particular legislation regarding the drainpipes that snaked along the buildings of the village that demanded various pieces of complex paperwork be satisfied before Tsuneo-san completed his project. While away at the public hall to sort through these priorities, Lee finished the job. Ever since, the old man had brought Lee chicken eggs every other week, despite Lee’s protests. The gesture never failed to fill his heart with warmth as he set several on to cook.

Around him he could hear the groaning of the building’s pipework, and outside that of owl song. The fog that clung to the trees at dawn had since dissipated. Strong earthy coffee ready to steep and the water set to boil and Lee began to stretch in anticipation of his work out. Discipline drove everything in Lee’s life. Rhythm and purpose propelled him into each day, willing to meet his wall and overcome it, surpass it. The undercurrent of his days were these domesticities. These quiet human platitudes were strictly regimented by his relatives, when he had few, as a younger man. As he grew he felt fortified by them.

He leaned over and pressed into a rejuvenating downward dog, breathing in the life around him. The houseplants, the fire knocking in the gas range, the low murmur of the waking tenants below. The happy innocuous rumblings of life moving forward. Lee never thought about his work for the day when he trained but rather focused on his body and mind; and when those were quiet, he just listened. Downward dog slowly eased into a plank position and all his sore muscles sang, the burn of lactic acid warming the sleep from his body. Nearby, a chicken trilled and Lee burst into motion.

Light rose over the treeline quicker than he had anticipated. The dappled rays of early morning now shone through thick cloud and greying sky. At just shy of a five hundred the kettle called.

A flicker of chakra nearby, so faint and sudden he had surely thought he’d imagined it. But what sort of Shinobi would he be if he were to ignore the instincts he had been trained to listen to since childhood, stunted as they were? The breeze tossed aside the balcony curtain, a gentle clinking of a nearby bell. He had a visitor.

“Oh, good morning, Tenten. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

The nin in question perched on the rail just outside the door, feet precariously close to a potted plant he was vigorously working to keep alive.

“Polite pass, I’m trying to drink less caffeine.” Lee scoffed at the idea, a smile on his face and went to prepare his drink. “We have a mission, I got the message early this morning.”

“So early? It must be urgent!”

“You’d think so but we have a couple of hours. There’s going to be a high profile meeting today and we’ve been asked to assist the incoming party. It’s possible the meeting may last a few days, with projected addendums. It should all go well. It’s administrative work but apparently we’ve been asked for specifically.

“That being said,” she continued, kicking off her sandals and stepping inside after Lee. “Neji won’t be join us.”

“What?” Lee practically shouted from his small kitchen. He had poured two cups despite Tenten’s decline and precisely balanced them both in one hand - one on top of the other, everything could be turned into a training exercise if one put their heart into it - as he ushered his breakfast in the other into the living room.

“Well it makes sense,” She absently accepted her cup from atop his. “He’s got high status clan affiliation. It’s for his safety as well as for the protection of any potential classified information. He may be a jounin but he’s been asked to sit this one out.” She sipped her coffee nonchalantly. “And it’s not like we’ve been asked to go anywhere without him. We’re attending some meetings in high security clearance administrative offices. There will be formality, pomp and circumstance, and quite possibly unattainable ideals presented without hope for practical execution - typical bureaucratic shop talk. Neji would hate it.”

“You’re more critical of the establishment than usual this morning.” Lee chuckled, listening attentively as he ate his breakfast. His teammate had yet to establish who the incoming political party was, which possibly meant that she didn’t know. However, the list of diplomats that would have asked for their cell by name was small, especially so knowing that involving a Hyuga family branch member had it’s stipulations.

Outside, the promise of the day was quickly turning overcast and the likelihood of getting his laps in was starting to dwindle. A spark of determination flared in his belly. If he couldn’t get in fifty laps around the village backwards before the inevitable rain set in, he would do a thousand kick punches before the foreign diplomats arrived.

“If this goes well, we could very well be assigned to these people long term. There’s the possibility for securing continuing diplomatic relations.” Tenten helped herself to the dish of boiled eggs.

“So you don’t know who they are.”

“No,” Tenten confirmed with a heavy sigh into her coffee. “The message was direct from Shizune and very succinct. We are expected to meet the incoming party at the gates and escort them to the appropriate location.”

“We’re going to escort? They don’t require an ANBU unit?”

“Not from us. They’re bringing a team with them. Any way you look at it, it certainly sends a message.”

“But what sort of message?”

“Personal strength? Independence?”

“A threat?” Lee supplied quietly, sipping his cooling coffee leisurely, mulling the situation.

Tenten grimaced and polished off an egg doused in soy sauce. “Regardless,” she continued, finished her drink and set it on the table with an air of finality, “It’s not bound to be a thrilling day.”

“It isn’t about the thrill, Tenten. It’s about trust and the dedication of hard work that we can provide to them!” Lee smiled, a rousing feeling of a speech from Gai-sensei rising inside him, cheering him on.

“You’re too much this early in the morning. Is it the coffee? Stop drinking coffee.”

“Never! No one can take this sweet, sweet ambrosia of morning’s kindness away from me.” He replied seriously, cradling the empty cup close to his heart.

-

The imminence of rain built overhead with the rising of the wind. The leaves tossed back and forth in the forest around them. Lee and Tenten stood side by side, silently reading the air for any sign of the approaching party. High above, the gate guards milled about, having yet to alert the two to any activity they might have missed.

“I hope they get here before the rain arrives.” Tenten shifted. They had each brought a pair of umbrellas, but were unaware of the size of the party and whether or not they had their own. Perhaps they wouldn’t mind the rain. There had been very little information provided and it was quickly becoming a pain.

“Neji would have made us leave the umbrellas at home.”

“Well Neji isn’t here right now, so suck it up.”

Suddenly, a particularly harsh gust of wind roiled from the south west. The thrashing of the canopy was deafening. Lee could scarcely hear the guards above, but imagined their alarm. He kept his eyes on the tree line.

“Wait!” Tenten suddenly tensed, becoming still.

The wind rose again, wild with chakra.

“It’s-”

The assembly of ninja appeared, each descending from the tree tops one after the other. The party was small, smaller than Lee was anticipating. Two shinobi in face shrouds and tan flak jackets stood immediately assessing the scene. One of the ANBU shut a hand fan with a decisive snap and the roaring wind instantly began to die down. In a flurry of sand, a short nin in deep maroon appeared between the two.

“Kazekage-sama!”

“Gaara!”

The Leaf nin exclaimed simultaneously. Lee felt the eyes of one of the Suna ANBU on him but he ignored them for looking at his friend. The other approached a guard to exchange paperwork, but he may as well have walked off the face of the earth for all Lee cared.

Gaara of the Sand, Kazekage, his friend, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a year was here! Before his eyes like a mirage! A dewy, warm feeling bubbled inside his ribs, filling him with childish glee. Lee took this moment to really look at him, to examine every new minutia of change.

His hair, eyes, and ears were all as red, bright, and round as he remembered them, but still so small! The sand nin had always been short but perhaps Lee had grown again? Dressed for spring travel, Gaara wore loose harem trousers and short sleeve tunic, over which draped a sash though whether it’s function was an ornament of office or to account for wet Konoha springs, Lee wasn’t sure. That which couldn’t be quantified was the air of position he wore about him. This was the presence of the Kazekage - and he wore it well.

Said Kazekage had been looking into the trees himself, until a further two nin appeared - both ANBU members. Before he could confer with the new arrivals, Lee started forward.

“Gaara! Welcome-” Lee was unsure whether to offer his hand or open his arms in a hug but he was closing in on Gaara fast, ready for whatever beautiful moment their reunion would ignite. Gaara turned to look at Lee - with those hard, wide eyes, eyes he’d seen in his dreams for years - just as a hand clapped around his wrist like an iron band.

Lee locked eyes with the ANBU member. They had attempted to wrap his arm behind his back in a show of force and protection. Lee was unsurprised, after all, he had just approached an important foreign dignitary in a manner very unbecoming of a chunin. It of course being said that the ANBU had attempted it but was unable to actually force Lee’s arm to move.

“You will step away from the Kazekage, Leaf.”

“Ah, I apologize-”

“It’s alright.” Both looked at Gaara. He had affixed Lee with a direct smile - or for what Gaara’s microexpressions passed for a smile. But it was a smile nonetheless. “Release our escort, ANBU.”

Half shrouded face visibly reluctant, the shinobi stepped from between the two. Before Lee could heave a breath of relief, Gaara took a step forward into Lee’s space and adjusted his chin atop his shoulder in an automatic embrace.

“Hello, my friend.” Gaara said softly. The wind rushed past his ears in a mighty gust, and Lee gripped him round the shoulders harder for it. Pressed together, Lee was sure Gaara could feel his heart beating in elation and warm surprise.

“Hello,” Lee weakly whispered back into his hair. After a moment, they released each other. Remembering himself, Lee took a step back and bowed quickly. “Hello, and welcome back to Konohagakure, Kazekage-sama. Apologies for my surprise, we were not informed as to identities of the foreign party we were to be escorting. Forgive my lapse, ANBU-san.” Lee turned and bowed to the ANBU who did nothing.

“Is this the entire party, ANBU-san?” Tenten enquired. Again, Gaara turned and spoke to her directly.

“Yes. I would have brought an advisor, but Temari is pregnant and I asked Kankuro to stay behind with her to handle the day to day. Our intended stay will be as short as possible.”

Tenten failed to hide shock from her face. Gaara studied her expression.

“Have I said something to put you off?”

“She’s-? Temari’s-?”

“Oh.” He said after a beat. “Maybe I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”

“Yes, that’s generally a surprise.” She replied, trying to shake off her crestfallen look.

Lee ruminated on the possible implications of Suna’s business in Konoha. His sibling’s weren’t with him, yet an entire personal fleet of ANBU were. Official Kazekage work, then. If the Kazekage was meeting with the Hokage, brief though it was, the situation must be of great importance. Had Gaara asked for his cell, or perhaps Tsunade-sama had suggested them? What purpose could their cell serve that another’s, like Kakashi-sensei’s or even Asuma-sensei’s cells couldn’t? Tenten shifted beside him, pulling out the umbrellas they had with them.

“Please allow us to escort you to your apartments.” Tenten said, tentatively handing one of her umbrellas aloft in suggestion, and gesturing inside the gates. Gaara waved off the umbrella and started forward.

“That will not be necessary. We beat the storm by a few hours. Please proceed.”

-

For three days, Lee and Tenten sat dutifully in attendance of the meeting between their kage and Suna’s; calling the event a sober affair would have been an understatement. Of course there had been the traditional formality of a tea service prior to each meetings start, but it was clear to him that Gaara was not willing to waste any time.

The political state of Sunagakure was tenuous. After the warring between the two villages had come to an end and Gaara had been installed as Kazekage, the task of preventing the villages’ imminent demise still loomed. Gaara’s challenge had been to work between the demanding will of his council and the seemingly immovable strength of the Court the Daimyo of the Wind to come to some sort of agreement to ensure the village’s lines of trade. Becoming an ally of the Leaf had created an ease in obtaining luxuries such as tea, paper products and medicines, but necessity did not stop there.

Trade was only one facet the the problem. Gaara had worked to cement himself in the hearts and minds of his people to create a community they could believe in, but the change had been slow. Fostering trust had been difficult as the village didn’t operate on Clan politics but rather was a collection of families run by the village Council. The post war period had been difficult economically and there was no compunction within the community to develop intrafamilial cooperation. Further, there was a veritable mountain of legislation that had been passed for over a decade that favored other villages over Suna, which took away productivity and therefore government spending, particularly local municipalities investment in the Sand shinobi. Reduction upon reduction over the years still threatened to dissolve what little peace that had been attained.

Tsunade listened studiously and agreed to form a joint committee. Diplomats from both villages would be assigned and propositions would be created and taken before Court of the Wind. The presiding topic over the course of the visit was Gaara’s insistence that they decide on the members of the committee before he departed. Lee and Tenten were both deeply aware of Tsunade’s displeasure at being bossed around by those younger than her. Lee was frankly surprised that she maintained her composure, though he was certain that she came close to inciting violence against Gaara in his dry, direct manner.

For days the rain had not let up. Hours and hours of endless grey weather streaked the great window and blurred the view of the village below. Lee would find himself listlessly staring through the rain to make out the buildings when the long afternoon stretches sank in. Every evening when the meeting adjourned, a sand ANBU would appear silently at the door and take Gaara back to his designated government apartment.

Lee was initially devastated at the hasty retreat. He had been harboring a daydream wherein he and Gaara perhaps shared a meal or, even more wildly, agreed to spar. Knowing Gai-sensei would scold him for such behavior, Lee reminded himself that this was an important mission and a good shinobi ensured above all else that the mission was completed. Even if the mission entailed passing documents across a large table or distracting the weird little boy who attempted to sneak in and prank Tsunade or boobytrap her office. Tenten quickly learned to inspect the room every morning before the meeting to ensure another smoke bomb didn’t go off in the middle of serious deliberation.

Each day Lee made sure he created eye contact with the Sand ANBU that appeared with Gaara before closing the doors at the start, middle, and end of each meeting. He had been worried he made a poor first impression and hoped it assured them that he would put his life on the line to protect the Kazekage should anything befall him. The ANBU never acknowledged him, and they probably thought him a fool. Yet Gaara would greet him with a smile and mild ‘good morning’ as he entered the chamber. It pleased Lee greatly in a selfish and satisfying way.

Beyond this exchange, Lee had attempted to foster a sense of routine. An environment that said ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’, to ensure a smooth process and stress free conclusion. Meeting Gaara at the door, providing succinct and clear responses when prompted; he did manage to convince Shizune daily to try different blends of tea for the Kazekage. Lee was mildly distressed that Gaara would accept a cup of tea, set it aside and perhaps forget it. Lee quite thought he just didn’t like tea and was being diplomatic in his refusal.

Sitting beside him for days had presented Lee with the opportunity to compile a catalogue of what he knew about Gaara. He had learned he knew very little. But that was alright! It meant that there was much to discover in their friendship, and it was all the more they could share in the beauty of youth! The time would come when he would learn Gaara’s favorite food, his ninja way, what kind of music he liked, and whether or not books should be alphabetized or organized by size and color.

By late afternoon on the third day of deliberation, and subsequently the fourth day of the visit, Tsunade and Gaara reached an agreement and called for the final adjournment. All of the documentation that would travel would be drafted and sealed the following day, allowing for the Suna delegation to rest and prepare for the three days journey home.

The atmosphere began to unwind and the formality of the affair began to fade. Lee continued to watch the redhead as he had for the last several days. Generally, he would forthwith gather his hat, ignore the cold cup of tea, wait for Lee to stand and lead him out. He would nod at Lee who would nod at the ANBU who would ignore him and then return to Tsunade only to be dismissed with a wave. Today, the curtain of rain merely drizzled on, its low drone on the rooftop permeating the air as intrusive as the humidity it brought with it. Gaara stared hard at the cup of tea he had again declined to drink. Lee noticed the line of his shoulders was tight. Unwilling to relinquish this chance, he leaned over and asked, “Are you alright?”

After a beat, Gaara turned his head and kept his eyes on the floor between their knees. Lee knew his friend was one to measure words but there was an air of despondency that clung to him like the spell of ceaseless showers overhead. In an economy of movement, Gaara gathered his hat and stood, stepping in close to Lee to quietly reply, “I would like to go.”

“Oh,” He very nearly whispered back. There was a delightful newness in the smaller nin’s ability to saddle into Lee’s personal space like he belonged there. He watched Gaara bend to truss the sash of the once imposing sand gourd around him in practiced motions. Lee spared a look at his teammate; Tsunade-sama was already standing and conferring with Shizune and Tenten, she was engrossed in their conversation and didn’t acknowledge him. It was possible that the Suna ANBU had not yet arrived to escort their leader back to his apartments. “Would you like me to-”

“I would enjoy your company further.” Gaara interrupted, tying the sash off at his hip with a rude knot. As Lee stood he considered many options. There were several reputable public tea rooms around the village, but in this weather they would be entirely uninhabitable, and were certainly no place for a Kazekage - even one as unaffected by social protocol as Gaara. It was too early yet for dinner and the weather too inhospitable for a walk, much less sparring. Perhaps, Lee considered, just a change of scenery would do.

“I think I know just the place. Please follow me.” He said, head bent, so that he was the only one to hear. He smiled warmly and lead him out the door, umbrella at the ready.

-

Upon entering his apartment, Lee gestured for Gaara to sit. He drew the curtain from the downpour, casting the room in dim light. He was pleased to see his friend making himself comfortable. Gaara was in the process of undoing the swift knots he had made in the sash the and set the gourd to the nearby wall. In the kitchen he set the water to boil and prepared a pot of coffee, a rich and bittersweet dark roast.

The apartment was pleasant in the unrushed calm of the slowly fading afternoon. The gas range crackled gently, coffee bubbling atop it, and he could hear Gaara shuffling about in the living room, perhaps inspecting the book shelf. Gathering cups, Lee wondered if his simple service would suffice. For a brief moment, he worried that his hospitality was too informal or rural for such status. But this was Gaara, this was his friend. He wouldn’t concern himself with teacups.

He brought the coffee carafe and cups out - again, balanced in one hand, always push yourself - and discovered the Kazekage on his knees with his fingers shoved into the dirt of a potted cactus. Unable to wipe the grin off his face he said nothing. He poured the coffee and set it aside to favor watching Gaara.

The redhead seemed satisfied with whatever information he had gleaned from said plant. He pulled his fingers from the dirt and pushed it back into place, adjusted the pot, and even went so far as to patiently restack the tidy pile of flat pebbles Lee had collected for it. “That species requires a slightly sandier soil. I added a layer on top so that as you water, it will penetrate the soil without disrupting the pot’s ecology.” He said, sitting himself across from Lee.

“Oh,” he blinked. And here he thought that Gaara was just admiring his houseplants. “Thank you. You would know quite a bit about cactuses - it was a gift from my neighbor. I just try not to overwater it.” Gaara hummed in approval. “I made coffee. I have been under the impression that perhaps you don’t like tea?”

“No, I just found the tea offered to be too strong. I do prefer coffee, however.” He brought the cup into his hands and held it, eyes aloft but seeing nothing in particular. Outside, the rain picked up, pounding on rooftop, pavement, and tree. The wind buffeted the window quietly. “I haven’t seen rain like this before.”

“I would imagine you have never seen rain before.” Lee quietly ruminated on the humor in preferring weak tea and strong coffee. Gaara did not move for the sugar. Maybe he didn’t like sweet things either.

“Very seldom, but rain does come our way. Though… not quite like this.”

The two sat in a comfortable silence in the relative din of the afternoon, sipping the cooling coffee, sharing an unspoken relief. Lee felt the pressures of the last few days melt away. Soon he would be able to return to his training regimen. There was laundry piling up, but it could wait until the weekend. He turned his thoughts and eyes toward the quiet shinobi drinking coffee in his living room, taking up the space like he belonged there. The backdrop of rain was soothing to Lee but after a time, Gaara swept a hand up over his face and pressed fingers over his eyes with a grimace.

“Are you alright?” Lee asked for the second time, concern wedging deep. Gaara’s cup had run low so Lee refilled it while he waited. He wasn’t sure if he would get an answer this time. While not prone to fidgeting in any capacity that Lee was aware of, he was sure making a go of it now. He ran hand over his rough hair and shifted about. It was obvious that he was uncomfortable. Lee sat and watched, unsure and unable to help.

“I have had a headache since we arrived.” Gaara admitted, his face in his hands, sounding all the world like a lost child. “The low barometric pressure is troubling.” He set his elbow to the table and leaned heavily against it. For a moment, Lee sat in shock of the frank statement. His heart swelled with sympathy. His mission was not over yet.

“Why didn’t you say something? I have just the thing to help! Stay here, drink more coffee!” Lee swept out of the room, nervous energy zipping through his body. Knowing that his friend was in pain and had been silent for it, that Lee was by his side and could have come to his aid at any time! He returned to Gaara’s side with a palm sized tin.

“This was given to me by Tsunade-sama. It’s a muscle liniment infused with belladonna and peppermint. It will definitely help!” As he spoke, he began to unwrap his hands. “I first used it after my surgery a few years back. It tingles and soothes and smells amazing. I’m surprised you couldn’t smell it on me when we fought with Kimimaro, I may as well had bathed in the stuff!” He dipped his fingers into the salve and rubbed it warm between his hands. “If you don’t mind, the botanicals are toxic and can be dangerous if handled incorrectly. I will apply it for you.”

Gaara stared at his hands as if considering what that act would entail. He squeezed his eyes shut once more before quietly replying, “Yes. Please. Go ahead.”

Lee nodded in agreement and shuffled just a little closer, and applied his fingertips to his temples, smoothing the salve in gentle circles. He worked quietly, concentrating, imagining how and where to apply the salve where he knew felt best; working around the pressure points of Gaara's’ forehead, around the base of his skull and vertebrae; every few minutes he reapplied the ointment to ensure a strategic layer before capping it and setting it aside, working out the knots he had discovered at the base of Gaara’s neck, that tethered the headache to his bones.

Gaara slowly uncurled and relaxed under his ministrations, bowing forward like a sapling in the breeze until his head rested freely against Lee’s collar bone. Lee rubbed until the liniment had absorbed into his skin, then he began to knead his fingers up into Gaara’s scalp, wanting to truly massage the headache away. By this point, he was completely pliant in his arms, swaying with Lee’s movements. He was so small against Lee, his shoulders barely spanned his own. He marveled at the roughness of his hair, the pale of his skin - one would not know he was from the desert, or that he even was related to his siblings, what with Kankuro’s dark tan or Temari, desert bleached.

The rain and room faded away. The scent of wet earth was thick in his nose, and the warmth growing between the two friends just as heady. There, against his neck, a faint groan of satisfaction. Lee swallowed down a rising warmth and dutifully continued, yet his efforts only reproduced the sound. Particularly, he discovered that gently scratching at a spot on Gaara’s neck would send shivers through his shoulders and an audible intake of breathe against his shoulder.

Heart pounding, Lee pressed his luck and tried it again. Thumb pressed against taut trapezius, over hard knot and downy skin, and then - that low, throaty groan. Gaara’s hand came down like a claw on Lee’s thigh, the other clutched Lee’s shoulder by his forehead. The expanse of pale skin exposed down Gaara’s back was streaked pink by Lee’s fingers. The Leaf curled his fingers deftly around the ball of his shoulder, then pressed inward and down the line of his spine, to just above the waistband of his trousers. The redhead nearly collapsed in relief and sighed wetly.

“Harder.”

Just barely a whisper against his neck, shivering under his hands. Nearby he could hear the sand rhythmically scraping the sides of the gourd like a pleased cat. Lee licked his lips, the pinhole of his focus on that heady word breathed into his ear - harder - a very sudden, very real, desperate pleasure swirled hot in his belly.

“Oh,” The hand on his thigh squeezed like a vice. He scratched his nails back up into the redhead’s scalp, harder, as requested. Gaara’s foot jarred the coffee table when he all but wrestled Lee backwards onto the floor.

Cold floor at his back and Gaara heavy above him, Lee reeled at the mouthing at his shoulder and teeth catching the neck of his jumper. His hand gripped tight in that red hair. He tugged experimentally, his body on fire and heart racing. An answering, weak groan against his ear had Lee groaning in sympathy. The afternoon was fading fast and the once cool room was quickly falling under the shade of evening. Gaara shivered against him again, hands fisted tight on whatever part of Lee he could hold fast to, eyes screwed shut, and pink mouth and square teeth wide against Lee’s cheek. Lee tugged that hair again and reveled in that terrific smell of coffee on his breath.

“Gaara,” he breathed, trying to draw his knees up, trying to find some purchase to make sense of this, whatever this was quickly becoming. Their legs tangled, caught between the desires to move in different directions. Lee moaned loudly when he couldn’t convince the sand nin to sit up, but rather persuaded Lee back onto the floor with a rough shove. Lee marveled at the feeling of a stiffness pressing against his thigh, only to realize he was just as hard up.

“Are you… do you... “ he tried desperately, mind going blank at each aborted attempt. He wasn’t sure where this was going, and was Gaara sure he wanted to go there? And with Lee, of all people? Things had escalated quickly and, oh, that sound, that weak, beautiful moan-

“Lee,”

A crisp and eager series of knocks at the door rang throughout the apartment. From outside, the a jovial chorus, “Lee! Lee! Open the door!” all but threatened to bust it down.

Lee felt every carbon based fiber of his body stand on end as bone deep panic set in where there had been boiling pleasure. Gaara bolted upright at the sudden sound and was breathing hard and staring, stock still. His hand clutched hard at the Lee’s shoulder, firm enough that Lee could hear individual stitches popping at its seam. He tried to will his throbbing erection away while trying harder to come up with some sort of escape plan. They could lie here, clutching each other in the dark, until they went away. He could hide Gaara in his bedroom - well, no, Gaara was a Kazekage, he deserved better than an unceremoniously rough shoving into a closet.

The pounding at the door did not cease. “Lee! Come on, what are you doing! It’s time to celebrate! Hurry up, it’s raining!” Tenten’s chirped, and a roar of laughter followed, then a low voice. Neji, no doubt, was with her. Time was of the essence and he did not have a plan.

“Gaara, we have to move!” He pleaded as the nin still remained straddled over him. He paused and really looked a the Sand nin; his entire body was tense, eyes wide but unseeing, at a complete standstill. Gaara was as blind as a frightened deer.

“Gaara,” He tried again, this time powering upright and setting a firm hand on his waist, his voice an intimate recollection of their daily greetings. This is what got his attention, his breath huffing in his face, his trembling body soothed to stillness. “We have to move.”

And with that quiet instruction, life seemed to bloom into Gaara. His eyes focused on Lee, dark and perceptive. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Yes,” Lee agreed, pushing and pulling him until he eventually resembled a standing position. “Your gourd-”

“My gourd.” He quietly said back, not quite tripping over himself to reach. Lee watched him until he was confident that Gaara was back in control; until he was quietly invested in wrapping the long swath of cloth around his body, his exposed boney ankles and thin feet, the swell of his fading erection just visible in the line of his billowed trousers. Instead of failing to discretely adjust himself, Lee grabbed the coffee pot from the table and turned to the door. Shinobi knew that when there is no plan, deception is the only backup. The carafe was empty but it didn’t need to actually have coffee in it to distract them - or maybe he just needed a prop to distract himself?

The pounding at the door doubled, Neji no doubt having been goaded into adding his own fists to Tenten’s ceaseless banging.

“Alright, yes, I’m coming!” He called out, his heart still pounding. What was he going to do when they discovered the Kazekage in his apartment? What would he have to say for himself? What if they found out - they won’t find out, but what if they did-?

He pulled the door open to see his two somewhat damp teammates. Neji lifted up a large cloth wrapped bento with a grin. Tenten cheered beside him, shaking bags of corner store sake, no doubt. (he would be having no hand in that). She laughed again and pushed Neji forward through the door.

“Hey! We brought sushI! It’s time to celebrate!”

“Ah, that’s great, uh, but-”

Hat in hand, Gaara appeared at his shoulder, stopping the two in the jamb. He gave them both a stern nod, completely exuding the intimidating air of his political position with minimal effort. Tenten stiffened like a pole while Neji appeared to have fallen back on his deeply ingrained etiquette, bowing his head in polite deference. Gaara turned his head back to Lee, the pink streaks Lee had made down his neck almost visible in the half light.

“Thank you, Lee.”

Lee nodded, hoping his jaw wasn’t hanging slack. He couldn’t fluster up a response before Gaara had tipped the wide brimmed hat onto his head and disappeared around the corner. There was a small voice that demanded he follow him until he reached the government apartments, but logically Lee was aware that there wasn’t anything he could do that Gaara wasn’t capable of doing for himself, and more.

“Woah,” Tenten said, having watched Gaara leave. “Uh, is that allowed?”

“I’m sure the Kazekage has the right to conduct personal business as he pleases.” Neji responded articulately, despite sounding just as lost for words as Tenten. Lee cleared his throat.

“Uh,”

“You have to tell us what that was about!” Tenten shouted at him suddenly, pushing all three bodies into the dark living room. “Why aren’t the lights on? Neji, grab the lights. We brought celebration sushi! Okay, so it’s actually left overs but Hinata made it earlier and - have you had Hinata’s sushi? Lee, where are you going? Were you two drinking coffee this late in the evening? We talked about your coffee addiction!”

Lee had tried to surreptitiously sneak down the hall to his room while she was talking up a storm but had been caught. He was more concerned with Neji finding out than Tenten - you couldn’t hide anything from him.

“I just need to go to the bathroom, that’s all! Get the plates out while I change!” He shouted, rushing down the corridor, his stubborn erection ridiculously tenting the front of tights. He really hoped they hadn’t noticed. Then again, he locked the bathroom door and realized that he was still holding the empty coffee carafe. They were never going to believe him.

-

II.

Sunagakure was inhospitable on even the most cloudy days, though this weather would give a typical day a run for it’s money. Overhead the August sun blazed and the blistering wind razed the unprotected faces of those who had yet to understand the desert's harsh hospitality - though not a soul would be seen today outside of the thick granite and basalt structures of the village.

Lee had always been fascinated by the complex construction of the Village Hidden in the Sand, with it’s great domes, the endless winding paths and protected walkways carved into every available crevice like a divine afterthought. It’s monolithic walls towered high, and considering that the village cradled in the mouth of a centuries defunct volcano, there was something to be said about these people and their tenacity to survive in the bleak conditions of Wind country.

The offices of the Kazekage were located in a squat globe shaped building, rising out of the middle of the crater from which the rest of the austere village seemed to blossom forth. The windows were more like portholes, the glass of which was hazy from abrasion. The Konoha party had arrived late in the evening three days previous, the village glowing high above them in an eerie, dappled radiance. Since, the wind blew and the Leaf ninja waited until the Kazekage finally announced that he was prepared to greet them.

The Konoha party agreed to meet in Suna to further discuss the development of what had been quietly, dubiously, and in every manner unofficially dubbed the Shadow Contingency. The Daimyo’s court would reconvene for the winter season in Luca, the sunny southern capital of Wind country. Tenten and Lee had been working between Tsunade’s staff and the Suna government for months on end to coordinate the second leg of the project. While Neji had been allowed to become involved, he was still not encouraged to attend the meetings. Lee thought the entire situation ridiculous - after all, who was more trustworthy than their jounin teammate? Regardless, the Hyuga bowed out gracefully and bid them a safe journey.

Near the government barrack block where their party had been housed there was an open gym where Lee whiled away his time. Whether it be watching the younger sand nin practicing or the older shinobi sparring, for him those three days were well spent. He worked himself to the point exhaustion, cheerfully challenging himself into acclimatizing to the harsh environment. Others looked on in confusion and bemusement, but Lee ignored them. Always push yourself, he could hear Gai-sensei boom, exploring your boundaries and making discoveries is the revelry of youth!

Youthful was definitely how he had been feeling. All important, Lee’s first priority had been to implement a morning routine. He firmly believed that a centering routine could make or break a ninja, especially when away on mission. The sweltering heat, in and of itself, was a major obstacle to overcome; it set in as soon as the sun rose a handspan above the horizon and lingered after it set. It clung to one all day like a slightly damp, thick wool sweater, sweltering and ceaseless. Unfortunately, he could not blame the summer's’ sultry weather for the stickiness he encountered upon waking every morning in his borrowed bed and thin linen sheets. Dreams unbidden of bright hair, wide eyes, pink skin, pink mouth, pink - Youth, indeed.

Two and a half months had passed since the joint meeting in Konoha. Two and a half months since Gaara sat in his apartment, innocuously drinking coffee. Two and a half months to dream about the firm press of his cock against Gaara’s thigh, and that sweet moan in his ears. This morning was no different; the faint sun peaking over the high wall, Lee waking, haunted by the ghosts of his dreams, to awkwardly scrub himself with tepid water and a powder scented lotion disc.

The room he had been provided with was decidedly spartan but not without Suna charm. The wall along the corridor featured a long, hewn shelf which served as an open closet, at the end of which sat a high dresser. Atop it sat a basin and pitcher with a firmly fitting cap to protect the precious water inside. Besides the low bed, it served as the only furniture in the room. However, there was a tall, oblong window with what he thought would have been a spectacular view were it not for the extreme weather. Though the sun had barely begun to flare, the wind howled and battered the sturdy glass.

Routine was sparse here, but still attainable. Once dried, Lee dressed and methodically wrapped his hands. He tried not to think too hard about the linen bedsheets bunched at the foot of the bed. After all, he wasn’t ashamed; such bodily functions were a celebration of life and youth! It was merely an orchestration that could not be routinely accounted for or relied upon.

Deciding against venturing into the weather, Lee regarded his space and what warming calisthenics he could accomplish. Though the morning progressed, the wind blew hot and the sun was barely distinguishable through the grit. Lee enthusiastically went about pumping through a thousand crunches - if he couldn’t do a thousand crunches, he’d do five hundred squats! - when a severe knock in triplicate pounded behind the door. Lee gave a cursory glance around the room, mostly to assure himself that the... youthful bedsheets were discretely tucked away.

“Lee! Hurry up!” A muffled Tenten all but shouted in the hallway.

“I’m coming!” He only managed eight hundred twenty seven; he would be sure to double his squats! Before his hand touched the knob, Tenten pushed the door open, nearly smacking him in the face. He caught the edge of the door, heart pounding, grateful that the scent of one exertion had covered up the other.

“Lee! They said they’re ready for us! Come on!”

“Tenten! You’re always beating my door down! What is so difficult about waiting for me?” She rolled her eyes and looked over his shoulder.

“Why, is Gaara in here?” The wry expression on her face too sharp for his liking.

“I’m sure the Kazekage is far too busy to visit me in my quarters!” He replied, praying the heat he felt wasn’t a furious blush.

“I don’t know about that. He seemed able to make time to visit your quarters in the past.”

“I thought we had somewhere to be? Isn’t Tsunade-sama waiting for us?” He tried to coolly redirect his partner, but knew she would rise to his distress.

“Oh? Did I strike a nerve? What’s going on here, Lee?”

“Tenten!” He pushed her into the corridor and swiftly pulled the door shut behind them. The kunoichi laughed and interlocked their arms as she was steered down the hall. The two quickly fell into step and made their way to the Kazekage’s office.

“Do you know why we waited so long?” He inquired, grateful for the topic change. After their waiting period, he welcomed the opportunity to rush headlong into business.

“Temari-san said there was a security emergency, but nothing has seemed out of the ordinary to me.”

“Security emergency?” Lee repeated. “How could Sunagakure become victim to a security emergency?”

“I know, it doesn’t seem possible. I can’t think of a single threat to Suna. Their shinobi are forces of nature.”

“Forces of nature…” Lee said, considering the turn of phrase heavily. There was a definite weight to her words. Lee had been in awe of Gaara’s abilities since they first met as young genin. As they aged, not only his obvious strength and technical skill, but his emotional strength and growth as a ninja both surprised and impressed Lee. He felt a deep pride for the nin, for having become the figurehead of his village in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Gaara was himself a force of nature, beautiful and unstoppable.

At the office door stood a pair of silent sand ANBU. Lee felt an anxious sweat break out on the back of his neck, but before he could decide whether or not it would be rude to ignore them, Tenten pulled him inside. Tsunade-sama and Shizune-san were already seated, along with Shikamaru, who stood along the wall. Lee nodded at him as Tenten pointed out his seat.

Shikamaru was an advisor in training who had been invited along in the interest of complete objectivity; should there be some sort of oversight in the second stage of planning, he was the nin capable of pointing it out and adapting. Lee had heard through the grapevine that Shikamaru’s girlfriend was a diplomat from Suna but hadn’t been aware it was Gaara’s elder sister until days after the Konoha meeting’s end. Tenten and Neji insisted it was common knowledge.

The group proceeded to sit in a heavy silence in the austere Kazekage's office for over an hour. Every so often the sound of heavy footfalls in the hallway passed the door. Lee carefully watched Tsunade from his periphery; the woman perched in her chair and sipped at her tea. Not once did she move to comment on anything; the tea, the time, or the weather. He and Tenten shared many a sharp look but remained equally mute.

Finally, with barely a click, the door opened. Gaara, with a visibly pregnant Temari in tow, slipped across the room with stunning gravity. Outside the desert upheaved itself over the village but failed to fluster the immutable Kazekage. Lee sat up straighter, focus intently shifting to his friend - the dark shell of his eyes, the subtle depression of his brow, the feather of his hair - shorter than last they had seen each other - and the delicate, sour moue of his pink mouth. Lee swallowed back a mix of emotions, remembering linen sheets and remembering coffee.

The siblings brought with them a strange solemnity. Gaara stared at the desk, his sister stared at him. Shikamaru had picked himself up off the wall, but Temari hadn’t spared him a glance. For a moment, Lee felt a shiver run down his spine. He barely managed to refrain from turning his head, expecting the unwavering, unacknowledging stare of the sand ANBU to be likewise drilling into the back of his head from across the room.

Never having been one to mince his words, Gaara stood wearing what Lee thought was a disquieted expression. His concentration seemed to be elsewhere. Lee had never seen such a look on his face. Temari stood at Gaara’s shoulder wearing a handsome deep mauve and navy, and an equally squashed look. She placed a series of scrolls on the desk between the two kages before pressing a hand to Gaara’s shoulder and looking Tsunade dead in the eye.

“Thank you for your patience. We’ve been in a state of emergency-”

“State of emergency? Why is this the first I’m hearing of this?” Tsunade demanded, cutting the kunoichi off with a viciousness that took Lee by surprise. To Temari’s credit, she barely bat a lash.

“Said state of emergency has been an evolving matter. We chose not to ask you to involve yourselves unless the situation demanded it.”

“And the situation now demands it?” Tsunade parroted. “For us to involve ourselves?”

“The situation has reached terminal structure, and is a threat to the village and it’s citizens.”

“Just what is this situation? Enough chitchat: I am not your council that needs pandering, I am your ally. What are we dealing with here?”

“A sandstorm.” Gaara intoned.

Lee’s eyes flicked from the volley to Gaara’s. The sand nin’s concern was so clear now; his jutsu that allowed him to control sand must of course extend to such environmental concerns. It awed Lee all the more - that his friend had the strength to single handedly protect his people and their home. The warm, thick feeling of his pride and affection swelled in his chest and threatened to choke the Leaf nin. If the sandstorm heading their way was truly distressing, then he would know about it. He was Gaara of the Desert after all.

“We’ve been monitoring the storm for over a week now, trying to determine the strength of the approaching cell and it’s wind velocity. Generally anything below ninety-five kilometers per hour doesn’t warrant government action. However -”

“This storm exceeds that. Have you been able to measure the cell?” The Hokage continued to probe mercilessly.

“The worst sandstorm on record occurred nearly a hundred years ago. Our records indicate an unprecedented supercell with winds of approximately one hundred twenty kilometers per hour. The damage the village faced at the time was moderate and civilian causality was avoided, at the cost of a three shinobi.”

“And the magnitude of the current cell?”

“We’ve projected it approaching one hundred sixty.” Gaara confirmed. Lee momentarily considered the view, trying to imagine the already incredible wind somehow becoming worse.

“If nothing is done about it, this could easily become the most severe natural disaster Sunagakure has ever experienced. We just released a notice to seek shelter immediately. Evacuation will be pointless if the people are slaughtered while attempting to flee.”

“Is there anything that can be done about it?”

“I will deflect it.”

The Kazekage held himself with grave severity. Temari bit her lip and looked away, looking all the world like she had lost an argument already. For a brief, electric moment, the silence in the room was so constricting that Lee forgot to breathe.

“Deflect it?”

“Gaara, this is a terrible idea!“ Temari’s voice shook. “We can’t blow the storm back, but we can’t just move it, either!” He turned to his sister in a tense motion.

“I dont have the chakra to hold a dome over the village for such an extended period of time. There isn’t the combined skill of all our shinobi to collectively redirect the storm. Despite the risks, the logical solution-”

“Logical solution? It’s a death wish! This storm is easily the single most devastating event in national history and you’re suggesting that I let you walk straight into it?”

“Yes.”

“No!”

“I will go with you.” Lee interrupted.

The tension in the room thickened impossibly. A half dozen pair of eyes all locked on Lee where he had stood in turn and made his declaration.

“Lee…” Tenten muttered, unsure of where to proceed and how to save her teammate from repercussion, or worse, court marshall. Tsunade looked on, face unwavering.

“What would that accomplish?” Gaara asked him.

“If you have to go, you won’t have to go by yourself.” Lee replied, looking him straight in the eye, willing his friend to listen, with not only his ears but with his heart.

Lee knew that his simple logic would be all too easy to rebuff; Lee knew that his forward behavior would be frowned upon the office of a foreign dignitary; but Lee knew that above all else, his friend would hear him and agree.

“No.” Gaara replied evenly.

“I agree,” Temari said. “No one is going.”

“Someone has to do something.” Shikamaru interjected, the ever present dour expression of his face shifting between apathy and forced responsibility. Several evil eyes flashed in his direction, their malice obvious at his chosen moment to speak up. The chunin weathered the stare down passively.

Tsunade shut her eyes and released a breath in contemplation. Lee stared resolutely at the redhead. Gaara wore a stiff high collared jacket beneath his ceremonial robes; judging from the paperwork that Temari had carried in behind him, that Temari was present at all, screamed to Lee that they had more than likely just come from some sort of Council Meeting. Gaara stared back at him, eyes wide and still.

“Shikamaru is correct. The fact remains that something must be done. We cannot sit idly by and allow a storm to blow the village over.”

“Why should spandex here go? Why not send a fleet of trained Jonin or ANBU, for that matter?” Temari countered.

“Oh, I think it’s been clearly demonstrated that if there’s anyone capable of withstanding the full brunt of a sandstorm, it’s Lee.” She shot back with shrewdly calculated determination.

It was clear a stalemate had been reached. The two women held their ground in furious silence. Gaara removed his hat and placed it on the desk. He looked at Lee. Lee had never looked away.

“We’re leaving in an hour.”

-

The tunneling system of Sunagakure was, of course, a military secret that everyone knew about. In such events as the current impending natural disaster, they were used to ferry civilians to bunkers further below the sands. Now, Lee, Gaara, and Kankuro stood in a narrow squadron ready room, with a singular bare bulb swinging overhead.

The last half hour had been a marathon of nonstop activity for the pair. Gaara had loosely detailed his plan to Temari and Tsunade before he swept back out of the room with Lee. He led them through winding tunnels and past a multitude of identical looking storage rooms and security offices. Kankuro had been sitting with a group of nin in one such office as the pair paced by. He jumped up, thoughtlessly spilled his coffee (much to the consternation of the group he had been chatting with) and raced after his brother. Lee took the reins of conversation upon himself, trying his best to catch him up to speed. After a time, Gaara came to a stop and pulled the two into the room.

“No, don’t wrap it like that,” Kankuro grumbled, taking the scarf Lee was fumbling with into his own hands. “If you wrap it like that, you’re basically inviting sand to collect under your shirt. That means abrasion, infection, and slow, painful death.” While he spoke, he wrapped Lee up with economic movements.

“Right. Not good.”

“You’re damn right it’s not good. Look at this knot,” The tall brunette instructed further. Lee looked. “Like this. Too tight is bad for circulation, too loose-”

“Right.”

Kankuro quickly undid the knot and tied it again, just as fast, wordlessly allowing Lee to memorize his work, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he would understand. Lee assumed it must come intrinsically to the eldest to teach others what to do. The nin leaned down into the locker and sifted through a worn beige duffle bag. “Here, go through this and check the equipment. Be sure the gloves have no holes.” He shoved the bag at Lee, then turned his tirade on his brother.

“Gaara, tell me, if this is so dangerous then why are we allowing someone with absolutely no desert survival training to tag along?”

If there was something to be said about the notorious Sand Siblings, it was that they looked out for one another. Despite their differences, and their individual grit, their love for each other was all encompassing, be damned whoever got in the way.

“He said he would.” Gaara stated. Kankuro stared.

“...He said he would.”

“No one else had volunteered. I would proudly lay down my life for the Kazekage, and my friend!” Lee attempted to counter the moment of tension, doing his best to assure the puppeteer of his intentions. Kankuro spun around and shrewdly inspected Lee’s gloved hands.

“ANBU don’t have to volunteer, they do what they’re told. Be sure there’s a to-date ration in there.”

“I’m taking Lee.”

“You can take Lee, but the fact remains that you don’t have enough chakra for this to work. However, the two of you together do.” Three heads swiveled around to spy the Hokage herself perched in the doorway.

“Tsunade-sama!” Lee acknowledged her with a bow, hands busy with a bundle of rope. “The two of us together?”

“Do you know your chakra nature?” When she closed the door from the hall, the old bulb flickered. Four was quite enough for the room. Gaara, ever unperturbed by spacial relations, inclined his chin.

“Wind and Lightning.” He confirmed. Tsunade turned her gaze on Lee. Like the rope in his hands, his stomach knotted.

“I-I don’t know, Tsunade-sama,” He breathed, trying not to collapse with long carried shame. His inability wasn’t a secret. “I can’t do ninjutsu.” He replied slowly, unsure of what she was going to ask of him.

“I have it on good authority that you have enough control to climb a tree or walk on water. You can do this.” She responded with a gentling smile, holding out a small square of paper. “This is chakra paper,” she said handing it to him. “Concentrate on it just as you would when you focus chakra to your hands or feet.”

Gaara watched him from his shoulder, eyes on the paper. Again, always taking up space like he owned it. Well, he was the Kazekage. Lee supposed he could stand anywhere he liked in his own village. Lee gripped the paper as tightly as he dared. Was this how Gaara had discovered his chakra nature? Or did one just know? Gaara was from the Wind country after all, so maybe it was a given that he would have Wind chakra. If that logic applied, would that mean he himself had Fire chakra? Imagine, Lee blowing a fireball like an Uchiha.

“Lee.” Gaara murmured, pressing fingertips to his elbow. Lee hummed. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He could always feel his chakra flowing within him, but whenever he attempted to move it or shape it, it passed like smoke through his fingers. Through years of effort he developed the skill necessary to walk across water, but he almost always needed to hold a hand seal to accomplish the feat. But this task was more important than an elementary technique. He furiously willed the chakra in his arms, his hands, his fingers to just touch the paper. Gaara’s fingers warmed through the waxed canvas of the flak jacket and made his skin tingle. He could feel his breath on his neck.

The paper crumbled from his fingers.

A gentle hum of electricity buzzed loudly in the sudden hush of the room.

“Earth.” Tsunade and Kankuro whispered in unison. A huge smile cracked along the eldest sand siblings mouth as he laughed and clapped Lee on the back. Lee opened his eyes and stared at his hand where the paper had been. It didn’t feel like anything. One moment, the paper was there, then it was gone. Ephemeral.

His heart beat wildly in his ears, unsure of what this meant. He couldn’t do ninjutsu, that was a fact, but he had a chakra nature? Something unmistakably warm and vibrant rose in his chest and warmed his face. He turned to Gaara, feeling the sting in his shoulders and Kankuro’s infectious laughter. Again, Gaara had that small, direct smile. It made Lee’s heart flutter.

Unceremoniously, Tsunade grabbed his arm and tugged the sleeve up. With a pot of pale red ink she produced from a pocket, she dipped her thumb and middle finger and quickly created a complex sigil on his forearm. She wordlessly turned to Gaara with an outstretched hand, and did the same.

“Note the difference between the two,” She murmured, pulling them to stand next to one another. Lee did notice; where his contained a strange figure surrounded by an intricate swirl, Gaara’s was almost blank by comparison, looking incomplete.

“This is a simple chakra bleed jutsu. Lee, you will feed your Earth nature chakra to Gaara, who will be able to use it in combination with his own to fend off the storm.” The Hokage encouraged them to hold hands and slid her own over the sigils just below the elbow.

“Is this safe?” Kankuro asked. “This is the Kazekage you’re dealing with, Tsunade-sama.”

“Kankuro.” Gaara warned.

“Temari certainly didn’t okay this. I just gotta know.” His voice filled the narrow room. Tsunade merely handed the man the pot of ink and turned back to the two.

“After I activate it, you must move quickly. It will only last as long as there is chakra to bleed; Lee, you’ll want to take it easy; Gaara, be prepared to take control. Of course, there is a fail safe to avoid exhaustion and unnecessary death. Regardless: get in, get out, get back here.” She warned the both of them, wearing a serious expression. “Are you ready?”

The two boys dipped their chins in acknowledgment, both entirely prepared to face down a monster storm. They were Shinobi. Shinobi endured.

Tsunade pressed her palms over the sigils and breathed evenly and loudly. There was the green glow of chakra at work and Lee felt a bubbling heat pulse through his body. This heavy and comforting feeling, he realized, was the weight and power of his chakra. It was his chakra, his earth chakra, moving and blending with Gaara’s. He knew he must have been grinning like a fool, but the elation was indescribable.

“Holy shit.” Kankuro breathed.

When Tsunade stepped back, Lee opened his eyes, his body alight with completely new sensations. Before he could analyze them, Kankuro dipped his thumb into the ink and stepped in beside the two. He drew his thumb across the bridge of Lee’s nose from the center of one cheek to the other. After he repeated the process on his brother, he reached around the two of them and brought their three heads together. Lee closed his eyes, the depth of this moment not lost on him.

“Cut through the Wind, and come home.” he breathed, his fingers tangled tight in Lee’s hair. Gaara hummed in response, one hand coming up to touch Kankuro’s neck, the other still in Lee’s.

-

The pair trudged headlong into the blistering, sand laden wind, hand in hand. Gaara did his best to create a buffer between them and rising storm, but even with Lee’s chakra, the journey was demanding. Over half an hour’s walk from the village was a vast stretch of land in the middle of the country known as the Sand Wastes.

Large outcroppings of boulders littered the enormous area, and would help serve as pseudo shelter for the endeavour. One such outcropping was detailed on a map that hung in the tunnels around the village; a mammoth of a structure that contained a habitable cave with a semi-precious gemstone vein. It was known locally as the ‘Crystal Cavity’, and in the past was regarded as a sacred space for diviners and the wild women of the desert.

After a challenging climb up four feet of sand smoothed granite, Gaara managed to lead them to the mouth of the cave by, what Lee surmised, must have been memory alone. He lead him down into the back of the cave, stooping beneath the low overhang. Lee pulled a flare from a hip pouch and set it ablaze. It cast an eerie orange glow, whose shadows bubbled around them in strange excitement.

“It’s just a little further in.”

Lee hummed in affirmation, desperate for a sip of water. The bundle of equipment at his back had shifted uncomfortably, and he was already tired. Was this due to the chakra drain? Or was it just fatigue? Before Lee could ruminate on the possibilities, the tunnel curved and suddenly, finally opened up into a sizable, rough walled grotto.

Gaara stood aside and watched as Lee set about making himself comfortable. He would not be going into the storm with Gaara - that much had been strenuously argued. He would, instead, remain nearby, serving as a chakra tether that would both feed him as a secondary energy source and guide him back to their chosen base.

He set a battery operated lamp on a small makeshift dais in the center of the chamber. The walls glistened in the shadows, both with silica and dark amethyst. There was a pervading feeling of importance to this place, a chthonic, earthy magic that both relaxed and set Lee on edge. He felt like an invader but was welcome all the same. His insides roiled delightfully.

Without words, the two looked at each other - as much as they could. Gaara was bundled head to toe, like Lee, in standard Suna survival gear at the insistence of Kankuro and Tsunade. His entire body had been swaddled in protective outerwear, his face entirely obscured by thick scarf and overlarge goggles. It reminded Lee of the children of the northern countries, bundled up from the winter’s chill. Hilarious and adorable.

Lee pushed his goggles up his forehead and stepped close to his friend. In his head, he could hear Kankuro’s echoing affirmation, “Cut through the Wind, and come home”. He reached for his hand and gripped it tight. The sensation of their mingled chakras flared sharply, wonderfully, fantastically.

“You can do this.”

The boy grabbed him by the elbow and pulled himself into Lee’s arms in the shape of a hug. Metal rings and straps crashed and the Sand shifted in the gourd. Endorphins burned and dopamine screaming through his veins, his muscles sang and his heart pulsed in his entire body like he had been dropped in the ocean. Lee’s body was on fire. He must be dying. Whatever this feeling was, he wanted it for the rest of his life.

“We can do this.” Gaara corrected. Lee nodded, his chin rubbing against his head. As they held onto one another Lee savored the ferocious meeting of their chakras, and distantly recalled the last time they had touched each other. He had come to accept that he craved the secret intimacy their friendship had taken on, but now was time for action.

They separated without another word and turned away; Gaara headed back into the sand, and Lee sat against the cave wall and finally, finally, turned his focus inward to the subsiding swirling feeling inside.

-

There was little way to tell how much time had passed since Gaara’s departure; the flare had long since fizzled out, and the lamp showed no signs of fading. Only the sensation of their chakras mixing and moving inside of him indicated that anything had changed. The wonderful, shocking, explosive feeling they had shared never repeated itself. Something lovely flared every now and again, perhaps with some great effort on Gaara’s part, but mostly Lee just felt tired.

He told himself not to worry about the ‘chakra exhaustion’ and ‘accidental death’ that Tsunade had mentioned. This was Gaara. This was him, his chakra, and their shared effort. They had been through so much with one another, this was just another great challenge they could face together. So many people were depending on them. Failure was not an option. There would be no exhaustion, and certainly no death.

Eventually he fell into deep sleep. In his dream he walked the endless desert, feet bare, and his face uncovered from the wind and sand. He barely breathed but his heart raced, he felt like a hummingbird, too large and too small; perfect in his imperfection, and all too powerful and alive. With the simplest gesture, he could command the wind to race the other way, to flee from his might. He walked headlong into the open arms of the storm.

Sand parted from his feet and drew back like a curtain from his face. He could feel the desert stretching out around him for miles and miles. He could feel the earth deep below, cold and massive, heaving up to meet him. He could feel the very energy of the air, the wind whipping wild.

The time had come. The epicenter of the storm was before him, a roaring hekatonkheires, awesome and incomprehensible. He planted his feet in the course earth, his toes and heels grounding him like roots - a new and familiar sensation, where did it come from, hadn’t he felt it since birth? The very planet stilled beneath him like the pause between one breath and another; plants dared not to grow, the oceans feared to pulse, and the earth forgot to shake. One hand behind his back, he raised the other palm like a flat blade to the still air, beckoning the storm to swell like a symphony.

For miles around the air filled with a peculiar shriek, inhuman but alive. His entire body was swallowed in the sound; it was impossible to move, he couldn’t think, there was no reprieve. He held in his hands the most fearsome force in history and he held it tight. It struggled in his hold, it felt liquid and rigid all at once like a cat.

And yet.

And yet there were so many people counting on him. Their very survival was at stake - his people, his family, his friends. There could be no mistakes.

Lee woke with a start, bolting upright. He was drenched in a cold sweat and felt terrible. His body quaked like he had run for days on end with no rest. He was so hungry that he felt nauseous. He wondered if this was what chakra exhaustion felt like. There was some protein gel at the bottom of the field pack, he just had to lean over and look for it.

It was a herculean task but he managed to shift onto his elbow and pick through the satchel. A low growl ripped through the thick air - his stomach felt like it was eating itself, gods, it was like he was being chewed in half. He could persevere. He could manage this. Where was that damn gel? He had checked, he had double checked, Kankuro had even tripled checked! Finally, he leaned back with a pouch in hand. He ripped it open and sucked a mouthful of warm, vaguely fruity gel. It wasn’t particularly nice but it wasn’t terrible, by any stretch of the imagination. He swallowed it without much effort and quickly worked through the rest of it.

How much time had passed? His dream drifted in the back of his mind like a leaf on a pond, threatening to sink into the depths. He had been out in the storm, hadn’t he? A shiver ran down the length of his spine, the sweat soaked edges of his hair catching cold on his nape. It was so hard to remember, but there was something. Something had happened, something with Gaara.

He tucked the empty gel pouch back in the field kit and leaned up to fiddle with the electric lamp. Already he could feel the simple carbohydrates untying the ball of his stomach, and the his body uncramping. He lowered the lamp light and watched the veins in the walls glimmer. The veins ran up to the ceiling where the crystal points exposed like shining stars. The beauty was astonishing.

Suddenly, he realized there was no soaring wind echoing its way through the cave. The storm had passed! No, the storm had cleared? The dream danced on the edges of his memory, flickering in the space just beyond consciousness, and he could just catch the faintest recollection - the storm had simply… stopped? He sat up on his heels and lifted a hand to his chest, concentrating on the chakra connection. He closed his eyes and listened.

Gaara?

There, the sound of sand shaking like a snake.

Gaara?

There, the smell of wet earth. The smell of coffee.

“Gaara?”

There, silhouetted in chiaroscuro at the mouth of the cave, a flickering harmony of chakra. Heart pounding, Lee shifted into a kneeling position, every muscle wired to pounce. The figure stalked forward, closing in with not but the crunch of rock and sand beneath his feet. Familiar pink toes and familiar pink stripe over his nose.

“Lee,”

As Gaara stumbled toward him, Lee began to slowly realize that there was sand slowly crumbling off of him. “Oh,” he whispered unable to look away. This small, remarkable person had held the heavy, difficult sand armour to his person for the three hours he worked tirelessly to redirect the storm of the century.

The nin came to a stop practically atop Lee’s lap, breathing heavily, eyes wide and deep. The matching blessing mark over his downturned face remained, unyielding, like a beacon of triumph. He reached up and brushed his hand over Gaara’s. A clump of sand fell away, starting a crumbling torrent. The pale hand beneath twitched when Lee pressed their skin together.

Not as powerful as before, but the feeling when they touched - that wonderful bite, bright as lemons in the afternoon. It echoed in his bones and he wanted to chase that feeling into the sunset.

Before him, the redhead slowly folded, sand cascading and pooling in Lee’s lap. As he compressed, Lee reached up and ruffled his hair, trying to help knock the rest of the chakra heavy sand loose.

“Hey,” Lee caught the redhead by the armpits as his knees hit the ground. “Hey there.”

“Lee,” Gaara dropped his arms heavy over the Leaf nin’s shoulders. Lee’s heart rocketed while he stabilized his friend; the sand nin shifted in his arms, his body practically vibrating - and why wouldn’t it? Lee had experienced the end point of exhaustion, he could in sympathy feel it now. Gaara rocked forward and knocked his forehead against Lee’s.

“It feels,” Gaara murmured, smearing the sweat of his lip over Lee’s face. “It’s just...so much.” His face quivered, looking like it might shatter or break out in laughter. Gaara’s coiled like smoke, hot from sweat, cold from adrenaline - Lee was ashamed to say that it was making him hard. He focused on the muscles in his throat, swallowing and working down into his belly. “It’s deep, and cool.”

Lee scarcely dared to breathe.

“It…?”

“The chakra. Your chakra.” he replied through the grit of this teeth. His hands pawed on the waxed canvas jacket Lee wore. “It’s so much. It’s like an aquifer.”

“My chakra.” Lee repeated absently. That swirling feeling inside him - the combination of their chakras - was something Gaara felt too. It felt like an aquifer? To Lee, it felt like a jumping off a cliff into a ice cold plunge pool, or the bright magic and child-like infatuation of a fireworks festival. It felt deep and cool like a mountain range or a walk in an ancient forest.

Not exactly unbidden, memories of those hands in his dark apartment; the feeling of his body, his warmth; thoughts of something darker, something sweeter, something deeper - no, not exactly unbidden. He had had months of heady mornings and late evenings imagining infatuous trysts, hours lost to the passage of youth. He had never experienced the likes of such tempestuous sexual emotions before, not with such stark clarity.

Lee swallowed back his racing heart and dared to live those dreams. Gaara still writhed in his lap, practically rubbing their faces together like a pup. He bit his lip, leaned up into that face, his hands in that sandy hair and slowly dragged his nails down the side of his neck. He breathed in the musty smell of honest labor, of unrelenting youth and dared to fucking dream. Gaara shuddered violently and rocked down hard against Lee, working his knees a little wider, his unabashed, open mouthed moan echoing off the high ceiling of the cavity.

It was utterly intoxicating being so close to another person, breathing in their air and touching and tasting and feeling. It was so much and Lee wanted more. He allowed Gaara to force him back onto the cold cave sand like he had done so many months ago and dreamed of since. His teeth gnashed and hands all but blindly ripping the borrowed gear from his body. Lee grabbed those hands and brought them to his mouth.

“Gaara,” What he should say, he wasn’t sure. How could he convey the depth of these feelings? Everything felt like a mighty precipice that he needed to jump off.

“I want,” The redhead started, eyes squeezing shut, face contorted as if he were in pain.

“Tell me.”

“I… I want,” He tried again, breathing so hard Lee thought he might collapse. He held those hands fast and bucked, pushing the firm tent of his erection against Gaara’s. It felt like thunder. It felt like the earth would surely crumble apart. Gaara moaned and leaned down to mash his face into Lee’s, their hips grinding viciously.

“Touch me. I want… to feel you-” His voice was so hoarse, so unapologetically open as he rutted down against the Leaf.

Lee groaned, too hot and too cold in an instant.

“Yes, okay.” And with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm and months of pent up longing, Lee pushed the Sand nin up and back over, manhandling him just as he had imagined; the redhead on his back with his spread legs strategically tucked over the cradle of Lee’s hips. He smoothed his hands up and down his sides and thighs, delighting in this mutual exchange, touching and in kind giving Gaara what he asked for.

It was awkward fiddling with the unfamiliar closures on his borrowed clothes, but the both of them were eager enough to make up for the knocking knees and jarring elbows. Scarves, shirts, and armoured mesh slowly peeled off. Lee could hardly breathe, watching as Gaara freely bared his pink and almond skin to the cool night. He gladly helped Gaara yank his beet red tunic over his head, eyes immediately drawn to his tightly peaked nipples.

In a moment of blind desire, he leaned down and laved the little bud with a hot, open mouth. Gaara keened, shivering in the sand beneath Lee - the sand around them almost seeming to vibrate anxiously. Hands fisted tight in Lee’s hair, oh, he could see the appeal. He could also vividly recall the precious, warbled sound Gaara breathed into his neck when he curled his fingers up in that feathery hair and gave in and tugged. The prospect of doing that again, getting him to make that sound-

He breathed deep, feeling the insistent jump of Gaara’s erection at his belly. It warmed a monstrous ache inside him, something deep and wanting. He rolled the hardened nub with his tongue, delighting in the little pebbles of his areola, and smoothed his hands over the placket of Gaara’s pants. They were like his own, of heavy double canvas, waxed and thickly stitched, with a pair of lighter trousers beneath, more like pajamas. He worked down the row of brass press studs, popping each one open individually.

Gaara mumbled something he couldn’t quite hear and thrust his hips against his hands. Lee grinned and licked the other little nipple into his mouth, just taking it between his teeth like a promise. The redhead hummed and curled up into him.

“Lee,” He pleaded and brought his hands down to help slip the hidden button from its loop. Lee hummed in response. The two looked down at the effort of their hands; Lee pushed the heavy trousers open while Gaara deftly untied the knot of his soft cotton unders. Lee could feel his heart in his entire body, beating hard like a drum, ringing louder than a klaxon. He pressed his face into Gaara’s shoulder - he wanted desperately to look, look at everything, but couldn’t bring himself to, not yet.

With little effort, he rolled them on their sides and pushed his leg between Gaara’s. They managed to pull his trousers open in a much smaller time frame. Once the unders were exposed, he held his breath and yanked them down.

“Ah,” Gaara trembled against him. “Can you… Will you-”

Would he? He crowded Gaara and the pair rocked and worked so that Lee could take their cocks together in a fist. What he wouldn’t give for just a little more light, as he looked down between them, what he wouldn’t give to see if his cock wasn’t just as pink as the rest of him. The thought spiraled down his spine and screwed itself in his balls. He breathed heavy through his nose and squeezed his eyes, just squeezed his fingers a little to feel the spongy give of them together.

He laid half atop Gaara, an arm wrapped under his shoulder to leverage him where Lee wanted him. He rutted hard into his fist and against Gaara’s cock. Precome slicked his hand and made for easy, sensational work. He flicked between watching the twin heads of their cocks pop from between his thumb and forefinger and the naked emotion on Gaara’s face; mouth open, head tossed back, baring his neck long and slender, freely rocking with Lee’s enthusiasm.

“Please,” he whispered, jerking hard in rhythm with Lee. He struggled to draw a knee up but his foot caught in the leg of his strained pants. Lee tugged the cuff of the pants up to his knee and curled the fabric around his fingers.

“Like this?” Lee murmured and gently twisted his fingers tight, trapping his pale legs in the vice of his trousers, using it to push his leg up and back as far as it would bend before he groaned. The redhead wrapped his arms around Lee’s shoulders and clung to him, noses tucked together. Always, Lee thought, as a trembling moan pushed into his mouth and made his teeth vibrate, pushing himself into Lee’s space as if it had always been his own.

Lee slowed and ground his hips in a circle, feeling all the world that he could do this for ages and that he would surely implode at any moment. The bright liquid heat of it boiled away under his skin, he hoped that Gaara could feel it, too. Somewhere, in their dwindling connection, he knew he could feel it. He squeezed his hand again, so slowly fucking in - imagining the filthy things he wanted to do to him, the simple act of touching Gaara just there, getting him to make that perfect, amazing sound-

“Yes,” Gaara’s voice pitched.

Somewhere inside, he could feel a great well rising up inside him. On the far end of thought, he wondered about the quiet desert around them, whether day had shifted into night, if that all was well or what prospects awaited them upon their return. He wrapped a hand in that filthy hair and tugged. Gaara grunted and thrashed and came hot over Lee’s fist. Here, here was the precipice Lee had been looking for. This was where he could jump off into the unknown and not worry what happened. Gaara keened in his ear as his hips stuttered. Lee cursed in kind and came as well.

When sleep took him again, the last thing he heard was a profound sigh, like the gentling earth too lay down to rest.

-

III.

Being a shinobi took Lee all over the continent. He visited the famous bathhouses of the Hot Springs country just to the north, and attended the legendary Honeybee Festival in the Honey country in the far reach of the east. He’s seen the savage beauty of the wild tundra of Bear country and the surprisingly mountainous plateaus of Tea; but not once had he actually seen the impossible, crystal clear waters of the Nanmen ocean. Nothing could be further removed from the unforgiving vista of Sunagakure; Luca, the capital city of Wind country, home of the Court of the Daimyo of the Wind, was easily the most beautiful place Lee had ever seen.

The bustling port city of Luca gleamed bright and new with tall white washed walls that lined white cobblestone boulevards. Flags hung from every opportunity; colorful strings flew back and forth over head along the main thoroughfares to the winding side streets, and the boldly striped pennant of the Daimyo proudly punctuated every building. Numerous elegant apartment complexes faced in all directions, with lushly growing balconies. Impossibly tall trees with huge sprays of leaves (only at the top! How strange.) decorated every square. The whole city swayed in motion with the sea and breeze. It was easy to see why Luca was regarded as the jewel of Wind country.

The time had finally come to take the long months of collaboration between the Sand and Leaf to the capital. The bitter chill of winter was but a distant memory, a weeklong ache that now stretched like a cat in the morning sun. After a long week of travel, Lee, Tenten, and, reunited at last with the third member of their team, Neji, had arrived on coast. Lee welcomed the heat like he had the winter - with an open heart to the seasons possibilities; though, a deep elation that must only come with proximity to the ocean had quickly overtaken him.

The entire Konoha coalition gathered at the palace, a grand glass and metal structure that reflected the sparkling ocean. The grand hall was vast: Its polished marble floors gleamed beneath the gilt ceiling, the bright moon slowly trailing overhead as the night progressed. All down the floor, court members traipsed dressed in brightly colored, multi-layered costume and awkward ceremonial hats. They shuffled about and smiled at one another, engaging in conversation over the sounds of plucking string instruments and chiming bells.

A series of ninja from both countries stood inconspicuously sentinel every couple of meters. Lee and Neji took residence next to a tall and beautiful niche of a legendary character of Wind parable. Her huge toes hung off the edge of the pedestal by their shoulders. All shinobi present were dressed in black to appear both removed and official. Tenten had laughed when she discovered the entire team had brought practically matching attire - all Mandarin collars and delicate silk knot frogs.

The two were silently observing the merriment, somewhat relaxed, as the Daimyo himself had yet to arrive. Though not willing to admit it, Lee was keeping an eye out for the Sand siblings. Their shinobi could be spotted from across the room, but any of the trio were as of yet unaccounted for. Lee hoped that one of them would walk by - hell, he would brave speaking to an ANBU if he knew where one was hiding.

“Tsunade-sama has entered from the North door,” Neji murmured into the wireless in his ear.

“Confirmed,” Came a response from Shino, on the far end of the room.

“Thank you, confirmed. Do we have an ETA on the Kazekage?”

“Minus ten,” a Sand nin buzzed in. After a beat, Lee squinted at nothing in particular and braved a line of questioning.

“Say, Neji,”

“What?”

“So, Konoha’s covert operations unit is called ANBU,”

“Right.”

“And Sunagakure has a covert operatives unit as well,”

“Yes...?”

“Why aren’t they called SANDBU?”

Neji took what Lee thought to be much too long and large a breath and held it.

“I refuse to acknowledge such a terrible pun.”

“Actually, that’s a good question, Bushy Brows.” Naruto buzzed in their ears, coming in over the din from across the hall.

“No, Lee, that joke was the terrible.” Sakura interjected, though Lee swore he could hear a smile in her voice.

“Neji,” Lee turned to look at the Hyuga. He hummed in response, eyes carefully scanning the crowd. “No, never mind.”

“Lee,” he replied sotto voce, his tone vaguely threatening.

“...Well.”

“”If this is about-”

“No, jumping thoughts here, stay with me - you seriously don’t eat breakfast?”

His friend pursed his lips and glanced down the far end of the hall. Lee outright stared at his cellmate, disbelief painting his face. Neji looked back at him and twitched.

“Yes! I don’t eat breakfast!”

“...But it’s breakfast!”

“How on earth can you stand to eat so early in the day?”

“Neji, a balanced meal and diet are essential to one's’ health-”

“Lee, I swear-”

“Who hurt you?”

“Oh my Gods-”

“Tenten,” Lee hissed over the radio. Neji kindly gave his murderous stare to the floor. “Were you aware that Neji Hyuga doesn’t eat his breakfast?”

“Lee,” she chimed back. “I don’t eat breakfast.”

Lee gasped in horror.

“Oh, calm down.”

“That’s impossible for me!”

“And it’s impossible for me to eat breakfast!”! Neji hissed.

“There’s nothing better than a cup of ramen for breakfast. You should try it.”

“Naruto, nobody asked you.”

“All four of you morons get off the radio.” Shikamaru suddenly interjected. Both Lee and Neji paled. Somewhere, he was sure Tenten was shaking her head. In the distance, he was certain he could hear Naruto wailing. Sakura had developed an impressive punch. “Look alive, West Statue.”

Gaara and Kankuro had entered while Lee was distracted. The brothers passed by a group of Court members without a look, blatantly declining to pander to the partygoers. They paced down the hall and came up beside him on slipper feet. Kankuro waved cheerily, face unpainted and sans hood. (If not for his personable smile, Lee wouldn’t have recognized him). Gaara stood a socially acceptable distance and wore a delicate smile.

“Good evening.”

“Good evening, Kazekage-sama,” Lee smiled in return, always striving to appear humble and neutral when Gaara was in his diplomatic mode. They had never discussed it, but Lee was sure his friend knew and understood his intentions. Lee was very concerned these days with the appearance of his intentions.

“For you.”

Gaara held out a tidy boutonniere. Lee took it in his hands. It was small, pink, and exquisite, wrapped in a ribbon with a pale green straight pin tucked behind. Gaara wore one, as did Kankuro. There were no other Sand shinobi nearby to confirm if any of them wore one, and as far as Lee could surmise, they didn’t have one for Neji.

 

“For me?”

“Yes.” He inclined his head gracefully just before slipping away. The grin on Kankuro’s face never faltered - in fact, Lee was certain it bared a mocking edge but couldn’t parse out why. Without another word, he watched the brothers glide back into the crowd.

Gaara stood completely apart from the parody of Court members in a delightful shock of green, the designation of the Kazekage. The handsome knee length tunic was simply cut, of an iridescent dupioni silk, and embroidered tastefully at the wrists and hem. He was modestly cuffed from neck to ankle, even his feathered hair had been oddly slicked down. The sweet succulent blossomed from his collarbone in an endearing manner. Lee warmed at the thought of him and the enduring mystery of their friendship.

Beside him, Lee could practically feel the air around Neji vibrating. He looked around the statue to see the jounin openly smirking at him. What on earth had Neji so worked up? They shared a tense moment, Lee just knowing that something was coming his way.

“Tenten told me about you two shamelessly flirting during the meetings. I didn’t think it was true.”

“F-flirting?!” A wild burst of adrenaline kicked through his veins, sending his heart pounding into overdrive. Neji always knew, and he was nothing if not direct.

“I couldn’t believe that you would have the audacity to brazenly flirt with him in front of Tsunade-sama,” Neji smirked. “But now you do so it in front of a room full of diplomats and politicians. Very impressive, Lee.”

Lee was certain he was flushed from head to toe. He clutched the boutonniere in his hands and turned back to position, trying to regain some semblance of his duty, and perhaps a little bit of his dignity. He stared hard across the hall to appear as if he were doing his job, and began to acutely analyze all of his….well, everything, up until this point. Tenten, Gaara, the tea, the coffee, Tsunade, the sandstorm, the cave... Everything burned bright and nothing dared to stand out against the blazing embarrassment he felt.

“I think not, Neji.”

“Shikamaru,” Neji spoke briskly into the radio. A put upon sigh crackled in Lee’s ear.

“Yeah?”

“Do you happen to be wearing a boutonniere?”

And Lee thought he would never see the day come when he would be so blatantly betrayed by his own teammates.

“Temari just gave me one. Said something about being festive this evening.”

“Oh, is that so?” Neji turned back to Lee, a quaint nod to his head. Lee willed for a hole to open in the floor and swallow him up.

“Apparently Gaara grew them and asked to have them brought along just for the occasion.”

“They’re very special, then. I’m sure you look dandy.”

Shikamaru remained tastefully silent, and Neji halted his teasing tirade. His shenanigan had taken up enough air time. Air time that every single on-call shinobi had front row seats to. Lee gripped his wrist behind his back, studiously maintaining composure. He knew Neji meant little harm. Childish teasing Lee had put up with his whole life. But this had a different air; this was something Lee wanted to keep precious. This was something no one could touch.

“I’m sorry, Lee, it was too easy to tease you.” Neji smiled at him. “I’m sure that your friendship with the Kazekage is very personal. Who would make fun of that?” Lee nodded, clocking the far end of the hall as another foreign dignitary stepped in among fanfare and applause.

Thus, they returned to their duties, keeping calm and collected, and appearing as the respectable ninja they were. Moments passed and Lee stared hard at the toes next to his shoulder.

“Will you help me put it on?”

“Of course.”

-

Gaara performed a ceremonial purpose for the evening in front of the Court as a vital tool of the Daimyo’s power. Those in attendance would have a pleasurable night, enjoying food, drink, and merriment in celebration of the season, and then the real work would begin. Tomorrow would commence the all important conversations of the Suna and Konoha cooperation; all thirty-five Sand and Leaf nin would be in attendance, to assure the Court of the validity of their stance.

The night was drawing to a close; the bulk of the evening had been spent watching the ebb and flow of dancing, drinking, and more dancing still. The entire silence of nin watched on as Shikamaru was dragged off for a series of increasingly hilarious court and society dances. Kankuro proved to be remarkably spry. Tenten popped by and managed to secret in a quick once around the floor with Neji. Upon his return to their statue, she grabbed Lee by the arm and pulled him into the swirling crowd.

As young genin, among the trio’s first lessons from Gai-sensei was a thorough education in dance. Those three months on the mountainside were grueling but they came back the most popular dance partners at the Tanabata festival. While unusual, the skill proved over and over again to be the most important of fundamentals to their group dynamic; from the development of Neji’s Gentle Fist to Tenten’s proficiency at bukijutsu, and, of course, provided the framework for Lee’s lifelong study in taijutsu.

Tenten tucked her arm through Lee’s and the pair raced down between the lines of dancers to a delightfully rapid cotillion. She cheered and urged him into a spin. As they interchanged, Lee spotted a flash of bright red - Gaara’s hair? He whipped his head around - much to the consternation of his new partner - and did indeed spy the small kazekage participating in the lively dance.

It was dizzying trying to keep an eye on his friend and manage to keep up with the rest of the dancers. The musicians were skilled and kept time where Lee couldn’t. The dance members were charmed by Lee’s easy carriage and ability to lead, despite his preoccupation. For the entirety of the piece, Gaara remained just out of reach. He slipped by Lee in a blur of motion, face turned away.

Their meeting never came to pass, and the dance came to its abrupt and joyous end. Tenten ended up on the far side of their group, and waved to Lee before trotting off. Lee gestured his thanks to his last partner before spotting his friend. Gaara stood with a pretty dignitary in creamy white and orange, but something was wrong. She pandered to the smattering of so and so’s that had congregated around them and clung to his arm like particularly colorful lichen.

Lee carefully considered his next actions. Who was this person, and why did she act as though she could commandeer Gaara’s personal space? No one dared to to take what wasn’t theirs from the formidable Kazekage - who stood giving off a clear air of discomfiture that displaced something within Lee.

He drifted toward the wall as another dance commenced, mindful to watch the scene unfold. The Daimyo himself had elegantly paraded to posture before the couple. The Lichen responded in kind, surely all too aware of her precarious position and social standing, but was completely oblivious to Gaara. She pressed herself to him from shoulder to hip and chatted with the powerful lord.

Time moved very strangely. Lee had never felt so aware, so on edge, as he did in this moment, watching this strange unfolding of social construction. Around him, the dancers stilled mid pas de bourre, the music and din faded to a faint hum, the lights blurred. Everything held it’s collective breath as the mighty daimyo raised his hands in a grandiose gesture and brought them down on the shoulders of the couple.

Whatever held Lee spellbound very suddenly fractured and the world came rushing back in a great cacophony. There was a crowd talking rapidly in his ear and room buzzed with too much movement. He could only focus on Gaara - Gaara, whose eyes widened, whose chest heaved, whose entire body language screamed in emergency. Where were the ANBU? Where were the shinobi? Where were Temari and Kankuro? Where was Lee?

A great burst of sand pushed the Lichen and the Kazekage apart. The Daimyo was so taken aback that he tripped over his robes - but was caught by sharply dressed attendants. Eyes turned sour and glared at the retreating form of the Kazekage. Lee was faintly aware of the multiplicity of voices in his ear calling for his attention. He pulled the radio free and let it carelessly dangle from the housing hidden beneath his collar. He pursued.

He raced from the hall, all the sound and light and merriment quickly fading from the atmosphere, for the more sombre night sounds of the quiet palace. He chased the fleeing feeling of that deeply familiar chakra, a chakra he knew like his own, a chakra he could pinpoint from across a desert.

A slip of green silk disappeared around a distant corner. He ran faster.

“Gaara!”

Moonlight streamed over the intricate stone floors. The lushly appointed corridor bathed in the dappled light. He passed by overlarge portraiture, intricate furniture, and decorative plants, all cast in shadow. At every turn, he caught a glimpse of his friend’s retreating figure. He ran faster. A feeling very much like dread crept into his veins swimming alongside the pounding adrenaline. For the first time time in his life, the burn of hard work was not reassuring. At the far end of the corridor, a single door stood ajar from a line of the others.

What awaited him, he didn’t know. Just outside the jamb he stopped running.

Routine meant a means of identifying tasks that needed completion. Completing tasks in a timely manner created a sense of calm and collection that he valued. Apart from his morning ablutions, the tasks that greeted him earlier that morning were simple. Linear. Upon waking up, he started the day with warm up calisthenics with the curtains open to the outrageous beach view. A vigorous series of crunches, lunges, and dips, to utilize the economy of his temporary living space. After a quick wash and once over of his appointed quarters (abundantly youthful as ever, and made all the more embarrassing because of the political importance of said appointed quarters), he headed out for a satisfying breakfast with his cellmates (Tenten refused her coffee but drank it anyway; Neji sat with a contemplative cup of tea; Lee devoured a substantial bowl of local fruit). After breakfast, the Konoha group gathered for a final meeting before the evening's’ festivities.

Routine was easy and dependable. He could always rely on it to indicate what he should do next, or what should be accomplished in order to be the best shinobi he could be. His relationship with Gaara was shaped through the variations of routine. Their initial, explosive engagement had been detrimental but eye-opening. He adjusted. He regrouped. He became friends. They become something more - well, something other.

Now, he felt, another crucial junction was upon them - another moment where the regularity of routine was precariously balanced, waiting for an unseen hand to tip it in one direction or the other. Change was imminent - but change was necessary. Lee knew this intimately. He knew his friend was experiencing change, and it wasn't always easy.

He steeled himself and walked into the room.

A great wall of dark windows reflected a single point of light from a nearby lamp on a table beside the door. The room was astonishingly picturesque, something out of a grand novel, or film; dark, and well appointed in simple lines and neutral colors. The furniture was low and pleasant to the eye. A balcony the size of the room itself sat on the other side of the glass wall, overlooking a dark, spectral garden. An architectural palm swayed in the breeze beside the balcony door, ajar like a welcoming dream. In the middle of the beautiful space formed the alien sphere of Gaara’s sand, whispering in the night.

He approached the sphere with stern determination. He had seen this before first hand. It was the nin’s ‘ultimate defense’ technique, but only when Gaara felt the most helpless. The sand sphere meant his friend was hurting so much he couldn’t let someone in. But maybe this time, Lee hoped, he would. He made no effort to quieten his movements - after all, he didn’t want to sneak up or surprise the boy. He merely walked across the room and set his hands to the rough sand.

It shifted strangely against his palms, moving ever so faintly. It had a texture similar to a cat tongue, or the warm power of a shifting snake. He brushed his hand along the surface, watching the sand displace and shift back like water.

“Gaara?”

The sphere suddenly thrummed with chakra, sending a beautifully familiar wave up his arms. Lee smiled at the feeling, smiled with the memory of their victory in the desert at the forefront of his mind. That strange dream had slowly come back to him over the months; that bizzare out of body experience of walking the desert, the monstrous, amazing control of the sand and the wind, the unfathomable feeling his body took on just holding the storm like a wild stallion. He had walked in his friend's body, or maybe they shared minds - it was impossible to say, and even harder to put into words.

Lee recalled that feeling, and steadily scratched his nails down the side of the orb. Suddenly, the sand jerked as if spooked, shifting loudly under his fingers. Its coiling jumped in energy, developed direction, churning more actively now, and, Lee realized, pulling him in. He didn’t resist. He allowed the sand to part over him like a semi permeable membrane and gently take him.

Inside the sphere was dark and cool. He stood unsteadily, allowing his eyes the attempt to adjust. The sensation of Gaara’s chakra was relaxing in a way he hadn’t expected. It was like sinking into a warm bath. A dark, dry, bath. It was only like a bath in an emotional sense, he guessed. Just over the grind of the sand he could hear the serrated edge of Gaara’s breathing.

“Gaara?”

He swallowed as a hand clutched at his ankle. His heart jumped.

“Lee,” he croaked in reply. Lee braced himself. He had never heard him sound so rough.

“Hey,” he whispered, feeling incredibly lame.

Gaara didn’t reply. Lee hoped his eyes might adjust but there was just no light to be had in the dark of the sphere. The sand was too thick around them. He slowly lowered himself to the ground, hands outstretched hesitantly searching for his friend.

Their knees brushed before his fingers touched a bony protrusion - shoulder, he realized, as his hand warmed over the textured silk he had admired earlier.

“Are you okay?”

A beat.

A long beat.

“I’m so tired.”

Lee knew the sound of crying. He had cried so much in his life - over the loss of parents he never knew, the hurt of childhood loneliness, the teasing of his inability to perform any sort of useful skill. The rattle he heard deep in Gaara’s chest hurt as if it were his own. Pain was an ugly feeling, and there was so little that abated it’s sting.

“I don’t understand,” He whispered harshly. “Why are you still here? How can you sill be here?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“What obligation do you have to me?”

“Obligation?”

“I tried to kill you.”

Lee was thrown for a loop, sent reeling back to discern literally, recently, confusingly, and finally chronologically what Gaara meant. A bubble of odd pride popped in his chest, threatening to push a displaced laugh into their conversation.

“Well, you didn’t.”

“I came close on more than once occasion.” This time his sheer obstinance forced the laugh from his cheeks.

“You made me stronger. I’m better because of you. The bond of our friendship so much deeper and more meaningful! As Gai-sensei says, the lotus always blooms twice. Maybe I want to return the kindness.”

“Attempting to kill you is not a kindness.” The wet breath of a hiccough sounded by his ear. Lee was disoriented, unsure which way was up, which way was out, if they had a finite amount of oxygen or if there was some strange osmosis jutsu related complication keeping them alive. There was a definite sensation of liquid consciousness, a floaty feeling in the back of his head. Around him he even felt the minute air pressure change, and a ruffling sound followed - what was that? What was Gaara doing?

“Do you remember what we’ve shared?” Lee asked, changing gears. “So many beautiful moments! We have accomplished so much!”

When Gaara did not respond, he continued.

“I am so glad to have met you and to have had to honor to get to know you, the real you. It fills me with such happiness that I am your friend.”

Gaara made a smallish sound so much like a mewl, like that of a soaked kitten, that Lee could not keep his hands to himself. What the hell was he doing? This didn’t feel real, it felt like a dream, but if dreams were like black holes filled with a miasma akin to mud. Or feelings. Or muddy feelings. Only fractionally certain that he had passed through a supernatural barrier, Lee pitched forward onto his toes and hoped to reach for whatever part of the boy was nearest to him.

Hands landed on arms, crooked oddly at the elbow and followed them up, gently, carefully -- until they met with his hands, clutched tight in his hair, no doubt mussing it beyond all saving. He wanted badly to sooth the tension in his fists, he wanted to communicate his care before he passed out, or dissolved, or floated away.

“The person you’ve become, the person you’ve helped me become. I’m so proud of you, and everyday I am in awe of your strength. I love you!”

It had suddenly fallen out of his mouth very much in the same way one falls down a hillside, slowly, and then all at once, with a great burst of adrenaline and exhilaration and abject terror. Was it too forward of an admission? Would his feelings be misinterpreted or misunderstood? His heart leaped in his chest as he tried to loosen the fingers beneath his. Gaara’s breath whistled so loudly in his ears, resounding in their strange bubble, far from the world.

“Love?”

Lee did what he did best; he barreled on, despite the odds, despite his fears or shortcomings. Despite the looming cliff at the bottom of the hill he was so enthusiastically tumbling down, despite slowly losing touch with reality. He endured.

“You’ve changed me so much - and I know I’ve changed you. You’re not alone, you have never been alone. I’m here. You have family, and friends, and people who all count on you and care about you. It may have been hard before, but it can’t be half as bad now! Can it?

“Love isn’t just a feeling, it’s action, and dedication. You have put so much love into what you do as Kazekage! If you don’t know how to recognize it, that’s okay, I’ll help you. Or! If you decide that it isn’t love - that it’s something else, I’ll be there too! Just as long as you know what it is. Whatever it is, I’m sure of this feeling.”

“This... feeling?” Gaara repeated, finally pushing his quarreling emotions into action. “It hurts.”

“What feeling?”

“Here,” A hand found his and pulled at it. The liminal space around them collapsed, it squeezed tight around them like a tiny pinhole of light. There, in the epicenter of everything, Lee felt the strong beat of a heart under his palm. “It hasn’t hurt here since I was a child. It hurts. I feel like I’m dying.”

Without a second thought, Lee lunged with all his might and swallowed the nin up in a fierce hug. He squeezed and squeezed, willing his body to simply crush the sadness out of his heart. There was the pain of loss, the pain of sadness, the pain of loneliness, and these Gaara knew. But this was something else, something new. This was the pain of change.

A thought sprang into Lee’s mind, a long orbiting, trans-Leetonian object, spinning mysteriously, a moment of warm inspiration long since passed to him from Gai-sensei. He swallowed around the thick lump in his throat, the weight of it’s meaning only, finally, dawning on him now, in this moment.

“‘At any moment you have a choice that either leads you closer to your spirit or father away from it’.”

Gaara shifted in his arms, his face brushing wet and sticky down his neck, his hot breath puffing down the high collar of his shirt. Somewhere beyond in the dark, there was a perceptible ripple, a shifting of the orb around them, grinding against itself like a snake.

“You’re not dying, Gaara. You’re just growing.”

With that, the sand dropped around them like a crop circle, and the moon glowed over the sea.

-

After a time (imperceptible; had the party ended? Had anyone followed them? Would their exit be held in question?) Lee had convinced Gaara to shuffle out onto the stunning balcony. He hoped it a change in scenery would help clear the strange dissolution of reality from his head. Or maybe he was just nervous. Whatever. A cool breeze breathed across his fevered skin. Above, glinting stars reflected off the dark waves, and the sounds the ocean crashing into itself off in the distance did what it could to settle the unease in Lee’s stomach.

Gaara sat on a cushioned bench and unbuttoned the neck of his tunic. His mussed hair fluttered in the breeze. Lee stared at the hunched figure of his dear friend, considering if it would be appropriate to do the same.

“Can I ask what happened?”

Gaara’s face tensed. He closed his eyes, and Lee was sure he was taking a moment to center himself. After all, he had had a long night - dancing and experiencing the melting point of reality. Or just shitty teenage hormones. Whatever.

“The Daimyo was congratulating us.”

“Congratulating? You... and the creamsicle?”

“...creamsicle?”

“...You know. It’s a type of ice cream.”

“What’s ice cream?”

“Uh...It’s… It’s not -- th-the girl you were dancing with!”

Lee worried that this disconnect meant that reality was still not back. He squinted out over the coast, catching ripples of light on ripples of water.

“The Daimyo was congratulating you and the girl you were dancing with.” Lee tried again. “Why?”

“He approved of our marriage.”

Lee looked back over the rippling light and the rippling water, willing it back to stillness. They rippled on.

“...Marriage?”

“I did not know about it either.”

“Wait, he approved a marriage you didn’t know about?”

“Well. Not exactly. The Council has been threatening me for months about getting married. Since they learned of Temari’s pregnancy, they fear the Kazekage lineage going to Konoha.”

“But the villages have been on good terms for a few years now.”

“You know how these sort of politics play out. I may be the leader of the village but the Council holds the parliamentary power.”

“It sounds a little strange if you ask me.”

Gaara grunted noncommittally.

“So, if the parliamentary power is actually in charge, and they tell you what to do, what does that say about the position of Kazekage?” Lee wondered out loud. Gaara ran a hand over his head and down the side of his neck - a gesture that stopped Lee for a moment just to stare. A gesture that Lee found he wanted to make his own, he wanted to run his fingers through that hair again and again.

“‘Needs must when the devil drives’.”

“What?”

“Head Councilwoman Sashiko said it to me on the day of the sand storm. An emergency meeting had been called to discuss procedures for the sandstorm, and before allowing me to leave I was informed that since I had not come up with a match myself, the council had decided for me whom I was to wed.

“They’re well within their bounds to be concerned about the right of the Kazekage lineage. My father, and his father, and the men before them were all the Kazekage.” Gaara looked out over the dark garden below, the decorative pond beneath scarcely visible despite the moonlight. “Temari’s child will be the first born, and therefore will be considered the next in line for the position; but that child will be born from a father, a ninja, of another prominent family, of another hidden village.”

“Shikamaru is being groomed for an advisory position. It could be considered a security threat.”

“The safety of my people is paramount. You know this.”

Lee knew this, but he did not accept it.

“Gaara, that’s manipulation! Just because she has political power over your position doesn’t mean she can force you into marriage.”

“She’s been on the council since before I was born. Her choices had been imposed upon me my entire life.”

Suddenly, factors of the evening began to line up.

“So, the girl in the orange dress-?”

“She’s the daughter of a prominent local magistrate. A magistrate who is a favorite of the Daimyo and, more importantly, the Daimyo’s treasury.”

“His treasury?”

Gaara gave him a patient expression.

Oh.

“Are members of your council being bribed?” Indignation rose hot as lava in Lee’s throat. He was so enraged that he was certain he would start spitting acid at any moment.

“I’m… not sure.”

The night rippled on around them. Lee wavered between thoughts, trying to come to a conclusion, but was left chasing after a beginning. In a fit of pique, he started somewhere in the middle.

“I reshingled my neighbor’s roof last year.”

Gaara grunted in response.

“Well, I didn’t quite mean to. I was just helping out. But we have these gutters all over the village; they channel water away from the buildings and are built to keep the leaves out. They’re really important and kind of expensive and are a real pain when they malfunction or break, because they’re built to be so sturdy.

“My neighbor is an old man and was up on his roof in the middle of winter, slowing replacing all the shingles by himself. Well, he slipped off the roof and broke a gutter on the way down. I offered to continue to work on the shingles while he went to find someone to repair the gutter.”

“The ninja in your village take missions for the oddest things.”

“That’s not what you’re meant to take away from this. And it wasn’t a mission. It was a gesture of kindness.”

“So, he broke the gutter, and you finished the roof. Out of kindness.”

 

“Yes. He was so grateful that he hasn’t stopped giving me eggs since.”

 

“He gives you… eggs?”

“The point is,” Lee barreled on. “That I had little difficulty in finishing his roof for him. I handled a simple task while he was at city hall handling the drainpipe. The drainpipe is the little vanity that the village controls. You handle the drainpipe; tell the council to change their legislation. I’ll be there, taking care of anything else you need me to.”

Lee swallowed around the hard lump in his throat, very effectively making it a hard lump in his belly. He wondered if he had managed to make a modicum of sense, or had simply fled off into the night with the receding hold on reality. Gaara stared off into the distance, wind in his hair and Lee’s heart in his hands. The pink apparition of his tongue wetting his lips stuck him like lightening.

“Do I have to give you eggs too?”

-

IV.

-

Spring was by far Lee’s favorite time of year. Konoha was simply at its best. The forest bloomed back to life around the community, washing the streets in blissful buds of green leaves and the fragrant promises of tree blossoms. Lee’s own little apartment overlooked a pair of purple wonders, a kobushi magnolia and double flowering plum - monstrous things that he came to look forward to every year. The sun rose earlier every day, bringing with it feelings of hope and inspiration. Or, at least, Lee thought so. However, this spring, Lee was not in Konoha, nor was he on a mission. No, this spring Lee had foregone his village cloaking itself in leaves and made for warmer weathers; this spring heralded Lee’s well deserved vacation.

He had spent the last week waking up when he pleased, relaxing as he pleased, and napping when he pleased. It was nice to have built up three months of vacation time. It was even nicer to cash it in whenever he wanted.

Though its formal designation on all the official documentation was ‘mansion’, the Kazekage’s living quarters were more of an longish, squat compound. Ancestral and unpresuming, a diametric opposite of the Daimyo’s lavish glass castle, the wood and stone hallways and sizable rooms of the Kazekage mansion were surprisingly airy. The main house had been partially built into the volcano wall itself on the north side of the village, so as to avoid the afternoon sun and benefit from the southern prevailing winds.

There were formal sitting rooms and more elaborate parlors, there was a long, low dining room with huge paintings on ancient scrolls depicting Suna’s past on each wall. Lee’s favorite room in the house had to have been the private living room, set to the far end of the main house. It faced away from the village and inward, with a wide glass wall that opened up to a beautiful courtyard garden. It was a singular surprise to find such a large window in a place and culture sandblasted into precious minimalism.

The morning was swiftly working its way into afternoon. There was a cooling pot of tea on the nearby table. Lee and Temari sat on the floor, Lee with a slumbering Shikadai in his lap. Temari looked fantastic. Yes, she was exhausted, having recently had a baby and even more recently little to no sleep, but she looked so happy. Happy was Lee’s favorite look for anyone to wear because happiness was infectious. A smile, a warm attitude, just the minute vibrations that stir in the chakra can be the turning point in another’s day. Happiness can change momentum. Happiness was fundamental to physics, health, and growth.

Lee felt restful, quiet and comfortable with this little baby in his lap. Everything would be alright in this moment, even if things were not alright - though there lay a thought he was struggling to keep at bay, a thought one should not deal with when nestling a baby.

“He’s been busy, hasn’t he?”

He smirked and wiggled the finger Shikadai clutched in his tiny hand. Of course she was just as perceptive as Neji.

“I haven’t seen him myself for days.” She continued. “He’s such a workaholic, I swear.”

“He is very dedicated to his people.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it?”

Lee looked over at her, though her profile was turned to the garden wall. Her face passed in and out of the shadows of clouds sailing across the sky. Her eyes. How long had they known each other and for him to just now realize that she and Gaara looked so much alike. It was their eyes, and there, the nose. He wondered if Gaara and Kankuro shared ears.

“His dedication?”

She hummed.

“That he’s willing to work for a people that have yet to fully place their trust in him, even now, even after all that has happened. What else do they need?”

Lee’s face pulled in consideration. Gaara’s sole aim was the protection and prosperity of his people. The council was their voice, and yet the same council had urged him into action he didn’t want, pushed him into a marriage without his consent. It brought up may difficult questions, and further, difficult politics.

Though months had passed, an uncomfortable feeling had wedged itself in his chest between his heart and lungs; a thought that occasionally made him struggle to breathe, made him struggle to act. A feeling with a name, though he hesitated to call it, a feeling attached to Gaara that wrapped around the situation between them like a vine caught in a trellis.

“Lee,” she was soft, she was calm.

He looked at her, at her green eyes, the eyes of her brother. She was perceptive. Those eyes could see him like Gaara couldn’t. Women were such a wonder. Shikadai, an equal wonder in his own right, wiggled in his lap, unaware of such dealings. He was caught in the sweetest of traps.

“I don’t know the extent of your friendship with Gaara,” She started slowly, lowly, “But I do know that you’re friends. It baffles me most days. You show up and... the world opens. He’s someone else, he’s something more.

“There’s a difference. It’s been building for months, and I think the Council took notice of it too late. It’s unprecedented - but everything about him is unprecedented. He’s changing and they don’t know what will come of it, so they tried to contain him. It’s like they tried to put him under glass and label him like an insect.”

“...An insect?”

“Councilwoman Sashiko will receive most of his ire, I imagine. She wasn’t the biggest fan of our father’s plan to turn his youngest son into a living weapon, but she performed her duty as part of the Council.”

“She’s been on the Council for a long time then.”

“It’s traditionally a lifetime position. And like the Kazekage lineage, one can be born into it.”

“That seems… a little problematic.”

“Yes, and yet life goes on.”

“That sort of attitude seems a little blasé. After all, they turned some rather inconsiderate legislation on him.”

At that, Temari seemed to shrink. Lee wondered for what reason, and he quickly realized his mistake.

“I meant no disrespect! I merely-”

“No, it’s a valid point. The commitment of having a baby, let alone a relationship with a man from another village - and not just a ninja but one working for a foreign government - it was a risky decision. My actions were a catalyst for the Council’s decision to push for Gaara to marry.”

“But saying that your decisions should in turn reflect poorly on him is entirely unfair.”

“It’s unfair but it is how it has always been. Life in the desert is demanding and absolute. Every child learns that. Gaara learned it and I learned it and Shikadai will learn it too.

“But Gaara isn’t experiencing unfair governmental coercion at the hands of the desert. It’s being handed down to him by a group of old fogeys with no interest for his personal wellbeing or addressing the concerns of the people they are meant to represent!” The tiny hand clutching his finger tightened it’s baby vice grip and Shikadai began to fuss. Lee’s heart pounded and he pressed his lips in a firm line. He hadn’t meant to shout but he could not sit idly by while his friend suffered under the heavy hand of injustice.

Temari shifted close and lifted the crying babe from his lap.

“You’re right, he isn’t. He facing the result of decades of systematic fraud and instrumental abuse of what little resources are available to us. He was born into it, we all were. The three of us have been subject to the twisted, petty infrastructure that has become of Sunagakure. It is an unkind machine that demands an ironclad leader.

“But I believe he can break the cycle.”

Lee looked her in the eye. She had turned to him in earnest, eyes sparkling, positively radiating with smug satisfaction, brilliant and beautiful.

“Oh?”

“He’s been restless for days, weeks really. Ever since the meeting with the Daimyo. I’ve outright asked him what he’s planning but he’s been typically tight lipped. He’s up to something and I’m excited to see what it is.

“Are you excited?” She asked the baby, having quieted quickly. He looked back at his mother with wide eyes. “What is Uncle Gaara going to do, hm?”

Lee grinned. Scant years before, the phrase ‘Uncle Gaara’ might have dared to drop from her lips. Kankuro, Temari, and Gaara had been through so much, and overcome it all, together. Despite so many odds, they remained a precious family.

“Uncle Gaara, huh?” He asked grinning. Temari’s responding laugh was like a tinkling bell, like a beautifully wrapped ball bouncing down a sunny hallway.

“Oh, yes. He’s a little moony over the baby, actually. To be honest, it scared the piss out of me the first time I got up at night to check on Shikadai; I walked into the nursery and Gaara was standing over his crib, almost afraid to touch him.

“It’s actually enough to make me cry, you know?” She said, trying to surreptitiously wipe a tear that had suddenly pooled in the corner. “He wanted so badly to have a normal childhood. He’s going to be so kind to this little boy.”

“Yes, he is.”

-

An open courtyard, partially shaded from the sun by huge triangular sheets of sun bleached canvas. They flew overhead, rocking back and forth in the breeze, suspended at the corners from receiving antennae or balcony rail. It was like looking up at impossibly huge, mythical birds. Lee spent much of his morning lazily drinking tea on the roka overlooking the inner courtyard in the dappled sunlight.

The courtyard garden was the second, and more ornemental, of the two the compound boasted. It was easily many times larger than that of the Hyuga’s. Coarse gravel dictated much of the footage, though there were several areas of impressive foliage; a number of trees and shrubs created a pleasing vista from every side, now starting the bloom in pale greens and delicate whites. There were two dedicated paved stone paths that met in the center beneath an impressive canopy tree for a desert, and even there, off to the back corner, a traditional tea room (complete with a ceremonial nijiriguchi entrance).

Time had passed slow and pleasant. Lee did not find himself wanting or bored, though he had expected he might. He hadn’t picked up one of the several taijutsu texts he had brought with him, nor had he thought to wake at dawn to rigorously train.

There existed a curious suspension in his dutiful daily practice, a strange gelatinous hold over his almost obsessive adherence to routine. Something had come over him in these past few days in this strange and wonderful and quiet house. Something in the air, something in the desert itself, something like an oasis, something like a fog, something like a great wave of light or sound or silence or jelly or porridge. Something slow and tender, something like spring.

Something like a pause.

An orchestration beyond an orchestration, a completely different symphony was sounding in his heart of hearts and soul of souls. Something new and hard to explain. He felt very young and old, a refreshing duplicity, at a crossroads, on a train platform with a bag in hand, at the start of something awfully, awfully large and looming.

But what?

The day marched on, and familiar faces began to appear. To his mild embarrassment his sensei materialized over his shoulder and proceeded to happily jibe his student for his indolency even while on vacation - Kakashi-sensei wasn’t far behind and joining in, crowing after his pajamas despite it being past lunch (effectively teased to action, he went to change). Tenten appeared promptly at three, pink faced and joyous, with Neji in tow, face pink and less than joyous (he wilted in the heat). The kunoichi was all too happy to shower the Nara’s in gifts (whether blunted kunai were an appropriate gift for a newborn was left to be contended). After a time, Shikamaru and Kankuro paraded by, stopping for the tea Temari had sent down from the kitchen before she was off on some business, with little Shikadai handed off to the two elder jounin like farcical grandparents.

A collection of peoples wasn’t uncommon these days. Temari and Shikamaru had spent the last three weeks welcoming visitors and well wishers for the birth of their son. Lee had seen many a variety pass in and out of the formal and informal spaces, those of political import to folks passing by on their way to the market, all blessing the child and parents. Shikadai was an oddly agreeable baby; despite being a newborn and all the many tragedies of the world upon his shoulders - the discovery of a loud noise shocking him out of slumber or the sensation of an unhappy tummy, being a baby was hard! - Lee had yet to see the babe not at ease in his parents arms or in a crib.

Even now, the sun firmly finding its way across the sky, Shikadai was a dew drop radiantly sparkling at the gardens center amid rock and cacti, a cheerful blob of youth unperturbed by the unforgiving desert.

Lee watched this tiny baby in the sun and shade, this little child who had become the bridge between two villages. The hard knot of emotion that he had dared to name loosened a bit. Here he sat, surrounded by his cell mates, people who he had grown with, had become the family he never had. He contemplated the world that had opened up around him, a world he had discovered, and perhaps a world he had even helped shape. A world full of trees and sand and sea, a world of wind and earth. He felt that knot loosen, warmed by the sun, warmed by love.

Oh.

And just like that, like a whisper of silk cord, the knot slipped free.

-

It was a sort of all encompassing feeling. Practically instantaneously he felt that gelatinous miasma he had trapped himself in melt away, leaving behind a naked, shining, shaking awareness. He wasn’t sure that he hadn’t jumped up and started running laps around the compound. His heart thundered inside him, threatening to turn him inside out by its percussion alone. He felt like he had all those weeks and weeks ago, walking in the middle of a sandstorm, filled up with the screaming glory of his and Gaara’s chakra. The rush of the now named feeling pulsed through his body, through his bloodstream; he felt like a supercharged ionic particle, like a burning building slowly tipping over a cliff, like the wind was rising up to meet him and the sun and the moon and the stars were rushing through the atmosphere and crashing down around him.

All this and he had somehow managed to sit still like he wasn’t going to spontaneously combust.

There was laughter in his ears. Around him his friends sat joyfully drinking, relaxing, and smiling. The feeling mellowed out, though only a bit. Lee wondered if at this very moment, wherever Gaara was, whatever he was doing, if he was sharing this feeling.

“Lee, what are you smiling about?” Tenten plopped down next to him and pushed a cup into his hands. He looked down at the cold tea, allowing the chill to seep into his fingers, up his arms, into his head and all the way down to his toes.

“I’m just,” he started, stopped, and cleared his throat. He could feel his face pulling which made him smile all the more. “I’m just enjoying myself.”

Tenten laughed and bumped his shoulder.

“Sure.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing. Vacation looks good on you.”

“You should have seen the look on Tsunade-sama’s face when he asked to cash in his PTO.” Neji chimed in, leaning over from his conversation with Kankuro. “I couldn’t tell if she was upset that she was losing him for three months or if she was going to cry from joy.”

“Gai-sensei has already thoroughly teased me. Not you too.”

“Oh ho, if you think you’re getting off without at least a brisk dressing down, then you are sorely mistaken, my good man.

“I’m getting a dressing down?” Lee turned to her, enjoying the banter far too much. “Excuse you, I believe you’re the one who was spreading lascivious rumours about me to anyone who will listen, Neji.” He whipped his head around and turned the attack on his other teammate.

Neji choked behind his teacup with a poorly hidden chortle.

“I’m sure that I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No?” He pressed. “Surely your memory is not as bad as your eyesight.” Tenten shouted with glee and slapped Lee on the shoulder. “I believe there was an incident in Luca by a particular statue’s feet at a particular political event wherein you very clearly engaged in salacious gossip. About me. To my face.”

And with the slyest, slickest of smirks, Neji countered, “It isn’t gossip if it’s true.”

For the second time in his life, Lee was blatantly betrayed by his his own teammates.

(And he was okay with it).

“The shade of it all!” Tenten screamed in delight.

“Hey, maybe don’t toss my newborn son ten feet in the air!”

Lee glanced up. Shikamaru had been shouting at Gai-sensei who merely bellowed with laughter. Kakashi-sensei looked like he had an air of mirth about him as he took the baby from his ridiculous husband.

“I’m still having a hard time believing that you’re a dad.” Tenten addressed him warmly. It was not a secret to Lee that she loved babies. She had practically cried upon seeing Shikadai for the first time. She even announced that would have no qualms babysitting - though it came across more like a threat of kidnapping.

“Really?” Shikamaru grinned. “Truth be told, I always wanted kids. Even when I was a kid I just sort of knew that I would be a dad.”

“Aw, you softie.”

Lee’s heart bubbled at the consideration of raising children; he wasn’t sure if he could see himself as a father, but always wanted to inspire others the way Gai-sensei had done for him. He watched his beloved mentor in the sun, surrounded by turtles and ninken, with Kakashi-sensei by his side. The pair lay on their bellies, shoulder to shoulder, on a blanket out in the shade playing with a chirping Shikadai.

Again (or perhaps he hadn’t stopped) a smile cracked across his face. He knew for a solid gold fact that Gai-sensei had shaped his life like a father would have. Kakashi-sensei may not have been his sensei, but had always been there for him (in his reliable, if peculiar Kakashi-sensei way) in his youth when Gai-sensei had been away on mission. He felt some sort of familiar relation to the man, despite their relative distance, and watching the two together never failed to bring him delight and warm his heart - theirs was a sacred bond.

“The squirt’s cute.” Kankuro affirmed airily, leaning in to pour himself another cup of tea. He frowned when the pitcher emptied quicker than he would have liked. “Reminds me of Gaara before the dark years.”

Lee felt Neji and Tenten tense beside him, unsure that this was truly a safe topic of conversation, but Shikamaru managed to sidestep it with ease.

“Ah, I saw photographs of you two as children. You wanna talk about cute-”

“How on earth did you find those?” The puppeteer moaned.

“Her name is Temari and she was liberal with the baby pictures. I recall a certain photograph of two boys in a wash basin.”

“Please stop.”

“I’m so jealous!” Tenten pouted. “What did baby Gaara look like?”

“Literally the same, just shorter. Oh jeez, Gaara was such a handful as a child,” Kankuro started, and then stopped. He opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak but abruptly stopped again. He wiped his face with a hand. “Aw, I made myself sad.”

“Oh?” Neji quirked an eyebrow.

“Gaara was born prematurely; he was literally a handful.”

Shikamaru sighed and ashed his cigarette into a little bowl at his side.

“Just what every new father wants to hear. Speaking of the Kazekage, is that little dust mite still working? On a Saturday?”

“Dust mite…?” Lee turned to squint at Shikamaru’s choice of words. He was ignored with such grace that Lee was impressed - he was blending into the Sand sibling dynamic with a shadow’s grace.

“No, he’s probably in his garden workshop.”

“Garden workshop?”

“Oh yeah, it’s so cute,” Kankuro snickered. “He’s always kind of enjoyed playing in the dirt. Fun story: one time, he left a meeting just hot, oh, he was mad - stiffer than a cat pissing in sawdust. I followed him and watched him walk straight to a pile of this dirt that he had hauled in from who knows where and just shove his hands in it.”

“What, that’s it?”

“I mean, after a while he repotted some plants or something, but, yeah, he just stood there, for, like, ten minutes.”

“Checking for the sand ratio.” Lee murmured, finishing his tea.

“Actually, yeah,” Kankuro’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you know?”

“Oh, uh. Just guessing?”

The nin didn’t seem to buy it. Beside him, Neji laughed at their senseis’ antics.

“So, he has some kind of plant workshop? I had no idea he was into botany. I mean, you guys live in a desert - they aren’t exactly known for their flora.” Tenten inquired. Neji shifted off the roka and quietly excused himself to join the jounin out in the courtyard.

“Oh it’s incredibly important.” Kankuro replied. “You said it after all: we live in a desert. He had a small cactus garden growing up and it just kind of developed from there. For example, all of the trees in the courtyard? He cultivated them, though they’re mostly just for show. He’s currently conducting studies on tubers in coastal and palaeodeserts. Something about evapotranspiration. Out in the desert, it’s almost always about food. He works on ways to keep his people fed.

“That’s… astonishing. I had no idea.”

“You remember those boutonnieres from the Daimyo’s ball? He brought those along with a gift for the national botanical garden. Said it was for ‘friendship and mutual…’ something or other.”

“Much good that did. Our proposal was tabled for the next two years while other national contacts are fulfilled.” Shikamaru replied quietly. Lee puffed up indignantly.

“I don’t view this as a loss, just a victory in microscale.”

“You would.” Shikamaru smirked, blowing smoke.

“Good afternoon, all you lazy sacks of bones. I see yet another lot has shown up.” The gathering looked up to see Temari pacing down the roka in their direction. Lee waved, which she returned with a smile. Kankuro tensed up, and looked as if he were preparing to run.

“Ah, yes, my lovely wife. We are,” Shikamaru paused theatrically, looking for some sort of excuse to feed the Sand nin. “...babysitting.”

“Babysitting.”

“Collectively.”

“Of course.”

“Of course.”

“Alright, I’m leaving before this gets gross.” Kankuro muttered.

“Oh? Leaving? And here I thought you had accompanied the Kazekage to his very important meeting.”

“Yeah, well,” Kankuro squashed his face in what Lee thought was a remarkably spot on impression of Naruto. “He told me to fuck off. So I did.”

“Ah, ahuh.” She nodded slow and exaggerated, in a very sisterly way. Well, what Lee interpreted as a sisterly gesture, having no sister of his own, but he had a Tenten and he had been subject to the same look and knew it intimately. Kankuro had entered the Danger Zone.

“What?” Lee could practically hear the elder sibling sweat. Lee looked away not so surreptitiously, and so did everyone else.

“While you were ‘fucking off’ he not only called, attended, and ended the very important meeting, but he also put the entirety of the Council on probation.”

Kankuro’s head spun so fast it nearly snapped off of his neck.

“He what?”

“Oh, you hadn’t heard?”

“That’s a very bold move for the Kazekage to pull.” Shikamaru remarked, a frown turning at the corners of his mouth.

“A move that could have been avoided if one of the Kazekage’s counselors had been in attendance.” She took a step and kicked Kankuro’s thigh.

“Ow, yes, I get it. But do you seriously think I could have stopped him?”

“No, but you’re still in trouble.”

“He told me to get lost!”

“What’s he doing now?” Lee interjected, moving to stand.

“He’s probably in his workshop. See the long wall there? Second floor.” She pointed up and across to the far end of the yard, at a long expanse of windowless wall. “You know where the library is? Above that.”

“Yes, thank you. If you all will excuse me.” He asked before all but bolting into the house. Tenten cackled after him as he made a hasty retreat.

Just before they were out of earshot he overheard Temari demand, “What on earth is that man doing with my child? Shikamaru, your newborn son is being tossed about like a ball, why are you just sitting there?”

-

The Kazekage’s apartments were not difficult to find. In fact, they were just down the hallway from Lee’s own. (That thought made a familiar feeling bubble in his stomach, despite how inappropriate it may have been, given the circumstances i.e. he, a visiting nin, from a village, whom in the past they had been at war with, more than once, allowed to stay in the Kazekage’s mansion, on vacation, because of their ‘close personal friendship’ -- the odds were not stacked in his favor. But the feeling bubbled all the same).

He had wondered for ages now what the ‘Kazekage’s apartments’ would hold; after all, it was a title that commanded endless inspiration. He had imagined a host of large suites, all interconnected and weaving, ancient and ornamental. He had imagined a luxury he had yet experienced in the desert - after all, this was the Kazekage lineage, surely those of the past had collected a swath of items and books and furniture that would be considered state treasures?

What he had imagined was far removed from the truth.

The staircase leading up to the single entrance was hewn directly into the volcanic rock facade from which the entire compound seemed to burst forth. The steps were uneven, steep, and well tread, indicative of many feet over untold years; the path narrow and short, only slightly more broad than Lee’s shoulders and less than a foot of space overhead.

The thin, narrow, and frankly uncomfortable climb was entirely reminiscent of the secret paths of the villages’ perimeter, of that small bunker room where Kankuro had blessed him with a protective charm that he felt even to this day. However, as the stairwell wound its way up, he came upon a large landing. There was a single window to his right, shoulder height and glass remarkably clear. To his left, there spilled a carefully dug, beautiful altar, stuffed with astonishing plants, all climbing one over the other toward the light.

Before him, between this beautiful moment, amidst the embrace of light and life, a single door stood ajar. The bubbling feeling in his stomach spread inside his body, gleefully filling him up from the tips of his ears to the bottom of his feet. Many times he had stood here - well, not here here, but at a moment exactly like this one, waiting on the other side of a door, on the threshold of discovery, perfectly anxious and wonderfully excited, constantly prepared to jump wholeheartedly into whatever untold adventure he knew Gaara would inevitably show him.

This time, softened by joy, he stepped through the door.

The room was long, but more importantly, more incredibly, the room was green. The single roomed space was positively lush with all stages and types of plant life - multiple specimen of cacti, palm, and flowering shrub, all reaching up and out. There were tables, chairs, stools, and benches scattered all around, overflowing with pots and troughs and dishes - literally teacups and bowls, and even a heavy iron rice pot, ripe with vegetation. Overhead stretched the largest window Lee had seen in the village. It ran the entire length of the room like a pale blue ribbon.

What’s more were the tables that stood at the center of the room, like a strange island in a stranger sea. From one end to the other, the workspace was covered in scientific looking equipment, bags and boxes of a seemingly random collection of objects, and on one end, several piles of what he assumed was... dirt.

Was this the Kazekage’s quarters? Was this Gaara’s room? It was more like an alchemist’s pantry, replete with racks of glass vials, tubes and flasks and potions. On one of the long tables at his hip there was some sort of black liquid slowly burping away in a oddly shaped glass nestled in a heating mantle. The air itself permeated with a soft, warm smell of earth. He looked around, astounded at the space he had entered. That this was how Gaara spent his free time was entirely unexpected and surprising, and yet, Lee was just as expecting and unsurprised.

Tucked into an alcove, lay an office space designated by the thread bare but ornate rug. Along one wall sat a low desk piled high with paperwork, scrolls, and texts; behind, in the dark corner a pile of cushions

“Lee?”

He turned. There was a doorway he hadn’t clocked, on the same wall as the one he entered. At it’s jamb stood the his redhaired friend, hands gloved and carrying a tray of what appeared to be brains. Or rocks. It was hard to tell.

He wanted to open his mouth to ask what on earth he was doing with a tray of rock brains, but was blown over by the mere sight of his friend. Again, months had passed since they last saw one another, and again, Lee was overcome by his deep admiration and respect for him. He wore a sturdy canvas apron over a deep red haori he hadn’t seen before. It had an odd pattern, something like polka dots. It’s wide sleeves were held back with a strip of cloth, knotted in a tidy bow at his left armpit.

He wanted to ask after the cheeky pattern of his haori, having never seen him in something so pleasingly casual, but he was too caught up in staring at his feet. It should be typical that Gaara was barefoot in his own home but the fact still shouted at the forefront of his mind. Perhaps it shouted because the entire length of his pale legs were visible, from the hem of the work apron down.

Perhaps Lee had done some thinking about those pale legs. Perhaps he had done a fair amount of consideration regarding his lovely ankles and thin feet and pink, pink, pink toes. Perhaps he had certain, bubbling feelings for them.

“Lee.” Gaara set the tray aside and stepped toward the Leaf nin. It was shockingly rude, but Lee was sure he had been struck dumb. He was incapable of anything but staring. Staring could be useful; for example, as Gaara closed in on him, he realized that the pattern of his haori was tiny, evenly spaced gourds. And that was adorable.

“Uh,”

He could tell Gaara was unimpressed. Or maybe bemused. Probably both.

“I apologize for not coming to see you sooner, there was much work to be done and very little time in which to do it.”

“...Hi.”

“I think we’re well passed the part of the conversation that requires salutations.”

“I wanted to say it anyway?” Gaara sighed through his nose.

“Hello,” he replied, that same bemused expression melting into a more familiar irritation. A spark of delight warmed in Lee’s chest.

“How have you been?”

“I’ve… been busy. I do not usually have to repeat myself. Are you well?”

“I’m fine, thank you. Thank you for having me. Your home is very beautiful. Temari and Kankuro have been very accommodating.”

“I am pleased to have you here.”

“Thank you.”

“Please stop thanking me.” Gaara turned to the table and set to work doing whatever it was he was doing to the tray of whatever he had brought in with him. Lee stood at his side and watched him work.

“My siblings are nothing if not accommodating. I am glad to have them as my advisors. They have shared in my career as Kazekage as much as I have in fulfilling the position.”

“How has that been?”

“How has what been? You’re being more obtuse than usual.”

“How has fulfilling the position of Kazekage been?” Lee tried again, a little embarrassed by Gaara’s precise scrutiny. “Since the appeal failed at the Court?”

“Ah,” He paused, wrists resting on the table top. He looked up at the strip of blue sky visible through the ceiling. The feeling inside of Lee threatened to spill out of him. He felt like a balloon ready to burst. Lee wanted desperately to share the bubbling feeling inside that had struck him dumb. Everything he felt, and realized, and dreamed of, he wanted to start that conversation that they had left off months ago, before he had the words he wanted to say. “I have had much work to do.”

“Temari said that you put the members of the Council on probation?”

“Yes. I informed them that their hidden agenda was paramount to treason and asked them to vacate their positions.”

“Treason?”

“As a group they felt that they held a far greater power over my position than they actually do. You were right; they were manipulating me with their own interests in mind. Most of the members still believe me to be a monster and would see me dead by dawn.”

“I thought the Council was the voice of the people. Yet from what I’ve witnessed, the people of the village are quite invested in you as a leader.”

“Council seats are lifetime positions, and many of the current members have been on staff since before Kankuro was born. Its unsurprising that their views might not truly reflect those of the people.”

“Ah, ‘Out with the old, in with the new’, then.”

“Just so. I intend to have the current members disbanded. I’ll ask the village to hold an election to install a new selection of Council members and have them work with the Seat to reform some of the more dated policies.”

“The Seat?”

“Me.”

“Oh, right.”

“What are these rocks?”

“Rocks?”

“Uh...Brains?”

“...Brains.”

“That tray. Those… rock… brains.”

After a moment, Gaara dipped his head in understanding.

“Ah. These are a type of cactus known as lithops bromfieldii. They’re commonly known as living rocks. They’re a rare breed that I’m going to graft to a more common cactus to see how they bloom. I’m studying them as a potential food source. I find that children find them aesthetically pleasing; cultivating them could prove beneficial as educational sources to entice children to explore desert agriculture.”

“I had no idea you truly knew so much about plants. Kankuro said something about a gift that you brought to for the Daimyo’s garden?”

Gaara’s lips quirked.

“Yes. You couldn’t quite see it from my quarters given the darkness, but my room overlooked the Daimyo's ornamental garden. He’s very passionate about beauty.”

“Yes, that was apparent.”

“And it is become customary for traveling diplomats to present him with flowers or fruits for his pleasure. The Kazekage isn’t expected to visit as often, so the gift had to be something with more impact. I brought a desert tree, a mountain laurel. We have one here in the courtyard.”

Lee paused a moment to recreate the appointment of plants he had seen in the large, rocky yard. He had seen many shrubs and a few craggy trees; one had come to brilliant blossom the day before.

“The purple one?”

“Yes,” he nodded, hands pausing, “It’s lovely in the spring. It takes to heat like a tea pearl.”

“I wanted to view the flower buds up close but there’s a fence around it.”

“Because it’s poisonous.”

Lee paused, attempting to allow the thought to sink in. It proved difficult.

“Y-you gave the leader of your country a poisonous present?”

“A reminder that all beauty comes at a price; he will think carefully when he chooses to seek my villages’ services again. Through the scheming of the Council and his easily appealed vanity I was put in a very precarious position, and I have since made it abundantly clear that it will not happen again.”

Lee’s heart suddenly hammered against his ribs.

“Oh?”

“I will not be made a fool of, nor will I be so easily manipulated. My life is my own and I will choose how to spend it.”

Lee willed for the named feeling to rise again, like the wind and sun and moon and stars inside him. Gaara had the unique ability to make Lee feel bold.

“And how do you want to spend it? Your life?” He asked, taking the single step he had allowed between them, pressing as close as he dared. And today, he was very daring.

Gaara turned to him, face full of sun, eyes like bottle glass. He was so pink, pink, pink. And incredibly handsome. And the named feeling crashed in his chest like a burst dam. The feeling swelled, it rose like the wind, it welled up and exploded like every firework he had ever seen.

The redhead slowly pulled the gloves from his hands and let them drop to the floor.

“I should very much like to spend the rest of my life kissing you.”

And with that preamble, Lee put both hands on his face and kissed him square on the mouth.

Lee had always dreamed of kissing the person he loved. When he was younger and dreamed of Sakura, his heart conjured a very pure feeling, and a very pure, chaste sort of kiss. When he imagined kissing Gaara, when he actually kissed Gaara, it was quite a messy thing. He hadn’t thought tongues would be involved until, suddenly, his tongue was in Gaara’s mouth. He hadn’t thought teeth would be so playful until he was biting his lips.

It was a lovely thing, to stand over him and hold him down. It was an easy thing. To think that Gaara could wrestle him to the earth when, truly, the boy was so much smaller than Lee - what an easy thing it would be for Lee himself to put the boy on the floor, to put him where he wanted him. Yes, Lee liked kissing Gaara very much.

The redhead worked the apron strings and Lee freed the tasuki bow, releasing his haori sleeves. Together they slipped the two articles of clothing off and dropped them to the floor. He had worn no shirt beneath it, only a pair of shorts that resembled the thin unders of the desert uniform Lee had so similarly divested him of before.

The sand nin immediately tugged at the buttons on Lee’s loose tunic like they offended him. In truth, Gaara was practically naked long before Lee. This seemed to work in his favor as Gaara did as he always did - he pushed. He shoved at Lee and pushed him backwards, walking him back into the shadowed alcove that lay in wait.

The Leaf nin’s brain seemed to have finally roared to life, whirring faster and faster, and suddenly leaping ahead, as if he were divining the brainwaves directly from Gaara’s skull. He pulled the redhead in close to him and brought him down swiftly on the pile of cushions.

There was an air of absurdity in all this, Lee was intensely, acutely aware. Surely it wasn’t done, having sex in the middle of the afternoon. And yet here they were, stripping one piece of clothing off after another, not bothered by proprietary or even mindful of embarrassment. After all, they had done this before. They had touched, they had explored, they had discovered.

And they had done it more than once.

Lee could not keep the satisfied grin from spreading across his face nor refrain from tightening his hold on the wonderful boy beneath him. He was certain he could kiss him for hours.

Then again, if it wasn’t a revelation to push his hand over the perfectly firm jut of his cock, to hear his hiss loudly in his ear, to push up against his hand. Gaara twisted and squirmed and pulled Lee closer, trying to rut against his hand, or his thigh, whatever was available. Lee joyed in capturing his mouth again and again as he turned away, mouthing along Lee’s jaw or breathing in his ear.

“Stop moving, damnit,” he grunted. Beneath them the cushions tumbled out of place, sending them halfway to the floor. Lee outright laughed. Gaara took the moment to tug the nin’s trousers down and fling them across the room. Then, to Lee’s horror, he turned away.

“Where are you going?” He asked, snagging his fingers the band of this cotton shorts.

Gaara grumbled fussily, and reached for the desk on the far wall without letting Lee tug his shorts down any further. He managed to snag a potted plant off of the table just as Leaf nin slipped the shorts down his thighs.

“Put the cushions back, I refuse to hurt tomorrow because you want to have a go of it on the floor.” He muttered, snapping a stalk from the plant. Lee tossed the cushions into a semblance of their initial state but was very distracted by the boy crawling toward him, shorts bunched at his thighs and stiff cock bobbing between his legs.

“What is that?” He asked. When Gaara got close enough, he slipped the shorts off his legs and pulled the boy astride him. Lee could see through his frown, knew him well enough to be sure that he was honestly pleased despite Lee’s teasing.

“Hold out your hand.”

Lee cupped his hands between them, he watched Gaara’s skilled fingers unzip the edges of the succulent and squeeze. His thumb dipped in and pushed a clear flesh into their hands. The cool, pale, fragrant jelly warmed instantly and spread in his palm. A mild botanical odor wafted up between them.

“Here,” the nin instructed and Lee watched his fingers slip down, down, down, and suddenly, with a turn, disappear.

“Oh fuck.”

Lee felt his body light up, from the base of his skull to his toes. The fricative thoughtlessly dropped from his lips. His cock stiffened uncomfortably but it was inconsequential at this point. He was simply mesmerized by the sight of his slicked fingers slipping in and out of the tight furl of his hole.

Gaara hummed, pink tongue peeking out, chasing along his lips. “It hadn’t occurred to me to touch myself this way.”

“You’ve-?” Lee closely watches his face pinken, just as he surely feels his own doing the same. The redhead jerked his head in a nod.

“Truthfully, it never occurred to me to touch at all, but-”

“But?” He insisted, his fingers wandering there, too, and he burned with the need to push in alongside Gaara’s own. The thought blazed bright enough to nearly blind him. Gaara shivered in his own pleasure. Lee breathed in and in and in.

“Lee,”

And all at once he exhaled. Oh, that sound. He lived and breathed for that sound. His continued existence hinged upon that beautiful exaltation. He felt like glowing foxfire, his soul spurred into supernatural significance by virtue of glorious proximity to the sounds of the sand nin.

“Yeah,” He acquiesced and resolutely stared, almost passing out of his body entirely, becoming spectre in the very moment his fingers slipped past the tight muscle. Gaara’s hot mouth was immediately at his ear, sighing, smiling, groaning.

“It-it didn’t occur to me until I realized I wanted you to touch me this way. Oh gods, I wanted you to.

“There, just,” He murmured, hips rutting just so, urging Lee into motion, slipping his own fingers free with a huff. “Just a little more, I can’t always reach it-”

Lee’s fingers smoothed over a firm nub that made Gaara stiffen like a board. His body tightened beneath his, his perfect cock jumped at his belly, even his knees hitched in shock. His head snapped back, his jaw tight in a strained moan. His hot hand slapped over Lee’s neck, fingers curling in the hair at the base of his neck.

It was awe inspiring.

“Oh, yes, there. Do it again, there, there-”

Once he found that nub again, he attacked it relentlessly. The redhead keened, his stomach tightened and muscles worked in contrast, unsure whether to wretch himself Lee or crush himself against him. Lee stared like he could see through Gaara’s body, like he could watch his fingers inside of him, like he could do this all day. Oh, he could definitely do this all day.

“Stop, please,” He panted, trying to pull away from the assault on his prostate. Between them, their cocks knocked together. Despite himself, Gaara still tried to grind down on his fingers, his brow furrowed in perfect frustration. “ No, no, Lee-”

“Like this?” Lee murmured, reveling in the beautiful duplicity that he had discovered, that he had been capable of dragging out of Gaara, that they could share together. He relished in the quiet expression of his desperation, the furrow of his brow and flutter of his limbs.

“Lee,” And there it was. There was the wonderful, airy, delicate sound. His cock ached and his fingers twitched. Gaara moaned and writhed.

Suddenly, the redhead brought his hands down upon Lee’s shoulders and pushed himself away. Lee smiled.He felt light, filled with such an abundance of happiness, how could he want more from this moment? Gaara’s pleasure was his own.

“Ah, hold on.” Gaara murmured, awkwardly shifting his limbs about. Lee couldn’t resist touching him, sliding his palms over his thighs and pressing his fingertips into his shins and over his knees, petting whatever was before him. The redhead slapped at his hands and managed to work himself to his front. “I want…”

“Hmm?” Lee happily leaned over him and pushed his face between his pale shoulder blades. Gaara shuttered.

“I.. want it like this.” He whispered, his hand snaked down between his legs. The leaf nin nodded mutely and wrapped an arm clear around him, trapping him in a way he found very pleasing.

“‘It’?” Lee teased, feeling his irritation mount. Gaara growled.

“Lee,”

“Will you say it?” He murmured, nuzzling his nose over the bumps of his spin. He could see a quiver run through his shoulders.

“I want you to fuck me.” Gaara whispered into his elbow, in what Lee took as delicious embarrassment.

“Do you,” he muttered, flanks shaking in anticipation, utterly content in this moment to hold on to him forever, to simply shake until he came apart at the seams. There had been a question he struggled to ask, most days he dared to think it, but here, in this shaking, new moment, he knew it could be the only question. He squeezed his eyes tight, and with great strength he summoned the courage to say, “Want me… to be… rough?”

The air stilled, the very blood in his veins froze. Undeterred, Lee trailed his fingers down Gaara’s arm, over his wrist and fingers, and curled his hand tight. Slowly he convinced him to release the vice he kept over his cock and freely stroke himself.

“Please,” the nin mewled.

Lee groaned as held felt Gaara relax beneath him, spine dipping low. The wet tip of Lee’s cock brushed over the furl of Gaara’s hole, slick and loose and hot. It was all too easy, all too familiar a motion that it shocked Lee how little it shocked him, to lift that hand that held the boy trapped and snare him by the hair and pull.

And, oh, did he wail. Lee knew he had been waiting all his life to hear that perfect sound.

Routine was an odd thing. Or rather, that this, these sweet, secret moments that they shared every time they met, had become so familiar to him he could consider it routine. How odd, how perfectly strange that they two should fall into such dealings as that named feeling - into what Lee hesitated (but only a little) to call love.

That is was routine to assert himself upon Gaara because it was routine for Gaara to assert himself up Lee - novel. That he yearned to pull and bite and tease. This is what his friend did to him. This was surely the true expression of one's youth. This was surely the true expression of one’s love.

“Hurry up!” Gaara growled, wriggling back impatiently.

“Yes, yes,” Lee replied. Curled in and around him, embracing him, embracing a new routine, embracing the love within him and willing his friend to feel it to.

And, blissfully, he pushed into the soft, lovely place until there was no longer space between them.

“How do you-”

“Hard.”

He rearranged himself and rearranged his knees beneath him,and with gleeful ease hauled Gaara up with him. He gathered him in his arms and held him aloft, pressing in and pulling out, measuring his breath and his heartbeat, the burn in his muscles so akin to the work of a push-up he could laugh.

“Like this?” He asked as he delighted in orchestrating variations, rocking hard and slow, pounding him fast and rough, grateful for the burn and boil of work and pleasure.

“Oh, fuck, Lee,” He hissed, his head dropping back against the Leaf nin’s shoulder, one hand clamped tight over his wrist, the other flung back to grasp wildly at his hair. “Lee,”

“Hmm?” He breathed against his cheek and oh, their mouths were so close. His body sang, effort and exertion working through him with to utterly wring every wonderful, hidden sound he could from the boy.

“I want,” He tried, and it was a valiant effort. Lee did not let up, easily working at a steady pace, lost in the sensation of their bodies meeting again and again.

“Tell me.”

Gaara shuddered in his arms and struggled to rock back against him. When he failed to achieve what he wanted, he redoubled his efforts. Lee practically laughed and held him fast.

“What do you need?”

“I want-”

Lee pulled out of him entirely, his cock throbbing angrily at the loss. He grit his teeth and breathed through his nose. Gaara quivered and struggled as if to break free, as if he wanted to run. Still Lee held him.

“What do you need?” he repeated hotly.

With a choked reply, Gaara finally managed, “I need to come. Please.”

“Alright,”

He lowered the boy back down to the floor, onto his knees and quickly doubled him over, putting him exactly where he wanted him. He wrapped his arms tight around him once more, and easily, beautifully, magnificently, slipped his cock back in. Gaara keened, caught between joyous abandon and clear aggravation.

Gaara was remarkably vocal. Lee learned through their past intimacies that the boy craved contact to the point that he would be rendered useless by his own pleasure, all but able to beg Lee for anything, anything that would let him cum. And, oh, if Lee wasn’t more than willing to give it to him, to commit to any filthy act that could possibly bring him pleasure - and yet.

Deep inside him, somewhere low and dark and lovely, a piercingly clear feeling purred. It coiled in on itself in filthy satisfaction and simpered in delight - make him beg. Lee wanted to force every possible sound out of him, he wanted every quivering decibel for himself. He wanted to keep the redhead at that point of desperation for as long as he could, he wanted to make him burn on the edge of velvet luxury until he collapsed like a star, brilliant and bright.

“How?”

Gaara choked.

“How?” He parroted.

“Tell me how you want me to make you cum.” He asked, feeling filthy, feeling powerful, feeling so expansive and fluttering and youthful. He could feel embarrassment burnish his flesh a tender pink. He revelled it in.

“I want you to do it.”

“Of course.”

He ground his hips in a slow, dirty circle, the swollen knot of Gaara’s prostate pressing against him with every thrust. Gaara worked himself back up onto all fours, as if he were pushing the earth away, giving Lee the space to wrap his fist over his pulsing erection. He sobbed, shoulders jumping around his ears, on the searing knife edge of his orgasm.

Then, that beautiful, pitched sound, the suggestion of his name, all at once everything came crashing down like avalanche. Almost slowly, fearsome, and titanic in it’s fortitude. Every sense whited out - no feeling in his hands, no taste in his mouth, no sight or hearing. He floated in some liminal sea, blood pulsing like the rhythm of a tide kissing the shore.

Oh, no, he was actually kissing Gaara, however sloppy, wherever he could land them. They lay on the disarray of cushions in the bright afternoon, hearts thundering and bodies quivering. The redhead fussed and shifted about until he had arranged himself like a blanket over Lee.

Always in his space like he owned it.

They lay there surrounded by the strange canopy of the lush green room, spilling over with leaves and branches, vials and flasks, piles of dirt and weird brain rock cactuses; Gaara with an ear over his heart and Lee with his heart on his sleeve.

“‘At any moment you have a choice that either leads you closer to your spirit or farther away from it’, huh?”

“Yes.”

“And do you believe that?”

“Unequivocally.”

“So do I.” He whispered, leaning up and pressing his mouth to his once more.

-

For Rock Lee, comfort could always be found in routine. Repetition, with little, orchestrated variations; pleasant incremental shifts building one upon the other over time, creating harmony and promoting a sense of self centering. And yet, just as pleasing was the fragmentation of that same routine, breaking it down at its base parts and starting with new materials. Such work was harrowing, and sometimes downright terrifying, but the result was as consistent as it was satisfying.

Generally these results presented themselves in the form of an unwavering stare from pale eyes and a flash of pink tongue, slower mornings and longer days, and a feeling that only now was he beginning to experience a springtime of youth in full force, only now was he beginning to live. Such was the contentment of a familiar routine now turned on it’s ear, and such was the only way he wanted to move forward in his shinobi way.

These were the small, simple rewards that painted each morning with a new and interesting range of feelings and sensation.