But after a couple of hours of trying to read reports upside down or staring at the walls, Lee's sense of duty finally conquered his woolly-headed speculations about what Gaara was thinking about. Whatever Gaara's decision, he would always be Lee's important person, so Lee had to protect him. That meant that he had to read through this intelligence on Sound activity in Fire country seriously, and see how it could collate to the information Suna had gathered. To work!
Lee first did some hasty administrative form-filling he'd been putting off for the past few days, just to get it out of way. Mindful of his promise to stay in his office, he didn't deliver the completed paperwork himself. He poked his nose out the door and asked one of the clerks to do it when the man had the time. The clerk took the papers, gave Lee a long, worried look and asked the Jounin if he needed to go to the clinic. After a year working in the administration compound, the staff was used to seeing Lee bounce down the hallway - or sometimes along the rooftops - to carry out the smallest task if it could get him away from his desk for a few minutes.
Lee managed to reassure the clerk, though he still got some tea, a plateful of biscuits and some concerned glances at his band-aids from a few of the administrative personnel before the novelty of an office-bound Lee wore off. Then he got on with reading and sorting the reports.
Around seven in the evening, as dusk gathered upon the desert, Lee felt a faint, barely-there itch between his shoulder blades. The same odd feeling he'd been having on and off all that previous week. At least now he knew for sure there was somebody watching him. It was nice to know he wasn't crazy.
...Then again, if Lee thought it was nice to know that his potential boyfriend was checking in on him via a sand-crafted eyeball before going back to wandering the desert muttering to himself, 'not crazy' wasn't quite the right term to use for either of them.
Lee didn't try to whip around to catch sight of the jutsu, if that was indeed what it was. He merely lifted his head and smiled benignly at the far wall of his office to show he didn't mind - thus consolidating the theory that 'not crazy' and him were no longer even on speaking terms - until the feeling went away. Then he went back to his paperwork.
Soon after that, the last of the staff left the building, after checking in on Lee one last time. She didn't seem surprised that Lee was still there. Lee didn't have as much work to do these days, since he didn't have any missions, but on the other hand, he'd not been in his office all that morning, and he was too conscientious to let that pass.
In the streets outside, people went about their business in the cool of the evening, but the admin compound was perfectly quiet. Lee worked on with his usual serious dedication. He'd nearly finished sorting all the reports into separate folders, with annotations in his studiously neat script. He should be done in less than an hour. At the back of his mind, he was wondering if he might not pop over to Gaara's office when he was finished, like he usually did before leaving for the night. Just to say Hi. Not intrude or anything...But Gaara might not even be there, and Lee had promised to stay-
He suddenly blinked and looked up, senses twitching. In the absolute silence of the empty offices around him, he'd heard/felt something faint. He had a coppery taste at the back of his throat and his muscles were tensing slightly.
He wasn't all that surprised when the door opened and Gaara walked in.
Lee slowly put down his pen. This...didn't look good. It was subtle, but Gaara's chakra was showing past his usually tight control, and Lee knew well by now what that meant for his friend's mood.
"Hi, Gaara. How're you doing?" he asked politely out of habit.
Gaara had stopped halfway across the large office, his arms straight at his side. He was dressed in his coat; he must have changed before going out into the desert to think. The gourd's leather halter was slung over one shoulder instead of buckled across his chest, as if he'd just grabbed it and come right over.
He looked like he was about to say something, but instead he turned and walked a few steps to the left, as if he was going over to inspect the sports equipment Lee had, to the clerks' dismay, installed in his office. But he was watching Lee from the corner of an unblinking eye. The control tightening his movements wasn't that of the calm, reserved Gaara Lee was used to; there were traces of the other one, struggling to slip his leash.
Gaara's eyes flicked over the weight machine, the much-thumbed books on etiquette on a nearby shelf, the safe, a picture on the wall...his eyes always returned to Lee. He turned and headed back at a tangent towards the desk. Lee had the distinct impression of a caged tiger looking for a way out to attack someone who'd been baiting it with a stick.
Gaara stopped a few feet away and held out a piece of paper towards Lee.
"I found this on my desk," he said in a voice that was too soft and controlled for Lee's liking.
Lee stared wide-eyed at the document. He'd assumed Gaara had reflected back on that whole 'locking him in the comm room' episode and had gotten mad again. He hadn't expected some kind of complaint about Lee's usual inability to fill in forms properly on the first try. Lee squinted at the piece of paper, tilting his head a bit, then a bit more - Gaara was holding it sideways- to see what it was.
Gaara righted the piece of paper with an abrupt gesture that spoke of a dangerous amount of tension coiled up behind the control. He took two steps towards the desk, holding it out. It did look familiar, now. It looked like-
"It's my sick leave form," Lee said, his voice calm but his mind racing. "As Kazekage, you get a copy as a courtesy, since I'm-"
"It says you expect to be available for missions in two week's time," Gaara said in a perfect monotone.
"Oh, well, only C-rank missions for awhile; I know I have to take it easy-"
Gaara's eyes had gone hard and a bit dangerous.
"You are not going on missions anymore."
"I'm sorry, but that's not an option."
"You said you wouldn't leave me."
I'm an idiot and I should have seen this one coming, Lee thought as he stood up. Gaara's chakra was leaking and flaring. Nothing major, yet, but Lee suddenly had a bad feeling about this.
Still, he had to be honest.
"I will stay here as much as I can. But I have my duties. I am a Shinobi-"
"I am a ninja, Gaara. A Jounin of Leaf. If Tsunade-sama has a job for me, I'll do it."
"You could get killed."
"I'll come with you then," Gaara stated harshly, the piece of paper crumpling as he crossed his arms. "You'll be safe if I'm there to protect you."
"Wha-at? Gaara, you're the Kazekage, you can't come on routine C-rank Leaf missions- that's-"
A pulse rippled through the air. The pile of painstakingly ordered reports toppled over and slid to the floor, the windows rattled and the glazed-sandstone teacup on Lee's desk cracked. Dust fell from the ceiling; the motes drifted through the air towards Gaara and startled swirling slowly around him.
"I can't. I can't go with you."
Gaara's eyes were wide and blind, and he was backing away as if he was being cornered by something only he could see. "I can't go with you; I have to protect Suna too. There's so much to do here, to defend it- but I can't let you-"
The gourd slipped from his shoulder as Gaara fell back against the wall; a thin trickle of sand leaked from it as it hit the floor. The cork had tumbled to the carpet and a fine grainy mist was hovering around the opening.
"-I can't let you go alone, you'll get killed. You never retreat, you always fight until- I have to protect you. But I can't leave Suna- I can't make a choice- Lee, I can't just make a choice! I can't do this! I have to- this hurts, it-"
Gaara looked up blindly- then started back against the wall as he realized Lee was standing right in front of him.
"It hurts because you're afraid. Now get a grip."
Gaara was staring at him in dangerous confusion. Sand leaked out of the gourd and growled against the carpeted floor.
Lee didn't spare it a glance. His whole attention was on Gaara.
"You're afraid to lose me and you're afraid to lose Suna, but you're going to have to face that fear and deal with it. Now calm down, before-"
"I'm not going to let you leave." Gaara's eyes were vicious slits.
"You will," Lee corrected him sternly.
"But you could get-"
"Killed! It's a risk! That's what having bonds is about. When you care about something, it hurts when it's in danger-"
"I'll protect you!" Gaara snarled. Sand hissed through the air, as if it wanted to shape itself into a cocoon around them.
"You can't. Not all the time."
"I have to! You take too many stupid risks!"
"And you don't take enough! You try to control everything- protect everything. Will you only care for me if it's a sure thing? If I promise never to die?! That won't work, and you'll never get close to me or anyone if you- We have to take risks in life, Gaara! We have to move forward, change- take chances! Otherwise we stay still and rot!" Lee's palm slammed into the wall near Gaara's left shoulder.
They stared at each other while the Sand stirred with dangerous tension-
Footsteps- someone hammered on the door.
Lee leapt away, spinning and falling into a defence stance between that noise and Gaara. The sand hissed and reared up like small snakes around him, ready to defend and attack.
"What's going on in there?!" someone asked loudly.
"Nothing, we're-" but the door handle was already turning.
One of the compound guards stepped into the room, then pressed himself back against the wall near the doorframe, hands flickering to his belt.
"It's okay," Lee said loudly, trying to bring his voice back under control. "We're fine."
The sand was moving restlessly around his feet. The man's eyes widened even more as he took in Lee and Gaara, the latter still up against the wall and staring blindly at nothing. Apparently, Lee's definition of the word 'fine' didn't quite match the guard's.
Gaara didn't answer, but he looked up; the Chuunin lost a slight edge of his tension.
"Is everything okay, sir? Do, er, do you need me to...?" The man's eyes flickered nervously to the sand.
"No," Gaara answered, after several long seconds. "Leave."
"Yessir." The guard fled.
Lee went to the door and glanced down the empty hallway before closing it. "Probably went to fetch help. Can't say I blame him."
Gaara had slid down the wall to sit on the floor; arms braced against his gathered knees, his fingers pressing his face and temples as if he could physically force his chakra and his reactions back into his head. Lee could feel Gaara striving for control. From the way the Sand was still moving sluggishly around him, he wasn't there yet. Great. Temari was probably going to show up here with Sanada and a few others in a matter of minutes, and Gaara was having a small meltdown.
Lee went down on one knee next to him, hand hovering near Gaara's shoulder. Gaara had told him what his touch did...but Lee still couldn't quite bring himself to believe he could have that kind of effect.
Gaara stirred and peered up at him over the barrier of his fingers.
"Why can't you stay here? Why won't you let me protect you? I'm ten times stronger than you are." He sounded almost plaintive, which was really not a note Lee was used to hearing in Gaara's voice.
"No you're not," Lee retorted automatically. Gaara was surely only five times stronger than Lee. If that. Lee had almost beaten him once-
"Why do you want to go on missions? Your village has other Jounin, and you're useful here."
"We're always short on manpower, and that's not the point anyway. Gaara...Think about it. You know me. Do you think I'd be happy if I was cooped up somewhere, however safe?"
Gaara looked away and didn't answer.
Lee pulled the much-rumpled form from Gaara's fingers.
"When I said I would be with you as long as you needed me, I didn't mean physically joined at the hip," he said gently, smoothing out the paper. "I will stay by your side as much as I can. But you have to let me do this too. If you don't, you'll be injuring me as much as you ever could physically."
"And what do I do if you die?" Gaara asked in a listless monotone.
Good question. Lee stared at the form blindly. He'd taken a vow himself, to protect Gaara or die trying. But he accepted that there were times fate would not allow him to do that; not just missions, but all sorts of circumstances could result in Gaara being in danger and Lee unable to help or not even there in the first place. Life tended to be that way. But go tell that to Gaara...
"I don't know," he whispered helplessly. "I'm sorry...but that's just one more thing you'll have to think about."
Lee wondered sickly if Gaara would take two weeks, or even two days, to think about Lee's feelings for him now. Gaara had gone a bit haywire at the idea of Lee returning to Konoha earlier, he'd reacted on instinct, but now he was seeing the bigger picture. Lee knew what his own heart wanted, but he could see it from Gaara's perspective too. Why would Gaara contemplate a relationship with someone, when it had brought him a few brief moments of a good, warm feeling... and also pain, confusion and the very real possibility of massive suffering in the future?
A noise and a brush of familiar chakra from the courtyard below made Lee glance at the window.
"Gaara? Can you get up? Temari's coming."
Gaara rubbed his forehead with his fingers, eyes blind, and didn't answer. He'd either not heard or he couldn't care less.
Lee dropped the paper, stood up and walked quickly to the door, slipping out and closing it behind him, a hand firmly on the knob, just as Temari appeared at the top of the stairs.
"Lee? What is-" Temari's face tightened as she stared at him.
"Hi! Don't worry, please, everything's-" Lee's attempt to placate was cut short as Temari reached over and ripped off the bandage from his right cheek.
"Ow," Lee muttered a bit pointedly, rubbing the reddened skin, but Temari wasn't listening. She was staring at the scratches.
"What happened?" she asked tightly.
"This-" Temari swiftly looked over her shoulder. There were three guards and a senior Jounin in the hallway behind her, but not close enough to hear. She continued in a low voice. "This happened last night, didn't it. I saw you two come back together - but I wasn't paying attention, I hadn't realized what state you were in. You need to get those cleaned, they could-"
"-get infected, I know, don't worry. Gaara helped me with them earlier."
Temari stared at him. Then she reached out and shoved at the door, pressing until Lee let the knob slip from his grasp rather than make a fight of it.
Temari looked at her younger brother sitting against the wall inside Lee's office. Gaara had straightened up, back flat against the wall, legs folded, hands on his knees; his face was blank, but Lee could feel the way he was concentrating, gathering his control back, and thinking. Fortunately he didn't look manic or distressed. But there was still some Sand scattered about him, and Temari could read him well enough too. When she turned to Lee, her eyes were hard.
"I haven't seen him this bad - and I haven't seen him do that to someone's face - in years. What. Happened."
Lee took a deep breath and faced the young woman squarely.
"We had a misunderstanding. It was partly my fault. He's a bit upset. But he's okay. And I'm fine. If you want any more details than that-" he added, as Temari tried to interrupt with a question, "you'll have to talk to Gaara directly. If he wants you to know, he'll tell you."
Despite his firm tone, he felt more nervous now, with Temari staring at him, than when he'd told Gaara to get a grip a few minutes earlier. Temari was smart as a whip. And she could lash out with that fan of hers fast enough to catch even Lee off guard from a cold start.
Temari's eyes searched his. There was tension in her stare, and behind it, though she was trying to hide it, Lee could tell she was very worried.
"So this has nothing to do with the cursed seal they removed last week?"
Lee blinked, suddenly realizing just how Temari and the other villagers were perceiving all this, without knowing that Gaara had only run aground of some emotional shoals. Considering the departure from the calm, controlled Kazekage they were used to these past few years, Lee could quite understand their concern.
"Oh no! That's got nothing to do with it! I'd tell you if it was- but no, Shu- he's not- that's got nothing to do with it. You have my word on it."
Temari looked at him as if she could peel back the skin of his forehead and read what was going on through his brain.
"Okay. A misunderstanding, was it?"
A muscle in Temari's jaw clenched. "I went out into the desert today. Mighty big potholes for a misunderstanding."
"He was upset," Lee said weakly.
"You were there all along?"
"I followed him at a safe distance."
Temari glared pointedly at the scratches. "Not safe enough."
Lee tilted his head. "You think this is the worst he could have done?"
"Not by a very long stretch. But I never thought he'd do that to a friend of his."
Temari didn't wait for him to answer. She marched through the door, walked over to Gaara and knelt down before him. She was close enough to interact, to let him feel her presence, but not close enough to press or threaten; a distance Lee was very familiar with. It reminded him that he wasn't the only one who knew Gaara; he wasn't the only one who loved him. He felt guilty about hiding the cause of all this from Temari. But things were just so complicated already...Lee didn't want the siblings' well-meaning interference on top of all that. If Gaara needed his sister's help and support, he could tell her, and Lee would accept that (and get ready to dodge an outraged blow from her fan, no doubt). But that would have to be Gaara's decision.
Temari was talking in a low voice. Lee looked away, not wanting to intrude. He glanced at the Jounin and the guards, who were staring at him openly. They didn't look hostile; they must have concluded from Temari's reaction that the two men had had another one of their occasional arguments, nothing more. Lee was the only person in the village who dared to disagree - loudly - with Gaara; he was certainly the only one who would stand his ground and go right on arguing once the Sand came out. There was something like horrified wonder in their eyes that made Lee blush and look at his toes.
When he heard Temari's soft questions stop, Lee glanced back into the room. She was still three feet from Gaara and she appeared to be waiting. Gaara's face was turned away. He said a few words that didn't appear to satisfy his sister at all, but she stood up without a further word and headed towards the door.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked Lee when she was level with him.
Lee hadn't thought that far. "Talk him through it, I guess."
"Talk him through it."
Temari closed her eyes briefly, and then she said, in a voice appropriate to talking to a three-year-old: "Okay. I am going to go and sit down in the hallway right over there. If you need anything, shout. Or scream."
"Oh, he's not that bad-"
"I know. But sometimes I don't think you do. Kankuro has a scar bigger than my hand across his ribs from the last time he tried to talk Gaara through something. Granted, it was back before the Chuunin exam. But I prefer to play it safe. I'll be right - over - there."
"Thanks, Temari," Lee said softly. Not for the unspoken offer of help and protection, which he truly believed he did not need, but for her trust. She always treated him like a potential goof-up who would bring embarrassment to the diplomatic post he held and to Sunagakure and Gaara by association, if she didn't watch him and badger him ceaselessly. On the other hand, she treated Kankuro that way too sometimes. Lee didn't know where he stood with her as a result. But there were times - like now - when he had the impression she considered him a bit like a kid brother; the good-natured screw-up one she'd never had, unlike the dangerous, way-too-intelligent youngest brother she did.
As one of Gaara's only friends, she trusted Lee to do the right thing and to not get himself killed. That meant a lot to Lee. Once he and Gaara figured things out, Lee made himself a solemn promise to return that trust in kind, by telling Temari and Kankuro the truth.
Temari didn't answer his thanks directly; she just rolled her eyes in a show of irritation, shoved him through the door and closed it after him. He heard her hectoring the guards outside; she'd chase them off. Then she'd wait outside the door and make sure they were both okay.
"Gaara?" Lee walked over to him slowly, judging Gaara's mood.
Gaara looked up, and Lee sank down to sit facing him with some relief. The usual Gaara was back; a moody, thoughtful version, but the calm was no longer a tightly controlled mask over chaos, it was Gaara's usual reserve.
"Temari is right," Gaara said softly. "You don't know just how bad I can get."
"Really? I'd say I've had a good demonstration already once before." Lee flexed his left arm in illustration, then patted his left leg. He felt sorry for the flinch of pain in Gaara's eyes, but he wasn't going to pretty things up.
"It obviously didn't sink in," Gaara bit off. "The way you don't fear me, your ability to forgive me and forget when I hurt you, that is...precious to me. But it doesn't say much for your survival instincts."
Lee made a vague gesture of tossing something over his shoulder (probably his survival instincts). "Don't worry about it."
"One of us has to." The green eyes flashed with tension and a deeply buried pain. "Lee, if you are unable to realize how dangerous this can be for you...then I don't see how I can accept-"
"I know exactly how dangerous this is for me," Lee interrupted, alarmed at where Gaara was going. "And that's considerably less than what you're making it out to be. Now, I'm sorry I yelled at you, but I stand by what I said-"
"You really do have no survival instincts."
"If you were going to kill me, you would have done so last night," Lee said bluntly. "You didn't even hurt me all that much. Get this through your skull, Kazekage-sama. You are not going to kill me. Stop telling yourself that, because we both know it's not true; you're just trying to hide from your fear and pain behind that excuse."
It was a good thing Lee really did believe that and ultimately trusted Gaara's self-control, because otherwise the rare blaze of fury in Gaara's eyes would have made him run for his life.
"You have no idea what-" Gaara cut off his angry snarl, pinched the bridge of his nose and screwed his eyes shut. The brief flare of chakra snuffed out like a candle. The Sand had rippled into the beginnings of a spiral, but now it fell back on the floor listlessly. "Lee, stop doing that."
"Doing what? Putting you on the spot? Making you face stuff?"
Gaara didn't answer; his eyes had opened to slits and his green pupils were tracking the Sand crawling reluctantly back into the gourd.
"I have to. Make you face this stuff," Lee said simply. "Gaara...if you don't want this. If you don't want me. Then that's fine. I won't press you into-...whatever. Even if you did want to be with me...I would never ask you for more than you could give me. I know some things don't come easily to you. That's okay, I can accept that, I can even accept that I won't be anything more than a friend to you, but I won't let you live like this either. I never will."
Gaara focused on Lee's vague gesture that encompassed him, the wall, the gourd, his anxious sister waiting outside.
"I spar with you when nobody else dares to. I argue with you when you're being a stubborn pain in the ass. I drag you out and shove you into new situations. I come with you on missions and force you to work as a team. And you know why? You and everybody else in Suna knows that yes, you're powerful, dangerous and not entirely stable yet, and I'm aware of that. But what I know is that you're strong, too. You're a genius, and you have tremendous strength of spirit and adaptability. You overcame your past to become the Kazekage! To change yourself and the meaning of your life so radically, it must have taken an effort and a courage the rest of us can barely understand.
"But now you've stopped; as soon as you had something to lose, you stopped moving forward, and you're doing nothing more than protecting it. You protect this village, but you won't let them get any nearer to you. You let them treat you like something dangerous, and you don't try to change their minds. You won't even let yourself see how much they also like and respect you now-"
A raw flinch brushed Gaara's face, but an instant later there was only icy uncompromising calm as he stared straight into Lee's eyes.
"They are right to fear me. You have no idea what I'm like inside."
"That would be because you don't let me or anyone else close enough to see," Lee countered, trying to keep his own frustration in check. The Rules of Diplomacy were pretty definite on this: you were not allowed to shake the slightly unstable leader of another village by the shoulders until he could see what was in front of his nose...
"You think I'd be afraid? Is that it? Yeah, you're right, I don't know everything you've got locked up inside, but I've seen enough to have a good idea; six years ago, and last night too. I've seen you get pretty bad; I've seen you rise above it too, both times. I'm still here."
Gaara was giving him that hard searching look again. His eyes didn't leave Lee's as he extended his hand towards the Jounin, palm up.
Lee reached out in response to that gesture. He felt a flutter of hope as he placed his hand in Gaara's; was this going to be a manly handshake to seal the-
Gaara's fingers slipped beneath his and gripped his wrist, and lifted Lee's hand until it was in front of Lee's bewildered eyes. Lee found himself staring at the lumpy bandage covering the deepest cut he'd picked up in the storm yesterday.
"You're right," Gaara said abruptly. "If I didn't kill you last night, I won't kill you tomorrow unless you physically assault me. I've conquered that much control over myself. But I have, and I will, harm you. Don't you even care?"
Lee stared at the bandages, briefly remembering the first time he'd started to wear them when he'd become a Genin, to give himself some protection and to stem the inevitable bleeding when he trained.
"Have I told you about my self-imposed rules?"
Gaara's fingers released Lee and his hand dropped back to his knee. He gave Lee a puzzled and irritated glare.
"Yes. You did," he said, in a voice that implied he hadn't been impressed. "They're some form of incentive to succeed. Why are we talking about-"
"It's more than that. Yes, it's an incentive, it adds pressure to what you are doing; you feel a good deal more clarity and focus when there are severe consequences to avoid. And if you fail, those consequences are also a form of training. That's the Double Power of the Rule!"
"If you start talking like your interfering teacher, I will not be responsible for my actions."
"Hey! Don't insult-...please don't say that about Gai-sensei. Now, what's important is that this rule would cover us, if we accept this challenge."
Gaara stared at him as if Lee's eyebrows had turned fluorescent.
"Our challenge isn't physical: it's to get closer than friends, to form a new type of bond, preferably without any grievous bodily harm being involved. I think you're strong enough to do this, to control yourself and open up to me without losing your head or injuring me. And I am not going to make it easy on you by letting you wrap me up in cotton, or by tiptoeing around your temper and insecurities."
The Sand made an interesting little hissing noise in the gourd. Apparently, the Kazekage didn't like to be told he had 'insecurities'. Lee was willing to concede it hadn't been the right term - 'massive childhood trauma' was closer, and still not entirely adequate - but Gaara was speaking before he could correct himself.
"So if I fail to control myself, you get seriously injured? What kind of stupid-"
"It'll be my failure too, if I do something to really upset you. But for what it's worth, I don't think you'll lose your control like you did last night again. People like us rise best to the toughest challenges. Why, look at how much you've improved already! Last night you threw me against a rock and sandblasted me a bit. Tonight you only broke a teacup. You see?"
Gaara's marked brow wrinkled as if Lee's logic was physically hurting him.
"If one of us screws up- and it could be me, Gaara; I've started fights with you before when I should have kept my temper, or said something dumb when I should have shut up. I consider hurting you and your feelings to be just as big a matter as you injuring me physically, you know. If one of us screws up and harms the other, the remorse at the pain we caused will be the price of failure. It will be an incentive to get it right next time. But there will be an immediate benefit too. Pain is a good tool to hone your reflexes and teach you what not to do. And it'll show you for real what I've been telling you all along: that I won't leave you just because you hurt me. And if the fight was my fault, well, maybe it'll show me that you won't leave me just because I hurt you. Isn't that something worth knowing?"
Gaara let his face sink into his hand. "And I thought I was the one who was borderline insane here..."
"But I told you, I don't think you'll snap that badly again," Lee continued on blithely. "I think you'll learn to control yourself, even in this new type of situation. Oh, you might take a small swipe at me if you get angry or upset at some point, but I'm not saying I won't try to dodge; I'm not dumb. And as for me, I'll-"
Lee stopped abruptly as he realized he had one hell of a concession to make on his side, too. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then took another one for luck.
"As for me," he continued in a low voice, "if we do get together, then I guess I better change a bit too. You're right, I don't retreat from a battle, and I go full out or more on my missions. It's my goal to challenge myself, to force myself to become the best Shinobi I can be. But...that strength isn't just for show; it's to defend someone important. You. So...I guess I better start being careful on missions. It's not just my life anymore...If I get injured overdoing it, I'll be making you suffer too."
The decision wasn't trivial; Lee still felt that urge to prove himself, burning inside of him. More than ever, he suddenly realized; now he wanted to prove himself worthy of Gaara. But that wasn't something he could do with a Whirlwind or two. Looked like the Lotus was back to being a forbidden technique again, unless Gaara himself was in danger. Lee solemnly nodded and saluted a past he was burying, ignoring the strange look that earned him.
"I promise to take better care of myself from now on," he said gravely. "I'll do my duty, but I'll try my very best to come back to you without any injuries."
Gaara looked at him steadily for a minute, his face expressionless.
"And outside of missions?" he asked.
Lee looked at him without comprehension. "...I'll be careful crossing the street-"
"If we are both in danger again, like we were two weeks ago," Gaara said, in a voice that could have etched his words into glass, "will you stop me from fighting? Will you throw your life away to keep me safe?"
Lee stared at him; the mere memory of that desperate hour fighting around the desert fort had caused a flash of raw reflexive fear to jolt his system. If Gaara died- The question wasn't theoretical, either; Orochimaru was still on the loose, and his intentions towards Gaara were as yet unknown.
"I want to protect you," Lee mumbled.
"And you don't see how that might work both ways?"
"But you were helpless-"
"You were hardly fighting fit either. You not only kept me out of the fight, I wasn't even nearby to see what had happened to you. I'm not an idiot, I was well aware of my limitations - something you still have to work on, in my opinion. If I'd been there, I could have done something- but I wasn't even there. You could have gotten killed and I wasn't even there!" The Sand rattled around in the gourd and when Lee rubbed his bowl-cut ruefully, a faint static charge made the hair cling to his fingers.
"Okay, seen like that-" Lee muttered, and cowered a bit before Gaara's pinpoint-pupil stare.
An awkward silence settled between them. Lee could distantly hear a faint, regular tapping noise; Temari's fan striking the ground as she patrolled the hallway outside.
"Before...all this happened...we fought well as a team," Lee said slowly, as if he was building something delicate in the space between them. "You said it last night; we were equals. You watched my back and I watched-"
"I watched your back and you constantly leapt right into danger until I hauled you back and told you to stop overdoing it," Gaara stated.
A heavy mutual stare ensued.
"I guess we'd have to find that again," Lee conceded, scratching the back of his neck. "That balance. Not be overly protective; trust the other to do his bit. Back to back, working together to defend each other." Said like that, it didn't sound too bad. "Er, you might have to keep on reminding me not to go overboard. For a little while. Until I get used to the concept. Gai-sensei says I have a lot of natural energy and enthusiasm."
"I know," Gaara said acidly. "As for reminding you, have no fear in that regards. I will not let you be that foolish again, not now that you're such a crucial part of my existence."
Lee stared at him, caught completely off-guard by the implication. "You mean you- you're ready to give us a chance?"
"I probably didn't have a choice from the start," Gaara answered, staring sombrely at the fists he'd clenched on his knees. "It wasn't something I could just think about, and will away. I am feeling what I am feeling. The door's open now. And if I close it again...even if I could, the damage would be considerable. I couldn't do it. Turning away from this would take something away from you too; I can't do that either."
Lee stared at the tousled red head. This man...was so strong. He'd faced his fears, and was taking that leap of faith. He was going to let Lee lead them forward, push him towards something that Gaara was barely equipped to imagine.
Lee felt as if that door had just opened before him too. A gate leading to something he could barely imagine either. Lee tried to keep a positive attitude in all things, but he suddenly realized that deep inside, he'd assumed Gaara would turn him down once he'd thought it through. But now...this was it. Gaara was placing a part of himself in Lee's hands. Lee's thoughts started to spiral like the Sand had last night. No more all-out missions; no more moments of being intensively alive in that life-and-death instant- but then again, defending each other, fighting back to back, that sounded like the best thing in the world. If Lee could stand it...the thought of Gaara in danger still made his fists clench and his body burn.
And how about...sex. Gaara's concentration earlier had been on accepting - or not- Lee's feelings. He'd treated sex rather cavalierly, like potentially pleasant collateral. This attitude rather startled - even alarmed Lee-
In fact, there were a lot of things that were starting to alarm him, now that he was looking through that open door. He was going to be responsible for someone else's happiness. Someone already so damaged, so badly hurt in the past...Lee schooled his features, trying to keep his concern out of his expression, as that would really send the wrong message. Gaara could sense fear, and very easily misinterpret it. Lee calmed his heart, which was doing strange things in his chest, and concentrated on his goal, his new challenge. Lee had to be brave too now; brave for them both.
"But I think you were wrong," Gaara suddenly said, interrupting Lee's agitated thoughts. "About having to move forward or rot. Stability and safety is not necessarily a bad thing. I would have been perfectly content simply watching over Suna until the day I died. And now...you'll be on missions, in danger, and I won't be there to help. It's driving me insane." Gaara's fingers gripped the mark on his forehead as if it was still burning him. Lee didn't think Gaara was using a metaphor here; Gaara usually said what he meant, nothing less and nothing more.
"Oh, come on, you're not insane! You have to think more positive. You're..." Lee fished around for the words that would surely make it better- he didn't want Gaara to worry anymore, he didn't want him hurting like this- "You're highly strung!"
Okay, that could have come out a bit more intelligently, Lee thought, wilting a bit under an unblinking stare.
"...You're right. Compared to you, I really am quite rational."
If Gaara's biting retorts were back, Lee could start to relax.
"Let's get one thing clear," Gaara said icily, catching Lee in the middle of a relieved grin. "I don't like those 'rules' of yours. I don't want to hurt you at all. So I'm asking you to be careful, or there'll be nothing but pain in this for both of us. I can control myself and my instincts, but not if you startle me, or if you hurt me in ways I don't expect. I spent many years of my life as a monster; The lack of sleep, the effort to control what's inside of me- I'm still unstable. You know this. When you hurt me - when you of all people hurt me - Lee, I've killed in these circumstances before. I can still fall back on my old behaviour patterns very easily when I'm unsure or wounded. And that will always be dangerous. Is that something you can live with?"
"Gai-sensei would have a lot to say about that pessimistic and defeatist attitude of yours."
Lee shrugged off the heavy stare that earned him. He was being a bit hypocritical, he knew, because he'd asked himself pretty much the same question last night. But now that he'd accepted the risks, he didn't want Gaara to blow them out of proportion.
"You have to believe in yourself. You've got a lot more self-control than you give yourself credit for. And I wasn't planning on- on torturing you, you know."
Though he was sure Gaara probably didn't think so, after the amount of anguish and confusion the last twenty-four hours had cost him. Gaara had spent the last few years building an environment that spared him from pain and gave him some stability, and Lee had caused havoc within that.
Gaara was going to have a lot to worry about in the coming weeks, but at least he shouldn't have to worry about Lee! Lee reached out and patted Gaara's hand bracingly (survival instincts were indeed highly overrated).
"Don't underestimate me. I think there's a reason I'm the one you let this close to you already. I'm a good warrior, I've faced off with you already, and I'm your friend. I can tell what mood you're in, after a year of getting to know them all. I'm the one who knows when it's okay to talk to you and when it's better to shut up and let you think. I know what distance to follow you in sandstorms, and when I can tell you to get a grip and when I have to leave you alone to do so. Please rely on me, too. I'll try not to put you into a spot too often."
"...But often enough to keep me moving forward?"
Lee nodded seriously.
"Very well. It's not like I have a choice. I've had first-hand experience in just how persistent you can be once you've set your mind on something," Gaara muttered, with considerable perspicacity.
He rose, grabbed Lee by the elbow and hauled the Jounin to his feet without any appearance of effort.
"I need to go talk to my sister. She's worried, and rightfully so."
"Will you tell her? About this?" Lee asked bravely. Temari's fan surely couldn't hurt that much more than what Lee had been through last night. He could take it! He hoped.
"No," Gaara said, after some deliberation. "Not unless we think we need a guardrail or something. Temari's taken over Kankuro's duties while he's hunting Sound; she's taken over some of my own as well. She's keeping a hand on Suna and its politics, she's got to deal with Orochimaru's machinations and now her little brother is apparently losing his mind. She's under quite enough stress as it is. And she knows just how hard and occasionally rough it was when I got closer to her and Kankuro, six years ago. I don't want to cause her any more worry."
"Your call," Lee said, trying not to sag with relief.
Gaara rubbed the dark circles of his eyes.
"I hope she doesn't take much reassuring tonight. I need some rest; I haven't been getting much lately, and it's been a long two weeks since we left for that mission out in the desert. You need some sleep as well. It's late, and you're still convalescing."
"Good idea!" Lee turned towards the pile of papers on the ground. "I'll go as soon as I've re-sorted those reports-"
Strong fingers caught him by the back of his vest and spun him a hundred and eighty degrees so he was facing the door and not the desk.
"I meant now, Lee."
"You promised you'd take better care of yourself. Only a few minutes ago."
"That's not what I meant by-"
"But you did promise," Gaara pointed out with cold logic. "And you always keep your promises, as long as you can't wriggle out of them on some technicality and go do something stupid again."
"Hey, that's cheating," Lee huffed.
"It probably is." A hand in the small of his back guided him firmly towards the door.
Gaara's face was its usual neutral mask, but Lee had spent a long time getting to know the man behind it, and he thought Gaara looked tired; emotionally, if not physically. There was something that felt stretched about him, and grim determination in the way he was shoving Lee out of his office. Gaara's new feelings had just been scraped raw. Lee decided that Gaara could use that rest, and not have to worry about Lee; better do as he was told and not argue.
But from the way Lee's mind was buzzing with unanswered questions, speculations, breathless wonder and growing concern about the future, he had the feeling that he wasn't going to get much sleep tonight.
I don't usually do this, I usually let you guys get on with the story. But a quick note was in order.
It sounded like there was some confusion about what the boys were thinking last chapter; some of it's my fault, I didn't put the emphasis on the important sentences, even though they were there. Part of it was due to the fact that, hey, it was confusing for Lee, and he's the POV. Hopefully this chapter, situated a few hours later and after a bit of reflection on both sides, will shed light on the reactions of the previous chapter.
Another note: The Uke/seme thing, a question that crops up frequently in the comments, especially in aff.net. Emotionally, I don't think in terms of top/bottom, because people aren't like that in my experience. From the start - old time fans be my witness here - my guys have been equal opportunists emotionally, even in the single instance where it was always the same guy on the bottom (Freeport, FYI; that's one fic where Wu would spend years on the bottom, if he ever gets a chance at top at all, for a whole host of reasons, one of which is he likes it that way, physiologically. If anyone thinks that makes him submissive, Wufei and his sword would like a word with you ^_^). In fact, in the last 3 fics that had a lemon in it, there was considerable topping from the bottom. If you're not sure what that means, let's just say my bottoms tend to be bossy and know what they like and get it. You will probably get a demonstration sometime down the line with DR.
But this seems to be preying on the collective mind here, and since it will take a few chapters still to get there, I'll relieve the suspense for those who want ^_^ (skip this paragraph if you don't want minor spoilers)
These two guys have enough to worry about without having to sweat over that detail :P They are going to switch, because when they actually get around to this part of the fic, they'll have to experiment to figure out which they like best. In this instance, Lee is going to top first, mainly because Gaara has decided he wants it that way; so no submission required, really. There will be technical/emotional reasons too. Then they'll switch. They'll go on switching from time to time, because of mood, circumstances and other more psychotic reasons that are rather unique to Gaara, if I write that rather bizarre and crazy lemony chapter I'm thinking of (sandstorm...psycho!Gaara...bondage...hmmmmm)...it's a 'potential' chapter, which is not necessary for the fic but I think it would be fun. I'll write it, if it's still fun when I get there. That happens to be why I write. For the sheer fun of it :P
Now...since that is the theme of this rambling Author Note...HAVE FUN ^_^ Maldoror out.
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