Lee was halfway between the one-hundred-and-fifth and one-hundred-and-sixth press-up when movement off to his left made him glance up. Gaara was walking towards him at a deliberate pace. Very deliberate. Lee's movement slowed, his arms holding his sword-straight body without any conscious effort four inches from the ground.
Gaara stopped a few feet from him, crossed his arms severely and said: "What else do you want?"
Lee scrambled to his feet as fast as he could, which was faster than most Shinobi could blink. "What? Nothing! I didn't say anything. Did I?"
Gaara stared at him, and Lee reread the situation. The question had been completely abrupt, but there'd been no aggression behind it. Gaara had meant it as a straightforward query.
"Sorry, what do you mean?" Lee asked, a bit more calmly.
"Earlier, you explained at great length," there was a slight stress on the 'great', "that sex was not the only thing out of this bond that you wanted. So, what else do you want?"
Lee breathed out in silent relief. Oh, was that it?
Earlier today, they'd had what Lee thought of, a bit self-consciously, as their Second Time. It had been better than the first; the feelings and sensations were not so unexpected, there was less fear and caution and more enjoyment involved. Which didn't mean it hadn't still felt pretty damn strange, touching someone else like that.
Everything was strange these days: on the one hand, there was the total novelty of it all. Lee walked through his days in a daze with the same loop of words constantly reeling through his mind. 'I have a boyfriend. A lover. Gaara. My most important person. The man I love. We're together. We had sex. I can't believe it- I have a boyfriend!' and so on and so forth.
On the other hand, maybe the strangest thing was how normal life still was. Neither of the young men changed their routine in any way. To Lee's intense relief, there was no strain between them after that first unexpected time together. There wasn't a miraculous flow of Love that made everything Better, either, but Lee had matured a lot in the last week and so he wasn't all that surprised. Lee felt that they were closer now. But it felt like the closeness of best friends who now shared an intimate secret more than anything else.
It was a secret, in a way. They didn't discuss it with anybody, or with each other. Lee had guessed pretty rapidly that Gaara would need a few days before he would want to talk about what had happened, or possibly repeat it. His friend- boyfriend- lover actually- needed to internalize this. He needed to think back on every aspect of it, take some control over it. It was his nature. Lee didn't mind a short time-out to come to grips with it either, for that matter, seeing how he'd freeze up several times a day with his mouth open and his cheeks a nice solid red when a particular detail suddenly came back to him.
At least Gaara had stopped brooding. Though that might have had nothing to do with Lee at all, and everything to do with the fact that Gaara's staff had recovered from their misguided attempt to shelter him and force him to rest, and had buried him under a small avalanche of backed-up paperwork and duties instead. A busy Gaara was a less morose Gaara. And there was more than enough work to go around.
For instance, there was all the information that an annoyed Kankuro was sending back to Sunagakure for analysis. The Sand Jounin had been gone over a month now, and was looking at a few more weeks in foreign and hostile territory to hunt down tenuous leads to Hidden Sound that usually petered out when he got to them. The tone of his reports was getting pugnacious.
Gaara and Lee had spent all morning together, organizing some inter-village cooperation to get Gaara's brother a bit of support on his mission. Konoha had as much interest as Suna in hunting down Orochimaru. They'd grabbed lunch from the admin compound kitchen and gone back to Gaara's house to eat it and have some tea in a quiet place while they talked.
The Second Time had followed quite naturally. Lee had seen it coming this time, and felt somewhat more prepared and ready. He'd even managed to get that speech out first; the one Gaara was referring to. The one where he explained that he was happy they were comfortable enough with each other to fool around, but that he didn't want sex to be the only thing they shared. Lee had been rehearsing that speech in his head for three days, ever since he'd left Gaara's home that first time, and he was pretty proud of it. It had been clear, a lot more concise than Gaara seemed to be suggesting, and very positive. Gaara had listened to him patiently and agreed with him, to Lee's relief. Then they'd ended up on the bed again and things had gotten breathless and strange and sticky once more.
Lee's speech had been quite polished, but thinking back on it, it would indeed have left some unanswered questions in the mind of a young man who'd had no experience or interest in this sort of human interaction before. Gaara must have tried to think it through, and then he'd gone in search of Lee to get him to fill in the gaps. Fortunately the training grounds where Lee had been working out were empty at this time of day, especially with the entire unit A and a few others out assisting Kankuro in his hunt.
Lee was caught a bit flat-footed, but he crossed his arms over his chest and nodded wisely. This was actually very promising, on so many different levels. So far, it had seemed that Gaara's contribution to getting close had always boiled down to his intense desire to not hurt Lee. Maybe their physical intimacy had helped assuage that fear and he was now thinking beyond that.
"What I want..."
Lee took the time to think out his words thoroughly before answering; he was trying to learn this ability from Gaara. It avoided any potential pitfalls. The trick here was to say things concisely and clearly, not say more than you meant, and to be absolutely honest.
"Gaara, I'm perfectly happy with things the way they are right now. I like hanging out together, going out with you on patrols, working side by side, having lunch like we did earlier..."
What we did after lunch was really nice too, Lee's libido wanted to add, but he had more control than that. That would just confuse the issue at this point.
Gaara looked at him thoughtfully. "Good," he said.
Just as Lee was about to relax and pat himself on the back, Gaara added: "But we did all that when we were friends, too."
Lee hesitated. "Yes. Yes, we did, but that's not- I mean, we're still friends, as well as, um..."
He glanced around. Still no sign of anybody, but evening was falling, the Shinobi left in the village would show up for their daily training soon. "...as well as a couple," Lee added softly, and felt as if he'd bellowed it out from the rooftops.
Gaara started to scowl.
"So what else do you want?"
"I told you-"
"You said sex wasn't the only thing. What - Else? We're boyfriends, so what does that mean I should do? What do people in a relationship do with it?"
Lee had taught Gaara the words for 'this new type of bond'. But having Gaara use them so naturally, without any hesitation or shyness - and out in the middle of the bloody village-
The mild surge of panic short-circuited Lee's thinking processes, and what tumbled out of his mouth was what he'd have said if Gaara had asked him that question a year ago, and Lee would have thought vaguely of Sakura-san and answered.
"I don't know! Gifts, holding hands, flowers, dates - Er, no, not flowers. Definitely not flowers."
Sakura-san's flowers had been the single trembling ray of light in the dark period after his injury six years ago. Lee had decided back then that the day she accepted to go out on a date with him, he'd bring her the biggest bouquet in Konoha as thank you and commemoration. But things had changed - oh boy, had things ever changed - and now, the idea of giving flowers to Gaara was as ludicrous as, well, as the idea of Gaara giving flowers to Lee. As for the notion of walking around the village shyly holding hands...Lee couldn't even wrap his head around that one, it was just too surreal.
"Tokens of affection," Gaara said thoughtfully, staring at the distant rampart. It sounded like he'd read the sentence somewhere once, and had only now figured out where it might fit into his life.
"Yes. But don't worry about it." Lee took a deep breath, let it out. "Gaara, did I give you any impression in the last few days that I want more than what we're doing right now?"
"No," Gaara answered, his gaze still contemplative. "You sometimes look a bit startled or surprised, but you mostly seem to be enjoying yourself."
Then he looked away and Lee thought he saw a flicker of something uncertain and uncomfortable in Gaara's stance before the control came back. "But I can't be sure. I know how you fight, I can read your anger or your fear, but this...I don't understand this well enough; I don't completely understand what you feel and why you feel this way. I'm afraid I won't be able to tell if you're unhappy."
Lee remembered the distant Kazekage he'd met over a year ago, detached from the people and emotions around him, content to defend Suna and let it justify his existence. That man hadn't particularly cared for anyone's happiness, much less his own, as long as everybody did their job.
"I promise that if there's anything I really want, I'll let you know," Lee said solemnly.
Gaara's attention had been fully focused on him again at the word 'promise'. He examined Lee attentively and then nodded, sealing the deal.
"In fact, if we're talking about something I'd like..." Lee did a few stretches. "I'd really like to spar, if you have the time."
"No." Gaara's expression had gone hard.
"Just an easy match, no roughhousing. I've gotten a lot better, and I need to-"
"I have no intention of fighting with you now or at any time in the future. I told you this three days ago."
Lee stared at him, arrested in mid-stretch.
"You're not serious."
"I am perfectly serious. I never want to strike at you with Sand ever again."
It was their first argument since that teacup had shattered in Lee's office. It was fairly minor, compared to some of the blow-ups they'd had when they were friends. It stopped quickly and rather abruptly when Gaara turned and walked away, leaving Lee to stutter at his receding back. Lee gave up on following, since that would have entailed trailing Gaara through the village arguing out loud, and Lee's sense of discretion proved marginally stronger than his combative spirit for once. Damn stubborn...
It felt like a compromise- worse, it felt like giving up, and Lee hated that, but after a couple of hours training harder than he should have, he decided to shelve the sparring issue - for now- and remember that Gaara's reaction was his way of protecting Lee from what he saw as a danger to the Jounin. It was a sign of caring.
Maybe Lee was being a bit stubborn about this himself...but he hated to give up on the combat that had been the highlight of his training days and an exciting, real and very strong bond between them. It had made them into a team, and Lee wanted to keep that, and the entente they'd developed in battle. But he couldn't be too dramatic about it without really hurting the obstinate, uncompromising genius-idiot Lee happened to be in love with, and Lee wasn't about to do that, ever.
During the reconciliation that followed - and which proved quite interesting in its own right - Lee forgot the conversation that had started the argument in the first place.
Lee carefully sealed the envelope, and then realized he'd gotten the forms mixed up and he'd put the one he was supposed to file away into the envelope, while the one he was supposed to mail was staring up at him from his desk.
"Damn it..." Normally the admin staff did this sort of paper juggling. But since Lee was still on sick leave and barred from missions, his conscience nagged him to pull his full weight with the office work he was presently consigned to.
His door opened without a knock or a sound of footsteps outside. Lee wasn't caught entirely off guard though; he'd picked up a faint hint of a familiar presence a second before the knob turned.
"'Morning, Gaara," he mumbled around the pen in his mouth as he ripped open the bloody envelope.
He dropped the paperwork and pen on his desk and smiled up at the approaching man - then he stared blankly and without comprehension at what Gaara put firmly in his hands.
"...Thank you?" Lee's politeness came to the rescue. "They look good."
Gaara nodded once. "They're not quite in season yet, but I found some in the marketplace that were ripe."
And I'm sure the vendor gave the Kazekage the best, Lee thought, rifling through the small bag. They did look good, for this time of year.
"Is this what you want?"
Lee blinked. Want? Had he expressed a particular desire for- no, not that he could remember.
"You said you didn't want flowers."
It took a minute - and the mention of hand-holding and how Gaara didn't see the point of that at all - before Lee realized that Gaara was alluding to their conversation of a couple of days ago. He felt reality crumble around him as he stared at the paper bag of fruit in his hand.
"Oh. Ah. Um, when I said 'dates'..."
The mistake was actually fairly easy to make in hindsight. Gaara had heard the term 'dating' before, Lee was sure of it, but it would just be a word to him. Naturally, when Lee had blurted out that stupid list two days ago, Gaara's mind had reached for the more familiar meaning of the word 'dates' first, especially since it had come in conjunction with the words flowers and gifts.
Lee glanced up, to see a slight line form between Gaara's eyes; he realized he was in the unenviable position of not wounding Gaara's feelings without lying to him.
Though it was possible that a straightforward explanation might not wound Gaara's feelings at all. When it came to navigating the strange inner landscape hidden within the Kazekage, Lee was often at a loss. Chances were, Gaara would just shrug it off as one more strange and idiotic human custom he'd misunderstood. But Lee could only imagine how he himself would feel if his first gift - token of affection, Gaara had called it - was refused, or at least turned out to be not at all what Lee had had in mind.
"What I meant was..."
Desperation is the mother of inspiration. Though later, Lee would credit his brainwave to his long association with Gai-Sensei, who could make anything sound beautiful, dramatic and meaningful, even the time of day.
"When I said dates, it wasn't just something like this I had in mind. But if you share them with me, that'd be what I meant."
It came out a bit awkward - oh, for his sensei's gift with words - but Gaara didn't look suspicious or hurt. He stopped scowling and nodded once again.
"Great! Shall we sit up on the roof of your home? It'll be nice this time of day, we can have an early lunch-"
"I have to meet with that delegation from Tea Country," Gaara answered.
"Bring them by this evening, when you drop by my office," Gaara added, turning to leave.
"I will! And thanks!"
Gaara didn't answer, as usual.
Lee looked at the closed door for a minute, then at the small bag on his desk.
"Dates," he said incredulously.
It probably didn't mean that much to Gaara. Lee had suggested a gift and Gaara had given him a bag of fruit. Still, it was a gesture Gaara wouldn't have even thought to make a week ago. Lee decided, as he dreamily stuffed the wrong paperwork back into a new envelope, that there could be no harm in indulging in a moment of warm pleasure. No harm at all. He was also going to have to figure out a way to reciprocate.
But no flowers. No, definitely no flowers.
Lee glanced up, shading his eyes from the late afternoon sunshine.
"Hello, Captain Sanada. How are you?"
"...Fine. What are you doing out here?" Sanada asked, scrutinizing Lee carefully.
"Just sitting here." Lee patted the low wall that circled the grounds in illustration.
"....Are you alright?"
Why was it that people assumed that if he wasn't training like a maniac or slaving away at his desk, he had to be at death's door?
"I'm fine. Thank you for asking!"
"But what are you doing here? You were already here fifteen minutes ago, when I left the compound."
Lee couldn't tell him. And he wasn't about to lie. He gave Sanada a grin, which hopefully didn't come out as too deranged, and said nothing.
Sanada looked like he was about to insist Lee come in from the sun, but in the end he turned back towards the admin building's doors.
"Come talk to me if you have any problems," he said gruffly, already three steps away.
"Of course," Lee answered, honestly pleased. The manner had been brusque, but he thought the offer had been entirely genuine.
You've got good people in this village, Gaara, Lee thought, glancing up at the window four stories above.
Of course, those good people were starting to think Lee had definitely snapped. He'd been out here more than fifteen minutes; almost an hour now. Staring at passing admin staff and guards with that bright serious 'Yes? Anything I can help you with?' look that mostly discouraged comments on the fact he was just sitting out here in broad daylight with no visible reason.
He'd grabbed a chair from a conference room and sat down next to Gaara's office door when he'd first decided to wait. Maybe he should have stayed there. It would have been more comfortable, and he would have been immediately aware of any change in the situation. But after a few minutes of sitting in front of the only exit out of the Kazekage's office, he felt that this was putting too much pressure on Gaara. Cornering him.
Maybe leaving had been the wrong decision. Sometimes, Lee's instincts were impeccable when it came to dealing with this side of Gaara. And sometimes they left him floundering. He just did what he hoped was best in the end. That should count for something. At least you'd think it would count for something.
Calm down, Lee thought, noting his thoughts were getting mournful and a bit bitter. It's just the way he is. Maybe he just had a lot of work to do today?
No. Of course not. If Lee had dropped by Gaara's office to chat and the Kazekage had been really busy, he'd have told Lee to leave him alone. End of story. There wouldn't have been Sand stopping the door from opening. There wouldn't have been that faintly sinister feel from inside the room.
What did I do...? Lee thought pathetically, then mentally slapped himself. He couldn't think that way. It might not be his fault at all. Gaara had a lot of demons trapped in his head. Anything could have triggered him. An overheard word. Something innocuous that Lee had said. A look of fear or a superstitious sign. The full moon last night. This had happened on occasion before they'd become lovers.
The truth was, Lee had hoped, deep inside, that it would not happen anymore. And that had been foolish of him.
Should he have waited outside Gaara's door, if only to make sure the staff were okay...? Most of them knew that if the door didn't open, they should steer well clear. But Lee didn't like the idea of some new secretary innocently insisting, or knocking a bit too loudly, or-
No, stop that, Lee thought, appalled and angry with himself. What, you think he'd hurt his own people now?
Lee moodily kicked the wall with his heel.
He'd chosen this spot strategically. Whether Gaara left by a window, the main gates or the roof, he should notice Lee down here, if only from a distance. Maybe when Gaara stopped...doing whatever it was he was doing...maybe he would...In the seven days they'd been together, they'd always made the time to see each other even briefly in the evenings, surely Gaara would make the effort tonight; if he was able to.
Lee stared blindly at a large crow pecking at some garbage in the gutter on the other side of the street. The late-afternoon sun warmed Lee's hair and forehead, while beneath all that something like the two sides of an argument wound their dreary way through his mind for the third or fourth time.
I want to help...I hate to see him like this...
But I can't help. Not with some things.
I knew going into this that it would be hard, from time to time.
Yeah, but somehow knowing that doesn't make it feel any better right now.
Lee's senses pricked.
There was the slightest feel of a presence behind him. But no noise. Normally, anyone coming across the admin compound grounds would brush pebbles and sand, easily audible for a Jounin.
The crow glanced up from the gutter, hunched itself briefly and suddenly shot up towards the sky in a clap of black wings.
Lee licked his lips and glanced around.
Gaara drew level with him. He'd swapped his robe for an ordinary jacket; the gourd was slung over his shoulder (because of course that thing was always with him, it was never locked out of the room, Lee found himself grumbling, completely unreasonably...)
Gaara didn't glance up at him. But he stopped walking once he was two steps past Lee. He didn't look back. He just stood there.
Lee hesitated, unsure of what was expected of him.
Oh what the hell. Go on instinct.
He hopped down from the wall and moved to Gaara's side, about three feet away; a safe distance.
Gaara was still for a second. His face was utterly composed, his eyes oddly blank; it was the mask he wore when he had to hide what was inside. Lee was one of three people in Sunagakure who could even tell it was the mask, and not Gaara's usual expression.
Gaara started walking again.
Were they heading towards the training grounds? The ramparts? The desert?
Maybe Gaara wanted to talk about whatever it was that had suddenly made him completely close up today.
But Lee didn't think so.
One day. Maybe.
Gaara shared his body with Lee. He shared his time, some of his meals, his occasional thoughts, his presence and some tentative new feelings.
But he didn't share the things that coiled inside of him like snares.
Lee wondered if he might resent being locked out like this one day. Not now; but in a few months. Or in a few years...the thought of years together made him briefly dizzy, as if he'd stepped through a small door to find himself unexpectedly in a huge open space.
If Gaara always came to find him afterwards, even while he was still deep within the darkness, even if Lee couldn't do much more than follow him in silence...then Lee thought he could live with that.
Time would tell. Weeks, months or years- you couldn't plan too far ahead when you were a Shinobi, but Lee thought they still had quite a few good days and bad days still to come.
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