Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,

Naruto Fic: Diplomatic Relations, Part Seven

I am sooo sorry I haven't answered all the lovely reviews left to me this week. I've been - is there a word stronger than 'busy'? This chapter of DR got half written and mostly re-read (I do a lot of rereading and fine-tuning) at work during my lunchbreaks, if that tells you how busy I was, and I don't have free internet access there. I'll answer all reviews this weekend; many of them were encouraging, funny, interesting or made me think and generally made this blechy week go by faster. And now, without further ado...

Title: Diplomatic Relations
Rating: PG15, for language and circumstances



Disclaimer: Naruto is the brainchild of Kishimoto-sama, and I am not worthy. I merely borrow the manga's characters and situations, and make no money off of them.



AN: I could write a novel on Lee's stay in Suna, and his slowly growing friendship with Gaara. Most of it would be pretty boring, as jbmcdragon pointed out :P This story concentrates on the highlights and sudden shifts, even though they are often part of normal, everyday scenes. If anybody's having problems following the timeline of the story at any point (ie, how long Lee's been in Suna, etc), give me a shout.

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Part Seven: Breaking the surface



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Gaara turned.

"We'll take them from the east."

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

"Less cover that way."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a chittering noise nearby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, come on, you know me.”

“Precisely.”

A short silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kankuro is right. You can be rather strange sometimes."

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

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

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

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

"Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

Gaara nodded silently, and extended a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

Gaara's fingers twitched.

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

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

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

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

Gaara slowly closed his fist.

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

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

"Lee."

"Huh?"

"Step back."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You are lucky," Gaara said, straightening up slowly, his voice dry. "Let's get out of here."

"Want me to carry you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"An underground source?"

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

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

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

"What are you doing?!"

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

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

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

"Lee, what are you doing?"

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

"I am."

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

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

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

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

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

"Strip," Gaara ordered in a bored voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gaara!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"B-burn them?!"

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

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

"Lee?"

Lee stiffened as he heard Gaara come nearer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just us...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank god the water was cold.

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

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

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

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

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

- creamcolouredskin -

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

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

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

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

Gaara was his friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was the way it should be.

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

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

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

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

He dressed quickly and followed his friend.



End of Part Seven



And now Mal, who is sweetly sadistic at heart, is going to turn up the heat on poor Lee and put him through five different shades of yaoi hell...Next chapter out next weekend.



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