Pic by Book of Changes
Pic by dilemmalicious
Both worksafe. If you liked them, please leave comments for the artists, so that they will know their work is appreciated
On another note, hah! I caught up with answering all my reviews for once! *does V sign* Or at least I hope I did. PLEASE NOTE that LJ has been doing Teh Stoopid these days, and not always sending me notifications of new comments. I answered all those left to me on the latest DR chapter (I hope), but if you left me anything for earlier chapters or fics, please don't get offended if I don't answer; chances are, I didn't get notified. I think it's fixed now...
So, without further ado...the Chapter. The one many of you were waiting for ^_^ Please enjoy.
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: Little reminder: the format of this fic is chapters in the form of vignettes, one scene per chapter. This means frequent jumps forward in time to key scenes, rather than exposition to cover the passage of time from scene to scene. It's a format I've been addicted to since 'The Arrangement'. There should be plenty of clues in the text as to how much time has passed, but if anyone gets confused, please leave me a comment or note, and I'll do a timeline or make it clearer next time. Thanks!
Part Twelve: Safe Distance
"Off to practice, Lee-san?" the guard on the gate asked him with a small smile.
Lee saluted. "Just going for a little run. I shouldn't be out more than three hours."
The guard’s smile widened, it looked a bit indulgent. "Try to be back before nightfall this time, and don't forget to drop by the kitchens. When she left last week, your Hokage made it very, very clear to everybody that you were to have four solid meals a day and plenty of rest."
"I’ll be back by then, no problem! Or sooner..." Lee looked up from where he'd been doing some warm-up crouches. "Say, have there been any sandstorm warnings?"
"I wouldn't let you go running if there were," the Chuunin pointed out.
"Oh. It's just..."
Lee rubbed the back of his neck. It was prickling again. Lee had been in Suna long enough now that he could feel a storm's approach as well as any Sand Shinobi. And his instincts were ticking over, very faintly. There was a hint of static along with the hot afternoon sunshine hammering the desert; it felt like the air was made of pieces of old dry felt slowly rubbing together.
He knew he wasn't imagining it entirely because the guard was giving the sky a thoughtful, slightly uncomfortable look too.
"There shouldn't be. Even if we'd missed it, Gaara-sama always warn us well in advance. But...Lee-san, maybe you should stick close to town today."
Lee hesitated; maybe he should go to the practice field instead. But he wanted to get out of the village. The mood in Suna was sombre after the attack on Gaara and the loss of three good men, ten days ago. The Sand Shinobi were angry, in that quiet, intense way of theirs that seemed to hang like a cloud over the desert. The fact that they had nowhere to direct their anger as yet made the mood all the more oppressive; Kankuro and his unit were following their leads with Konoha's help, but they had yet to find any definite indication of Sound's new whereabouts.
As for the practice field, it felt a bit lonely these days, without Gaara to spar with...
Lee took off at a good clip, refusing to dwell on that last depressing thought. That was why he was going out running in the first place. He shook his bowl-cut roughly and brought his wandering mind to order with his best Gai-Sensei 'Forward!' pose. Right! Ten laps around the village in less than thirty minutes! Or he'd do a hundred more tomorrow, and that would be hellishly painful, weak as he still was. Go!
Twenty nine minutes later, when he crossed his self-imposed finish line, he felt a bit better. Somewhere around the sixth lap, he'd made his decision. Tomorrow he'd go and see Gaara even if he had to break down the door to the Kazekage's residence and corner him in the kitchen, or wherever Gaara had been lurking this past week.
Feeling better for that decision, Lee absently struck out towards the desert; he felt like having some free space around him. The sand dunes, shale and rocks had become familiar terrain to Lee. He negotiated it as easily as a Sand Jounin, automatically avoiding slippery spots and possible snake dens.
Too bad he had to go out running alone...He missed Gai-Sensei; he wished his old mentor could have stayed longer, and helped him get back into shape. He also wished Gai could have met and talked with Gaara again, in better circumstances than their last encounter. But of course, Konoha had been in a hurry to get their Hokage back, and Tsunade-sama, Gai-Sensei and the others had left a week ago, right after Gaara’s seal had been successfully removed.
Oh well, no sense in moping. Even if he was alone, it felt good to be out of the administration building. Lee bounced happily from rock to rock as he passed the arroyo and left the perimeter of Suna. He couldn't go too far, just in case there was a small storm brewing, but he could go to the oasis.
The waterhole was hidden amongst a jumble of sandstone two miles out from the village. It was a small pool with ten graceful palm trees around it. Gaara had shown him this place many months ago, when the dates were in season. There was a game the Sand Shinobi played; the aim was to spear down the fruit with kunai, only one at a time. Every Shinobi in the village could climb the trees, or jutsu to the top, or even leap that high, but that was cheating. The only one who didn't use kunai on the dates was Gaara, the universal exception to just about every rule, as always. Though even he respected the unspoken tradition by using only little darts of sand to knock the fruit down. The dates were sweet and juicy, and well worth the effort and the rules imposed in obtaining them.
Lee trotted up to the oasis, stretched a few times, then he knelt to take a drink.
The water trickled through his fingers as he tensed unconsciously. There it was again...that barely-there itching sensation between his shoulder blades, as if he was being watched. But he'd had that on and off for the last week, ever since he’d left the hospital, and he'd never seen anyone around him. As a Shinobi, Lee should be able to tell. He'd finally put it down to a case of nerves after being ambushed in the desert.
Damn it, if only he could check on Gaara, he would stop feeling this twitchy. But he’d not seen his friend since he’d left the Kazekage hanging unconscious in that beam of blue light in the clinic.
He missed him...
Lee knew he was bound to feel a bit nervous and awkward around Gaara, now that he knew what he really felt towards the sombre, stony-faced young man. But after a week without seeing him, not even at a distance, Lee was starting to think that feeling nervous and awkward would be a damn sight better than dealing with the quiet dejection that gripped him whenever he let his spirits flag. Fortunately, Lee was not one to let his spirits flag, or even take a dip if he could help it. A positive outlook was important in life! And he'd see Gaara tomorrow. Come hell or high water.
Lee bounced to his feet. He'd gone running to get away from these thoughts, but they'd caught up with him. That sort of- of defeatist attitude was not worthy of a warrior!
Maybe he could-...but the doctor had said not to. More importantly, Gai-Sensei had said not to. And he'd said it very sternly. And he'd bopped Lee on the head when Lee had tried to argue. Still, as long as Lee didn't open any Gates...surely it wouldn't do any harm to cut loose a little bit. That would make him feel better, and help him shake off some dust along with his worries.
He removed the new leg-weights Gai-sensei had made for him, as a compromise. He shouldn't really be doing this at all, but surely if he took off the leg weights, it wouldn't do any actual harm, right? Right!
He concentrated an instant, drawing his fists to his side and breathing in deeply. Then he burst into fluid movements. He didn't even try to follow any formal kata; he let his body scythe and strike the air at will, first a spin, then a right hook, then a leap-land-punch. Without the weights, he felt like he was flying! Lee grinned and tossed caution to the wind, ignoring the prickle of pain in his recovering muscles; he kicked into higher speed, the air whistling around him as he spun around, fist pistoning out-
His punch didn't hit air; it collided with a crumbling wall of sand that collapsed loosely around his forearm.
Lee gaped at the disintegrating barrier and at the figure standing a few feet behind it.
The Kazekage had his arms crossed over his chest, and his eyes were cold and hard as he stared at Lee.
"What the hell are you doing?" he asked softly. "You were told to take it easy for at least three weeks."
"Ahhh...Hello." Lee gave him a sheepish look, absently shaking the sand out of his sleeve and bandages.
They stared at each other across the small distance between them.
"It's nice to see you," Lee finally said, which might have been close to the greatest understatement ever made in both villages. It was as if he'd been carrying a big ball and chain around until this moment. He felt excited and happy, and hot and flushed and worried and embarrassed too. And above all relieved. Gaara looked alright.
He was dressed in his usual outdoor outfit. The long coat had been fitted with two symmetrical panels of dark-red leather over the chest. It looked quite nice, Lee couldn’t help noticing, but he knew that these were repairs, not decoration, and that the left panel covered a long gash over the heart which was still giving Lee nightmares. Kankuro and his blasted puppets…Gaara was wearing the gourd on his back, naturally. His face and eyes were unreadable.
"You look better," Lee said, when Gaara didn't say anything. "I stopped by your office last week, you know, but they said you were working from home while you recovered from the seal’s removal."
Gaara still said nothing. He was looking at Lee, yet the Jounin had the feeling Gaara's gaze was turned inward.
"I also dropped by your place a few times," Lee continued, a bit more hesitantly. "But you were never there. Temari said you were taking walks alone in the desert - against her advice, she was actually quite mad about it. But anyway, I guess I kept on missing you."
He had to assume so. He'd knocked almost daily at the Kazekage's residence and nobody had answered the door, and he'd felt no presence from inside the house. Though of course, Gaara could have been in, and with his almost inhuman ability to mask his presence, Lee would have been none the wiser...But Lee couldn't bear the thought that Gaara was avoiding him. There were rumours all over the village that the Kazekage kept disappearing into the desert at odd hours, and Lee had decided he'd just had a run of his usual bad luck when it came to seeing his friend.
"I guess you're out taking a walk now. Or are you training? So am I. Erm, this was the first time I did anything strenuous; I am taking it easy otherwise. Only four hours of light exercise a day, according to Gai-Sensei's instructions. Running, small weights, some low-speed hand-to-hand combat with the other Jounin. I miss our sparring-" Lee closed his mouth. He'd showed up at the training field every day at their usual hour, just in case, but Gaara hadn't come, and Lee was fast running out of reasons he could use to explain this, however optimistic and upbeat he tried to stay.
Gaara was staring at a point behind Lee. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.
"Don't overexert yourself," he said over his shoulder, the hard tone making it an order rather than friendly advice.
Lee watched Gaara leave. Okay, now he had to face the facts. Gaara could be very hard to read, but Lee, on the other hand, had gotten rather adept at reading him.
"Gaara, are you mad at me about something?"
For a moment, Lee thought Gaara would just walk away, but then his footsteps slowed, and finally came to a halt near one of the rocky ledges on the outskirt of the small oasis. He didn't turn around.
"You are." Lee rubbed the back of his neck. "This is about the way I locked you in the communication room, isn't it. I knew you'd be angry about that. But you couldn't help me take out our attackers without your powers, and they could have had other tricks to get around your defences."
Gaara didn't turn around. He lifted his head as if he were about to say something, but then he started walking again, the long black coat flickering at his heels.
"Gaara?" Damn it. Lee walked after him, finally breaking into a jog. "Look, I know you're mad about that, but I couldn't-Gaara, wait."
Lee caught up with Gaara and grabbed his arm-
His back smashed into something hard, slamming the air out of his lungs. He slid down the rock ledge before he caught himself, ending in a crouch against the stone.
The Sand. As soon as he'd touched Gaara, it had whipped out of nowhere and hurled him back ten feet into the stony butte protecting the oasis. Lee hadn't been expecting it at all, and his convalescent body had been unable to do more than let him cushion the impact a little.
"Make that very mad," Lee said shakily, looking up at Gaara.
But the first brief flicker of emotion on Gaara’s face was shock, followed by a glimpse of something smouldering and wounded, which was gone as quickly as it had appeared, guttered like a candle and leaving the cold, unemotional expression in its place.
Lee straightened up slowly, but he didn’t make any movement towards Gaara.
"Why did you do that for?" he asked, though he didn’t think it had been entirely conscious on Gaara’s part.
Gaara was silent for a second, his jaw clenched, and then he said: “You hurt me.”
"Huh?" Lee's bewildered gaze fastened on Gaara's arm. "What are you talking about, I barely touched you."
"You hurt me," Gaara whispered, and his eyes had become strangely fixed and blind. Then suddenly he blinked, glanced at Lee and turned away.
"I'm leaving," he said, in a cold, precise voice. "Do not follow me."
“I’m sorry, but I think I have to.”
Gaara spun back and there was a small ripple in the sand around him.
"You will stay here," Gaara ordered harshly.
"I won't." Lee took three deliberate steps away from the rock and planted himself in a stubborn stance with his hands on his hips. He'd stay at a safe distance, but he would follow his friend until Gaara’s temper cooled and he was ready to talk.
A look of frustration briefly crossed Gaara's face, but it once again faded into the cold, uncompromising look.
"Then you are an idiot."
"I'm well aware of that," Lee muttered, discreetly rubbing a spot on his tailbone that had impacted against the rock. "But I'm not letting you tromp back out into the desert with just the fact that you're mad and that I hurt you to keep me company. Look, I can see why you're a bit angry, but how did I hurt you? Talk to me, Gaara; we're friends, we-"
Maybe using a loaded word like 'friends' when Gaara was obviously upset wasn't such a good idea.
Flickers of violent emotion disturbed the cold, hard mask of Gaara's expression, and a trickle of Sand pattered from a crack in the gourd onto the ground. The slow step he took towards Lee was deliberately threatening.
"Friends. You say we’re friends."
Shit. That's what the feel in the air and the look in Gaara's eyes reminded him of: that time on the boat in Nasaki. Only this time it was worse, and Lee wasn't sure why.
"...Yes?" he hazarded.
Gaara took another few steps towards him, his eyes drilling into Lee's. Lee stayed where he was, though the safe distance between them was fast dwindling.
"Friends. What does that mean? Doesn’t it mean I have to protect you? You wouldn’t let me!"
Lee tensed as Gaara's voice unexpectedly rose. "I-"
"I nearly lost you. Twice!" Gaara was only three feet away.
Lee didn't say anything. Now he knew how he'd hurt Gaara. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious. But Gaara was sort of used to having his friend leap into danger, that's what Lee did. Why was he reacting so badly now?
Gaara was staring at him. His breath was coming shallow and quick, as if that flash of anger had cost him. Or rather, the effort to rein it in.
"You're not running away?" he suddenly ground out, his eyes as fixed as a snake's.
"No," Lee said, a bit redundantly.
"You're not afraid...you really are an idiot. You were afraid back then, when you locked me in that room. I could smell it on you. I guess you thought I'd let it loose if I was cornered and had nothing left to lose. That was good thinking on your part. Better to face a bunch of human killers than me."
It took a second for Lee to figure that one out. He’d not been afraid! Well, not of Gaara- oh-
"Wha-at?! No, you- Gaara, you have it all wrong!"
"You’re just like the others. All my life. Afraid of me. We have a bond, I thought we had a bond, but I couldn’t defend you, you wouldn't let me. You were scared- you left me alone and nearly got yourself killed. It hurt. It’s been hurting all this time- is it always going to hurt this much?!"
A ripple of sand shot out in a ring around Gaara, rolling over Lee's sandals, breaking like waves against the rocks surrounding the oasis and causing ripples on the water's surface. Gaara didn't appear to notice. Lee sure did, though.
He swallowed. He remembered what Kankuro had told him, a day they’d shared quiet confidences over coffee after following Gaara through a sandstorm: "The problem with him was that he kept everything bottled up inside - who the hell could he share it with anyway, right? - and it would build up and smoulder until one look, one word would be too much and it would trigger him and bang, dead body. That’s why the Kazekage" (Kankuro never said ‘Father’) "tried to have him killed. And man, did that not work out either. Just more dead bodies."
In view of the fact that Lee had saved Gaara’s life, this would be a bit of an overreaction for a normal person, but Lee knew his friend, and Gaara was not a normal person. In Gaara's universe, he was the sole one responsible for his life, just as he was now the one who protected everybody else as well. It was his purpose. It justified his existence, which was only a million times more important to him than an actual heartbeat.
No, this had nothing to do with the fact that Lee had saved Gaara’s life; it was the pain and helplessness Gaara must have felt, locked in that room for an hour and knowing that one of his only friends was probably getting slaughtered outside.
Gaara had sunk into a crouch; his arms crossed, not in his usual deliberate gesture, but as if he was trying to keep something dangerous from exploding out of his chest. His blind eyes were fixed on the sand at his feet and his lips were moving around words that were meant only for him. Just like in Nasaki. Lee could feel Gaara striving for control again, but this time, it wouldn’t be that easy.
Lee had seen this side of Gaara before, but only brief snatches. Enough to know that the Old Gaara was still in there somewhere, wild and young and hurt, carefully controlled by the Kazekage. But Lee had never seen Gaara lose it this badly outside of a sandstorm before. It was painful and disturbing, to see this calm and guarded man crack like this, a wounded animal ready to lash out.
Now would be a good time to run, said a tiny little voice in Lee's head. Probably his survival instincts. Lee had never paid them that much attention before, and he was certainly not going to listen to them now. Gaara needed him.
"Gaara?" Lee leaned forward, a cautious eye on the Sand. It didn't pay him any attention, but then again, neither did Gaara.
"Gaara, look at me," Lee said firmly, trying to keep the tension and anxiety from his voice. He sank down on one knee a couple of feet away from Gaara, ignoring the way the surface crunched beneath his leg and seemed to slither around him.
Gaara's gaze travelled slowly over the ground, crept up to look him not quite fully in the face.
"I'm sorry I hurt you. It wasn't intentional. I...maybe that wasn't the best decision I made back there." Of course it had been, and Lee would take it again a hundred times over, but now was not the time to go into that. "But I wasn't thinking straight, because yeah, I was scared; I won’t deny it, I know you can pick up fear a mile away.”
It was fall-out from his upbringing; Gaara could pick up fear, hate, disgust, despair and mania like a well-tuned radar. Too bad he couldn’t figure out other emotions quite so accurately.
“But I wasn’t afraid of you or of Shukaku."
A minute flinch, surprise, hurt and anger, when Lee dropped that taboo name as if he was talking about the household pet.
"- I was afraid for you," Lee concluded firmly, not letting Gaara's gaze drop. “You were not at your full potential and it was you they were after. I was afraid you’d try to follow me and get yourself killed.”
Gaara stared at him, and for a second Lee thought his friend had snapped out of it. But then the instability crept back into his eyes; the doubt.
This must have been gnawing at Gaara for over a week, increasing in strength, turning inward and eating at him...Gaara just didn't have any outlet for that sort of thing; not these days, when he only killed in self-defence. A nasty thought occurred to Lee. Was this the reason Gaara had been wandering around the desert? To mull and brood? Or was he hoping to be jumped by some more fools from Sound, who'd let him release his feelings the only way he knew how. Lee hoped this wasn't the case; he didn't want to think Gaara had regressed that far.
"Afraid...for me?" Gaara said it like he wanted to believe this revolutionary new concept, but didn't quite dare to. Fear had been the first emotion young Gaara had come into contact with, the one that had surrounded him reliably all his life; it had become the one constant he looked for in people. But it had always centred on him, so he’d never had to learn about any kind of nuance.
"Yes." Lee’s hand was half raised to touch, but remembering how Gaara had reacted before, he curbed the gesture. He stayed on his knees, on a level with Gaara, completely unthreatening, his voice calm and friendly. Everything was cool; there was no need to lash out with Sand Barriers or anything excessive…"Of course I was. You protect those around you, and so do I. That’s important to me too. You're important to me."
Gaara stared at him. Lee tried to smile reassuringly. It had all the impact of a snowflake in a sandstorm.
"I’m important to you."
"That's what he said. That I was one of his important people around him."
Gaara's eyes had gone as flat as glass.
"That's what he said before he tried to kill me."
The monotone was so devoid of emotion that Lee took a second to actually register what Gaara had said. What?!
Gaara sank onto his knees, uncrossing his arms and staring blindly at his hands. The fingers were bent and rigid like claws. They were shaking.
"Yashamaru," he whispered unevenly.
Lee had been trying to reassure Gaara and had ended up stepping on a landmine instead.
A rasping sound made Lee look around quickly. A large, slow ring was drawing itself in the sand around them, like the wake of a shark circling a struggling swimmer.
A crack drew a jagged line down Gaara's gourd with a small tinkling noise. The air was full of static; the sand was leaping up and clinging to their clothes. Lee could feel it creeping against his skin, stinging his eyes; he could taste it on his dry lips as he licked them.
Gaara's mouth was moving. Words like ‘alone’, ‘pain’ and ‘blood’ were tumbling out without any pattern or sense. His eyes were no longer pieces of unfeeling glass; they were kaleidoscopes circling between sanity, pain, emptiness and a primal fury that just wanted to lash out at the universe that kept hurting it. The low rumbling of the sand was growing louder as it moved more quickly around them, in a tighter circle centred on Lee.
"Gaara," Lee said, trying to penetrate the growing maelstrom around them, as well as the one in Gaara's head, without raising his voice. "Calm down. It's me, Lee. Your friend. Remember? Gaara, don't hurt me; you'll regret it later when you snap out of this."
Cold, empty eyes seized his. "You are afraid of me!"
"...A bit. Because you could kill me almost by accident right now. And because at this point I could hurt you with just one word and I don't want to do that."
"Hurt," Gaara whispered, eyes tracing Lee's features as if they were a map that could lead him back to a place he'd lost. He looked so...wounded and forlorn...Lee felt a sympathetic ache twist in his own chest. "All those days…I thought it’d get better, but every time I remembered you running out to face those men, it hurt again, just like the first time. Worse. It kept getting worse. Yashamaru said emotional wounds never heal. It will always hurt. I-"
There was a sudden dangerous silence. Even the circle of sand stopped for an instant in its tracks.
Gaara slowly turned his head to look down at his right shoulder. This led Lee to realize that he'd reached out and was touching Gaara in a completely instinctive effort to comfort. Instinctive, and quite possibly suicidal, Lee's higher faculties informed him sharply. You're gripping someone having a psychotic episode and who's known far and wide for his aversion to physical contact. Stop doing that now and he might not hurt you too badly.
Lee swallowed and tried to withdraw his hands. But for some reason, they wouldn’t move.
A moment passed. Gaara was still staring down at Lee's hand on his shoulder, while Lee's brain was getting very excited about his imminent demise and begging him to stop touching Gaara and run like hell instead.
But he didn't let go. Maybe some deeper instincts were at work.
Gaara looked back at him slowly. The emotions in his eyes shifted like layers of sand in a collapsing dune, but he seemed more focused now.
"Lee," he said, in a dead-quiet, controlled voice that reminded Lee of the normal Gaara, "don't move."
Don't move? Did that mean Lee was supposed to keep his hands on-
Gaara shifted slowly. So slowly, it didn't dislodge Lee's hold. He leaned forward, still on his knees. He inched towards Lee gradually, deliberately, like a tightrope walker moving out over thin air.
Lee stared at him without comprehension. Gaara was now a foot away. Lee kept his hands on Gaara's shoulders, his fingers loose.
Gaara edged forward again. He raised his right hand to Lee's wrist, but he didn't rip it away from his shoulder. His fingers were straight and tense as they felt blindly down Lee's arm. Gaara's eyes were fixed on Lee's face, until his hand reached Lee's shoulder, then his gaze dropped to his fingers as they slowly moved across Lee's chest.
Lee's mouth went completely dry and he thought his eyes would pop out of their sockets.
"Don't move," Gaara whispered. It was not an order, or a threat; it was a hushed warning. The sand was still murmuring restlessly around them. Over Gaara's right shoulder, Lee could see the mouth of the gourd, uncorked, it's opening darker than a pit. This close, he could distinguish small grains of sand floating an inch above the surface of the container, picking up and refracting the light from the setting sun. Some of the Sand was out, but it hadn't reacted any further to Lee's touch this time. There was no saying how long that state of affairs would last.
Gaara's hand moved across the top of Lee's chest, tracing his collarbone. Then his fingers rose up to Lee's throat, touching the skin above his uniform.
Lee forgot his fascinated observation of the gourd and just about everything else; he stared in bewilderment at his friend’s eyes, the odd all-green pupils a bit too large and dilated. Gaara's fingers traced the side of Lee’s neck, brushed over his adam's apple, rose to his chin. They explored the line of his jaw, they passed over his cheek. They moved with a strange intent, as if they were searching for something. Lee tried to swallow, but his mouth was as dry as old bones.
Don't move, Gaara had said. Lee stayed still, his fingers digging a little into Gaara's shoulders in his uncertainty. Gaara didn't react to that, and neither did the Sand. Lee could feel the material of Gaara's coat under his fingertips, and the muscles tense and tightly controlled beneath that.
Then Gaara moved forward again.
Now he was only a few inches from Lee. The sun was setting around the rocks surrounding the oasis; the golden evening light caught the side of Gaara’s face, highlights picking up an odd grainy texture instead of skin. Despite his massive confusion, Lee warily noted that Gaara was wearing the Sand Armour.
Gaara's eyes were narrowed to clean-cut diamonds in their black smudges, intense beyond anything he'd ever seen, fixed on Lee's face, searching for something...but it wasn't fear he was looking for this time. Lee didn't know what Gaara was hoping to find; maybe Gaara didn't either.
Lee's ability to think ground to a clunking halt as Gaara slowly leaned forward once more, out of his line of sight.
Breath tickled Lee's throat. Gaara's body was almost touching his.
Lee didn't try to turn his head; he stared blindly at the edge of the gourd and the rocks beyond. He was tense as a live wire with the effort of staying still. His grip was hard on Gaara's shoulders now. But not to hurl Gaara away or defend himself. Lee was in danger, he could feel it; it had been clear in Gaara's warning. Gaara himself might not be able to control his reflexes if Lee moved now. But Lee's hands did not want to push Gaara away; they wanted to hold him, wrap the other's body against his, comfort, protect, defend Gaara against the crawling sense of menace, even though Gaara himself was the source. It made no sense...
Gaara had said ‘don't move’. Lee fought his protective instincts and kept still.
The only sounds were the creaking of sand beneath Gaara's knees as he shifted; the low murmur of the destructive circle still slowly spiralling around the two young men; Lee's breath rattling in his throat and the heartbeat knocking in his ears; the crack of stones cooling around the oasis now that the sun had sunk behind them.
Lee kept absolutely still, though his heart seized up when Gaara's mouth strayed near the edge of his jaw; not touching, but he could feel every breath Gaara drew and released on his skin like a caress. It touched his cheek, travelled across Lee's chin towards his mouth.
Lee stopped breathing. Feather-light puffs of air from Gaara's mouth touched his lips.
Gaara had said...don't...move...
Gaara slowly leaned back and put a bit of distance between them. His fingers had fallen to Lee's chest. They brushed sand off of the green uniform absently. Lee could see Gaara's face and eyes again; they were troubled but sane, hurt but under control. Gaara wasn't back to normal by a long shot, but there was less of a live threat in the air.
The words were so quiet, Lee wouldn't have heard them if Gaara's face hadn't been six inches away. He was staring down at his fingers splayed out across Lee's green top.
"It makes things calmer; clearer; like they’ve leapt into focus." Gaara spoke slowly, analytically, though there was a dangerous waver of tension riding on the edge of his voice. "Touching you. Being this close to you...At the start, it felt strange, dangerous to let anybody within arm’s reach. I don't normally-...Now it's like nothing I've ever felt before. But I almost lost you. I almost lost this. I can't-…"
A hand slowly fisted in Lee's uniform, twisting the cloth. The sand of the oasis stirred around them.
"You never hesitated to touch me. You seem to like it. You're not afraid. This...is a bond. But I don't understand it anymore. Something changed out there, in the desert. Why did you want me to hold you while you slept that night? Why did it feel that way when you did? What changed? We were equals before. We protected each other, even when it made me mad that you followed me into danger. But you wouldn't let me protect you after that. Now you're behaving as if my life is more important to you than yours. And that hurts. But you're also behaving as if this is all normal. Lee...what is going on?"
At that point, Lee could have lied. A smarter Shinobi would have tried to talk Gaara down now that he was calmer; get the Kazekage back to the village, call in his family, his people, have them take care of him.
But Gaara was still highly volatile, and Lee was not a very good liar. It wasn't in his nature to evade anyway. That quiet, direct question prompted an equally honest answer before he could think it through.
"I'm sorry I hurt you, I didn't mean to. It was a reflex, I couldn't bear the thought of them killing you. I- erm, I tried to see you last week because I thought you might be a bit angry with me. I don't want that. You could have come and talked to me, you know, instead of- of- walking around in the desert and-"
One of Lee's hands had left Gaara's shoulder to make a vague gesture at the landscape around them in illustration. He froze in that position as a great big notion suddenly punched him in the brain.
"You- have you- what are you doing here exactly? I mean, here, tonight? Have you- have you been following me?" Lee hadn't realized his voice could still reach that pitch since he'd hit puberty.
Gaara looked at him without any embarrassment (or denial either). He glanced at his right shoulder where Lee's hand had left him to gesture, then he edged back a bit, frowning. Some of the sanity had slipped from his eyes, which were tightly focused on something entirely different than whatever it was Lee thought was wrong with being stalked through the desert.
"Explain," he murmured, in a flat monotone that held faint echoes of both a plea and a threat. "Explain what is going on."
"What's going on?" Lee echoed incredulously. "You've been- you've been trailing me! Every time I left Suna, I felt- your chakra was leaking, like now, and like in Nasaki- and even in town I felt watched. Damn it Gaara! Why didn't you come up and talk to me! I bloody missed you, you know!"
Oh that's smart, a part of Lee's brain groaned; yell at the twitchy psychotic who’s already mad at you. But Lee was long past listening to anything his brain might have to say. If he were smart, he wouldn't be in love with Gaara of the Desert in the first place.
"Yeah, I missed you!" he snapped at the green eyes that had narrowed at him - still suspicious, still so ready to be hurt rather than reach out and just try to understand! "Because you're my friend! And I'm sorry if this bugs you, but that means I protect you with my life! And when you can actually do more than just be a target, I let you watch my back too, because I respect you like that, I count on you. Hell, fighting by your side is the most fun I've had since I stopped training with Gai-sensei! You- you fight like a god, Gaara. But you never underestimated me or belittled me for all that. And you're even braver in other ways, because I'm not an idiot, I know how hard it must have been to become Kazekage and defend the people who feared you all your life. You barely understand bonds and-and friendship, but you still took a chance and let me get close to you, let me become your friend- and you wonder why I would fight to defend you?!"
Lee felt something huge and solid roll off his chest. Ever since they’d gotten back from Nasaki, he'd been watching his step, walking on eggshells, avoiding dangerous words like 'friend' and trying to carefully dole out signs of affection without triggering a withdrawal and a morose silence. Lee had the nasty feeling that something in him had finally snapped. The words poured out in a great catharsis that broke against the stony expression and reserved eyes. He barely realized that he'd let go of Gaara's other shoulder and was gesturing wildly.
"And it's the little things too, I like to, well, I like to touch you too, and look at you, and talk to you at midnight- but when you're silent, it's because you trust me not to be afraid of you in those moments, so I don’t mind either. Hell, I don't even mind when you're being stubborn and hurtful and- and bossy, because that's just you, and the- the way you talk and act- I- everything! You've been so badly hurt, I hate that, I hate what you’ve been put through, but then you let me near you and you let me help you with that pain even just a little bit, and because of that, I don't want to see you die or get hurt ever again, I love you too much to let you get yourself-...killed..."
Gaara's eyes had widened until the green was surrounded by white. Lee realized what he'd just said- the actual word he'd used, though anybody who wasn't emotionally stunted could have figured out what Lee meant halfway through that spontaneous, muddled outpouring. But he'd actually used the word 'love', and if Gaara could lose a part of his control over 'friend', Lee wondered just how badly he was going to snap now, on top of everything else that had been building up this past week.
Gaara sat back on his heels, putting a bit more distance between them, and his head shook once, convulsively.
"I'm sorry-" For what? For the truth? Lee couldn't take back his words, he wouldn't want to anyway, and it would only make matters worse if he did.
"No. This isn’t…this isn't right!"
Sand washed against Lee, reaching up to his hip like a ragged wave breaking. Lee stiffened, but he didn't look away from Gaara.
"Gaara, calm down."
"This isn't right! It hurts and it burns and it needs! It wasn't supposed to feel like this! Lo- it- it was supposed to make the pain go away. Not make it worse! You- you wouldn't let me protect you! You almost died- you lo- What are you doing to me?!"
Behind Lee, a piece of sandstone ledge broke off with a sharp noise and toppled to the ground. The sand was growling and whirling around them, faster and faster. Lee could see the cracks in Gaara's damaged psyche as clearly as the fissures arching across the gourd on his back. The air felt thick enough to drown in.
Gaara was staring blindly away from Lee; the expression on his face had turned dark and savage, while his eyes were a storm of violently opposed feelings and confusion and occasional shreds of sanity. "It hurts! Like Yasha-...You're hurting me. Stop it. What are you doing to me?! Stop it! Stop it!"
One hand was clawing at Gaara's forehead, the other one poised as if to lash out. The oasis sand was behaving chaotically, strands pulling then tugging at Lee as if it couldn't make up its mind whether it wanted to hurl him away, or keep him here and kill him. A small localized sandstorm was forming around them, the circle of speeding sand taking to the air and ripping it to dry, static-filled shreds.
Lee winced as a grainy band slithered up his chest and clawed briefly at his face. Then he raised his fist on instinct, intercepting a sharp jab aimed at his head. The sand ripped through the bandages and scraped the back of his hand raw with casual strength, then it was gone, but not before reminding him of the crushing power that had nearly killed him once before.
Lee felt a line of sweat trickle down his face, cutting through dust and sand, but his voice was strangely composed when he spoke. "Gaara, if letting you kill me could make it all better, I would die without hesitation. But it won't, it will only make it worse, so if you don't calm down I am going to have to defend myself."
"You? Defend yourself? Against me?!" the monster laughed, then an instant later, Gaara was flinching with pain. "You're afraid of me?"
Lee clenched his jaw, feeling sand grit beneath his teeth. What the hell was he supposed to do or say?!
The Old Gaara and the calmer, saner man that had locked him away years ago were fighting in the stormy green eyes, and Lee felt completely helpless until he remembered what Gaara had said, how touching Lee made things feel more in focus. Gaara had been a bit saner when he’d said that, and there was no guarantee that might not just make him worse in his present state, but it wasn't in Lee's nature to just stand about when there was something he could do.
Gaara didn't twitch when Lee's hand fastened on his upper arm, but the gourd's Sand growled and erupted from its container, the automatic defence triggering. It didn't connect, didn't hurl him back this time, though.
Gaara's eyes were fastened on the ground. Lee ignored the vicious Sand shield hovering around him. He put his other hand on the side of Gaara’s face, trying to force Gaara to look him fully in the eye. Still no reaction. What the hell was Gaara even thinking? Well, Lee wasn't dead yet.
The next bit wasn't part of any plan Lee had formulated, inasmuch as you could say he had a plan at all. He didn't know what made him do it; maybe it was the knowledge that he might die any second now, and if he was going to go, he wanted one last memory to take with him, one that wasn't an illusion born of a stupid need to save water.
Lee had never thought his first kiss would occur in the midst of a small sandstorm and with a wonderful, strong, tortured young man whose more psychotic personality was probably gearing up to kill him. Being in love with Gaara was bound to make his life more interesting. And possibly rather short as well.
At least Gaara reacted to this. The muscles beneath Lee's fingers convulsed and Gaara tried to jerk away, but Lee's hand on his face held him steady. Lee felt the Sand Armour against his mouth. How far past Gaara's lips did the bloody protection go anyway? It was the sort of crazy little question the mind throws at you to distract you from the fact you're doing something very, very dangerous.
When Gaara's lips opened, Lee had the undoubtedly unique opportunity to find out. Lee was rational enough to know that Gaara's mouth had opened in shock; he was breathing in short, shallow gasps that spoke of a losing scrabble for control. Regardless, Lee's tongue found the frontier between sand and flesh, just past Gaara's lips. Gaara's mouth stayed open. He was frozen in mid-motion, and so was the Sand from the gourd. Probably trying to decide just how much of a threat this was, and how lethal the response should be. If this was an attack, it certainly wasn't one either Gaara or the Sand had ever had to confront before
Power pulsed through the air, thick enough to taste, raw beneath Lee's fingertips as it squirmed along Gaara's skin in roiling, insane chakra patterns, but it didn't frighten him. He'd never been scared of Gaara's power; in fact it was a tiny part of what attracted him to Gaara, he didn't mind admitting that now.
And then Gaara touched him.
The contact was so light that Lee first thought it was more sand blowing against him. Then the touch firmed on his upper arms, and slowly gripped with greater and greater strength. But Gaara wasn't pushing him away. He wasn't moving his face or his mouth, frozen against Lee's lips, but neither was he doing anything homicidal.
It probably didn't get much better than this.
And for a moment, Lee touched that strange feeling of peace again. That inner calm in which he felt safe and valued and close to the one person who mattered to him most...
Then he realized it wasn't only in his head.
A twister was screaming and clawing at the jumble of rocks that was trapping it in the oasis, shredding the leaves of the trees, staining the water with silt. But he and Gaara were in the eye of the storm. The chakra-rich Sand from the gourd was still frozen, half-deployed around him, but neither the automatic shield nor the storm touched him. Grains fell from Lee's body and back to the oasis floor. And as he moved his hand to cup Gaara's face, he felt the Sand Armour crumble as well.
"Shhhh," Lee whispered against the lips still frozen, unmoving, beneath his. "Breathe deeply and slowly. Calm down. It's okay." Who was he talking to, Gaara or himself?
Despite the cacophony of wind and sand blasting the rock around him, he could hear/feel Gaara swallow. Gaara's respiration rattled against Lee's lips.
"Reach for your centre. Control your chakra. It’s okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you. I'd die-" yeah, that'll make him feel better. Shut the hell up! his brain screamed. He touched Gaara's mouth with his own as if he could catch back his own words. Gaara hadn't reacted. He might not even be listening at all. Lee kissed him again, moving his lips so that Gaara's moved too under the pressure.
"You're important-" no, those were the words that bastard uncle of his had used, apparently. "I love-" What to say when anything could be a trap laid by Gaara's past?
Gaara shoved him away violently. Lee fell back, catching himself with one hand, ready to jump. Towards Gaara or away, he couldn't have said.
Gaara staggered to his feet, fingers scrabbling at the symbol on his forehead. His face twisted in agony, the mask of the Sand Armour cracking. A ragged scream - fury, anguish. The wind picked it up and ripped it to shreds, sweeping in tighter and tighter circles around him.
Lee recognized the jutsu too late. He scrambled to his feet. "Gaara, wait!"
The wind and sand wrapped itself around Gaara and flared as he disappeared.
Sudden silence filled the oasis. Lee staggered back and sat down with a thump. There was only the faint rustle of sand falling from the air and a few last shreds tumbling from the palm trees that had been reduced to bare standing sticks.
Lee stared about him, stunned and still high on adrenaline. When he moved, a prickle of pain made him check himself. Some injuries, all superficial. A lot of scratches and a few cuts, bruises, no real damage. He'd been lucky.
No, he instantly corrected himself, he'd not been lucky. He'd been protected.
Is this what you want? he asked himself seriously, staring at the slashes scoring the back of his right hand, the bandages ripped right through and unravelling. He's dangerous, even when he's watching himself; he's so controlled, he may never let you near him again once he's recovered his senses; and he's so damaged, you might never be able to help, only make it worse. Is this something you can live with? To pick up injuries each time things go wrong (and they will go wrong)? If you do this, you won't be able to leave him. You'll have to be there for him always, even if it never goes any further, even if he can never give you anything in return...Is this really what you want?
The question was deadly serious. The answer would mark him a lifetime.
Lee leapt to his feet and raced towards the edges of the oasis. He vaulted to the top of the highest rock, until he was level with the shredded branches of the date trees, and looked around. No signs of Gaara. But all Lee needed to do was close his eyes, turn slowly on himself, find the direction his most primal, animal instincts were screaming at him to run away from, and go that way.
After awhile, he was following the huge pot-holes in the sand dunes, a trail of broken rocks and shattered sandstone, and the sticky-hot feel in the air that spoke of chakra and a hell of a lot of it. Gaara was heading north, towards the deeper desert. Away from Suna, Lee realized. Away from Lee, too. Still trying to protect them all, even if it was from himself.
Lee slowed down when he spotted the distant figure. He approached carefully and stopped at the distance he'd learned was somewhat safe from his experience during sandstorms. He wasn't going to barge into the danger zone. If he got seriously hurt, well, first of all that would be unpleasant for him, and secondly Gaara would blame himself and it would just make it worse when he returned to his senses.
Lee instantly destroyed the small voice of doubt that asked him if he was sure Gaara would ever return to his senses...Gaara would, and then Lee would be there to help pick up the pieces, if he was allowed to.
Gaara was walking fast. He was probably aware of Lee following him, just like he was when Lee trailed him during a storm. He didn't turn around or react. Lee heard a few words drift towards him. Gaara was talking to himself, sometimes viciously. He sounded angry and lost. The emotions would surge, the incoherent words coming faster and faster, chakra building up until the desert would explode. Geysers would shoot up around the lone figure, or a ripple of sand would tear off towards the horizon like a deadly riptide. Lee stayed on his toes, but no threat ever headed his way.
Gaara's wild wanderings slowly turned back to the east and south. They were heading into rocky terrain again, the occasional chunk of sandstone reduced to its components when Gaara shouted or snarled at thin air. Lee bit his lips anxiously as he watched. Right now, they were circling Suna. If Gaara turned back towards his home village in this state, well, Lee loved him but he would still be faced with a very, very difficult decision.
Night had fallen by now, the moon was shining, turning the disquiet sand silver, and a new sound reached Lee's ears.
He had to grasp the rocks until his hands bled through his tattered bandages to stop himself from rushing forward when he heard Gaara crying. It was the lost, tearing sobs of a young child. Lee was running on pure instinct by now; it was telling him no, not yet, too soon. This wasn’t his Gaara yet, this was still part of the old pain welling to the surface.
"I'm here," Lee whispered, feeling tears run down his own face.
When the sand exploded up ahead, he knew he'd been right in keeping that safe distance.
"I'm here. I won't leave you alone."
Screams and chakra bled through the air.
"Even if I can never get any closer to you than this...then this is as close as I'll be. But I won't leave you alone."
The desert was alive with Gaara's senses. Somehow, Lee felt sure Gaara could hear him. If his words were of any help, it wasn't apparent.
Ugly energy, soaked in blood and self-hatred and old pain, split the air. It occasionally turned vicious and lethal, tearing at the rocks with cruel deliberation as if trying to carve them out and hurt them, and Lee just prayed that the troops in Sunagakure would be smart enough to man the garrison forts and protect the civilians rather than come out and investigate this entire ruckus. That would be another difficult decision for Lee, and this night was hard enough as it was.
Finally, after several cycles of violence, pain and the occasional ominous quiet, it stopped.
They were still five miles or so from Sunagakure; Gaara had never gotten any closer to his home town. He'd destroyed nothing more than a few rocky outcroppings and the occasional small desert creature that hadn't run fast and far enough, to Lee's passing regret.
Gaara was silent now, and the chakra in the air had weakened almost to nothing. Either he was getting it back under control, or he was exhausted. He'd ended up on top of a small mesa. Lee could see him crouched up there, the gourd turning his half-seen silhouette into something strange and monstrous as he stared out into the night. What Lee couldn't see was what condition Gaara was in, and he couldn't climb up there without knowing a bit more about Gaara's present state of mind.
With some resignation, Lee sank down between two stones, in a position where he could keep an eye on that distant figure. He settled down, then he got up and shovelled a bit of sand into the nook and tried again. No, it still felt as uncomfortable as all hell, poking his sore body with all kinds of hard bits and protrusions. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing at that, if he didn't want to fall asleep. Lee was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. He'd used up whatever resources he'd scraped together this past week. Hell, he'd used them up two hours ago, and he'd been running on sheer stubbornness ever since. He shivered and rubbed his arms. The night was cold, the residual warmth from the sand and stones all but faded.
Lee blinked tiredly.
Then he blinked again.
He wasn't cold anymore. Great, probably the onset of hypothermia- wait a minute.
Lee sat up with a jerk, as he realized he'd drifted off to sleep. The heavy blanket of sand that had been sheltering him cascaded to the ground.
Gaara was ten feet away. He was sitting on the ground, leaning forward a bit to accommodate the gourd, legs gathered up to his chest, arms tightly crossed over his knees, watching Lee over the barrier of his wrists.
Lee absently cleared the sand from his clothes and picked some out of his ear. The sense of stifling chakra and danger in the air had dissipated, and it was his friend back in Gaara's eyes, without any doubt.
“I knew you would beat it," Lee said, trying to smile, though his face felt stiff and caked with sand. "You're strong.” Stronger than all that had been done to him. Strong enough to overcome it.
"And you..." Gaara’s voice was cracked and weak, his eyes reddened and weary and without any distance in them for once. "You're utterly fearless."
Lee wished that was true. He felt himself trembling all over from the backlash of heart-thumping terror, for his own sake and for Gaara’s.
"Do you want to go home now?" he asked, straightening out and listening to his joints creak.
Gaara looked lost, like a very young boy for a second, then way too old.
"It's going to be a lot to work on," he whispered, his words slow and halting.
"Yes. I know."
"Is it always going to be this...complicated?"
Welcome to my life for the past few months, Lee thought with an inward sigh. And if Gaara thought it was complicated now, just wait until he'd thought it through a bit further. Lee was more knowledgeable about human interaction; this night had broken something, some final barrier between them, but it had also left them adrift in a huge grey zone that could lead just about anywhere, and even Lee had no idea where they were going at this point.
"Lee," Gaara said suddenly, looking him straight in the eye, "I can't promise I won't hurt you."
"I know. I might say the wrong thing, do something, and end up hurting you too. People can hurt each other when they get close. But even if you do injure me, I won't stop feeling this way," Lee added.
Flickers of emotion crossed Gaara's face and eyes. The moonlight was too dim for Lee to make them out.
"You're not afraid of pain..."
"Well, not beyond reason," Lee amended cautiously.
"What are you afraid of?"
"...Failing myself. Failing the ones who believe in me. And being alone."
"I understand," Gaara whispered.
They walked side by side back to the village, where they found considerable excitement after all the pyrotechnics in the desert.
Lee fell back a few feet as the Suna Shinobi swarmed around their Kazekage; a moment of caution had instantly dissolved as soon as Gaara had nodded at Temari and Sanada, and then they were all pressing forward, asking if the village was under attack, if Gaara was alright, if there was any cleanup to do...
Lee watched Gaara walk away, surrounded by his people. The flickering lights of torches and the murmur of anxious questions faded. Gaara half glanced back, but he didn't hesitate to leave, and Lee knew why and didn't mind. Hell, maybe he needed a bit of space too after last night. Tonight. Damn, what time was it...? Almost three in the morning, his internal clock informed him, before smugly reminding him of Gai-Sensei's orders about not overdoing it, getting eight good hours of sleep per night, and a few other rules, most of which Lee had now broken.
He headed towards the bachelor Jounin barracks at a slow, painful limp. Now that the adrenaline was fading, his body was adding up tonight's damage and presenting him with one hell of a bill. And he was tired...a bit of sleep, then a quick shower and he had those Leaf reports on Sound activity to go through.
His body ached; the remains of stress were souring in his bloodstream; his nerves were thrumming; he was scratched here and there, and sand had insinuated itself into some very uncomfortable places. And his head and heart hurt as he remembered Gaara's pain, his own helplessness.
But despite all that, Lee didn't really feel that bad. When Lee made a decision, he fully accepted all of its consequences without whining or regret. He'd made his choice. He thought it was a damn good choice. There'd be a lot to fix, but determination, strength of spirit and hard work always prevailed.
Lee, the eternal optimist, fell asleep with a smile on his face and the memory of a kiss playing in his mind. It hadn’t been the best kiss in the entire world, when all was said and done. But maybe - just maybe - he might have the opportunity to improve on it, some day.
End Part Twelve
Whew. Long chapter, but a lot of ground to cover. This might be called the turning point, though there's still some fall-out to clean up and questions to address (and some R and NC17-rated stuff to get on, very soon now). This was one hell of a chapter to write, since I have no problems writing about guys beating each other up, but strong emotional scenes are tougher. It was still the most exciting chapter to write yet, along with the one coming after it ^_^ Comments, critiques and encouragements adored.