Here's the next chapter! It's not overly polished, because I didn't have much time to work on it, but it brings up, more or less directly, a few important character points in the story, and it's also got some bits that amused me to write. It's also surprisingly fluffy (by my standards), so please, consider this a Christmas present from an overly-stressed Mal to anyone still reading this fanfic, fifteen chapters on ^_^
(And ten points to Veemon who guessed what Lee was going to do next, a few hours after Gaara went ahead and said 'Okay, let's do this')
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.
Part Fifteen: Dear Gai-sensei
I hope you and your team are well. I hope Ryota's Ninjutsu has improved as you hoped it would. He sounds like a determined young man from your letters. I'm sure that with your guidance he will become a great ninja.
I myself am recovering well.
Lee absently chewed on the end of his pen. He was wondering about that. The way he'd gotten himself knocked around in the desert last night was worrying him. He'd been sparring against Gaara for over a year at a very high level. He should have been able to dodge the Sand Barrier's initial blow, even if he hadn't been expecting it at all. Gai-sensei had told him it would take time to get back to his previous form; a couple of months, maybe longer. Still, Lee just didn't feel like he'd made that much progress at all. What if-
But that wasn't why Lee was up at four o'clock in the morning writing a letter to Gai-sensei. That concern could wait another day.
I find myself in need of your advice. You always said I could write if
Lee crossed that out. He didn't need to remind Gai-sensei of his promise to help and guide him. Gai-sensei would always be there for him.
I find myself in need of your advice. What should a man do if he's in love with someone. And that person accepts those affections, wants to be close and build a relationship, but, due to circumstances in his past, probably doesn't really know what love or a relationship even
‘His’ past...Lee stared at the word with something like unnerved fascination.
He'd finally come to terms with the fact that he liked men and Gaara specifically. But seeing it written down like that...it made it very real and immediate. Like it was taking something hypothetical and making it flesh. Um, flesh, yes, that was part of the problem.
The subject of sex still made him...not nervous, but confused. Gaara didn’t seem to think it was a big deal, which completely boggled Lee. Lee was quite divided about it himself. Part of him wanted to be sure. He couldn't say exactly what it was that he wanted to be sure of; just Sure. But another part of him really wanted it. Really, really wanted it. Lee was starting to suspect that Hormones were involved.
This deep feeling of need had first captured him when Gaara had kissed him. He'd felt something like it before, in dreams, in Gaara's presence, but it was ten times stronger now. He would have liked to dismiss it as just another attack of lust, but deep inside, he wasn't so sure it was that simple...
That was also a subject for another day, however. Lee was going to have to work his way up to discussing that with his respected teacher. It wasn't the real concern either. And from the four previous pages crumpled up in the wastebasket, and the corrections on this one, the more immediate concern was quite hard enough to put into writing without worrying about that.
He'd stopped trying to make a clean copy now. He was crossing away and rewriting until he found the right way of expressing himself, then he'd rewrite the definite version without all the scribbled-out bits. He'd been at it since he'd given up on sleep a few hours before. He had a couple more hours to sort out his thoughts before the post opened in the morning.
The desk's lamp emitted a faint buzz and flickered. Suna's generator for civilian consumption was a bit sparky at night, unlike the top-of-the-line generator that fed the admin building, the ramparts and the defence center, which could withstand any number of hostile jutsus.
Lee doodled a little 'high tension warning' symbol in the margin, his mind blank.
He should be sleeping. He'd told Gaara he'd go to sleep after their discussion in Lee's office earlier. He'd said he'd take better care of himself. He'd promised, in fact. Okay, Gaara had twisted that around a bit...
Lee found himself smiling. Clever, underhand bastard. 'You always keep your promises'. Gaara knew him too well.
Yes. He knew Lee well. Gaara trusted him to keep his promises. He trusted Lee with a lot of things.
Lee ground the pen into the doodle.
He'd sounded so confident earlier, when he'd told Gaara to face his fears and take a chance. When he'd told Gaara of the Desert to get a grip.
To the 'I myself am recovering well' sentence, Lee added 'but I think I must be going crazy'.
Gaara hadn't struck out at him, or punched him in the mouth; for some reason, the thought that his behaviour was risky hadn't fully crossed Lee's mind when he'd stood up in front of his friend and barked at him like that. Lee wondered if it was because, deep down, he'd known Gaara wouldn't hurt him. Or was it because he would have gladly accepted a few more bruises if it meant Gaara wouldn't end up curling in on himself and going back into isolation?
And Gaara had accepted his offer. His love. They were going to build something together- what they were going to build was still to determine, but it would involve defending each other, mutual support, opening up, sharing - sex eventually, Lee's bloody Hormones reminded him - and Gaara had looked at him and accepted him. Him. Rock Lee.
Lee turned the page over with a deliberate gesture.
I hope you are well. I am doing fine, but I need your advice.
I have fallen in love with Gaara. I think I've loved him for months now, though it didn't exactly feel like the mighty pure and youthful flame of Love that you'd described in your speeches. This is going to come as some surprise to you. Though not the fact that I am in love with a man, I think. I may be wrong, but I think you saw this in me for awhile now. Maybe you should have mentioned this before, because it was a bit confusing for me a few months ago
Lee paused a second and tried to imagine, just for the sake of the argument, the kind of conversation Gai-sensei would have had to have with him to get that fact out in the air. He winced so hard, he broke his pen. No, Lee thought, wiping ink from his fingers with one of the discarded sheets of paper, it was much better for Gai-sensei to have given Lee the speech on Love - the one that had, ultimately, helped Lee accept the pull he felt towards Gaara, as well as his orientation - rather than try to be that explicit with a wide-eyed, twelve-year-old Genin.
Well, this was just a draft. Lee chucked the leaking pen in the garbage, picked up a new one and put it back to the page, but he found he couldn't continue until he'd crossed out all the previous paragraph. It was just too distracting, imagining Gai-sensei reading something like that. And maybe answering in a letter of his own- no, better stick to the point.
I hope you are well. I am doing fine, but I need your advice.
I'm in love with Gaara. At the start, I thought it was just physical attraction. It made things very confusing for awhile. But now I know I love him. He's an amazing person. I hope one day you get to know him as well as I do. He's very strong, in both body and spirit. He's defeated things I can barely imagine. He's been badly hurt in the past, and he's cautious about reaching out. When I said I loved him, he reacted
Lee frowned at the lamp. Gaara had reacted in several ways. First, he'd nearly killed Lee, or at least he'd certainly lost it badly enough where Lee's death had been a possibility, though Gaara himself had protected his friend from his worst, first instincts. Remembering that scene, Lee wished he could attribute part of that reaction to Shukaku. But he remembered what Naruto had told him about the demon. It might attack Gaara's sanity when he let his guard down, it might make him more dangerous and unstable, it gave him a hell of a lot of power, but it didn't directly influence him. No, that had been all Gaara, unfortunately.
As had been the Gaara who had thrown himself on Lee at the very notion that the Jounin might go back to Konoha. And the Gaara who had said how powerful Lee's touch was for him. And the Gaara who had lashed out in fear and broken a teacup in Lee's office a few hours ago. And the one who had said he never wanted to hurt Lee again, and who trusted him.
When I said I loved him, he reacted in a rather complicated way. I think he's confused about all this. He's willing to try to get close to me, but it seems that everything I do hurts him. That’s bad for him, and potentially dangerous for me, which makes it bad for him all over again because he’s got this thing about not hurting me anymore.
Lee reread that last sentence and sighed. Good thing this was just a draft. He’d polish it up later.
So I need to know what to do and say to not hurt him or scare him anymore. I need to lead us both firmly forward, towards the promise of our youth, as you described it once. But I'm at a bit of a loss. I don't know exactly what to do. My heart says that I want to protect him, defend him, die for him if need be. Like I almost did two weeks ago, and I do not regret it. But Gaara doesn't want that now, and I can see why. Anyway, next time I suspect he will be the one protecting me, since he is five times stronger than I am when his powers aren't sealed. And none of that really matters when we're not in danger. So how can I
Lee stilled his pen. He slowly looked up at the wall in front of his desk, senses reaching. He glanced over his shoulder at the window. There was nothing to see except a slice of sky the colour of deep indigo.
Maybe he was imagining things. He'd been thinking too much about Gaara tonight. And he really needed some sleep; he was getting a bit frazzled.
Lee had been a Shinobi for too many years to fool himself. He slowly crumpled the page, balling it up thoroughly. He dropped it in the wastepaper basket, stood up and headed towards the window. He thought he saw something small and round disintegrate into sand as he approached.
A tepid night breeze trickled in as he opened the pane. Lee leaned on the sill and looked down, already knowing what he'd see. Gaara was looking up at him from two stories below.
They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then Gaara made a 'come down here' gesture. Lee nodded.
I guess I'm in trouble, Lee thought, glancing guiltily at the desk's lamp. He went to collect his sandals and his Jounin vest and then, rather than chance waking any neighbours by going out the front entrance, he jumped out the window, landing without a sound next to Gaara.
"I tried to sleep," Lee said in a hushed voice, even before his feet hit the ground, "but after waking up at two this afternoon, my internal clock's completely skewed." And he'd had a lot on his mind, too, but he didn't want to burden Gaara with that.
Gaara's scowl dissipated. Apparently that was an acceptable excuse for a chronic insomniac.
They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds.
"Patrolling the village?" Lee asked, completely redundantly. Gaara didn't bother to answer.
"Care for some company?" Lee added, because he always asked. It was only polite. If he'd set his mind on going anywhere with Gaara, then he usually did so even without a 'Yes', and unless the Kazekage specifically ordered Lee not to (and even that was negotiable). But still, it was polite to ask.
There was the faintest nod from Gaara, which was more than enough encouragement. Lee fell into step as his friend walked away, silent as a ghost drifting between islands of neon light and stretches of darkened streets.
"You look tired," Lee said after awhile.
Gaara slowly turned his head to look at him. "You are the only person in this village who would be able to tell. Apart from my siblings, perhaps."
"You said you were going to get some rest," Lee pointed out, trying to keep concern from his voice.
"You said you were going to get some sleep," Gaara predictably countered, though he said it absently.
When Lee was tired, it made him dull, dozy and prone to saying things without thinking. When Gaara was tired...well, that was a matter of national security.
"Maybe you should go home then?" Lee suggested carefully. "What are you doing out here anyway?"
"Coming to terms with a lie."
Lee gaped at him. "W-what? What lie? Did someone lie to you? Wait, you don't think I lied to you, do you?" Lee had been a tad bit arrogant earlier, and perhaps he'd tried to sound more confident than he was - a frequent failing of his, actually, but he'd never intended to-
"No." Gaara looked at him, eyes slate grey in the darkness. "I have a lot of duties, concerns and problems. Only a few of them have to do with you."
"...Yes. I should know that," Lee said quietly, staring at the faint plumes of dirt and sand kicked up by his sandals. "Sorry."
Gaara didn't respond, but then again, he rarely did.
"Anything I can help you with?" Lee added, not expecting anything, and he wasn't surprised when Gaara didn't answer.
Gaara walked on in silence and Lee followed, strands of anxiety, speculation and thought weaving through his tired brain. Gaara led them to the southern rampart and climbed up to the watchtower to check with the guard. The Kunoichi on duty wasn't surprised to see her Kazekage; he frequently patrolled the village for an hour or two each night. She hadn't expected Lee to be there though. He occasionally walked around the village with Gaara, but not at four in the morning. Good Sand Shinobi that she was, she didn't comment, or even look at them a moment longer than necessary to verify their identity before bringing her vigilance back to the desert beyond the high stone cliffs.
Gaara led Lee further along the wall, to a point halfway between two guard stations. He stopped, one hand resting on the carved stone, checking for signs of danger. Lee propped himself up on his forearms against the rampart, doing the same automatically, though some of his attention wandered to Gaara's profile cut out against the pre-dawn sky.
He didn't know how he'd guessed that Gaara was tired. The dark-ringed eyes weren't any more smudged than usual. The eyes might be reddened, but the light was too bad to tell. Gaara's face was as composed as the statues of former Kazekages that guarded the entrance to Suna's main gate. His stance was a picture straight out of the Shinobi's manual on combat readiness, carrying the gourd as if it weighed nothing at all, just like when he was younger and it looked so ridiculously big on him.
So composed. So self-contained. Yet that other Gaara was in there too, the one that ripped at what it wanted to get close to, the one that clung too tight, or thrust away. So complex. Lee felt that deep nervousness again, that responsibility.
"I'll do my best to make you happy..."
The whisper had slipped out without any volition, an extension to his tired thoughts. Gaara didn't react for a second, and then he turned towards Lee with a start.
"Nothing. Just thinking out loud." Lee straightened up and stared dutifully at the desert around them.
"...What did you say?"
Apparently Gaara wasn't going to let it rest. Lee glanced at him owlishly, blinking his tired eyes.
"I said, I'll do my best to make you happy."
"Happy?" Gaara repeated, as if he'd never heard the word before.
"Well, yes. That's why people get together. Become a couple. Get close like this," Lee added, since Gaara didn't always know the meaning of colloquialisms unless he’d heard them in a well-defined context at least once before.
Gaara stared at him until Lee finally turned to face him fully with a 'Yes?' look on his face.
"You...does that make you happy?" Gaara asked slowly.
Lee cocked his head. "Yes. Yes, it does. I told you last night why I like to be with you. Even just this, hanging out with you right now...yeah, I'm happy," Lee said, leaning against the rampart again, chin in his hand, staring out into the desert.
There was a long moment of silence. Lee glanced up at his friend, but even he couldn't read what was going through Gaara's mind at this point.
"I'm going to do a perimeter sweep," the Kazekage said, his voice oddly distracted as he turned away.
"I'll go with you." Lee didn't bother to couch it in terms of a question this time. He was a bit worried about Gaara.
Gaara jumped over the parapet without answering and Lee followed. They walked in silence for awhile, heading into the ravines around the cliffs protecting Suna. This time, the silence had purpose; Gaara was thinking. He could think for a long time like this, without trying to fill the silence with needless verbiage, until his words were fully formed and ready in his mind. Lee had learned to be silent during these moments.
They made their way to the far reaches of Sunagakure's defences, well out of view of the ramparts. Lee was glad when Gaara turned to walk the perimeter without going out into the desert; he didn't like the idea of the Kazekage wandering too far from his power base and his soldiers, what with Gaara being tired, Lee still far from the top of his form, and Sound out there somewhere.
"Someone once told me that being loved would make the pain go away. That was the lie I was coming to terms with tonight."
Lee had been expecting some kind of statement, but that abrupt declaration left him speechless for a few moments.
"Who told you this?" he finally asked.
"Nobody you know."
So it wasn't Naruto, Temari or Kankuro. That only left a couple of likely candidates, and Lee, remembering something Gaara had said in his psychotic moments the night before, said "Yashamaru?" before thinking it fully through.
Lee let his stance shift ever so subtly into defence, while he weighed Gaara's reaction carefully. Gaara was tired, he was still under the influence of the last twenty-four hours, and that name was probably as dangerous as 'friend' or 'love'.
The moment passed. Gaara was staring straight ahead without moving.
"I have a confession to make," Lee mumbled guiltily. "Months ago- not that long after I came to Suna - when I was back in Konoha for a mission, I talked to Naruto about you. I was hoping we could become friends, and I wanted to understand you. He told me about-...your uncle. I didn't realize that he'd be saying something you’d probably told him in confidence."
"Naruto has never been able to keep his mouth shut, even when he got his jaw broken during the Jounin exam two years ago," Gaara said. He didn't sound upset.
"Was Yashamaru the one who said that?"
A single nod was his answer.
"Oh. Tell me? Please?"
Gaara finally looked at him, just a glance, then he started walking again.
Lee followed automatically. That had probably been a bit too general a question. He wasn't sure exactly what he wanted Gaara to tell him, actually. The circumstances of that conversation with his uncle? Yes, that'd be a pleasant memory to dig up, with Gaara already tired and destabilized by too many days of confusion and stress.
...everything I do hurts him...
"When I was young-..."
Gaara stopped speaking as if the sound of his own voice had startled him.
He turned to face the desert, washing up like the sea against the ten-foot-high bluff they were on. Lee watched him carefully.
"When I was young - as soon as I could talk - I was given most anything I asked for, as long as I studied and kept some control over myself. But nobody ever touched me. That's what I noticed first, when I finally put my finger on why I was different. The way they looked at me and never touched me. Even my caretakers only kept contact to a brief minimum."
The words were simple, straightforward and without self-pity. Gaara could have been describing the life of a distant acquaintance, one he didn't particularly care for.
"That’s when it started to hurt. I needed something and I couldn't say what. I was never normal, but that was when I started to become unstable. Unmanageable. And it got steadily worse. Then Yashamaru said that to heal the pain, I would have to receive love. It was the only thing that would make it go away."
'Receive love', Lee reflected. Dear Uncle Yashamaru hadn't said anything about giving it, apparently. Lee wasn't surprised. It confirmed something he'd intuited. Gaara might not even understand that the concept of giving love could apply to him.
Lee had realized at some point during this frantic, muddled and very, very long day, that he would probably be saying 'I love you' to Gaara repeatedly, and that he would not get the same words in return. Not now. Maybe never. If in the future this ever weighed on him, then Lee would remind himself how Gaara had held him while he slept that night in the desert, and how it had made Gaara feel; how Gaara had protected Lee from the demons inside his head; how he was answering Lee's question now, when opening up was still an unknown concept to him, and sharing a meaningless exercise.
Gaara might never be able to express what he felt in words, and Lee had said he'd never ask Gaara for more than he could give. But Lee didn't feel like he was being short-changed. No, not at all.
"His words helped. Especially when he said-" and Gaara stopped abruptly.
"S'okay," Lee muttered. He had a good idea what Yashamaru had said. That he loved Gaara, that Gaara was his important person.
"What he said gave me something I'd never had before,” Gaara added, in his usual monotone. “Hope that things could change. Then roughly four hours later, I killed him."
"In self-defence!" Lee exclaimed. "He attacked you!"
"I was in no actual danger," Gaara answered, voice neutral. "I lashed out. Deliberately."
"You were attacked, you were really young, who could blame you," Lee muttered loyally. He knew he was probably being unfair. Yashamaru must have had some kind of desperate reason for his act, and he hadn't stood a chance against the Sand anyway. It had been murder. But when he thought of how much damage had been done that night, for once in his life, Lee didn't feel like being fair.
Gaara continued speaking as if Lee hadn't said anything.
"During the years of murder that followed, I was receiving love, or so I thought. I was receiving it from myself, since there was nobody else to give me this thing that was supposed to make the pain go away. I did what pleased me and I thought that was what it was all about. The killing frenzy helped. You knew what I was like."
Lee remembered vividly, and if he ever forgot, the occasional nightmare would remind him.
"When Naruto beat me, he helped me to realize what bonds were meant to be. Anchors. Strength. I lowered my expectations; it would be enough if they gave me a reason to live. But still, at the back of my mind was the thought that if I just tried harder, if I proved myself worthy, then maybe I would be loved by those I protected, and the pain would go away. A part of me still wanted to believe him," Gaara concluded. He was frowning. Lee had the impression that Gaara himself hadn't planned on saying this much, and was surprised at the words that had come out.
Lee thought of Gaara's endless vigil over his village, the way he walked its streets at night, like now. How he'd nearly died protecting them from Deidara's bombs. "Gaara, the people of Suna-"
"Now you love me. And I don't even know what that means." Once more, Gaara continued as if Lee hadn't spoken at all. "You love me, but the pain is still there, the things inside my head are still there. When you said that, it...broke me. I'd still had that hope, even after all those years. I expected...a lot from being loved. I was thinking about this these last few hours, trying to bury this once and for all."
Gaara finally turned towards Lee, his eyes searching his face.
"But now you say you want to make me happy?"
"Of course. Everybody wants to be happy," Lee said softly.
"Want?" Gaara's lips curled into an ugly half-smile. "What I want is contradictory. It is also abnormal. It might even harm you. You will not understand it. You’re my friend, Lee, but deep inside, you know this. You of all people know this. The way I behave these days is only a part of me. I have constructed a semblance of normality around me like a shell. It helps me interact with others. It gives me some stability. But underneath it, I’m still the creature who went into that hospital room while you weren't even conscious and tried to kill you. That’s what I’m like inside. I might not act on those impulses any more, but that’s how I think. I’m not a normal human being. You’ve breached the shell. You’re going places I don’t let other people go. That creature inside does not have normal needs or wants, or anything a human being like you can even understand."
Gaara looked lost, staring at Lee like he had the previous night, as if Lee might hold the secret that could allow him to grasp something fundamental.
"Happiness... I understand the concept intellectually, I see it in others. But I'm not like them. I don't have the capacity for it. Don't say this is going to happen. Don't...don't lie to me, Lee. Don't be like him. I-"
I've really got to do something about these weird reflexes I've picked up, Lee thought. I should know better than to grab him after what happened last night.
But then again, he firmly believed that the worst that could happen was that he'd pick up a few more sand scratches. And he'd give several inches of skin and a pint of blood right now if he could just hold Gaara close for a few seconds longer.
Lee's face was pressed against Gaara's cheek; his words were one long mumble. "I know I'm sorry I know I shouldn't startle you but I really wanted to-"
A shake of Gaara's head silenced him. It was slight, but it nudged Lee's jaw. Lee still held on, though he couldn't do more than loop one arm around Gaara's shoulder and put the free hand on his waist, because of the gourd. He was staring right at the cork. Gaara had started and fallen back a step before Lee had managed to close the distance between them, but the cork was still planted firmly in the mouth of the container, so at least Gaara hadn't been seriously alarmed.
Gaara was ominously still, but he wasn’t struggling. Lee didn't move either and kept quiet.
"...not normal..." Gaara whispered, so low the faint creak of sand around them and the dawn breeze almost covered it.
"Normal isn’t all that great," Lee muttered, mouth on automatic. "I run around the desert in legwarmers to build up my heat resistance, and I'm sure there'll be people who will tell you that's not normal either. I will never lie to you, Gaara. I promise, I won't do that. I- I’m not clever, and yeah, I don’t understand you all that well sometimes, but I- I feel you inside, I can't explain it. I make mistakes too, I also hurt you these last two weeks, but we can both learn, and I can't promise you that I'll make the pain go away but I will try."
Then Lee stopped babbling and just held on. They were Shinobi. A comrade's hand on the shoulder, silently urging one to move forward despite fatigue and fear, said more to their kind than declarations of love or friendship. No ninja was normal. Gaara was just on one extreme end of the scale; one day, Lee would succeed in making him see that. And if Gaara was willing to reach out on his end, then Lee would be there to meet him halfway, however he managed it.
Lee's thumb was drawing the pattern of tension it found on the back of Gaara's neck. Slowly and by degrees, the rigid lines of Gaara's body unbent. His neck bowed beneath Lee's gentle caress, until Gaara's chin was resting on his shoulder. Something seemed to leave Gaara. It trickled from him to sink into the sand and rock beneath their feet.
"I don't know what you expect of me. Or of this bond." The words were soft in Lee's ear.
"To tell you the truth, I don't really know either," Lee admitted, letting the hand on Gaara's neck slip to his shoulder. "But you know what? We'll just have to figure it out."
"I don't know if I can be happy. I hope you won't be disappointed if that doesn't happen-"
"-but this feels good," Gaara finished simply, his hand reaching up and settling on Lee's shoulder in something that was half illustration, half a return of the embrace.
Lee felt something loosen in him. He slipped his other hand between the curve of Gaara's back and that of the gourd; his hand brushed the hardened Sand. He absently wondered if anybody else had ever touched the thing deliberately before.
This was it, he realized. This was what he wanted, and yeah, he wanted all of it, even if he couldn't understand it all either. He wanted to hold the touch-starved child-killer; the dangerous, demon-ridden man; the Kazekage; the friend; the lover, too, because that was a part of the whole as well. He wanted all of it; he wanted Gaara, so badly.
Something small and furry scurried from one stone to the next, twenty feet away. Lee tracked it with his eyes and senses automatically; one of the desert gerbils that nested in the rocks. The sky was a light neutral colour. It was going to be day soon, the sun rose quickly in the desert.
Gaara shifted, then straightened. He waited until Lee had removed his hand from between the gourd and his back, and then he stepped away.
"I have to get back." Gaara's fingers lingered on Lee's arm before falling away with a gesture that looked way too weary for Lee's peace of mind. "I need some rest."
Lee reached out and touched the red hair near Gaara's temple. The locks were rougher and coarser than he'd expected. "Are you okay?"
Gaara glanced at him, and for an instant Lee thought he would turn away and not answer, like he usually did. But Gaara didn't turn away.
"Yes. But he's getting restless," he said in a low voice.
Gaara never talked about his 'guest', nobody in Suna did. Lee didn't know how much it cost Gaara to say those few words out loud to someone who actually mattered to him, but he could make an educated guess, and Lee would have hugged him again for that small step if he hadn't been so busy panicking.
"We have to get you back! Do you want me to carry you? Oh, you're probably faster than I am right now- or can you rest here? I'll keep watch over you! I'll defend you with my life! Er, or rather, I'll defend you very vigorously and with the intention of both of us surviving."
Gaara stared at him, and then the corner of his mouth crooked upwards in that small smirk.
"Don't worry," he answered, turning back towards the village, "I've got a margin. But I had better deal with this without any more delay. I think I can rest now."
Lee forced himself to walk instead of gallop. He trusted Gaara to know what taking care of the Tail required. Gaara did look okay. Tired, but, well, more relaxed than he'd been when Lee had jumped out his window earlier. Lee allowed himself to unwind as well and enjoy these few minutes together.
Gaara paused as they reached the rampart and took one last look out into the desert, eyes narrowing against the sliver of sun dancing like a rope of fire on the horizon.
"Can you make it back up?" he asked, turning back to Lee and nodding up at the ramparts above their head. "Or should we go through the gates."
"Oh please," Lee snorted. "I'm convalescing, not dead."
"You're tired, too. You stumbled twice on the way back."
"I couldn't see properly," Lee answered, with great dignity. "We don't all have the eyes of a cat and an innate ability to walk over sand, you know."
Gaara snorted softly. There was the slightest displacement of air and then he was standing twenty feet above, on the rampart. Lee followed, a bit less gracefully but without stumbling, of course, what a silly suggestion.
"You need sleep," Gaara announced over his shoulder, already a couple of feet away.
"No point, it'll be six by the time I get back. I'll pull a redeye."
Gaara glanced back without stopping. "I've heard the men use that expression before. What does it mean?"
"It's what we do after long patrols. It means I'll run a few laps around Suna, drink three cups of that sludge you people call coffee, and then work and train through the day to stay awake. I'll crash tonight, and sleep through till morning. It'll get my internal clock back on track."
Gaara's eyes narrowed, but in the end, all he said was: "If you say so."
Then, after a moment of silence, and perhaps a brief internal struggle, he muttered: "Just don't overdo it."
Lee nodded seriously and thumped his chest. "I won't! I promise!"
Gaara didn't comment, he just nodded wearily at the guard as they passed her. She was looking at Lee and appeared to be amused for some reason.
They jumped down to the streets of Suna and made their way to its main intersection.
"Mind if I walk with you as far back as your place?" Lee added brightly, because he always did ask; it was only polite.
Gaara looked faintly puzzled, an expression only three people in Suna would have been able to decipher. "It's out of your way."
"I don't mind. I'd like to." Lee hesitated, glanced at Gaara and added, a bit more intentionally. "I'd really like to."
The Kazekage looked at him without comprehension.
Lee wondered if he should explain- but he wasn't very good at talking about sentimental stuff without using broad romantic declarations. And it would be really easy to say more than he meant that way, or say something that could be misinterpreted by a man who had very little background to interpret them correctly. It just...words were surprisingly tricky, when you thought about it-
Gaara reached out and nudged Lee to the left, in the direction of Lee's room and away from the street leading back to the Kazekage's residence. Lee decided he shouldn't feel all that disappointed. Gaara might have opened up a bit, but he was still the same inside, which meant aloof, stubborn and doted with all the empathy of a scorpion who'd just had a bad day-
In a voice that suggested that Lee was being humoured, Gaara said: "If you're coming with me, move. We'll detour by the gate. I need to talk to the Jounin on duty before I go rest."
"Okay!" Lee glanced at Gaara with a bright big smile. "Thanks."
"No need to thank me," Gaara said softly, still visibly puzzled. The hand on Lee's shoulder was still there.
Lee put the training weights - the small twenty-pound ones - on the desk. He had water, a towel, his weapons and a lot to think about. There had been volumes of communication in that hug earlier. A whole understanding set out in a language they were both barely beginning to learn. Lee had made a few heavy promises these last few hours, and he would have to think carefully on how to fulfil them.
But he wasn't moving to pick up his sport's bag. He was staring at the pen on his desk.
He reached down, took out the balled up piece of paper from the wastebasket, then he dropped it back in and picked up a fresh sheet and sat down.
This will come as a big surprise to you, but Gaara and I have realized we care deeply for each other, and we have decided to get together. It won't be easy, but we're both brave, determined, and in the full springtime of our youth. We will give it our best. I'm sure we'll make mistakes, but as you taught me, we will learn from them and they will make us stronger. If we fail, then we will not have deserved this victory. But I don't think we will fail. I love him. I will try, with all the determination you taught me, to make him happy. He's going to have to learn what that means, and what he wants for that to happen. I think I am going to be learning quite a lot as well. We're both going to change. I think that, with each other to rely on, we will change into the kind of men we could really deserve to be. If that makes sense. I've never been as good at speeches as you, Sensei, and I'm a bit tired, but I think you understand me.
Thank you for your help, Gai-sensei.
Respectfully, your student,
Lee reread the letter a few times, then he went to burn it, along with the drafts. He didn't think he had ever had the intention of sending it in the first place. He desperately wanted Gai-sensei's guidance and approval, but this was the one situation he was going to have to figure out without his teacher's help.
Without Gai-sensei's help, but not alone.
Gaara was a genius who’d conquered himself and Suna’s fears to become Kazekage, and Lee was a splendid beast of hard work and determination who'd become a Jounin despite not knowing any Genjutsu or Ninjutsu; a couple of impossible feats between the two of them already. Together, they could surely conquer this new challenge. They could do this! Right!
Lee hopped out the window for the second time that day and hurtled off towards the training grounds, suddenly full of energy again.
End Part Fifteen
The next chapter won't be out until the second week of January, as I'll be on holiday and spending time with family. The next chapter was really hard to write, it still needs a polish, so I hope I'll have time to work on it a bit in the weeks to come, as well as Freeport. DR has gotten more complicated to write, as I try to say a lot without actually, you know, boring people or bogging the story down. I want to keep a tone for DR; something that's got dark undercurrents (hey, it's Gaara we're talking about), but that's also readable and fun and engrossing and makes sense without writing tons of stupefying paragraphs on the psychology of the characters and explaining everything ('show, don't tell', being the eternal writer's motto...) Daunting, to say the least, especially with my crazy timetable :P Encouragement and comments very much appreciated, they always help me through the rough spots in my fics.
Have a happy holiday, everybody, in whatever flavour you enjoy it.