Maldoror (maldoror_gw) wrote,

Naruto Fic: Diplomatic Relations, Part Twenty One

Next chapter, and man did this hurt my brain. I've spent almost all my leisure time on this and the soon-to-come ending, so I'm late answering reviews again, gomen! I'll get to them soon, because they make me happy and I always fight hard for what makes me happy! *Lee pose* Oy, I've been working too hard...




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.

Rating: PG

AN: I wrote the first part of this chapter in a couple of hours. I took five weeks and three major drafts to write the second part. Those of you who know my writing style by now will not find that very surprising...I considered several times skipping this chapter altogether and going directly to chapter 22, which is full of smut, violence and various other fun things, but there are a few questions in this chapter that Gaara would ask, sooner or later, and it's cheating not to put this in.

Keep in mind, while reading this, that Gaara looks sort of normal on the outside (he's not foaming at the mouth or anything), but he doesn't quite think like you and me or Lee yet. Probably never will, and we lurve him for that ^_^ There are lead-on to other questions here that he does not follow, or gaps in his logic that might seem obvious to us, but that aren't to him. Hopefully the path of own logic makes sense, as well as Lee's. Enjoy ^_^


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Part Twenty One: Love, In Theory





Lee hurled himself upward, fist lifted to ward off one tendril of sand, kicking away another as he tumbled back to the ground. The sand hissed at him in a long tendril like a whip. He rolled and vaulted over it, skidded beneath the next lash, preparing his counter-charge.

Too late. The attack dissipated, leaving only innocent-looking dunes and a creeping sense of menace, as if the desert was staring at him and deciding where it would leave his carcass for the vultures.

Lee spun around, all senses reaching, though his lungs were heaving so hard, he didn't dare rely on his hearing too much. He was hot, tired, there was a residual ache all up and down his right leg from his previous muscle injuries, and his chakra was burning and flaring through his body like lava. He was filthy and scratched and he had sand in his eyes and in lots of other places.

This was the most- the most wonderful, romantic present he'd ever been given!

Not that Gaara had put it in those terms, of course. He’d just suggested, darkly at that, that it was time they started sparring again. When Lee had pressed him to admit that he’d missed their matches too, Gaara hadn’t answered. All the Kazekage had said in the end was that it was 'inevitable'; meaning, Lee guessed - he was getting good at interpreting Gaara's curt, sometimes disconnected words and thoughts - that Gaara had now accepted that Lee would be leaving on a mission sooner or later, and had decided he would train the Jounin himself and make sure he was up to it.

Lee was applying the full power of his Youth to laying Gaara's fears to rest in this matter.

There!

Lee dived away on pure instinct, a second before the massive dust devil erupted around him. He dodged backwards, across the dunes and rocks, leapt-

A small localized sandstorm marked his target. Lee raced towards it, but it shimmered and it was suddenly three dunes away. Lee, face serious and eyes bright with battling fervour, effortlessly accelerated. He'd dropped the leg weights after their first bout this morning, and he felt like he was flying.

The cat-and-mouse game resumed, though the cat and the mouse swapped roles after every attack, every dodge. A mile fell beneath their relentless running battle, scarcely noticed. The small cyclone paused to press forward an attack. Lee put in a burst of speed, closed in on the dust devil and the figure it protected. The barrier tried to push him away, but he ploughed through-

The thing that looked at him briefly before melting away was a sepia-coloured replica of his lover. Sand Clone. Gaara was a much smarter fighter now than when he was twelve, and knew better than to present a stationary target to a hand-to-hand combat specialist. Not when a decoy could serve a much better purpose.

Lee arched through the air, absently dodging a grasping grainy hand the size of his torso. He voluntarily kept his back towards a tempting stretch of dunes...

He felt/heard the sand shift behind him. Despite the vicious attacks focused on him, Lee enjoyed a flash of triumph. He leapt up, using one of the sandy punches as a booster to propel himself up and over in a flip.

Gaara was emerging from the dune, sand pouring from him like water, dark-ringed eyes intent on Lee's last position.

Lee frowned even as he twisted into an attack. Clumsy. It was unlike Gaara to leave an opening like that.

His boyfriend saw him; so did the Sand, hurtling from the gourd, but Lee was too fast. He managed to break through that barrier with enough inertia left to grab Gaara and bear him to the ground. The gourd disintegrated, cushioning Gaara's fall, but it hadn't needed to. Lee had slammed his hand down and clung to his lover to avoid ploughing him into the dunes.

They stared at each other, both breathing heavily, faces a few inches apart.

"Pay attention," Lee said sternly, letting go to straighten up and wave an admonishing finger under Gaara’s nose. Gaara had given him no quarter this morning, and no openings; this was the first bout Lee had actually won, though he’d managed to battle Gaara to a standstill right before lunch.

Gaara just looked up at him in silence.

Lee grinned, unable to keep up any kind of serious mood when he was feeling so darn cheerful. He stood up and extended a hand towards Gaara, who ignored it and got to his feet by himself. The dunes around them shifted, and then Gaara’s chakra-rich Sand suddenly shot up in a graceful curve and consolidated into the familiar container on his back.

"Want to take a break?" Lee asked, watching the Sand slink away into its residence. Was it his imagination or did the stuff seem surly at having been defeated...?

His boyfriend nodded, and followed him towards a spot of shade under a rocky overhang nearby. They'd headed out a few miles from Suna, to have room to fight and to avoid damaging anything the villagers felt they might need in the future. The two young men had reached the edge of the deeper desert, stretches of low ravines, crags and dried arroyos battling the dunes for dominance.

A heap of sand slithered on ahead of them and covered the hard rocks with a comfortable cushion. Lee sat down with a grateful sigh as he slipped off his rucksack. He unpacked his third and last flask of water, and drank a quarter of it in one long gulp. He corked the bottle and tossed it to Gaara who caught it without looking. The Kazekage only took a few sips, with the automatic care for water bred into his bones.

Lee drank some more when Gaara handed it back, and then packed the water away, glad his bag would be a bit lighter when they started fighting again. This was battle-conditions sparring, a violent game they'd indulged in before the attack by Sound and all the messy emotions that had followed. They weren't limited to a practice ground, and they fought like Shinobi, using the terrain, distance, retreats, tricks and advances, as they would in a real fight. In the spirit of things, Lee had packed all the necessities he would be carrying if he were out on a real mission. He could have made do with a lighter pack and returned to the village for more water and food at noon, but that would have been cheating.

He sighed and stretched, feeling the good burn in his body. He was nearing the limits of his current stamina, but he still had one last good bout in him before they packed it in for the day. Too bad Gaara had forbidden the use of the Lotus. But Lee could still win! If he didn't, he'd perform two thousand punch-kick combos tomorrow morning, before that meeting with the Council.

"That shower is going to feel good tonight," he commented as he absently scratched at some sand in his uniform.

Gaara didn't answer.

Lee finally looked at him with a bit more attention. A silent Gaara wasn't all that unusual. But there was something a bit...busier, for the lack of a better term, in this silence. That sort of comment made sense when you knew Gaara. Sometimes Gaara was silent because he didn't feel like talking, and sometimes for reasons that Lee couldn't even begin to understand, and sometimes he was silent because he had something on his mind and he was trying to work through it. This silence was of the latter variety, and Lee thought it must be something serious, if that was what had distracted his boyfriend during their last match.

Maybe Gaara was moody because they were sparring. Lee knew his lover was determined not to hurt him, and had been trying to capture and immobilize Lee so far, but the Jounin had still picked up some small scratches. Then again, those were mostly from this morning, gained during that running battle around the salt basin just before lunch, and Gaara hadn't appeared to pay the minor injuries that much attention at the time.

But it did seem to involve Lee. Gaara wasn't looking at him, but Lee felt himself to be at the centre of some attention nonetheless. Maybe it had been something Lee had said. What had they talked about last…? Oh yes, termites.

They’d stopped at noon for food, rest and to let the worst of the midday heat pass. They’d been talking about survival tactics in different climates. Gaara had mentioned that Sand Shinobi routinely supplemented desert rations with scavenged resources such as snakes, cactus tubers and termites.

Lee had said something along the lines of ‘ew’.

Gaara had pointed out that they were a good source of nutrients.

Lee had said that he was quite willing to concede that, but before he ate a termite, he’d have to be at a point where he would die if he didn’t.

Gaara had countered that when Leaf Shinobi lived off the land, they scavenged the forest for fare such as mushrooms.

Lee had said he didn’t get what Gaara was getting at.

Gaara had said he’d eat anything to stay functional, but if he had a choice, he’d pick a bug over a fungus. Lee had noted that fact with interest; he hadn’t known his boyfriend had a thing about mushrooms. They weren't grown and eaten in Suna so the subject had never come up before.

The conversation had meandered a bit after that, as it tended to when they were just talking together in a quiet spot out of the crushing noon heat. Since Kankuro’s return ten days ago, both Lee and Gaara had seen their free time disappear, taken up by the organisational requirements of putting together a large-scale attack in utmost secrecy. They still had quick lunch-breaks together and that was about it. It had been an unequalled luxury and pleasure to take this whole day off to hang out and spar and talk (and hopefully do something else later, back at Gaara's place, that had also been put on hold for awhile, and which Lee was starting to miss just a little bit).

The only thing that had come from their earlier discussion was that Lee had declared one of his self-imposed challenges after lunch. Since he'd just won the first bout of the afternoon, termite was not going to be on his menu anytime soon.

Though if this was what had made Gaara so quiet, distracted and thoughtful, Lee would be willing to maybe try one small -

“How did you know you were in love with me?” Gaara asked suddenly.

…Okay, so it wasn’t about termites.

Lee was a bit befuddled, but not all that surprised. He'd fielded a few other strange questions these past few weeks, out of the blue and always with utmost directness. Gaara was trying to understand him; had been trying to at some level or other ever since they'd become friends. Sometimes it seemed it was humanity at large he was trying to understand, or perhaps just himself.

“How did I know?” Lee echoed. Gaara's completely flat tone had given him no hint as to what Gaara wanted in the way of answer. And it was a rather broad and intangible subject.

"What made you aware that you wanted to be more than friends?" Gaara elaborated, correctly interpreting Lee's hesitation.

"Oh." Lee blushed a bit, though not all that much. It was amazing how inured he'd become to straight talk about such subjects these days. Must be the company he kept. "To tell you the truth, ever since I came to Suna I’ve, um, noticed you. Like...thewayyoudress. Not in any bad way! But- er, the way you dress, and move. And then I started to have, er, fantasies, after that time we bathed together – harmless! Just dreams! I can't control-"

Gaara's progressively more puzzled expression cleared up.

"I meant emotionally," he said with a touch of dryness to his even tone.

"Oh."

"Though we'll come back to those fantasies after you've answered my question."

Lee gulped, and hoped that answering the first question would distract Gaara from the second.

He started to think, hoping the slight colour would fade from his cheeks. Emotions...? How had he realized what it was he felt towards Gaara?

That was easy. It had all come together when that Sound jutsu was speeding across the sand towards his friend. When Lee had fought tooth and nail and opened seven Gates to defend his beloved.

"When you were under attack, I knew you were my most important person and that I would die for you!” he declared loudly, before remembering that that was a No-no.

The temperature seemed to drop despite the blazing hot sun outside their shelter, as green eyes pinned him to the ground, but Gaara didn’t lose it this time. He took a breath, released it, and then merely looked morose.

“You’d die for most of your friends,” he pointed out, quite accurately.

“Well, yeah,” Lee admitted, rubbing the back of his neck, “but not deliberately. I mean, I might, but it’d be accidental, while I was trying to save them. But you…I…”

Lee looked away. It was thirty-five degrees in the shade, why was he feeling cold?

“Without you…my life would be…without a centre…”

He glanced quickly at Gaara, to see how his lover, still occasionally unstable, was taking this, but at a deeper level it was just because Lee needed to make sure Gaara was still there, by his side, and not fallen in the desert with a knife through his heart...

Gaara was there, and from the way he was looking at Lee, he knew exactly what the Jounin was saying.

The air felt stifling and silent around them, as they struggled out of the darkness they’d wandered into.

Lee shook his head firmly. “Of course, this won’t happen, because I’ll defend you with all my strength. Fighting side by side, there is no enemy who can defeat us! We-“

“So love…” Gaara’s mind had apparently returned to the first subject. He was looking across the desert, a thoughtful expression on his face. “So love is a very negative emotion,” he concluded.

“Wha-at?!”

Gaara glanced up in surprise, as if wondering how Lee could be startled by his evaluation. “It does seem to involve a mutual death pact."

"No-no-no! A lot of people don't see it that way. And it's positive! Positive. It’s glorious and uplifting and um-..."

"So what does it feel like?" Gaara asked, gaze unwavering. "How do you know you're in love with me?"

Can we please go back to beating each other up? Lee thought piteously.

But Gaara had asked him a straight and very valid question, so Lee would have to answer.

"Let's run for a bit while I try to explain," Lee suggested, looking to gain some time. "We're going to cool down otherwise."

"Do you want to train some more?" Gaara asked, getting smoothly to his feet.

"Yes please! If you don't mind."

Gaara scrutinized him. "Your stamina has improved yet again. You're virtually back to normal."

"Yep! All healed and ready for action!" Lee said, thumping his chest with his fist. Gaara looked a whole lot less enthusiastic, but he didn't comment. He must have known how hard it had been for Lee to take it easy and heal these past five weeks while wrestling with the paperwork. The Jounin was used to a more physical lifestyle. Gaara himself, for all he bent to his work with complete dedication, rarely lasted more than three months without opting for some kind of S-rank mission to get him outside of Suna. Gaara always took the more dangerous missions on himself to protect his troops, as was his duty, but Lee felt pretty damn sure his lover didn't mind getting away from the desk to pound stuff up now and then.

They started running at a gentle pace. Gentle by Shinobi standards; they darted from rock to rock, staying in the shade as much as possible.

Lee hadn't forgotten Gaara's question, and he was damn sure his boyfriend hadn't either. Gaara was just giving him the time to think his answer through. So think he did, but Lee had the sinking feeling it would take more than a short run to work this one out.

Because love, like a lot of things that were obvious, wasn't easy to talk about without grand romantic declarations, and that wasn't what Gaara had asked for. Which was a pity, because Lee was quite good at those. Whereas communicating clearly and logically about emotions, the way Gaara would like...not so good.

How did he know he loved Gaara?

It was there, in his chest, in his blood and bones, this huge, trembling feeling of-...of what exactly? He needed Gaara. He needed him like- like- like the bars of a nunchaku needed the chain between them! Lee nodded firmly, then rewound that last sentence through his head and realized his inner romantic had been caught napping. Maybe it could come up with a better metaphor, and help out a bit too. How could he put this need into words? Why exactly did he need Gaara so desperately?

He felt close to Gaara. He liked it when they talked, when they sparred...But Lee felt close to Gai-sensei, too; he missed his teacher terribly, even after all this time. The two Leaf Jounin had a lot in common and they understood each other perfectly. On some levels, better than Lee and Gaara did. Though the couple's understanding was already great, and beautiful, and improving all the time, Lee told himself sternly. But was that what defined love? It felt more like a consequence, when he thought of it like that.

Friendship, respect, trust, honourable rivalry...they were all true, and Lee cherished those feelings, but he felt them towards other people as well. He just felt more towards Gaara, but the demarcation line wasn't clear.

Even this feeling Lee called love wasn't all that clear-cut, when he thought about it. He loved Gaara, of course. But he also loved - in a similar yet not-quite-the-same way - his teacher Gai-sensei, and the memory of his parents, and Sakura-san still had a very special place in his heart. He was going to tell Gaara about that one day, since Lee wanted to be Open and Honest in his Relationship. He would tell Gaara about his childhood crush for Sakura-san in the near future, at a time when Gaara was able to understand such things, while being fully assured of Lee's undying love and loyalty. Yes, Lee would definitely tell him. Sometime in the next decade, for sure.

Lee had the creeping feeling that the only thing that distinguished his love for Gaara from any other and that could be summed up in one word was Lust, and that was just not something he was going to say out loud, or even admit to himself. It wasn’t even true. Lee knew his own heart, and he knew, with simple honesty, that he’d have always loved Gaara and been by his side as long as Gaara needed him, even if they’d not been able to get physical in the end. Sex had helped them get closer on one level, conquer some barriers and Gaara’s fears - and it sure was nice - but it wasn't necessary. It certainly wasn't what defined love.

Gaara landed lightly on a wide sandstone ledge and straightened up. He had a dark look about him when Lee screeched to a halt at his side.

"I didn't think the question would be that hard to answer," he said.

Damn it, Lee had taken too long, or else Gaara had sensed his inner struggling.

"Well, it's complicated," Lee said, making a show of stretching and bending. "Emotions are hard to put into words, it’s like…like…"

"Colours," Gaara suggested. He stepped off the ledge, landing like a cat on the sandy ground below, and walked slowly across a small plateau to the desert's edge.

"What?" Lee followed, leaping a bit wide to catch up and land in front of his boyfriend.

"You cannot describe the colour green," Gaara said, dark-ringed eyes on the sand in front of his feet, "but a normal person can still recognize it at a glance."

"Um..." Lee's mind had lost itself for a few seconds, trying to come up with a definition for the colour green. "Emotions are more complicated though, and they get mixed up and twisted around. I think even normal people have a hard time figuring out what they're feeling sometimes."

Gaara made a rare gesture of irritation, which probably meant he agreed and didn't like it. "Human beings are senseless creatures. These passions that move them are central to them; they can be a major weakness or a source of great strength. It shouldn't be this difficult to understand them."

Which was perfectly true. If that had been the case, Lee would have not had such a very hard time of it a few months ago; he'd have immediately recognized his feelings towards Gaara and known what to do with them. Still, Gaara's irritated expression at this inadequate engineering of the human psyche made Lee grin as he walked.

"I grant you it would be a lot easier if love were red or something, but I don't see quite how that would work," he teased.

That earned him a sour look. "I'm not good at metaphors," Gaara answered in a dead-flat monotone that declared that what he was good at was killing people in a number of messy ways, and that made up for his lack of verbal finesse.

"Oh, no, it's not that bad an image," Lee said loyally, trying to fight down the grin, which only got worse at hearing a grumpy Gaara.

Gaara did not mark the humour, or appear to be appeased by Lee's concession. Lee looked at him closely as they walked through the ravines, and the grin disappeared of itself.

"I do know I love you," he said quietly but firmly, because he was worried that Gaara was getting weirded out by his inability to answer, and well might he be. "It's there. This feeling. I can't put it into words, but I'm sure of it. One hundred percent."

He thought that would surely lighten Gaara's mood, maybe even earn Lee a hint of that smile that melted him each and every time it appeared, all too rarely. Instead, Gaara stopped walking, put his hands on his hips and before he bent his head to stare at the sandy ground, Lee caught a glimpse of something hard and injured, turned inward.

And he suddenly knew why Gaara had asked him the question in the first place.

Lee felt like punching himself in the head. What a blind idiot he was! He should have seen this coming. He'd have found a better way of answering, he'd have said- he didn't know what he could have said, but he could have avoided accidentally hurting Gaara, and spared his own feelings as well. Lee had never needed to hear Gaara say this, but now that the question was out there, he had the bad feeling the answer was still going to hurt him a little bit.

But since he was Rock Lee, he didn't turn away and pretend nothing had happened. He walked back towards Gaara and lifted his lover's chin with his fingers.

"It's okay. It's okay if you don't feel the same way."

Gaara looked away. His face was back to unreadable. But Lee could feel him inside, feel Gaara's pain and self-hatred, in a way that Lee couldn't explain.

"I would be surprised if you did," Lee added, trying to sound firm. "To put it bluntly: your childhood was horrible, you had nothing in your upbringing to make you feel this." How could a man blinded at birth understand colours?

Gaara looked at him, gaze clear, hard and uncompromising, very familiar to Lee. The Jounin looked away first. He was beginning to understand how Gaara thought. His lover had let him into the inner space beyond the control, beyond the boundaries of the stable, restrained Kazekage. Gaara wasn't going to use his past as an excuse for his present limitations. What Lee had just told him was that Gaara’s heart, his emotions, were stunted and he could not feel what a normal person would feel, and just because there was a good reason for this didn't make it any better.

Lee abruptly shook his head and waved his hands around widely, as if he could battle wounds and history as effectively as he fought off his enemies.

"Look, it's not- love- Gaara, it's obvious that you feel a lot towards me. Right? The way you behave, the way you let me close to you- and remember what you told me? How it made you feel when we touched?" He would have felt embarrassed and presumptuous at one time, bringing that up like this, but he was thinking differently now that Gaara had let him in. And he could still feel the pain in his friend and he wasn't going to stand for it.

Gaara was scrutinizing him closely. "Yes. That's true. Is that love?"

"Huh. It could be," Lee mumbled, not sure there was even a possible answer to that.

Gaara's gaze was at its usual blowtorch intensity and about as easy to bear as he scrutinized Lee's face.

"I do feel a lot towards you," he said slowly and without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. "So much it borders on the dangerous at times. But I know what these feelings are; even the bad ones, the wish to keep you safe against your will, or kill those who've injured you. You are important to my existence, like my village and my family. A part of me resides in you. If I died, you would miss me, your life would be less for it. I would feel the same way. It's a bond, an anchor, a reason to survive. But I felt this way towards you when we were friends too, to a lesser degree. And a part of it is merely a response to your feelings, to the fact that I need someone to feel that way towards me."

Gaara turned away and brought that clear, hard gaze to bear on the desert as he stepped away. "I wanted more for you," he said simply, the lack of inflections in his voice making his tone sound impassive. "I was hoping I could feel this. To be able to give this to you."

"Maybe you will one day," Lee said awkwardly. The fact that Gaara only wanted to feel love for Lee's sake...saddened the Jounin and made him feel strangely helpless, though he couldn't explain why.

It was an empty consolation. But Gaara glanced over his shoulder and speared Lee with that intent searching gaze again.

"What do you mean?"

"Well..." Lee suddenly realized his words had meant more than he'd first thought. He scratched the back of his head - it always seemed to help him to think better - and he answered slowly, working through it as he spoke. "I love you more now than when I first realized it. Because I know you better. At the start, I was pretty confused. But things are clearer now. Maybe your feelings for me are mixed up with a lot of stuff from your past, but that could change. Maybe in a few years..."

He couldn't quite finish that thought under Gaara's sceptical gaze.

"I doubt it,” the Kazekage said abruptly. “Pain is pain. When I was a child, it took me awhile to recognize what I was feeling, since I had no physical experience to compare emotional pain with. But it never changed; I just got used to it." Gaara spoke clinically and without the slightest trace of self-pity or regret.

The wave of Lee's hand batted away all that darkness, because that was the past, and Gaara was going to feel differently from now on if Lee had anything to say about it. His voice became progressively more enthusiastic and positive as he forged on.

"Yes, but emotions aren't like that. Pain is simple, and you bear with it and conquer it and move on, but real emotions move on with you. And they- they don’t come alone; they're all mixed up with other feelings, which go with them, fuel them even. I love you, but along with that, I respect and trust and care for you, like a friend as well as more, and I, ah, also sometimes feel a few things that aren’t quite as, um, uplifting.”

Such as jealousy, when he saw that pair of ditzy young Kunoichi who, in contrast to a village full of respectful and wary Shinobi, appeared enamoured with Gaara’s looks, title and brooding attitude. Lee also felt a certain amount of not-so-gracious satisfaction when Gaara, completely oblivious to their occasional attempts at flirtation, gave them a strange look and told them to get on with their jobs.

“I worry about your safety, a bit more than I should considering you’re stronger than I am – a bit stronger, that is. And sometimes I lose my temper too fast; I always take what you say more seriously because I care more about what you think of me. And-”

Gaara was giving him a strange look. "Yet you say love is a positive emotion."

"Absolutely!" Lee's fist was brandished high. It startled a watching vulture that had landed at a prudent distance, apparently in the hopes they'd suddenly drop dead. "Love is the greatest emotion there is! It gives you strength! It gives you hope! It makes you selfless and brave! When you smile at me- like you did earlier - I could do just about anything!"

"...I smiled at you earlier?"

Lee put his fist down again. "Yes. When we drew a stalemate at the salt basin just before lunch." He felt mildly disappointed that Gaara could have forgotten, since that small smile had been the highlight of the morning for Lee.

Gaara's face was a mask but his eyes had widened in what looked like confusion, and Lee realized it wasn't that his lover had forgotten, but that he hadn't realized he'd smiled like that in the first place.

"Did I look dangerous?" Gaara asked slowly.

"What?! No! No. It's- it's a wonderful smile. It makes me feel happy," Lee concluded in a red-faced mumble.

Gaara's expression became even blanker, while his fingers drifted up to his face, touching it as if expecting to find the muscles frozen into an insane rictus.

"I don't smile at people," he said absently. "It makes them nervous. Except for you and my siblings, and Naruto because I don't think he's got the brains to be afraid of anything much. But when I smile at any of you, it's always been voluntary."

Lee assumed Gaara meant that sardonic smirk which denoted the fact that the Kazekage had found some unexpected irony in a situation.

"Do I smile at other people without realizing?" Gaara's hand still lingered near his mouth.

"Not that I've noticed. You, um, look less intimidating when you're pleased with their work, and they go away happy."

"Do I smile at other people like I smiled at you?" Gaara asked with his strange, direct candour.

"Not that I have ever seen," Lee answered softly.

For a brief moment Gaara looked intrigued. But then he abruptly turned towards the desert. He made no extraneous gesture, but a thin crust of sand at his feet rustled away from him as if it was cringing.

"Is that love?" he asked with a hard glance at Lee over his shoulder. From the tone of his question, he was not expecting Lee to be able to answer, once again.

Lee sighed and glanced up at the endless blue sky for assistance.

"What did you feel towards me after I was injured by Sound, and you were holding me that night?" he countered with his own question.

"Warm. Safe. Content," Gaara answered promptly. "But I know those feelings. I’ve felt them before. A couple of times."

"Yes, but they were kind of weird considering the circumstances, right?"

"So that's love?" Gaara asked, eyes narrowed and hard.

Lee couldn't say, though he really wanted to. He thought it was, some kind of love, surely...but to be honest, Gaara's feelings at present might just be the contentment of an outcast animal finally allowed to join the pack. Since Lee couldn’t define love adequately even to himself, what hope did he have of identifying Gaara’s sentiments, twisted and blunted as they were by his past?

"I don't know. I...You know, I think I was attracted to you, and then in love with you, for a long time before I realized it. I felt so much towards you, it just got confused. And I think all people are like that, deep inside. The thing is, the more you think about it, the less it will probably make sense. It's just not something you can reason out, you know, even for a genius such as yourself. In my case, it all came together when you were in danger. It's how I realized what you meant to me. That’s how you know how deep your feelings go. But don’t worry about it, because I think what we’ve got is already-"

Gaara was staring at him.

"So I might recognize this emotion the day I come close to losing it?" he interrupted coldly.

"...Yes?"

"So love is a very stupid emotion," Gaara said in a flat voice.

"Er..." Put like that...

Gaara turned back to stare at the desert as if it had personally annoyed him and he was contemplating a Requiem.

Lee sighed. He'd made a hash of explaining it. He should have let his inner romantic take over and given Gaara the Speech that Gai-sensei had once given Lee. Surely it would have made everything crystal clear.

Or maybe not...In the long, contemplative silence that followed, Lee remembered his youthful belief in Love. Well, it was as powerful as he'd thought it would be. But it was also frightening and terrible and wonderful and painful and warming and confused and friendly and full of embarrassing desires as well as all sorts of other stuff he'd never even imagined - and no wonder he couldn’t explain any of this to Gaara. Maybe it was too complex for someone who'd grown up on an insane cocktail of pain, fear, hate and little else. Gaara had barely started feeling some of the happy emotions in life at the age of eighteen. Maybe it was too late, maybe there was too much damage.

But if that was the case...so be it. Lee realized, to his surprise, that he would have no problems accepting that, because they already had so much. Even if he was damned if he could put any of it into words.

Lee tended to burn with certainty rather than brood over philosophical matters, so this was all a bit alien to him. But he found himself distantly wondering how much his own love would change and evolve as he grew older. How much he would change with it. Because love had certainly changed Lee's life - though it hadn't made it miraculously euphoric or pain-free, as he'd once believed. Happier, for sure, but it seemed that pain had more power over him now, since Gaara's wounds now counted as his own. In the final tally, maybe the one thing love had done for him so far was make him a little wiser. And tomorrow…

A faint breeze, hot and heavy with afternoon heat, brushed them, drying the sweat on Lee's face and making him smile with pleasure.

Gaara stirred and glanced back at him.

"You think it could happen one day?" he asked, and if it was anybody else, that might have sounded wistful. But being Gaara, it only sounded blunt. And that was fine by Lee, because that was his Gaara, and maybe that was what Love was about, in the end.

"I know it can!" he exclaimed, aiming a victorious thumb at his boyfriend and banishing all doubt. It would! Maybe Lee didn't require it, but he wanted Gaara to feel this great, energetic, youthful feeling called Love one day, and with a lot of work and determination-

"You're an optimist," Gaara stated.

"Well, yes," Lee had to admit.

Gaara looked at him in his inscrutable sphinx-like way, and then turned away with a snort.

He stared out into the desert, but Lee wasn't getting any sense of depression or instability from his lover. Gaara had changed a lot these past few weeks, from the young man who'd put holes in the ground when the word 'love' had first popped up, to someone who could take Lee's waffling and his own fractured and blunted emotions with something like equanimity, even a measure of resigned acceptance. Lee felt suddenly sure that one day Gaara would, at the very least, have the emotional maturity to look at this question again, and this time find the answer within himself. In the meantime, best not brood on it.

Lee concluded his reverie with a firm nod, and realized that Gaara was looking at him from the corner of his eye.

"Next question," Gaara said.

Lee stared at him, eyes perfectly round. Huh? Next question?

Gaara turned towards him slowly, looking at him with a strange anticipation, much like that vulture had earlier. Lee couldn't imagine what kind of question was coming after all that, and from the look on Gaara's face, he expected Lee to find it even harder to answer, and this time the Kazekage would not accept any kind of compromise or evasion. What on earth could Gaara consider more challenging to answer than-

"About those fantasies."

Lee made a run for it. He was ten feet away before the startled desert sand could react and hurl itself after him.

They both got in a lot of good training that afternoon.



End Part Twenty One



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