Once he had noticed the sting of antiseptic in fresh wounds, and had to hold himself from shying away at the chemical smell. It had been unfamiliar to a child used to scrapes left alone to scab over. He'd needed that lecture on taking care of himself. His body was his most important. . . his only tool, and he had learned that.

Once he had been alone. He had his direction in life, but no path to follow. He'd needed a mentor, someone to tell him how to use each bit of strength he had stubbornly built up, instead of telling him it was no use at all. Often. . . perhaps even often enough, all that he needed was to know how to apply that strength, and he had learned that too.

His life before Gai-sensei had been something like running in the dark. He had known all along where he wanted to go, what he wanted to become, but had no way of knowing if the way would be barred when he arrived. Gai-sensei had given him enough encouragement to help him find a real path and stick to it, and Lee would never let himself falter and waste that gift.

In contrast his life before Gaara had been filled with enthusiasm and hope. And while Lee maintained that hope never died, he had found that it might flicker sometimes, fragile against the darkness of the world.

Gaara had never truly taken the hope out of Lee's life, though for a moment he might have intended to. Instead, he had given Lee something precious. He became precious to Lee, though he never seemed to realize it.

Once this had been new. Lee knew he had hesitated, before, when touching that warm, dry skin. He used to wait for some sign of an uncertainty to smooth over, or of the rejection he would need to quell under. He had been uncertain himself, sometimes shying away from the sharp jab of teeth and the touch of too-eager hands. There had been times when he did not know what to do with the mix of trust and desire.

Now he did not hesitate to twine his fingers in blood-red hair if he could drag his lover closer. Or to breathe Gaara's breath, letting it out again in gasps and cries that he still tried not to voice. He had learned to enjoy the bites that always ended up more hungry than playful.

Lee remembered what this had felt like at first. Fumbling in the dark, feeling as if everything they did together might be a dream. He might have woken at any minute to find the intimacy they shared had dissolved into nothingness.

But what dream was ever so awkward and terrifying and delicious all at the same time? The reality of Gaara's mouth against his had always been too much for him to ignore. That had been enough to lead him out of surreal hopes and into his current position.

And, without a doubt, Lee found his current position very satisfying. Gaara's arms were clasped around him, fingers kneading eagerly at his backside. Lee was trailing his mouth up and down Gaara's jaw, his hips working up into Gaara's without thought. Once, he might have been embarrassed in this situation. He might have been ashamed of his own desire and the way he was begging Gaara's attention, but he now knew Gaara wouldn't want it any other way. Even now he was moaning his satisfaction into Lee's ear.

Once this had hurt, but now Lee only wanted more. He clenched his fingers in Gaara's hair, his legs wrapped around Gaara's body, pushing himself up into each movement. Where he had once been unsure, he now knew exactly what he wanted. The feeling of Gaara inside of him had become familiar, yet it had become no less delicious for all of that.

When he lay limp under Gaara, after, Lee thought for a moment how it used to bother him that Gaara wanted him just as much after sex as he did before or during. Now, sweaty and panting and satisfied, he welcomed Gaara's irrepressible kisses. So many things that were once new and terrifying, or painful, or raw, could somehow become comfortable and desirable. Lee marveled at the fact that Gaara was one of those things that once was unknown, yet now was so deeply entwined with Lee's heart.

"I love you." Words soft and fitting, whispered against the fingers that traced his lips. Lee had lost count of the times he had said it, and every time he meant it all over again. It felt like a new promise each time the words fell from his lips, and Lee could not help marveling at that too.

Once. . . or even twice he had watched Gaara return those words, shaping them as if he was unsure of the way they tasted in his mouth. Now, there were only kisses.