Naruto fic: Diplomatic Relations, Part Three
(On another note, I was out most of the weekend, so didn't have time to answer comments, but I will as soon as I finish posting this. Thanks hugely for all the reviews; I was able to finish that Freeport chapter - soon in the beta process - work on ANBU and move forward on this fic thanks to all the great encouragement)
Title: Diplomatic Relations
Rating: PG13 for this part, for language.
Part Three: Sandstorm
"Desert have mercy. Desert have mercy," the old woman muttered again and again, stirring the fire fiercely. The wind screamed down the air vent and nearly killed the flame.
"Desert have mercy," the old woman muttered again, her eyes wide and bright with fear that Lee didn't understand.
It had been awesome and terrifying to see the entire desert rise up and hurl itself upon Sunagakure, a huge wall of yellow sand lashed by lightning and winds. But sandstorms like these occurred regularly, according to Captain Sanada. Everybody had known this one was coming. Sand Shinobi could feel one creeping up on them, and apparently Gaara could sense their approach several days ahead of time; the Kazekage had made sure all outlying patrols had been warned and were ready to fall back to the walls.
Fortunately somebody had remembered to warn Lee, too; Captain Sanada had caught him just as he was about to leave for his daily jog around the village and canyons, and had dragged him into the safety of the garrison fort on the outskirts of the village. Considering the sudden furious speed with which the storm had arrived, Lee was rather thankful.
Protected by their thick stucco walls, Shinobi and a few civilian caretakers huddled around brazeros, or sat at the tables in the corner and drank their strong desert coffee in silence. Lee was the only one near the window, trying to make out, through a gap in the shutters, the fascinating shifts of sand in the jaws of the storm. Everybody else stayed as far away from the doors and shuttered panes as possible. There was tension and some fear in the air.
"Desert have-" the old woman interrupted herself with a gasp and dragged her robe up to cover her face and open mouth.
Every Shinobi had felt it, including Lee. Something was stirring out there. Inside the perimeter of the village. A huge boil of chakra moving slowly in the maelstrom past their building.
Lee stared out the crack in the shuttered window, but he couldn't see further than a couple of feet. The sand hissed and rattled against the shutter as if it was trying to reach him.
"What the hell is that?" he said sharply. "Guys? Can you feel-"
The Shinobi around him turned away; they hunched over their tables or drew the veils of their helms over their faces.
The murmur seemed to have no source; it hung like a haze in the room full of tension and superstitious fear.
"Gaara of the Desert..."
Lee boggled at the men and women around him, then he marched towards the barred and bolted door. If that was Gaara out there, somebody should check it out and help him inside. If that wasn't Gaara out there, somebody should really check it out, because that was a hell of a lot of chakra. What was wrong with these people? He ignored the cut-off cry of one of the guards; all sound vanished to be replaced with the wild lament of the wind as he opened the door. He thought the old woman had screamed- he closed the door quickly behind him, arm raised to protect his eyes.
A dark shape was walking slowly up ahead; Lee could barely make it out through the lashings of wind and sand. He was surprised he could see anything at all, actually; maybe the storm was abating a bit.
Lee marched forth. The sand immediately invaded his clothes, mouth and nostrils; it scraped at every inch of bare skin it could find. Lee coughed and brought both arms up to defend his face. Up ahead, the figure stopped.
It was Gaara.
He was dressed in his usual black longcoat, whipping about his legs and ankles as it was lifted back by the storm. He had the gourd on his back and both arms at his side; he wasn't protecting his eyes, to Lee's amazement. Lee himself could barely see, his lashes already thick with grains.
"Gaa-" Lee coughed again.
He was downwind from the Kazekage now. Lee blinked and prudently lowered his arms, feeling a sudden change in the gale. The storm still raged, but it was curling and howling around Gaara like waves hitting a breaker.
Of course, it's sand, Lee reminded himself with self-directed exasperation. This was Gaara's element.
The roiling chakra in the air seemed a bit excessive for simply keeping the sand off of Gaara's face, though...
Lee blinked grit out of his eyes, slightly protected now by whatever force was surrounding Gaara. The Kazekage wasn't stopping the wind and sand; they beat against him in a brief, fierce battle. When they lost, they broke around him and curled and wailed, weaving around his shoulders and through his fingers in surrender.
Lee, who hadn't realized he had that much imagination, took a step closer.
Gaara slowly turned around. Lee stopped dead in his tracks.
This was the Old Gaara.
Lee recognized that small, cruel grin, the narrowed eyes with staring pinpoint pupils. They haunted some of his worst nightmares, the ones where he woke up sweating and with his left arm and leg aching.
The wind hissed and grasped at Gaara, ripping through his hair and touching his skin, but the sand did not cut him. Gaara blinked slowly, the basilisk stare moving away from Lee, who was standing very still. Gaara of the Desert lazily tilted his head back, eyes almost closed as if the howling wind was caressing his face like a lover.
Lee really hadn't thought he had this much imagination. But it wasn't his imagination that he was in some danger here. He had to be careful. Should he fall back a few paces to follow Gaara? Stay motionless until the Kazekage turned around? Or go up to Gaara and try to talk him out of the storm? No, that was stupid; he had no grasp of the situation. But he didn't feel like leaving Gaara-
A dark shape surged out of the sand from the direction of the garrison fort, grabbed Lee by the shoulders and dragged him back into the fury of the storm.
"Wha-" Lee got a mouthful of sand for his efforts. He noticed briefly that though the wind was stronger than in Gaara's leeway, he wasn't being pushed and prodded with the full force of the sandstorm, either. It was as if a hand of chakra still sheltered him and his guide a bit as they headed away.
One last glance behind him showed him that Gaara had turned around once more and had taken another slow step out into the storm.
Once in the leeway of the garrison fort, Lee, through eyes streaming with tears, recognized a bundled-up Kankuro from the puppet bound on his back. Gaara's brother dragged him towards the garrison door and hammered on it. When it didn't open, Kankuro kicked it and yelled a few curses and threats until it did. Then he shoved Lee inside. The Shinobi who'd opened the door slammed it behind them, locked and barred it, and then ran back to the thickest wall near the brazero, looking over his shoulder as if he could see his Kazekage slowly stalking by in the jaws of the storm.
"Lee..." Kankuro panted, hands on his knees, voice layered with steely patience. "I know you're new around here, but please use whatever common sense you got? That was beyond dumb."
Kankuro was dressed in his usual getup, and Lee suddenly realized that suit covered every inch of Kankuro's body. He'd pulled the veils that hung to the side of his cat-eared hood across his face to protect that as well. Lee had never realized how practical the strange costume could be. Which, for an inhabitant of the desert, only made sense (though that didn't explain Temari's outfit, come to think of it). The one addition to Kankuro's usual costume were a pair of wide, thick leather goggles which the Sand Jounin now lifted from his eyes and stuck up on his forehead. A few other guards who were hanging around, staring at the two men, wore the same protection over their eyes.
"Good thing I was in the fort," Kankuro muttered. "And that those boneheads thought to warn me. Do you realize-"
"What is he doing out there?" Lee asked, though a part of him knew; a small, darker part of Lee he wasn't fully in touch with and which would have surprised most people to learn he even had.
Kankuro glanced around - glared, really, and a few of the less valorous guards decided they had duties elsewhere.
"He...likes to walk around in sandstorms," Kankuro muttered.
Then he turned towards the window next to the door, though now the full fury of the storm was back, and the view through the gap in the shutters was once more counted in feet.
Kankuro spoke in a low tone, as if he didn't want to hear his own words.
"He never sleeps. Never rests. He...it never lets go. And...well, things happened when he was younger. Bad things. Really, we're all lucky he's strong enough to suppress all this shit most days. But he's...not as...stable as he sometimes appears to be. He's constantly fighting against it. And on days like this, well, he likes to let go a bit. He goes out and plays."
From the way Kankuro said it, it wasn't a game anybody else would understand, or want to participate in.
"Everybody's locked inside, anyway. So he walks through the storm, and...well, cuts a bit loose. I...yeah, I guess he's not as stable as I- as we would want...he can be..." Kankuro's voice dropped to a whisper, "maybe people are right to be afraid of him..."
But he seemed to catch himself almost immediately and turned to glare at the others across the room. The old woman was huddled near her fire, her face still buried in her robe and only a pair of fearful black eyes peeking above it. As Lee watched her, she made an old, superstitious sign he'd seen before - sometimes he'd glimpsed it as it was discreetly directed at the Kazekage's back; an old warding gesture against demons.
"Bunch of numbnuts," Kankuro growled. "Gaara will defend this village with his life. He nearly died once for our asses already. That's the only way those Akatsuki bastards could have caught him two years ago. And even now." He glared fiercely at Lee. "There's things out in the desert, in the bad spots. Monsters. A bit like your Forest of Death. Even worse. And they also come out to roam in sandstorms. That's one of the reasons why we have garrisons around the village, fully manned. No army or Shinobi could get through this, but we've still been attacked by some pretty scary things in the past, when the storm is at its worst. But not in the past few years. They don't reach Sunagakure any more."
But was that the Kazekage protecting his village, or was that just part of the game for Gaara of the Desert? Maybe both...Lee wondered if any senseless monster would come to Suna today, and fall victim to its defender's unleashed amusement.
Lee stared at the room around him, at Kankuro and the nervous guards, at the old woman, at the barren desert crashing like surf against the window outside, and thought of the single figure alone in that fury.
"May I please borrow these?" he asked politely, reaching for Kankuro's goggles.
"What- what do you think you're-" Kankuro stared as Lee fitted the eye protection over his head. They were scratched from the Sand, but still better than bleeding eyeballs.
"If there's possibly dangerous animals or monsters out there, someone needs to watch his back."
"Watch his-" Kankuro gaped. "The whole desert is watching his back! He has eyes in every grain of sand in the air right now, and that's a fucking huge heap of sand! What do you think you can do?!"
"We won't know if I'm not there," Lee pointed out. "I am the military envoy to Sand, a representative of Konoha, and I have to stand for the Alliance between our villages. I am not going to leave the Kazekage to face danger without my backup. Thanks for the goggles-"
"You'll need more than goggles, mate," Kankuro said, staring at him bug-eyed.
"I'm not afraid."
Kankuro's gaping mouth closed, and the look he gave Lee was suddenly unreadable. "No...you're not, are you...but that's not what I meant," he added, briskly. "Here, take this too."
Kankuro marched over to one of the guards near the stairs to the second floor, grabbed the man and brazenly stripped him of his outerwear and veiled helm.
"The wind's gonna feel like sandpaper on your face. If you don't want to be red as a tomato for a week, and in a lot of pain, you'll need to gear up properly."
"Whatever," Kankuro muttered as he stuffed the helmet on Lee's head with a bit more force than was necessary. "Just don't get killed. I don't want to fight a war against you crazy Leaf guys again."
"Don't worry, I can defend myself. I go practice in the Forest of Death daily and in worse places as well; I know what kind of dangerous animals you find there."
"That wasn't the sort of getting killed I meant." Kankuro grabbed Lee by the arm as the Leaf Shinobi headed towards the door. "Seriously, Lee. Don't get near him. He's very unpredictable in these sort of circumstances."
"I know," Lee said, and Kankuro must have seen the knowledge in Lee's serious face, because the puppeteer dropped Lee's arm and looked at him with some surprise. "I'm not stupid, though I won't claim to know that much about what he's been through and what he needs now to fight it. I'll keep well back, but I won't leave him alone out there. It's just not right."
The scratched sand goggles were warping his vision, but he thought he saw Kankuro flinch briefly.
"Fine," Kankuro muttered. He marched back towards the guard and this time grabbed the poor, confused man's goggles. "I'm coming with you though."
Lee hesitated. He was quite aware that he was riding out on the power of blithe and happy ignorance here. Kankuro had grown up with Gaara, he'd seen him at his worst, he knew exactly what was out there today, and Lee knew that Kankuro was afraid.
"You don't have to-"
Kankuro was able to direct a remarkably fierce glare at Lee through the thick goggles he's slipped over his eyes. "Let's go. You don't know what's a safe distance, and he's my brother- anyway, I'm not gonna let you get yourself sand-blasted and create a diplomatic incident. That slug-woman Tsunade would rip us all a new one-"
Lee ignored the growls and the vernacular that followed; 'He's my brother' was enough.
"Let's go then," he said happily.
"Just for the record, this is really dumb, and I don't like you very much right now," Kankuro grumbled.
He was already unlocking and unbarring the door to the storm.
End of Part Three