Naruto Fic: Diplomatic Relations, Part Four
Title: Diplomatic Relations
Rating: G for this part (will go waaaaay up in later parts)
Part Four: Gyre
The hawk shifted on its perch. It gave Gaara a suspicious stare, then it looked fixedly at the meat between his fingers. Just as it was starting to stretch its neck out cautiously, Gaara tossed it the morsel; the meat was instantly snatched out of midair. The hawk made a huffy noise, swallowed, and then glared at Gaara arrogantly.
Lee, still on the stairs up to the Communication room and trying not to startle either the Kazekage or the hawk, decided it was safe to call out now.
“Hello, Gaara. Taking care of the birds?”
Gaara glanced over his shoulder in acknowledgement, as if to say, ‘What does it look like I’m doing’. It was Gaara’s standard behaviour; Lee didn’t bat an eye.
“Hey, where’s the Chuunin in charge?” he asked in surprise as he approached the Information Desk.
“Several urgent messages came in. He was out of runners, so he went to Crypto himself. He should be back in an hour at the latest,” Gaara answered, reaching into the bucket for some more meat. One of the other hawks hopped along its perch eagerly, its jesses jingling.
Bummer. Lee ditched his backpack and sat down in the man’s vacated chair to wait, hoping it wouldn’t take too long. Though he had the sneaking suspicion that the Chuunin would be in no hurry to get back as long as the Kazekage was in the aviary.
A lot of people avoided being alone in the same room as Gaara if they didn’t have any official business with him. This reaction was due in part to some remaining fear, particularly from the civilians, but it was also born of deference; Gaara always had an air about him of someone who didn't want to be disturbed. Add to that a thread of embarrassment at being in the presence of the most important man in the village, someone they all owed their lives to, and being unable to think of a single subject of conversation that was likely to fly in the face of those cold green eyes…
Lee watched as Gaara tossed another chunk of meat at the hawks. It was a Chuunin's job to feed the birds kept for inter-village communication, but Gaara did it from time to time, for no reason he cared to explain.
The silence that followed was comfortable, with only the noise of the birds of prey rustling on their perches and gulping down their meal, and the worried cooing of the carrier pigeons in the cages further back. Lee couldn't claim to have had long and heartfelt conversations with the Kazekage either; sometimes he struggled just as hard as the other villagers to find subjects of conversation that might actually have a chance of engaging Gaara's interest. But that didn't mean he was uncomfortable in the Kazekage's presence. In the six months since Lee's arrival, he and Gaara had fallen into a routine of daily sparring when they were both available. You didn't need hours of conversation with a guy to get to know him when you fought with him every day. A man’s fighting style revealed his true character, according to Gai-sensei’s declarations, and he should know what he was talking about.
Those sparring sessions had become the highlight of Lee's day, and he liked to think that Gaara looked forward to them as well, seeing how he arranged his busy days to spare the time to be there. It had taken Gaara a few weeks to fully accept that Lee really did want to be attacked as if he were an enemy (within reasonable limits of course). But Gaara was now fully into the spirit of things, and Lee was getting the kind of workouts he'd expect from Gai-sensei.
The bouts were high-speed attacks and parries, Sand Jutsu versus Taijutsu. Lee dodging Gaara’s strikes, rolling, leaping forward, darting to the side, trying to get close enough to counter-attack; landing a blow that exploded against the Sand Barrier, if one of Gaara’s swipes didn’t knock him back first- it was exhilarating! Or, as Kankuro put it: 'Brutal,' usually followed by, 'You should get your head examined'.
Which was silly. Lee's head was perfectly fine. Gaara was practicing his control, as well as his speed and power, and he'd never aim for anything as vital as Lee's skull.
Gaara didn’t speak much during their matches, though he still couldn’t quite beat Neji when it came to being taciturn. Lee didn’t mind; he’d gotten used to Gaara’s shifting moods and bouts of dark silences over the last few months of working together, or hanging out in Gaara's office.
It was another habit, like the sparring. Lee often worked late in the admin building. Between his missions as a Leaf Jounin and his responsibilities as a diplomat, he had a lot to take care of, and he was both conscientious and a bit slow about it. A genius might have mastered the duties quickly, but Lee had only stubbornness, determination and hard work to rely on, the same as always. He’d frequently take a break around midnight to see if the Kazekage, who never slept anyway, needed anything from the kitchen, or just a bit of company.
Depending on the quality of Gaara’s initial silence, Lee would only stay for a few seconds, or else he’d sit down for half an hour or more. Sometimes they didn’t speak at all, and sometimes they talked about their villages, about Shinobi they knew and missions and such. Lee liked those midnight breaks, when the rest of the village had gone to bed, and the chill desert night was only disturbed by the calls of the night watch and the yip of desert foxes outside the walls.
Despite the raw sunshine pouring through the open windows, this moment in the aviary had something of that same quality. The birds rustled and cawed. A few cicadas chirped in the afternoon heat. Gaara’s dusky red shirt seemed to blend with the tawny plumage of the birds of prey he was feeding; the sun's light picked out the threads, curved around his shoulders, warmed the sand-colour of the gourd on his back. The Kazekage’s robe was tossed over a chair nearby.
The pigeons cooed, a bit calmer now. Lee blinked sleepily.
Then he sternly shook himself. Now was not the time to nod off! He had to leave in a few minutes, if he wanted to make it to the first relay point before dusk. Lee stared anxiously at the trapdoor down to the lower level, as if he could conjure up the Chuunin in charge of the Information Desk through willpower alone.
After a couple of minutes, Lee’s instincts prickled. He glanced up to find Gaara staring at him. Or rather, staring at Lee’s fingers fretfully tapping against the table. Lee forced himself to stop.
“What are you waiting for? The dispatch to Konoha is already sealed and ready to go,” Gaara said, keeping his voice low to avoid scaring the birds. He was wiping his hands on a rag to clean up the traces of blood from his fingers.
“Well, I was hoping to slip in a letter. A personal letter.” Lee waved the small scroll he held. “But if the Chuunin doesn’t come back quickly, he won’t have time to inspect it before the carrier bird to Konoha has to leave. And I have to go soon, too.”
“You have that B-rank mission to the Southern Flats.”
“That’s the one.”
“Is your letter important?”
“Well, no. I could just send it by regular mail…” Lee looked mournfully at his own studiously neat writing, tightly crammed onto the lightweight rice-paper scroll. “It’s just a letter to Gai-sensei. But it takes three days to get to the Flats, then three days back. I’ll be gone a week, and he was going to leave on a mission on Tuesday-“
“Give it to me. I’ll inspect it.” Gaara held out a hand without turning around, his eyes on one of the hawks which was apparently trying to outstare him (Lee’s money wasn’t on the bird).
“But…” Lee hesitated, his fingers playing with the scroll’s edge. “That’s the Chuunin’s job. I can’t ask you to-“
Gaara snapped his outstretched fingers without looking around. Lee shrugged mentally and walked over with the letter. He’d gotten used to the way Gaara could go beyond curt at times. The Kazekage wasn’t deliberately rude to people, but he didn’t embarrass himself with courtesies, either. There was a good chance he didn’t really know what they were, or how they fit into human interaction.
Oh well, there was nothing in that scroll he wouldn’t want Gaara to read. And it wasn’t as if Gaara’s authority didn’t largely supersede that of the Chuunin who should normally be doing this.
Gaara dropped the bloody rag, took the letter without a word and held it up to the afternoon sunshine to inspect it for markings or pinpoints. Then he scanned the sentences quickly, looking for anything that could be code. He would be memorizing the words to transcribe for the Information Desk later, and the copy would be kept for cross-referencing by code specialists. Lee wasn’t particularly upset by any of this; this formality was a standard procedure for visiting Shinobi in any Hidden Village. But he was watching Gaara carefully and wondering if Gaara would notice-
Gaara’s eyes twitched as his own name caught his attention. The swift scan of the letter slowed as he started to actually focus and read.
“Erm, Gai-sensei always enquires about you,” Lee said, a bit embarrassed for no reason he could properly explain. “I give him updates on you, Temari-san and Kankuro. Er, only non-classified information, of course.”
Gaara was staring at the small paragraph (which didn’t say much more than that the Kazekage was doing fine, still sparring with Lee and his speed was improving).
“Why?” he asked, in that flat way of his that seemed to make it more a statement than a question.
“I nearly killed you twice. He had to stop me both times. Why would he want news about me? Unless he’s hoping you’ll tell him I’ve suddenly dropped dead,” Gaara added, voice indifferent.
“What?! No!” Lee squawked; all the fowls in the aviary chimed in, disturbed by the sudden noise.
“No,” Lee repeated, lowering his voice against a background of ruffled feathers. “He doesn’t hold a grudge about the Chuunin exam any more than I do. And he knows you saved my life. He’s asking about you because he’s met you, and because we spar and work together. He’s just interested in the people I know,” Lee finished lamely. This wasn’t something that should need explaining, in his book.
“Because you were important to him…” Gaara said slowly, staring at the letter as if trying to decrypt some hidden code concealed in Lee’s enthusiastic description of his missions and everyday life.
“You write to each other often.” It wasn't a question. The Kazekage would know what kind of correspondence a foreign Jounin sent and received out of his village.
“Almost every week,” Lee said happily.
“Why? He has a new Genin team now. He no longer needs you.”
Lee winced. This was another reason people tended not to talk with Gaara much.
Gaara could be cruel, in his cold, hard way, though most of the time that cruelty wasn’t intentional. He just had very little empathy for other people. He’d say things in that direct, cutting manner of his without always realizing how much it might smart.
And sometimes he did realize that what he said might hurt, and he’d say it anyway. Gaara had spent the first twelve years of his life as a weapon, as someone who killed with absolutely no mercy and even a sort of hungry pleasure. When Lee thought about it, the changes Gaara had wrought on his own personality were amazing and worthy of huge respect. But that didn’t mean there weren’t some rough edges left. Gaara was the kind of guy who once used the Desert Coffin as the easiest way of ending an argument; by comparison, leaving his audience with a few verbal bruises probably didn’t seem like such a big deal to him.
This attitude wasn't helped by his people, who, good Shinobi that they were, never showed any emotions beyond deference or the slightest trace of wary caution. If one of them had told Gaara to cut it out from time to time, it would probably have taught him a lot. His siblings did so occasionally, but only when he'd really pushed them; they weren't in the village much anyway.
And then there was Lee. Lee, who never backed down from his principles or a fight. Particularly when his pride or his teacher or another point of honour had been ruffled. Lee opened his mouth, then shut it as he reined in the first few words that came to mind. He didn't have the time for an argument right now, and besides, his instincts were telling him that this time the cut had been truly unintentional on Gaara's behalf.
“Gai-sensei and I are no longer teacher and pupil, that’s true," Lee declared with a dramatically extended finger pointed in the direction of Konoha; he ignored the hungry look the nearest hawk gave the digit. "But that doesn't mean we don't need each other any more, or have forsaken each other! We shared many hardships together, and he taught me all about life and Taijutsu. The miles may separate us, we may not see each other for months on end, but we share a beautiful friendship that will last forever!”
“You sometimes sound just like him, too,” Gaara muttered, his eyes flicking over the rest of the letter.
“The bond between master and disciple is very strong,” Lee agreed. “It shapes your entire life.”
Gaara turned towards the Information Desk.
“I wouldn’t know,” he said, reaching for the inkpot and brushes. “I never had any teachers. Only caretakers. All but one of them is dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Lee said sincerely, but without much surprise. It was a Shinobi’s lot. “Did they fall in the line of duty?” he added politely.
“In a way.”
“In a way? What happened?”
Lee took a second to figure it out. Then he stared at Gaara’s profile, aghast.
The green eyes slowly rose to meet his without a flinch; cold as glass, they searched his face. Gaara often watched him like this. As if he expected something from Lee, as if were searching for something, some reaction. Maybe some sign of fear or disgust.
Lee knew about the Old Gaara; he'd met him close up and personal, after all. That creature still lurked, carefully leashed and suppressed, at the back of those green eyes. It was the young man who went for walks in the sandstorms, with Lee following at a prudent distance. Lee was very cautious with that Gaara whenever he showed up, and he didn’t like him much or approach him. But he wasn’t afraid of him. The difference between caution and fear might seem fine. Maybe it was as fine as the difference between a teacher and a ‘caretaker’. It was just as vital though.
“I’m sorry you never had a real sensei,” Lee said quietly, but perfectly honestly. In Lee’s opinion, that Old Gaara could have really done with a Gai-sensei in his life.
Gaara's searching gaze turned into something more familiar; that blank look he often gave Lee, as if he was trying to understand a sentence in a foreign language he could only master after interpreting it into his own. Finally he looked away with a slight frown, as if what Lee had said still didn't make much sense, even after translation.
He leaned over the desk and signed his name in the margin of Lee’s letter, adding ‘Inspected. Send this now’ at the bottom. That’d give the desk Chuunin a turn when he got back.
“Thank you,” Lee said. Gaara didn’t answer. Civilities were not Gaara’s forte. He probably didn’t see the point.
Lee made sure the letter was visible on the desk and then shouldered his backpack and turned to go. Gaara had walked back over to the birds. As Lee glanced at him, Gaara slowly extended a finger towards one of the hawks he'd fed. The bird bobbed its head and clicked its beak - Lee tensed - but finally it let Gaara gently smooth the feathers along its chest.
According to Kankuro, the first time Gaara had set foot in the aviary the whole flock had gone absolutely berserk. It might have been the smell of blood in the sand, or it might have simply been instinct.
With the new determination he'd acquired after his fight with Naruto, Gaara had persisted. The doves and pigeons still went crazy if he got too close, but the predators let him feed them now, and the bolder ones even took the meat from his fingers and let him handle them.
Gaara looked at the hawk leaning into his touch with something like grim recognition in his eyes. Lee didn't think Gaara was capable of joy, but the Kazekage could acknowledge his achievements. He'd formed a small bond with a living creature, he'd eradicated a bit of fear.
It was pretty much the same way he treated Sunagakure, Lee found himself thinking; like something to protect, care for and slowly domesticate. Something to link to, even if he never hoped to get much out of it in return beyond a validation of his blood-soaked existence. It filled Lee with a diffuse sadness he couldn't quite define.
I'm being fanciful today, he thought, shaking his head. Time to go.
Despite his timetable, Lee found himself examining the young man reaching for one of the kestrels. The bird was inching away nervously.
Gaara let his hand drop and glanced over his shoulder.
Lee had absolutely no clue what to say. He knew what he wanted to say, but 'Cheer up' would be stupid, insensitive, unrealistic and likely to get him sandblasted to boot. What right did he have to comment on Gaara's mood, anyway? He didn't know all the details of Gaara's past, but he knew enough; even half of it would have crushed Lee long ago.
Gaara was looking at him inquiringly, so Lee stuck out an enthusiastic thumb and winked: "I'll work hard on my mission. And I'll see you in a week! I’ll miss our sparring while I’m gone. But I’ll try to think up a counter to that blow of yours, the one with the three prongs of sand. I’ll defeat you this time!"
Gaara stared at Lee’s thumb. Lee held the pose for a few seconds, then he saluted and headed towards the stairs, not expecting anything in the way of farewells.
“I’ll miss our sparring too.”
Lee stumbled to a halt and stared. Gaara had turned his back to him and was petting the kestrel now; it had apparently lost its fear and was trying to nibble on his fingers.
“Wh-what?” Lee felt sure he must have misheard. Or maybe Suna’s aviary had a parrot in one of the back cages, because surely Gaara couldn’t have said-
“Our sparring. I’ll miss it too,” Gaara repeated. He said it slowly, as if tasting the words and finding them strange and not quite to his taste, but not enough to spit them out again.
Lee remembered the day - the very second - when Neji had admitted that he 'didn't really mind' Lee's constant challenges. He remembered how that felt. Well, this was even better. Especially since he knew Gaara truly meant it; the positive side of Gaara's habit of complete and brutal honesty was that he didn't know how to pay empty compliments. Odds were, he didn't even know what they were.
It was like a great, big bright ball of enthusiasm bursting in Lee's chest.
"I'll be there and back before you know it! Right! If I try hard, I can make the trip in only one day! See you soon!"
Lee ignored the stairs and jumped straight out the open window with his usual enthusiasm. He thought he heard a sharp 'Lee' behind him as he bounced down the wall and onto the flat roof of a shed, but then his feet hit the ground and he didn't have a second to lose. If he couldn't make it to the Southern Flats in one day, he would perform three thousand-
Lee froze. So did half the people in and around the administration building. In living memory, nobody here had heard the Kazekage shout.
Gaara was leaning out the window of the Communication room, a frown wrinkling the mark on his forehead, but to Lee who'd looked back up, startled, he didn't seem seriously angry.
"Take three days on the trip, coming and going. Do not run like a maniac or open Gates to get there with any unreasonable speed," Gaara ordered in a dire tone.
"But I could-"
Gaara gave Lee one last stern look, daring him to disobey, before he turned back to the birds who were probably throwing up a ruckus after that shout.
Lee trotted obediently until he was out of sight of the admin building, then he broke into a fast run. Gaara had said no 'unreasonable' speed, but the Southern Flats and Konoha were both the same distance from Suna, and Lee had made the Konoha-Sunagakure trip in two days when he’d first arrived, so that wasn’t unreasonable. And he didn’t want to waste any time if he could help it.
Because he really would miss the sparring if he stayed away longer than necessary. And the aloof, changeable, brutally honest sparring partner too; just a little bit.
End Part Four
Since this is Lee's POV, Gaara's personality is coming to light only slowly, through Lee's perceptions. This chapter should draw in more of the blanks in Gaara's characterisation.
(Completely random sidenote: Yes, I know that hawks and such are territorial birds with little to no homing instinct, and that they'd probably make crap carrier birds. But that's what they used in the manga, and the images in this chapter caught my imagination. We're dealing with Shinobi, anyway; the guys who can train attack bugs and grow bees the size of Mothra. They could teach a hawk to carry messages. They could probably teach a cat to tap-dance while they're at it.)