Another part of DR.
Warnings: Spoilers, including for current manga arc, and some knowledge assumed about Gaara's past as described in the manga. A bit of wild speculation about how the current manga arc will resolve itself. Also, less humour and more darkness in this chapter. The humour is back full force in the next part though ^_^
If you don't want to read this part because of the spoilers, that's no problem. You can skip this one pretty safely. So far all the parts are pretty much standalone.
Rating: PG13 for language.
Disclaimer: I keep forgetting to put these in, but nobody seriously believes that 'Naruto' could belong to me, right? The characters, situations and various demons belong to Kishimoto-san and a host of publishers, distributors and corporations with mean, scary lawyers.
AN: Huge thanks for all the reviews by the way; I know I sometimes take a few days to respond, but that's due to timecrunch and my employer's policy of internet access surveillance (inevitable when you have a bunch of highly trained geeks under your orders...who knows what they could get up to with unsupervised internet access). I read them all happily, and respond eventually, and they give me the warm fuzzies that my plot bunnies seem to thrive on.
Part Five: Complicated.
Lee absently dodged a kunai and looked over in delight. "Naruto-kun! I was hoping you'd make it back before I had to leave!"
"I just got in an hour ago. Sakura-chan told me you were in Konoha, so I ran over. No prizes for guessing where you'd be; same old training field. How you doing?"
Naruto's friendly slap on the shoulder would have sent a normal man flying several feet. Lee didn't give an inch, of course, and neither did Naruto when Lee returned the greeting. In the background, TenTen snorted something about 'idiotic males' and put away her training weapons.
"Lee, I'm going to leave you two chuckleheads to catch up," she said over her shoulder as she headed out of the clearing. "I'll be running north of here, near the river, if you have time to join me; otherwise I'll see you this evening at Neji's."
"Sure thing!" Lee waved at her until she vanished in a burst of displaced air, then he turned towards Naruto. "How was your mission?"
"Same as usual. Some idiots trying to shake down a village on the border. A few easy fights, a couple of missing nin sent back to their Hidden Villages with their asses in their hands...We made it home two days early, it was so boring."
Lee gave Naruto an appraising look. His friend hadn’t changed a bit. Big open grin, a demeanour brimming with self-assurance, and under the Jounin vest lurked an orange jumpsuit, as discreet and capable of camouflage as a bull elephant on the rampage.
Lee hadn’t realized how homesick he was until a mission had sent him back to Konoha. It had been wonderful to see Gai-sensei again. Their reunion had been noisy, tearful and beautiful beyond words; half the village had stopped to watch in amazement, in fact.
He’d also seen Sakura-san again, when she wasn't busy with her duties to Tsunade-sama. She'd progressed even more in the past few months, and he'd been proud to see how strong she'd become. He'd also trained with Neji, TenTen and some of the other Chuunin and Jounin of his generation. He'd just needed to see Naruto and make sure he was doing well too. Lee was due back in Sunagakure by the end of the week; he could leave with a light heart now.
"So, how's Gaara?" Naruto asked after they'd caught up on eight month's worth of news. They'd wandered over to the heights above the village, to get away from the training grounds where a noisy Jounin versus Jounin capture-the-flag match was starting.
Lee hesitated over the word 'fine'. There'd been another sandstorm last month and he'd followed Gaara again. He'd gotten a bit too close, accidentally stepping into the small eye of the storm around the Kazekage. Lee must have been beneath the other's notice at the time; Gaara hadn't looked up from the wind-blown sand curling around his fingers, taking strange and disturbing shapes in his palm. He was talking to it softly and smiling...Lee had very carefully backed away, until the harsh wind was once more beating against him.
In Lee’s mind, little pictures kept flashing by, along with the memory of that crazed smile. He could see Gaara peeling an orange, sitting at his desk at midnight in a mesh vest with the Kazekage robe tossed over a nearby chair...the crooked upturn of the corner of Gaara’s mouth when he'd scored a good strike on Lee during a match...
“He’s in good health. Physically.”
…Standing on a rooftop at sunset looking over Sunagakure, serious, protective...Cold green eyes as he ordered Kankuro on an S-rank mission...His silence until his brother showed up again, late but unharmed...
“Not that he’s unhealthy in any other way. I didn’t mean that. I meant he’s, er…”
…Looking out at the desert, eyes dead and bleak for a few moments...Watching over his people who respected him and feared him and liked him and avoided him, the emotions washing around Gaara and barely touching him, like words in a language he couldn’t understand…
"He’s...complicated," Lee concluded with a hefty sigh.
Naruto stopped walking and examined Lee curiously. That look struck Lee as familiar. Naruto and Gaara were as different as the sun and the moon. But that gaze that seemed to be searching for something it expected to find...that was almost exactly the same, he realized, though in Naruto it wasn't quite as open or obvious. It was Lee's familiarity with Gaara's version that allowed him to recognize it.
"Naruto-kun, what's it like-..."
"Hmm?" Naruto looked brightly back at Lee who’d abruptly stopped in the middle of his question.
"I'm sorry, I was going to ask you something really personal."
"If it's about Sakura-chan, don't worry, mate, there's nothing between us."
"No, it wasn’t that!" Lee yelped, embarrassed.
"If it's about Sasuke, there's nothing between them either-“
“No! It wasn’t about-“
“- and he's too tired to go and flirt anyway. I'm working his bastard ass off," Naruto added with a hard smirk.
"And loving every minute of it," Lee guessed, distracted from both his initial question and Naruto's speculations.
"His fault for bailing! And for not being here when you, me n' Sakura-chan joined forces and aced the Jounin test together. He's got to obey rank if he wants to keep his parole. And that means jump when his Jounin commander, Uzumaki Naruto, says so. He hates it so much, it makes my day."
Lee wisely said nothing. In truth, he could feel some rather complicated bonds weaving between Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke, since the latter’s return. Ties of friendship, anger, brotherhood and pain. He'd offered Sakura-san a chivalrous shoulder to cry on, so he knew some of the details, but there were depths here between the three of them that he didn't feel qualified to enter.
Naruto glanced at Lee, then made a 'follow me' gesture. He jumped into a tree and bounced through the canopy with Lee at his heels. He leapt from a branch and plummeted downwards into thin air, landing with a thump on a rocky outcropping. Lee followed, and realized they'd landed on the monument, specifically on the Fourth's head.
"Hello, old man!" Naruto said, flopping down and thumping the rock with complete lack of respect, then he looked at Lee who'd crouched down beside him. "What did you want to ask me, Fuzzy-brows?"
Lee hesitated, but now the question was running around the inside of his skull like a rat in a cage.
"Feel free to not answer this, but…" Lee took a breath and then finished in a rush, "what's it like being the Kyuubi host?"
For the briefest instant Naruto's smile flickered, but then it was steady again.
"Wow, that's a direct question. But also kinda complicated. Is this about Gaara?"
"Yes," Lee answered. "I guess I'm trying to understand him a bit better."
"Are you two friends?" Naruto idly drew a kunai and started scratching at the rock he was sitting on. The question sounded casual, but Lee thought Naruto was listening to him attentively.
Were he and Gaara friends...?
"I don’t know," Lee said honestly, and the small dash of regret he felt at that admission startled him. "I mean, I get on with him alright. I’d like to be his friend. I think he’s-"
Intense? Strong? Serious? Kind, on occasion? Bat-shit crazy when the wind starts to blow?
"I see Gaara’s still got it," Naruto snickered. “Of course he’s the Kazekage, too, that makes things awkward.”
"Not as much as you’d think." Lee rubbed the back of his head. "He doesn’t seem to want me to treat him with respect. I did try at the start- not right at the start, because I sort of forgot when I first saw him. I tried to treat him diplomatically afterwards, but he gets a bit short when I call him Kazekage-sama. And he’s already told me on several occasions he doesn’t want a yes-man. I think he’d rather have someone to spar with and talk to normally. Even argue with him, which I know sounds weird, but nobody else in the village does, and-"
"You guys argue?" Naruto asked loudly, glancing up from the stone he was carving, his eyebrows arched up to his forehead protector. Lee hesitated, remembering that Naruto and Gaara were close. But he wasn't about to lie.
"Yes, we do. From time to time. He can be stubborn when he sets his mind on something."
"And we all know you're as flexible as a rock," Naruto quipped with a snicker, turning back to chipping at the stone.
"The arguments are not my fault! Well, most of the time they’re not my fault."
Maybe it wasn’t anybody’s fault; they just seemed to occasionally clash by their very natures. Lee always looked for the best in people, and Gaara usually focused on the worst. Lee tended to be honest and say things without thinking, even if he regretted them almost instantly when he'd put his foot in it. Gaara tended to say what he thought and not regret it at all. Gaara was indeed very stubborn. And Lee…well, he wasn’t as bad as Naruto had implied, of course, but he just couldn’t seem to back down from a challenge, whatever the form.
Of course, 'argument' was perhaps too strong a term. They disagreed. Yes, that was more like it. To be exact, a red-faced Lee disagreed, loudly, and Gaara would stare at him with incomprehension or indifference or cynical amusement, depending on his mood, until the storm blew over and Lee had run a few laps around Suna to cool off. Then Lee would forgive Gaara, since he really wasn't the kind to hold grudges; and Gaara, oblivious to the graciousness of the pardon, would continue to give Lee that ‘What a strange creature’ stare; and the rest of Suna would come out from hiding and life would go on.
Naruto didn’t appear particularly shocked by the admission. In fact, he seemed to find the whole thing very funny once he'd pumped a reluctant Lee for a few examples of past arguments.
"So, what exactly did you want to know about the Fox?" he finally asked, to Lee’s surprise; he’d assumed Naruto wouldn't answer such a personal question if Lee couldn't really affirm that he and Gaara were friends. "The bastard’s got kickass chakra and a nasty disposition, to start with. Did you need more?"
"How badly does he affect you?" Lee asked, then winced as he realized how blunt that had sounded.
"He lends me his chakra when I yell at him,” Naruto answered casually before Lee could apologize, his eyes still focused on what his kunai was doing. “It can make me go a bit wild in a serious fight, but that's about all. A few interesting nightmares, too. But if you're trying to understand Gaara, then you're asking the wrong questions."
"What do you mean?"
Naruto finally looked up, waving the kunai in Lee’s direction.
"Look, Lee, apart from a few gory dreams and the chakra, neither the fox nor that bloody big raccoon really affect me or Gaara."
"I thought it was a Tanuki. But I don't understand-"
"The 'Tails don't talk to us unless we get in touch with them," Naruto said bluntly. "They don't influence our every move; they don't dick around with our subconscious. They're caged; they're chakra powerhouses. Nothing more. Until that bastard Mizuki spilled the truth, I didn't have a clue I had the Fox in me, I just thought I was a social reject who sometimes had some very sick dreams."
"But why's Gaara like he is? Why'd I almost end up like that too?" Naruto's grin was hard and toothy now. "Because we're the bloody cages and everybody knows it."
Lee felt something go cold in his chest as he suddenly realized what Naruto was saying.
"Everywhere we go, that's all people see. The hosts. Some dopes even think we're the Tails incarnate. It makes us about as popular as plague-carriers. Gaara's got it worse. Kyuubi's ass is completely sealed in me, except when I'm really pushed to the ropes. But Shukaku's built into Gaara like a weapon, and he's had it like that since he was a baby. Plus he can't really sleep, poor bastard; that can't help. Gaara's got a short mental fuse and you don't want to be near when that snaps. Hell, you don't want to be near me either, if you've hurt my friends. But it’s not due to the Demon Tails that we're like that; it’s the way we were kicked around since we were kids."
Lee stared blindly out across the rooftops of Konoha, while his mind slowly tried to come to grips with the enormity of what Naruto had just told him.
No effect...the demons had no real effect on their hosts. He’d assumed that the Old Gaara walking around in the storms was a creature born of Shukaku's influence. But if Naruto was right- and he had to know what he was talking about if anybody did- then the demon had little or nothing to do with Gaara’s behaviour, past or present. All the damage had come from ordinary people; just normal people, like Lee. Isolating young children out of baseless fear, shunning them out of loathing or superstition, using them to kill and turning them into monsters...
Lee had been lonely in his life. Isolated by his lack of talent, his inability to do ninjutsu in a village of ninjas; his family dead when he was very young, cared for by distant relatives who mostly ignored the uninteresting child. He knew what loneliness could do to someone. He’d had a dream to stubbornly cling to, and then a mentor to walk the road with him. That had made all the difference.
And that road had been nothing compared to what Naruto and Gaara had been through.
"Plus, Gaara's got the Sand Barrier. That's a bit freaky, the way he thought it was his mom. I'm not sure he's quite over that yet. He did say he was, but I don't know if he's as over it as he thinks he is, if you see what I mean. We had a good long talk a couple of years ago, just the two of us. I was damn happy to see he'd managed to sort out a lot of his problems. His brother and sister, and becoming Kazekage, that all saved his life. He's not one hundred percent straight in the head yet, but he's gotten some of the worst kinks out. Guy's strong."
"Yes, he is," Lee agreed firmly, because that, at least, he was sure of. But another question was trotting around his head now. "Why did he take it back?"
"Shukaku. When you destroyed Akatsuki's demon cage-"
"No choice; those Demon Tails were rushing out like water from a broken pipe. Had to seal the worst one somehow."
"But why did he accept?" Lee asked. "Somebody else could have done it. That old woman, Chiyo, said she'd be the vessel; it was her fault to start with, that Shukaku had been sealed in Gaara, and she was dying anyway, she should have-"
"Because without Shukaku, he wouldn't be able to defend Sunagakure," Naruto said with a shrug. "The harm was already done; carrying the bloody thing around some more isn't that much worse than what he'd already been through most of his life."
It had been the answer Lee had been somehow expecting.
"His life’s what you need to know about if you want to understand Gaara," Naruto added as he dug sharply at the rock with his blade. “I'll give you the highlights. Hold on to your lunch; it ain't pretty.”
Lee had studied the information Konoha had on Gaara before he'd left on his diplomatic mission eight months back, but it was very dry and incomplete. Now Naruto was filling in the blanks, with what Gaara himself had told him on the occasions they'd talked together, unlikely brothers of a similar misfortune.
It was a lot of information after all the evasions and strict silences in Sand surrounding Gaara and his origins. Lee learned particulars about Gaara's father and mother and the fear, guilt and superstition that surrounded the host of Shukaku even before the Sand had become vicious. He learned about the early murders and the assassination attempts, and he learned about a man named Yashamaru, and it was like someone had punched Lee in the stomach. His hands had clenched into fists.
The anger he felt told him something important. Gaara might consider Lee to be nothing more than a convenient sparring partner…but as far as Lee was concerned, Gaara was indeed his friend. Lee would feel righteously indignant if he heard of a stranger being treated like this, but he only felt this angry and protective when a friend had been wronged.
"Oh well, it’s all history!” Naruto exclaimed, his bright voice piercing the shadows that seemed to have darkened the afternoon sunshine. He was sweeping away stone chips from ‘Uzumaki Rules!’ carved into the Fourth’s head. “Don't worry about it. Gaara's a lot better now."
"Naruto..." Lee lifted his head to stare at his friend. What could he say? I'm sorry for the life you've had? That could barely begin to cover it.
The friendly punch on the arm nearly knocked him over. "Don't look so down. Me 'n Gaara survived. My buddies helped. Buddies like you, Fuzzy-brows. Come on, let's go downtown. I've been away two weeks, I want my ramen. That bastard Sasuke was in charge of provisions on this mission, and he kept feeding me health food. I'm talking tofu, here. The bastard and I both know it’s a way of getting his own back, but he’s too good at denying it. And that’s not the worst, lemme tell you what happened two missions ago- you have the time, right? When you heading back, by the way?"
"In two days-" Lee hesitated as he got up. "Tomorrow, in fact."
"Cool. Gaara can do with having a buddy around. Come on, let's go eat!"
Lee slowly followed Naruto who'd hurled himself off the monument with his usual energy. He had a lot to think about.
End Part Five
[EDIT: In answer to a question that might crop up a few times, the Lee/Sakura question will be addressed in a coming part of the fic. Just enjoy the hints of the undercurrents of Lee's thoughts - because most of Lee is pretty oblivious to all this - for now ^_^]
Next part should be out fairly soon, as it's already 90% written (I'm sticking on the part after that though). In unrelated news, Freeport 31 should be out next weekend, in whatever shape it may be. There's only 4 chapters or so left to that fic 0.0 Once that's done, I can fully concentrate on ANBU, which is going to require some forethought before I post the first chapter, just to make sure I'm not writing myself into a corner ^^; Erm, I mention this in case anyone was wondering (the inner workings of a Maldoror are strange, mysterious and sometimes creepy...this morning, they're fuelled on too much tea)