Naruto Fic: Diplomatic Relations
Title: Diplomatic Relations
Rating: PG15, for language and circumstances
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.
Part Six: What are friends for?
"Hey, you! The red-head with the eye makeup!"
Lee froze with his tea halfway to his mouth. On the other side of the table, Gaara turned slowly to look over at the man who’d addressed him.
"Yeah, you. Care to show a hardworking sailor a good time?"
Lee sat in stunned horror for a brief instant, then he plunked down his cup hard enough to attract the man's drunken attention.
"He's not interested," he said, trying to keep his tone firm but unprovocative.
"Oh yeah? And who are you?” the man asked, swaying a bit and trying to focus on Lee. “The daddy?"
Lee stared at the drunken sailor, aghast.
"You should leave," he finally managed to say. "Now."
The sailor started to protest, but just then one of his friends, who hadn't gotten quite as plastered, grabbed him by the shoulders and started to drag him away. Lee didn't know what kind of face Gaara was making, because he didn't dare look quite yet, but the second man was staring at the Sand nin and he'd gone pale.
"Come on, mate," the second sailor muttered tightly, "I don't think that guy's a rent-boy."
"But he's dressed like-"
"For the love of god, shut up and let's go!"
Lee made sure the two sailors had actually exited the tavern. Then, with the great courage that characterized Rock Lee, he turned to face Gaara.
Gaara didn't look ready to kill, strangely enough; he was staring at Lee, unperturbed and impassive as usual, but Lee could detect a faint layer of curiosity in the green eyes.
"What's a rent-boy?"
"Erm..." Lee coughed and tried to think of what to say.
"Why would he think you're my father? You're only a year older than me, and we look nothing alike."
"He was very drunk. I think we should leave," Lee said, his voice pitched higher than usual. He stood up, leaving their unfinished tea behind with a few coins for the waitress, and headed quickly towards the tavern’s back door.
Lee sidestepped a thin cat in the back alley, as well as a couple of crates of fish that were starting to stink under the sun, and headed towards the street as fast as he could. But he didn't make it.
"He thought I was a prostitute," Gaara said right behind him, in the tone of one who'd just now figured it out.
Lee stopped and put a hand out to lean briefly against the wall, though what he really wanted to do was bang his head against it. He'd been hoping Gaara wouldn't catch on. Gaara might have been born in blood, killed his first man by the age of three and have more murders to his name than most Shinobi were reasonably expected to at his age, but nobody had bothered to give Sunagakure's lethal weapon much of an education outside of the art of killing, as Lee had found out on previous occasions. In some ways, Gaara was quite-...
Lee tried to fit the word 'innocent' in the same sentence as 'Gaara' and failed completely. No, not innocent by a very long stretch, but Gaara was missing some information about how the non-Shinobi world functioned. Lee, as a ninja, had been taught the ins and outs of the criminal underbelly of society at the academy. He might have to use it to go undercover on missions, or he might be commissioned by his country or village to target certain areas of it. Lee hadn't liked that part of his education much, but at least he knew what a rent-boy was. His face was now a shade of red it normally didn't reach unless he'd opened his Life Gate. He had the feeling that Gaara was going to force him to elaborate, and serious wall-induced head trauma was looking very appealing.
He bravely turned to face Gaara, but the Kazekage still didn’t look particularly murderous. He’d apparently dismissed the man and his suggestion out of hand, though he was looking down at his clothes, faintly intrigued.
"What's wrong with the way I dress?" he asked. "I wear this all the time in Suna."
Yes, Lee found himself reflecting, but out here in the real world, it's a bit more provocative to wear mesh and straps and buckled- what the hell am I thinking?!
Lee tried to derail that strange and completely inappropriate thought about a Shinobi leader and a friend. Gaara wore outfits that were practical to fight in and that protected him without hindering his movements. The fact that they buckled close to his body had nothing to do with-with anything!
With a bit of effort, Lee managed to get his mind off of what Gaara was wearing - since he wasn't carrying the gourd on its leather halter, Gaara's long coat had fallen open to reveal the short red sleeveless vest he wore beneath it, buckled tight over a mesh shirt-
With considerable effort, Lee managed to get his mind off of what Gaara was wearing by concentrating on one single absorbing fact.
Temari was going to kill him.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Lee had mulled long and hard over the conversation he'd had with Naruto. And a quiet resolve had taken shape in his mind. He couldn't change Gaara's past. And as much as Lee would like to believe that being friends with Gaara would change his present and future, he doubted it would. Lee could only guess at how great the damage was, but it would probably be beyond the scope of someone like himself to repair. There might not be anyone who could help at this stage. Some things were too broken to fix.
But he would try. Because above all else, Rock Lee was not one to give up. Maybe simply trying would make things a little bit better.
He’d been unable to act on his resolution right away; the month that followed his mission in Konoha had been very busy. Gaara and his siblings were preparing to meet the Daimyo in Nasaki, an important maritime town in Wind where the court resided for the summer. Lee had joined them in his capacity of military liaison, after listening to a long and occasionally threatening lecture on how to behave from Temari. Gaara’s sister had become an important force for politics and diplomacy in Suna, and, for some reason, she seemed persuaded that Lee would embarrass himself - and by implication, all Shinobi - before the Daimyo of Wind.
During the boring week that followed their arrival at Nasaki’s summer palace, Lee had ample time to observe Gaara in this different environment. He'd watched the Kazekage deal with politics, obligations and negotiations like a man of seventy and not seventeen. Lee knew that caring for his village was a lifeline to Gaara's sanity, but there should be more.
So he'd suggested they go for a walk around the city, one afternoon when they shouldn’t be missed. It wasn't much of a suggestion, but it was something Gaara had never done before. Gaara hadn't been very enthusiastic, not seeing the point, but even as he'd said that, he'd accepted, much to Lee's surprise and delight.
Of course, if anybody had found out what Lee was planning, they would have stopped him and talked Gaara out of it. The dangerous weapon from Sand was not supposed to walk around a crowded city full of innocent people. Most of the Sand Shinobi had come to accept that Gaara would probably not snap and kill everybody in a five hundred yard radius at the slightest provocation anymore, but that didn't mean they were going to take any chances.
Lee believed to the bottom of his heart that taking chances was the only way of forcing yourself to grow. If they kept Gaara isolated, how would they ever know if he’d finally grown beyond the mad host of Shukaku and truly become the Kazekage? How would Gaara know, for that matter?
Since the gourd was hardly discreet, Gaara had left it back at the palace, putting on a good thick layer of Sand Armour and packing more into his coat. A bustling seaside city in Wind should be safe enough; if not, Lee had solemnly promised himself to defend Gaara with his life in case of danger. And he trusted Gaara not to lash out and hurt anybody, though he was ready to step in and protect the citizens of Nasaki from the Sand in the unlikely case something happened; he'd lay down his life for that too.
That was a lot of potentially deadly pitfalls for just a walk along the wharf. But Lee had never let the mere danger of death deter him from what he'd set his mind to.
Two minutes after they'd hit the street, a bustling fishmonger had bumped into Gaara; a situation that would have given Temari and Kankuro nightmares for a week. The sand had rustled in Gaara's coat, but the woman had been moving way too slowly to be a threat, so it hadn't reacted beyond that. Gaara hadn't reacted either, despite having had the Shinobi equivalent of hours to dodge her approach; in Suna, a space of a few feet always materialized around the bearer of Shukaku as people avoided him out of respect or fear. Even Shinobi who didn't know him sidestepped Gaara on the strength of their survival instincts. Nobody just bumped into Gaara of the Sand.
Lee had tensed, ready to leap forward - rip open a Gate if need be! - to protect the hapless woman, who’d been trying to wipe fish scales off of Gaara's sleeve. Then the fishmonger had apologized cheerfully, and tried to sell him some tuna.
The look on Gaara's face had made it all worth it to Lee.
Not that there were many people who could have read that look. In fact the woman had grown a bit huffy with him and walked off, muttering about 'stone-faced foreigners with no sense of humour or manners', not knowing how close she'd come to a lethal killer. But Lee was starting to get rather good at reading Gaara, and he’d detected the surprise and the wonder at being treated normally - that is to say, without fear, loathing or respect - for one of the first times in his life.
Mission successful, or so Lee had thought, but it turned out that he had failed to anticipate a couple of things. First, that Gaara would be curious about these new experiences, and unwilling to return to the palace after a short walk. And second, that the docks of Nasaki, where they'd ended up, was a rough and rather disreputable area.
How disreputable was quickly obvious when they were mugged after only half an hour of wandering around. That was the point when Lee had wished he'd not gone undercover to get Gaara out of the palace, or at least that he'd put on his forehead protector after slipping through the back gate. Shinobi didn’t get mugged, as a rule.
He'd gotten rid of the muggers without any risk to anyone by the most expedient of means; he'd picked up a discarded metal boat hook and bent it with his bare hands. When he'd looked up again, the four muggers had disappeared.
Gaara hadn't said anything, but Lee had the feeling the Kazekage had been cynically entertained by the whole episode.
Despite Lee's protests, Gaara had wandered deeper into the seedy underbelly of the docks, looking at everything - the boats, the market stalls, the arguments, the bustling life around him - with a tentative curiosity that had eventually defeated Lee's better judgment, which was how they'd ended up in a tavern where a drunken sailor had mistaken the Kazekage of Sunagakure for a hooker and asked him for a good time.
Temari was going to kill him. Slowly.
"So in that context," Gaara was saying thoughtfully, "what exactly is a ‘daddy’?"
If Gaara figured out that the sailor had thought Lee was his pimp, Temari would not have the opportunity to kill him; Lee would die of embarrassment first.
"We should get back to the palace," he said, proud he'd managed not to stutter too badly. "They'll notice we're gone soon, and-"
Gaara’s dark-ringed eyes narrowed as he glanced back at the tavern door.
Lee stiffened, feeling it too.
"Let's get out of this alley," Gaara said calmly.
The men were trying to surround them, but Gaara, now more in his element, leapt over a low wall and headed towards the pier. Lee shadowed his footsteps, protecting the Kazekage's back.
"There, that will do," Lee said mournfully, pointing ahead at an empty fish-packing yard. Taking a simple walk in town shouldn't be this damn complicated!
Gaara headed towards the area in silence. A dozen men materialized around them as soon as he and Lee stopped moving.
One of them stepped forward and Lee's heart sunk further. He'd seen that face posted in Leaf's Bingo Book. He didn't recognize any of the others, and their stances weren't very impressive, but if there were any more like this guy in the lot, Lee was going to have to work at it to defend himself and Gaara without endangering the people in the streets nearby.
And all that without letting rumours of Gaara’s presence in town get out, either; it was already going to take quite a bit of luck to sneak back into the palace without the Suna contingent realizing they’d lost sight of their leader and greatest weapon for a couple of hours.
Temari was going to kill him slowly with a rusted spoon.
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty..." one of the men murmured mockingly, demonstrating a total lack of survival instincts that didn’t impress Lee very much.
"Remember," Lee murmured in Gaara's direction. "You promised me you wouldn't use your jutsus on anybody in town."
"Except in self-defence," Gaara amended, his eyes coolly assessing the thugs present with something a bit too much like anticipation. The sand in his coat was rustling.
"What do you guys want? We don't have much money," Lee shouted sternly at the thugs, as he stepped in front of the Kazekage. He already knew this wasn't an ordinary mugging.
The leader's eyes lingered over Lee's outfit. Lee was wearing his usual formfitting Gai-Sensei-Approved Power Suit, with legwarmers and a yellow poncho thrown over it all for discretion. After a long minute, the leader stopped staring at Lee and fastened his gaze on Gaara.
"What do we have here? Are you two boys trying to muscle in on my territory?" he murmured; his voice was oddly hoarse, as if he’d been wounded in the throat in the past. He had two curved and notched daggers at his belt, which he was fingering lightly.
"No, we're just visiting," Lee said quickly. They’d left all Shinobi markings back at the palace, but somebody - maybe those muggers - must have identified them as ninja, and assumed they were missing nin or criminals from another organisation.
Behind Lee, Gaara had crossed his arms over his chest and was returning the man's stare, with interest. Maybe they could talk, or in Gaara's case, intimidate, their way out of this. Not that this rabble posed any real danger to either of them, but Lee didn't want Gaara to kill anyone, and tarnish the experience of this afternoon with the bloodshed that always seemed to follow him wherever he went.
The man stared at them for a while, assessing. Then he gestured contemptuously at Lee.
"You. Leave now. I don't care about you. I only want the spook behind you. You can come back later and pick up the remains. Show them to your friends while you’re at it. I want everyone to know what happens to guys who make a move on my organisation, however fucking badass they think they are."
It was strange how people always underestimated Lee when they first saw him. It happened all the time. Really, couldn't they recognize a fearsome warrior when they saw one? Maybe it was because he was wearing the poncho...But being dismissed so casually wasn't anywhere as insulting as the suggestion that Lee would run off and leave Gaara behind.
"I refuse," he said contemptuously, extending his right hand towards the thug in an attack stance. "We’re not here for a fight, but if you are looking for one, you’ll have to start with me. Trust me; you won’t get the chance to face my friend.”
The criminal smirked-
There was a sudden surge of chakra. Right behind Lee.
Lee darted an alarmed look over his shoulder. Had someone tried to attack Gaara? He hadn’t felt anyone try to circle them-
There was only Gaara behind him, arms crossed over his chest, unharmed. Staring at Lee.
"What?" Lee whispered. "What happened?" Gaara could normally suppress his chakra and his presence until he was practically invisible to all but the most wary and seasoned Shinobi.
Lee felt the kunai fly at his back. He didn’t need to turn around; instinct had his hand instantly in place to intersect, with ample time to block the strike.
Which never came. Lee's fingers twitched as they failed to catch cold metal. There had been an impact noise instead, a very familiar sound. He glanced around; the kunai was embedded in a thin arch of sand that had materialized in front of him.
"Gaara!" Lee gave the Kazekage a reproachful look.
Gaara's eyes were still fixed on him, expression unreadable.
"I told you I'd deal with this," Lee said as patiently as he could.
"It was...a reflex," Gaara answered, his voice distant.
"I understand." Lee sighed; it wasn't easy to see a kunai fly at someone’s back and not stop it if you had the ability. "But save the sand jutsu for self-defence, and stay back, okay? Let me handle this, please."
Lee turned prudently back towards their attackers, absently catching the kunai as it fell from the sand and hefting it in his palm. He was going to have to make this a very quick battle; Gaara was still leaking chakra a bit oddly, though the amount was decreasing now.
There seemed to be fewer thugs around, Lee realized with some surprise. Their leader had fallen into a defensive stance.
“Gaara…of the Sand?” he asked slowly, his eyes flicking from Gaara, to Lee, to the sand creeping back towards Gaara’s feet.
There was a crunch in the debris of fish scales and old bones strewn in the yard as Gaara moved forward to stand next to Lee, arms still crossed over his chest.
Two seconds later, the yard was empty aside from Lee and Gaara.
Lee had to beat down the urge to run after the cowardly foe and continue the confrontation. He had other fish to fry, and those losers were hardly worth it anyway.
“I guess that’s one way to end a fight,” he said with a sigh, absently sticking the kunai into his weapons holster.
Gaara didn’t answer. His eyes were still fixed on the space where the leader had been, but they weren’t focused on anything.
“The downside is that in an hour, there’ll be rumours of your presence all over town,” Lee admitted with a wince. “I think we should head back. Right?”
“Gaara? Come on.”
He'd memorized a map of the city before their trip; he grabbed Gaara by the wrist and headed towards the wharf nearby.
"Hello, sir. Can you do me a favour?" Lee asked brightly, leaning down to talk to an old fisherman fixing a net in his boat. "Can you take us across to the other side of the estuary?"
"Ain't nothin’ there. Nothin' but t' palace grounds," the old man said without looking up.
"I know. That's where we need to go."
The old sailor looked slowly up at Lee through a pair of bushy eyebrows, then his gaze slid across to Gaara. He seemed to think it over for a minute - Lee's pulse was counting every second repeatedly and excitedly - then he put down his net and nodded.
"Thanks!" Lee led Gaara into the small skiff, and tugged him down to sit next to him on a bench near the bow.
Lee breathed easier as the old man pulled out and started poling his boat against the current. That should put them back on the palace grounds in a few minutes, where they might have a chance of pretending they’d been taking a casual stroll all along.
"You okay?" he asked as an afterthought. Gaara was oddly silent, even by normal Gaara standards. And there was still an odd shiver of chakra about him, stirring the sand along his skin with the faintest of hisses.
Gaara was staring out across the water; the green of his pupils seemed to have deepened to the colour of cut jade in the dark rings of his eyes and his face was a mask. Lee felt a small trickle of worry creep up his spine. There was something wrong here.
“I want to make one thing clear,” Gaara said suddenly, still staring out to sea. “You do remember that I almost crippled you and that I could kill you without even trying, right?”
“No you couldn't,” Lee huffed. He wasn't that much of a walkover.
Gaara slowly turned around and Lee's mouth went dry.
This was not the cool, collected Kazekage he was used to. Or rather, it was, but behind the mask of sand and the iron control, Lee could see something stirring, something cruel and wounded and hungry, something that had been hurt way too many times and was ready to lash out if hurt again.
“I'd put up a good fight. You'd certainly have to try,” he said, his mouth on automatic while his mind skipped to the safety of the old sailor. If things went haywire, he'd concentrate on getting the old man to the nearest shore, then come back and deal with the fallout.
Gaara’s eyes could have chiseled stone.
"Why did you take me with you this afternoon?" he asked in a soft, dangerous tone.
"I... just thought we could take a break from work,” Lee answered weakly. “Go for a walk and look at the city together." Of course, that hadn’t gone quite to plan, but-
Gaara turned away, and the sense of threat dissipated slowly.
Lee dared to breathe a little easier.
"I understand. I think. It just took me by surprise. I didn't know what it would feel like." Gaara crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at the water, his face turned away from Lee.
Lee was going to ask him what the hell he was talking about, when he realized that Gaara was muttering to himself in a monotone, his words so soft that the cry of the gulls overhead nearly drowned them.
"...I protect them. I nearly died for them. They still fear me, but they need me. It's a connection. It's all there can be. I know that. But sharing…sharing those things today…together…that’s…I don't understand how-...It’s not need. There was no price to pay for it. I didn't even notice it happening. Doesn't make sense-…"
Lee didn't know what was wrong, but he instinctively backed off, sitting back on the bench and not saying anything, letting Gaara work through it on his own.
But he was in more hurry than ever to get back to the palace grounds now. Talk about a relaxing afternoon out...
“Where are we going?” Gaara suddenly asked, his head coming up and his eyes flickering over the boat and the old sailor who was apparently rather deaf, and completely oblivious to the previous tension on board.
That question, if nothing else, showed Lee how far Gaara had lost it earlier.
But when Gaara turned to look at him, Lee realized with a rush of relief that the more familiar Gaara was now firmly back in the driver's seat. Whether that other old, wilder part was gone or merely hidden again, Lee didn’t know. He did however note to himself that however troubled Gaara had been, he hadn’t lost it and hurt anybody. Far from it. He’d protected Lee, shown restraint with their attackers, and then he’d followed the Jounin and trusted him to lead them to safety. That meant a lot to Lee. He would remember that the next time Gaara was being a stubborn pain in the ass.
Lee's luck was always abysmal, as this afternoon illustrated, but taking a chance could still pay off when you trusted and believed in the strength of a friend. He beamed warmly at Gaara and explained his plan to sneak into the palace grounds and act casual.
“That's a stupid idea,” Gaara said shortly.
Lee rolled his eyes. Yep, Gaara was definitely back.
“You have a better one?”
“We'll go in through the garrison gate. I'll deal with this.”
“Can you make this boat go any faster?”
“How far to the shore?” Gaara turned around to look.
“About ten min-“
Gaara stood up and stepped over the side of the boat. The sea waves rippling through the estuary instantly flattened themselves beneath his feet, the water becoming as still as glass all around him as his massive chakra exerted itself.
Lee sighed and kindly thanked the gaping sailor who'd nearly dropped his pole. Then he got to his feet and followed quickly. He couldn’t mould chakra outside of his body all that well; he’d better stick close to Gaara or he’d not be able to negotiate the waves and end up swimming to shore.
Apparently somebody had noticed Gaara’s absence from his quarters in the Daimyo's summer palace, because when they got back they found the garrison in an uproar, with Temari and Kankuro busy organizing a search party for their missing leader and brother.
Temari looked at them both as they walked in, then her eyes fixed on Lee with a gaze that could have been borrowed from Shukaku itself.
"You-" she started.
"Temari," Gaara said, his flat tone brooking no argument. "This situation is my responsibility. Lee just made sure I was safe, and that others were safe around me. If you have any complaints, address them to me after I finish talking with the Daimyo. Leave my friend alone."
Temari started at those last two words. She and Kankuro stared open-mouthed at Gaara as he headed towards the door.
Then Temari blinked as if waking up. She levelled a hot glare at Lee. Behind Gaara’s back, Kankuro gave Lee a grin and dragged a finger across his throat in the universal sign for 'you are so dead', before following his brother towards the Daimyo's quarters.
Temari waited until Gaara was out of earshot.
"Sit," she said, in a voice nobody would have disobeyed. In fact, the three senior Jounin present almost sat down too until they realized she was talking to Lee, and then they hightailed it out of the room without looking back.
She wasn't loud; in fact, her voice sometimes dropped almost to a whisper, but what she said...Lee would have much preferred the rusty spoon. He sat quite still, his head bowed and gripping his knees like a naughty schoolboy, while she went on at lengths about ‘irresponsible’, ‘diplomatic fallout', ‘oblivious to danger’ and ‘insane’.
Finally she fell silent, glaring at him, hands on her hips and breathing heavily.
"Lee, stand up," she growled.
Oh boy. But Lee remembered the look on Gaara's face this afternoon when he'd been walking around the wharf with nobody noticing him or staring at him in fear. He stood up, ready to pay the piper for that moment with no regret.
Temari gave him a withering look and grabbed him by the poncho. She gave him a quick hug and then she was gone with no more than a quick, hushed 'Thank you' in his ear.
Lee stared after her, and then fell back limply into the chair. Women. He'd never understand them.
Temari would be furious with him in the future too, in all likelihood. Lee sighed. He really didn't want to upset Gaara's brother and sister - especially his sister - or the people from Sand, who were probably right to treat their Kazekage like a dangerous weapon. But that didn't mean Lee regretted what he'd done, or that he'd not do it again given the opportunity. Gaara had shown this afternoon that he could be trusted; and he’d also enjoyed it, as much as he could enjoy anything. In Lee’s opinion, the chance they’d taken had been well worth it.
Yes, Rock Lee was now determined in his resolve! He'd drag Gaara out again at the first opportunity; shove him into new situations, force him to interact with people, see how the world worked outside of a Hidden Village, and drag him into taverns where he'd get hit upon and attacked by thugs.
After all, what were friends for?
End Part Six