Here it is, the 'last' chapter (bar a side-story and the epilogue, which should probably count as a chapter in its own right). Posted in two parts, since it's a bit long :P I struggled hard with the tone/content of this chapter, and decided to not go down the Road of Drama, but to keep it fairly straightforward. Hopefully it reads well ^_^
Part Twenty Three: Rumours, Lies and Truths.
Lee was just starting on his third lap around Suna when he noticed a night-time shadow that was more than a shadow near the gate. He screeched to a halt and then trotted back a few paces to see what Kankuro wanted.
"Yo," the Sand Jounin said in greeting. "What did you do this time?"
"I beg your pardon?" Lee asked, startled but always polite.
"What 'self-imposed challenge' is this for?" Kankuro elaborated, a hand gesture indicating a circuit of Suna.
"Oh, nothing, I'm just exercising."
"At ten PM?" The thick lines painted over Kankuro's mouth took on a dubious twist. "Are you going to start training like crazy all night long like you did before Sound winged you? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I don't think that's healthy."
'Oh, no, I was only training like that because I was trying not to have wet dreams about your brother' was the answer Lee was not going to give Kankuro in this lifetime.
Before he could stutter something out, Kankuro waved his own question away. "Never mind. I was looking for you. Temari wants to see us at Gaara's, ASAP."
"Temari?" Lee was at the Sand Jounin's side in a second. "She's back from her talks with Tsunade-sama? What news does she have of Konoha? Is everything okay over there? How about our joint plans? Did she bring back any letters from Gai-sensei?"
"A Jounin from her escort showed up at my place ten minutes ago to tell me she's at Gaara's," Kankuro answered with a show of weary patience. "He said considerably less than you just did."
"Just come along. She'll want you for some inter-village cooperation thing. She'll want me because she's got something to nag about. It took me long enough to track you down, I don't want her screeching about punctuality on top of it all."
"Right!" Lee walked through the gate and trotted up the street leading through the village to Gaara's residence perched on the heights. Kankuro followed at a lazier pace.
The streets of Suna were busy as people went about their evening activities. The village would be full of life until midnight, when people went to bed. They'd get up at five or six and work until eleven, then rest out of the sun and heat until mid-afternoon. Suna had its own rhythm. Unless you were a Shinobi of Suna, in which case you had the rhythm you were told to have. Lee saluted several patrols coming back tired and dirty from the deep Desert, and a weapon smith working on a large ballista that had been damaged by the sandstorm a few days ago. The man looked like he was getting ready to pull an all-nighter.
Kankuro walked at his own speed, forcing Lee to fall back regularly and wait for him. Despite his mention of Temari's irritation, or perhaps because of it, Kankuro appeared to be in no hurry to be seen rushing through the streets of Suna at his sister's bidding.
The two Jounin made their way towards Gaara's house in silence, which felt awkward to Lee. It had been over four weeks since Kankuro had returned and caught Lee pawing the Kazekage in the latter's office. Things had gotten very busy after that. True to her word, Tsunade-sama had not given her Envoy any missions, but Lee had more than enough work on his hands, helping Suna's upper cadre coordinate the efforts of two Hidden Villages in setting up a secret attack on a third. What little leisure time Lee had, he spent practicing, or with Gaara - or practicing with Gaara if he could pry the Kazekage away from his desk.
As a result, Lee hadn't had time to sit down with Kankuro and figure out where he now stood with the man. Kankuro had been a friend before The Office Incident, but now it was hard to tell. He seemed pretty nonchalant for someone walking through the village with his little brother's lover, but then again, nothing ever fazed Kankuro. That is, nearly nothing.
They'd arrived at the Kazekage's residence before Lee could find a way to broach such a sensitive subject, but he made himself a promise to corner the Sand ninja around a pot of coffee one of these days, and see if they could settle things between them.
The light was on in the kitchen, so Lee headed that way. He hesitated as he crossed the threshold of the brightly lit room. Temari was standing at the central counter, her nails clicking against the fan on her back. She looked tired, travel-worn and aggravated. Gaara was standing at the kitchen window opposite the door, his back to the rest of the room, staring out into the darkness with his arms crossed over his chest. The gourd was on the floor at his side, and it seemed bigger than it usually did.
"Hey," Kankuro tossed lazily at his sister. A flicker of the heavily painted eyelids was the only indication he'd picked up on the underlying tension as well.
"Sit down, the both of you," Temari said curtly, then she caught herself and smiled at Lee. It came out a bit forced. "How are you? You're looking a lot better."
"I'm fully recovered, thank you," Lee said cautiously, sitting down as she'd told him to. Kankuro slipped his bound puppet scrolls from his back with a thunk and leaned them against the counter.
"Yo, Gaara, got anything to eat?" he asked hopefully, glancing over at his brother. Gaara didn’t answer or move.
"This is no time to think about your stomach," Temari snapped. "We have a situation.”
“So I gathered, but that’s no reason to face it hungry.”
"I'll get right to the point,” Temari said, ignoring him. “There is a rumour circulating around the upper cadre in Konoha that Lee and Gaara are an item."
That brought her brother's attention back to her pronto, and cemented Lee's.
"That rumour originated here in Suna, and I'm going to figure out who started it, let me assure you," Temari added, lips tight and eyes narrowed dangerously, staring out the door as if she was ready to go hunt down the culprits immediately. "At this point, it has even percolated through to a few well-informed politicians in the courts of both our countries."
"How serious a rumour?" Kankuro asked, intrigued. Lee just stared at her, jaw hanging in the wind and eyes glassy.
"I heard it from Tsunade herself. She told me because she thought I'd enjoy the joke," Temari said sourly. "She finds the whole notion hilarious."
"Yeah, I bet," Kankuro smirked, just as Lee finally got his mouth working and blurted out: "Does Gai-sensei know?"
Temari sighed shortly, as if the two young men had reacted pretty much as she'd expected. She pinched the bridge of her nose and appeared to gather her thoughts, and Lee felt something cold creep up his spine for no reason he could name.
The refrigerator clicked and started to hum in one corner. Gaara still hadn't turned away from the window.
"I'm afraid it's not a joke," Temari finally said, addressing Lee. "You should take this seriously, before others do. So far, it's just a rumour- and far-fetched for anyone who doesn't know you and Gaara. They're not actually basing this on anything solid. Just on the way you saved his life, and the fact you two spend a lot of time together and are close. I'm ready to bet not even the rumourmongers seriously believe you two are sleeping together."
"But we are," Lee said, bewildered.
"Yes, I know, that’s the problem. Sooner or later, the brighter ones are going to connect a few more of the dots, and realize it's way more than a rumour or a joke. And at that point, the hierarchy in both our villages are going to have a lot to say about this. You're a diplomatic and military envoy, you're supposed to remain impartial and defend your village's interests in our Alliance, while dealing objectively with Gaara. Konoha won't like Gaara's influence on you; Suna won't like your influence on Gaara."
"Temari, I would never-"
"I know that!" Temari snapped, interrupting Lee's exclamation. "But the people who will use this against you and Gaara don't care. And this rumour...the little I've heard of it..." Her eyes flickered towards Gaara's back, and she concluded quickly: "Let's just say that it has a nasty little spin to it. Malicious. And no wonder, considering who I suspect is behind it."
"Behind it?" Kankuro asked her sharply.
"Yes. This is not just happenstance. Gaara and Lee have been discreet, and hell, they've only been together for- what, a month?"
"Month and a half," Lee corrected distractedly.
"I've worked at the Daimyo's court long enough to learn how this kind of gossip spreads, and I can tell you, this rumour is not getting as far as it is all by itself. Someone is making sure it gets above all to the people who have an axe to grind against Gaara, or Tsunade, or our villages. This is being deliberately spread by someone who wants Lee recalled, maybe even disgraced, and Gaara embarrassed and the Alliance between our villages shaken."
Temari looked at them as if she expected them to jump to some conclusion and figure out who she was talking about. Lee and Kankuro were both giving her blank stares, which apparently annoyed her.
"Orochimaru!" she snapped. "Remember him? The one who tried to grab Gaara? Whose men were defeated because Lee was there? Whose hideout our combined villages are planning to attack?!"
"Oh, that Orochimaru," Kankuro muttered. The irony sounded like a reflex.
"He's learned of our plans, despite our efforts," Temari said crisply. "We knew he would; that snake has too many spies. We've blocked his bolt-holes, but we're not ready to attack yet, and he's trying to out-manoeuvre us. I've spent the last month putting out fires all over the place, even while I was in Konoha. Little things that are distracting us from our planned attack. Messenger hawks gone missing. Supply lines attacked by bandits. The Daimyo suddenly deciding he wants a courtesy visit. His chancellor getting ideas about taxes we might owe. Stone Country recalling its ambassadors from Wind and Fire. It's been like juggling knives for a month now, and I know Konoha has been under the same kind of barrage."
Temari started to pace, hands behind her back wrapped tight around her fan.
"Orochimaru is using all means to destabilize us and distract us. He only wants to delay us until Sound's plans are ripe. Spreading a rumour like this is just one small weapon in his arsenal, one it costs him virtually nothing to use, and which can spread mistrust between allies. Especially in Konoha, I'm afraid," Temari added, with a sombre glance at Lee. "Tsunade has rivals in her village. With her reputation and her long absence from Leaf, making her Godaime was not without objections. And she came under a bit of fire when she stood by Gaara's decision to appoint you as Envoy, Lee. This makes this rumour into a nice little venomous weapon for that snake Sannin of yours. The fact that it's true will just be a huge bonus for him. It makes it extremely undeniable in the face of questioning. It's made even worse by the fact that Lee didn’t warn anybody in Konoha. As he should have, according to their rules," Temari concluded, drawing up on the other side of the counter from Lee and drilling him with a hard gaze, hands on her hips.
"Rules?" Kankuro blinked in surprise. "They have rules about this?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact they do. A Leaf ninja who has a relationship with someone from another village must inform his superior officers. I checked their statutes myself while I was over there. Discreetly."
"You mean they actually have a law that says 'if you bone a Shinobi from another village, send in Form X90 in triplicate'? Fuck, do we have a rule like that? We only have boring, legal stuff-"
"No, we don't," Temari answered, looking irritated at the interruption. "I think we did at one time, years ago, but it was removed."
"Our father would have removed it."
Temari, Kankuro and Lee stiffened and turned towards Gaara, who had spoken for the first time since Lee had come in. His voice was as cold, clean and barren as sheet ice. He still hadn't turned around.
"He believed in the absolute strength and purity of our village and its bloodlines," Gaara continued, without any trace of feeling or inflection.
"Um, yes." Temari's voice sounded oddly human and harried, falling into the silence that had followed that cold statement. "Under-...the former Kazekage, a Suna nin who had an affair with a Shinobi from another village could expect demotion, exile or a hell of a lot worse," she added quietly for Lee's benefit.
There was a vicious snort from Kankuro as he glared at the kitchen clock on the wall. Gaara made no further comment. Lee wondered if his lover had been aware of Suna's attitude when they'd gotten together. He might have, but Gaara, who had a hard time remembering he was fully a part of the village, or indeed the human race, tended to think rules never applied to him, whether they were in his favour or not.
Lee rubbed his forehead; he had the beginnings of a headache. "I didn't realize...In Konoha, we sort of-...it's not that we don't respect the rules, but our Shinobi are given leeway to interpret them. It’s sort of accepted that when a Jounin lives abroad for any great length of time, he or she has a few week's grace to- to report-...there's not actually a firm time limit on that, as long as there's no pregnan- well, that's not an issue here. I was going to tell them when I next went to Konoha, but I couldn't put this down in a letter and I wanted to tell Gai-sensei first," Lee finished in a rush.
Temari sighed and made a placating gesture of the hand.
"Don't get me wrong, Lee. I'm glad you haven't warned them yet. It gives me a chance to fix this."
She suddenly looked tired again, and she wandered over to the counter, and poked without much interest at a couple of dirty plates in the sink.
"I was hoping I'd be able to keep your...relationship with my brother a secret for a few months. By that time...well, you know what it's like in a Hidden Village. It would have eventually leaked out, but by degrees, until it became a secret everyone knows about but nobody discusses. Quietly accepted, never mentioned, like a lot of secrets in Suna. I'm not sure how Konoha would have reacted when it eventually reached them...but from my observations, you do indeed have 'leeway' to interpret your own rules. Konoha is more lenient than we are. I thought that as long as you showed them you could still do a good, impartial job even if you two had been involved for several months, then they could ignore the whole thing for the sake of our alliance."
"But you don't think that'll work now?" Kankuro asked, watching his sister's back attentively.
"No. The rumour spread too soon, and to all the wrong people. This is being used by Tsunade's rivals and the Fire Daimyo's hounds to embarrass her, and at the worst possible time. We cannot afford any problems in the alliance, not now when we're so close to crushing Sound. So, here's how we're going to play it," Temari said, turning around with her old brisk attitude firmly back in place. "Kankuro?"
The puppeteer looked up in surprise.
"I need two of your most trusted men in the communication department at all times. I want to make sure that all messages from Konoha are now transmitted directly to you, me or Gaara. We'll claim it’s an additional security measure. This will allow us to intercept communications that might recall Lee for disciplinary hearings."
Kankuro did a two-finger salute that looked lazy, but his voice was gruff and serious when he muttered: "Done."
"I'll handle things from the diplomatic angle. The idea is to keep Lee here as long as we can," Temari continued, addressing the counter before her like a general addressing her troops. "There's no shortage of excuses we can use; he is the Envoy between our villages, after all, and he's needed here. And as long as he's here, Tsunade's enemies can't drag him down to humiliate her and her administration. Once we've finished with Sound, I can concentrate on this problem, find out who's been spreading rumours, and figure out a way of forcing Konoha to leave him-"
Temari had been staring at the counter, while giving Gaara's back the occasional fleeting look as if judging his reaction to her words. She did spare Lee a glance, and abruptly stopped talking when she caught sight of the look on his face.
Lee took a deep breath and, in a remarkably even tone, said: "So if I understand right, you want me to hide out in Suna and indirectly lie to the authorities of my village with Gaara's help?"
The kitchen clock ticked. It sounded awfully loud in the thick silence. Neither sibling looked at Gaara, in a way that made it obvious his reactions were on both their minds. But Gaara said nothing, didn't even twitch.
"Lee," Temari said, trying hard to sound calm and casual, "let's discuss this at a later date. I don't think you realize how extremely bad this could be for your career if it gets out now and under these circumstances. But we don't have to take any decision tonight, and- and this is a bit of a shock to you, I understand that-"
Temari looked up nervously, though she tried to cover it immediately. Lee didn't blame her. Gaara's voice was hard and flat on the surface, but there was something beneath it, deep, dark and dangerous haunting the brightly lit kitchen.
"I need to speak with Lee. Alone."
The siblings glanced at each other and then at Lee.
"Gaara, I think we should call it a night." Temari took a step towards him, licked her lips. "This will all look better in the morning, and I know I can find a way to negotiate-"
"Thank you," Gaara said softly. "But I need to talk to Lee now."
Temari looked like she was going to argue some more, but Kankuro got up quickly, hauled his puppet scrolls over one shoulder, grabbed her arm and lead her to the kitchen door.
Lee stared blindly at the counter. He couldn't believe how radically his whole life had just shifted. He felt like he'd gone for one of his night-time runs and found himself tottering on the edge of an abyss.
"Gaara...I...I don't know where to begin, I'm-"
"If you want to leave, then you have to do it now. Do it quickly. Leave Suna tonight and don't let me see you go."
Lee stared at the straight back. He'd wondered - in a hypothetical way - if Gaara would ever let him leave if Lee wanted to. Now he had his answer. There was a very dangerous tension emanating from his lover, Lee could feel it like the echoes of a distant but terrible battle. But Gaara was letting him go, if that was Lee’s choice.
His chair scraped against tiles as Lee pushed it back. He walked slowly over to his lover, put his hands on Gaara's shoulders. A slight hitch in that dangerous tension and chakra...Lee gently enfolded him into a hug, pressing himself against Gaara's back.
"I'm not leaving," Lee whispered. "I mean, I might have to leave shortly to sort this out, but I'll come back. I promised to be here as long as you needed me."
"Think about yourself." The words were harsh, and Lee hugged Gaara closer, knowing they must have hurt.
"I am thinking about myself," he murmured. "I need you, Gaara. I'm happy with you. If I left you...I couldn’t, even if I hadn't made that promise."
"Maybe you should." Gaara's voice was ragged with tension. Lee knew what kind of strength it took for his lover to say those words, and what it was costing him. "Because if I ever had to choose- between you and the safety of my village- I-"
"You would choose them and I would not expect it any differently," Lee said, staring sternly at Gaara's reflection in the window. "That does not change my decision. I'm not going anywhere, Gaara. I don't care about my career. A hot-headed loser wasn't going to get very far up the diplomatic ladder anyway, even if I'd wanted to. Don't worry about me, okay? Konoha isn’t as stringent as Suna on these matters, and our villages are allies. I’ve been doing a good job here- and if they don’t want me as envoy anymore, fine. We'll still manage to be together. We only live a few days from each other at the most. But that’s worst-case scenario. I may not be a good diplomat, but I am good at fighting, and I'm going to fight this tooth and nail."
Lee straightened up and turned Gaara around to face him. "If I understood what Temari said, most of this- this bloody mess is due to some conniving politicians and maybe even Orochimaru. I'm not going to let that kind of bastard push us around. And I'm sure Tsunade-sama will side with me on that. She always says politicians are the reason why she drinks."
Gaara's face was unreadable, the mask of control absolute. He stared at Lee for what felt like a long time.
"You don't realize...they could demand that..."
"What?" Lee asked, as Gaara's voice faded.
Gaara just looked at him. Lee felt oddly naked beneath that scrutiny and not in a good and interesting way either. He wondered what cold, precise thoughts were going through his lover’s mind.
"You're right," Gaara suddenly said, and he sounded more like the Kazekage now. "The easiest way of putting this behind us and disarming our enemies is for us to discuss this with Tsunade directly."
"Right! We'll defeat the darkness of rumours by facing it head on with the light of Truth and Love!" Lee said with a firm and enthusiastic pose, before his thoughts screeched to a halt. Wait a minute! Us?!
"Whoa, Gaara, you- you want to come with me?! But it's a three day trip-"
"We'll travel fast. We should be back here in five days if we pace ourselves well. I can nearly match your speed if I strip off the Armour, lighten my Sand and use my chakra to boost my stamina."
"It is imperative that I go with you. There is something only I can discuss with Tsunade, and I need to do it directly,” Gaara said cryptically, marching towards the kitchen door. "You and I are not the only ones concerned by this. Orochimaru's machinations are putting our alliance at risk. And the longer we delay, the greater the chances of him succeeding."
"But-" Lee repeated, and then ran to catch up, as Gaara was already at the foot of the stairs.
"Temari and Kankuro can take over my duties, as they do when I'm on a mission. Now move," Gaara added impatiently over his shoulder.
Lee trailed after his boyfriend as the latter went up to get a few things from his bedroom. His head was spinning and he was frightfully worried that this was a bad decision on Gaara's part for a whole host of reasons big and small. Temari meant well, but it wasn't possible for Lee to hide out here and lie and sneak around. It would be playing Orochimaru's game, and he wasn't about to do that. Lee had to go back to Konoha, that was self-evident. He'd leave tonight. But first he had to talk Gaara out of this.
Ten minutes later, when Gaara opened the door to the residence, Lee was half-way down the list of reasons why this was a Bad Idea. Gaara still hadn't answered any of them, which meant he had a full head of that cold determination which could make him kill a lot of enemies in a ridiculously short time.
Then Gaara stopped so suddenly that Lee bumped into him, interrupting his latest argument with a startled 'oof!' It wasn't Lee's attempts at dissuasion that had arrested his lover. Kankuro was between Gaara and the exit to the courtyard, leaning against the decorative wooden arch near its entrance, hands in his pockets.
"Note my complete and utter lack of surprise," the puppeteer commented, glancing at the flasks of water slung over Gaara's shoulder.
Gaara pulled away from Lee, circled his brother and turned to face him fully. "If you think you’re going to stop me, you’re about to find your feet encased in a pair of sandy boots that will only dissolve sometime tomorrow morning," he stated.
Kankuro waved his hand as if he was swatting away some annoying fly. "I ain’t stopping you. But I’m not letting you run about the countryside by yourselves either. It's farfetched, but maybe Orochimaru anticipated you'd react this way and is planning on trying to grab you again."
"He’d have to catch us," Gaara said in an unhurried, deadly voice, "and he'll regret it if he does."
"Huh-uh. I'd actually like to see that. So I’ll be going with you, just in case I get the pleasure, and we'll take a couple of friends along too. That should give us a group big enough to watch out for any other kinda trouble, and small enough to avoid it if possible."
Kankuro didn't wait for Gaara to comment. He shoved himself away from the frame as if he regretted the effort already, brought his fingers up to his mouth and whistled loudly, the noise shocking in the night time.
"Oy," he said loudly to the thin air. "Your Kazekage needs to go on a trip without an official escort and nobody the wiser until we hit the border."
Lee stared at him as if he'd gone barking mad- then he twisted around on himself as he felt a presence materialize behind him. He stared into a flat, white mask of one of the Sand ANBU.
"Sir." The voice was muted through the metal, addressing Gaara. "I'll go get Guardian One and we'll accompany you." There wasn't a please or a thank you tacked onto that statement, Lee noted.
Gaara stared at the masked man, then at his brother. The ANBU suddenly disappeared, apparently taking Gaara's silence as acquiescence.
"You won’t be able to keep up with us," Gaara said abruptly.
"We’ll do our best," Kankuro answered, "and we’ll trail after you. We’ll only be a few hours behind you at the most."
"I wanted you to stay here and watch Suna in my stead."
Kankuro was tightening the straps holding his scrolls onto his back. He answered without looking up. "We’ll let Temari do that, and then when we get back she can skin us all for being reckless, boneheaded males. She gets such a kick outta that."
Gaara examined his brother's painted features for a short while, and then nodded. He gestured at Lee to follow and leapt off into the darkness.
"Um, Gaara, who was that ANBU?" Lee asked, as they neared the wall. He had the strangest feeling that he'd already seen that man, or rather felt his presence, just traces at the very edge of his perceptions, as if the ANBU had been in the act of leaving when Lee went to see Gaara.
"Bodyguard," Gaara answered shortly, eyes on the darkness ahead of them.
Lee concentrated on running, but he made a mental note to ask Gaara about it later, because he was curious. How long had this guy been-…watching over…? Lee followed this thought through to its logical conclusions and suddenly decided he wouldn’t ask Gaara about the ANBU, because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to live with the answer.
And they ran.
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