Next chapter! Now to go work on a lemon, and prod ANBU.
AN: Note that the 'Day X' lines are not chapter titles as such, they're more section headers. The sizes of these scenes vary a lot, and there can be more than one in a chapter, as in this instance. I like fanfiction where you can get away with stuff like this ^_^ This was originally meant as two chapters, but I think they read better rolled into one.
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.
Day One – 8AM
Gaara's first stop was the bedroom for some spare clothes. He prosaically hung them from a sword rack on the wall of the study, which was going to become his room for the next few…days? Weeks? Months? Whatever was necessary.
He changed into something more formal, not particularly caring about the window open to the early morning desert breeze. Then he went to his desk, picked up his tea and nodded.
The shadow that had been politely hovering outside coalesced before him.
“Sir,” Taidaka said with a minimal salute. His mask was shoved up onto his shaven head; the face beneath it was tanned by a long career under the sun, heavily scarred in numerous conflicts, and as expressionless as sandstone. The body beneath the sand-coloured uniform and body armour was much the same: solid, hard, ever battle ready. He’d been the leader of Sand’s ANBU since Gaara had taken position, and he was frightfully efficient at his job. Gaara could only recall one occasion where he’d heard the man laugh, and a dozen enemies had died shortly thereafter.
The Kazekage nodded, Taidaka put away the salute, and that was the civilities out of the way.
“Is my brother around?” Gaara asked, going off on a tangent from the main subject he was sure Taidaka would want to discuss.
“No sir. Kankuro-san was sent out on a confidential B-rank mission on the Council’s behalf at the start of the week. We expect him back anytime in the next three days.”
Gaara had wondered why he hadn’t seen his brother yet. If Lee had arrived in Suna yesterday, news of the children’s presence would have spread at least as far as the ANBU and some of the senior Jounin. Kankuro was a unit commander of the regular forces and had a lot of friends in the specials; if he’d been anywhere in the village, he’d have heard the news by now and been by to laugh at his little brother’s expense.
Gaara took a sip of tea. Taidaka took that as permission to get to the subject at hand.
“Sir, I would like to suggest an alternative living arrangement for the children. The academy has traditionally doubled as an orphanage when needed. Or we could place them in a foster home.”
One reason Gaara appreciated Taidaka was because the man didn’t take any detours when he had something to say.
“No,” Gaara answered. “We’ll keep them here.”
Taidaka appeared to have foreseen and anticipated any objection. “Lee-san would have no need for concern; they would have the best of care. Or, if it’s acceptable…my sister has children around that age, and she would be honoured to take them in.”
Gaara studied his ANBU leader over the rim of his cup. He had known intellectually that the man had a sister; Gaara had committed to memory every one of his soldiers’ files during long sleepless nights. But it seemed strange to have Taidaka actually admit it out loud. It was difficult to imagine that he had siblings, or ever been Aki's age. It was easier to believe that the wind and sand had carved him directly out of bedrock.
“Their presence poses a risk to this residence and to your person, sir,” Taidaka pointed out stolidly. “Their father might attempt to contact them and retrieve them once he's regrouped with his allies. The man has murdered once already. You and Lee-san might be in danger.”
“Not much danger. The children will stay here,” Gaara repeated without any annoyance. It was Taidaka’s job to keep his Kazekage out of possible danger and help him defend Sunagakure unhindered. And Taidaka was indeed very efficient at his job, and wasn’t particularly looking to ingratiate himself with his boss if it went against the demands of his duty.
At least he hadn’t suggested that the children leave the village; he’d even offered to put his own family at risk in lieu of Gaara, rather than have the children go. He must realize that if the children left, Lee would leave too, out of obligation, and even Taidaka knew better now than to suggest that Lee should go away. Three years ago, the ANBU leader had assiduously intercepted all of Lee’s correspondence and generally kept a paranoid watch on this foreign Jounin inexplicably stationed in his village and sleeping with his boss. Taidaka had few surviving friends, was celibate and married to his job; he couldn’t possibly approve of such goings-on. But over the years he must have resigned himself to it, and started to think of Lee as a functional necessity for Gaara, keeping them as a single item in his mind.
Gaara could imagine the look on Taidaka’s face yesterday when Lee had shown up carrying a couple of small problems in his arms. But the ANBU had not told Lee to leave, or to stay away from the Kazekage’s residence.
“It’s not only the risk,” Taidaka said, soldiering on. “With all due respect, sir, you and Lee-san have no experience in this matter, and a couple of young children -“
“-make life complicated. So I’ve been told. Lee will manage fine, he’s very resourceful. They’re not leaving. We will not discuss this further.”
Taidaka nodded glumly. He must think Gaara was just being stubborn and short-sighted. But he didn’t understand the necessity here. Gaara would love to be able to get the children out of his house, but that would hurt Lee. Gaara wasn’t entirely sure which force moved his lover in this; family obligation, honourable commitment, or simply the desire to provide the children with a refuge Lee had not had when he was their age. Maybe a mixture of all three. It didn’t really matter. Gaara knew Lee well enough to discern that his lover truly needed to do this. So be it.
“I take it you have enough information about this situation to be worried,” Gaara said, wrapping up the subject of the children’s living arrangements as Done and passing on to the heart of the matter.
“Yes sir. Lee-san himself came to find me as soon as he arrived yesterday, and explained the situation to me in as many details as he had,” Taidaka conceded. “Since then, I’ve picked up some more information as well.”
Good, Gaara had been counting on that. He examined Taidaka attentively.
“Did this Rock Katsuro really kill his wife? Himself? It might have been the group he was working for who-“
Taidaka interrupted him with a firm shake of his head. “From preliminary reports and reliable witnesses, Rock Katsuro and his wife had a confrontation on the edges of Konoha. She’d warned the ANBU. He was trying to escape. She tried to stop him and he lashed out. I don’t think the intent was necessarily deadly, but he got lucky. Or unlucky.”
“What do we know exactly?” Gaara asked, putting down his empty cup and focusing his full attention on Taidaka.
“Konoha sent us a missive by their fastest bird; it arrived about the same time as Lee-san.” There was a trace of grudging admiration in Taidaka’s voice. The Shinobi of Suna respected strength and ability, the kind that could propel a reckless green-clad Jounin from Konoha to Suna almost as fast as a hawk could fly. “The message was brief, but there is a promise to follow up. Mainly, it's an apology for allowing Lee-san to bring the children here without warning us. He left before the investigators realized what he was planning.”
Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “Do they want the children back? As bait for the father?”
“They made no mention of it, sir. Maybe they do not think the father will come for them.”
“What exactly are they apologizing for?”
A smirk twisted one corner of Taidaka’s mouth; the other was set in a permanent downturn by a ragged scar that had cut a small chunk out of Taidaka’s bottom lip, exposing teeth. Another man than Gaara might have found the effect disturbing.
“If the father does come for the children, it would involve our forces in their internal affairs. And Konoha knows Lee-san lives with you. Having one of their Jounin’s decisions put the leader of a foreign village into personal danger… they don’t like the diplomatic implications.”
Sounded like Lee was going to get his knuckles rapped again. Fortunately, Tsunade and Gaara had an understanding about Lee’s presence here that went beyond politics of any sort, and so it would be no more than a stern lecture via a note.
“They would have preferred to keep us out of this altogether, something I understand in this instance,” Taidaka added. “This is not something I would want other villages to know about, if I were in their place. Besides, if the father comes here and we help capture him, they’ll be in our debt. But since it’s too late now, and the kids are in Suna, they’ve apparently decided to share their facts. If anything happened to you because they’d withheld information, that'd go quite further than 'diplomatic implications', so they were quite forthcoming. Included in the missive was a half-page preliminary result of their investigation, and a promise to provide more as comes to light. There was also a subtle reminder that we are in an alliance, and that information hurtful to Konoha should not be spread any further than it needs to go.”
Gaara dismissed the suggestion out of hand. The concern was legitimate; no Shinobi was above exploiting a weakness, even among temporary allies. But the alliance between their villages was stronger than that, it involved many bonds, and as long as Gaara was alive, Suna would keep its promises.
“I have other sources of information,” Taidaka added. “So we have a fairly good picture of what happened.”
Gaara made a minimal ‘go ahead’ gesture.
“Looks like it was a honey trap. An entrapment technique,” Taidaka elaborated, when Gaara looked at him blankly.
The ANBU’s eyes grew slightly unfocused as he scanned the information stored in his mind, culling the necessary facts for his Kazekage.
“Over five years ago, this man Rock Katsuro succeeded at a series of very difficult missions; it earned him his commission as Jounin. But after that, his record was spotty. He aced some hard missions, yet failed simpler ones. Konoha is still investigating, but I suspect he was lured. On a high-level job years ago, a foreign organisation would have contacted him. Yakuza, an ambitious Daimyo, or possibly another Hidden Village. They would have offered to help him with his mission, claiming their interests coincided, and he could take the credit without mentioning them. They would have helped him again and again, with information or backup, and always asking for very little in return. It would have allowed him to succeed at high-stake missions and made him look very good. Then they would ask him to fail at something simple - something not that important to Konoha, that would have little impact on his career; they'd provide him with a good excuse to cover his back. And so on. Each successive mission they interfere with is a further entrapment until he can either come clean about it all and lose his rank and probably his freedom...or he's theirs, their instrument for whenever they need him. It's a classic.”
“A classic? Have we had cases of this?”
“Not under my watch,” Taidaka said with grim satisfaction.
“You are familiar with it, though.”
“Yes sir. It’s how I would obtain an informant within another Hidden Village,” Taidaka answered without batting an eye.
Gaara didn’t give it a second thought either; the first role of Shinobi in their feudal society had been that of spies and assassins, and a tiger did not change its stripes. For a Kazekage, information was priceless, however it was obtained. The treaties between them meant that Konoha and Suna worked together and shared information voluntarily, but all the other Hidden Villages were still fair game.
“This man must have been stupid not to see it coming,” Gaara said.
“If it's well done, it's hard to resist for a young Genin or Chuunin, particularly if they have a weakness to exploit. In this instance, I might know what it was.”
Gaara looked up at him in surprise.
Taidaka turned his steely gaze towards the window as if he could see a man’s soul as easily as he could see the rock garden outside, illuminated by the raw morning sunshine.
“I read the file Konoha sent, and I talked to Lee-san yesterday. It struck me that Rock Katsuro was three years older than Lee-san, yet at the time Lee-san was promoted to Jounin, Katsuro was still a Chuunin. Good for his level, but nothing remarkable. This is only a theory, but maybe that's what gave him the desire to succeed whatever the means. During our debriefing, Lee-san mentioned that his cousin, the heir to their small family, had been very talented when he was a child, while I gather that Lee-san was something of a late bloomer. At present, Lee-san is known throughout both our villages as the first Shinobi to achieve Jounin rank with only his Taijutsu. His abilities are widely recognized. I just thought it might not be a coincidence that Katsuro's abnormal pattern of mission success and failures started shortly after Lee-san’s promotion to Jounin.”
Gaara stared at him. “I see.”
“It's only a theory, of course,” Taidaka added.
“A very interesting theory.” Gaara’s voice was a soft, dead monotone. “It will not leave this room. Ever.”
Taidaka bowed quickly. “Of course not, Kazekage-sama.”
Gaara crossed his arms over his chest and sat back, his mind coldly analyzing facts while his instincts prowled around.
“I want everything you know about this situation in a report by tonight. Leave it at my office. I also want the exact circumstances of the children’s presence here kept to the upper cadre as long as possible.” Not that you could really keep a secret for long in a village full of Shinobi. But they could try. Gaara did not want any stigma attached to the children if possible, much less to Lee.
“Have it known that the children are orphans, and Lee’s the head of the family and responsible for them,” Gaara added. “Get in touch with Konoha’s ANBU; go directly to Morino Ibiki, your counterpart there. Get all information you can. Offer to assist them with the criminal’s capture, on the strength of our alliance. I’ll write to Tsunade. Keep me appraised. As for security, take the measures you deem necessary.”
Taidaka nodded with a faint gleam of satisfaction in his eyes at the free rein. Lee didn’t like the lack of intimacy afforded by close protection, so the Kazekage normally avoided it; Gaara of the Desert hardly needed such a shield, he only kept a skeleton guard around him to discourage assassination attempts that could involve Lee and other bystanders. But if this theory of Taidaka’s was correct, Katsuro might have more than one reason to attack Lee and get the children back from him. Gaara wished he’d met the man, or that Lee had known him better; it was hard to say how Katsuro would react now that his life had been blown apart and his wife was dead at his hands.
“Anything else I should know about?” Gaara asked.
“Your aide was informed of your arrival this morning, and he has a stack of paperwork for you,” Taidaka reported. “And the Council probably do too. Nothing at my level. That write-up will be on your desk by this evening.”
“Good. Dismissed.” He could hear Lee moving in the kitchen.
A flicker, and Taidaka was gone.
Gaara stared at the ceiling, trying to rein in an old impulse that was fighting with his better instincts. It was an old flash of selfishness, of unreasoned protectiveness, that was trying to tell him that a possible danger to Lee’s life weighed more heavily than the needs of Lee’s conscience and the children of a traitor. If he separated them and sent the kids back to Konoha, Lee would be safe. But Gaara was older and wiser now; he’d managed to breach his childhood’s isolation and let Lee close. He knew better. Hell, he of all people should know that merely surviving was not enough; a man had to justify his existence and create bonds with others to make his life bearable.
He would not hurt Lee in a blind effort to keep him safe. It wasn’t called for anyway. Gaara knew, intellectually, that there were very few people who had a chance of defeating his lover since the latter had made Jounin. By the sound of it, this cousin of his didn’t qualify. And with Gaara also watchful...it would be perfectly safe to keep the children. If Rock Katsuro was crazy enough to even try to threaten one of Gaara’s own, the traitor would be very, very dead soon afterwards.
“Gaara?” Lee’s voice came from the other side of the large reception room that led to the Kazekage’s study.
“Come in. I’m done.”
Lee appeared with a wiggling Aki in one arm and dragging a silent Chiro by the hand.
“I’m going to do some shopping. The fridge is empty. Do you need anything?”
“Yes, I need you to take it easy,” Gaara said with a sharp glance. “Buy what you need today for the children, then make a list of food and household supplies and I’ll have Tetsuyo pick it up-“
“-as well as some take-out for tonight.”
“-I can’t have your aide do our shopping, that’s not his job-“
“He used to do it before we lived together, he can do it again now.”
Lee would have probably argued some more, but Aki’s fidgeting had turned into fussing and was fast turning into a fit, so Lee just sighed that big patient sigh of his and left. He made it halfway up the stairs before the kid started bawling.
Gaara picked up his papers and went to finish his report at the office.
Day One – 2 PM
Gaara opened the front door, his mind on the Council’s debate. He was jarred out of his thoughts by the sight of a few brightly coloured boxes of various sizes lined haphazardly against one wall of the normally sober and elegant reception room. It looked like things for Aki, since there was a picture of a happily smiling baby on each of them. Gaara absently wondered how they’d gotten the infants to look so cheerful for those pictures; he’d yet to see that expression on Aki’s face.
He was still reflecting on the kind of jutsu one could apply to a baby to make it smile on command, when he froze and retraced his footsteps to take a second and longer look at the kitchen he’d just passed. Lee and Gaara didn't like people coming into their home to clean, so they’d gotten into the habit of taking care of the place themselves, and kept the house as tidy as two busy Shinobi could reasonably be expected to. The dirty dishes in the sink were not a surprise, but streaks of food on the table, a spoon on the floor and a bowl of something pureed forgotten on a chair was unusual even by their standards.
If Lee hadn’t had his hands full, he would certainly have cleaned that up. It looked like two young children were more work and distraction than Gaara had first estimated. Lee had taken a few weeks of leave from his regular duties, to Gaara's relief; he wanted his lover to have the time to relax, rest and get over his run back from Konoha. It had been ages since Lee had taken a break, it would do him a lot of good. But now Gaara was wondering how much rest he was actually going to get out of it.
He dropped his coat off in the study, which had been left untouched, fortunately for all involved. Gaara was a creature of habits, his way of creating a stability for himself, and all this was stressful enough without having his private retreat turned upside down.
He stayed in his den for a minute, just centering himself. He had underestimated how disturbing having strangers in the house would be. There had been difficult times a few years ago when Lee had moved in as well, he reminded himself, and he’d gotten used to living with the Jounin quickly enough. Of course, Lee moving in with him had turned out to be a milestone in Gaara’s life. The kids were just an annoyance.
He headed up the small flight of stairs that led to the bedroom wing. He dropped by the bathroom first, and that’s where things got even stranger. It wasn’t so much the closed garbage bag with what turned out to contain, on inspection, a few diapers. Gaara had been expecting that, and though it wasn’t pleasant, when you’d been on a battlefield full of rotting corpses it barely registered. What intrigued Gaara was the profusion of bottles, small boxes, lotions, powders and tubes that occupied the previously sparse bathroom. The artificial scents pervading the place made him wrinkle his nose. He’d gotten used to the smell of Lee’s two brands of shampoo, but this smelled like flowers, medicine and old ladies. There were two types of sponges next to their scrubbing brush and basin, two new toothbrushes (Gaara hadn’t thought the baby would need one), and a new bar of soap, violent pink, lurking on the edge of the sink.
Gaara used the facilities as if he was walking through a room trapped with explosive tags, then he followed some noises toward the bedroom.
There was a large ground-level crib near the far wall, near one of the windows. It was half-assembled, a screwdriver and a rack of wooden bars abandoned nearby. There were bags here and there, clothing by the looks of it. A thick wide blanket had been spread out in one corner and Lee was sitting there, watching attentively as Aki crawled towards a large, colourful cube roughly eight inches high. Chiro had been drawing, sprawled on his stomach on the other end of the blanket with his chin propped up in his hand, but he glanced up to follow his brother’s progress.
The scene was strangely domestic in a way that was totally alien to Gaara, and left him feeling uneasy.
“Welcome back,” Lee said, flashing a tired smile his way.
“Hm. You really bought a lot of things.”
He knew those words were a mistake as soon as Lee’s face fell.
The fact that their Kazekage was in a stable relationship must never cease to surprise the rest of Suna. It certainly surprised Gaara. Lee had found it in his great heart to befriend him and then love him, despite having every reason not to. The relationship had actually lasted, against all expectations, because Lee was not only as kind and loving a person as a professional soldier could be, he was also a good Shinobi; tough enough, quick enough and wise enough to negotiate the dangerous times. There had been a few of those at the start of their relationship. But another contributing factor was that Lee didn’t hide his feelings from Gaara; he’d never bothered with a mask around the Kazekage, even back when Gaara had had no idea what friendship was, or that he’d unknowingly formed one with the Leaf Jounin.
Gaara had no empathy for others; when he was young, everything had hurt, and he’d hurt everything right back, often fatally. There’d been no middle ground. Now there was a middle ground, and it was one where mere words alone could cause pain to those close to him. Gaara still had little to no idea how to negotiate this new territory; but at least with Lee’s mobile features and expressive eyes, he knew when he’d screwed up. Hopefully one day, he’d learn not to mess up in the first place…
“I don’t mind,” he put in quickly, before Lee could apologize or challenge himself to build a new room to the house for the extra furnishings. “But is all this necessary? For just two children?”
Lee relaxed. He knew Gaara well enough by now to take comments like that at face value and to not look for hidden criticism. When Gaara criticized, he didn’t bother hiding it.
“I didn’t get all that much,” Lee said, giving the bags and boxes and crib a dazed look. “More diapers, milk, a couple of toys…your aide is the one who brought all the rest.”
“Yes. He showed up with food- I didn’t even have time to get a list ready. He restocked the refrigerator and brought a few household items, and then the rest was delivered after he left. He must have thought we’d need it. I didn’t tell him to get any of this; I don’t know what half this stuff does, to tell you the truth.”
Gaara had been busy once he’d arrived at the office. He’d seen his aide between two meetings. The conversation had gone something like this. “Tetsuyo, Lee has brought back his two young cousins with him to live with us for awhile. Drop by and see if he has everything he needs.” And Tetsuyo had said, “Yes sir”. Gaara got along well with Tetsuyo. The man made Gaara’s life easier, and you didn’t need to talk or argue with him for it to happen.
“Of course you'll tell me how much he charged to your office, and I’ll reimburse it all,” Lee was saying, face serious and determined.
Gaara nodded distantly, making a mental note to warn Tetsuyo that Lee would eventually come to him with that question, and that the aide should halve whatever the price had been. He wasn’t going to try to argue Lee into letting him pay part of it, that would be a waste of time all around, even though the Kazekage had considerably more funds at his disposal than a Jounin.
“I was very thankful for Tetsuyo-san’s help,” Lee added, still looking a bit bewildered by the sudden turn his life had taken. “It gave me some free time to pick up more of Shizune’s prescription, and buy clothes for the boys. I also stopped by the library to see if they had any books.”
“Books on what?”
“Um, taking care of babies.”
“…They have books on that?” Suna’s library consisted of texts on weaponry, history and tactics as far as Gaara knew, as well as some harmless reading material for the civilians and off-duty Shinobi.
“Well, no, apparently they don't,” Lee answered wearily. “But the librarian gave me some advice when she saw Aki,” he added.
“So did the pharmacist. And the shopkeeper. And the shopkeeper's sister. And a lady at the store.”
“A lot of it was contradictory,” Lee admitted. “Oops-“
While they were talking, Aki had been using the large cube to haul himself onto his feet, though he’d immediately slip and sit down again. He didn’t seem to mind the futility of it all at first, but after the fifth attempt, he seemed to lose interest. He sat there in silence, blinking at the cube and the blanket, then he murbled something and made a huffing noise, his small hands rising to his face.
“Don’t cry,” Lee said, leaning over to pick him up. Aki struggled and shoved at Lee’s chest, his expression all scrunched.
Gaara's sixth sense twitched. Chiro was staring at him, a strange look, half searching, half fearful. When their eyes met, Chiro quickly looked down at the paper he’d been drawing on. It was covered in squares drawn with a red pencil, each box carefully filled with rigid geometrical shapes, some quite elaborate. As Gaara watched, Chiro put pencil to paper again, but then he dropped it and tugged at his collar. He was dressed in shorts and t-shirt, but he still looked uncomfortably hot. The weather in Suna was quite different from Konoha.
Aki had calmed down a bit, but he was still struggling. When Lee put him down, the infant crawled back towards the cube. From the look on Lee’s face, this routine had been going on for quite some time. But the Jounin still smiled a bit when Aki reached his toy and started rocking back and forth, propping himself against it to get to his feet. Lee tried to share the smile with Chiro, who wasn’t paying any attention.
Gaara recognized the look on Lee’s face as his lover watched the children. Befuddled, a bit worried, overall determined. And there was the beginning of something else there. Lee had only known the kids for a few days, but they were family. Those were powerful bonds. Kankuro and Temari had been Gaara’s family nine years ago – his only family, since his father’s existence in his life had been way too complicated a matter to label with just one word. But Gaara had always considered them nothing more than a couple of weaker caretakers set on him to stop him from killing people he wasn't supposed to. Family was an intangible concept. Blood was blood, and it didn’t matter where you inherited it from or who you shared it with, or so Gaara had once thought. He’d discovered how wrong he’d been after the Chuunin exam; he was not about to discount the strength of family ties again. Right now, Lee was taking care of his cousins out of duty, but it would take very little for Lee to let them into that great big heart of his as well.
Gaara had learned to accept the way Lee could befriend and love others. Intellectually, he fully understood that Lee’s love for him would not be diminished by it. Gaara’s instincts on the subject were quite another matter, but he’d learned to curb those particular reflexes sharply. If he started getting jealous of every one of Lee’s acquaintances…that path led to madness, as Gaara knew full well; when it came to going crazy, Gaara was a connoisseur after all.
Lee gave Aki one last look, then he boosted himself over to the crib. He grabbed a bar and the screwdriver and fitted them together after one last look back at his charges. Lee normally finished anything he started unless someone sat on him; Gaara once again increased his estimate of how distracting an infant could be. Though he couldn’t fault Lee’s superb handling of this strange situation up till now. Lee had human instincts to rely on, but he had no more exposure to children that age than Gaara had. In view of that, he was doing great. Then again, a Jounin was nothing if not highly adaptable, resourceful and able to follow the instructions on a packet of diapers or a crib’s building kit.
“Can’t he sleep on the bed?” Gaara asked, examining the crib from his spot near the door.
“I wou’ ha’ thought sho,” Lee mumbled before taking a screw out of his mouth. “But this is something else your aide got us, so maybe not. It’s going to be pretty big when I finish it, and it said on the box it’s a play area too. It’s probably safer than leaving him in the tub when I can’t watch him.”
"Won't he be sleeping most of the time?"
“Huh?” Lee looked up from the crib to Gaara, then at Aki.
“I thought babies spent a lot of their time asleep.”
It was the one thing Gaara knew about them, apart from the fact that they were helpless and lived off of milk to start with. He knew about their sleeping habits because of what Temari had told him about his own birth and first few months. Baby Gaara had always been trying to sleep, like most babies would. But letting him fall asleep might have led to considerable problems. So his caretakers had kept him awake and carefully doled out sleep in amounts that would have killed a child without the chakra support system that was already building in his mind and body. Until one day, somebody had screwed up. The unsupervised naptime that had followed had led to the Incident. The Incident had left Gaara unique among other Shinobi in that he’d had a body count before he’d had a birthday.
…It was probably safe to say he didn’t know anything about normal babies.
The normal baby in this room had managed to half-drape himself over the cube. Gaara knew he was going to fall any second now; the cube was made of light wood or plastic with rounded corners and wasn’t all that stable. Chiro was staring at his brother again, a dull, empty look in his eyes.
Right on schedule, the cube rocked, Aki fell and started whimpering, then crying as Lee picked him up. It wasn’t that loud a noise, but it had a grating quality to it that made it hard to ignore, and that got on Gaara’s nerves after three scant seconds. He turned around and went to work in his study, and only came out a few hours later, when the take-out Tetsuyo had ordered arrived.
Supper started out peacefully enough, since Aki was nowhere to be seen.
“He was hungry,” Lee explained, a concerned frown on his face. He looked preoccupied, though that didn’t stop him from wolfing his food down. “I think that’s why he was crying so much. I fed him a bit, and then he fell asleep. He’s sleeping now. The crib’s great for that, I can just leave him up there and not worry that he’ll wake up and crawl around or bump into things.”
Chiro was sitting opposite Gaara with the length of the table between them. The kid was eating very slowly and in silence, sitting on a cushion to bring him up to a better height in regards to his plate. He didn’t seem quite as frightened at this point, though he gave Gaara a couple of piercing stares when he thought the Kazekage wasn’t looking.
Lee finally put down his sticks and his empty plate and heaved a sigh of contentment. Then he looked around hopefully. Gaara wordlessly pushed another box of noodles at him. Whether by luck, intuition or knowledge of their household, Tetsuyo had ordered a good deal more food than would normally be required. None of it would go to waste; Lee needed to build up his stamina again, after the effort he’d put in the other day. The Jounin picked up the box and dug in, a bit slower this time.
“So, how was the Daimyo’s court?” he asked brightly, once he’d cleared his mouth and swallowed half of his glass of water.
“Busy. Noisy. Irritating.”
“Same as usual, hm?” Lee said with sympathy, scooping up a piece of green onion with his sticks. “Was Temari doing okay?”
“Yes. She seems to be enjoying herself.” Temari had told him she liked the challenge of diplomacy and the cutthroat atmosphere of the court; she certainly seemed to thrive in it. “Many of the courtiers were more scared of her than they were of me,” Gaara added, with faint approval and pride in his sibling.
“Wonderful,” Lee said, with a small indulgent smile. The two lovers didn’t agree on certain aspects of politics. Lee believed that treating people honourably and leading them to the right path with the Light of Truth and Honesty (and the application of the Fists of Justice if called for) was much better than frightening them into line. He and Gaara occasionally had mild arguments over that, but not tonight. Tonight felt warm and cosy. It was good to talk, to be with each other. Chiro was blissfully quiet on his side of the table; he’d been eating more and more slowly, until he was now drawing squares in his rice and curry with his sticks, staring at his plate.
“How was your mission?” Gaara asked. Lee had been away on a job when Gaara had left for the court three weeks ago.
“Kind of boring. I thought there were supposed to be all sorts of dangerous bandits in the lands west of Wind Country, but we didn’t see any,” Lee said, obviously disappointed. “Then Masamoto-dono – that was the gentleman I was escorting,” Lee explained for Chiro’s benefit. “He was setting up a big commerce line between Sasana and the ports of Migure. He’s very rich, and he was nearly kidnapped last year, so it was an A-rank mission. But I think we travelled a bit faster than expected, so if anybody was following us, they didn’t catch up. When we reached Migure, though, Masamoto-dono decided he’d take a ship back to his home country, rather than go across land; he said he needed the rest. He did look pretty exhausted. So did his horse. I guess I did set a rather fast clip, but you’d think a horse would be able to keep up. Since he didn’t need me on the return trip, I came back here direct. I made it back in two days, six hours and thirty-four minutes! Considering that was a distance of-“
Lee’s chair-legs screeched against tiles as he lunged to one side instinctively. His fingers fastened on the plate, catching it a foot off the ground, though some of the food spilled.
Gaara had seen Chiro move, since he was facing the child across the length of the table. Chiro had been looking at Lee with a strangely blank expression on his face. Then he’d put down his sticks and stared at the lumps of curry he’d sculpted, and suddenly his fist had shot out and knocked the plate off the table. It might have shattered, but the speed of a falling plate was nothing compared to the speed of Rock Lee.
Chiro was frozen in chair, his hand still raised, his eyes fixed on Lee’s chest, and he looked-…he looked like he was waiting for something.
Lee set the plate on the table with a click that sounded louder than it should in the silent kitchen. He gave Gaara a puzzled look, but Gaara was the last person to tell Lee how to react.
“Chiro…That…Don’t do that again. Was there something wrong with the food?” Lee asked, obviously at a loss and fishing.
Chiro’s wide eyes slowly lifted to Lee’s face.
“Why did you do that?” Lee asked, more severely.
“…don’t know…” The child did not look evasive. He was still staring at Lee as if he didn’t know who this man was. His face was colourless, his eyes seemed too big for the small face.
Lee looked at him, obviously trying to figure out how to react, and then he stood up.
“Chiro, apologize to Gaara,” he said, voice more coaxing than stern. “And then we’ll put you to bed. It’s been a long day, and you didn’t sleep well last night. Everything will look a lot better in the morning. A good night’s sleep is the remedy of Youth! That’s what my teacher always told me.”
Instead of looking relieved that he was getting off so lightly, Chiro stared at him as if Lee had slapped him. Then he turned the stare on Gaara. Gaara stared right back, not knowing what the child expected of him and not really caring. He didn’t give a damn about the food or an apology, but he knew Lee would insist on it.
“Chiro,” Lee said, prompting him. The child blinked, the brown eyes dropped to the edge of the table and he whispered ‘Sorry’ as if he didn’t know what the word meant but had been told to parrot it. He did not look at all rebellious. He didn’t look apologetic either. He looked…shut, was the best way Gaara could describe it.
“Good. Come on.” Lee picked him up effortlessly. “I’ll come back down and clean up in a minute, Gaara. I’m sorry about this, he’s still upset about- you know. And tired, too.”
Gaara wouldn’t be surprised if the boy were upset. In fact, he was surprised the boy wasn’t completely freaked out. This time last Tuesday, the kid had had a home and a loving family; now all he had was a cousin he’d never seen before and he lived in another village with the character from a horror story. Gaara, who had been rather notorious for externalizing his feelings at that age, would have broken a lot more than plates in Chiro’s situation.
But the kid hadn't seemed angry, or hurt, or particularly offended by take-out curry. He didn’t look like he was seeking attention either; once he had it, he'd looked scared. But also expectant. Gaara frowned down at his empty bowl. He could read other people’s expressions as well as any Shinobi; the problem was understanding what he saw and anticipating their reactions when their inner world was so different than his own.
It probably didn't matter; according to Lee, the kid would be more rational in the morning. Gaara got up and started putting things away in the fridge, leaving the mess on the floor for Lee as requested. The menial tasks helped him put the children and their behaviour out of his mind.
Maybe no chapter next week; life's gotten busy, and the more subtle, deliberate pace of this fic is harder to write than DR sometimes (then again, compared to some of DRs emotional explosion scenes, it's a lot easier). It was actually fun to write this in a different way, and show how normal life goes for Gaara and Lee (well, normal life plus a couple of intruders).
Reviews and concrits always adored and appreciated (even if I don't have time to answer them right away) ^_^