*waves* Here's my weekendly post. It's not the epilogue, and it's not the sidestory I mentioned last time, containing something a bit like The Talk; it's another small one I had on the back burner. It just shows a spectrum of reaction and feeling towards Gaara, Lee and eventually the boys in Suna, by two very, very different people. This is a small sidestory, and not entirely serious. It'll only be posted on LJ. I hope you enjoy ^_^
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.
Side Story: Two Sides of the Coin
There was a buzz in the air when Hokata entered the command centre. Ninja instincts, which had not been allowed to rust during ten years of non-active duty in the Missions Bureau, pushed him to listen, even though he knew it was probably going to be trivial. As expected, it turned out to be some vague rumours and three-day-old news concerning the latest eccentricity of their Kazekage and his-...whatever the polite term for 'screw' was these days. Hokata sneered in silence as he surveyed the chatting Shinobi; these young people seemed to know a lot of ways of wasting their time.
He let his presence and his disapproval slip from the tight control he usually kept over his aura, the Shinobi equivalent of a sharp cough to announce himself; it sent a wave of silence and sudden activity spreading through the large room as the younger generation noticed he was there. Satisfied, Hokata limped down the length of the room towards the desk. He sat down a bit stiffly, the result of nearly three decades of service as Genin, Chuunin and Jounin followed by ten years of living with old wounds and sitting at a desk all day. Or maybe he was just getting old. He felt old, when he watched the other young Shinobi dart around. Old, but a hell of a lot wiser.
The nattering had picked up again, much more discreetly in an attempt to avoid his notice. Hokata was the acting commander for his shift and a renowned martinet, but a lot of his subordinates believed him to be a bit deaf. Hokata, whose hearing was one hundred percent, encouraged that belief as a matter of course. Hiding the extent of one's abilities was an old habit, and besides, it made his staff evaluation reports that much more interesting. He set to work with efficiency and discipline, not bothering to lend much of an ear to misinformed and puerile rumours. If it was important, he'd know about it already; as a senior Jounin, Hokata made a point of being very well informed, or at least better informed than these kids were.
Two hours, a lot of paperwork and one disciplinary sanction against a frivolous subordinate later, Hokata was busy sealing an envelope when the Kazekage walked in and gave them all a hell of a lot more to talk about.
Everybody nodded a brief salute as their leader advanced through the large room, and then they made a transparent attempt to look busy while they gaped. Hokata had barely glanced up; he was sorting through papers. When the Kazekage stopped in front of the main desk, Hokata had the daily report all ready for him. He silently handed it over without looking at the child perched on his leader’s left forearm, and then he saluted and sat down again, attending to his duties. Gaara left without a word, which was customary and one of the rare things the crusty old Jounin truly admired about him (and though Hokata respected his leader and superiors as a matter of course, he didn’t stoop to admiring anybody as a rule). He believed it was the sign of a natural-born leader to expect obedience and efficiency without fawning over people and coddling them.
He glared a few bystanders back to work as the Kazekage left the room. Shinobi these days, what did they learn in the Academy? Heads full of feathers.
If they’d lived through the ups and downs of Sunagakure, like Hokata had...He’d been a Chuunin at the time of the creature’s birth. Over the following years, he’d seen fear and a dreadful sort of suspense spread throughout Suna like a miasma; he’d lived with the attacks and the killings, irregular, seemingly random, somehow much more terrifying than the statistically more probable likelyhood of dying on a mission.
He'd been part of the rearguard during the attack on Konoha, so he’d survived to witness the sudden, bewildering change that had overtaken the village’s guilty secret, its unacknowledged bogeyman. From one day to the next, the kid became composed and careful and stopped killing people. What with everything else going on at that time, it just seemed like one more way the world had turned upside down. Then, to compound the surprise many didn’t quite dare believe yet, the boy up and decided to become Kazekage – and there were few around who felt up to trying to stop him. He'd been their leader for nigh on seven years now; it hadn't been quite the disaster it could have been, Hokata conceded.
These young whippersnappers today, they had no idea what it was like back then. They were used to the present-day Kazekage, who was at least halfway easy to deal with. They hadn’t worked with the other one, who’d ask Hokata to find a misfiled folder with those scary unblinking eyes that suggested death would be the immediate consequence of failure. These days, the Shinobi attached to the command centre met up after hours to grouse a bit about working for a hard-ass who didn’t sleep and expected others to follow suit, but they had it easy. Bunch of ninnies. Hokata sometimes seriously wondered about the future of his village. In his day, they'd been brought up tough and stayed that way.
In fact, Hokata and the other senior Jounin had been on the verge of approving of this new Kazekage, hard, disciplined, murderous to their enemies, otherwise silent and reserved; until the green loony from Konoha had shown up and became their leader's best friend. It was hard enough working for Gaara – scary but somewhat predictable. Working in the same building as Rock Lee should have been grounds for early retirement, especially when he tried to be friendly or energetic or, more often, both. He’d tried that once with Hokata. Only once, though.
When Lee started following Gaara around on missions and about town like they were joined at the hip, the lower ranks at the command centre just couldn’t believe it; this was it, they declared, things couldn't get any weirder. Which left Hokata to wonder why their small heads hadn’t imploded when, after a period of particularly strange scuttlebutt going around, Rock Lee moved in with their Kazekage and never moved out again. Suna had to then wrap their collective minds around a series of staggering facts, the least of which being that their Kazekage was human enough to feel those kind of base desires in the first place. The shock took awhile to wear off, from the moment the knowledge spread through Suna, even though nobody talked about It, until the time when it became more or less accepted as unchangeable, like the desert and the dry season. Some inhabitants went as far as to comment that this made their leader more approachable, almost normal, though Hokata's faith in Gaara's intrinsic insanity was left quite intact and reinforced each and every time he saw Rock Lee bouncing around the village in green uniform and legwarmers.
Hokata didn't judge, since it wasn't his place to judge his Kazekage's choices. If he had been asked to judge, he'd have been five different shades of horrified disapproval. A Shinobi did not fall in love, especially a killer of Gaara's calibre, and he did not fall in love with someone who could technically almost be an enemy and who was visibly a few shuriken short of a whole set, and he did not move in with said weirdo and act like they were happily married, visiting his family together and taking him on occasional missions and show him off to the rest of the planet. Hokata had it from reliable sources that they shared the same room. Even the former Kazekage hadn’t shared a room with his wife! In Hokata's view of the world, the only reason to keep a spouse or paramour around was to have offspring, and despite his loud habit of boldly accepting all challenges, there was one demand that even Lee couldn't handle. That is, until now. Annoying Leaf...
Deep inside, Hokata was reluctantly willing to admit that the Kazekage could have become entangled with a worse person than Rock Lee. After a lot of observation by a lot of very serious Shinobi, the elite of Suna had concluded that on the balance of probability, the Konoha Jounin was not a spy. He'd actually helped civilize Gaara somewhat, turning him into the person who was a bit easier to deal with and which the young fools in the Missions Bureau now took for granted. Yes, the Leaf lunatic was actually good for their Kazekage; it burned Hokata a bit to admit it, but as one who'd crossed Gaara in the streets a few times when the latter was no bigger than a katana, dragging that teddy bear around and occasionally crushing people to death, anything that might be good for Gaara and his stability had to be considered an asset to Suna.
So everybody had gotten used to Gaara, everybody had gotten used to Lee, everybody had gotten used to their Kazekage bedding a foreign Jounin in legwarmers, and now this.
Hokata let his senses flicker over the room. People were talking together and would need to be disciplined in a few seconds. But even as Hokata pushed aside his papers and official seal and stood up, he let his eyes slide to the left where he could see the mezzanine over the courtyard that led to the wing containing the Kazekage’s office. He'd timed it correctly to catch a glimpse of his leader walking by with the kid yawning in his arms.
Those in the know in Suna had heard of the children's presence by now, but they’d assumed Lee would have the basic decency to foster the kids out ASAP. Instead, he apparently had the leader of Sunagakure playing nursemaid, and Gaara of the Sand was inexplicably going along with it. It was amazing that the child wasn't rigid with fright, but Hokata attributed that to the fact the boy was an ignorant whelp from Konoha.
One sharp look from his old eyes was enough to send the idlers rushing back to their work. Hokata sat down again, somewhat mollified. To think these numbskulls had made Genin and Chuunin...what was happening to the standards of his village? Did they think Hokata was struck stupid with amazement at seeing his Kazekage babysitting a four-year-old? No, of course not. Because Hokata was a true Shinobi. Anticipation, the ability to be surprised and overcome it, even that fundamental talent of expecting the unexpected, were all essential weapons in his arsenal. Those skills could get as rusty as the old bones in his body, and should be maintained as rigorously as muscles and mind.
...And with Godaime Gaara as his Kazekage, Hokata's ability to cope with surprise certainly did get plenty of exercise, the Jounin conceded inwardly with a hint of sardonic humour that never made it to his cold, craggy features. He gave the room one last scathing look that acted like the crack of a whip, and set back to work.
Naruto was tired. Very tired. When Granny Tsunade made him plenipotentiary diplomat, she'd made it sound like the greatest honour, like three A-rank missions rolled together, like a massive step upward. He'd fallen over himself accepting the post. Oh yeah, plenipotentiary diplomat sure sounded important. What it meant was running all over the whole continent to attend boring meetings and meeting a lot of unpleasant people he was not allowed to beat up. Fortunately he had his team with him, Sakura-chan and the bastard, and Kakashi if things looked dicey enough to require four high-level Jounin; Shinobi diplomacy did descend into violence periodically. Since Naruto was the plenipotentiary diplomat, that made him the boss of the whole outfit, no less. Not that he would boss Sakura-chan around, while Kakashi was his senior in battle experience (and the bastard never really listened to his orders), but it still meant something.
Too bad they couldn't come with him when he went to Sand, but the way over was considered safe enough. Sakura-chan had medical research projects to work on, and the bastard trained with Kakashi and other high-level Jounin, and that left Naruto alone on the road like an idiot. Blah.
Good thing he had some buddies in Sand, or it'd be a real pain in the ass. Hanging around Gaara and Fuzzy-brows - and Kankuro and all the other friends he'd made - helped him forget how much he missed Sakura-chan and Kakashi and Iruka and all his Konoha friends. And the bastard too (just a little bit).
Naruto headed towards Gaara's house at full speed, after flipping a cheerful salute at the guard on duty at the gates. It was a bit before eight. Since he was now a responsible Jounin, Naruto had a detailed strategy for the evening all laid out. One: Say hi to the guys. Two: Get invited to stay and eat, since it was getting near dinnertime (but only if they had take-out, otherwise he'd go to that little place near his residence where they made spicy beef kebobs and come back after he'd eaten). Three: Have a good time with his buddies and forget the past few days of running through forest, hills and desert. Four: wander back to his room in Suna to sleep at some point, though in view of the nice long nap he'd be getting during the general diplomatic meeting tomorrow morning, he didn't have to hurry point number four.
Funny buddies, though. Gaara of the Desert, all-around scary guy and ragged, worn soul, both too young and too old...and Mr Eyebrows. Talk about odd couple. But it worked. It was weirder than a six-legged dog, but it really did work. Something had softened inside Gaara; Naruto could tell. As for Lee, when he stopped talking about challenges and upholding the honour of Konoha and being worthy of the Kazekage, and just shut up and smiled at Gaara, it was so shiny and bright it gave Naruto a headache. Yeah, Naruto was glad those two guys had sorted their shit out. He fully credited himself as the matchmaker, since he'd been the one to encourage Lee to make friends with Gaara years ago, and he'd also been the one to tenderize Gaara up with the application of a lot of punches and a few well-chosen words about letting others in. Yup, they owed it all to him, as he frequently reminded them. They should name their kids Naruto! Naruto laughed out loud as he leapt from roof to roof. Name their kids. Good one. He'd have to bring that one up during his month in Suna; ribbing Lee (and Gaara, cautiously) was one of the fun parts of being here.
He rapped once on the door of the Kazekage's residence and barged right on in. Gaara wasn't stuffy about formalities and boring shit like that. There was light on in the kitchen, and a nice smell of food in the air. Oh yeah, that's what I'm talking about, Naruto thought.
"Hey guys, I'm back! You-WAHHH!"
It wasn't Lee, leaning over and sticking a spoon into a baby's mouth. It wasn't Gaara, handing a napkin to a little half-pint. It wasn't the half-pint's eyebrows. It wasn't the cheerful, well-lit kitchen and the table set for four and the sippy cup with the frogs on it. Yeah, above all, it wasn't the sippy cup. It was just that Naruto was very, very tired. That was why he screeched to a halt, stumbled and fell straight over backwards.
There was a thunderous silence. Naruto stared up at the ceiling. Sunstroke. That was it. Sakura-chan was always telling him to put on a hood in the desert.
"Who is that?!"
Oh man, that was a kid's voice - but he was just hallucinating that too. And hallucinating Lee's voice trying to shush an excited baby's burbling, which would also be a hallucination. There was no way- Gaara- Lee- kids- just no way, no fucking way- no, Imagination, don't even go there.
There was a scrape of chair against tile.
"Why did he fall down? Is he dead?! Gaara, is he dead?"
"No. He's just a clown."
That was Gaara's voice. And Gaara's foot, nudging him.
"Get up. You're scaring the kids."
"I can't be scaring no kids, I'm hallucinating," Naruto pointed out, quite logically. Maybe he was being a bit over-dramatic, but he had no intention of getting up until the world started making sense again.
Gaara's face and steady, unblinking gaze intruded into Naruto's view of the ceiling.
"Get up. You're just in time." Gaara's charming monotone was exactly as Naruto remembered, and probably not the product of delirium, unfortunately.
"We were looking for a babysitter."
Plenipotentiary diplomat my ass, Naruto thought, closing his eyes on a world where he was, in the next ten minutes and without a doubt, going to become a babysitter, and probably not a bad one at that. He had a way with kids; look how he'd entertained and fascinated these ones already...
It was going to be a long month.
End Side Story
The epilogue has been fighting me something fierce. I'm just not happy with it *pokes* and I can't find the last few sentences. But I have so little time to work on it, I don't know if it will get much better (besides acquiring an ending, because it does kinda need that). It may not be out next week or anytime soon, but I have a couple other tidbits to hand out if that's the case. Until next week then!