Still no Kindred epilogue, though I think I know where it's sticking now, and I hope to have it out next week. Here's the 'Team 7' side story to DR instead. It's situated right after the battle against Sound. I think this is the first time I've written post-time-skip Sakura, if I'm not mistaken; she's a lot more fun to write than pre-time-skip Sakura ^_^
Huge thanks for all the reviews ^__^ They really add to the fun of writing these fics and posting them.
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: Aftermath
"That's the worst of it fixed up," Sakura declared, poking at the bruise decorating Naruto's chest and ribs like a gaudy and rather painful sash. "Next time, don't get so badly injured you strain even your own healing ability. I still haven't figured out how you managed to do that. Don't you know the meaning of the word 'duck'?"
"He probably thinks it's an aquatic bird," Sasuke commented lugubriously from his spot nearby.
Naruto grinned. Sakura's fingers were gentle as she checked the last gash, now neatly mended. Kyuubi's chakra had saved its host's life, but Naruto had gone a bit overboard this time, and soaked up enough damage to leave a few holes even after the Fox's regenerating powers had been and gone. Tired though she was, Sakura had proceeded to close them all up, even though they weren't life threatening. Sasuke was there too, standing around like it was the last place he wanted to be, but he'd had the same attitude when he'd followed Naruto and the hit squad without hesitation into the battle to take down his former mentor. All healed up and surrounded by his teammates, Naruto was feeling very warm and cosseted right now; the nagging was just their way of showing they cared.
Somebody else hadn't been so lucky...
"Don't think like that," Sakura said softly, then she bit her lip as if she was afraid she'd intruded on something she could not fully share. Instead, she briskly wadded up the remains of Naruto's shirt and made a great show of wiping blood, grime and various substances from his face, nearly pushing Naruto off the rubble he was sitting on.
The touch was a comfort, and it gave Naruto a chance to let the grin slip, just for a sec. He'd been keeping it up so they wouldn't worry about him - since he sort of looked like he'd been pushed through a grating and all - but now it was feeling fake, and Naruto didn't like that. These days, he didn't have to smile to hide what he was feeling or cheer himself up, these days he could smile because he meant it, and by hell, he sure did.
That poor bastard Orochimaru had caught...what had he been like? Did he have good buddies to help him out, watch his back and make him smile? Would they miss him?
Oh yeah, it'd been easy to figure out why that crazy snake Sannin had wanted to kidnap Gaara, all those months ago. It had been pretty damn obvious three seconds after the Konoha-Suna forces launched their attack on Sound. Battle-hardened veterans like Kakashi - who were used to seeing the worst come true on a regular basis - had called it correctly: Orochimaru had been aiming to take over Gaara's body and inherit his powers. Gaara had escaped, and Naruto was fanatically thankful for that, because that would have been-...he just didn't want to think of Gaara ending up like that. But instead, some other poor Tail-ridden bastard had paid the price. When the strike force had invaded Sound, Orochimaru had been waiting for them in a new body and with the kind of power and bloodlust Naruto and Gaara were all too familiar with.
It'd proven the crazy snake's undoing in the end. He couldn't have been in that body for very long; couple of months, no more. He didn't have time to figure out what Gaara and Naruto could have told him; it was no piece of cake to control a gigantic ball of ornery chakra hell bent on destroying everything around it. Orochimaru put up a good fight - he leveled half of the Sound compound and bits of nearby Hidden Stone single-handedly, like he was trying to dig a hole straight to hell to send them all there direct. But when the Konoha hit squad pushed right back, his psyche disintegrated. And then they were dealing with a half-formed and quite crazy Three-Tailed Demon instead and that was not very fun at all, but luckily the critter had been hampered by the Seals of Control Orochimaru had sunk into its chakra, and between Naruto, Tsunade and Jiraiya, as well as Sasuke, Kakashi and the rest of the hit squad, they'd had the firepower to take it down.
When the dust had finally settled, Naruto had looked down at the body of someone he didn't know, someone not much older than he was, who might have grown up just as lonely and despised. Some fuckin' unlucky life; taken over at the start of it by a demon and at the end of it by a power-hungry lunatic who deserved the term 'monster' much more than Naruto or that dead man ever had.
"It's not your fault, nothing we could have done could have saved him," Sakura said simply, following his thoughts. Then she clapped her hands together, like a priestess banishing bad spirits. "Come on! You're filthy, you could do with a wash. Both of you."
Sasuke's moody look disappeared to be replaced with a distant sneer. Naruto was much more vocal in his protest: there were still lots of enemy Shinobi around, they hadn't found Kabuto yet, two of the new Sound Five had escaped- Sakura grabbed the ripped shirt and ground it against the top of his skull as if she could drill the stubbornness out. Sasuke almost laughed at that, as close as he ever got, which sort of sounded like a snort. Naruto hurled the dirty shirt at him and felt his usual brazen optimism start to recover when it connected.
"I don't care if all of Hidden Sound escaped along with half the demons of hell," Sakura stated, getting up. "You've done your bit. The one and only task the Hokage gave you was to help take down Orochimaru. That's done. I don't want you two getting yourselves injured any further today. Go get a shower and then some rest."
"How about you?" Naruto countered, watching Sakura straighten up in stiff stages, radiating extreme fatigue. She'd been right behind them during the fight, keeping Orochimaru's bodyguard off their backs, and then she'd helped Shizune heal three near-fatal casualties and half a dozen others; she looked drained. He himself got to his feet without any problems, already feeling much better. Having Kyuubi around did prove handy from time to time.
"I am going to rest as well, and nobody will have to strong-arm me into doing it," was Sakura's prompt reply. "All the critical cases are being dealt with; Tsunade-sama told me to take care of you and then save my chakra. She knows my limits and so do I. I know perfectly well that I will recover faster and be of more use to my village if I do not over-exert myself; it is our responsibility to- hey!"
Naruto blinked a couple of times at the empty space where Sakura had been lecturing him, and then twisted his head around frantically until he saw where she'd disappeared to. He took a dozen bounds along the streets that put him ahead of his teammate and her unexpected abductor.
"Hey, Gaara, buddy. Good to see you're okay-" Gaara walked right on past him, Sakura still helplessly caught by the wrist and barely keeping up. Naruto hurried to keep pace. Sasuke was following right behind them, frowning. "Um, Gaara, mind telling us what you're doing with our friend?"
"I'll bring her back after I'm done with her."
"...Now I really gotta ask, what-"
"Lee's been injured," Gaara answered shortly. "He's at my unit's headquarters. We don't have enough medi-nin-" and then Sakura was past him and accelerating.
"Naruto, Sasuke, go clean up and get some rest now!" she ordered without even turning around, heading towards the Suna encampment. Gaara didn't bother to add anything and caught up with her in three steps. They were both gone a second later, while Naruto was still trotting out the question "How bad did Fuzzy-brow get hit?"
"Come on," Sasuke said, slouching off down a side street with his hands in his pockets. He was heading in the direction of the barracks the Konoha troops had been assigned to.
Naruto gave the world around him an aggravated look, kicked at a stone and turned to follow. "Oh hell. Might as well get the muck off, or she'll never let us hear the end of it. Then you can get some sack-time or something; I'll go see if Lee's okay."
"We'll take a shower, because you reek. Then you can put on a new shirt and take a nap. I'll go," Sasuke said without turning around.
"What- you go take a bloody nap! I want to make sure Fuzzy-brow's okay. He's my friend!"
"He's not mine, but I don't trust that red-headed psycho and his lot. Lee is from my village, as is Sakura. I'll make sure they don't get into trouble; you get some rest. You need it."
"What the hell?! You need the fucking rest, I could knock you down without even trying!"
"I see you're delirious with fatigue."
"Huh? Oh, sure, smart guy, who's the moron who nearly got punched through a wall by that very first blast?"
"I would have caught myself if you hadn't interfered," Sasuke shot back, before regaining his annoying aloofness. "You're tired, you just put everything you had into fighting the Three-Tail. Who would still have walked all over you if Kakashi and I hadn't taken out half of its materialized form with our-"
The familiar row that followed was not hampered by the fastest cleanup in the history of hygiene. It concluded rather predictably, with the both of them in the Suna encampment twenty minutes later, looking for their teammate.
They were directed to the home of a Stone Village councilor, commandeered for the Kazekage by the invasion forces. The councilor was one of those who'd helped Orochimaru snake his way into the Shinobi village; the guy had been abruptly removed from the council and tossed into jail by his own ANBU five minutes before the attack started. The Sand Shinobi guarding the door recognized Naruto from his visits to Suna, and let him in without too much fuss. The two teammates found Sakura in the bedroom, applying healing chakra to a large bump in the bowl cut of an unconscious Lee. Sasuke and Naruto glanced at each other and forwent their own unsettled argument in favor of going over to the medi-nin to talk about over-exertion, Tsunade's orders and so-called rest.
Calm had returned by the time Sakura applied the last bandage. Lee was fast asleep. He'd come to earlier, when Sakura finished healing his head, but he'd been pretty confused. He took one look at Naruto and Sakura and asked if it was their turn in the Jounin exam yet; then he tried to get up and fight. When Sakura gently reminded him that they were all Jounin already, and he was wounded, he tried to get up mumbling that he had to find Gaara, until Sakura made him swallow some herbal concoction. Now he was sleeping again with a big happy grin on his face.
Sakura rubbed her eyes with hands that were shaking ever so slightly. "That's the worst of it healed. There was some swelling in the brain I had to take care of. Beyond that...I couldn't do much more, I don't have enough energy left." She stared at Lee, then reached out hopefully towards his broken arm. "Though maybe I could-"
"Stop it," Sasuke said. Naruto barely noticed anymore his teammate's uncanny ability to make a caring remark sound like an abrupt order. He and Sakura had evolved a mighty set of filters to handle Sasuke since the latter's reluctant return to Konoha a few years ago. They knew his attitude came from guilt and a misguided attempt to protect them from caring for him or something just as stupid; it made the tone easy to ignore.
"But Fuzzy-brow's gonna be okay, right?" Naruto whispered, to avoid waking the patient. "His arm is broken, but it's not, you know, like last time? Really broken?" He remembered all too well the look on Lee's face six years ago after his arm and leg had been crushed; like somebody had removed his soul. Naruto had a hard time seeing his friends get hurt, and he never wanted to see any one of them get that hurt ever again.
"No no, I set the fracture and it's a clean break," Sakura answered softly. "It should heal perfectly fine without major intervention."
An uncomfortable silence followed, timed only by Lee's soft snores, the room haunted by the memory of a past injury and by the presence of the one who'd caused it. The Kazekage's robe was hanging from a nail near the door; it felt like it was watching them. The room had been emptied of all its furniture except for the bed; there were no clocks, no pictures, no drapes, no ornaments. No weapons, either; the room's inhabitant didn't need any bar the one he always had with him. There was a travel chest against the wall and some toiletries and maps on a folding table and that was it. The proof positive that yes, Gaara did brush his teeth like everybody else, should have been reassuring, but the rest of the room was too chillingly empty for that. The air smelt of blood, antiseptic, dust and sand. The Kazekage hadn't been here long, but he'd stamped his presence on this room as if mere wood and plaster had had to bend and shape itself around his personality...Naruto had been pretty surprised to find Lee tucked into Gaara's bed and gently bleeding on the sheets, but there were wounded Shinobi all over the place, and it wasn't as if Gaara needed the bed much.
A weak and desultory discussion followed regarding the whole 'rest' thing, more to fill the alien silence than to truly make a point.
"You two go on. Take a break; they might need you later when they find the fugitives," Sakura insisted. "I'll stay with him."
"He doesn't need his hand held," Sasuke said.
"I'm fine, I won't try any more repairs; I just want to be here when he wakes up. Somebody should. And...I want to talk to him." Sakura's fingers rested on Lee's wrist, her thumb brushing his pulse out of habit. "I've been worried about him."
"'bout what?" Naruto asked, leaning against the wall near the head of the bed. He was perhaps a little tired after all, not that he'd let Sasuke know this and score over him. Meanwhile, Sasuke had wandered off to look out of the window, as if talking about what might be wrong with Lee concerned him less than a conversation on how to raise tropical fish.
"He doesn't write as often," Sakura admitted, looking at Lee's sleeping features. "He didn't even come see me last time he was in Konoha. Gaara yanked him back to Suna just hours after they'd arrived, before we even knew he was there."
"They were busy organizing the attack and stuff," Naruto pointed out, which was what Granny Tsunade had explained to him when he'd been ticked off to learn about Gaara's midnight visit second hand, hours after his buddies had left without even bothering to hammer on his door.
"That's no proper reason! Lee ran from one village to the other then back again not six hours later and he only got to see Gai-san. That's just not right, he hardly gets to visit Konoha as it is. He could have spent the day there, it wouldn't have been the end of the world. I know Lee's our envoy and important to our alliance, but it's obvious that Gaara overworks him shamelessly. Gaara probably doesn't care that other people need to sleep. And Lee must be so lonely in Suna." Sakura's murmur was rising in volume, and Naruto had the impression they were getting to the real heart of the matter. "Just stuck out there for months on end with only Sand Shinobi around- and we know what they're like. Anybody would feel lonely and isolated, but that's particularly bad for Lee, you know him, he's a friendly person, he needs- he's nearly twenty and all he does is work and go on missions and follow Gaara around. He needs somebody to care for him. He needs a girlfriend."
In the silence that followed that statement, Sakura didn't seem to notice the way her two teammates had stilled and were looking at her from the corner of their eyes.
"Hmm." She bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. "If only he were in Konoha, I know exactly who I'd introduce him to; they'd hit it off right away, it'd be perfect."
An indefinable tension left the male parties in the room. Naruto and Sasuke looked away from Sakura and each other, trying to pretend that moment hadn't happened.
"Naruto, you've been to Sunagakure a few times, more than I have," Sakura said, not very enthusiastically. "Who do you know over there?"
"Well, I know Gaara, Kanku-"
"She meant girls, idiot," Sasuke muttered, then scowled out the window, obviously cross at the slip of the tongue that had punched a hole in his air of utter disinterest in what they were saying.
"I am going to try to find him a girlfriend, Naruto, and you are going to help," Sakura confirmed, overriding Naruto's objections that he was hardly qualified to find girlfriends for Lee or anybody else.
Naruto fished around his limited knowledge of Suna's female population.
"I don't think Temari's seeing anybo-"
Then he recoiled as a very angry Sakura managed to tower over him, despite the differences in their heights. "I meant someone warm and tender and pretty and gentle and-"
"Shhhh, you'll wake fuzzy-brow," Naruto said, backing away nervously.
"No, I won't," Sakura snapped, though she did lower her volume and glance back at Lee, still snoozing peacefully. She examined him carefully, then grabbed Naruto by the top of his orange jacket and dragged him off near the window where she could continue talking to both her teammates quietly. "He shouldn't wake up even if we shout. That-...the Kazekage insisted on the way over that I not give him any painkillers. That's exactly the sort of thing I was talking about."
Naruto had thought she'd been talking about finding a girl for Fuzzy-brow, not about the Kazekage and painkillers. Sometimes he just couldn't follow female logic. He was smart enough not to say that, though; instead, he put on his 'thinking' face, rubbed his chin and muttered: "Really? That's weird."
"But you gave him some anyway," Sasuke said, giving Sakura a heavy look.
"I'm not about to let Lee suffer just because that- that cold-hearted bastard thinks that's fun."
"Hey, hey, Gaara ain't like that," Naruto immediately put in. "Well, not anymore."
"Oh, I know," Sakura said with a gesture of irritation. "Though sometimes I wonder. I know Gaara's your friend now, Naruto - but when I told him that Lee would be fine and the injuries weren't serious, he snapped at me."
Naruto tensed. The words Gaara and snapped in the same sentence was bad news, the sort of bad news that came with a body count. Then he realized that wasn't what she'd meant.
"He told me that any injury was unacceptable and that Lee should have known better and dodged. He's blaming Lee for getting hurt, and for not being perfect with an absolute defense or something." Sakura's fist - which Naruto always thought of as 'pretty, but really powerful' - was clenched. "Lee was fighting in his unit and got injured helping him! My blood was boiling! I nearly told him - I don't even know what I was about to say, but then some Chuunin showed up looking for him, and he left without a please or a thank you."
"I did not realize a please or a thank you were necessary for you to do your job."
A nasty little silence followed that cold, uncaring comment behind them.
Damn, he even managed to get the drop on Sasuke, Naruto thought, having caught his teammate's flinch. Sakura had gone as pink as her hair as she glanced back.
Gaara walked right past the three of them without a second glance, as if he couldn't begin to be bothered following through on that comment. Which, knowing Gaara, was probably the case. He went right up to the bed and looked down at Lee. Then he finally did turn and shot Sakura a dangerous look. "Why is he still unconscious?"
Sakura's embarrassment got abruptly shelved; this was her domain. "I gave him a mild sedative while I treated the concussion," she answered, curt and professional. "He was disoriented, and I didn't want him in pain or getting more confused than he was, he could have compounded his injuries. He should wake up soon."
Gaara gave her a look that even Naruto couldn't make out and that could mean anything from 'thanks, good call' to 'you have disobeyed my orders, I am contemplating retaliations', but Sakura continued in her no-nonsense medi-nin voice, the one that made her sound eerily like Granny Tsunade.
"I healed the cranial damage, set and splinted the arm and stopped the bleeding from the lacerations. I couldn't do more, I need to hold some chakra back in case of emergency, but the rest shouldn't be any problem for him. He'll heal on his own if he's given the opportunity to rest and recover."
Gaara stared at her some more, then nodded faintly. "Fine. You can go away now."
Sakura's mouth opened in a soundless Oh, and she shot Naruto a meaningful look. Naruto could only wince and shrug in response. They all knew Gaara was about as polite as a tack.
"Now just a minute," Sakura said, even though the tack in question wasn't looking their way anymore; he'd unbuckled the leather halter of the gourd and was lifting it off of his back with a practiced motion, paying them no more attention than to the sparse furniture. "Lee is my patient, and I intend to stick around and make sure he's not in any pain when he wakes up."
Gaara leaned the gourd against the wall. "He'll be in pain. I doubt your skills can change that."
"What did you-"
Naruto elbowed her urgently. From the slight start she'd given just as he connected, Sasuke had been two tenths of a second faster doing the same thing.
Sakura made an irritated gesture to bat them both away. She didn't look ready to explode; she must have realized Gaara hadn't meant that as a disparagement of her healing abilities, just a statement of fact.
"I may not be able to take all the pain away, but I can help, and neither you nor anyone short of Tsunade-sama will stop me," she said steadily. Naruto felt torn between stepping in front of her protectively and edging away, because he knew that tone.
There was a minimal shrug from Gaara as he opened the lid of the chest near the bed. "I don't intend to stop you. If you think you can help, stay."
"Thank you," Sakura said, a bit stiffly but with a certain grace. "I'm sorry if I- um- w-what are you doing?"
Gaara had already slipped out of his coat, dropping it on the chest's open lid, and was getting rid of his shirt. "Changing," he said, without any trace of emotion or concern in his voice.
Shinobi were quick thinkers. Gaara's fingers had barely touched his belt that Sakura said: "Lee should be asleep for a little while longer. I'll wait in the next room."
"Good idea," said Naruto.
Sasuke was already out the door.
Gaara filled the basin from the pitcher and washed off the sweat and dirt of battle, then he cleaned up and bandaged a couple of minor cuts; not many blows had gotten through the Sand, the Armor and Lee's protection. The blood in his hair, under his fingernails, all down his right side and smeared beneath his sandals belonged to his enemy. He'd been sloppy on that one. He'd also been enraged and way past caring about a clean kill.
He tossed away his clothes for his luckless aide to attempt to clean, and picked out a change of outfit from the chest. He slipped on the mantle of office for his upcoming meeting with the Tsuchikage, but he was dressed for combat beneath it. He didn't trust Hidden Stone and their excuse that Orochimaru had tricked his way into their protection, and tradition aside, Gaara wasn't going to put himself in a position where he might have to fight in an ankle-length robe.
Lee was regaining consciousness, blinking up at the ceiling with a puzzled frown that disappeared when Gaara came into his line of sight. "There you are. I was looking all over for you. Are you okay?"
Gaara didn't answer immediately, or make any acerbic comments about Lee being the one in bed with a broken arm, cracked ribs and contusions. He was observing Lee closely. The Jounin shifted, muttered 'Ow', and propped himself up. Then he blinked his big round eyes, smiled and frowned in quick succession.
"The top of my head feels like it's floating," he muzzily informed Gaara.
Gaara felt a distinct edge of irritation towards the Haruno woman, but he was aware she was only trying to help and lessen Lee's suffering. Besides, Lee didn't look completely loopy, just a bit vague; he wasn't reacting to whatever she'd given him as strongly as to the opiates last time, or to alcohol. In fact, it might just be the normal after-effects of concussion, whiplash and sedation. Gaara would have preferred his lover clear-headed, since he couldn't stay and watch over Lee and protect him; he had serious obligations towards Suna and the peace to attend to. But since the woman had said she'd stick around for awhile, Lee would not be defenseless, especially if Naruto and Uchiha stayed with her.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and gently brushed Lee's cheek with his fingers, where earlier a deep bruise had swollen the side of Lee's jaw all the way up to the ear; now there was only a purplish mark left. Lee really did look a whole lot better than when he'd passed out right after the battle. At least that medi-nin knew her stuff.
"Are you okay?" Lee asked again.
Gaara nodded. Lee had taken the brunt of the damage, once again. Deep inside, Gaara wanted to rage about that, but with the fighting over, he'd come down from his protective fury and regained his control. While looking for Haruno, he'd analyzed the gap in their defense that had resulted in Lee's injury: seen coldly and in hindsight, there had been little they could have done to avoid one or the other getting hit at that juncture. Rationally, it was better for Lee to get knocked unconscious rather than Gaara, as that could present all kinds of interesting problems while he was tapping into Shukaku's powers. Lee knew how to take a hit and avoid damage; even hammered into a wall, he'd landed in a way that lessened the impact of the blow, and after catching his breath, he'd been back on his feet and fit enough to stay at Gaara's side and keep them both in the fight until it was over. Gaara owed him greatly, but in truth he owed Lee so much there was no point in keeping score. He and Lee were going to practice extensively together as soon as the Jounin was well again; the solution to the problem of protecting each other was to make sure their combined defenses were absolute.
Lee smiled and leaned into Gaara's touch with a big happy grin. "We won!" he said, as if he was the only one to have figured it out and couldn't wait to share the news.
"They put up quite a fight. A worthy challenge! Did I ask you if you were okay yet?"
"Good! Can I kiss you then?" Lee asked brightly.
Maybe Lee expected him to say Yes again. What Gaara had intended to say- after a moment of silence in which to rapidly change gears to match Lee's questions- was that Lee was injured and not entirely clear-headed and it wasn't advisable. He didn't get the opportunity.
Lee's mouth tasted like blood and medicine. Gaara let it happen. Three months together: it felt almost familiar to be touched by Lee, yet still totally alien to be touched at all...a contradiction, sharp as the pleasure/comfort and the anxiety and the fury to destroy those who'd almost taken this from him. Lee's good arm was around his waist, trying to pull him closer. Closer. Lee's warmth touched the cold, isolated places in Gaara's soul and made his body shiver. He could feel Lee smile against his mouth at the response, and tilt his head to kiss him deeper, tempting Gaara to break the walls in his mind and reach for what he wanted, reach for more, reach for- Gaara's fingers touched bandages, and that brought him back to the here and now. He put his hand on Lee's uninjured shoulder, keeping them apart so they wouldn't catch the splinted arm, bound across Lee's chest, between them.
"Love you," Lee whispered against Gaara's lips, and kissed him again, sharing a shiver of desire; a touch of warmth, tenderness and peace in the aftermath of battle. Sadly interrupted. The lovers broke the kiss and glanced towards the door.
"Three monkeys," Lee declared, solemn and not entirely with it.
Gaara examined the intruders. Sasuke was wearily rubbing his eyes as if a violent pain had just exploded behind the sockets; Sakura had both hands clapped over her mouth to muffle a startled squeak; Naruto was clutching the sides of his face near the ears in a classic 'Yaaaarg!' position. They did look a little like a statue of the three wise monkeys...
Lee made a weird noise. "...Please tell me I'm still dreaming?" he asked, sounding a whole lot more sober and clearheaded.
Gaara would have loved to oblige, since he didn't like the sudden tension in Lee's frame, but he didn't think Lee would believe him if he assured his lover that yes, he was dreaming.
"Sakura-san...Naruto-kun. And Sasuke-kun. Ah, it's nice to see you all again," Lee said formally, red up to his eyebrows.
Sakura made a tiny noise, like a balloon deflating. Naruto was still frozen in the same position and Sasuke was glaring at the carpet as if it had personally offended him.
"You're probably wondering, um, about this," Lee mumbled.
"No, I was actively trying to forget it," Sasuke said, directing his answer at the floor. Nobody else said anything.
"You see...I guess it's okay to tell you now...since we won..."
"Lee and I are lovers. You can leave now," Gaara said when it looked like Lee was grinding to a halt.
Sasuke turned around immediately and headed for the door, but paused as he realized his teammates hadn't moved.
"You heard the man. He wants us to go away," he said.
"Snap out of it, Uzumaki."
"Buh-buh-but he said-they- but-"
Gaara started to frown - only a slight change in his expression, but those closest to him would recognize a danger signal. Nobody noticed, though, because Sasuke didn't know him well enough, Naruto was still trying to regain coherency, and Sakura and Lee were holding what Gaara perceived to be a sort of wordless communication - his scowl deepened - composed of looking up slowly, glancing away quickly, going red and doing useless things with their fingers.
It looked like it might have gone on a long time, but then Lee caught a glimpse of Gaara's face and promptly forgot the woman, her two teammates and just about everything else by the looks of it, all his attention centered on his lover. He reached up and touched Gaara's face, a brief reassuring caress. When he turned back towards the others, he looked resolved, shoulders straight and the tilt of his chin bold and determined.
"That's right. Gaara and I are together. Sorry. I mean, sorry I didn't tell you before," he added, just as Gaara, eyes narrowing, tried to figure out what Lee was apologizing to the Haruno woman for. Saying sorry for not telling her made sense; Gaara had had to apologize to Temari for the same reason. In Gaara's limited experience, women liked to know these things; men on the whole seemed a lot less interested.
"I...I see," Sakura said, her voice a bit wobbly but with the start of a smile. "I see. I didn't know you liked men, Lee-kun."
Gaara wondered who were these men Lee was supposed to like. Then he realized she was referring to Lee's sexuality, so he wondered instead why he was feeling so irritated. This was unlike him, or rather, unlike the persona he maintained these days. His control had been rattled by the recent fighting, having to use Shukaku's powers so much, and Lee getting himself injured.
"Um, yes...I...sort of found out...I mean...ah..." Lee's determination had evaporated again and he couldn't seem to meet her eye. Gaara decided that in exactly one minute, he was tossing all of them out so Lee could get some rest and return to his normal behavior.
"That's good news!" Sakura exclaimed in such an odd tone that even Gaara picked up on it. It was as if she was trying out the words and listening to them in some disbelief. "Isn't that right, Naruto?"
"Isn't that good news?"
"Is it?" Naruto looked completely flummoxed.
"Yes, it is. Oh, Tenten will be surprised. She always said- um, anyway, ah, so, how long have you two-...I mean, ah...that's good news. Right, Naruto?" Gaara was starting to think someone had hit her over the head as well.
"Yeah, sure. I still don't believe it, but when I do, I'm sure it'll be good." Naruto rubbed the back of his head, eyes narrowed in confusion. "So...does this mean we don't have to try to find Fuzzy-brow a girlffffhhm!"
Gaara was mildly impressed: he'd not even seen Sasuke move. The Leaf was now standing three feet to the left of his former position, one hand slammed over Naruto's mouth.
"Listen, idiot, don't bother Lee's boyfriend with what we were talking about before. It really wasn't important and I don't think he'd be interested."
"Hmm-hm," Naruto mumbled, visibly irritated. He jerked away from Sasuke's hand and stomped closer to the bed. He gave the lovers a long stare and then locked eyes with Gaara. He looked like he was searching for something. Maybe he found it, because he suddenly put his hands behind his head and grinned like a fox who'd located the henhouse.
"Yeah. Good. You finally made it." That enigmatic comment seemed to puzzle his teammates and Lee, but it hadn't been addressed to them.
Naruto shared a look with his teammates that Gaara could not read, a silent dialogue in a reciprocated glance. Then they all three turned towards the door.
"Come on," Naruto said, quite redundantly since his friends were already well ahead of him. "These two guys are okay, but I need to sleep for a week. Too much shock to the system, like."
"So how many blows to the head does it take to make you act rationally? For future reference?" Gaara heard Sasuke ask as the two men walked out. He didn't make out Naruto's answer, but it was loud. Sakura was on their heels, after a small wave at Lee and a sharp look at Gaara that gave the Kazekage the unpleasant feeling of being closely watched even after she'd left the room.
"Is she like a sister to you?" Gaara asked slowly, watching the door without blinking.
He felt Lee twitch. "What?"
"You said Gai is like a father to you, while Naruto once told me I was like a brother to him, and Temari says she feels like a sister to you; there seems to be correlations between Haruno's behavior and theirs."
Lee looked startled at the notion, but just as Gaara assumed he'd made a mistake, Lee nodded and grinned. "Yes. Yes, that's some of it, now. In the past, Sakura-san...But that's a long story. I'll tell you another day, if that's okay. My head hurts a bit."
Another day was preferable, since Gaara had far greater concerns than Haruno Sakura, and places to be in ten minutes or less. Which presented him with a new problem.
"Are you feeling sick? Dizzy? Faint?"
Lee blinked owlishly at him. "No. Just a bit sore." Gaara automatically translated that as 'aching painfully', this being Lee.
"Can you walk?"
"Of course. I can even fight!" Then he winced as the brandished fist that went with that statement pulled bruised muscles across his ribs. "That is, I can fight if we really have to."
"We don't. You are not to do anything strenuous until I say so." Gaara gave him a dead-on stare until Lee reluctantly agreed. "I was told to let you have plenty of rest, but I have to go to a meeting and I am not leaving you here by yourself all day. There are too many dangerous people whose whereabouts are still unknown."
Lee nodded firmly. "In that case, I'm not letting you out of my sight either. I can sit down and rest outside the door while you have your meeting, okay?"
For answer, Gaara helped him out of bed, put Lee's uninjured arm on his shoulder for support and led him limping out of the room and into the bustle of the Suna camp.
"They looked really happy for us. I'm glad we told them," Lee said abruptly, a propos of nothing. He was smiling and his eyes were warm and bright. Gaara didn't answer, though now that he thought of it, it felt right for Naruto to know...Lee squeezed Gaara's shoulder, a good measure of determination back in his gait; Gaara put his hand on the small of his lover's back to steady him over some rubble, because determination aside, Lee was still a bit wobbly. None of the Shinobi they passed looked particularly surprised at seeing them like that, but both Gaara and Lee were deep in thought and didn't really notice.
End Side Story