Naruto Fan Fiction ❯ Diplomatic Relations ❯ Rumours, Lies and Truths ( Chapter 25 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

AN: note, chapters are out of synch with my own because of the sidestories.
Thanks for all the reviews ^_^ I'm glad the characters come across as 'In Character'. This chapter answers a few questions that were asked. The only question that's not answered is 'how would Gaara react if someone hit on Lee', and the answer to that would be 'better not think about it' ^_^
Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me, and I make no money off of this.
Rumours, Lies and Truths.
Lee was just starting on his third lap around Suna when he noticed a night-time shadow that was more than a shadow near the gate. He screeched to a halt and then trotted back a few paces to see what Kankuro wanted.
"Yo," the Sand Jounin said in greeting. "What did you do this time?"
"I beg your pardon?" Lee asked, startled but always polite.
"What 'self-imposed challenge' is this for?" Kankuro elaborated, a hand gesture indicating a circuit of Suna.
"Oh, nothing, I'm just exercising."
"At ten PM?" The thick lines painted over Kankuro's mouth took on a dubious twist. "Are you going to start training like crazy all night long like you did before Sound winged you? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I don't think that's healthy."
'Oh, no, I was only training like that because I was trying not to have wet dreams about your brother' was the answer Lee was not going to give Kankuro in this lifetime.
Before he could stutter something out, Kankuro waved his own question away. "Never mind. I was looking for you. Temari wants to see us at Gaara's, ASAP."
"Temari?" Lee was at the Sand Jounin's side in a second. "She's back from her talks with Tsunade-sama? What news does she have of Konoha? Is everything okay over there? How about our joint plans? Did she bring back any letters from Gai-sensei?"
"A Jounin from her escort showed up at my place ten minutes ago to tell me she's at Gaara's," Kankuro answered with a show of weary patience. "He said considerably less than you just did."
"Oh, I thought you'd seen her-"
"Just come along. She'll want you for some inter-village cooperation thing. She'll want me because she's got something to nag about. It took me long enough to track you down, I don't want her screeching about punctuality on top of it all."
"Right!" Lee walked through the gate and trotted up the street leading through the village to Gaara's residence perched on the heights. Kankuro followed at a lazier pace.
The streets of Suna were busy as people went about their evening activities. The village would be full of life until midnight, when people went to bed. They'd get up at five or six and work until eleven, then rest out of the sun and heat until mid-afternoon. Suna had its own rhythm. Unless you were a Shinobi of Suna, in which case you had the rhythm you were told to have. Lee saluted several patrols coming back tired and dirty from the deep Desert, and a weapon smith working on a large ballista that had been damaged by the sandstorm a few days ago; the man looked like he was getting ready to pull an all-nighter.
Kankuro walked at his own speed, forcing Lee to fall back regularly and wait for him. Despite his mention of Temari's irritation, or perhaps because of it, Kankuro appeared to be in no hurry to be seen rushing through the streets of Suna at his sister's bidding.
The two Jounin made their way towards Gaara's house in silence, which felt awkward to Lee. It had been over four weeks since Kankuro had returned and caught Lee pawing the Kazekage in the latter's office. Things had gotten very busy after that. True to her word, Tsunade-sama had not given her Envoy any missions, but Lee had more than enough work on his hands, helping Suna's upper cadre coordinate the efforts of two Hidden Villages in setting up a secret attack on a third. What little leisure time Lee had, he spent practicing, or with Gaara - or practicing with Gaara if he could pry the Kazekage from his desk.
As a result, Lee hadn't had time to sit down with Kankuro and figure out where he now stood with the man. Kankuro had been a friend before The Office Incident, but now it was hard to tell. He seemed pretty nonchalant for someone walking through the village with his little brother's lover, but then again, nothing ever fazed Kankuro. That is, nearly nothing.
They'd arrived at the Kazekage's residence before Lee could find a way to broach such a sensitive subject, but he made himself a promise to corner the Sand ninja around a pot of coffee one of these days, and see if they could settle things between them.
The light was on in the kitchen, so Lee headed that way. He hesitated as he crossed the threshold of the brightly lit room. Temari was standing at the central counter, her nails clicking against the fan on her back; she looked tired, travel-worn and aggravated. Gaara was standing at the kitchen window opposite the door, his back to the rest of the room, staring out into the darkness with his arms crossed over his chest. The gourd was on the floor at his side, and it seemed bigger than it usually did.
"Hey," Kankuro tossed lazily at his sister. A flicker of the heavily painted eyelids was the only indication he'd picked up on the underlying tension as well.
"Sit down, the both of you," Temari said curtly, then she caught herself and smiled at Lee; it came out a bit forced. "How are you? You're looking a lot better."
"I'm fully recovered, thank you," Lee said cautiously, sitting down as she'd told him to. Kankuro slipped his bound puppet scrolls from his back with a thunk and leaned them against the counter.
"Yo, Gaara, got anything to eat?" he asked hopefully, glancing over at his brother. Gaara didn't answer or move.
"This is no time to think about your stomach," Temari growled. "We have a situation."
"So I gathered," Kankuro drawled; his eyes were still on Gaara's back, and they were cautious and weighing, at odds with his tone.
Temari spoke impatiently. "I'll get right to the point. There is a rumour circulating around the upper cadre in Konoha that Lee and Gaara are an item."
That brought her brother's attention back to her pronto, and cemented Lee's.
"That rumour originated here in Suna, and I'm going to figure out who started it, let me assure you," Temari added, lips tight and eyes narrowed dangerously, staring out the door as if she was ready to go and do so right now. "At this point, it has even percolated through to a few well-informed politicians in the courts of both our countries."
"How serious a rumour?" Kankuro asked, intrigued. Lee just stared at her, jaw hanging in the wind and eyes glassy.
"I heard it from Tsunade herself. She told me because she thought I'd enjoy the joke," Temari said sourly. "She finds the whole notion hilarious."
"Yeah, I bet," Kankuro smirked, just as Lee finally got his mouth working and blurted out: "Does Gai-sensei know?"
Temari sighed shortly, as if the two young men had reacted pretty much as she'd expected. She pinched the bridge of her nose and appeared to gather her thoughts, and Lee felt something cold creep up his spine for no reason he could name.
The refrigerator clicked and started to hum in one corner. Gaara still hadn't turned away from the window.
"I'm afraid it's not a joke," Temari finally said, addressing Lee. "You should take this seriously. Before others do. So far, it's just a rumour- and far-fetched for anyone who doesn't know you and Gaara. They're not actually basing this on anything solid. Just on the way you saved his life, and the fact you two spend a lot of time together and are close. I'm ready to bet not even the rumourmongers seriously believe you two are sleeping together, they're just using this to slander-"
"But we are," Lee said, bewildered.
"Yes, I know, that's the problem. Sooner or later, the brighter ones are going to connect a few more of the dots, and realize it's way more than a rumour or a joke. And at that point, the hierarchy in both our villages are going to have a lot to say about this. You're a diplomatic and military envoy, you're supposed to remain impartial and defend your village's interests in our Alliance, while dealing objectively with Gaara. Konoha won't like Gaara's influence on you; Suna won't like your influence on Gaara."
"Temari, I would never-"
"I know that!" Temari snapped, interrupting Lee's exclamation. "But the people who will use this against you and Gaara don't care. And this rumour...the little I've heard of it..." Her eyes flickered towards Gaara's back, and she concluded quickly: "Let's just say that it has a nasty little spin to it. Malicious. And no wonder, considering who I suspect is behind it."
"Behind it?" Kankuro asked her sharply.
"Yes. This is not just happenstance. Gaara and Lee have been discreet, and hell, they've only been together for- what, a month?"
"Month and a half," Lee corrected distractedly.
"I've worked at the Daimyo's court long enough to learn how this kind of gossip spreads, and I can tell you, this rumour is not getting as far as it is all by itself. Someone is making sure it gets above all to the people who have an axe to grind against Gaara, or Tsunade, or our villages. This is being deliberately spread by someone who wants Lee recalled, maybe even disgraced, and Gaara embarrassed and the Alliance between our villages shaken."
Temari looked at them as if she expected them to jump to some conclusion and figure out who she was talking about. Lee and Kankuro were both giving her blank stares, which apparently annoyed her.
"Orochimaru!" she snapped. "Remember him? The one who tried to grab Gaara? Whose men were defeated because Lee was there? Whose hideout our combined villages are planning to attack?!"
"Oh, that Orochimaru," Kankuro muttered. The irony sounded like a reflex.
"He's learned of our plans, despite our efforts," Temari said crisply. "We knew he would; that snake has too many spies. We've blocked his bolt-holes- but we're not ready to attack yet, and he's trying to out-manoeuvre us. I've spent the last month putting out fires all over the place, even while I was in Konoha. Little things that are distracting us from our planned attack. Messenger hawks gone missing. Supply lines attacked by bandits. The Daimyo suddenly deciding he wants a courtesy visit. His chancellor getting ideas about taxes we might owe. Stone Country recalling its ambassadors from Wind and Fire. It's been like juggling knives for a month now, and I know Konoha has been under the same kind of barrage."
Temari started to pace, hands behind her back wrapped tight around her fan.
"Orochimaru is using all means to destabilize us and distract us. He only wants to delay us until Sound's plans are ripe. Spreading a rumour like this is just one small weapon in his arsenal, one it costs him virtually nothing to use, and which can spread mistrust between allies. Especially in Konoha, I'm afraid," Temari added, with a sombre glance at Lee. "Tsunade has rivals in her village. With her reputation and her long absence from Leaf, making her Godaime was not without objections. And she came under a bit of fire when she stood by Gaara's decision to appoint you as Envoy, Lee. This makes this rumour into a nice little venomous weapon for that snake Sannin of yours. The fact that it's true will just be a huge bonus for him. It makes it extremely undeniable in the face of questioning. It's made even worse by the fact that Lee didn't warn anybody in Konoha. As he should have, according to their rules," Temari concluded, drawing up on the other side of the counter from Lee and drilling him with a hard gaze, hands on her hips.
"Rules?" Kankuro blinked in surprise. "They have rules about this?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact they do. A Leaf ninja who has a relationship with someone from another village must inform his superior officers," Temari answered, as if she were reciting. "I checked their statutes myself while I was over there. Discreetly."
"You mean they actually have a law that says 'if you bone a Shinobi from another village, send in Form X90 in triplicate-' Fuck, do we have a rule like that? We only have boring, legal stuff-"
"No, we don't," Temari answered, looking irritated at the interruption. "I think we did at one time, years ago, but it was removed."
"Our father would have removed it."
Temari, Kankuro and Lee stiffened and turned towards Gaara, who had spoken for the first time since Lee had come in. His voice was as cold, clean and barren as sheet ice. He still hadn't turned around.
"He believed in the absolute strength and purity of our village and its bloodlines," Gaara continued, without any trace of feeling or inflection.
"Um, yes." Temari's voice sounded oddly human and harried, falling into the silence that had followed that cold statement. "Under-...the former Kazekage, a Suna nin who had an affair with a Shinobi from another village could expect demotion, exile or a hell of a lot worse," she added quietly, for Lee's benefit.
There was a vicious snort from Kankuro as he glared at the kitchen clock on the wall. Gaara made no further comment. Lee wondered if his lover had been aware of Suna's attitude when they'd gotten together. He might have, but Gaara, who had a hard time remembering he was fully a part of the village, or indeed the human race, tended to think rules never applied to him, whether they were in his favour or not.
Lee rubbed his forehead; he had the beginnings of a headache. "I didn't realize...In Konoha, we sort's not that we don't respect the rules, but our Shinobi are given leeway to interpret them It's sort of accepted that when a Jounin lives abroad for any great length of time, he or she has a few week's grace to- to report-...there's not actually a firm time limit on that, as long as there's no pregnan- well, that's not an issue here. I was going to tell them when I next went to Konoha- I couldn't put this down in a letter and I wanted to tell Gai-sensei first," Lee finished in a rush.
Temari sighed and made a placating gesture of the hand.
"Don't get me wrong, Lee. I'm glad you haven't warned them yet. It gives me a chance to fix this."
She suddenly looked tired again, and she wandered over to the counter, and poked without much interest at a couple of dirty plates in the sink.
"I was hoping I'd be able to keep your...relationship with my brother a secret for a few months. By that time...well, you know what it's like in a Hidden Village. It would have eventually leaked out, but by degrees, until it became a secret everyone knows about but nobody discusses. Quietly accepted, never mentioned; like a lot of secrets in Suna. I'm not sure how Konoha would have reacted when it eventually reached them...but from my observations, you do indeed have 'leeway' to interpret your own rules. Konoha is more lenient than we are. I thought that as long as you showed them you could still do a good, impartial job even if you two had been involved for several months, then they could ignore the whole thing for the sake of our alliance."
"But you don't think that'll work now?" Kankuro asked, watching his sister's back attentively.
"No. The rumour spread too soon, and to all the wrong people. This is being used by Tsunade's rivals and the Fire Daimyo's hounds to embarrass her, and at the worst possible time. We cannot afford any problems in the alliance, not now, when we're so close to crushing Sound. So, here's how we're going to play it," Temari said, turning around with her old brisk attitude firmly back in place. "Kankuro?"
The puppeteer looked up in surprise.
"I need two of your most trusted men in the communication department at all times. I want to make sure that all messages from Konoha are now transmitted directly to you, me or Gaara. We'll claim it's an additional security measure. This will allow us to intercept communications that might recall Lee for disciplinary hearings."
Kankuro did a two-finger salute that looked lazy, but his voice was gruff and serious when he muttered: "Done."
"I'll handle things from the diplomatic side. The idea is to keep Lee here as long as we can," Temari continued, addressing the counter before her like a general addressing her troops. "There's no shortage of excuses we can use; he is the Envoy between our villages, after all, and he's needed here. And as long as he's here, Tsunade's enemies can't drag him down to humiliate her and her administration. Once we've finished with Sound, I can concentrate on this problem, find out who's been spreading rumours, and figure out a way of forcing Konoha to leave him-"
Temari had been staring at the counter, while giving Gaara's back the occasional fleeting look as if judging his reaction to her words. She did spare Lee a glance, and abruptly stopped talking when she caught sight of the look on his face.
Lee took a deep breath and, in a remarkably even tone, said: "So if I understand right, you want me to hide out in Suna and indirectly lie to the authorities of my village with Gaara's help?"
The kitchen clock ticked; it sounded awfully loud in the thick silence. Neither sibling looked at Gaara, in a way that made it obvious his reactions were on both their minds. But Gaara said nothing, didn't even twitch.
"Lee," Temari said, trying hard to sound calm and casual, "let's discuss this at a later date. I don't think you realize how extremely bad this could be for your career if it gets out now and under these circumstances. But we don't have to take any decision tonight, and- and this is a bit of a shock to you, I understand that-"
Temari looked up nervously, though she tried to cover it immediately. Lee didn't blame her. Gaara's voice was hard and flat on the surface, but there was something beneath it, deep, dark and dangerous haunting the brightly-lit kitchen.
"I need to speak with Lee. Alone."
The siblings glanced at each other and then at Lee.
"Gaara, I think we should call it a night." Temari took a step towards him, licked her lips. "This will all look better in the morning, and I know I can find a way to negotiate-"
"Thank you," Gaara said softly. "But I need to talk to Lee now."
Temari looked like she was going to argue some more, but Kankuro got up quickly, hauled his puppet scrolls over one shoulder and grabbed her arm, leading her to the kitchen door.
Lee stared blindly at the counter. He couldn't believe how radically his whole life had just shifted. He felt like he'd gone for one of his night-time runs and found himself tottering on the edge of an abyss.
"Gaara...I...I don't know where to begin, I'm-"
"If you want to leave, then you have to do it now. Do it quickly. Leave Suna tonight and don't let me see you go."
Lee stared at him- then he turned his head to the side, sensing movement. The siblings had not left; they'd just gone out of sight into the reception room beyond. From the looks on their faces, they'd heard what Gaara had said, and they knew just how much strength it had taken him to say those words.
Lee certainly knew. He'd wondered - in a hypothetical way - if Gaara would ever let him leave if Lee wanted to. Now he had his answer. There was a very dangerous tension emanating from his lover, Lee could feel it like the echoes of a distant but terrible battle. But Gaara was letting him go, if that was what Lee chose to do.
Lee stared at the straight back, barely conscious of Gaara's brother and sister departing for good, leaving the choice with the two young men.
His chair scraped against tiles as Lee pushed it back. He walked slowly over to his lover, put his hands on Gaara's shoulders- felt a slight hitch in that dangerous tension and chakra- and then gently enfolded him into a hug, pressing himself against Gaara's back.
"I'm not leaving," Lee whispered. "I mean, I might have to leave shortly to sort this out, but I'll come back. I promised to be here as long as you needed me-"
"Think about yourself." The words were harsh, and Lee hugged Gaara closer, knowing they must have hurt.
"I am thinking about myself," he murmured. "I need you, Gaara. I'm happy with you. If I left you...I couldn't, even if I hadn't made that promise."
"Maybe you should." Gaara's voice was ragged with tension. "Because if I ever had to choose. Between you and the safety of my village. I-"
"You would choose them and I would not expect it any differently," Lee said, staring sternly at Gaara's reflection in the window. "I'm not going anywhere, Gaara. I don't care about my career. A hot-headed loser wasn't going to get very far up the diplomatic ladder anyway, even if I'd wanted to. Don't worry about me, okay? Konoha isn't as stringent as Suna on these matters, and our villages are allies. I've been doing a good job here- and if they don't want me as envoy anymore, fine. We'll still manage to be together; we only live a few days from each other at the most. But that's worst-case scenario. I may not be a good diplomat, but I am good at fighting, and I'm going to fight this. Tooth and nail."
Lee straightened up and turned Gaara around to face him. "If I understood what Temari said, most of this- this bloody mess is due to some conniving politicians and maybe even Orochimaru. I'm not going to let that kind of bastard push us around. And I'm sure Tsunade-sama will side with me on that. She always says politicians are the reason why she drinks."
Gaara's face was unreadable, the mask of control absolute. He stared at Lee for what felt like a long time.
"You don't realize...they could demand that..."
"What?" Lee asked, as Gaara's voice faded.
Gaara just looked at him. Lee felt oddly naked beneath that scrutiny and not in a good and interesting way either. He wondered what cold, precise thoughts were going through Gaara's head.
"You're right," Gaara suddenly said, and he sounded more like the Kazekage now. "The easiest way of putting this behind us and disarming our enemies is for us to discuss this with Tsunade directly."
"Right! We'll defeat the darkness of rumours by facing it head-on with the light of Truth and Love!" Lee said with a firm and enthusiastic pose, before his thoughts screeched to a halt. Wait a minute! Us?!
"Whoa, Gaara, you- you want to come with me?! But it's a three-day trip-"
"We'll travel fast. We should be back here in five days if we pace ourselves well. I can nearly match your speed if I strip off the Armour, lighten my Sand and use my chakra to-"
"It is imperative that I go with you," Gaara said cryptically, marching towards the kitchen door. "I need to talk to Tsunade directly. You and I are not the only ones concerned by this; Orochimaru's plots are putting our alliance at risk. And the longer we delay, the greater the chances of him succeeding."
"But-" Lee repeated, and then ran to catch up, as Gaara was already at the foot of the stairs.
"Temari and Kankuro can take over my duties, as they do when I'm on a mission. Now move," Gaara added impatiently over his shoulder.
Lee trailed after his boyfriend as the latter went up to get a few things from his bedroom; his head was spinning, he was frightfully worried that this was a bad decision on Gaara's part for a whole host of reasons big and small. Temari meant well, but it wasn't possible for Lee to hide out here and lie and sneak around- it would be playing Orochimaru's game, and he wasn't about to do that. So Lee had to go back to Konoha, that was self-evident; he'd leave tonight. But first he had to talk Gaara out of this.
Ten minutes later, when Gaara opened the door to the residence, Lee was half-way down the list of reasons why this was a Bad Idea. Gaara still hadn't answered any of them, which meant he had a full head of that cold determination which could make him kill a lot of enemies in a ridiculously short time.
Then Gaara stopped so suddenly that Lee bumped into him, interrupting his latest argument with a startled 'oof!'
It wasn't Lee's attempts at dissuasion that had arrested his lover. Kankuro was between Gaara and the exit to the courtyard, leaning against the decorative wooden arch near its entrance, hands in his pockets.
"Note my complete and utter lack of surprise," the puppeteer commented, glancing at the flasks of water slung over Gaara's shoulder.
Gaara pulled away from Lee, circled his brother and turned to face him fully.
"If you think you're going to stop me, you're about to find your feet encased in a pair of sandy boots that will only dissolve sometime tomorrow morning," he stated.
Kankuro waved his hand as if he was swatting some annoying fly. "I ain't stopping you. But I'm not letting you run about the countryside by yourselves either. It's farfetched, but maybe Orochimaru anticipated you'd react this way and is planning on trying to grab you again."
"He'd have to catch us," Gaara said in an unhurried, deadly voice, "and he'll regret it if he does."
"Huh-uh. I'd actually like to see that. So I'll be going with you, just in case I get the pleasure, and we'll take a couple of friends along too. That should give us a group big enough to watch out for any other kinda trouble, and small enough to avoid it if possible."
Kankuro didn't wait for Gaara to comment. He shoved himself away from the frame as if he regretted the effort already, brought his fingers up to his mouth and whistled loudly, the noise shocking in the night time.
"Oy," he said loudly to the thin air. "Your Kazekage needs to go on a trip without an official escort and nobody the wiser until we hit the border."
Lee stared at him as if he'd gone barking mad- then he twisted around on himself as he felt a presence materialize behind him. He stared into a flat, white mask of one of the Sand ANBU.
"Sir." The voice was muted through the metal, addressing Gaara. "I'll go get Guardian One and we'll accompany you." There wasn't a please or a thank you tacked onto that statement, Lee noted.
Gaara stared at the masked man, then at his brother. The ANBU suddenly disappeared, apparently taking Gaara's silence as acquiescence.
"You won't be able to keep up with us," Gaara said abruptly.
"We'll do our best," Kankuro answered, "and we'll trail after you. We'll only be a few hours behind you at the most."
"I wanted you to stay here and watch Suna in my stead."
Kankuro was tightening the straps holding his scrolls onto his back. He answered without looking up. "We'll let Temari do that, and then when we get back she can skin us all for being reckless, boneheaded males. She gets such a kick outta that."
Gaara examined his brother's painted features for a short while, and then nodded. He gestured at Lee to follow and leapt off into the darkness.
"Um, Gaara, who was that ANBU?" Lee asked, as they neared the wall. He had the strangest feeling that he'd already seen that man, or rather felt his presence, just traces at the very edge of his perceptions, as if the ANBU had been in the act of leaving when Lee went to see Gaara.
"Bodyguard," Gaara answered shortly, eyes on the darkness ahead of them.
Lee concentrated on running, but he made a mental note to ask Gaara about it later, because he was curious. How long had this guy been-…watching over…? Lee followed this thought through to its logical conclusions and suddenly decided he wouldn't ask Gaara about the ANBU, because he wasn't sure he'd be able to live with the answer.
And they ran.
"I'm here to see Tsunade. Now."
With that introduction out of the way, Gaara went straight over the wall, leaving Lee to trail after him spouting excuses to the various Konoha ANBU who had materialized around them, in the hopes he could stop this from ending in violence.
"Sorry! It's okay! This is Gaara-sama, the Kazekage of Sunagakure. Tsunade-sama knows him. Foreign dignitary- means no harm- Don't- please don't stand in front of him- No!...Sorry about that, make sure you wash those scratches out well or they can get infected- Please nobody else grab him like that- Gaara? Wait! Sorry please let us through!"
Fortunately, it was well past midnight by the time they'd made it to Konoha on the second day, so there weren't too many potential obstacles to get in Gaara's way as they walked towards the nerve centre of the Hidden Village.
They'd made exceedingly good time, but the pace had tested even Lee's strength, and he was more used to purely physical feats of endurance than his boyfriend was. Gaara had been perfectly silent these past two days, not that they'd had the breath for chit-chat; he never complained, and refused all of Lee's offers to take a break and wait for Kankuro and the two ANBU to catch up. Lee didn't know why they were in such a great hurry, but something in Gaara's silence and in the relentless rhythm of their race had drained the questions out of him. He could barely wonder now what they were going to say to the Hokage, or how embarrassing this was going to be; he could only worry about his lover. Gaara was tired, Lee could feel it, and that was dangerous. To start with, it made him even less civil and patient than he was ordinarily, which was hardly all that much to begin with.
But the ANBU of Konoha were no fools. They shadowed their unexpected visitor, as they had since he and Lee had passed Konoha's outer perimeter, but they made no attempts to stop him. They also ran on ahead and made sure the other guards Gaara might encounter were forewarned not to ask for his papers or try to turn him away. Especially violently. Lee glanced back guiltily, though he could no longer see the wall and the guard station they'd passed. Fortunately, that Chuunin patroller hadn't been more than lightly sanded when his hand had been slapped away- he really shouldn't have tried to push Gaara around like that anyway; that had been rude.
There was only the ANBU in the administration building, which probably meant they'd discreetly evacuated whatever Shinobi and assistants might still have been working there so late at night. Lee led Gaara up the familiar staircase and along the hall. He remembered walking down this same corridor when the Godaime had summoned him to tell him about the surprising assignment to Suna, nearly a year and a half ago. Lee reached the Hokage's office, politely knocked- Gaara came up right behind him, opened the door, took Lee by the wrist and pulled him into the room before the Jounin could protest.
Tsunade-sama was at her desk, where she spent most of her time, Shizune a familiar presence at her side. Morino Ibiki, the head of Konoha's ANBU, was at her other shoulder and speaking to her quietly. She'd obviously been waiting for them, she must have known of their presence as soon as they'd entered Konoha territory. But she still managed to look extremely surprised as she noticed their joined hands.
"Shizune, get out my largest bottle of booze. I'm going to need it," the Hokage growled, her head sinking into one hand.
Shizune didn't oblige; she was clutching some folders to her chest and staring at the Kazekage. Gaara's effort at making it to Konoha in so short a time had eroded his usual control, and his chakra was leaking. Even Lee, who loved him dearly, had to admit that Gaara's unleashed presence was a bit alarming. For a sharp and sensitive medi-nin like Shizune-san, it must feel as pleasant as a migraine.
Ibiki straightened up and bowed.
"Kazekage-sama. Is your escort outside our territory, waiting for you?"
"No, but they'll be here in a few hours," Gaara answered, eyes flicking towards the Leaf Jounin.
"I'll see that my men know it." Ibiki made a gesture at someone behind Lee. A sense of movement, and they were alone in Tsunade-sama's office with only Ibiki, Shizune and one other ANBU standing discreetly in the far corner.
Tsunade-sama was staring at them fixedly. "So, you two brats decided to give me grey hairs," she suddenly snapped, with the tact and diplomacy that characterized her leadership.
Gaara let go of Lee's wrist and crossed his arms over his chest. The movement brought Tsunade's attention fully on him, much to Lee's relief.
"Temari told me there is a rumour circulating about Lee and me," Gaara said without even a greeting.
"Rumour? Is that what it is?" Tsunade asked derisively.
"No," Gaara answered, since he tended to miss things like sarcasm when he was in this kind of dangerous, single-minded mood. "It's true. Lee and I are lovers."
Lee went bright red and Shizune fumbled one of her folders, but nobody else in the room looked particularly shocked or surprised.
"Really?" Tsunade-sama drawled, eyes hard. "Strike me sober if I saw that one coming when you two burst into my office hand in hand-"
"Were you planning on recalling Lee?" Gaara interrupted, the monotone barely lifting at the end to mark a question.
"Yes, I was actually. I thought the whole thing was a joke, but I wanted him back here so that he could stand up before the Konoha council and tell them to stop smocking whatever they'd put in their pipes. More fool me, I guess-"
"Are you going to recall him now?"
"Now more than ever," Tsunade answered shortly.
Gaara didn't look surprised at her answer, but Lee certainly was. Surprised and horrified. He felt something cold and hard lodge in his throat as he stared at his Hokage, who looked perfectly serious. He'd concentrated on running these past two days, the rhythm and pulse of his chakra and the burn in his body distracting him. He'd had one goal in mind, on which he'd focused entirely; get back to Konoha, talk to Tsunade-sama, explain, and then it would all be All Right.
Lee had never contemplated the fact that it might not be All Right even after they'd explained - not that Gaara had done a very good job of that so far. Lee had to clear this up! But in the cold, deep quiet that had fallen over the room, Tsunade and Gaara staring at each other to the exclusion of all others, he didn't even know where to begin.
"I will not have him prosecuted or sanctioned just because some politician is playing a power-game against you-" Gaara started to say, voice flat, unhurried and with disquieting undertones.
"He won't be," Tsunade-sama interrupted. Her eyes had flashed and she'd crossed her fingers beneath her chin with the deliberation of a warrior drawing a weapon. "It was my decision to send Lee to Suna; I'll accept the consequences. I won't make a scapegoat out of one of my own men. I'll protect him. Even from his own bad decisions."
Her eyes rested briefly on Lee, cold and stern and with just a flicker of regret, and Lee - who wasn't understanding much of this - had the feeling this conversation had dangerous undercurrents he could not see but that were just waiting to pull him under. His own bad decisions? What was Tsunade-sama talking about?
"He's coming back to Suna with me," Gaara stated. Once more, Lee had the oddest feeling he'd missed half the conversation, yet his ears were wide open.
"Just like that?" Tsunade snapped. "What did you suggest, that he become a missing-"
"I would be very careful about what you say next," Gaara said softly.
Ibiki had been motionless and silent since the start of this conversation- yet Lee's eyes twitched towards him with a sudden flash of anxiety, even though the head of the ANBU still hadn't moved.
"Are you threatening me?" Tsunade asked with a ragged smile that showed a lot of teeth.
"No, I'm warning you. There's a difference."
Lee closed his eyes and lifted a hand to call attention to himself, while he tried to think of a way he could possibly apologize for his boyfriend's behaviour without having to cut off his little finger in atonement, or some other ancient ritual of exoneration.
Everybody ignored him.
"Kazekage-sama," Tsunade said, her fingers tightening on each other. The honorific had sounded anything but polite. "You may be the ally of my village, but Lee is my responsibility, and-"
Then she tilted her head, sat back in her chair and her hands slid apart to flip up as if she was tossing something away.
"Fine. Whatever. If he's no longer a Shinobi, then he'll drop beneath everyone's radar, and I won't care what he does. He can go back to Suna with you as a civilian. Would that work for you, Kazekage-sama?"
"Not acceptable."
Gaara's words had cracked around the room like a whip almost before Tsunade had stopped talking. He hadn't even glanced at Lee. But his hand had fastened on Lee's fingers, nearly crushing them.
The pain barely reached Lee, but it was still a slender lifeline that he clung to. He was dizzy, and his body felt hollow and cold. He barely noticed how the ANBU in the corner stiffened and Ibiki's hand casually dropped beneath his coat as Gaara's chakra flared and burned.
"I thought you might suggest that," Gaara said in a voice as cold as a death threat. "It's what Suna would expect of him if he were one of ours. But for Lee, that is not possible. Being a Shinobi has always been his dream, the justification of his existence. And he is an excellent Shinobi. Stripping him of that is not an option."
Tsunade was staring at him. There was surprise in her eyes.
"Yeah, I know," she finally said. Her eyes didn't leave Gaara, but she made an irritated 'stand down' gesture at Ibiki, whose hand drifted out from under his coat again. "I should know; I'm the one who put him back together again six years ago when someone almost took that dream away from him. Remember that? You know, it's funny, I could swear you were involved."
Lee felt Gaara's flinch through the hold on his fingers. He squeezed Gaara's hand instinctively.
Tsunade stared at them both, her face unreadable, and then she shook her head.
"Even if Lee said he'd accept such a solution, I wouldn't let him," she concluded, without her previous biting sarcasm. "I'm glad you see that too, Gaara. But beyond that, I'm afraid you are being rather short-sighted. You're eighteen, so I guess that's normal. You obviously realize that Lee is of Konoha and you are of Suna, and that this fling of yours can't possibly have a future, but you're still hoping the world will turn out the way you want it to." There was something tired and bitter in Tsunade-sama's expression now, but her anger at Gaara seemed to have passed. "I learned when I wasn't much older than you are that it just doesn't work that way."
"We have to make it work that way," Gaara stated shortly.
"You're not listening, kid-"
"We have to. I need him. And Lee has told me that he needs me too. But I cannot ask him to do this. I will not make him choose between me and his dream. We have to find a way out of this. Please."
Tsunade stared at him, and Lee hoped she finally realized that Gaara might be blunt - his voice was still a cutting monotone as charming as the buzz of a drill - but that behind it there was a real plea he just could not formulate any other way.
"Ugh, children!" Tsunade growled, scrubbing her ash-blonde hair. Then she was distracted by Ibiki who leaned over to whisper in her ear.
"Gaara," Lee said softly, staring at his lover's profile. Gaara's eyes were fixed straight ahead, and to anyone else his expression might have appeared cold, but Lee could read past that now.
"We'll find a way out of this." Gaara's voice was soft and for his ears alone. "I promised I would never hurt you again. I will not-"
"I know," Lee whispered, squeezing the fingers that grasped his own.
"Give me a break, Ibiki," Tsunade groused loudly, bringing their attention back to her. "You know I don't give a dog's fart about those sons of a sick goat in the Daimyo's court. They can go hang for all I care. But internally, do you know how bad this is going to look? And in regards to the other Kages, and to the Council- oh, sod it all."
Tsunade sighed heavily, and turned her glare from Ibiki to Gaara.
"What exactly are you suggesting?" she asked with ill grace. "I'm warning you right now, I'm probably not going to like it."
A dazed and puzzled Lee caught the quick glance she gave the two lovers. Strange...her tone said 'I don't like it'; her eyes seemed to say 'persuade me'.
"Lee will be detached in Sunagakure as a Jounin of Konoha, without any harassment or stain to his reputation," Gaara answered, a picture of icy composure once more. Lee had been concentrating on running these past two days, but Gaara must have been making this list in his head - maybe had expected most of this conversation. "He'll accompany me on any mission I might have; I've never been able to stop him from coming with me, I doubt you'll be able to, for all you're his superior office. He will still receive missions from Konoha, as well as joint missions as decided by whatever new envoy you send us. But I request a right of veto on any S-rank mission you might give him, and I'll accompany him if I can."
"Gaara!" Lee squawked, horrified. How could his lover expect Tsunade-sama to agree to any of that?!
Tsunade stared at the Kazekage, blue eyes wide for a few seconds. And then she smiled. It was an expression that Lee would have rather run away from.
"I see," she purred. "Lee?"
"Yes, Hokage-sama?" Lee quavered.
"Since it turns out you are indeed sleeping with this nuisance, and this whole rumour thing is serious, we need weapons to defend ourselves against any enemy who might try to use it against us. So I want you to go with Ibiki and tell him absolutely everything there is to know about this little affair of yours. Take your time. It appears that the Kazekage and I have a lot to talk about." Tsunade-sama's eyes hadn't left Gaara's.
"Um, can't I stay and-"
"Out," Tsunade ordered without looking at him.
"Go, Lee," Gaara said softly without breaking eye contact either, but his fingers squeezed Lee's once before nudging him in the direction of the door and releasing him. "I'll come find you when I'm done here."
Oh dear.
Lee followed Ibiki-san in a daze induced by fatigue, an ebb in stamina and extreme worry that his boss might at some point in the next few minutes try to strangle his overly-blunt boyfriend.
He sat down mechanically where Ibiki pointed, but he didn't pay any attention to his surroundings until something plunked down in front of him.
"Is this for me?" Lee whimpered, his fingers hovering over the plate of cold meats, rice balls and dried fruit.
"Yes. I figured you'd be hungry if you ran fast enough to leave the Kazekage's escort several hours behind."
"Thank you so much itadakemasu," Lee mumbled, his mouth already wrapped around a piece of beef.
They'd ended up in the admin compound kitchens. The large room, where cooks prepared banquets for visiting dignitaries, was huge, silent and dark around them. Some food was always available and a pot of tea was kept brewing all night for the Hokage; Lee knew this because Gaara had the same arrangement. Ibiki had taken the seat opposite; he was sipping some of the fragrant green tea. Lee noticed a steaming cup near his own hand, and grabbed it and drained it in a second, despite the piping hot liquid on his tongue. Then he stuffed an entire rice ball into his mouth and chewed reverently. Gaara, grim and driven, had not let them rest or eat anything other than soldier pills these past two days, which even for Lee was a bit of stress, as he didn't have this huge chakra to rely on and turn into stamina.
"How long have you been having sex with Gaara?" Ibiki asked calmly over the rim of his cup, and then leaned back to avoid getting rice coughed up over him.
"Tsunade-sama did mention you would have to tell me about it. Remember?"
"Er, yes," Lee croaked, toying with a dried apricot on his plate, his face a brilliant red.
"Then let us begin."
The hour that followed was one of the most uncomfortable in Lee's life. Ibiki didn't just want to know how long Lee had been sleeping with Gaara; he wanted to know exactly when each encounter had occurred, where, what had happened before and after, how noisy they might have been, where they'd gotten the lube- Ibiki-san seemed remarkably conversant with the ins and outs of it all. Lee continued to eat, because his body desperately craved it, but Ibiki's relentless questions seasoned all the dishes with utter embarrassment. Lee reminded himself that this was for the good of both villages, buried his face in his plate and answered as honestly as he could.
Fortunately the questions soon went from the details of Lee's indiscretion to more important facts. So he and Gaara had been sleeping together for a little over seven weeks. Who in Suna had known? Who could have found out? Who could they have told? How had some politicians in the two Daimyo's courts and Konoha discovered this when it appeared that the greatest part of both villages were still in blissful ignorance?
Lee discovered, as he answered, that he knew a great deal more about Suna and its politics than he'd have thought, even though he'd never really thought about it that much. And from the trend of Ibiki's questions, he learned more about Konoha's inner rivalries than he'd ever wanted to know. Apparently Tsunade-sama's brand of hands-on, tough leadership was highly appreciated by her Shinobi, but a lot less by the civilian leaders and councillors that managed the part of Konoha keeping its small army functional and running. And she didn't get along very well with the politicians at the Daimyo's court, who liked to think they were in control of this dangerous little place on their map, rather than acknowledge an equal footing.
Lee was left staring at the demolished plate of food.
"Gaara said I was an excellent Shinobi," he muttered despondently. "But if that was true, I would have seen this coming. I knew I had to warn the Hokage- I would have as soon as I had a mission back here. I expected to get yelled at, maybe have to renounce my post and- and see Gaara less often, but I never thought...I can never look underneath the underneath as fully as I should."
"True, though some would say you saw further than most when you looked at Gaara," Ibiki said indifferently, pouring himself some more tea. "Yes, you got yourself into a mess. It's probably true that a Shinobi with the emotional control we try to teach would not have fallen for him, or would have tried to gain some advantage out of the situation. I doubt such a man would have gotten anywhere near Gaara, though. We are no longer merely the Daimyo's spies and assassins, as we were before the First founded Konohagakure. We are a village, a whole. We still need infiltrators and killers, but we also need warriors too. You're one of the latter, and nobody in this village would say that you are not a good Shinobi for that. Not within Gai's hearing, anyway. For what it's worth, the Hokage trusts you implicitly. It's why she let you take that post out there in the first place, even though you're obviously not cut out to be much of a diplomat."
Lee had at least the knowledge that he'd never let his feelings for Gaara interfere with his work in Suna; he hadn't betrayed that trust. It soothed his conscience a bit.
"If anything, I blame myself," Ibiki added, though he didn't sound particularly contrite. "I'm the paranoid bastard who's supposed to keep an eye out for the sort of problem a warrior might miss. I - and Gai and Kakashi - noticed that your affection towards the Kazekage was running dangerously deep when we removed Orochimaru's seal on Gaara's powers, a couple of months ago. There were notes in your file that you were inclined towards your own gender...but your profile also indicated that you are capable of amazingly strong friendships. We hoped it was no more than that. And of course, even if you did have a crush on him, it would never have occurred to me that Gaara of the Desert could respond to that. So when I heard some disturbing news out of Suna, I treated it like a dangerous attempt at destabilizing our envoy; I didn't think it was actually true."
"You mean, the rumours that we were together?" Lee asked, blinking sleepily. The food, the warmth of the kitchen and the fatigue of the trip were wearing him down.
"No," Ibiki answered slowly. "That I might have believed. With a stretch of the imagination. It was the exact nature of the rumours we heard that made the whole thing sound unlikely."
Lee looked at him with a twinge of curiosity. "What rumours exactly, sir?" He remembered Temari mentioning the gossip had had an ugly spin to it...
Ibiki looked at him in silence, then he sipped his tea and answered without the slightest inflection: "That the Kazekage had seduced you in an attempt to turn you against Konoha."
Lee blinked at him-
Then his chair hit the ground with a smash and the wood of the table splintered beneath his fingers. "What?! That's a lie! That's- despicable!"
"Of course. That's the point. Don't shout, Lee. My ANBU have had a busy night already."
Lee mumbled a half-hearted apology and righted his chair, temper still boiling.
Ibiki shrugged. "It was the spin they used to make it look as bad as possible. Quite masterful. Two young people screwing each other isn't that big a deal- amazing, yes, seeing who's involved, but hardly enough to make a village-shaking scandal out of it. Someone went to great lengths to make sure this sounded as sordid as possible."
"Orochimaru," Lee ground out.
"Maybe. Or one of his allies. Or some other enemy altogether. We will find out who, eventually," Ibiki murmured casually, and surely someone somewhere must have felt a cold shiver run up his spine along with an indefinable sense of doom and menace.
"It's a good thing you came forward, the both of you," Ibiki added. "It could have gotten messy otherwise. Though of course, we know you, Rock Lee. We would never have made you a Jounin or let you to go to Suna if we thought you could betray us that easily. And we believe in Gaara's commitment to the peace. He would not move lightly against our envoy, or us. On top of that, Gaara would not really be adept at seducing anybody. Hell, he's hard put to be polite and diplomatic at the best of times. The very idea of the Kazekage trying to turn on a charm offensive is enough to make me wish I was drinking something stronger than tea."
Despite his respect for a superior officer, Lee still bristled on behalf of his lover, though he couldn't exactly deny Ibiki's point.
"You said Temari is the one trying to debunk this on the Suna side, correct?" Ibiki asked, changing the subject.
"Yes sir."
"Good. I'll coordinate with her and see if we can figure out where this originated. We might even be able to find us a spy or two if we can track this down. The important thing is that this should not cause any kind of friction in our alliance."
"Do you think it could?" Lee asked, his third cup of tea creaking under his suddenly tense fingers.
"The rumours certainly weren't pretty. But since the pair of you have now indicated that this thing is serious, not a gambit on Suna's part to gain control over it's just embarrassing all around. We'll try to keep it quiet until Sound goes down- if the two of you could please keep that in mind and continue to be discreet. More discreet than bursting in on us all and ploughing through the village together like you just did. We'll figure out something to explain Gaara's presence here, since it will be all over the village by morning. After we've defeated Sound...Tsunade-sama will need a new Envoy in Suna. And she's going to lose face over all this, though I think she's going to find a way to recoup that."
Ibiki fixed him with an uncompromising gaze before Lee could enquire how she was going to do that, exactly.
"You are about to lose several points on your security clearance, Jounin, whatever the Kazekage has to say on that matter. I don't know if you'll be getting many missions to start with. But I think Tsunade-sama will eventually recognize that having one of our soldiers live so far west might come in handy; save on travel time, especially in case of emergencies. Suna might not see it quite so positively; our villages were enemies six years ago, and now you're sleeping with their leader. You might encounter some hostility from people you live and work with. As for Gaara, he might also meet with considerable disapproval. It could affect his efficiency as a leader."
"Oh no! His people respect him way too much to-..."
Lee's gaze dropped from Ibiki's piercing sceptical one to look into the muddle of leaves at the bottom of his teacup. "Um, those Councillors who don't respect him as much as they should, well, they're sort of still scared of him, so I don't think they'll be able to do much," he acknowledged in a mumble.
"So I gathered. But he has a weakness now...It will be up to him to keep them in hand; I suspect that won't be too hard. Speak of the devil..."
Lee felt it too; a flicker of chakra from the other side of the door. It was much calmer and less strained than previously. Lee hoped that meant all had gone well with Tsunade-sama.
"I might have a few more questions for you, Lee, but the debriefing is over for now," Ibiki announced, getting to his feet. "I'll let the two of you go get a bit of rest. You'll need it."
"Thank you, sir. And...I'm sorry. For all the trouble."
"Yes." Ibiki stood staring down at him until Lee stood up to face him. "Today may have more far-reaching consequences for you than you can imagine, Lee. And I hope you realize...from here on out, there is no turning back."
"Never been very good at it anyway, sir," Lee admitted.
A wintry smile crossed Ibiki's ruined features. "Yes, I know. Which reminds me, go and say hello to Gai before you leave, because for the Hokage's peace of mind, she's going to pretend you no longer exist for awhile. It might be a couple of years before you can come back to Konoha to visit."
Lee nodded with tired resignation and headed towards the door, after grabbing a few rice balls and an apple from the remains of his meal.
Gaara was waiting for him in the hallway outside, leaning against the far wall, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest. The gourd was on the ground at his side.
"Gaara." Despite common sense assuring him that the Hokage wouldn't harm the leader of another village except out of the severest provocation, Lee felt awash with relief at seeing his boyfriend. "Here, I got you something to eat. And we-"
Gaara turned away, hoisting the gourd into its halter. "We're leaving."
"Kazekage-sama," Ibiki murmured as he followed Lee out of the kitchen. Gaara's eyes flickered dismissively over the man, making Lee wince at the lack of civility, but Ibiki didn't seem to particularly mind. He left as discreetly as one would expect the leader of the ANBU to leave, melting into the shadows in the blink of an eye.
"Gaara, we should rest first, and here, eat this-"
"I'm not hungry, and we'll rest outside of Konoha territory," Gaara answered, marching along the hallway towards the distant doors.
"Why? Ibiki-san told me we can rest here, they have rooms- I'll stand guard for you-"
"I'm not staying here a minute more than I have to. That woman," Gaara added neutrally, "I would hate to have her as an enemy."
"Huh? You mean the Hokage?"
"I don't understand. She...she is letting me go back with you, right?" Lee asked anxiously.
Gaara snorted. "Of course. But she made me pay for it."
"Pay?" Lee asked sharply, accelerating so that he was walking a step ahead of Gaara and looking back into his lover's face. "What do you mean?"
Gaara shrugged. "She has the control over something we need. She's going to make sure she gets something in exchange for not exerting that control. What is there here that is so surprising?"
"You mean she- she asked you for- for something-"
"Naturally. You have nothing to offer her; she already has your loyalty. It's why I had to come with you; I have the power to bargain with her," Gaara added. The mask had been on when Lee had exited the kitchen, perhaps for Ibiki's benefit, but now Gaara's fatigue was showing through. "She knew better than to ask me for anything that would compromise Suna's safety or standing. But that didn't stop her from rolling out a long list of 'favours' she wants from me; she has quite a lot more imagination than I would have thought. Next time I'm at court, or at the various Chuunin and Jounin exams, she wants me to scare a few people into line for her. Her words. She said I would be good at it."
"What?! Who?"
"Some of the people who've been helping further this rumour, to start with. I'll do that with considerable pleasure, since that will protect you as well as Tsunade," Gaara said, a faint trace of the murderous in his voice. "There's also the Exchequer of Fire Country, the mayor of- she gave me a list and instructions. She also wants to know when I leave on missions out of Suna - something my own council would be furious to learn that I've promised her, so we'll have to keep that quiet. She said she might have little side trips for me; probably some dirty work she doesn't want her name attached to."
Lee caught Gaara by the shoulder and forced him to stop as he stared at his lover, aghast. "What are you saying?!"
Gaara looked at him steadily. "I'm saying that you and I are about to become her errand boys for the foreseeable future. I'll have to work overtime back home to make sure I can take more time on my regular trips and missions and make the occasional detour."
Gaara walked on, but Lee stood frozen on the spot, the words 'Oh my god' tumbling numbly from his mouth.
There was a pause in Gaara's footsteps as he realized Lee hadn't followed.
"Gaara...I- I never- you shouldn't have had to-"
Gaara was suddenly in front of him, both hands firmly on either side of Lee's face, forcing eye contact.
His lover spoke slowly and with utmost deliberation. "If I did not have Suna to take care of, she could have made me her personal lapdog for the rest of my natural lifespan, and I would have been happy to oblige as long as we were together. I've had to pay in blood and pain for everything good in my life; so have you. What she wants from us is insignificant in comparison to what we'll gain. Don't you agree?"
Lee put his hands over Gaara's and nodded.
"Good. Can we leave now? Before she thinks of something else to ask for?"
"Sure," Lee whispered, smiling weakly at Gaara's suddenly cranky, tired tone, the emotions open and free for Lee to read. "Thanks..."
Even that caused a look of slight irritation to cross Gaara's tired eyes, as if the mere suggestion that Lee owed him gratitude for his help was borderline insulting.
"Come on," Gaara said, hand slipping into Lee's as he turned towards the door. "If we start now, it won't take much more than two days to get home."
End Part Twenty Three
This story is very nearly over with. Just one more side-story and the epilogue to come.