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Through The Spines Unfurling (Five Things You Should Know About Cacti)

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Cacti are cautious. Their primary concern is self-preservation. They are thus slow to reveal themselves. They can go for years in solitude, waiting in cool, inward silence for the signs to align in a way that promises a fortuitous growing season. Periods of rest may seem to mimic death: cacti require next to no water and surprisingly cold temperatures if they are to bloom again. Dormancy gives way to life eventually, but in its own time. Cacti are cautious. They cannot be rushed.


In the end, or in the beginning if he’s being accurate, they accompany the Hokage to Suna because Lee needs a change of scenery. He has tried all of his usual methods for overcoming restlessness – four-hundred laps around the village with triple his ankle weights! two-hundred push-ups with his son sitting on his back and cheering him on! climbing all of the stairs of the highest building in Konoha on his hands, twice! – but none of them work.

He is restless. He’s stopped sleeping, something Lee considers a personal failure. A shinobi must always be ready for battle, and a shinobi who cannot get his requisite hours of sleep during peacetime may not be fully prepared to defend his village, his Hokage, his family.

In truth, he has been restless since he first heard that a delegation from Konoha planned to travel to Suna for trade talks. Not that thinking of Suna should set him on edge. A glorious village with a supremely talented leader.

It’s the latter thing that hounds Lee when he should be sleeping and he takes to doubling and tripling his usual exercises to beat his thoughts into submission.

His restlessness only increases to the point of a kunai when Naruto comes to visit before the delegation leaves. Naruto enters with his usual good cheer and sits at Lee’s kitchen table, tossing blunted training shuriken at Lee’s son. Ichiro enthusiastically bats them out of the air or catches them and flicks them back at the Hokage.

“I don’t know,” Naruto says, when Lee asks him about their negotiations and talks with Suna, “it’s whatever Sakura and Temari dreamt up. Something about minerals and economic development and secondary production. You know, boring Sakura-and-Temari stuff.” He pauses, catching in one hand the three shuriken Ichiro flung straight at his head without flicking his gaze from Lee.

“If I cannot make Naruto-sensei use both hands to stop my shurikens before he finishes his tea, I will run ten laps around the village with double my leg weights!” proclaims Ichiro, fist thrust high in the air.

Pride swells beneath Lee’s ribs, warm and golden as the purest sunlight. “You can do it! Your heart is pure and your intentions are noble!” Lee insists, giving his son a dramatic thumbs up. At the gesture, the boy whoops and scurries off to find an ideal angle of attack.

“So you’re going to Suna for trade, Naruto-kun,” says Lee. “An excellent idea!” A shuriken flies over his shoulder, Naruto’s hand expertly plucking it from the air and flicking it across the room to the place Ichiro has just vacated.

“Nah,” Naruto yawns, stretching. “I mean, that’s why the delegation is going, but I really just want to see my buddy Gaara. Now that he’s without his worse half. Have to wonder how he’s making out.”

Lee blinks very rapidly. Without his worse half? He’s heard the phrase better half, used lovingly to refer to one’s spouse and the power of love as a means improve all involved, but Naruto’s turn of phrase is new. Has Gaara met someone – someone Naruto doesn’t approve of?

Something squirms inside of Lee’s stomach, an old and new discomfort – one that’s seen him running laps around the village in the middle of the night as his son sleeps happily in the next room. “Naruto-kun,” he says slowly, as the Hokage again catches the shurikens that come shooting through the air toward him in a single hand, an almost lazy movement, “I am certain that the Kazekage is capable of selecting a worthwhile other half. You shouldn’t refer to them like that. Although –”

The thought comes suddenly, like a flash of lightning inside of his skull. Lee surges to his feet, fist slamming against the table. “Is this person someone who has hurt Gaara-san? If so, you must allow me to come with you to avenge –”

Naruto snorts into his tea, blue eyes bright. “I meant the demon, Lee. Shukaku.”

The air goes out of him like a balloon that’s been pricked. Well, that’s good. Not good that Gaara doesn’t have someone; good that he hasn’t been hurt by someone.

Lee sits.

“Although,” Naruto says, turning his cup around on the table thoughtfully, “maybe you could come. You and the kid. You’re always on about how important it is that he sees the world. To, uh, you know. However you say it.”

“Embrace all the incredible differences the world has to offer with an open heart and open mind,” Lee fills in matter-of-factly.

“Open heart and open mind!” cries Ichiro from the corner of the room, pausing in his attempt on the Hokage long enough to clamp a hand firmly over his heart.

Lee smiles warmly at his son. A more virtuous spirit could not be found!

But Suna –

“Naruto-kun,” said Lee. “I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, not on such an important mission of negotiation and trade talks.” Lee knows he would be able to accompany the Hokage and not slow him down – he can run for days without need for sleep or food or even much water! – but his son. Ichiro is still a child in the glorious springtime of his youth. He wouldn’t be able to match the Hokage in speed, even if Naruto slowed down for him, as a man so generous would certainly do.

Naruto waves a hand. “Look, it’s been a long time since either of us has seen Gaara. It’ll be good to get to Suna and bug him for a bit. Besides,” and here he raises his eyebrows pointedly, for reasons Lee doesn’t understand, “you’re interested in learning more about who he’s seeing. If he’s seeing anyone. I don’t know. This way you can ask him and make sure any person he might be dating is treating him right! And Ichiro can learn all about Sunagakure and the desert and cacti and stuff.”

Lee turns the thought over in his mind. It would be good for Ichiro to leave the forest. They’d gone on several trips to other Hidden Villages already and each time Ichiro had eagerly embraced learning about different ways of life – different customs and dialects and the skills necessary for thriving gloriously in each nation.

He swallows, forcing his mind to the second point. If Gaara is seeing someone, like Naruto said, a good friend would want to be sure that he was treated with the respect, devotion, and purity of intention that he deserved!

But seeing Gaara after so many years, after the last time –

Even thinking about it makes a flush start to inch its way up his neck. He forces his attention to what he can learn from his mistakes and what example Lee hopes to set for his son.

A friend doesn’t let past embarrassments keep him from another friend's side! And Lee wants to be an excellent friend, especially after his failures in that area. A chance to correct the missteps of his younger years. Excellent!

“Let me check with Ichiro’s teachers,” Lee says finally. “And Sakura-san. We wouldn’t want to get in the way of your negotiations, Naruto-kun!”

The Hokage shrugs loosely, swirling the dregs of his tea the porcelain cup. “You do what you need to do feel okay about coming. But you should come. He’d want to see you. And the kid, I’m sure.”

As if on cue, Ichiro flies into the air above Naruto’s head, flinging no less than four shuriken at him. With a deft hand, Naruto picks three out of the air.

His other hand lifts and intercepts the last one, which was angled toward his shoulder.

“Oh no!” he says, eyes flaring wide. “I had to use both hands!”

Lee tries to frown – Naruto knows he doesn’t like it when he lets Ichiro win, because even failure can be a victory when it is learned from! – but the expression melts off his face when Ichiro flings himself into the Hokage’s arms, laughing madly.

Lee tries to imagine his son perching happily in Gaara’s lap, beaming up at him with a smile bright with adoration. Something gives way in his chest at the image.

He’ll think on it, and perhaps he and Ichiro will go to Sunagakure. Perhaps.