“Who did you say you were?” the Sunagakure guard asked a bit weakly.
Lee straightened up, shifted his bag on his shoulder and saluted (again).
“Rock Lee, the Splendid Blue Beast of Konoha! Reporting to Hidden Sand as Leaf’s official military liaison!”
The guard stared at him for a few seconds, the light of his torch chasing away the night around Lee to reveal him, all tired and sweaty that he was. Then the Chuunin guard's gaze dropped to Lee’s legwarmers once more; they seemed to intrigue him in particular.
“Seriously?” he asked. Behind him, the other Chuunin guarding the Kazekage’s HQ shuffled and muttered amongst themselves, hands on their weapons, though they didn’t seem to really think Lee could be the spearhead of an invading force.
“Seriously what?” echoed Lee, puzzled.
“...Nothing, I guess. I need to go ask about this- oh, Captain? Good thing you’re here. This...guy just showed up and-“
“Yes, I know all about it,” the Sand Jounin said, heading towards them with a crisp businesslike stride.
“You do?” the guard asked, bemused, before trying to look serious and professional once more.
The captain gave all the men on duty a heavy ‘watch your step’ glare, then turned to Lee with a salute.
“Welcome to Sand. I apologize for not meeting you at the gates in person, sir, but we weren’t expecting you until tomorrow evening.”
Lee grinned proudly. He’d made it to Sand in little over two days instead of the usual three. Which was good; it meant he didn't have to find out how long it would take to run two hundred laps around Sunagakure on the very first day of his arrival.
“This is the administration building,” the captain added, hooking a thumb at the doors behind his shoulder. “This is not where you'll live. I’ll show you to your assigned residence, it’s not far from here-“
“Oh, I’ve been there already, I had the address. But there was only the security guard there, and he said he couldn’t let me in for some reason.”
“That would be because it’s three o’clock in the morning,” the captain said with a touch of steely patience. “But that's okay, I’ll go with you and talk to security- or maybe a hotel-“
“No need! Hokage-sama told me you would have an office for me here in the administration building, so I thought I’d get ready for tomorrow's morning.”
The captain looked at Lee dubiously. "Don’t you want some rest?”
Lee could probably do with a nap, but he was too keyed up at the thought of starting his new post in the morning.
“No need!” he exclaimed, fist in the air, “I am strong and determined. Two days running at full speed without sleep and with little food will not defeat someone who truly believes in himself. Please, show me to the office so I can begin right away!"
The guard was staring at him with eyes that were almost as round as Lee’s, but the captain was made of sterner stuff. He merely bowed and motioned to Lee to follow.
"The Kazekage's office is down that hallway and to the right," the captain explained with a wave of his hand, "I'll see to it that you have an appointment with him tomorrow for an official welcome. And this is your office."
“Are you sure?” Lee asked weakly as he poked his head through the door the Jounin had opened for him. The room he'd been led to was bigger than his apartment back in Konoha.
Lee almost glanced around to see who the captain was talking to.
“No no, just Lee!” he yelped.
The captain looked at him steadily, and then nodded. He was in his forties, old for a ninja still on active duty, and he looked like he’d seen it all already. “Very well, Lee-san. If there’s anything you need, please talk to the guards downstairs.”
One of those guards, the man who'd originally stopped Lee, had followed them up the stairs and into the wing of offices, staring at the guest he was escorting with something like fascination. When the captain glanced at him over his shoulder, the guard nodded hastily in assent.
“I’ll be fine,” Lee said, which he would be as long as he brought a map and compass to navigate his office. What was he supposed to be doing with all this space? Maybe he could set up a small gym in one corner...
“We have direct orders from Kazekage-sama that you are to be given free access to the entire building,” the captain added, with a significant glance at the curious guard behind him to make sure the latter got the message. “Though we ask that you respect any locks and Restricted Access signs on the doors, in the interest of security and the good entente between our villages.”
The captain saluted and left while Lee was still spluttering some 'I would nevers' regarding that last statement. The guard trailed after his officer with one last sceptical glance at Lee. Lee could hear them talk in the hall through the open door.
“Captain, are you sure that’s the ambassador from Leaf?”
“Yes. Kankuro-san gave me a full – and very accurate – description.”
“...Are they trying to start a war?”
“Shut up and learn to live with it if you don’t want a trip to the Kazekage’s office.”
Lee closed the door with a sigh. Such heavy responsibility to rest upon his eighteen-year-old shoulders, and without Gai-sensei's endless wisdom to rely upon. Gai-sensei had said to write to him often, and particularly if Lee had any problems or questions. Lee was tempted to write a letter right away. He was worried he wouldn't be very good at this. He wondered if he'd made a good first impression with the guards. And how about tomorrow when he met the Kazekage and the council?
He'd started to trek across to the desk and the blank scrolls and pens there, his feet brushing static from the carpet in the dry desert air, when he caught himself.
No. Gai-sensei had told him to write, true. But he'd also told Lee to do his very best, and to become a man and a warrior Gai would be proud of. Such a one did not run to his teacher at the slightest doubt. He remembered Gai's proud look and masculine tears when he'd crushed Lee in one last bear hug two days ago, saying how glad he was that Lee had been chosen for this honour. Then he'd punched Lee - not even that hard - because his pupil was wasting time and would be late to take up his duties if he let his youth and splendid success go to his head any further.
Lee straightened up and clenched a fist in resolve. He was going to do his best! Gai-sensei would be proud of him! Resolve, determination, hard work! Those were the keys!
Boosted, Lee dropped his bag on the desk and trekked back towards the door. There should be a bathroom nearby. He wanted to go and freshen up, comb his hair, brush his teeth and all that, before he started his duties. Maybe eat some of the special Power Dumplings Gai-sensei had made and packed specially for him. Those were wonderful; you ate one, and you weren't hungry for the rest of the day! Well, maybe you were a bit hungry, but the way your stomach was cramping, you didn't actually feel like eating.
Lee opened the door with his usual energy and stepped firmly into the hallway, and came to an abrupt halt. He'd felt a sudden flare of chakra behind him, though there'd been no sound or sense of presence until that moment. He spun around, alarmed.
“Gaara?” he gasped.
Gaara was standing in the hallway, a plate in one hand, an apple and a bottle of water held a bit awkwardly in the other, staring at Lee. He was wearing simple linen pants and shirt, and his hair was still that ruffled red mop Lee remembered, worn slightly longer than when he'd been younger.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Lee exclaimed. “Except you’ve grown. And you’re broader around the chest and arms.” Not all that much for a Shinobi, but he was less weedy than when they’d been kids. Gaara was a couple of inches shorter than Lee, which made him a respectable height as Lee had really shot up lately. The Sand-nin was still carrying his gourd around, but it didn’t look so oversized on him now.
“Oh, here, let me get that,” Lee added, instinctively making a grab for the plate which had tilted as Gaara stepped back from Lee’s energetic appearance into the hall. He had to tug slightly before he could get the dish of sandwiches from Gaara's fingers; this would leave the Sand-nin's hands free to carry the apple and bottle. “It’s been what, two years since we’ve seen each other? Back when Akatsuki tried to extract Shukaku from you. And then three years before that, and I haven’t forgotten that you saved my life on that occasion. I’ll never forget that! Rock Lee always repays his debts!”
A thick silence settled in the hallway.
Gaara's face had lost some of the roundness of his childhood, but it was still dominated by those dark-ringed eyes, and the green of his pupils that could drill holes into your soul. Those eyes were now scrutinizing Lee and the dramatic thumb that Lee had stuck out to illustrate his last point.
In the abrupt quiet and growing realization, Lee could almost hear Tsunade’s lecture.
“Look, Lee, I don’t know what the hell got into Gaara of the Sand, but he’s decided he wants you and no other for this new military attaché post we’re setting up. You’ll be expected to help defend Sand in the case of an attack and participate in shared missions between our countries, but this is also a diplomatic role, so please try to behave norm- with proper decorum. At least you know what Gaara’s like already. I have a list of recommendations I give to all diplomatic staff sent to Sand, based on Gaara’s profile and the way his own people behave around him:
"Do not get too close to him, do not speak too loudly in his presence; do not argue with him; save any official objections for his council or his staff. Do not mention Shukaku, he might lash out; the subject appears to be taboo in Sunagakure. Do not, under any circumstances, touch him, surprise him or startle him, and above all, make sure you show proper respect and call him Kazekage-sama at all times. Think you can manage that?”
The silence stretched.
Gaara still hadn’t said anything. He was looking Lee up and down slowly, his eyes lingering briefly on the plate of captured sandwiches in Lee’s hand. Lee didn’t say anything either; back straight, free fist clenched, he was trying to figure out what he should apologize for first.
"You've arrived early I see."
Lee noted that Gaara's voice had changed very little too; the timbre was deeper, but it was still that same calm, cold, unhurried tone that seemed perfectly tailored for death threats.
"I chose well," Gaara said, walking past Lee and continuing down the hall. "I didn't want another sycophant. You'll do in that respect."
Lee gaped at the Kazekage's back.
"Keep the sandwiches," Gaara added without glancing back. He was already at the end of the hallway. "Running full speed all the way, you'll need to replenish your energy."
"Oh, but I can't- this is your-" Lee's stomach interrupted him with a sudden growl that seemed to echo through the empty offices.
Gaara didn't turn around; he was halfway around the corner. There was a mirror at the end of the hall. In it, Lee caught a flash of Gaara's face an instant before he disappeared. His expression was unreadable, ringed eyes unblinking and hard, firm lips twitched down at the corners as usual.
But - it might have been the sudden hunger, or the dawning exhaustion making him see things - but Lee could have sworn that somewhere in Gaara's stance or eyes or demeanour - somewhere - there lurked the tiniest of dry smiles.
It was probably the fatigue.