“Kazekage-sama,” Shijima called, hurrying across the practice field. She was ignored. “Kazekage-sama!” She raised her voice.
Shijima hated being forced to yell—it was undignified, one of the things her family had trained out of her at a young age; never shout unless someone was bleeding or on fire—but she had no choice. Otherwise she wouldn’t be heard over the whoops and cries coming from Rock Lee’s mouth.
Rock Lee had been in Suna for several months now, assisting at the Academy and tutoring the Kazekage privately in taijutsu. It was a pursuit that diverted an unnecessary amount of Gaara’s time from his paperwork, if you asked Shijima, which, in typical fashion, nobody had. And it wasn’t even just the taijutsu lessons. At least those were roughly scheduled, even if they often dragged on long beyond their appointed timeframes. It was also the level of general distraction and disorder that the Leaf jounin had brought to Suna, and to the quiet routines of the Kazekage’s office. Rock Lee always seemed to be popping up somewhere, running in and out of the Kazekage’s office as he pleased, deterred by neither chakra wards nor locks, showing up at random times to drag Gaara off for a meal if he felt it had been too long since Gaara had eaten, forcing him to take walks in the sunshine when he felt Gaara had been shut up in his office too much of the day.
It was as if he thought the Kazekage was some sort of child that needed to be doted on, not a highly competent shinobi and foreign leader. Perhaps that was the way things were done in Konoha, but that sort of impropriety would not be tolerated in Suna if Shijima had anything to say about it.
And she did have something to say about it; it was just that nobody would have listened, so she kept it to herself. But she did at least try to demonstrate the appropriate level of respect for the Kazekage’s self-determination. He did forget to eat sometimes, that much was true. But Shijima would remind him only once of the missed meal and then, if he declined to take it, she wouldn’t press again. She would never consider bodily dragging the man from his office—through the window and onto the roof sometimes, even, in full view of the entire shinobi corps—to eat a shared and personally cooked lunch outdoors. In the middle of the day. In the height of summer. In a bright green jumpsuit and legwarmers.
“Gaara-sama!” she yelled from the edge of the training grounds. She was wary to step past their bounds. The last time she had interrupted one of their training sessions unexpectedly, she had discovered that the Kazekage had turned the entire sparring circle into quicksand. She’d had no way of knowing of its contents until she had plunged into it up to her shins, because Gaara had stood on it utterly unmoving, and Rock Lee’s movements were so quick and air-light that he’d hardly touched the ground at all.
Right now, however, they were locked in a pitched battle of strictly taijutsu, grappling with close hands. Rock Lee had a shoulder under the Kazekage’s knee, unbalancing him into a throw that sent him skidding along the earth until a wave of sand stopped him from hitting a stone training post. He ran after Gaara, yelling something about cheating. It was so loud that Shijima's ears complained.
Truthfully, it wasn’t as if Shijima minded Rock Lee, strange though he was. He had been very apologetic last time as she scraped sand out of the hems of her trousers, where the Kazekage had only eyed her and told her she needed to keep her guard up better. The Kazekage had been right, of course, even though Rock Lee had snapped at him for being rude. It was as though he wasn’t frightened or intimidated by Gaara at all, a rarity among even the few other Konoha nin she’d seen interacting with her boss. And due, perhaps, to that lack of deference, Gaara appeared to respect him. Lee seemed to be a generally positive influence, if anything, even though the paperwork was piling up in Gaara’s in tray.
Gaara’s cheeks had been fuller the last few months the Leaf ninja had been here, his skin not quite so pale. He no longer grabbed his lower back when he stood from his desk. Even his mood had been much improved. The Kazekage wasn’t exactly dour or anything, but his general presentation was quite neutral. However, around the Leaf jounin, he was uncharacteristically buoyant. Gaara was a man of few words and fewer expressions. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel, no matter what the rumor mongers at the market might say. If anything, he felt all too deeply. But he kept those feelings close to his chest, his tenderness only truly known through careful attention to the intentions underlying his actions. Like the way he’d saved Shijima’s sister and her lover, had made safe passage for them to escape unharmed, though he could have rightly killed them.
But right now the Kazekage was hiding a laugh behind his hand as Rock Lee pulled him to his feet from the ground. The change it evinced on his dust-covered face was almost shocking.
There were still members of the council who made warding gestures at the sight of Gaara’s teeth, but Shijima didn’t mind his smiling. It was nice to see him happy. And that was the thing about this strange, new change in Gaara. It wasn’t just contentment or satisfaction, moods that crossed his face in subtle shapes on a fairly regular basis. It was genuine, if low-simmering happiness.
“You’re five minutes late for your two o’clock meeting!” Shijima called, hand cupped around her mouth.
Lee was saying something to Gaara that she couldn’t hear, their faces bowed close together. He was still eagerly clutching the Kazekage’s hands, shaking them back and forth.
It was unusual enough not to be able to hear something Lee said, though the day was rather windy. Shijima’s hearing was rather acute, owing to her poor eyesight, and Lee was by far the loudest shinobi Shijima had ever met, to the point that it was at times easy to mistake him for a civilian. That was, of course, until he did something absurd like mention offhand the number of push-ups he’d done that morning (always in the hundreds) or snatch a falling glass out of midair with the tip of his toe.
But it was what happened next that was even stranger.
Gaara snapped his gourd’s harness back around his waist and caught her eye with a nod of acknowledgement. As he turned to leave the practice field, Lee shoved playfully at his back, still laughing, and said something about Gaara always running late that Shijima couldn’t quite make out, lost to the whipping mid-afternoon wind.
Gaara turned his head to look back at the Leaf jounin, and the next thing that was said, Shijima heard perfectly.
She froze as if she’d been caught in her own defective sharingan. Surely she’d misheard. She’d never known the Kazekage to use an endearment, much less to call someone adorable. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose as if that would somehow make her hear better.
Lee was following Gaara off the training field at a half-pace, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his bandages. His skin was dripping as profusely as if he’d been caught in a derecho.
“What does that mean?” he asked, still grinning.
“Nothing important,” Gaara said quickly. “It’s just a saying.”
Shijima’s shoulders relaxed. Okay then. Clearly she’d misunderstood.
The wind must have been tricking her senses.
Shijima opened the door to the Kazekage’s office only to find Rock Lee already in there. There was a bento box in his hands and he was neatly spreading the napkin it had been wrapped in over the stack of papers on Gaara’s desk.
“Are you sure you can’t take even thirty minutes?” he asked. There was a certain wheedling tone to his voice that suggested that this wasn’t the first time he’d asked.
Shijima knew before the Kazekage opened his mouth what the answer would be. The budget negotiations with the council had been particularly pitched this year, and Gaara had spent much of the past several days carefully winnowing down his expansive proposal to suit the narrow parameters the council had insisted upon.
Gaara looked up at Lee and grabbed his wrist. “I’m sure,” he said. “I only have until the end of the day to finish this proposal.” His hand slid up Lee’s arm to his elbow. “I can make myself available tomorrow at noon.”
“You promise?” Lee asked teasingly. “You won’t be late?”
“I promise, habibi.”
Shijima’s hand tightened on the door frame. That response, she could never have predicted. It wasn’t anything definitive—my darling, after all, wasn’t precisely uncommon between close friends—but it was another piece of evidence to add to the mounting pile. She was at least now certain that she hadn’t misheard the Kazekage back at the training field.
She shuffled the papers in her hand noisily. Gaara’s eyes flickered to her. His hand dropped from Lee’s elbow.
“Lee-san,” she announced, “why don’t I see you out? We’re on a very tight deadline today.”
She set the latest figures from the accounting department on Gaara’s desk and seized Lee by his upper arm. He went with her willingly as she frog-marched him to the door, though she suspected that if he hadn’t wanted to go, she wouldn’t have been able to move him. Frozen or unfrozen.
“Please don’t forget to actually eat!” he called over his shoulder to where Gaara had already lifted the sheaf of papers and was scanning them. “That curry will taste terrible if you let it go cold!”
Shijima kicked the door shut behind them.
Standing out in the quiet hallway, accompanied only by the murmurs of voices behind closed doors and the soft shuffle of footsteps further down the corridors, she realized this was the first time she’d ever been alone with Rock Lee.
He was shorter than she’d assumed, up close. Shijima was tall for a woman, but most of the men in Suna still had at least a few centimeters on her. She and Rock Lee were almost of a height. It was simply that he seemed to take up all the space in a room with his noise and enthusiasm.
“Thank you very much, Shijima-san!” Lee said brightly. “I can find my way out from here!”
She tightened her grip on his arm until the nails dug in. “Wait. I’ll walk you out.”
“Is everything all right?” His eyes widened. Which was saying quite a lot because his eyes were already huge to begin with. “Is it something to do with Gaara-kun? Is he in danger?”
Gaara-kun. How did he get away with calling the Kazekage that? She guided him down a narrow hallway that would take them a rather circuitous route to the exit. She needed time to dig a little further.
Shijima knew that the Kazekage and the Leaf jounin were something akin to childhood friends, although not quite that. She wasn’t privy to all the details, but she knew it had something to do with the scars on Lee’s left arm, the ones that were textured and pockmarked like a friction burn. No one had ever told her this, of course. She knew only because of the way Gaara’s eyes strayed to them and lingered when Lee tied down the top of his jumpsuit, his eyes expressive of something that was neither fascination nor terror.
Rock Lee had many scars, though Shijima suspected she’d only seen the minority of them; they were at most times covered by his impractical costume. Many of them were more impressive and more severe than the ones on his arm. He was missing a piece of his earlobe, and even the ends of his fingers beyond his bandages were more scar than skin. There was one in particular across his throat that was especially thick and gnarled, right above the high collar of his suit. But none of them drew Gaara’s attention in the same way. It wasn’t polite to ask after another shinobi’s battle wounds, and Rock Lee seemed especially self-conscious of his own, given that he wore thick, full body coverings even in the heat of the desert, so she had never pried.
But it was obvious there was something more to those specific scars that drew the Kazekage’s eye. Rock Lee avoided Suna’s rare rains almost as strictly as Gaara himself did, although there was nothing about his purely physical fighting style that should have been weak to water like the Kazekage’s sand. During the last spring rainstorm she’d found them sheltered in Gaara’s private greenhouse, tucked behind a clutch of aloe ferox. The Kazekage had been helping the Leaf shinobi to his feet while he leaned heavily on a crutch, limping.
She’d wondered then if he’d sustained a temporary injury. She’d never seen the crutch before nor since. Now she suspected whatever drove him to use that crutch was of a more permanent nature.
“Do you know what that word means?” she asked sharply, before Lee could work himself into a further tizzy over the Kazekage’s safety.
“Huh?” The inquiry stopped his panicked ramblings in their tracks.
“What the Kazekage called you, just now. Do you know what it means?”
“Oh!” Lee brightened. “You don’t speak Sunan either?”
Shijima cocked an eyebrow at him. “Of course I speak Sunan. I didn’t realize you don’t.”
The Leaf jounin threw his head back in a laugh. Shijima shushed him; they were passing the door to the hall that led to the Interrogation department, and they hated to be disturbed.
“I have as little talent for languages as I do for ninjutsu and genjutsu!” Lee enthused at a barely lower volume. “The words just fall right out of my head.” He paused, looking pensive. He pulled his arm from her grasp as if he’d forgotten he was being held in order to rub the back of his neck. “But no, Gaara-kun just started calling me that one day. Habibby, is it?”
“Habibi,” she corrected him.
“Right! I did ask him what it means, but he doesn’t like to translate for me. He told me he thinks I should learn the language myself, if I’m going to be here for a while. I’ve tried to study but …” He chuckled. “I’ve been called a genius of hard work, but there are some things that you need to be a true genius to grasp! Gaara-kun doesn’t quite understand. He’s a natural talent at most things, after all.”
“Indeed,” Shijima acceded. “The language is very different from Shinobi Common. Plenty of foreigners struggle with it.”
“To tell you the truth,” Lee dropped his voice to a whisper that still managed to echo, “I thought he might be making fun of me. Is it something ridiculous? Naruto-kun—uh, that is. Naruto-sama, the Hokage—calls me ‘Bushy Brows’. I thought it might be something like that. Gaara-kun has a very keen sense of humor that flies over my head sometimes.”
“He does?” Shijima thinned her lips. She’d seen the Kazekage be wry, even sarcastic, but a keen sense of humor seemed a bridge too far.
“Oh yes!” Lee balled one hand into a fist. “He’s very funny, even if I don’t always understand his jokes. Just the other day he said he would eat my cooking every day for the rest of his life, even though my teammates always complain it’s so spicy it makes them sick.”
She thought to ask him for further ‘proof’, but they were already nearing the main door of the Kazekage Offices.
“I trust you can take it from here,” she said instead, taking a step back from the Leaf nin.
“Thank you for your assistance!” Lee said brightly. He was nearly to the door when he turned to look at her. “Um, you never said, but … does it mean something to do with eyebrows?”
“No.” Shijima sighed. “It has nothing to do with your eyebrows.”
Shijima didn’t bother checking in on the Kazekage’s office at lunchtime the following day. She knew it would be empty. In fact, it was empty at lunchtime for the next several weeks, because Gaara seemed to have developed a sudden habit of taking very precisely timed, very regular hour-long lunches. Other than his taijutsu trainings, they were the one thing he was never late for.
He had now interrupted two midday meetings and offended both the head of the Merchant’s Guild and the Weaver’s Union by abruptly dismissing them when the noon hour rolled around, excusing himself for a ‘prior engagement’. Shijima had simply stopped scheduling him meetings anywhere near lunchtime.
She came to the door of the office on a Wednesday at 1:05 PM to find Rock Lee crouched in the window behind the Kazekage’s desk, saying his goodbyes.
Gaara reached up to brush a crumb from the Leaf jounin’s flak vest.
“Thank you for the gifts,” he said, his voice very tender, “roohy.”
That was … definitive.
Shijima’s throat tightened. Nobody, not even the at-times socially inept Kazekage, went around calling someone their soul without meaning it.
But Rock Lee merely grinned, unaware of the gravity of the words, his teeth catching the midday sun’s light so that it ricocheted around the room.
“Ooh!” he said. “That’s a new one! Let me guess. It means … my good friend!”
The Kazekage had his hat on, his expression shadowed and unreadable.
“Then what does it mean?”
Gaara hesitated. There were very few things that made him hesitate. Shijima braced herself against a tension that Rock Lee seemed oblivious to. “It means … you.”
Lee’s eyebrows furrowed dramatically. They looked like two thick caterpillars crawling across his face to confer in the middle of his forehead. “Like … my name? Oh! Is it my name translated into Sunan?”
There was the uncomfortable, clear-as-day sound of shifting sand somewhere within the cavernous room. “Something like that.”
“That makes sense! It almost sounds the same. Well, the beginning and the end bits, anyway. The rr and the ee.” He didn’t even pronounce the first sound properly, the Konoha dialect heavily evident in his words.
The Kazekage hummed. He reached for the front of Lee’s flak jacket again.
Shijima subtly pulsed her chakra signature, wary of bearing witness to what came next. Intimacy discomfited her. Displays of affection were not meant to be public.
Gaara’s eyes snapped to her.
“Oh, Shijima-san!” Lee said, following the path of Gaara’s gaze. “I’m sorry to take up so much of Gaara-kun’s time! I know his time is very valuable to the village. I was just leaving. Take care, both of you!”
Then he dropped from the windowsill and was gone.
It took Shijima a few long seconds before she realized there was a nearly ten storey sheer drop from that particular window, with no sub-roofs or canopies below. And Rock Lee had no ninjutsu ability at all. She hurried to the round aperture and stared downward.
A green blur was already speeding through the streets of Suna.
“He’s fine,” Gaara said, his voice pitched low and gravelly. “If you think a little jump like that would hurt Lee you’ve underestimated him.”
Shijima turned back to Gaara’s desk, crossing to stand in her typical position in front of it.
“Is that the agriculture report?” Gaara held out his hand for the papers she was clutching, telegraphing impatience in the snap of his fingers. “Let me see it.”
Shijima pulled the report closer to her chest. There were several new potted plants around the edges of the desk. None of them were ones Gaara would have grown, she recognized immediately. They were too floral, too vibrant. Too water-reliant. They certainly didn’t come from anywhere near Suna.
Shijima had a keen eye for the native plant life, though the brackish marshland that the Houki Clan called home grew flora entirely different from those that Suna’s thin sands nourished. Their mutual appreciation for plants had been one of the first things she and Gaara had truly bonded over, when she’d first become his assistant. The agricultural developments he was fostering through his greenhouses were of special interest to her, and surveying and innovating for them had become something of a mutual passion project.
“You’ll waste half your water rations keeping those alive,” she said, eyeing the already drooping edges of one broad, flat leaf.
Gaara exhaled once, sharply through his nose. He shrugged, glancing over to the plants as well. There was a particular bright orange blossom that he’d placed right at the edge of his desk blotter. He reached out and brushed its petals.
“I’ll shower once a week.”
Shijima couldn’t help the grimace threatening to rise to her lips. “The council already loves you so dearly. Imagine how they’ll feel being trapped in that stuffy meeting room with you on day 6 of 7.”
“Perhaps it will encourage them to keep their points brief, and only call meetings when a messenger hawk wouldn’t have sufficed.” Gaara held out his hand again, fingers now cloudy with bright pollen. “The report?”
Shijima set the report down on his desk but then quickly pushed it out of his reach, leaning down to brace her arms against the desk.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said.
“I should hope so,” Gaara replied drily. “You’re meant to be my assistant.”
“Not with the agriculture report.” She leaned in closer. “With that Leaf jounin.”
“His name is Lee,” Gaara retorted, voice even.
“But that’s not what you call him.”
The only indication that Gaara had any emotional reaction to this at all was a slight widening of his eyes, quickly masked by a return to flat indifference.
“No,” he admitted, “it’s not.”
“But he doesn’t know that. He thinks you’re making fun of him.” Shijima rankled. She didn’t believe in toying with people, treating them like experiments. She’d borne witness to too much of the fallout of that type of behavior, with her ruined, sealed eyes. She’d thought the Kazekage better than such underhandedness.
Gaara’s eyes sharpened suddenly. “I would never make fun of Lee. That would hurt him.”
“Yes.” Shijima pursed her lips. The truth of that statement settled somewhere deep in her bones. “I see that. You’re not one to play games with people. So why are you approaching things this way?”
Gaara’s eyes dropped to the desk blotter. His hands searched until they found those orange petals, dipped into the dirt. He huffed a breath of air. “Have you ever had a feeling so large you couldn’t refrain from speaking it?”
The question gave Shijima pause. The Kazekage was generally a pragmatist, not prone to flights of philosophy or fantasy. To hear him speak so personally of feelings was, to say the least, uncharacteristic. Though nothing about this situation had been characteristic of him at all.
“Sure,” she said guardedly. “I think most people have.”
“People,” Gaara repeated tightly. “Yes. That’s the problem. People. Not demons, not monsters.”
Shijima had seen the Kazekage get maudlin like this only a few times before. Usually at this point she’d call in the cavalry. Kankuro, usually, or even better, Temari, if she happened to be in the village visiting. But Kankuro wasn’t due to be back from his mission for the next two weeks, and Temari wasn’t scheduled for a visit for another several months.
That left Shijima as the one-man frontline for this battle against Gaara’s darker impulses.
She rolled her eyes. “Listen. I know I’m partly blind, but I know a person when I see one. I may not have been around for your early history, but I know who you are now. You’re not a demon or a monster. You’re just human, like the rest of us.” She stood back and crossed her arms. “Sorry that the state of personhood comes with emotional baggage.”
Gaara snorted then, shaking his head. When he looked back at her face, his eyes were no longer quite so distant. “Thank you for the reminder.”
“So you want to tell him your feelings,” she ventured. “Why not say it in a language he can understand?”
Gaara’s mouth tightened back into a small line. The shadow of his hat’s brim across his face seemed to deepen. “The first time I said anything at all, it was a mistake. It just slipped out.”
Shijima hummed and waited for him to continue. There was more to this story.
“Then I realized he had no idea what I’d said. It was freeing.” He took an unsteady breath.
“You don’t seem very free now,” Shijima noted. “You seem burdened.”
“It didn’t work for long.” Gaara withdrew his hands from the flower pot. A little trail of moist sand followed his retreat across the desk blotter, leaving damp stains. He’d been reconfiguring the soil, optimizing it for that particular flower. “It was like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker only to snap it back shut.” His hands clenched and unclenched on the desk’s surface. “Tension, release. Now the tension is building again.”
“You want him to understand how you feel now,” she guessed.
“Okay, so, you know how to do that. You’re just being deliberately obtuse.” It was probably crossing some sort of protocol to speak to her superior officer in this way, but even Gaara of the Desert needed a reality check sometimes. And Shijima knew he wasn’t getting one from anywhere else right now, with his siblings out of the village and Rock Lee constantly babbling on about youth and virtue and lofty aspirations.
“I’m not obtuse,” Gaara said flatly.
Shijima waited a beat.
“I might be obtuse,” he conceded. “But I’m mostly … wary. My last relationship ended poorly.”
Shijima narrowed her eyes. The Kazekage, to her limited knowledge, had never been in a relationship. That was why his engagement to her sister had caused such a stir in the gossip mills.
Then it dawned on her.
“Kazekage-sama,” she interjected. “If you’ll forgive my bluntness—”
Gaara inclined his head. “I always do.”
“Your last relationship … wasn’t. If you’re talking about my sister, that wasn’t a real relationship. A couple dinners? A party that neither of you really enjoyed? I know you went along with it out of obligation, and she did too, but … that wasn’t love.”
“I know it wasn’t.” Gaara’s voice was pitched down, rougher than usual.
“But this is, isn’t it?”
Gaara shook his head. “I don’t know. It feels …” He raised his hand, as if to grab for his chest, but then dropped it back to the desk’s surface, his motions tightly constrained. “… like my soul is walking around outside my body. Unprotected and unguarded. It stings like an open wound to be away from him, but it aches to be close to him, too. It’s never enough. When we’re together, it’s as though I forget how much it hurts to be without him. He makes me feel whole.”
Oh. This was so much more dire than she’d thought. The Kazekage was already in deep. Sand trap in the middle of the desert deep. Bedrock deep.
“That sounds like love,” Shijima said simply. She’d never been in love herself, but she’d heard her sister speaking about Shigezane. The words were not dissimilar. “Or a really context-specific case of indigestion.”
Gaara snorted. “Lee does cook very spicy food.”
“So you’re going to tell him?” Shijima suspected that to be rejected might destroy Gaara, but the look on his face right now … it was like watching someone bleed out from a thousand tiny cuts. Better to rip the wound open if it was going to bleed.
“I—” Gaara balked. “There’s still much to consider. The council—”
Shijima kissed her teeth. “Sure, they probably won’t be thrilled. But this might be the perfect compromise.”
“Well, the council wants you to pick someone to marry. And you hate doing what they want you to do.” Gaara nodded his acknowledgement of her point. She continued, “Rock Lee might be the perfect solution. He’s not from one of those fancy Konoha clans with the kekkei genkai, right?”
Gaara shook his head. “His clan are mostly civilians. Stone workers. His relationship with them is … marginal.”
“And there’s no risk of an heir, so you can keep pursuing that adoption angle you’ve been looking into.”
Gaara’s eyes snapped to hers, widening. His eyes could look eerily animal at times, with their flat, green pupils. Right now he looked like startled prey.
“What? I’m your assistant, you think I don’t know what scrolls you check out from the library? Who do you think the librarian comes after about your late fees?”
“This has the potential to work.” Gaara had already begun disappearing deep into his own mind. He snatched a pen and an ink pot and began jotting notes. “With a declared romantic partner, the council would no longer be able to force an arranged marriage. Of course, they could still decline him as an acceptable suitor …”
“He technically meets all their criteria. High-ranking, unable to pass the Kage line to Konoha, the potential for a Sunan heir …” She shrugged. “I mean, they didn’t specify it had to be a woman or even from Wind Country. To set those boundaries now would raise accusations of bigotry.”
“That’s never stopped them before,” Gaara said tightly, still scribbling.
“Mmm, well, it’s worth at least feeling them out.” Shijima flicked the thick green leaf of the desk plant nearest to her. “What could go wrong?”
The council meeting had been dragging on for hours. Even the Kazekage had skipped his routine lunch with the Leaf jounin as they’d haggled back and forth over the finer points of the budget.
Councilman Juuro, who as the most senior member of the council had the seat of second-highest authority closest to the door, had been snoring off and on almost since the meeting had begun. Shijima was more or less tuned out as the Kazekage and Councilwoman Kiku of the Western Tribes quibbled over some few-hundred-ryo line item. It shouldn’t have even been an issue; at this point, Shijima suspected the councilwoman was only standing her ground to try and rile Gaara. Of course, the Kazekage himself had a stubborn streak as wide as a sand flat and just as intractable. From her position at the Kazekage’s shoulder at the head of the table, Shijima had the perfect vantage point to watch a line of drool drip slowly down one of Juuro’s long whiskers.
The fleck of spit shaking to the table was the only warning they received before a massive chakra signature descended on the room in an instant. The door flew open and slammed into the wall.
“Gaara-kun!” Rock Lee shouted from the doorway. “I came as soon as the principal’s report was finished, but—Oh!”
He snapped upright, hands flying into position at his sides for a bow.
“I’m so sorry!” he yelled to the floor. “When you said to bring the paperwork ASAP, I thought you would be alone! I was just following your chakra signature, and—”
“It’s fine,” Gaara said placidly. He raised his hand from the report Kiku was poring over to gesture to the shinobi bent in half in the doorway. “Honored Council Members, please meet Rock Lee of Konohagakure, the man who is responsible for the changes to the Academy’s taijutsu curriculum.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance!” The tip of Lee’s nose was nearly scraping the stone floor. “I apologize for having interrupted your meeting!”
Tamagi of the Lightning Fist coughed into her hand as Lee straightened into an at-ease that did not look at ease at all. “Yes, we’ve heard much about Rock Lee of Konoha,” she wheezed the name like an epithet, “and the influence he’s been having on our students and their schooling.”
Tamagi herself had once been an Academy teacher, Shijima recalled. And she had enough children and grandchildren to staff an entire battalion of genin squads. Matters regarding the Academy had always been a particular point of stridence for her. She had allied herself with Akiro of the Sand Boulder and his traditionalist views on taijutsu training recently, and the Academy reforms Gaara alluded to had been very hard fought as a result.
Lee seemed to read none of the derision in her tone, smiling guilelessly and snapping his hand out in a thumbs-up. “Thank you, ma’am! It is at the core of my ninja way to demonstrate and encourage the many paths to becoming a shinobi! Even if a child does not have any talent for ninjutsu or genjutsu, they can still become a splendid ninja!”
“You said you were sensing the Kazekage’s chakra?” Masaki the Mountain Shrike diverted the conversation like a kunai thrown in the path of a shuriken. “The way I heard it said, you were talentless at the ninja arts.”
“No chakra control at all,” rumbled Akiro from his wide, thick-armed chair.
“Oh.” Lee’s bright grin dimmed just fractionally. “Well, I can do a few very basic things.”
Then he turned and walked right up the side of the council chamber walls. He only made it a few pathetic steps before becoming unstuck and rolling off the sandstone in a graceful tumble. He leapt back to his feet.
“See? It’s only things you could teach a dedicated civilian, really.”
“A civilian,” Akiro grumbled his agreement.
There was a sandal print on the wall now at waist height. Shijima was going to catch hell from the janitorial crew when she asked them to clean it. She might just clean it herself rather than stare down the crossed arms of the prickly genin who ran the cleaning service.
“Including chakra detection, apparently,” pointed out Fuuji of the Southern Flats, tipping her glasses down to assess Lee’s form. “If we haven’t been misled about your abilities after all.”
“I’m not sure what you’ve been told, but I assure you that if Gaara-kun was the source, the information was completely accurate!” Lee replied cheerily. “Truthfully, I’m quite poor at chakra detection as well! That’s why I assumed Gaara-kun was alone; I didn’t sense any of you. It’s just that … well—” A blush rose just above the edges of his jumpsuit’s neckline. Shijima wondered if anyone else had noticed it. “… Gaara-kun’s chakra signature is sort of difficult to ignore, isn’t it?”
Hosoichi of the Creosote Clan peered down the bridge of his long and crooked nose. “Indeed?” He smiled glibly. His veiny hand moved across the surface of the table in a quick patter to Councilwoman Fuuji beside him. Hand code. Shijima didn’t catch all of it, but she understood the important words: Playing up weakness. Hiding something. “Isn’t that fascinating, Fuuji-san?”
“Yes,” Fuuji said from behind the edge of her fan, her true expression concealed by its slats and the shine of her glasses. “It’s very interesting.”
The chakra signature that had been under discussion flickered, drawing all the room’s eyes to the head of the table. “This has been a much needed and pleasant diversion—” Gaara glanced at Lee, his expression unreadable. “—but we have already exceeded our meeting time by nearly two hours. Lee, the Academy principal’s report?”
“Of course!” Lee dashed across the room to the Kazekage’s side so quickly that his motions could hardly be seen.
Teleportation, rapped out Hosoichi’s fingers on the table. Konoha’s Yellow Flash.
Shijima didn’t roll her eyes, but it was a near thing. If the Council members had spent even a handful of minutes learning anything about Rock Lee, they would have known there was no duplicity to his claims. He truly was just that skilled at taijutsu. To hear Gaara tell it, he’d faced down a score of White Zetsu clones on the battlefield during the Great War with only his feet and fists, and when a meteor threatened to crush his village, he’d kicked it squarely in half. Shijima may not have understood the Kazekage’s attraction to the strange jounin, but she could at least appreciate the power and skill there, the overcoming of all odds.
Gaara plucked the now-wrinkled report from Lee’s clenched fist and collated it against the table. His eyes narrowed just slightly, a signal Shijima had come to recognize as anticipation of victory.
“Honored Councilwoman, I think you’ll see in reviewing the tables in this report, that the provision of these supplies to the Academy is of utmost importance in the view of our educators. And who should know better what our students need?”
Kiku snatched the report with a flutter of her voluminous sleeves, scanning the page with keen eyes. Her lips crumpled into a tense purse. “Fuuji-san?” She passed the report down the table.
Fuuji pushed her glasses into her wild white hair to study the page. She sighed. “The Kazekage’s assessment is correct.”
Gaara shifted back in his chair with the slightest hint of smugness around his mouth.
“Um,” Rock Lee said in what Shijima suspected was meant to be a whisper. It was no such thing. He had planted his hands on the table so he could lean close to the Kazekage’s ear. “Do you still need me here, or—?”
Gaara’s eyes flicked to the Leaf jounin. “No.” He placed a hand atop Lee’s bandaged knuckles. He was smiling, though you couldn’t see it on his mouth. “I appreciate your diligence. Fdaitk.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Even Juuro’s snores fell silent.
Lee craned his head closer to the Kazekage’s ear. “Is that like thank you?” he said in a stage whisper.
“Something like that.” Gaara’s eyes slipped from the Leaf ninja to coolly scan the council’s agog faces, betraying nothing.
“What should I say back?”
The Kazekage looked back at Lee, straight into his eyes. The faint smile was back. It was almost too intimate to witness; Shijima felt her own face heating. “Typically, the response is afdak.”
Lee grinned so bright Shijima caught the flash of light straight across her glasses. “Afdak!” he repeated.
The moment hung on a knife’s edge as Shijima escorted an oblivious Lee from the room.
She shut the door behind him to stony silence. She’d expected something like this might happen—the Kazekage at times had as much subtlety as a kunai to the heart—but she hadn’t expected it to be so soon.
The council members were all staring at the head of the table with matching expressions of shock and dismay. Tamagi’s wheezy breath was clicking in her throat, her mouth moving as if to speak words that wouldn’t come. Fuuji’s withered fingers were tight on the joint of her fan, Akiro’s thick knuckles so bloodless on the table’s edge the stone creaked warningly. It wasn’t every day—or any day, really—that the Kazekage pledged to devote himself to another man in front of the entire assembled Council, much less for said man to aver, I’m yours.
Shijima raised her fingertip to the corner of her glasses, her right hand slipping behind her back to palm her staff. She could immobilize half the council from this vantage, she thought, and the Kazekage could take care of the rest. She’d survived the snake Orochimaru as a mere child; she could handle a slim dozen of old geezers, however revered they may have been. If it came to that. She hoped it didn’t come to that.
In the end it was Masaki who spoke first, her thin voice slicing through the silence. “We would have even accepted the defective Houki girl over a foreign, male jounin.”
“Civilian,” Akiro noted.
“Jounin,” Gaara amended, voice sharp. He was staring intently at the council members, but Shijima positioned herself so she’d be in his eyeline the moment he looked up, giving him a look that said, Uh-uh, no way, don’t even entertain it. The Kazekage wasn’t the sort to change his intentions once he’d set them, but until three months ago he also hadn’t seemed the sort to fall heart over palm for a man in orange legwarmers.
Baki caught Shijima’s eye from behind the veil of his turban. “The Houki clan has already made their position clear that that is not an option. They do not consider the Kazekage’s assistant marriageable. To propose such a thing would both shame and anger them.”
Shijima shot him a grateful smile. There had always been a certain softness between Councilman Baki and the Kazekage. Though the councilman spoke rarely, when he deigned to add more than a yea or nay vote, it was generally in favor of one of Gaara’s proposals or initiatives. Kankuro and Temari both called him Baki-sensei, though Kankuro had once implied that the man had not had such a relationship with their brother, despite them sharing a genin squad. Shijima could imagine the tensions that must have underlain the decision to leave the genin jinchuuriki without an assigned instructor. She wondered if Baki regretted not stepping into that role, if that regret was what tinged his reserved affection towards Gaara.
“Besides—” Baki steepled his weathered fingers. “—there have been a dearth of clans willing to present their daughters as eligible brides since the unfortunate conclusion of the Kazekage’s previous engagement.”
“Strapping young lad, isn’t he?” said Juuro suddenly, his chin rising from his chest for the first time in hours. “Impressive speed. I’ve seen him out by the Academy teaching. The students love him. Teachers, too. This year’s crop of rising genin have the best taijutsu skills I’ve seen in over forty years.”
It was a deliberate slight. Akiro bristled, hairline fissures issuing through the stone tabletop from the tension of his fingers. He’d been the Academy’s taijutsu teacher until just twenty years ago. However, none of the council ever dared to speak out against Juuro. He’d been leading the council since before some of them were born.
“What did you say his name was, again?” the senior councilman continued. “Stone Lee?”
“Rock Lee,” Gaara corrected, his eyes slitting closed with a contented smirk.
There was a pool of something melting in the middle of the Kazekage’s desk. From the doorway it looked suspiciously like hawk shit. Shijima began mentally composing a complaint to the aviary before she sniffed the air. Something sweet hung there, sugary and dense.
“It’s chocolate candies,” Gaara explained. “They’re popular in Konoha.”
“It looks like—”
“I know.” Gaara set down the folded piece of paper he’d been staring at. “It tastes better than hawk droppings, but only just.”
“What’s that?” The item in his hands didn’t look like the mission reports she’d placed on his desk that morning. In fact, they all seemed to still be stacked in the inbox tray on the corner of the desk, untouched.
“It’s a letter.”
There was a small vase of red flowers on the Kazekage’s desk, she noticed, next to the puddle of melted candy. Native plants. Desert honeysuckle, wild paintbrush, firecracker bush. The vase was cloudy sandglass, and through its haze Shijima could see a barely moist, sandy substrate keeping the blooms lively. Someone had been learning. Or rather, had been taught.
“Rock Lee was here,” she guessed, approaching. The non-native flowers crowding the desk’s surface with their pots were still just as lush as always, clearly carefully tended. She didn’t dare scent the air again, in case the Kazekage had kept his word about skipping showers. She could only hope he’d found a better solution for securing the water for his gifted plants.
“That letter is from him?”
“Yes.” Gaara sighed. He was staring off into the middle distance through the office’s northern window. The look on his face wasn’t exactly lovestruck or dreamy, as one would expect of someone who’d received a love letter. He looked more … contemplative.
She hesitated. “Can I read it?”
Gaara pushed the letter across the desk to her. “Maybe you can understand it better than I can.”
She turned from the Kazekage so as not to immobilize him as she tipped her glasses down to squint over the frames, holding the paper close to her face. Rock Lee’s grammar was atrocious—far too many exclamation points, for one—but his handwriting was blocky and neat. She skimmed the contents: Springtime of Youth this, burning, passionate rivalry that … something about the battle-forged bonds between comrades. It was all rather flowery and obscure. Not so different from the speeches she heard him yelling at the Kazekage’s taijutsu practices. But the closing salutation froze her.
She tapped the word, written not in Shinobi Common, but in Sunan.
She looked up at the Kazekage. “Does he know what that means?”
“He forgot a stroke here.”
“Who taught him how to write it?”
Gaara’s eyes hadn’t left the horizon through the window. “I gave him a letter first. That’s the tradition in Konoha.”
“Being penpals?” Shijima narrowed her eyes. “Seems a little ridiculous, if you’re already in the same village.”
“A confession letter,” Gaara corrected her. “You either give it to your intended directly or you hide it somewhere they’ll find it. A school bag or their locker at the Academy is traditional.”
“I’m assuming you didn’t play hide-and-seek.”
Gaara snorted ruefully. “I gave it to him at the start of our last training session, naturally.”
“And he …?”
“Cried so profusely that he nearly missed a Sand Lariat and skinned his nose.”
“And you signed it ma’a kul hubi?”
Gaara inclined his chin just slightly.
“You could have just written ‘with all my love’, you know.”
“I thought you were going to be straightforward with him,” she pressed.
“I assumed the intentions of the letter were rather clear.”
“Were they? I mean, he wrote you a letter back and gave you uh …” She sneered at the puddle on the Kazekage’s desk. “… that. Are congratulations in order?”
From the wistful expression on Gaara’s face, she could already predict the answer.
“No,” he confirmed her suspicions. “He assumed I was referring to our deep and abiding friendship. A bond forged in blood and battle.” He gestured dismissively. “You read the letter.”
Shijima rolled her shoulders in irritation so sharply she felt her joints crack. She caught a glimpse of the midafternoon sun through the window and realized the time.
“Where’s Lee-san now?” she asked.
Gaara’s eyes snapped to her, sharp. “What do you mean?”
“Did he go on a mission?” She paused. She realized the direction of the window the Kazekage had been staring at. North towards Fire Country. “He left the village, didn’t he?”
“How did you know that?”
“Because you’ve been locked in your office all day.” Shijima slowly began to assemble the pieces. “Normally by now Lee-san would have dragged you out for a ‘youthful, nutritious lunch’ or a training session.”
Gaara sighed. It was a heavy, weighty thing, like the death rattle of a chest collapsing.
“He’s been recalled to Konoha. I wasn’t provided any details.”
Oh. Oh no.
“Is he coming back?” she asked softly.
“If I have any say in the matter.” The words were firm, but Gaara’s voice was uncertain.
“I’ll leave you to your work,” Shijima said finally, unsure what else to say. “The mission desk wanted those reports back by five.”
“The mission reports, yes.” Gaara reached for them absently. “Thank you for the reminder.”
But his eyes had returned to their vigil at the window by the time she closed the door.
Out in the hallway, Shijima drummed her fingers on her staff. She had to solve this. She couldn’t have the Kazekage moping in his office like a woebegone teenager. The image of a backlog of paperwork like a Lightning Country snowdrift arose in her mind.
She began to piece together a plan. Such a thing was entirely above her pay grade, but what choice did she have? She considered soliciting Kankuro’s assistance, but he was as inept at romantic matters as his younger brother. Shijima had seen a diplomat’s girlfriend throw her drink at him at the last festival. But … Temari would be visiting the following week. Her husband was Konohan. A friend of Rock Lee’s, even, if Shijima recalled correctly. They’d graduated together, she thought, or near to it. The famed Konoha Twelve … both of them were among that number.
Shijima spun her staff idly as she strode down the hall in the direction of the aviary. She had an urgent hawk to send.
Yes, she was going to solve this. And then she was going to ask Gaara for a raise.
Rock Lee’s joyous return to Suna the following month was heralded by a complaint from the chuunin who guarded the gates. The Leaf jounin had insisted on an immediate audience with the Kazekage, apparently, quite outside of protocol.
Of course, when it came to Rock Lee, the Kazekage ignored protocol utterly. Shijima had been watching her boss remove the posting for the permanent taijutsu instructor at the Academy from the mission desk with his own two hands when the message came. He’d folded the job announcement crisply and tucked it somewhere in the sleeve of his robes. And then he’d scolded the guard for being impolite to their guest.
“Where did you get this?” Shijima asked him some hours later, standing in front of his desk once again. There was a small bowl on the desk blotter, filled to overflowing with sand. But it was not any ordinary sand, nothing you could find in Suna. The grains were perfectly-formed, delicate little star shapes, each carefully hand-sorted for perfection of form.
“From Lee,” Gaara replied.
Of course he had. Shijima dared to hope.
“Where did he get it?”
“He went on a mission to the coast while he was dispatched to Konoha and brought it back. He won’t be going anywhere for quite a while, so … ” The contented smile that had made itself a home on the Kazekage’s face in the week since Rock Lee’s new job assignment had been announced emerged again, subtly. “I thought it was a rather attractive souvenir, if impractical. It’s not as though I can use it for defense.”
“No,” Shijima said slowly. “You wouldn’t. … Do you know what it is?”
Gaara touched his fingers to the bowl and pulled them back covered in clinging constellations of tiny shells. “Calcium, mostly. Specifically calcite. Some silicate, too.”
“Not its chemical composition,” Shijima said sharply. “What it is.”
Gaara regarded her blankly.
“That’s star sand.”
“Oh?” He was still idly playing with the little grains, jumping them from his hand to the bowl and back again, like a meteor shower in miniature form. He clearly did not understand.
“It’s from my clan’s homeland. That kind of sand only forms on a very small section of the southern shore. It’s incredibly rare and difficult to curate. Craftspeople spend hours sorting the grains for the stars.”
A tentative awareness dawned slowly over Gaara’s face.
“To present someone with it, it’s tantamount to an engagement gift. It’s a promise to marry.”
Gaara gave her a very serious look. “Do you think he knows what it means?” His voice was barely a whisper.
“They wouldn’t have sold it to a foreigner without explaining.” Shijima stared into the depths of the bowl, where the smallest eddy had begun in the grains, slowly swirling. “I’ve never seen such a large amount of it, or such purity. It must have cost him a fortune.”
Gaara’s eyes flicked from the sand to the open doorway, expression carefully guarded. “Lee said he’d be back with dinner soon.”
“I’ll give you some privacy.” Shijima bowed on her way out of the door, already planning to clear the hall. Everyone could enjoy an evening off for once. She was sure the Kazekage wouldn’t mind.
She nearly collided with Rock Lee just outside the secretary’s office. His arms were laden with steaming containers. Two clanking thermoses dangled from a clip on his flak jacket.
“Good evening, Shijima-san!” he cried merrily. “Do you know if Gaara-kun is busy?”
She’d already cleared his schedule for the evening.
“He can spare the time to eat.”
“Oh good!” He moved as if to clap his hands and seemed to notice only at the last moment that they were still full. “I worry about him missing meals. He doesn’t take very good care of his body, and the body is a shinobi’s greatest weapon.”
“I’m sure he’s grateful to have you looking out for him,” she said evenly. Was it worth the risk to confirm her suspicions? She decided it was. If Rock Lee was still floundering in his own density, she could invent a meeting to spare the Kazekage the heartbreak, at least for one evening. “You’re a good friend. Or, rather … something more?”
A blush sprung to Lee’s face immediately.
“Whatever do you mean?” he squeaked, voice artificially high. He glanced desperately at the offices that flanked this section of the hall.
“They’re empty. Everyone’s gone for the evening already.”
“Is everything all right?” Lee’s thick eyebrows raised until they were invisible behind his bowlcut. “Is there an emergency?”
“Special occasion,” Shijima said shortly.
“Is it a festival evening?” Lee pursed his lips. “Oh, I wish Gaara-kun wouldn’t work himself so hard. He deserves to have some enjoyment, too.”
“Nothing like that,” Shijima assured him. “Don’t trouble yourself.”
“Phew, that’s a relief.” Lee ducked his head and went to hurry past her. “Anyway, thank you!”
He wouldn’t evade her that easily.
“Wait.” Her hand snapped out to grab his vest, stopping him short. Or rather, he allowed himself to be stopped short. She eyed the burning pink on the back of his neck, the eager shuffle of his feet. She really shouldn’t delay him; the Kazekage would be upset if he was late. But she needed this confirmation, if only for her own satisfaction. “What was it that tipped you off?”
“Tipped me off to what?” Lee yelped.
She shushed him. There were still the faint chakra signatures of the cleaning crew and their harridan of a supervisor moving around on the lower floor, the Kazekage’s ANBU on the nearby roofs. Best not to cause too much of a stir.
“That your feelings were returned.”
“That’s priv—!” Lee nearly shouted.
She pinched him to quiet him. The flesh of his arm was like corded steel. Maybe she did understand the Kazekage’s attraction, if only just a little.
“Um,” he dropped his voice to that not-quite-whisper, cowed under her stern gaze. His wide, dark eyes darted. “You know Shikamaru-kun, Temari-san’s husband?”
Shijima nodded once.
“He’s fluent in Sunan. He learned it for his wife, actually. It’s rather romantic, don’t you think?”
Shijima shrugged. Sunan was in her opinion far more suited to declarations of love than any other language she knew. It was more lyrical, more intense. But Rock Lee was obviously talentless at the language, so it wasn’t really her opinion that mattered here. She raised an eyebrow, encouraging him to get on with it.
“Ah, right, well,” Lee blustered on, “Shikamaru-kun noticed me reading over a letter Gaara-kun wrote me, and he offered to translate part of it. It said—”
“Ma’a kul hubi.”
“Exactly! Wait. How did you—?”
“I’m his assistant,” she brushed him off. “And then what happened?”
“Well, then he offered to translate a few more things for me. To explain some things. Let’s just say he … enlightened me on some cultural matters.”
“So you bought the star sand,” Shijima pressed.
Lee’s flush deepened. “You know about that, too?”
“I’m from the Houki Clan.”
Lee nodded his understanding. “I thought, since it was from Wind Country, that it would be most meaningful. He didn’t seem to have caught on to any of my other gestures of passionate affection.” He laughed, and it rang around the hallway. “It’s funny, isn’t it? These cultural misunderstandings. We’d been romancing each other in circles and neither of us realized. It’s lucky Shikamaru-kun caught it!”
Shikamaru hadn’t caught a thing, Shijima thought to herself with no small amount of smugness. At least not until Shijima had requested dinner with his wife, and until several badgering hawks had crossed the sky to Konoha. She didn’t say any of that, though. She wasn’t one to brag. Her own sense of satisfaction (and hopefully a modest increase in her paycheck) would be its own reward.
She released her grip on Lee’s vest and gave him a little push at the shoulder. “Go on then,” she said. “He’s waiting for you.”
“Right!” Rock Lee sped off down the hall.
Some hours later, once all her paperwork for the day was filed, Shijima walked to the Kazekage’s office. She intended to bid him goodnight and let him know she was retiring home for the evening.
Outside the shut office door, she paused. There were still two chakra signatures within, one powerful but contained, and the other massive and unregulated. The two energies overlapped, intersected. Nearly atop one another.
Through the door, she heard a quiet, damp noise. A press of lips. A whispered phrase in a thick Konohan accent, “Ahebik.” ‘I love you’. A return in perfect Sunan. “Amoot feek.” ‘I would die for you.’
She dropped her hand from the door handle. She would just take her leave for the night; the Kazekage could figure out where she’d gone.
After all, he’d figured out much more difficult things already.