The padded practice post shuddered under Lee's repeated blows. The rhythm was soothing, while the violent physical exercise dusted out the cobwebs he'd felt gathering between his ears.
In Lee's opinion, being the 'Military Envoy' to Sand should involve a lot of fighting and dangerous missions. But in the week since his arrival, his fiercest opponent had been boredom.
Lee had been taught to always respect his elders, but the way the council members rabbited on made Lee want to shoot out of his chair, yell at the top of his lungs and then jump out the nearest window. Since that wouldn't be very Diplomatic, he'd put all his effort and concentration into looking attentive and not yawning ('for each yawn, I'll do five hundred one-armed pressups-'). Despite his efforts, he'd actually nodded off this morning. When he'd come to with a start, the same venerable relic was still going on about border patrol areas between Wind and Fire countries; nobody appeared to have noticed Lee's indiscretion.
Except, perhaps, for Gaara. It was hard to say. Lee sometimes had the strangest feeling the Kazekage was watching him during the council meetings Lee was invited to; yet, when he looked at Gaara, the dark-ringed eyes were always fixed on somebody else.
Four-hundred-and-ninety-nine...five hundred! Lee stopped hitting the wooden post and wiped the sweat from his eyes. The heat was crushing, especially to someone used to training in Leaf's forests. Just one more thing to get used to in this foreign village. Everything was different here; the food, the flat, mineral well water, the way people stared at him and his legwarmers...The inhabitants of Sunagakure were a serious, closed-mouth bunch, and they had many customs, unspoken traditions and strict taboos that Lee was constantly tripping over; it wasn't easy to make friends with them.
Lee would have been terribly homesick if he'd let himself, but he wasn't the type to mope. He'd work at it until he was accepted! Temari and Kankuro were fairly friendly, when they weren't off on business on Gaara's behalf. And Gaara...well, Lee wasn't sure where he stood with Gaara, but the Kazekage didn't seem to mind having Lee around. It was a start.
Lee bent his legs into a few deep stretches and breathed evenly. The sand was glowing under the sun, nearly blinding. He was alone in the huge training grounds; most Sand nins only practiced here in the early morning or at night, but Lee was trying to get used to the smouldering daytime heat the only way he knew how; by meeting it full on, at two in the afternoon, and trying to beat it through sheer stubbornness. He'd had to switch his beloved form-fitting green suit for some lighter clothes, though he'd kept his weights and legwarmers on for sentimental reasons. After an hour's practice, he'd stripped down to the waist, and rivulets of sweat were running down his bare chest, soaking the bandages around his torso, arms and hands, but he kept at it.
"Right!" Lee shouted, straightening up. "Let's go!" He was missing Gai-sensei a lot, particularly in these moments, but Lee refused to let it get to him.
He concentrated for an instant and then burst into motion, the sand of the arena exploding up around him. He lunged at the first training post. It was a heavy oak pole sunk five feet into bedrock; it nonetheless shuddered with an awful crash when Lee spun and kicked it. It was still groaning when he leapt up and hammered the next post in the line with a downward kick, then spun and punched the third post with a fearsome double blow.
He grabbed the top of the quivering post, vaulted over it and hit the fourth with a double spin-kick. Somewhere underground, wood cracked.
Drop down, dodge an invisible enemy - faster! Back, spin and hammer the fifth pole. Jump high - higher! Apply a short, neat Konoha Whirlwind to the sixth post, spin and level a kick at the seventh post-
Wait- there were only six- there was no seventh post- ohshit!
Lee's brain would have stopped, but his highly trained body had reacted to something unknown like it had been trained to; the kick scythed out with enough force to snap a man's spine in two.
It crashed into a wall of sand, sending grains flying everywhere.
Lee leapt back, horrified.
The sand slowly started to seep down from its improvised wall protecting Gaara's upper body. The Kazekage was standing not far from the sixth and last post, arms crossed over his chest, staring.
Lee wondered how long Gaara had been here, hiding his presence, watching him. Then he wondered why Gaara was here, watching him. Then he wondered just how painful ritual suicide would turn out to be. In the long list of recommendations Tsunade had given him, 'Don't try to break the Kazekage's neck' hadn't actually featured, but that had probably been because Tsunade thought it sort of went without saying.
"That's not the best you can do," Gaara stated, and the faint hint of scorn to his monotone got Lee reacting before Tsunade's lecture on the Rules of Diplomacy stood much of a chance to object.
"Of course that wasn't! This is only practice! I normally train harder against Gai-sensei, but in this instance, I didn't want to damage my host's training field."
Gaara slowly looked away, off to Lee's left. Lee glanced in the same direction, in time to see one of the oaken poles slowly list backwards in its stone moorings.
"...Ooops." Lee winced. Captain Sanada was going to be mad with him. Sanada was the Jounin who'd met Lee and showed him to his office that first day. The older man treated Lee with kind patience in regards to his status of foreigner; he'd shown him the training field when Lee had complained about lack of exercise. He was going to be ticked off that Lee had broken it after only a few sessions.
"Were you going to use them? I'm sorry I ruined your training," Lee said, rubbing the back of his neck and looking dolefully at the broken post. This just wasn't his day.
Gaara once more gave him that long, unreadable stare. Lee had the feeling his words intrigued Gaara, though he didn't see why. Here was Gaara on one hand, a training field on the other, what was there to think about? Even the Kage of hidden villages had to train; they were not only leaders and administrators, they were also the strongest warriors.
Even Tsunade practiced with the highest-level Jounin occasionally, though it could have been a ploy on her part to escape the mountains of paperwork on her desk. In fact, the most exciting fights - at least in the opinion of almost every other male in the village - was when Shizune snapped, marched down to the practice field and went toe to toe with her boss on the condition that if she won, Tsunade had to get back to work. Shizune usually won these days; Tsunade couldn't unleash her full strength against a friend, and Shizune had learned to fight dirty these past few years. Everybody - every male - in the village stopped whatever it was they were doing to watch these matches. Lee had admired the techniques used, but he failed to understand the captivation.
Lee suddenly straightened up, struck by the best idea he'd had for a long time. "I know! We can spar together, as compensation for my breaking one of the training stations."
Gaara's eyes widened a fraction.
"Yes!" Lee resisted the urge to go grab Gaara and drag him into the arena section of the training field. "To tell you the truth, I've been hoping we'd get the chance to do this one day. I know you've gotten stronger since our match at the Chuunin exams. And I want to try out some of my new techniques against your Sand Barrier."
"You want...to spar with me."
Gaara seemed to be having a problem with the concept.
"Yes. Er, am I not supposed to?" Lee reminded himself - for only the hundredth time since he'd arrived here - that Gaara was the Kazekage and had to be treated differently than Neji or Naruto or Lee's other friends who didn't mind having a tussle with him.
Gaara moved forward slowly, away from the shadow of the training post. A flurry of sand hissed and circled him slowly, a faint warning like the distant rattle of a snake. It brushed against the trailing hem of Gaara's long black overcoat. He was wearing his usual outdoor outfit, ditching the Kazekage's robe for the protective coat and the pants strapped at thigh and knee.
Lee had noticed before - and found it a bit odd - that he was always hyper aware of what Gaara was wearing. It was probably because he was the Kazekage, the most important person of the village. Not that Lee noticed what Tsunade wore in quite the same way, but that was because he was always watching her with an anticipatory wince, especially if she was talking animatedly or walking fast. Lee was rather worried that the Hokage's skimpy outfit would slip up or down or any which way, giving Lee a view of something he didn't particularly want to see in a superior officer.
Gaara was only a few feet away, watching Lee like a hawk as if expecting something, some reaction. Lee looked at him, both puzzled and polite.
"Aren't you afraid?" Gaara finally asked.
"Of the Sand."
Lee glanced at the stuff lying all around the training grounds.
"Well, to be honest, I still have nightmares about that Desert Coffin blow. But this will be a practice bout, not a real fight. You won't be hitting me with that."
He glanced up and started back; Gaara had approached to within a few inches.
"What if I lose control?" Gaara asked softly.
"Lose control?" Lee was startled by the notion. "We haven't seen each other for awhile, but as one warrior to another, you don't strike me as someone who loses control nowadays."
Lee could well remember that old Gaara during the Chuunin exams, emerging from a shattered Sand Armour and laughing like a fiend before crushing Lee. But he also remembered Gaara sending his sand to defend Lee's life against Kimimaro even after Gaara had been hurled to the sidelines and could barely stand up yet. Despite appearances, in both cases Gaara had been in complete control; the killing attack against Lee and the sand that had defended him had both been perfectly intentional.
Lee had been observing Gaara this last week and had seen somebody who was under control to a fault. Maybe under a bit too much control, said a small part of Lee, and he wasn't really sure what to make of that thought, so he dismissed it.
"Injuries can happen during training," he said with a shrug. "They heal and make you stronger. So, do you want to try?"
Gaara scrutinized him for what seemed like a long time, and then he turned and walked away. Lee suppressed a disappointed sigh. Of course the Kazekage of the Sand wasn't about to trade blows with a Shinobi from Leaf, particularly one he'd already beaten once-
"Let's spar," Gaara said. He stopped near the wooden posts, unbuckled a few straps and lifted the leather harness over his head to lean the gourd against the broken pole. Lee was about to object, but then a stream of sand hopped out of the gourd and followed Gaara's slow march to the centre of the training field, curling about his ankles like a puppy eager to play. The whole central arena was made of sand; Gaara was hardly defenceless.
Lee, who couldn't believe his luck, took up a spot opposite Gaara. He was sure this was one more item on Tsunade's long list of don't-dos, but hey, Gaara had said 'Yes'. Lee was going to have the opportunity to match up with Gaara again! He wasn't about to pass this up!
"Since this is just a friendly match, I won't use Renge or anything but normal Taijutsu either," Lee announced, "but I've improved a lot too in the last few years. Even in those conditions, I'll do my best to punch through that Sand Barrier of yours!" If he couldn't do it, he'd perform ten thousand strikes against the fourth oaken post; it was already broken anyway. "In fact, maybe you should get your gourd and make sure you have all the sand you need; I won't be going easy on you!"
Gaara didn't bother to answer. He was glancing around, checking the distance to the edges of the field and measuring the space he had to work with.
"Have it your way," Lee said, unwrapping a few loops of bandages from around his hands. "But don't underestimate me."
"Underestimate you?" Gaara looked up sharply, eyes narrowed. "You were the first person to have struck an actual blow against me. Ever. I have never underestimated you."
Lee blinked, touched by that recognition of his skills-
"That's why I came to kill you in the hospital afterwards," Gaara added, somewhat spoiling the effect. Oh well, you took the accolades you could get. At least that old, wilder, unleashed Gaara had considered him worth killing, injured as he was.
"Is that why you sent for me, to become Military Envoy?" Lee asked, probing a point he'd been curious about. "Because you'd seen me fight?"
"Among other reasons."
"What- oh yes, you said you didn't want another yes-man."
Gaara nodded shortly.
"And what else?" Lee asked curiously, because something in Gaara's attitude made him wonder if that was really all there was to it.
"Maybe I'll tell you one day," Gaara answered, crossing his arms over his chest. "Do you want to spar, or simply talk me to my knees?"
"Spar!" Lee said cheerfully, and attacked.
A simple, slow probing blow to start with. He kicked out, expecting to hit sand- and scythed through air instead. Lee was startled, but his body had already followed through, spinning him around on the other foot and cutting low at Gaara's legs.
Sand crackled and flickered- but Lee hit air again. This time he saw what happened; Gaara had stepped back.
What the- Gaara never dodged! He normally just stood there and let the Sand Barrier take it. Lee was already darting into his next attack, his body running on rails set by years of gruelling training, but now he was curious.
His right fist slammed straight at the Kazekage's stomach; Gaara sidestepped, turning away from the blow, arms still crossed over his chest. The Sand was whipping around their feet, but since Lee wasn't getting all that near, it wasn't rising to the defence.
Lee feinted right, then struck to the left, still probing and assessing. He could feel grainy sand flying around his fist as the automatic barrier reacted, but once more, Gaara was just out of reach. This time, Lee followed through more aggressively. He punched once, then vaulted forward on his momentum, somersaulted and aimed a downward kick at Gaara's chest. Gaara stepped back, his coat flaring around him as he spun out of the way. The move was so sparse yet so elegant and measured that Lee realized he'd missed two good openings out of sheer distraction.
Right! Time to stop kidding around!
Lee effortlessly kicked into higher speed, the kind he used when training against other Shinobi.
Gaara's eyes widened as he quickly dodged a kick, and this time the sand rose like a wave, catching Lee but not really blocking the blow, as he still hadn't gotten quite close enough to pose a direct threat. But Lee did love a challenge.
Gaara twisted and fell back again; he ducked under the next blow, deliberately dropping to one knee. His hands hit the ground and a sharp, rapid spray of sand darted out from under his fingers to strike Lee in the face. Aiming at his eyes, Lee realized; trying to blind him. He managed to get his arm up to protect himself- and felt sand curl around his ankles.
He leapt high, away from the trap, twisted in midair and aimed at Gaara's shoulder with his elbow. Gaara threw himself out of the way, but Lee was already there again, pressing the attack, intent on pushing Gaara back. He spun around, aimed a kick at Gaara from a new direction- and this time he hit a wall of sand! Gaara had been unable to dodge. Lee used the sand as support to shove off and into a high jump, tumbling over and aiming a kick at Gaara's head; a strike similar to the first one he'd scored on Gaara, back during the Chuunin exams. This time, the sand was there to intercept. Lee was faster than he was five years ago, even wearing the weights, but then so was Gaara.
Lee felt a fierce exultation, and a happy grin on his face. He vaulted over a blow of sand trying to trip him, spun around, feinted with a kick and, with a burst of speed and power, punched right at Gaara.
The sand hissed up and stopped him, but it was gripping him by the forearm; his fist had made it through, and had been halted an inch from Gaara's face.
Beyond the sand wall and Lee's hand, a small twitch of a smile turned up one corner of Gaara's lips; acknowledgement of a good strike.
"First point to me!" Lee exclaimed happily.
"First point?" Gaara echoed. "How many points are there to a match?"
"Oh, it varies, but Gai-sensei and I can practice like this all afternoon."
Gaara blinked slowly. "All afternoon. At that stamina expenditure. No wonder you eat so much."
"Let's go again!" Lee said, falling back and taking up a stance, one hand out and ready, the other behind his back. Sweat trickled down his bare chest, but he was long past noticing the heat, or the sun roasting the skin of his shoulders.
Slowly, Gaara shook his head. "I have to get back."
"Oh." Lee tried to keep his disappointment from showing as Gaara turned and headed towards where he'd left the gourd, the sand skulking after him.
Lee trailed after him too, his curiosity about a new jutsu overcoming his dampened spirits. "I don't think I've ever seen you dodge in a fight before. That's new! Are you working on a new defence?"
Gaara gave him another one of those long, blank looks, the kind that reminded Lee - once again! - that he was talking to the Kazekage and a Shinobi from another village who might not want to let Lee into his secrets.
"I'm fine-tuning my control of the Sand," Gaara finally answered, as if that moment hadn't happened. "Do you remember that fight with Kimimaro?"
"The guy with the bones," Lee confirmed, nodding firmly. "You defeated him totally! That was impressive!"
"That was wasteful and inefficient," Gaara contradicted, buckling the gourd's harness back on. "I had to bury him under an avalanche of Sand and chakra. If I could have winged him from the start with my lighter attacks, it would have saved us a lot of trouble, but he was too fast and agile."
"Well, yes," Lee admitted. He hadn't really thought of it that way. "But you won."
"I very nearly lost. My chakra is huge, but it is not without limits, as Deidara demonstrated." Gaara's gaze drifted towards the village behind them, and Lee understood the portion left unsaid; Gaara's power might be enough to defend himself...but he wasn't only protecting his own life now. It took a hell of a lot of chakra to shield that many people from harm.
"So how does learning to dodge help?" Lee asked curiously. "Because I have to tell you, the way you dodge, if you were in a real fight, um . . ." Lee tried to remember the notes he'd cribbed from Gai-Sensei about Politics and Diplomacy, and how to apply them.
"I won't be dodging like that in a serious fight; I wouldn't stand a chance. As you just showed," Gaara said without any sign of animosity.
Lee grinned sheepishly.
"I'm learning to use the Sand with more finesse. It's an extension of my mind and body, so I train them to react more accurately in battle. I never had much formal training as a Shinobi; it was assumed I wouldn't need it. I'm trying to overcome that, and use the Sand more efficiently, to spare as much chakra as I can. It's a slow process," Gaara admitted, tone indifferent.
"I bet. It's amazingly hard to change your fighting style like that." Lee looked at him with admiration. He was also touched, and downright amazed actually, that Gaara was willing to share this much with him. Maybe it was in thanks for the chance to spar.
"It's not that big a modification," Gaara said. "I'm not planning on changing my defence strategy. The Sand is the ultimate defence anyway. But learning how a target moves helps me work on my attacks."
"Attacks?" Lee almost hopped up and down on the spot, trying to restrain his urge to drag Gaara back into the training field and see what he'd come up with. Gaara had only really defended himself against Lee today; if Gaara fought him as he had Kimimaro- now that would be a match!
"I've been practicing against Kankuro's puppets," Gaara said. "But they're not a good substitute for-" and he interrupted himself, his eyes flinching away from Lee's direct stare.
For a brief instant, Lee saw something flicker in those hard eyes, an emotion that was quickly accepted, acknowledged and dismissed almost the moment it was felt. A flinch had rippled across Gaara's countenance like a drop of water falling into a large, dark lake, instantly absorbed and gone.
"They're not a good substitute for a flesh-and-blood opponent, as they don't tend to dodge as well," Gaara finished as if that flinch had never happened. "But it helps me practice. Though Kankuro complains because the Sand gets into the gears."
Lee normally didn't have a huge amount of intuition -
Aren't you afraid? What if I lose control
- but he suddenly had a very strong idea why Gaara only practiced against Kankuro's puppets and not the other Shinobi of his village. Lee had only been here a week, but he'd observed Captain Sanada and the other ninja as they interacted with Gaara. They watched over their Kazekage with great respect; with awe even; with gratitude for the way Gaara had saved their lives during the fight with Deidara; and with fear. Maybe not an unjustified fear at that; they'd seen a lot more of that old Gaara than Lee had; they'd seen what Shukaku could do.
"I have to go. Don't stay out too long. You're not used to it. You'll get heatstroke," said the guy in a thick black coat, pants and a heavy gourd slung from his shoulders as he headed back towards the village.
Lee watched him go, remembering the way the jabs of sand had struck at Kimimaro and missed; it would take a lot of work, determination and effort to bring the sand up to speed to nail that sort of opponent, and you'd have to train against someone who was just as fast.
The redhead glanced back over his shoulder.
"I'll be here tomorrow afternoon too. We can spar some more!"
Gaara looked at him in silence.
"Come on! I want to see those attacks you mentioned," Lee added, his eyes blazing with combative fervour.
Gaara turned away once more and walked on. He was almost out of earshot before he spoke.
"I'll try to make the time," was all he said, tone indifferent.
But Lee felt like he'd just won his second victory of the day.
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