Protector 'Guardian Three' was, as his codename indicated, the third of the four ANBU bodyguards responsible for the Kazekage's direct protection in Suna. As it turned out, protecting the current Kazekage was a surprisingly cushy job. Gaara of the Desert was just about as far from an easy target as you could get, after all. The four-man special taskforce was principally on the lookout for poisons and entrapping jutsus; their leader had little to fear from anything else.
As an ANBU of Sunagakure, Guardian Three was highly trained, physically, mentally and emotionally. He was tough, analytical and calm in a crisis. He'd quickly sorted out the important facts of what he'd just seen into a five-point list, which he'd presented to his leader, Guardian One, as soon as he was able to report in.
Guardian One asked him a series of questions, but the key points of the list were clear enough and went something like this:
Fact #1: I was observing the Kazekage's residence from Lookout Point 2. Gaara-sama was sitting at his bedroom window, so I kept a watch on the room and the grounds around him for possible snipers.
Fact #2: At 13:44 hours, the Leaf Jounin Rock Lee entered the premises.
Fact #3: They talked for a few minutes, then they ended up on the bed and the Kazekage made advances to the Jounin. The Jounin didn't object.
Fact #4: I remained at my post, and insured that no harm came to the Kazekage during the encounter that followed.
Fact #5: Because my loyalty is to the Kazekage, not to the ANBU high command or the Council, I have only reported these facts to my cell leader.
Fact #6: I'm going to need a long vacation after this. Maybe therapy too.
Guardian Three didn't actually add that last bullet point out loud.
He'd been initially pleased to see Lee climb the road towards the Kazekage's door. He'd remained vigilant, naturally, but he'd allowed himself a mild hope, that Lee's presence might cheer Gaara up a bit. Three had been watching over Gaara-sama for a couple of years now, so it had been obvious to him, seeing his charge sitting at the window for over an hour staring out at nothing, that the young Kazekage hadn't been in a very happy place.
According to Three's observation, Gaara was in a much better mood now. The same couldn't be said for his hapless bodyguard. He'd been forced to watch the whole thing, because Rock Lee might be the most straightforward and amiable guy this side of anywhere, but he was also a very dangerous killer. A large part of Three's stress came from the fact that if Lee had reached up and snapped Gaara's neck, neither Three nor even the Sand would have had the speed to stop him at that range. Gaara was the only person in the village who could take on that Konoha Jounin single-handedly in close combat, and Gaara-sama-...well, Three was ready to bet his leader hadn't had attack, defence and strategy at the top of his mind right then.
Three had considered going in there and getting Gaara out of a potentially risky situation, but the Kazekage was a man who chose his own risks and didn't take kindly to interference. He was also an eighteen-year-old who apparently liked weird-looking but adorably earnest male Jounin, and would probably peel the skin off of any ANBU who would stop him in the pursuit of such.
Three had let a mixture of respect for his leader's decisions and old-fashioned self-preservation keep him in Lookout Point 2, but he'd been on tenterhooks the whole time he was watching his Kazekage roll around the bed with a foreign Shinobi in legwarmers.
He was really going to need a long vacation after this. Probably in Suna's Ninja Sanatorium for Work-Related Injuries.
As an indication of how frazzled the young ANBU was, Three didn't actually register the complete lack of staggering surprise around him until he'd answered all of Guardian One and Two's questions and stood waiting for their reaction.
His two colleagues were sitting around Guardian One's kitchen table, staring at it through their masks. Sand Shinobi were famous for their composure, their icy control over their own emotions, but there were bloody limits.
"You knew about this?!" Three exclaimed.
"...Yes. I was on duty a couple of days ago, when Gaara-sama went to visit the Leaf at the Jounin barracks," One answered a bit absently. He didn't elaborate on what he'd witnessed, but Three could now make an educated guess.
"Why didn't you say anything?!"
"It wasn't clear what was going on. A lot of stuff happened out in the desert, as you know."
The four ANBU watched Gaara's place of work and his residence, so that he could let down his guard and rest in his own village; they didn't follow him outside of Suna or on missions unless requested. But you'd have to have been deaf, blind, and possibly dead as well to miss the massive chakra discharges that had ripped through the sand and stones around their village a few days back. Nobody had known what to make of it. Gaara's guardians, as well as many other Shinobi, had been all ready to rush out into the desert to look for their Kazekage and to hell with standing orders- but Temari-san had taken command of the forces that night in her brother's absence and kept every man inside the walls and at strategic places around the civilian shelters.
Guardian One's fingers drummed against the table absently; he didn't reprove his young subordinate for his outburst, possibly out of sympathy for the afternoon Three had just had. "I told Two what had happened, since he had the next shift. I would have told you and Four as well...but then the Kazekage and Rock-san had some kind of argument shortly after that, and it wasn't clear where that had left the relationship, assuming there even was one. Two and I decided to wait and observe."
"They made up," Three pointed out acidly.
Two tapped his mask with a thoughtful gesture. "That crazy Leaf actually got down and blew the Kazekage?"
Three wished he could be that blasť about it. The other two men were older than he was by more than eight years, maybe their greater experience and maturity was showing. Or maybe it was because they only had a second-hand account to deal with, while Three was still getting these mortifying images playing through his mind: Lee slipping to his knees by the bed, his hands on Gaara's body, that bowl-cut trailing down to- Three wondered if the Sanatorium rooms were padded.
"Yes, as far as I can tell, he did," he answered, in a reasonably professional tone of voice.
"The guy knows no fear, I'll give him that," One grunted. "Rock Lee has lived here for well over a year now, and we all know that he's far from being an idiot, despite appearances. He must have gathered by now that there might have been... some risk involved. We certainly thought there might be."
Up until now, the whole village had assumed, rather optimistically, that Gaara was asexual. He'd never shown the slightest hint of interest in either gender before. Apparently he just had particular tastes. Very particular.
"I'm sure there were risks the first time they screwed," Two stated, with a touch of hard, dry humour. "I bet that's what happened three days ago, when he tore up the desert. He tumbled the Jounin, lost it and they both got burnt. Lucky for us that Leaf survived; I'd hate to explain that situation to Konoha-"
"Oh no, I'm pretty sure this was their first time," Three corrected him.
He shifted uncomfortably as both men stared at him. But he trusted his intuition in this. Guardian Three was eighteen, the same age as Gaara, and he'd gone through something like this not too long ago himself. He had recognized the way the two young men had moved: Shinobi assurance mixed with caution, slowly discovering each other in a way their extensive training as fighters and killers had not fully prepared them for.
If his cell leader asked him how he knew this, Three would dutifully answer. He would explain the parallels between what he'd seen and his own recent experience as proof of his assumption, and then he would wait for his girlfriend to find out and kill him.
But Guardian One didn't ask for details. He reached up and slowly slipped off his mask. His sun-beaten face was calm.
The two others stared at him, then followed suit, removing their own masks. This meant that something very important was about to be said.
"Where's Four...?" One asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"She took over from me watching the house. I didn't tell her anything, since Lee-san had left by then."
"We'll have a talk with her when her tour of duty is over."
Guardian One was silent for a long time, scratching the stubble on his cheeks. His shift wasn't until midnight; he'd been asleep when Three had burst through his door after Lee had gone home.
"We tell no-one," the veteran ANBU finally declared.
With those four words, a very important decision had been made, and not just about discretion. It couldn't be put into words - it would require discussing things that were Not Discussed in Sunagakure - but his meaning was clear.
The four special ANBU were in a unique position in the village. The first loyalty of every Sand Shinobi was to Sunagakure. But the prime obligation of the four guardians was Gaara's protection, not Suna's.
Suna might be worried about what the flurry of emotions inherent to a relationship might do to Gaara's self-control one day. Nobody thought it very likely that Gaara would unleash Shukaku on his people anymore, but the Sand Shinobi never took any risk that wasn't fully justified. The duty of the four ANBU guards was to Gaara-sama; not to cater to Suna's anxieties and superstitions.
Their Kazekage watched ceaselessly over Suna and asked for nothing in return. For their sake and through the sheer strength of his will, he'd changed from an unhinged, dangerous monster to a powerful leader they could all follow. He'd nearly died for them. In Three's opinion, the young man who patrolled Sunagakure's streets alone night after sleepless night, deserved at least four people who, in turn, had his wellbeing at heart.
Not that their help was all that useful; Gaara possessed the Ultimate Defence, after all. If that was beaten, the opponent was too high a calibre for them, as Deidara had chillingly demonstrated over three years ago. Not only had they been nowhere near strong enough to challenge the Akatsuki physically, the fight had been simply too high above their heads - literally - for them to defend Gaara; they'd watched helplessly as he defended them all instead, and was captured for it.
Well today, they might actually be able to protect him. There was deep, abiding respect for Gaara in the village, but there lingered some fear and suspicion as well; from the superstitious; from Shinobi who remembered Gaara's death-toll, back when there had been regular attempts on his life; from councillors appointed by his war-driven father who didn't like Gaara's peaceful policies. The Kazekage was impregnable, not to say oblivious, to that ill-will, but he was also a young adult who'd just reached out to someone for the first time, and that made him vulnerable. Especially since his choice of partner for this tryst was a foreigner from a village they'd been at war with six years ago. His decision might put Gaara - and Lee - through a lot of grief if it leaked out.
But it wasn't going to leak out. Not before Gaara himself decided to let the village know. His guardians would defend his right to make his own decision in this matter without outside pressure. Even though it would take quite some doing, in a village full of Shinobi who specialized in spying, assassination, infiltration and all manners of things sneaky.
The two ANBU nodded solemnly, agreeing with One's decision. Guardian Four would be of the same mind as well.
Guardian One rubbed his chin, staring blindly at the table. "We're all going to be pulling double and triple shifts for awhile. Keeping this quiet will mean a lot of work... Three, you know Gaara's aide, right?"
"Yes, he was my Jounin cell leader before I made ANBU."
"He's in the best position to stumble onto this or notice any change in Gaara's behaviour and habits. I want you to stick to him like fleas to a dog and run interference as much as you can. Chat with him, offer to help him out with some of his duties, throw the odd 'security sweep' his way; whatever it takes. Make sure he doesn't, ah, interrupt anything, or get enough information to start putting two and two together. Four can cover Gaara-sama's sister. They were in the academy together, they know each other. She can keep Temari-san distracted."
"Won't be too hard. Temari-san's busier than hell, she hardly has the time to see her brother as it is. I bet she'll be the last to know anyway," Two said.
"You'd have lost that bet then; she talked to me yesterday, tried to get information out of me regarding Gaara-sama's state of mind and recent activities. She asked me specifically if her brother and Lee-san were getting along alright, and if they'd had any quarrels."
"Damn. She's sharp."
"She's worried, and I don't blame her. I don't think we'll be able to keep this hidden from his sister for any length of time, or from Kankuro-san either, when he gets back; but we'll do our best. Four will certainly have her hands full. I'll manage the Kazekage's upper cadre and the other ANBU, and make sure they don't get wind of this. That leaves you with the dirty job, my friend," One concluded, nodding at Guardian Two.
"Sheet duty, hm?"
"Yes. Make sure you get there before the cleaners do and don't leave anything for them to find. Gaara-sama spends most of his time in the office anyway; it should be easy to remove any evidence when he leaves, today and in the future too."
"How about the Leaf's laundry?" Two asked, completely poised (Three permitted himself a brief flash of irritated envy).
"Well, that's the flaw," One admitted. "We can't go near Lee's office, room or belongings because of his diplomatic status, and we also can't be seen hanging around him or watching his movements and security too closely; that'd attract more attention than we could handle. We'll have to hope they'll be discreet, or else use the Kazekage's room."
"Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll both come to their senses," Two sighed.
"Lucky...?" Guardian One's black eyes lost their focus for an instant, turned inward. "...Three, you were there. Tell me, first impression...I don't think it's his style, but is there any chance that Lee is playing with him?"
"Playing- Oh no! It's obvious they're both-...um, deeply attached..."
Three suddenly wished he had his mask on. That had been a very un-ANBU-like exclamation. The faint flush on his cheeks was probably not very professional either.
The two older men looked at him impassively...but he could just feel them grinning inside.
"Good," One said softly.
They'd been looking after their leader for a long time; Guardian One had been his silent, invisible shadow since the day of Gaara's accession four years ago. They remained distant, vigilant, professional...but Shinobi were human, too. They'd never admit it out loud, but they knew they'd all developed a small amount of protective attachment to 'their' young charge over the years. If Lee was stupid enough to hurt Gaara - well, chances were you'd be sending the Jounin back home in a sand-encrusted full-body cast in that case, but if he managed to escape unscathed, then he would have four Sand ANBU who would want to have a little chat with him.
But Three didn't think that would be necessary.
Lee still irritated or confused some of Sand's Shinobi. And he certainly had an interesting set of foibles (but then again, so did most powerful Jounin in Three's experience). Despite this, many in Suna had come to respect him for his strength, endurance and willpower. In fact, Three suspected a lot of his colleagues rather liked the guy, and not just for his qualities as a Shinobi. Lee was serious, so intense it was almost tiring to watch him at times, but when you got to know him, he was also honest, open and friendly, even when he was kicking your ass in a sparring match. Especially when he was kicking your ass. Crazy Leaf...
Three didn't know the man personally, and he had to stay vigilant and impartial either way. But he'd observed Lee as he interacted with Gaara. You could tell a lot about someone when you watched them unawares. Particularly when they thought they were alone with a friend. Three didn't judge Lee's qualities as a Shinobi, beyond 'strong enough to challenge Gaara' and 'crazy enough to challenge Gaara'. But he'd come to the private conclusion awhile back that, whatever else he was, Rock Lee was a good guy. The kind who wouldn't toy with anyone's affections or give in to the attraction of a cheap fling. Quite the contrary...
One and Two started making lists of potential problems and people to watch; Three listened attentively, taking mental notes. But in the back of his mind, he dwelled on what he'd seen through that window (once the really embarrassing stuff was over).
The two young men had been stretched out side by side on the bed, talking together softly. Every small detail...Lee's smile; Gaara's solemn eyes fastened on the Leaf's face; the occasional touch...even a tough, analytical and somewhat calm ANBU had had to admit that there had been a lot of affection and tenderness in evidence in that room.
Three wondered absently what his girlfriend was doing right at this minute; he hoped she was okay. He'd heard from her last week, a quick coded message. She was still in Water country, slowly closing in on Sound's whereabouts with Kankuro-san's team. They should be back in a couple of weeks if things went well.
"If this happens again, do we have to be there?" Two's voice faltered; he must have remembered he wasn't wearing his mask, and the faint look of discomfort on his face was now visible. Three felt vindicated, though of course he didn't let this show on his expression, which he kept studiously straight and serious.
"If they get physical again, concentrate on their surroundings and only give them the occasional check," One decided, not commenting on Two's reaction. "If something goes down between them, we'll have to rely on Gaara-sama's defences. We've confirmed by now that Lee can't use ninjutsu or genjutsu, so he can't do anything that Gaara can't parry. Or rather, at that proximity, Gaara has a chance of parrying him, while we wouldn't, however closely we watched. But let's not get paranoid; I'll trust the Kazekage's instincts in this. And we owe Lee-san for Gaara-sama's life. Let's leave them alone, and watch out for interference and threats to his residence or office, same as usual."
Since Three and Two were tough, emotionless Shinobi, they didn't actually breathe sighs of relief. Three thought he might even make it without that long vacation if he didn't have to watch again in the future. Especially if Gaara-sama remembered to draw the curtains next time. Maybe there was a way of leaving him a subtle hint about that...? Lookout Point 2 was the only spot in Sunagakure from which you could get a view inside the Kazekage's bedroom, but you could never be too careful or too discreet (or too thoughtful about your ANBU bodyguard's peace of mind).
"One advantage to all this...the way those two fight as a team, Gaara-sama's defence is now all but guaranteed while they're together, and they'll probably be together a lot," Two said with a dollop of dry humour.
Three realized he was nodding in agreement, while already making plans for a modified patrol route that would take this new factor into account. As if having the Kazekage bedding Rock Lee, Konoha Jounin, deadly and amiable from his bowl-cut down to his legwarmers, was already a solidly accepted fact and perfectly normal.
Yes, the Shinobi of the Sand were certainly the most resourceful and adaptable of all the Hidden Village ninja, and here was surely the ultimate proof.
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