Dreams can only take you so far.
Gai rushed to the hospital as soon as he finished his mission, a mission he had only gone on because of its necessity to the village. He hated to be away from Konoha at such a vital time for Lee, but he was confident that if anyone could save his most treasured student, it would be Tsunade. When he arrived at the front desk, they told him Lee was still in surgery.
"Well, where is he?" he insisted, causing the receptionists to exchange a glance.
"Really, only family should wait outside of the operating room-" began one of the receptionists, but silenced quickly under Gai's intense glare.
"I am his family!" he proclaimed. As far as Gai was concerned, he considered himself as close as family to Lee. One does not swear to die beside someone he does not love at least as close as family. The girl who had spoken sighed and handed him a clipboard.
"Please sign in, Gai-sensei," she requested quietly, but her co-worker held up a hand and shook her head.
"Straight down that hall, follow the signs until you reach OR-4," she instructed. Both winced as Gai bolted away quickly enough to break the sound barrier.
"We're going to get in trouble for breaking protocol," the first receptionist whispered to the other.
"It's Gai-sensei. There's no use stopping him when it comes to Lee," sighed the second with a light shake of her head.
By the time Gai arrived, the door had just swung ajar. Gai froze in his tracks, panting slightly as his pulse raced. The door opened fully and Shizune stumbled out, Tsunade's arm slung over her shoulders. The Godaime looked exhausted, her entire body trembling with her labored breaths.
"Tsunade-sama-," Gai began, holding out his hands beseechingly. Shizune looked upon him sadly and shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Gai-sensei. Tsunade-sama did all she could. Lee..." she trailed off, shaking her head once more, "I'm very sorry, Gai-sensei."
There was a moment of silence, of peace as the world came to a reeling halt. Gai stood in silence, his blank, uncomprehending gaze locked in Shizune's grim, weary eyes. Tsunade coughed, bringing her head up with effort.
"I'm sorry," she managed quietly as well, expression reading that she knew too well what Gai must be feeling.
"Tsunade-sama!" exclaimed Shizune softly, adjusting her grip on the spent Sannin, "You shouldn't speak." Shizune turned back to Gai, expression apologetic.
"I have to take her to rest now, Gai-sensei," she explained, "A..arrangements will be made for Lee."
Gai said nothing. Were there words to express what he felt? It was pain that could only be conveyed by means above the shortcomings of spoken language, such as the look he and Tsunade had shared. He silently moved past Shizune, toward the operating room.
"Gai-sensei!" it was Shizune's voice, "Please, don't go in there yet-"
Gai turned his head enough to glare at Shizune with all the cold fury of the arctic. She fell silent and withdrew. Gai entered.
The room was dark, the only light streaming in from the single crack that marked where the double doors met. Even that pale light only served to cast harsh, angular shadows on the various abstract forms. Nonetheless, Gai recognized Lee at once. He could no more mistake Lee for someone else as he could mistake his own reflection in the mirror. Even before the child had begun to emulate him, they had been inseparable. Nothing could part them and nothing would. Not even death.
The once proud green beast of Konoha dropped to his knees beside the still form of the boy he had raised by hand and loved more dearly than a son of his own flesh and blood. In the dim light, Lee's quietly resting form seemed so frail. Frail was never a word that could be used to describe Lee in life.
"Lee..." he whispered quietly. 'Quietly' was not a word often associated with Gai's chosen tone of voice. Death changed a great deal in a man, even a man as great as Gai so often claimed to be. His arms trembled as they had never trembled before and he bowed his head. His shoulders shook with the first of his tears, the successive sobs that followed making his breaths shudder with his depthless grief. Gently, with more tenderness than a man of Gai's nature seemed capable of, he drew his most beloved student's broken body into his arms. There was a strange lightness and a strange heaviness to the way Lee felt in his embrace, different from the times he had lifted the boy in jest or restrained him while under the influence of alcohol. He brushed Lee's soft locks out of his face, a part of himself crumbling away to know that his student's bright eyes would never open again. He would never see that fierce devotion, that sheer determination, in any living creature again, he was sure of it. Lee's loss was not one the world could simply patch over.
'Gai-sensei! Hurry, hurry, let's go! Youth waits for no one!'
Gai's eyes widened at the unbidden memory of Lee's voice, a sudden onslaught of all the times they had shared invading his mind. It was too much. There was too much of it. There was only so much sanity a man who had suddenly and utterly lost nearly ten years of himself could retain. He doubled over, pressing his face against Lee's motionless chest. His voice, so filled with anguish and utter agony that it was alien even to himself, tore out of his throat with such driven strength that it seemed to rumble the very walls of the hospital.
Shizune winced at the sound of Gai's cry, her quick stride breaking into a run, heading directly back to the OR where Lee was. She should have known better than to leave the distraught Jounin alone, but she had to attend to Tsunade first- She almost collided into Kakashi before seeing him.
"K-kakashi-sensei!" she exclaimed, pressing her palm against her chest to feel her racing pulse at the surprise of his sudden arrival. His visible eye was grim.
"Was that Gai?" he asked quietly. Shizune nodded, pointing in the direction of the OR.
"We... we should hurry," she stammered. Kakashi nodded, turning the corner.
"Aa. Let's hope he hasn't tried to fulfill his promise to Lee yet."
"That Lee would not have to die alone."
They arrived just in time and yet a moment too late, finding teacher and student lying side by side. Gai's arm was draped over Lee's body, his hand half curled around something that was slowly leakig to the floor. His eyes were strangely glazed and his breathing shallow.
Shizune rushed over and pried a small glass tube emptied of its contents out of Gai's hand. She ran her finger around the rim of the glass and very delicately licked it. Her eyes widened as she turned to Kakashi.
"Poison!" she cried. Kakashi's expression hardened and he was at Gai's side in an instant.
"Gai! Wake up!" he snapped, "Talk to me!"
"Lee..." the dazed Jounin mumbled back, blinking his dull eyes slowly, momentarily clearing them of his endlessly flowing tears.
"What did you drink?" Kakashi growled, giving Gai a shake to try to snap him out of his trance. "Gai! Tell me what you drank!" He and Shizune exchanged another grim glance. They would never be able to find the antitoxin in time unless Gai told them what it was he had taken. Gai's eyes began to unfocus. Kakashi's eyes narrowed and Shizune gasped.
Gai opened his eyes slowly, wincing as his vision was assaulted by bright, blinding light.
His eyes snapped open at the sound. A voice had never been so welcome or melodious to Gai's ears.
"Lee!" he cried, rubbing his eyes to try to make them adjust faster. The light slowly receeded, the sky and earth finally taking form. He was in a forest somewhere, the trees reminiscent of Konoha's surrounding trees and yet somehow peacefully foreign. The grass was tall and whispered quietly in the wind. The skies were clear and the sun was warm. Everything had a soft, blurred quality and glowed with their own inner light. Slowly, agonizingly slowly as though to tease him, the silhouette of his most treasured student appeared. That familiar bobbing hair, those beautifully clear eyes, that brilliant smile- Gai tentatively reached out. Something jumped into his lap.
falling backwards, Gai found himself staring up at a lovely blue sky, wondering
what had attacked him. Lee's head floated into his vision, smiling apologetically, his arms wrapped around a fluffy white rabbit.
"Ahaha, sorry, Gai-sensei! I didn't mean to startle you," Lee seemed sheepish as he helped Gai upright . Gai could not help but beam back.
"Lee-," he began, but Lee cut him off with a short shake of his head.
"Gai-sensei," Lee's voice was assertive and serious, "I don't want you to die."
"...eh?" Gai asked in return, not entirely understanding. Lee managed a reassuring, almost carefree smile and sat down in the grass, motioning for Gai to join him. Wordlessly, Gai scooted next to him.
"Gai-sensei, please continue to live, even without me," Lee continued, turning his gaze skyward.
"Lee... You..." there was an incredulous undertone to Gai's disjointed words, "I made a promise, Lee. I've always kept my promises. I don't want you to be alone."
"I'm not alone, Gai-sensei," Lee continued to smile, stroking the rabbit as he spoke, "I've even made friends. One of them is a little rough around the edges, but the other is kind. He knows exactly what it's like to follow a dream to the bitter end."
"That's what I wanted to let you know, Gai-sensei," Lee laughed quietly, trying to cheer Gai up with his own good mood, "Before... before my surgery, I was scared. I thought, 'I have not lived out my dream yet! I have to survive!'... but I didn't. And now... I've realized, I did realize my dream, Gai-sensei!"
"But-," Gai began, expression still baffled.
"I wanted to be the best ninja I could be, right?" smiled Lee, holding out a bandaged hand, "With only my taijutsu, I swore I would be an excellent ninja... and I was, wasn't I, Gai-sensei? I did the best I could do, to the very end. I never let go of my dreams. Not many people can claim that, ne, Gai-sensei?" To his own surprise, Gai smiled and nodded.
"Aa... that's my Lee. You were," Gai's voice wavered, almost moved to tears, "You are. You are the best shinobi I know. Greater than even Kakashi, my most worthy rival." Lee's eyes lit up and he clenched both fists in midair.
"Really, Gai-sensei?" he exclaimed, "Honestly?"
"Aa, Lee, the very best," reassured Gai. Lee punched his fist into the air with a triumphant cry, startling his rabbit friend out of his lap. Lee cheered quietly to himself for a little while longer before his excitement slowly faded and the grin drained from his face.
"...Gai-sensei," sighed Lee quietly, smiling faintly and sadly now, "The truth is, I really wanted to stay with you all. I never had the chance to defeat Neji, never became a great Jounin like you. I never really proved myself to anyone, did I? But death... puts a lot of things in perspective for you." Lee's smile widened, though there was still a melancholy quality to his expression.
"I was happy, Gai-sensei. I was really happy," he murmured, "I had wonderful friends. Sakura-chan was kind to me. Neji and Tenten believed in me. They didn't always show it, but they trusted me on missions, so I always knew. And I always, always had you."
"So please," Lee whispered, "go on living. No matter how long it is, I'll stay right here waiting for you, Gai-sensei. I promise." He smiled and gave Gai his most genuine 'nice guy' pose. Gai could not refuse. His smile was strained but he nodded.
"Aa, Lee. I got it," he mirrored Lee's pose, "I'll live out our dream. And I'll see you here again, at the end. We'll move on together."
"Ossu!" Lee saluted, absolutely glowing. He hesitated, then looked down. "G-gai-sensei... before you go back, I have a favor to ask you."
"What is it, Lee?" Gai asked quickly, "Anything. I swear."
"Please give this to Gaara-san," Lee whispered, holding out his hitai-ate. Gai blinked, looking back and forth between the forehead protector and Lee.
"What?" Gai's expression darkened, "That boy tossed away your life and dreams as though they were a careless child's playthings, Lee!" Lee's expression softened and he sighed quietly, shaking his head.
"I don't hold grudges, Gai-sensei," he mumbled, "And I think I understand him a little better now. I think this... this is just what he needs."
"I don't understand, Lee..." Gai sighed, but he took the offered headband from Lee all the same. He had already promised, after all.
"Maybe you will someday," shrugged Lee. He yawned, leaning against Gai's shoulder, closing his eyes. "Nngh, I'm tired, Gai-sensei. Let me rest a little while." Gai nodded, wrapping on strong, protective arm around his most beloved student. The world faded into nothingness again.
Part Gai - owari