A/N: Sorry about this chapter taking so incredibly long, gang. Life rose up and bit me on the butt in a big and serious way, and then my inspiration decided to go and take a vacation. But it's finally here!

Gai and Haro are walking down a forest path together. It is springtime; many types of tree are flowering beautifully, putting out their multicolored petals and delicate sweet scents for the insects that buzz lazily from blossom to blossom, collecting pollen and spreading it through the trees. In the distance, there is the faint motion of a herd of deer, does with their newborn fawns gamboling alongside them. It is a cloudless day, the sun peeking through the leaves and a wind rustling in the canopy, occasionally brushing aside the foliage to reveal a brilliantly blue sky.

They walk in silence, their footsteps making no sound upon the soft grass beneath the trees. Haro's attention is not on Gai; he looks around the forest, a warm smile on his broad features, and takes in the sights, sounds, smells of the Fire Country's great woodlands. Gai is enjoying the scenery as well, but most of his attention is riveted on his teacher.

Isn't he dead?

The thought is intrusive, and he pushes it away. Of course Haro-sensei isn't dead, he's right there! Alive, well, cheerful, moving with the same dignity and grace he has always shown. For a Strong Fist taijutsuist, especially for one like him, a man built like a mountain, he has always moved with deceptive grace, a ninja through and through.

Wait… wasn't it autumn? When did spring come?

More questions that are shattering the beauty of the forest. Gai tries not to think about them, but the harder he tries, the more pressing the questions become. What happened? Where are my students? When did Haro-sensei come here?

Haro breaks the silence. "I'm afraid you won't be able to make it, Gai-kun," he says sadly, looking at his beloved protégé, the boy he'd always treated like a son. "I want to take you home, but… it seems you're not ready."

The words are harsh. "I am ready!" Gai protests, not sure what Haro means by home but never wanting to hear those words from his teacher. Not ready means that there's something he hasn't done right, some way in which he is deficient, and he refuses to be deficient!

The broad face splits in a soft, affectionate grin. "I mean you're not ready to let go yet," he says, his tone gentle. A strong hand, a hand that Gai has seen split boulders with a single blow, caresses Gai's cheek and moves up to ruffle his hair with a tender touch. Haro is the epitome of strength and control; not for nothing has he earned the name Konoha's Wild Boar for his strength and ferocity in battle, and yet Gai once watched him aid a mother cat who was giving birth, his powerful hands exceedingly gentle with the tiny newborn kittens.

"To let go…?" Gai echoes, confusion in his tone. He frowns, looking up at Haro. "To let go of what?"

"Of all the things that remain." With those cryptic words, Haro smiles sadly, and a cloud passes in front of the sun, cooling the air, dimming it. "Come, let us walk a little farther, Gai-kun." They walk again, but now there are clouds passing in front of the sun at irregular intervals, and the deer have vanished. The insects still buzz in the air, but there are fewer of them, and Gai begins to see fallen petals on the forest floor, bare branches occasionally sticking out.

"Haro-sensei," he asks again. "Where are we going?"

"That," Haro says simply, "is the great question, Gai-kun." He folds his arms behind his back as he walks.

"You were always my greatest pride," he says softly. "Always. No matter how fierce the obstacle you face, you surmount it with the greatest courage and fortitude. Your parents' deaths… It is a fact of life for every shinobi child, that risk, but when it came to you, you bore up with greater strength and resolution than I could have imagined in one so young."

Gai remembers those horrible times; his parents died together, on a mission. Too young and too extroverted to live alone without falling into depression, he had floundered until Haro took him in, becoming as much a big brother or a surrogate father as he was a teacher.

"My only regret," Konoha's Wild Boar goes on, "is that I never got to see you come into your true strength." The clouds are darkening now, covering the sun, leaving the forest dim and chill. The breeze that curls around them brings the crushed-green scent of rain.

They stop, and Haro turns to face Gai fully, resting those strong-gentle hands on his shoulders. "You aren't ready to come yet," he says again, looking at Gai with a loving, tender expression. He's smiling. "You're still too strong; there's too much life in you." Thunder rumbles in the distance, as though to punctuate the master's deep voice. "I am glad. Home isn't ready for you yet."

The first fat drops of rain hit the forest canopy; it takes a moment for them to filter through the leaves. A cold drop lands in Gai's hair. And then another, on his cheek.

"Go on, Gai-kun," Haro says quietly. "Go back. I'll be waiting at home for you, when you and home are both ready."

"Haro-sensei, I don't understand!" Gai clutches at his teacher's forearms. "What are you saying?" But the forest is growing darker and darker; lightning flashes, illuminating Haro's face for a moment. He's smiling, but are those tears on his cheeks?

"Later, Gai," he said softly. "You still have too much to give." And then the darkness is absolute, and the touch of his hands is gone.

The rain is the only thing that remains; it beats down harder and harder, until Gai is soaked and shivering. He's all alone, lost in black nothingness, confused. "Haro-sensei!" he calls out, but his voice falls flat in the darkness. "Haro-sensei!"

Lightning flashes, and Gai opens his eyes.

The Konoha hospital is an intimately familiar place to most active-duty shinobi; Gai is no exception. Awakening there is both a good thing and a bad thing; good because it means you've survived, bad because it means you haven't survived unharmed.

There's a nurse by the window, closing them; Gai can hear the rain pattering on the glass. "Oh!" she says, startled. "You're awake!" A smile. "I'll go get Tsunade-sama, just a moment." And she scurries out of the room before Gai can fully understand what it is she said.

He stares around, trying to get his bearings. Flowers on the nightstand; two vases of them, one filled with daisies – obviously picked wild – and the other with store-bought chrysanthemums. His abdomen hurts, a dull ache that warns him not to overstrain himself; it carries the undertone of a far sharper pain behind it, and he glances down the loose hospital wrap-top and pants to realize that there is a white bandage wrapped around his midsection from his sternum to his hips.

"Ah, you're awake," a familiar voice says from the door, and he turns to see the Hokage sweep into the room; following her are Kakashi, Neji, and Tenten. Neji's right arm is in a cast and sling, and Tenten's head is bandaged.

"Gai-sensei!" Tenten says brightly. "It's good to see you awake! We were getting worried…" She throws a look at Neji, who naturally says nothing, but Gai can see the faint look of warmth in those pale eyes, telling him all he needs to know about how the Hyuuga feels.

But he is also confused, and he turns toward Tsunade. "What…?" His voice is rusty and rough, and he suddenly realizes he is intensely thirsty.

Tsunade hands him a glass of water. "'What happened?'" she guesses accurately. "Well, do you remember the mission you were on?"

Mission. Hayao. Yes, Gai remembers. When he nods, she goes on. He takes short, careful sips – not daring to drain the glass, knowing it can provoke a negative reaction.

"You were attacked on the way back. It seems that Ogawa was not an isolated gang activity; they were the arm of a much larger organization mostly operating from outside the Fire Country," Tsunade says crisply. "An organization that did not appreciate having one of their financing enterprises interfered with. They put a price on your head, and offered it to the Swarm."

The Swarm. Gai has no head for names, but all jounin know about the Swarm. An independent ninja clan specializing in assassinations. Ruthlessly efficient, utterly apolitical, willing to offer their services to anyone who can afford their extremely high prices. If your coffers can meet their demands, anyone you wish gone will be dead. It is as good as a guarantee.

Tsunade watches Gai digest that thought. To have the Swarm go after you is a death sentence… and yet Gai is alive, and Neji and Tenten are standing right there. Before the thought can reach its conclusion, she goes on. "I received a spy report on the Swarm's mission, but you were already well into the escort job and it was too late to recall you to Konoha, so I sent Kakashi with as strong a team as I could pull together." It says quite a bit about the value of Team Gai that Tsunade was willing to make such a heavy investment of resources to try and assure their safety.

"We were too late," Kakashi says quietly, and there is regret in his voice. "We moved as fast as we could, but we were too late… it seems only by minutes. As far as we could tell, they had been tracking you all the way to the capital; the normal bandit groups were all wiped out along your route. Clearly, they didn't want anyone interfering with their bounty. But at least… I brought three med-nin along, all of them high-ranked; our mission wasn't a waste. It got you back here alive."

Now, Gai finds his voice and breaks in. "Lee! Where is Lee?" There is panic and worry in his voice. The Swarm… Lee is not with them… did he perish at the hands of those famed assassins?

"Lee is alive," Tsunade says quietly, reassuringly. "It was a close thing, but… he is alive, and in recovery."

"He… I don't even know how to describe it," Tenten puts in quietly. "Gai-sensei… you were stabbed, and Lee just… I don't know. He just went berserk."

"I couldn't even look at him," Neji says, and while his tone is flat, underneath there is a lurking fear. "I had to deactivate my Byakugan. He was… his whole chakra system was glowing, so bright it was blinding me." Sheer amazement. "He wasn't… he wasn't using it, but it was just going into complete overdrive, powering his body. I think…" A hesitation. He doesn't know what to say. "He tore open the Gates. I don't know how many. But that wasn't all he did, there was something else there too. And I don't know what it was." His uninjured arm flexes, his hand clenching in a fist. "He must have opened at least seven Gates. I thought eight at first, but…"

"But the med-nin who were with Kakashi were able to get his heart going again," Tsunade puts in, her clear tone a contrast with Neji's thinly-veiled confusion. "He went into cardiac arrest at the end of the battle, but they resuscitated him and he is still with us. Whatever he did, he didn't open the Death Gate… at least not fully."

"He just tore them open," Neji says. "I've seen him and you both open the Gates, I know what it looks like when it's done properly, and he just… didn't. One moment, nothing – his chakra was completely normal. The next, it was like the sun had fallen to earth and it was him."

"And he was moving so fast," Tenten breathes out. "I couldn't even see him. The… the Swarm," she hesitates over their name, "they couldn't do anything. He just wiped them out, one after the other, so fast there was no way to follow it. Every single one of them."

"Where is he now?" Gai asks, feeling urgency pound in his veins.

"In recovery," Tsunade says simply. "The damage was severe. His heart stopped, and the muscular decay affected his entire body."

"We nearly lost him again on the way back," Kakashi adds. "His body just couldn't fully support itself anymore. Lucky, Konoha has some excellent med-nin."

"I want to see him." Gai is not accustomed to making demands, especially not in such a rude way, but this is urgent. He needs to see Lee, needs to see that his precious protégé and love is still among the living. "I need to see him."

Tsunade thinks about it. "If you take a wheelchair," she says finally. "We managed to get your organs back into proper shape, but your body is still healing, and I don't want you straining yourself at all."

The thought is undignified, but Gai agrees; his pride is nothing compared to his need to see Lee. So Tsunade summons the nurse again, and carefully, Gai is helped into a wheelchair. It is bitter, to be so weak, but as he moves from bed to chair, Gai feels a slight, sickening tug in his belly and realizes that Tsunade is right. His body is still very fragile.

Lee's room is not far from Gai's. The nurse opens the door and wheels him in, and Gai's gaze is immediately riveted to Lee.

The boy – no, not a boy, the young man who has successfully obliterated the most fearsome assassin squad the world has known – is asleep, his body hooked up to wires and monitors that announce his vital statistics and watch him carefully for even the slightest sign of trouble. The difference in his body is so severe that Gai can see it; what he did, whatever he did, it claimed such a severe cost from his body that it literally ate away at his muscles, leaving him looking thin and wasted. But he is alive, and as Gai watches him, he stirs and awakens.

When those dark eyes open, there is a moment of incomprehension, and then Lee tries to sit up, joy filling his face. "Gai-sensei!" But he can't – he literally cannot sit up on his own, and the nurse leaves Gai near the bed and carefully helps Lee sit up, supporting his back with pillows.

"I'll leave you two for a little bit," she says with a warm smile. "Just press the call button when you're ready to go back for a rest, Gai-san." And she sweeps out, leaving the two of them alone.

"Lee," Gai says softly, reaching out to touch his hand gently. "I'm glad you're alive…"

Lee's eyes fill with tears. "Gai-sensei…" he murmurs softly, his voice wavering. "I was so afraid… I thought I'd lost you forever." He curls his hand around Gai's, squeezing weakly; he can't manage any more, and after a moment, Gai realizes that he is literally holding Lee's arm up, because Lee is too weak to do it for himself.

"Never," Gai promises Lee silently, and then he realizes what Haro meant. You aren't ready to let go yet. No, he certainly was not ready to let go of Lee, not when they had only just begun to explore how much they really meant to each other! "I could never leave you, Lee… especially not now." His lips curve in a warm smile, and he brings Lee's hand to his lips, kissing the scarred knuckles tenderly. "Not when we've still got so much to share with each other…" And as he says it, he feels a weight fall away from him – the weight of that brooding future, the fate that has hung in his consciousness like a great black cloud. Death has reached out to touch him, and he's cast it aside, rejected the sentence that being a taijutsuist has passed upon him. Now, it can no longer bind him.

I'm sorry, Haro-sensei, but I won't be ready to 'come home' for a long time yet… I still have so much to do, and Lee still needs me. He feels free, the future ahead of him bright and happy. They are both injured, and the process of recovery will be long and hard, but they have tremendous strength of will, and Gai knows that with will, desire, and devotion, all things are possible. Lee has proven that once already, and they will both go on to prove it again.

He wishes he could take Lee in his arms, but a warning twinge from his abdomen as he leans forward tells him that that would be too dangerous an attempt for the moment; so he simply moves himself closer to Lee's bedside and nuzzles his student's cheek gently.

"I will never leave you," he repeats, a soft, heartfelt promise. The dark binding on his future has been lifted, and he can feel hope and happiness rise in his heart. They have persevered, and they will continue to do so.

Faintly, in the distance, he hears a rumble that isn't quite thunder. Very good, Haro murmurs softly. Live a long life, Gai-kun, and a happy one.

He will.

There may be an epilogue; I had one planned, but so far it hasn't been cooperating. Do keep your eyes out for sidefics, though, I've got one half-written already and plans for more!