Lee sat up suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch in his back.
He ached all over, but he was getting used to that. If he woke up without massive pain anytime soon, he'd probably just go right back to sleep. It wasn't even that much worse than Sunagakure coffee as a means of staying alert...
Of more concern was the way his muscles clenched and trembled from the effort of merely sitting up. That wasn't good. He had to be able to walk.
He had to make sure Gaara was okay.
Lee didn't know why, but that was what had dragged him out of deep exhausted sleep. An intuition that there was something happening and that it concerned Gaara. If Lee couldn't walk, he'd crawl, but he was going to find out what the hell was going on.
He staggered out of bed and leaned against an IV stand until the room stopped pitching and yawing around him. He had a band-aid over the crook of his elbow, so it might have been his IV stand at one point, but he wasn't connected to anything now. How many hours had he been unconscious?
A quick check showed that the cuts and minor stab wounds he'd picked up in his last fight were well on the way to healing over. That meant that the correct question was, 'how many days had he been unconscious'. His need to check on Gaara increased.
It turned out that he could walk, albeit slowly. In fact, he felt remarkably recovered, considering how much he'd used the Renge over the course of two intense days. He should have more deep muscle damage, but apart from the exhaustion and the overall ache, he didn't feel that bad.
He was in the Sunagakure clinic; he recognized the drab tan hospital clothes he was wearing, the spotless white of the walls, the smell of antiseptic and desert dust that permeated the air. He couldn't see any of the medi-nin around, or anybody who could direct him to where Gaara might be. He hesitated at the door out of his room, leaning heavily against the wall. There was a distant thrumming in the air, almost below the auditory range. Lee headed towards it instinctively.
He limped his way slowly down a long corridor to a pair of double doors with OR1 emblazoned upon them. They led out to an observation deck above a large, circular room. Lee thought he saw people moving down below, but he could barely make them out; they were cast into violent shadows by the ball of bright blue light that dominated the chamber. It leapt up in a stable pillar towards the ceiling like leashed lightning, humming and buzzing faintly. The air smelled of chakra and ozone.
Lee leaned heavily against the glass of the observation window and squinted into the painfully bright glow. There was something floating there-
His heart jolted in his chest.
Gaara was lying in mid-air, crucified by the light; he was stripped to the waist, arms hanging at his side, head tilted back exposing his throat.
Lee staggered towards the stairs. He gripped the railing and somehow got himself down the few steps without breaking his neck, his eyes always riveted on the form of his friend. His first flare of alarm subsided as he took a wobbling step towards the light. Gaara didn't look distressed. In fact he appeared to be unconscious - not very reassuring in itself, but as the room remained empty of thirty-foot-tall raging sand demons, it had to be assumed that this was under control. Gaara looked...not peaceful, but oblivious. The complex seal on his chest, however, was writhing like an animal agonizing in a trap.
Black shapes moved into Lee's line of vision, framed by the violent light. Lee blinked the bright spots from his eyes and focused.
It was alright. Everything was going to be alright. Gaara was definitely going to be alright now.
Lee tottered, and his teacher caught him by the elbow and turned him back towards the observation deck, helping him up the stairs.
"This way, Lee. We mustn't disturb them."
Lee glanced back, his eyes adapting to the harsh blend of blue light and shadows. He could make out the other people down there now. A few medi-nin, checking instruments; a selection of Sand's best Shinobi, fully armed and looking on grimly at the proceedings; and some troops from Konoha as well. They all stood well back from the centre of the room.
There was a jumble of symbols drawn on the floor of the chamber, with Gaara at its centre. Four people were gathered around him. Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama were standing on either side of the Kazekage, their fingers held in a seal, their eyes closed; Ebizou-jiisama and the head of Suna's medical facility had taken up position on the other nodes of the pattern of symbols, their hands in the same position as the two Sannin.
"They're trying to unlock the seal?" Lee mumbled. His tongue felt thick and awkward.
"Yeah," said someone off to Lee's left. "We've been at it for three hours already, and it'll take the rest of the day at this rate."
Lee looked around. Two other people had followed him and Gai-sensei up the steps to the observation deck. Kakashi-sensei, hands in his pockets. And Morino Ibiki, who nodded at Lee when he noticed the young Jounin looking his way.
"Sit, Lee. You're shaking." Gai-sensei pushed him down on a bench opposite the observation window. Lee craned his neck, making sure he could still see Gaara from there. Then he relaxed a bit, and concentrated on not passing out. Yes, not passing out would be an astute move at this point...
"You should sit too, Kakashi," Gai said archly, as his rival leaned back against the wall near the stairs with a small, weary grunt. "You're pale."
"That'd be my natural colouring. I can't sit down, I gotta go spell Jiraiya again in a few minutes. It takes a lot of energy and concentration to deconstruct that kind of seal, and he's not a spring chicken anymore. It's like trying to unknot barbed wire in the dark. Good thing Tsunade came herself, or we wouldn't stand a chance."
"The application of a complex and completely unknown seal on the leader of an allied village and the possessor of one of the Tails justified the Hokage's intervention," Ibiki murmured, in a reasonable voice that somehow gave Lee the impression that he hadn't really approved of Tsunade's visit despite this. As the head of Konoha's security, Tsunade's absence from her village and her three-day trip here would have given Ibiki a lot of extra work and worries.
"Is Gaara going to be alright?" Lee asked, staring helplessly at the searing blue light and the figure stranded at its heart.
"Huh?" Kakashi looked at him tiredly. "Sure. Should be. Actually, he was okay before we showed up, except he couldn't tap his powers. I thought we'd be doing the kid a favour by leaving him like that; no more nightmares, no more insomnia- he'd be like Naruto, the One-Tail all but sealed off. But he demanded that we remove it. Demanded, mind you. Didn't bother with a please, either. The Hokage looked like she'd swallowed her sake the wrong way."
"It's safer off anyway," Ibiki pointed out.
"Yeah, there'll be nasty little surprises locked into the seal. It's not much of a choice, deciding if you'd rather have Shukaku or Orochimaru in your head-"
"Orochimaru?!" Lee yelped.
"Oh yeah. This thing's got his fingerprints all over it."
Lee tilted his head back as he realized the three men were now standing over him, looking down at him seriously.
"Lee," Ibiki said calmly. "The Kazekage told us a bit about the fight; apparently you were at the forefront when his powers were sealed. Do you know if Orochimaru was among the men who attacked you? You'd recognize him if you saw him; his face is in our Bingo Book, and his chakra pattern and attack modes are unmistakable."
Lee rubbed the back of his neck. Orochimaru. Oh bugger. Just when it looked like they'd beaten back Akatsuki, some other power-hungry maniac crawled out of the woodworks and made a move on Gaara.
"I'm sorry, sir, I'm afraid I don't remember anything that happened after I used the Renge," Lee admitted. "But if Orochimaru was among those who attacked Gaara, then I must have killed him with the others."
Silence greeted that statement.
Lee ducked his head and blushed. "I doubt he was there, of course. I couldn't take down a Sannin."
"He wouldn't be. He wouldn't take the risk himself, not unless it was a sure thing, and nobody but a fool would count on taking down Gaara of the Desert as a sure thing." Kakashi was looking at him intently. "Lee, just how many Gates did you open?"
"I'm not sure."
"Five? Six?" Gai asked.
Lee mumbled something about not remembering.
"I saw some of the bodies the Sand brought in," Kakashi commented, scratching the back of his bushy grey hair. "High level veterans, all boosted by Orochimaru's special brand of tampering. We're not talking walkovers here. I couldn't believe anyone could take down all those guys single-handed in a short time, even though Gaara said you had. I believe him now. Paint me impressed."
"That was a huge risk, Lee," Gai-sensei said. "You're lucky to still be alive, let alone be able to walk." His tone was strangely neutral for Gai-sensei, who could normally approve or disapprove of something at the top of his lungs and never hesitated to do so.
"Was it worth it?" he added, looking at Lee searchingly.
"Yes," Lee answered immediately. He knew what Gai-sensei was really asking. The Lotus was a forbidden technique, to be used only in extreme necessity and for the right reasons. Lee had always been ambitious and eager to prove himself in the past; he'd been tempted to use the Lotus to his own ends before. But he had not opened the seventh Gate as a challenge; he hadn't done it to count coup on a rival or to show off. He'd done it to-
Lee looked for the word that would surely explain why he'd nearly killed himself - twice - to defend Gaara.
The answer was right there in his mind, staring back at him. He'd known it on some level from the moment that sealing jutsu had rushed over the sand towards Gaara; Lee had just never had the time to step back and think about it until now.
It was intense and complicated; not as beautiful, pure and simple as Lee had always thought it would be. It blended friendship, lust, fascination, admiration, some caution, sympathy, and so many different shades of knowledge, familiarity, closeness and trust. It had all combined and now it was in Lee's hands, he could close his fingers around it and it was his.
He would have defended Gaara to the death; Gaara was his most important person.
Lee looked at the conclusion with something like perplexed confusion. When had that happened exactly?
And what was he going to do with it now?
Gaara only saw Lee as a friend...not that that mattered. Did it? Lee was pretty used to one-sided devotion by now.
But this was different, he suddenly knew. It was more complicated than what he'd felt towards Sakura-san, it went deeper, and the plain truth of the matter was, he wanted Gaara. He wasn't a goal for Lee to strive for and never obtain. Lee wanted all of him, so badly.
A sharp dry noise right in front of his face made Lee start back and blink.
The three men were looking at him with some concern. Gai-sensei had crouched down at his side, a hand hovering over Lee's shoulder, but it was Kakashi who'd reached down and snapped his fingers in front of Lee's nose.
"Oy, kid, you okay? You spaced out."
"Er- er- " Lee blinked and tried to come back from his mental trip. What had they been talking about? Oh yeah, defending Gaara! Lee was still mightily confused, but some things were downright obvious. "Gaara is my friend! And he's also the Kazekage of our allies of Sand! If Orochimaru was there, he's dead. And if he ever tries that again, he will be!" Even if Lee had to die to do it.
Lee sat there, with his fist raised and shaking a bit, listening to a replay of that spontaneous and horrendously brash statement, and he blushed in sheer mortification. But nobody told him off, or laughed at him for thinking he could take down an enemy of that calibre. The three men were looking at him with the habit of a lifetime of fighting behind them. And they appeared to believe he had his chances.
"Well, he's lost a few good people, as well as a lot of riffraff he probably doesn't care about," Kakashi said, with a glance at Gai and Ibiki. "He'll not try again, unless Gaara is crucial for some plan of his, in which case, yeah, he'll be back. And in the next plan of attack he cooks up, he'll factor you in a whole lot more accurately, kid. He underestimated you this time; if he makes another attempt, he'll try to checkmate you along with Gaara; it won't be that easy to beat him off. But don't worry about that right now. Here, Gai, take your student back to the infirmary."
"He's not my student any more," Gai said softly, eyes shining with pride. "He's a ninja who has now matched my skills in Renge, for good and noble reasons. He is a Shinobi who has my utmost respect."
And for a brief moment, Lee forgot his aches and pains, the way he was shaking, his anxiety over Gaara's safety...everything really was All Right.
"Huh-huh, he's real tough," Kakashi said, rolling his visible eye while Gai-sensei bravely tried to stem the tide of his joyful tears. "Now when you're done with all the macho stuff, go tuck your student into bed and fuss over him and feed him chicken soup and all that; he's looking a little ragged."
"Lee, before you go get some rest, can you point me in the direction of someone with pull in this village?" Ibiki asked. His eyes on Lee were intent.
Lee, still floating on the high of Gai-sensei's words, glanced at him questioningly.
"Orochimaru is a danger to both our villages. We thought that recuperating Uchiha Sasuke and defeating Sound would quell him for awhile, but I guess he's back sooner than anticipated, and with another goal."
Lee's brain connected Sasuke, Orochimaru, Gaara and Orochimaru's special brand of immortality, and his rush of pride and accomplishment evaporated. He was instantly on his feet and waving his arms about in alarm.
"That's why he wanted Gaara?! To use his body for- we have to stop him! Urg."
Lee sat down heavily, with Gai-sensei's hand on his shoulder to stop him from falling over.
"We don't know what he wanted the Kazekage for," Kakashi said. "We don't even know if the primary goal was to capture him, and killing him was the fallback plan, or if they intended to kill him all along. If Orochimaru wanted Gaara as a host for that Forbidden Jutsu, his ultimate goal would be to get his hands on the demon inside the kid. I don't know if he could control Shukaku merely by taking over Gaara's body. What I do know is that the thought of Orochimaru powered by a Tail is giving me a headache."
"I don't think the idea is leaving any of us very enthusiastic," Ibiki murmured.
Kakashi turned back towards the stairs. "I better get down there; Shizune's waving at me, Jiraiya probably needs to go sit down. None of us can keep up with Tsunade-sama for more than an hour at a stretch; that woman is a machine. Gai, are you coming back when you get Lee to-"
"What did you mean when you said you needed someone with pull in this village? Sir?" Lee asked Ibiki. He had big black blotches in front of his eyes from his sudden movement earlier, but his brain was turning over double-time.
Ibiki looked at him gravely, then continued without commenting on the way Lee was swaying on his bench.
"Whatever he wanted the Kazekage for, we have just as much vested interest as Sand does in taking Orochimaru down. But the Shinobi here aren't giving us much information. They barely let us examine the bodies, and they said they found no traces out in the desert that could help them track down Sound-"
"That's impossible, I'm afraid," Lee said in a polite but firm tone. "They can read the desert like a map. If they told you they didn't find anything, then they were-...erm, embroidering a bit on the truth."
"Lying, huh? I figured. Why?" Ibiki was staring at him attentively. Behind Ibiki, Kakashi also examined him, the one eye weighing him astutely, and then he turned and left without asking Gai when he'd be back.
"Gaara was attacked. They want revenge," Lee explained simply. "Also, they do not trust strangers much at the best of times, and now the village will close rank more than ever. When Gaara's back on his feet- but right now, Temari or Kankuro will make sure you get the information you need."
"They might if they were here. But Temari went to do damage control at the Daimyo's court and with Sand's political allies; she won't be back for another two or three days. Kankuro's out there somewhere, I have no idea where. I was told he was on 'extended desert patrol'."
"Probably on the traces of Sound, then. He'll be gone for weeks, unless he finds anything." Lee bit his lip, his mind racing. "Did Captain Sanada make it back?"
"How many others were with him? From our original escort?" Lee asked quietly, with a glance at Gaara beyond the observation deck glass.
"Five. All three Chuunin were killed, I was told. One of the Jounin was in critical condition, but I heard he stabilized since then and should make it. The others are more or less okay."
Lee rubbed his face savagely. Later. A Shinobi did his job first, and mourned the dead later. "But Sanada is up and about? He must be exhausted; he made it back to Suna almost as fast as I could."
"He was probably out of it at first," Ibiki agreed. "But that was four days ago. You've been in a light coma since they brought you back to Suna, until Tsunade-sama arrived yesterday. You've been sleeping since. Which reminds me: Tsunade-sama wants a word with you when she's done here. She was growling something about you giving her a lot of work on a regular basis, and how the next time this happens, you'll get nothing more than a band-aid and an aspirin to recover with."
Ibiki's scars warped around an amused - and slightly sadistic - smile. But that was nowhere near as frightening as the thought of Tsunade-sama on the warpath in her capacity of medi-nin. She'd have the same opinion as Gaara when it came to 'overdoing it'.
"Oh dear. Well, she can chew me out later, I guess." Lee winced at the thought, but then he focused back on the problem at hand. "If Sanada made it back, then we need to talk to him. He'll be a focal point for the Shinobi forces without Gaara or his siblings to direct them. He'll have all the information."
"Okay, I'll go talk to him." Ibiki scratched his scarred chin and glanced at the door.
"I'll go with you," Lee said, standing up slowly.
"Lee!" Gai-sensei caught his shoulder, his impressive brow folded into a worried frown. "You have done amazingly well, balancing the forces of the Renge in your body and curbing its destructive powers, but you need rest, or you could undo Tsunade-sama's healing of-"
"Please, Gai-sensei, I have to do this," Lee interrupted gently but firmly. "Our villages have to work together if we want to protect Gaara, and I'm the military liaison to Suna. Sanada trusts me; he'll cooperate with me. Besides, I know the abilities of the Sand Shinobi; if I'm asking the questions, he won't be able to-...erm..."
"Embroider?" Ibiki provided with a smirk.
"At the very least, they should have gotten something out of the three men they captured," Lee concluded weakly.
Ibiki and Gai glanced at each other.
"They captured some? Great, they forgot to mention that titbit of information. Okay, Lee, if you think you can walk without falling over- oh, I guess that works too," Ibiki added, a trace of amusement in his voice as Gai-sensei slipped Lee's arm over his shoulder and started walking him to the door.
Lee smiled in gratitude at his sensei, but as Gai stopped to let Ibiki open the door for them, Lee glanced back over his shoulder and looked at Gaara through the observation deck window.
He stared at the pale form hanging in the blue light. He realized he was practicing saying it in his head: 'Gaara. The man I love. The man I love.'
The words sounded strange; wonderful; a bit frightening as well. They made his heart trip at every repetition. They were as solemn and sacrosanct as a promise.
They meant that Lee was engaging in one of his self-imposed rules. If Gaara was his most important person, then Lee would defend him with all his might. If he failed, if Gaara died, then Lee would follow him. The strength of that promise was like a deal made with fate: it meant that nothing bad could happen to Gaara without Lee being there to protect him. Whether he would be able to defend Gaara, or only die trying, would depend on the abilities Lee had been honing most of his life; but the power of the Rule meant that he would at least be there to try, come what may. Surely Life could work no other way.
Lee's more practical side knew that this was probably nonsense. But it gave him the strength and determination to walk away and do his job, leaving Gaara in capable hands behind him.