“I don’t know what kind of attacks Bowl Cut has up his sleeve,” drawled the pallas cat, lazing over onto one side with a grumpy flick of her fat tail, “but there’s no way he can beat Gaara.”
The boy whose daemon had just spoken nodded in agreement, his eyes slitting in leonine contentment behind the harsh lines of his face paint. He crossed his arms and looked down his nose at the floor where Lee stood facing his opponent.
Gai’s anger burned in him like a purifying fire. Those Suna nin hadn’t the faintest clue what a formidable foe they had encountered in Gai’s fine student! The impulse to say as much was great, but he would hold his tongue and let Lee’s fists do the talking.
“He’s strong,” Kakashi’s adorable blond pupil remarked with a narrowing of his eyes and a haughty jut of his lip. From his shoulder, his daemon Kuruton, currently in the form of a floppy-legged wolf pup, gave a derisive snort.
“Don’t be so sure,” Shiro drawled, twining around Gai’s feet. He scowled down at her. Kakashi’s daemon was more of a menace than the man himself some days, particularly when she played affectionate while making those cutting remarks of hers. Gai had never quite pinned down her exact species - she was large, and black, and certainly some manner of cat - but Kakashi always demurred further inquiry. It was maddening, but then again, many things about Kakashi were maddening.
The hiss from the massive gourd on the boy’s back that heralded the discharge of his sand was … a surprise, to say the least. A novel twist on a traditional earth jutsu, but nothing to write home about.
Gai felt a hint of smugness tracing around his lips as he observed the proceedings below. The sand jutsu may have been strong, but one of Lee’s greatest strengths lay in how often he was underestimated. It was a phenomenon Gai was more than familiar with, and which he cultivated to his advantage. He hoped that one day Lee would master the same - though his face was much less capable of concealing his emotions. His guileless wide eyes gave everything away, and even when he tried for subterfuge, his loud-mouthed daemon frequently interjected exactly what Lee was thinking.
Well, if the Hokage had hoped for Lee to become a spymaster, he wouldn’t have assigned him to Gai’s team. Gai himself had little talent for deception either, the burning of his spirit too powerful and pure to be contained. Though if Lee continued to hone his strength and speed in this way, perhaps he wouldn’t need the skill, just as he had abandoned ninjutsu and genjutsu.
Lee moved in near-perfect rhythm, his speed unparalleled and his strikes sure even as his opponent’s sand parried his every move. Mentally, Gai noted a few minute corrections to instruct him on later.
“Sloppy left hook there,” Hirudora burred from Kakashi’s shoulder. Gai couldn’t help but grunt his agreement, though he would have preferred the bird of paradise hadn’t spoken it aloud.
The odd thing, Gai thought, was that the other boy didn’t seem to have a daemon at all. It was possible, of course, that it was simply too small to see - daemons in the form of insects weren’t uncommon; the Aburame with their myriad beetle daemons were proof of that - but something about the way Lee’s daemon, Burusu, was circling Gaara’s body, snout raised and sniffing cautiously, left Gai uncertain.
It was unlikely, though not impossible, that the boy truly didn’t have a daemon - few survived intercision, and those that did would hardly be capable of battle. But the boy stood stock-still with the placid, emotionless coolness that Gai had come to associate with those intercised on the battlefield, letting his sand do all the work for him with nothing but a chill shiver of pain behind his pale eyes.
Surely even a village as brutal as Suna wouldn’t- not to a child-
Gai suppressed an involuntary shudder. From his new roost in Kakashi’s nest of hair, Hirudora ruffled his feathers in agitation.
Gai could ask Neji, he supposed, to suss out the location of the scrawny boy’s daemon - the Byakugan could see Dust, and trace it to its source - but he was still simmering with frustration at his student for his imprudence during the previous match.
Killing the other examinees wasn’t strictly forbidden, and some casualties were of course expected, but sheer brutality for brutality’s sake was … frowned upon. Unsporting, particularly in a match so unevenly leveled. And the way Ori had torn at the throat of Hinata’s pale-winged dove daemon with her scythe of a beak had been- Gai shook his head. He could hardly even think it. The look in Kurenai’s red eyes, wide with shock as she checked Hinata’s pulse, her hawkwing moth daemon fluttering frantically over her shoulder, would not soon fade from Gai’s memory.
Nor would the Hyuga clan have been particularly lenient with Neji, had he actually killed their heir. It had been an unacceptable risk, driven by foolish, hot-headed emotion. Something Gai would have expected from Lee, but not from his usually even-tempered student.
Something had been simmering under Neji’s skin all along, resisting Gai’s best efforts to bring it to the surface.
Now, at least, he knew the approximate shape of the chip on Neji’s shoulder.
Neji had much to learn, and Gai had not quite yet determined how to articulate that to him without yelling. Not that yelling didn’t have its place in the shaping of young minds, but the words yelled had to be ones of wisdom and spirit, rather than raw anger and disappointment.
For now, Gai would bite his tongue.
Naruto still had Hinata’s blood on his hand where it clenched on the railing overlooking the arena, her daemon’s filoplumes stuck to the tacky red of his palms.
“Lee’s attacks aren’t working at all,” Naruto commented, stirring Gai from his reverie.
And indeed, Lee’s opponent hadn’t moved a centimeter as Lee darted around his still body in a bevy of punches and kicks. Burusu transformed into a ribbon-tailed astrapia - a dark-feathered version of Gai’s own Hirudora - and took to the air, calling vantage points to Lee from above, his tail trailing like a banner.
Perhaps the boy’s daemon just had an unusually wide radius, Gai thought, scanning the edges of the arena for any unmatched figures and finding nothing. Perhaps its range was even broader than that of a typical shinobi’s daemon - perhaps in Suna they Pulled more strongly - and the daemon was somewhere outside the arena entirely.
“Physical attacks are useless against Gaara,” remarked the boy dressed all in black, arms still haughtily crossed over his chest. The pallas cat at his ankles shook her head with a purring chuckle, her too-long teeth jutting from her mouth at odd angles. “That’s why nobody’s ever put a scratch on him.”
Never? Hirudora glanced over at Gai and stared him down with one black, beady eye.
“That little boy might be stronger than you thought, Gai,” Shiro commented, flopping to her side in an affectation of disinterest.
Gai grunted and rested his hands on his hips.
“Don’t count Lee out yet. He’s stronger than any of you know, even if he can’t use ninjutsu or genjutsu.”
And Lee was strong, not just in body, but in spirit, too. Lee had borne the Pulling ritual with the most fortitude of any of Gai’s students, to Gai’s own mild surprise. He had simply stood there, fists and eyes clenched, tears streaming down his face, as his daemon was separated from him. Meanwhile, Neji, the consummate genius, had winced and cried out, and Tenten, despite her kunoichi ferocity, had slumped to the ground, racked with sobs. (They had all survived it, though, which was more than Gai could say for some of the other genin teams - though Gai still saw the lingering effects of the Pulling in the way his students were cautious to never let their daemons out of their sights. They would get over it in time.)
From his spot curled in Sakura’s palm, her tiny hedgehog daemon gave a subdued gasp.
“How has he gotten this far?” Sakura blurted, much too loud for their proximity, even accounting for the hiss and roar of the sand below.
And Kakashi thought Gai was loud. Those students of his could more than give Gai a run for his money.
When Gai looked up, Lee was crouched atop the folded hands of the statue on the far side of the arena, the sand quickly gaining on him. Burusu perched beside him, now a squirrel, his tail ruffling and flicking.
Gai knew precisely what needed to happen next.
“Lee!” he called across the arena, extending a thumbs-up. “Take them off!”
Lee’s expression of shock was transparent even at this distance.
“Are you sure?” Burusu called, nervous paws creeping towards his face.
“But I’m only meant to do that to protect my precious people!” Lee added.
Ah, his student had listened so well to his lessons. Gai beamed, and Hirudora chirruped his contentment.
“I’ll allow it!” he called.
Lee’s face was a mask of joy as he disentangled the weights from his legs and dangled them over the floor. Burusu shifted seamlessly into a Monarch butterfly as the weights came off, his orange wings little flecks of radiance in the drab gray of the arena as he took flight, spiraling to the ceiling.
Along the railing, a death adder daemon uncurled itself and began making its way up the hand of the Suna kunoichi who had beaten Tenten. “That boy’s got another thing coming if he thinks dropping a few weights will get him one over on Gaara,” the adder hissed, his orangey scales shimmering as he twined up the girl’s arm to drape around her shoulders. She gave it a brief look of scorn, lips tensing.
Gai could only laugh. A few weights. Well, they would see in short order.
The arena shook as the weights cratered to the floor. Every daemon and shinobi gasped as one.
Lee became a blur of light, too fast to track. From the rafters, Burusu shifted into a Peregrine falcon, his body nothing more than a dark haze, the shadow of Lee’s, as they both dodged the sand as one.
There was a crack that sounded like nothing so much as a bone snapping neatly in half, and Gaara’s head jerked towards the floor, blood spattering his face. A direct hit! Hirudora gave a little cry of delight.
But then, the boy’s face started to … fracture? Great chunks of sand broke off his body, like a ceramic vase shattering, and sloughed to the ground.
Dimly, Gai was aware that the painted Suna ninja was explaining the finer points of his teammate’s Sand Armor to Naruto and his slack-jawed daemon, both their tongues lolling in mouths agog with surprise, but in the forefront of his mind, Gai could only think one thing: the Lotus.
It was time, it seemed, for Lee to reveal his trump card.
Lee looked up at Gai, the eager question quirking his mouth, the fire of youth blazing behind his eyes. Even so alight, Gai could see that exhaustion was starting to drag at him - he’d burned too long, too hard, and his energy was starting to crumble to soot and ash. Burusu panted heavily from his roost on Lee’s shoulder, but gamely took flight once more.
Gai nodded his permission, and Lee immediately began to unspool his bandages.
He lashed out with a foot. His opponent’s head rocketed backwards on his neck.
And then, they were airborne. Two boys, one daemon, plowing skyward. Lee’s bandages unfurled behind him like trails of smoke, fluttering.
“Take that! And that! And the other one!” Burusu panted with every impact.
Gai closed his eyes as the bandages formed their cocoon, hands clasped in front of him as if in prayer.
“Make this one count, Lee,” Hirudora whispered.
They spiraled down, a column of wind and shadow.
The ground cracked.
Hirudora crowed Lee’s victory.
Then, something else cracked, too.
Gaara’s face, and then his body, fracturing away into an empty vessel of sand.
Was he even human? Gai wondered. Suna was renowned for its puppetry. No real body, no daemon … could it be that his star pupil was bested by a mere artifice? Gai shook his head sharply, dispelling the thought. There was simply no way.
“What the hell?” Burusu shouted, and despite his agonized, exhausted breathing, Lee looked at him sharply. Behind him, his opponent’s body slowly reconstituted itself. There was no hint of humanity behind the boy’s cold eyes, now. Perhaps he truly was a puppet.
“A substitution,” Shiro murmured, rubbing her face idly on Gai’s legwarmer. “Clever.”
“How- ?” Gai yelled.
“When- ?!” Hirudora added.
“When you closed your eyes.” Kakashi’s drawl contained a hint of amusement that set Gai’s heart to churning with frustration.
Below, the sand lashed out in a mighty wave. Lee dove in one direction, Burusu in the other. The sand barely missed both toes and tail feathers.
Lee hit the wall, but still he staggered to his feet and resumed his fighting stance.
Be strong, Gai thought, as if his thoughts could travel across the arena and directly into Lee’s head. Know I’ve never doubted you once.
“The lotus of the leaf village blooms twice,” Hirudora intoned. He shifted, and his chest plumage shone a vibrant green. Gai smiled.
“Gai,” Kakashi murmured, lips barely moving behind his mask, and Gai could feel the judgment radiating off him like waves of chakra, “you didn’t.”
“I did.” Gai nodded. “And I won’t apologize for it. Lee has no choice but to become as strong as possible if he wants to become a fine ninja.”
“I’ve lost respect for you,” Kakashi intoned, and Shiro slunk back from her spot at Gai’s feet to crouch at Kakashi’s ankles, scowling. Gai felt the rejection like a kunai in the gut.
Hirudora flicked his pinnates and fluttered from Kakashi’s head to Gai’s shoulder.
Naruto wheeled around, narrowing his eyes in confusion.
“Wait!” he shouted. “But I thought- !”
Kakashi silenced him with a gesture. It was no time to unravel the common misconception that Gai and Kakashi’s daemons belonged to one another.
For a moment, they just glared at one another - man to man and daemon to daemon.
Then Sakura interjected with another question, and that cool mask fell over Kakashi’s face, suddenly as placid as an untouched pool. His voice was expressionless as he explained the finer points of the Eight Gates, though Gai could hear the tension behind his words when he detailed their eventualities.
In its borrowed socket, his Sharingan spun. Gai felt its red-hot gaze on him like a physical weight.
The consequences of the Gates were the source of Gai and Kakashi’s greatest disputes. Kakashi failed - no, refused - to see the logic of their necessity, and Gai stubbornly would not let the matter fall to agreeing to disagree, no matter how many times Kakashi ran from the conversation. Kakashi used his avoidance like a shield, but Gai was a man skilled with many weapons.
“How many Gates can Lee open, Gai?” Shiro called, as Kakashi adamantly stared away from him at the floor.
As he said it, Lee’s stance tightened. There was a sudden flare of chakra, like a punch to the solar plexus, and then his whole body burned bright red.
Burusu gave a little cry of pain and knelt to the floor, now in the shape of a knobby-kneed goat. There was no way for him to keep up with Lee in this state.
Lee took flight. His opponent’s body jarred around in midair, propelled by Lee’s fists and knees. There was the snap of ligaments tearing, and Shiro looked at Gai with palpable disappointment. On the floor, Burusu gave a wounded keen.
The boys’ bodies plowed into the ground with a great crack of stone.
And beneath that sound … hissing.
Gai wiped the plaster dust from his eyes, blinking frantically at the floor below. Had he won- ?
The arena flooded with the smell of cedarwood. Every dog-adjacent daemon on the spectators’ balcony sniffed the air curiously.
“The gourd turned into sand,” Shiro hissed, craning forward from between Kakashi’s legs. “Is that where that smell is coming from?”
Gai could think of few uses for a gourd full of cedar smoke, the primary one being to put daemons to sleep. The wood itself was a powerful soporific specific to daemons, even moreso when burned. What was this kid playing at?
For a moment, all that could be heard was the harsh panting of both boys. Then, Gaara started to laugh. If something so broken could be properly called a laugh - it was more a cackle, the last deranged notes of a music box winding down.
In the puddle of sand where the gourd had been, a curled shadow stretched and moved.
Burusu staggered forward, woozy, shrinking back down to a tiny bird of paradise, his ruffled green chest feathers the perfect mimic of Hirudora’s. His thin legs wobbled.
Gaara’s hand shot out and grabbed him.
There was the snap of fragile bird bones, crunched in the boy’s pale fist.
Burusu’s body hit the floor with a whimper.
Lee screamed, and screamed, and screamed, until suddenly he didn’t, and the silence was somehow worse than that sound.
“Gai,” Kakashi barked at his side, and the word spurred Gai into motion. Hirudora’s long tail feathers trailed behind him like cut bandages as he leapt.
In an instant he was on the floor below, his eyes scanning the surround. Where was that kid’s daemon? If Gai were a less scrupulous man, he’d hunt it down right this second, put things to rights with his own fists-
The sand began to clear.
In the crater left by Gaara’s body, a scorpion raised its tail to strike- no, it was a rattlesnake, draped over itself with its tail twitching in warning- no, it was an armadillo, curling into a tight ball- no, a girdled lizard, the spines along its back raised like a dog’s hackles-
So the boy did have a daemon after all. It must have been hiding in his gourd this whole time.
And to look at it, the poor creature had no better idea of itself than the boy who now stared Gai down with fractured eyes.
“Why,” the boy croaked, his daemon spasming on the floor behind him, taking myriad shape after shape, “did you save him?”
Gai shook his head, looking back to Lee’s still form curled on the floor, hands outstretched. He stared into those mad eyes, trying to peer into the shattered mind behind them. He couldn’t bring the words to his mouth. Rage burned through his pores, hotter than the Gates themselves. Beneath it all, his heart ached like an old wound reopened.
“Because,” Hirudora said, flitting down from Gai’s shoulder to land next to Lee’s body, “he’s our beloved companion.”
Many times, Gai had scrutinized Gaara’s unblinking face from up close, not yet trusting those uncautious hands with his precious pupil’s tender heart. In fact, this had happened with such frequency, Gai staring the young Kazekage down with scrunched eyebrows and a suspicious hum, that Kakashi had banned Gai from his office during intervillage meetings.
Gai simply was not one to trust easily once wronged. He believed firmly in the principle of once bitten, twice shy. Everyone received an open-hearted first chance; few, if any, received a second.
And Gaara - despite Lee’s protests to the contrary, and the open and abiding affection with which Lee spoke of his partner - had not quite earned a second chance from Gai. Not after the way he attacked Lee’s daemon - the boy’s very soul - leaving Burusu permanently injured in a way that even the expertise of the Inuzuka couldn’t repair. Lee may have forgiven the Kazekage, but Gai had not.
Until the day Gai saw him in the living room.
It was the day of the summer festival. Kakashi would not return from his mission until the evening, and Lee had come to stay with Gai, as he often did when there was no one else available. Neither of them called it ‘caretaking’ - Gai could take care of himself, thank you very much - but as he eased into the Autumn of his Youth, he did find that having someone else run out to do the shopping for him, or someone with two functional legs to help sweep the genkan was … convenient. But not necessary, never necessary.
It just so happened that Kakashi’s mission coincided with the Kazekage’s visit.
And it just so happened that Lee was upstairs, beating the dust out of the futons in the wide upper window that Gai had not seen in some years.
Gaara was sitting comfortably on Kakashi’s recliner, looking as self-possessed and composed as ever, ankles crossed neatly under the hem of the long jacket he favored in Konoha’s chiller weather, making himself quite at home in Gai’s living room. Gai was a man who has worn the same green jumpsuit for the better part of a half-century, but the Kazekage’s lack of variation in wardrobe almost made his fashion choices seem cutting edge.
Gai’s ire prickled along his spine. The Kazekage’s shoulder shifted as he moved his hand, head bent and low notes of some words that Gai couldn’t quite make out carrying through the room.
He didn’t seem to have noticed Gai’s approach.
As Gai rounded the corner, recently awoken from his afternoon nap and about to offer a pot of tea, he saw the object in Gaara’s lap. Or rather, not the object, but the being.
Burusu was sprawled across the Kazekage’s thin legs, his crooked, wrinkled left limbs curled towards the crack along his shell. And the Kazekage, damn it all, was ever-so-gently stroking those wounded extremities, murmuring softly. The look on his face was sorrowful - heartbroken, if Gai had to put a name to it.
Gai’s face colored instantly. He still couldn’t understand the words the young man was saying, but he knew better than to intrude on an intimate moment.
He wheeled himself backwards out of the room without a further word, calling upon all the stealth of his younger years.
“What is he doing- ?” Hirudora clucked fiercely into Gai’s ears. “And Lee lets him- ? After- ?”
Gai shushed him with a finger along the top of his beak.
He re-entered the living with quite a bit more clatter and bluster, giving the Kazekage a chance to sit upright and put his hands to rights. As he did, he noticed that Gaara’s hand still rested firmly on Burusu’s back, a protective shield. As if Lee’s daemon needed Gaara’s protection from Gai, of all people, and not the other way around.
Gai cleared his throat.
“Tea?” he asked.
The Kazekage inclined his head just barely, but he studied Gai’s face with a curious expression. His pale hand did not move from the crack on Burusu’s shell. The long, thin ears of his desert hare daemon, Kiri-ai, flicked - in agitation or suspicion, Gai couldn’t be sure. From Gai’s shoulder, Hirudora ruffled his feathers irritably.
“Yes,” Gaara said, voice soft, “thank you. I’m sure Lee would like some too.”
Hirudora huffed, and Gai crossed his arms over his chest. It was bulkier now than it had been even when he was active-duty, owing to the amount of time he now spent walking on his hands. The nerve of him.
“As if I wouldn’t know the preferences of my own student- !”
“I didn’t mean to imply- “ the Kazekage began, eyes widening fractionally, but there was a thundering from the stairwell, and Lee burst into the room, panting, with a fine coating of grey dust flecking the front of his uniform.
“Ah! Gai-sensei, I thought you were resting!” he cried, striding over to the couch and lifting Burusu, rubbing his nose against the tortoise’s beak before tucking him into the front of his vest, where he had a special pocket constructed in just the right size to adequately support his daemon’s less-functional limbs. Before he stood, he bent down to stroke Kiri-ai between the ears, beaming as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“I was resting,” Gai started to say, “but- “
“We were just about to have tea,” Gaara interjected smoothly, and Kiri-ai thumped one strong hind leg against the tatami mats. “Did you want to join us?”
“A cup of tea would certainly hit the spot!” Lee said, taking a seat on the arm of the chair where Gaara sat. His arm slipped over Gaara’s shoulder without a second thought. “I’m parched; those futons are heavy work! Thank you for your hospitality, Gai-sensei!”
“It’s nothing,” Hirudora responded on Gai’s behalf, all bluster and pomposity, fanning his wings in a regal manner before resettling on the handle of Gai’s wheelchair.
Behind the bulk of Lee’s shoulder, the Kazekage narrowed his eyes. He craned his head downward, just so, his eyes never leaving Gai’s face. Kiri-ai was whispering something to him, but Gai couldn’t hear it.
That night at the festival, Gai found himself scanning the crowd, Hirudora sailing over his head.
Neji and Tenten, with Ori and Redii riding high on their shoulders, had already come and gone, hand-in-hand in their complementary blue and pink yukata. Tenten favored the fortune telling stalls, and Neji would want to drag her up onto a roof to watch the fireworks later on, his daemon never quite content with being too far from the open sky.
Kakashi had a speech to make later, so he left Shiro to watch over Gai, and she circled his chair like a shark in that peculiar and un-catlike way of hers. It was a challenge not to run over her stubby tail when she slunk like that, especially as her night-dark body passed between shadows while Gai and Hirudora both were distracted by the lights and sounds of the festival.
Ahead, Gai heard a familiar shout - Lee’s voice cutting the sweaty late-night air.
“Not to worry, Gaara, I will surely win you the turtle figurine you wanted!”
Gai wheeled himself to the forefront of the small crowd that had gathered in front of the wanage booth, where Lee stood with a sizeable pile of plastic rings. Gai couldn’t quite fathom the crowd’s interest - Lee’s overenthusiastic participation in festival games was something of a Konoha staple, and generally drew more snickering and snide remarks than fascination.
As Gai peered around, though, he saw the source of the spectacle.
Just behind Lee’s shoulder stood the Kazekage, a massive pile of toys and prizes clutched in his arms. Even Kiri-ai, hewing close to his ankles, was draped in prize garlands and keitai charms.
The crowd were all staring at the Kazekage, but the Kazekage only had eyes for Lee.
In the neon lights of the ring-toss booth, Gaara’s eyes fairly sparkled, a faint blush coloring his cheeks. Even his drab, dark red yukata (a poor choice of color, if Gai did say so himself!) seemed to glow.
Shiro hopped up into Gai’s lap and made herself comfortable with a series of kneads and spins.
“Interesting,” she hummed, in that cryptic way of hers.
“What do you mean interesting?” Hirudora whispered back, but was ignored.
Gai wouldn’t let their bickering deter him. The crowd parted for him to pass as he wheeled until he was right behind the Kazekage. Kiri-ai glanced over her shoulder at his arrival and immediately returned to watching as Lee threw another ring, missing the prize table entirely and sending the ring straight through the paper backing of the booth.
Lee began apologizing profusely, bowing so his head almost hit the counter in front of him, while the booth operator scowled at him. Burusu clambered up onto the counter beside him and bowed along.
If Gai didn’t know better, he almost would have sworn the Kazekage was smiling.
“You really love him, don’t you?” Gai murmured.
The Kazekage’s shoulders twitched and his typically emotionless eyes widened the barest amount. He shifted his armful of prizes onto a platform of sand, his hand traveling to hover over the gourd at his waist.
“Of course,” he said, as if there were never any question about it at all.
Gai nodded firmly, clapping the young Kazekage hard enough on the shoulder that he staggered.
“Good,” he said. “Me too.”