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It's a beautiful day, Gai decides, and in the absence of anything to contradict that, it must be true. Truth is only ever the proper application of willpower, and Gai has enough willpower to keep entire cities running — he's not going to stop now!

A beautiful day: he wakes up with the birds, yawns until his jaw cracks, lifts himself into his chair. He wheels over to his kitchen where he boils water in his new electric kettle — a gift from Lee, who decided that even Gai-sensei must be brought kicking and screaming into modern times, a youthful man like you needs a passionately youthful way to make tea, sensei, trust me you'll love it. Gai, who distrusts most storebought conveniences because laziness gets you killed in the field, had beamed at Lee and accepted the gift with outstretched arms. Anything for his beloved pupil. He steeps his tea black and bitter, and finds a banana that's not grown too brown to eat.

A beautiful day: a light breakfast and a full morning of training. Rolling laps around the village, brushing up on his ninjutsu and genjutsu, and then walking on his hands until the bruises on his palms from yesterday are deepened by the bruises from today. Kids pass him on their way to school; they wave, and Gai waggles his feet to make them laugh. After his training, back to his first-floor flat for a proper meal: rice, natto, a fried egg, lots of curry sauce.

A beautiful day: the Academy in the afternoon, assisting the younger children with their taijutsu forms. Shouting out friendly encouragement until Iruka digs a pinkie into his ear and says, mildly, A little quieter, maybe? while Gai laughs and laughs.

A beautiful day: long walks before dinner, helping out his neighbours any way he can until they grow flustered and insist that Gai-san, no really they can finish weeding the garden on their own, or no Gai-san, really they pay a boy to bring in those packages to the store, an esteemed shinobi like you doesn't need to— (If Gai notices that he's only become an esteemed shinobi, worthy of their respect, after his body's been battered and broken in war, he doesn't say anything; he might be an old dog put out to pasture but he doesn't need to be rude).

A beautiful day: Lee comes over for dinner, bringing Metal bouncing on his lap, and Gai fusses over both Lee and his toddler, tossing rubber shuriken until Metal falls over his feet trying to fetch them from the corners of the flat they've bounced off to. Lee tells Gai stories about his own genin team, and Gai makes sure that Lee knows emphatically what he's doing is a good and noble thing, that he makes Gai prouder than Gai can even say.

A beautiful day: late at night, Gai doing gentle calisthenics on his floor mat, working through sore and knotty muscles while listening to a radio play about princesses on the moon, and there: a brief hiss of chakra that can only be one person, and Gai looks over his shoulder to grin toothily at Kakashi stealing through his window when the door works just fine, there's no need to be allergic to it, Hokage-sama.

"Yo," says Kakashi.

Gai pulls himself into a sitting position. "There's tea on the counter," he says.

 

:::

 

Hatake Kakashi, sixth Hokage of Konohagakure, his favourite hobbies in descending order: hiding from his staff, avoiding meetings, half-assing paperwork, reading porny novels, terrorizing his former students, and lying on whatever piece of Gai's furniture is closest, maybe even the floor.

Today it's the floor. Kakashi's spine cracks loudly.

Gai tchs his tongue. "Listen to that, my rival! Listen to how stiff you are. I have some exercises that would help you—"

Kakashi waves a hand. "No."

"They've greatly improved my own flexibility, rival, and—"

"No."

"Shizune—"

Kakashi tries to disguise a wince and fails. "No."

"Very well," Gai says, and pulls himself onto the couch. He stares down at Kakashi who seems wholly content to lie on Gai's floor like a dropped dandelion stem. After a while Gai gives into his impulse, grabs his crutches, and goes to the kitchen to bring Kakashi that tea — it'll go cold otherwise, and cold tea only makes Kakashi even grumpier. Kakashi accepts the tea from Gai while still lying supine. He doesn't spill a drop.

"Akane wants to speak to you, I think," Kakashi says.

"Eh?" Gai is surprised. "What could the lovely Eguchi-san want with me?" Eguchi Akane is Konoha's master of ceremonies. He usually sees her trailing behind Kakashi at formal events, trying to adjust his haori while yelling at him to be a little more careful about not stepping in mud. Gai usually tries to avoid her, on principle. Not that he's scared of her. The mighty green beast of Konoha fears no one!

Kakashi mumbles something.

"Eh? Eh? Eh?" Gai says in increasingly high-pitched tones until Kakashi finally gives in and speaks properly. Kakashi has beautiful enunciation, when he tries.

"The Nara." Kakashi rolls his eyes. "Their first deer of the year was born this morning." Gai is already nodding, he heard so on his walk, everybody knows the importance of the first deer born, a good omen especially when born on a bright clear day. Kakashi only looks more aggrieved. "They want the Hokage to bless the fawn tomorrow, say some words."

"You have beautiful enunciation," Gai tells him.

"I also have a meeting with the council," Kakashi says, "and then a briefing with Ibiki. Look, Gai, will you go and do it? All they want is a pretty speech and you're—" he winces again, "—good at that."

Gai sits up straight and presses a fist to his chest. "My eternal rival," he says, eyes round, delighted, "was that a compliment? Is this a sign of the springtime of your heart, grown open at last to the tender applications of kindness and respect for your fellow man?"

"Let's go with that," Kakashi says, and rolls over. Gai kicks him with his good leg. "Argh," says Kakashi. It's treason to strike your Hokage without cause. Gai kicks him again. Kakashi leans up and, swift as a silver shadow passing through moonlight, pulls Gai to the floor. He's careful, though, so careful; Gai falls easily.

"If you're busy," Gai says, with his head on Kakashi's chest, "I can certainly give the Naras a splendid speech! And if the speech I give is better than the speech you would have given, that's another victory for me!" He laughs until his stomach quivers. "You better watch out, Kakashi, you're falling behind."

"Hm," says Kakashi, who sounds already asleep on the floor. "No, wait. Don't do that. Akane will tell you what to say."

 

:::

 

Akane tells Gai what to say.

Gai does not say it.

"—and then through the dedication and youthful passion of our village, we will face every challenge with honour and dignity, overflowing with the enthusiasm that our ancestors bestowed upon us, for we are—"

"Gai-san, you're needed right now," Akane says at his side. "Urgently."

"Oh, all right," Gai says, and hands the fawn back to one of the older Naras, who looks vaguely shell-shocked. He gives them a patented good-guy wave and ping of the teeth, and then follows Akane to the edge of the field. "So what is the urgent matter?" Gai asks, pulling his wheelchair up beside her. "Is it, by any chance, a mission?" He tries not to shine too brightly with excitement; it's not often these days that he gets missions.

"A mission," Akane says slowly. "Oh, ah, yes! Yes!" She punches her fist into her palm. Gai appreciates that level of passion in an individual human being. "The Hokage has another mission for you, Maito Gai!"

"He does?" Gai cries.

"Yes!" Akane's face glows. "Tomorrow Tachibana Makiko turns one hundred, and the Hokage needs you to say some words at her birthday celebrations."

Well. Gai hesitates, that isn't exactly what he meant.

"Will there be enemy nin at this celebration?" he asks hopefully.

"Unlikely."

"Giant spiders from the Forest of Death?"

"Negative."

Gai flails. "Poisonous cake?"

Akane leans over so that her face is directly in front of his. She's terrifying. "The cake will be delicious," she says.

"Oh no," says Gai.

"But you have the most important duty of all," Akane says. "You must keep the peace among the villagers and the clans. You must maintain the fragile balance that brings the people of Konoha together. Sometimes that means fists, but sometimes," she stresses, "that means cake."

Gai considers this and decides there is wisdom in her words. He salutes. "My loyalty is first and foremost always to Konoha," he says. "I am willing to lay down my life for this village; my body is a coin for the Hokage to spend."

"Yes, yes," says Akane, "now let's get you fitted for a new haori."

 

:::

 

Gai ends up with five new outfits, most in tasteful shades of black and brown. Akane, perhaps sensing his desperation, allows him to get one green robe but refuses to let him keep his legwarmers. He wears that green robe to Tachibana-san's one hundredth birthday and tries not to weep too distractingly when Tachibana gets up and talks about her life. She was a jounin in her youth, and has seen many wars; she speaks about it briskly, giving thanks to the hard-won peace they now enjoy, and Gai rubs at the joyful tears welling in his eyes.

"May you have one hundred more years!" he declares when he toasts the party.

"Sure," says Tachibana-san, but she brushes her knuckles against Gai's shoulder, and their eyes meet. "It is good to have survived," she says, and Gai swallows.

"It was a wonderful celebration!" he tells Kakashi that night, when Kakashi's sprawled on his couch absently watching a movie about carnivorous plants. "Tachibana-san was surrounded by her children and her grandchildren, all the members of her clan. They showed her the greatest respect, as an embodiment of the living history of our village and a mentor to so many. I was incredibly moved!"

Kakashi has his eyes closed. Both of them, which Gai knows because Kakashi isn't wearing his mask. He is, Gai supposes, quite handsome, though that sort of thing doesn't matter much to Gai. It's a pale, fickle quality when he's seen the way Kakashi moves, how he fights, watched the birth of lightning on his fingertips. Seen Kakashi stabbed three times and still kill an enemy with a drive of his wrist. Seen Kakashi, matted with his own blood, drained of chakra, carrying wounded soldiers home.

Kakashi looks exhausted, though. Bleary circles under his eyes, heavy bags. Was it a long day, Gai wants to ask, but he doesn't have the security clearance for half of what Kakashi does — it's not as if Kakashi spends his day going to birthday parties and petting people's deer — so he doesn't. He lets Kakashi slump beside him on the couch until Kakashi's breathing becomes slow and heavy. Kakashi's head falls on his shoulder.

"Do you need me to carry you to bed, my rival?" Gai asks. He's not above slinging Kakashi over his lap on the wheelchair. He's done it before.

"No," Kakashi yawns, "can't go to sleep — waiting on a mission report to come in." His gaze flicks towards the window where Gai can see an Anbu guard stationed in the shadows. The Anbu go wherever Kakashi goes, and though Kakashi is certainly skilled enough to lose their tail, they've both learned what happens when he does. Mostly, the end of the world and the rage of Shizune. "Gotta stay awake," Kakashi says.

"Okay," Gai says, and turns up the volume on the carnivorous plant movie. "Kakashi! There may be a good strategy to learn from this movie! What if we could use carnivorous plants in battle? Wouldn't our enemies be surprised by that?"

"I think anybody would be horrified to see you coming at them with a giant plant," Kakashi says. "Plant not required."

Gai beams. Another compliment!

"Something to think about!" He scritches his fingers through Kakashi's hair. Kakashi sighs. "It's important to keep your opponents guessing. Wild and unpredictable, that should be the Konoha motto — though what am I doing giving you advice about strategy, you've led us into more fights than I can remember." He yawns too, a real cracker of a yawn that shakes his shoulders. But no, he must keep Kakashi awake! He must stay true to his course. "How do you think you grow a carnivorous plant anyway? Do you think it needs to be a bloodline limit? Rival, what if we found someone with this bloodline limit, do you think we could encourage them to come to Konoha and—"

Kakashi slaps a hand over his mouth. "Okay, you can shut up now."

"Is that a challenge?" Gai asks cheerfully, because there are definitely other ways he can keep Kakashi awake for a few more hours. Kakashi doesn't even have to do much — not that Kakashi ever does much when they're intimate, Kakashi is lazy even in bed.

"Take it as you will," Kakashi says, ever with the cool, flippant responses, gah! Only then there's a discreet knock at the window, and oh, too bad, the mission report's come. Kakashi groans and gets back to work.

 

:::

 

"We thought we would be getting the Hokage," says businessman number one.

"Hokage-sama got pulled away by another meeting!" Gai announces. "Something about missing-nin, I think! He sends his apologies" — what lies, Kakashi never apologizes, just like he never pays for his own food — "and sends me as his replacement. Look, I even have his notes!" Another lie. Kakashi never writes down anything he can enigmatically suggest at instead.

Fortunately the Downtown Business Association of Konoha has not fought alongside Kakashi as blood brothers for most of their lives, so know him very little, and seem mollified. "Of course, of course," businessman number two says. "We are honoured to receive the Hokage's…" A delicate pause. Gai waits, smiling. "...good friend," is what comes at the end of that sentence.

"Aha, yes! Kakashi and I are sworn rivals since we were children," Gai assures them. "I promise you that I speak for his pure and noble heart today."

"Pure and noble?" the businesswoman on the right says skeptically. Gai already has her pegged as the squeaky wheel of the bunch. "Hatake 'porn addict' Kakashi?"

Gai bristles at the implication. It's not porn, it's adventurous literature! "The Hokage one hundred supports the efforts of the Downtown Business Association! He understands that a healthy and thriving downtown means a healthy and thriving Konoha." Well, if he doesn't already, Gai will make sure he does. "For example, just the other day the Hokage suggested to me—" he tries to think of something that might demonstrate Kakashi's fabulous business acumen, "—that what Konoha needs is a store that sells activewear!"

"Active...wear…?" businessman number one asks.

Kakashi will forgive him this. Or murder him. One of the two. "Indeed!" Gai says forcefully. "Have you ever thought about the need for shinobi to have clothing they can truly move around in? Clothing that breathes and stretches with them? Why, the Hokage has often spoken to me about the beauty of spandex, and I'm sure he isn't the only one who believes what downtown Konoha needs most of all is a spandex activewear store. Support the shinobi community, and the shinobi community will support you. Mutual cooperation!" Gai pounds the table for emphasis and grins.

"We've never considered that before," says the businesswoman to his right. "We shall… take it under advisement."

On the way out the door, he can hear her whisper, "Are you sure that's really the Hokage's…"

"Shhh, Minako, he's a shinobi! They have good ears."

Gai does have good ears, he's very proud of them. His father used to say they were shaped like sesame seed buns. Actually, maybe what the downtown core needs is a shop that sells sesame seed buns, which he'll be sure to suggest to them next time.

"Let me go to their next meeting," he tells Kakashi. "I've filled an entire notebook, see, with good ideas for them." He shows Kakashi the notebook. It has holographic turtles on the cover.

"Nice notebook," says Kakashi, deadly compliment machine of five nations.

"It's a magnificent notebook," Gai agrees.

"So you're," Kakashi stretches on the bed, "getting the hang of this?"

"What?" Gai asks. "What's there to get the hang of? I'm your dearest rival. Do you think showing up to a few events and giving speeches is beyond my abilities? You're really underestimating me now!"

Kakashi studies him. It's a bit unnerving, without the mask. "No one's been giving you a hard time then?" he asks. Gai is positive that he can't even take a shit without Kakashi finding out about it from the Anbu, but it's nice of Kakashi to worry. More than nice, actually. It's heartwarming. Like Kakashi is legwarmers but for the heart. He makes a note to tell Kakashi about this brilliant new metaphor, when Kakashi is less likely to hit him on the head with a blunt object. Gai is not supposed to talk about legwarmers in Kakashi's presence anymore.

"What kind of hard time could people give me?" he says with a shrug. "You have Naruto show up to do things for you all the time. It's true that I'm hardly going to be the next Hokage, but—" Kakashi watches him with those clear merciless eyes. "Well!" Gai says, flustered all of a sudden. "Even a Hokage is allowed to have friends who help him out."

He demonstrates just how much he can help Kakashi out by sticking a hand down Kakashi's pants.

"Why am I so into this," Kakashi says to the ceiling.

 

:::

 

Spring blooms its way into Gai's heart, and his nostrils.

Akane expresses alarm when Gai sneezes five times in a row and nearly knocks over a potted plant with the force of his jutsu. "Maybe you should stay home today," she says, but Gai shakes his head furiously.

"No, a man of the Maito clan never goes back on his word." He blows his nose into the handkerchief she offers him. His eyes are swollen. "This is my duty! Peace and prosperity among all the inhabitants of Konoha. I can't disappoint the gardeners who have come so far to compete in their ultimate championship."

"It's not that far," Akane says. "Most of them just walked a couple of blocks."

"A couple of blocks by feet is a journey of a thousand years by the heart," Gai insists. He dabs at his eyes. "Give me some more of Sakura's allergy medicine. I'll be fine. It takes more than this to defeat Maito Gai."

He cuts a pretty pathetic picture, he's aware, but surprisingly that makes him all the more appealing to the gardeners. "Oh you poor dear guest judge," says an older woman, "you shouldn't have come" — while Yamanaka Sayumi tells him he needs to take better care of himself. They send their children to tag Gai along and help with anything he needs, which mostly ends up being them tripping over Gai's chair, and Gai having to pick them up and put them on his lap.

"Mother says you're the Hokage's partner," little Jiro says. "Does that mean you go on missions with him?"

"Jiro, you idiot, of course Gai-sensei doesn't go on missions," Jiro's brother hisses. "Look at him!"

Gai smiles broadly, though something inside of him clenches, the way it always does. "I can still fight, my young friend. Now I have even more weapons to fight with." He pats his wheelchair.

Seiji looks doubtful. Jiro's even more curious. "What does the Hokage's partner do?"

"An excellent question!" Gai says. "A loyal companion of the Hokage might go to a gardening competition like this one and use his fresh and youthful perspective to judge the winner." A loyal companion might also invite the Hokage to his home every night, cook for him, allow him into his bed, and have sex with him, but that's not for innocent ears to hear. They're both men with certain physical needs, and this is an easy arrangement they've had for years. Kakashi needs someone to fuck, and Gai is convenient, always hanging around with zero probability of one day stabbing him in the dark. That's good enough to get by. Gai won't overstretch himself by asking for more. He already has more of Kakashi than he ever dreamed possible.

"Why don't you help Akane organize the annual sports festival," Kakashi asks one night after they've energetically jounced the bed for a few hours.

"Can't be bothered, hm, rival?" Gai trails his fingers over Kakashi's sweat-slicked skin.

"Akane's been saying that you need a project, something that you stand for, to show goodwill to the village." Kakashi bites Gai's fingers when they wander too close to his face. Gai pretends outrage.

"I always show goodwill to the village." Or was the nearly dying while fighting Madara not good enough.

Kakashi shrugs. "It's a diplomatic thing, don't ask me. Suna and Mist are going to compete too."

"That'll be exciting," Gai says. "Forging continued bonds of friendship and support."

Kakashi looks bored to death, though Gai hopes that's because of their allies and not what Gai is doing with his hand. Though maybe, if he's going to continue representing Kakashi's interests in the community, he ought to be concerned about Kakashi's attitude towards — well, all things. Already people are starting to come to him confessing things they think Kakashi should be slightly more interested in, wondering if he can put in a good word. Just yesterday a man on the street stopped him to rant for fifteen minutes about property bylaws.

Gai relates this tale to Kakashi with great drama and lots of fanatical arm waving, because he knows Kakashi, even when he complains, likes it when Gai tells him stories. Gai used to on long missions, when there was nothing else to do; he would make up things based on books he's read, radio plays he's heard. Genma and Ebisu always got a kick out of it, and Kakashi would pretend not to listen, but Gai could tell he was. Whenever Gai can be more entertaining than Icha Icha, he gives himself a point.

"Do you think he's right about the bylaw?" Kakashi asks when he finishes.

"What — I — that's not why I was telling you—" Gai sputters. He laughs. "I wouldn't know! I hardly understood what he was saying! The green beast of Konoha is clueless about politics."

"Maybe you should take more of an interest," Kakashi says mildly.

"Why?" Gai is baffled. "I know I'm helping you out while you're in your busy season, but this isn't going to be forever." He looks at Kakashi, who stares back at him without giving anything away.

"Ah, so," says Kakashi, "I'm hungry, go make me something to eat."

"So demanding, rival! Are you going to make a bylaw about this too?"

 

:::

 

Gai organizes the annual Konoha sports festival. His face is on the posters stuck around town. My teeth are so white, Gai thinks with great satisfaction. He gives the speech that opens the games, and he awards the medals at the end of each event. Vaguely he has the sense that Kakashi should do this, or at least be up here with him, but Kakashi's off in the tents talking to the dignitaries from Suna and Mist, so obviously he's busy. Gai flashes him a big thumbs up when their eyes meet, and Kakashi gives him a much more lukewarm one in response. It warms Gai's chest.

"Sorry I'm not the Hokage!" he says brightly as he puts the medal around Lee's neck. He's bursting with pride because Lee won the one hundred metre dash in the adult men's division. Truly his determination and persistence were wonderful to see!

On the other side of him, he can hear Tenten say, "Well, you're as good as."

"Tenten!" Gai says, distressed. "Never say that! The Hokage may be my beloved rival, and I may have won 251 challenges over him, but he is the leader of our people and we must always show him respect."

"No," Tenten says, "I mean you're as good as. Ugh." But her comment is endlessly mysterious to Gai, who decides to ignore it.

Equally mysterious is when the dignitary from Mist gives Kakashi a gift — a beautifully wicked kunai made by their finest blacksmiths — and then gives Gai a gift too, a bouquet of rare flowers. Gai immediately sneezes.

A rare beauty for a rare beauty, says the card attached to the flowers. Kakashi won't stop laughing.

"You are not what we expected," the dignitary says apologetically. "When our Mizukage heard that your Hokage had — never mind what we thought. Here, let me take it back. We can find you a more appropriate gift."

"I love flowers," Gai declares, even though he and his sinuses clearly do not. But he's learning more about diplomacy, and it's for Kakashi's sake anyway. Kakashi, the traitor, who's still laughing, long enough to alarm his advisors who have probably never heard the sound before, like that of a single hand clapping.

"Kakashi, I challenge you to stop laughing!" Gai says.

Kakashi does not comply. A reporter sidles up and takes a photo of them that ends up on the front page of the next day's newspaper: Gai with his mouth gaping open like a loose pocket, trying to reassure the increasingly confused Mist dignitary, and Kakashi being a dick. Kakashi gets the photo framed for his office, which Gai objects to, because trust Kakashi to pick the absolute worst photo of him possible — though of course if anyone asks, the power of youth means Gai is always looking his splendid best.

The favours Kakashi ask of him don't stop. Over the next few months Gai gives rousing speeches at three more public events, visits a senior care facility for those without clans to take care of them — Gai's chest clenches again, he who's the last of his clan—, visits a daycare where they bestow upon him their most precious drawings of what he can only assume is him, though it's largely blurs of green and huge monstrous eyebrows. He judges two cooking competitions and does an interview with the paper where they ask him, strangely enough, about his entertaining tips.

"I know a great story about a three-legged dog who travels to the Country of Lightning," Gai offers. "Let me tell it to you, and you can tell it to all your friends."

"What a wonderful story!" Lee informs him after, brimming with tears. "Truly I am blessed to have you as my teacher, Gai-sensei."

"No more than I'm blessed to have you as my student, my beloved Lee!" Gai says, and Kakashi, who's wrapped up work early enough that evening to join them for dinner, skulks off to the bedroom. Gai finds him reading Icha Icha on the bed.

"What's the matter, my rival?" Gai asks, wheeling around the room to pick up stray pieces of clothing; Kakashi is a slob. "Do you want me to tell you the story again? I know that it is just that riveting! The part where the dog finds the beggar's empty bowl—" he chuckles.

Kakashi continues reading Icha Icha. That's alright. Sometimes Kakashi doesn't want to talk, and sometimes Gai talks enough for both of them. Gai continues chattering as he cleans up the room, then he lifts himself out of the chair and joins Kakashi on the bed. He hums as he wriggles himself on top of the covers, trying to get comfortable. His leg aches especially badly today.

Kakashi finishes five more pages of Icha Icha — the cover has a scantily clad woman standing on an ice field, Gai notes, she must be chilly — when he puts it down and says, as if commenting on what they had for dinner, "We lost three jounin on a mission today."

"Kakashi," Gai says, and he means a lot by that. He means our enemies will pay for that and it's not your fault and this is the life we chose. He means my body is a coin for the Hokage to spend. He means, If I could weave my love for you into a cloak, you could wear it and I would always protect you.

He says, "We had a loss. We work harder next time so that it doesn't happen again."

"I know," says Kakashi, and kisses him hard, like a blade, a storm.

 

:::

 

The three jounin died in Iwagakure, both Konoha and Iwagakure are demanding investigations, so Kakashi has to go settle the matter. Gai immediately insists on going with him. "You'll need good shinobi to defend you if this becomes another war," he says, "and no one is better at saving your life than I am. You know this!"

"I have Anbu," Kakashi says, as if speaking to a child. "I have Naruto."

"That's not what I'm talking about," Gai says, and it's true: Obito and Rin are dead, the Fourth as well, and Kakashi's father long gone. There's no one left from their past who can point to Kakashi's weaknesses, the very particular ways he exposes himself to them. People think he's near invincible but Kakashi has so many weaknesses; no one knows this the way Gai knows this.

"Gai," Kakashi says pleasantly, and that tone of voice is automatically infuriating. Gai prepares himself for a fight. "I'm not going to consider it so don't."

Gai, once so fast that even the rain couldn't catch him, and so strong that enemies shook at his name, is suddenly bitter. "What," he says, dropping his voice hard and quiet even though they're in his apartment, there's no one else to hear. He doesn't even sound like himself anymore, like a man he would be proud to be. "You'll let me suck your cock and give your speeches and ribbon-cut at ceremonies for you, but you won't let me guard your back? I expected better of you, Kakashi."

And Kakashi replies, still pleasant, still venomous, "You shouldn't have expected anything," and leaves. He doesn't come say goodbye before he and his team depart Konoha. Gai is silently furious, even as he goes to the hospital the next day because that's a part of his duties now too, visiting the sick and passing on the Hokage's well-wishes. He doesn't mind this duty, it's an important one, he knows all too well.

"Gai-san, are you angry about something?" a sixteen-year-old chuunin asks from her bed.

Gai forces himself to laugh heartily. "Not at all! I'm as full of the springtime of youth as I ever was! You shouldn't be worrying about me, Hisaya." He flicks her on the forehead; he's in his chair with minimal leverage so it only works because she's leaning forward anyway. "You should be concentrating on getting better!"

"I'm not sure—" she sounds scared. "I'm not sure I ever will."

"You will," Gai says firmly. "Are you scared of hard work?"

"N-no?"

"Then you definitely will! With hard work nothing is as scary as it used to be!" He offers her a thumbs up, teeth sparkling. She relaxes a bit.

"Hokage-sama is very lucky to have you," she says.

"He is, isn't he?" Gai says cheerfully. "I knew he would be my most precious person when I was five years old."

"And now you're his consort," Hisaya says dreamily.

Gai freezes. "No, no, gah, it's nothing like that!" he's quick to say, because even when he's upset with Kakashi he doesn't want him to be embarrassed, and it would embarrass him for people to think untrue things about their relationship. "Our bond is one of mutual respect and friendship. When two people know each other very well and are comfortable in each other's company, why, that's the greatest and strongest tie of them all!"

Hisaya, he observes, does not seem convinced.

"Where did you hear that anyway?" Gai asks weakly. Maybe he can stop these rumours at their source.

"Akane," she says.

Oh god, Gai thinks, I am defeated already.

"I heard Akane say if the hospital wants regular visits from the Hokage's consort, they're gonna have to install a ramp out front and fix the elevator," Hisaya says matter-of-factly.

"Good, good, excellent — good," Gai says in a high-pitched strangled voice. He corners Akane later that afternoon in the maternity wing. He has a baby tucked into the crook of each arm; the overwhelmed new parents keep handing him more babies to meet, as if by Gai cooing to them they'll somehow absorb the power of the office of the Hokage, and oh, that's probably exactly what they think, they all think Gai is Kakashi's—

He sets the record straight with Akane. "No more rumours," he says firmly, bouncing a particularly curly-haired baby on his knee. "If Kakashi wants to find a wife one day, that's his decision—" they both know Kakashi won't "—but you're only confusing people when you tell them that I'm — we're not — you dishonour him," he finishes lamely.

"I dishonour him?" Akane asks, eyebrows raised to sharp devilish points. "How?"

"Please, Akane," Gai says, and blows a raspberry on the baby's belly, on the soft skin. "You're a shinobi. You will know. Whatever's within closest reach. Now think fast — and catch!"

"Gai-san," she says sternly, some minutes later, "please don't throw people's babies through the air."

"But you were always going to catch him," Gai says. "There was never any chance of — what, no? oh, all right."

 

:::

 

At a wedding between a daughter of the Inuzuka clan and a civilian — a son of a local carpenter —, they ask Gai to make a toast. "It would mean a great deal to us," the father says, and Gai's fairly certain this very man once leaned out of a window and yelled at him to shut up, he's an embarrassment to his flak jacket, but Gai grins and says yes, he'd love to.

It's not such a bad life, he thinks. To have survived. To retire, yes, to be less than he used to be, to be changed and in a way, not changed at all — still be able to have this. Sitting among happy drunk Inuzukas and their dogs, singing along to bawdy songs around the campfire after the ceremony. The bride and groom haven't let go of each other's hands once, and Gai keeps rolling up to them and telling them how marvelously glad he is, what beautiful children they'll have. Many fat babies! he suspects he bellows at the top of his lungs, but no one scowls at him tonight, because everybody's in a good mood and also because they think he's shacked up with their Hokage.

At one point, the matriarch of the clan beckons Gai over. "I want to give these to you," she says, and they're a pair of earrings, golden in the shape of wolfhounds. "My great-grandfather made these for the first Hokage's wife."

There are a lot of questions Gai could ask, namely is this because you think I'll look good in these earrings and wait, why are these in your possession again, have you been pilfering from the Hokage's residence, but he's too drunk to care, so he nods, takes the earrings, and thanks her profusely.

Kakashi has been gone for three weeks.

Kakashi is sitting beside him right now.

Gai doesn't even blink when he turns around to find Kakashi perched on a log, he's so used to it.

"Hey," Kakashi says. He smells like wet sheep.

"Back from your trip?" Gai asks.

"No, they got me in the throat and I'm a ghost sent to haunt you," Kakashi says, and maybe not everybody would appreciate Kakashi's off-colour humour, but it makes Gai smile. Anger slips away from him like honey; he's missed him.

"Hello ghost-Kakashi," Gai says. "Welcome to the party. Want some sake? No, sorry, I drank it all." He sways towards Kakashi, and Kakashi lets him. "Had to keep Lee from it," he whispers loudly. "Shhh, don't tell anyone! A good teacher does what he must. He's a father now! He has to set an example for little Metal!" He makes himself sit up straight in his chair, eyes bright. "So! Are we at war with Earth Country then?"

"Probably not," says Kakashi.

"You seem uncertain."

"Who can say anything for certain?" Kakashi muses.

"Wanna—" Gai teeters. "Wanna go look at Inuzuka dogs? There's some new puppies."

"Yeah," says Kakashi. Gai's hands are sweaty as they grasp the wheels on his chair and start pumping. They go over to the other side of the field where a handful of sloshed Inuzuka cousins make laughable attempts to hide their moonshine and proceed to trip over themselves trying to shove puppies into their arms. Hokage-sama, they keep saying, and Gai-sama, and Gai's horribly uncomfortable with all of the fuss, of course, but Kakashi is as collected as ever. Gai watches Kakashi crawl in the dirt and play with a puppy with rust-coloured floppy ears, speaking to it softly, and Gai thinks, Not a bad life, then. He and Kakashi will always fight, and be cruel to each other, and wound where they know the blow will be felt the deepest.

"Come on then, Gai, what are you gonna do, stare at me all night?" Kakashi says.

"Maybe," Gai replies without thinking.

"Ohhhhh," is the chorus of all three Inuzuka cousins, who are drunk enough to barely remember their own names, but not drunk enough not to eavesdrop.

"You're a freak," Kakashi says. "Here, quick — catch!" and Gai's tipsy, that's his excuse, when the puppy hits him in the face.

"Gotten slow," Kakashi drawls. Gai gently sets the puppy on the ground where it scampers off merrily to join its brothers and sisters.

"Are you challenging me, my eternal rival, in front of all these witnesses?" Gai demands. He taps his chest. "Go ahead, name me any challenge you choose. If I lose, I promise I will do fifty laps on my hands around the entire village — no, sixty!" And probably it's just the sake, but even as he speaks he can see a flicker in his vision, like they've been here before, this exact moment, and they have, maybe even in this same field: they're five years old, ten years old, sixteen, twenty, twenty-four, thirty-one, they're then and now, Kakashi and Gai, Gai and Kakashi.

Later, after Gai wins three challenges and Kakashi four, Gai reels Kakashi down so they're of a height and presses a sloppy kiss to the side of Kakashi's mask. He's too drunk to be afraid of what Kakashi might think. "I'll keep asking," he promises. "Every time. I want to go with you. Fight for you."

"I'll keep saying no," Kakashi says quietly.

"I know," Gai says. "But I'll ask anyway."

 

:::

 

There's peace in Konoha. They're arguing about Kakashi's hair products.

"I have an entire cabinet for you!" Gai says somewhat desperately. "Look, you can put them in the cabinet and that way they don't have to be all over the bathroom counter." He's genuinely worried the counter will crack underneath the weight.

Kakashi, from the bedroom, does nothing but grunt.

The wastefulness of it scandalizes Gai. "Rival! You have a day off for once, and all you've done is sleep and eat. How are you ever supposed to defeat me if you keep this up? You're not even training properly anymore!" He wheels into the bedroom and pokes Kakashi in the thigh. Kakashi gives him a murderous look from behind his disheveled hair — he really does need all of that product, Gai thinks faintly, in order not to scare the children.

"A walk," wheedles Gai. "A nice walk around the neighbourhood."

"It's hot," Kakashi says bluntly.

"Not anymore, look it's evening," Gai gestures. "I need to buy some kombu for tomorrow's broth. Come with me."

They head in the direction of Hokage Rock, Gai or more less tying Kakashi's sleeve to his chair to keep him trotting along. "Ugh," says Kakashi, looking up at his own face carved in the stone.

"I can see it from my kitchen window too. It's like no matter where I go there's your giant face silently judging me," Gai says happily.

"That sounds really perverted, Gai. I can't believe that gets you off." Kakashi has his hands in his pockets, locked in a permanent slouch. It was impossibly cool when they were teenagers. Now, on a thirtysomething man, it makes Kakashi look like he needs a chiropractor.

"What? No! Rival, you wound me! You know my soul is as pure as first snow!"

Kakashi tugs at his collar absently, and Gai has to bite his tongue between his teeth, because he knows there's a mark under there, and that's no fair of Kakashi to remind him of it. "Kombu," Gai says loudly. "We have a mission to complete and if we don't buy everything on our shopping list in the next half hour, we shall both do one hundred pushups!"

"How about you do the pushups," Kakashi suggests, "and I'll sit on your back."

"An extra challenge?" Gai cries. "I accept!"

They're drawing a crowd. "Gai-sama," Nakao-san says, touching his sleeve. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but could you come by and see us soon? My husband would like to ask you advice about our son. I worry he's falling behind in the Academy." Next to her is Hironoka-san, who says, "Gai-sama, my cousin is coming from Suna next week. I haven't seen him in years. What do you think would be an appropriate welcome gift?" And then there's Sumida-san, who says, "My sister is having her first child soon and would be honoured if you could visit."

Akimichi-san, in her yellow apron, finds them in the grocery store, and leans over Kakashi puzzling over a bag of oranges. "Gai-sama," she says warmly, "come for dinner tomorrow. Hokage-sama is invited too, of course, if his schedule isn't too busy."

"Naturally!" Gai says. "We would be honoured. Kakashi—" no response, so he has to elbow him. "Kakashi, dinner tomorrow. Can you come?"

"Don't know." Kakashi squints at some eggplants.

Akimichi-san bows. "Is there anything in particular the two of you would like me to prepare? What are your favourite dishes?"

Gai opens his mouth to give his answer — curry, curry, and more curry — but Kakashi beats him to it. "Mm, don't really care," he says. "You'll have to ask my husband." Then he wanders away, towards the green onions, while Gai gawks after him.

They pick up kombu at the store. They buy eggs, and beef cheeks, and a big head of cabbage. Kakashi wanders ahead of Gai the entire time, and when Gai brings his basket up to pay, he sees Kakashi waiting outside with Icha Icha. A flicker of shadow in the distance means Anbu. Kakashi looks up, and then looks down again. His one visible eye closes wryly.

They go back to Gai's apartment. Gai doesn't even remember the last night Kakashi spent in town that wasn't here. They take off their shoes after getting in the door. Gai unpacks the groceries and puts them away. Kakashi goes to the bathroom and runs a bath. Gai finds him in front of the sink, mask pulled down, poking and prodding at his own face in the mirror as if he thinks he'll find some answer there. The water in the tub is still running. Gai makes sure to turn it off before it can overflow. He navigates the bathroom with his crutches; there's not room enough for both of them and his wheelchair.

"What if I grew a beard?" Kakashi says. "Big enough to cover everything."

"I think it'd be very expensive for them to carve a new beard into Hokage Rock," Gai says seriously. "Citizens would be concerned about use of public funds. Better keep everything the way it is."

"Ha, good point."

Gai lowers himself onto the edge of the tub and tucks his crutches to the side. Pain sparks through the nerves of his ruined leg, but that's not anything new; he will live with it every day of his life. He thinks of his father. He thinks of the eighth gate opening. He thinks of Lee getting up again. He thinks of Neji. "Am I really," he says.

"What?" Kakashi seems distracted. It's not convincing.

"What you told Akimichi-san." It doesn't matter what Kakashi says, what he wants or doesn't want. Gai's already made his decision. He made it long ago.

Kakashi turns to him. He lets out a breath. He takes Gai's hand, lifts it to his mouth, and kisses each one of Gai's knuckles, and then proceeds to look awkwardly embarrassed by the whole thing. And oh, Gai thinks, maybe he was wrong this entire time, and after that indignant speech he gave to Akane too. He'll have to apologize to her.

For now, he can't stop smiling.

"I swear to god, Gai, if you cry about this—"

There's things Kakashi will never understand, including the virtue of righteous tears from an honourable man, which is a deep, deep flaw in his fundamental character, so Gai will have to berate him about this, later. He has other things to do right now.

 

:::

 

Someone takes a photo. It ends up on the front page of the newspaper the next day. HOKAGE OUT SHOPPING WITH FAMILY, GLARES AT EGGPLANT; LOCAL EGGPLANT FARMERS IN SHOCK.

"This is all your fault," Kakashi says.