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Leaves me breathless

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Gai wakes to the feeling of something cold on his forehead, something soft beneath his skull. There's a bone-deep ache within him, muscles singing out in protest at their careless treatment, and an empty sort of gnawing at his belly. He takes a breath and tastes darkness, the cool and oddly green scent of Konoha at night, and then gathers himself to move. One elbow dragged up underneath him, then the other, ponderous and far more difficult than each movement should be. His body complains, but Gai stubbornly shuts it out, getting his arms under him and pushing his upper body more or less upright.

“Hey,” a soft voice says, and a hand moves into his line of vision, catching the wet cloth as it drops from his brow. Gai blinks for a moment, trying to get his eyes to focus, and looks up into the face of his new genin teammate. Brown eyes stare back, assessing and a little careful beneath a fringe of reddish-brown hair. Shiranui Genma looks…different, with his ever-present bandana off, his voluminous jacket relocated beneath Gai's head. Gai hasn’t spoken much to him beyond the mandatory team introduction, and even then Genma mostly kept his peace beyond his name.

Gai knows very well how others see him, is used to dismissive derision or pained tolerance in those he meets, but Genma had given him neither reaction. Just a glance, easy acknowledgement with all judgement withheld, and not an ounce more.

Maybe that should hurt, but compared to what Gai is used to it mostly ends up being simply baffling.

“My youthful teammate!” he says in surprise, and almost wants to wince. Too much enthusiasm has been proven not to win him any friends.

Thankfully, Genma just laughs, bright and surprised, as though he didn’t mean to but Gai startled it out of him nevertheless. “I suppose I am,” he answers, lips twitching into a grin that’s lopsided due to genetics more than any sort of wry humor, though from what Gai has seen Genma has the latter in spades as well. “You okay? You were pretty heavily unconscious when I found you.”

The sky is dark, like Gai had thought it would be. The last thing he remembers is a particularly punishing taijutsu sequence, body aching beneath the heat of the noon sun as he pushed himself back to his feet for one more try, just one more. One more for the hundredth time, until he finally got it right and could stop being a complete failure

“I'm fine!” he says brightly, trying not to grimace as he pushes up a little more. “Thank you for your concern, my youthful teammate, but I simply got tired and decided to lie down for a while!”

A hand catches his shoulder and another catches his elbow, helping to pull him all the way to his feet. Gai wavers there for a moment, rediscovering his balance, but Genma doesn’t let go.

“Right,” the older boy says, as mild as milk, and clicks his senbon against his teeth. “Because I always collapse face-down in a heap with my weights on when I want a nap, too.”

That’s not an exasperated acceptance of one quirk too many, even in a fellow shinobi. It’s not even the fond tolerance his father gives him in the face of a cheerful half-truth. Genma is…calling him on his words. Gai can't remember the last time someone did that. The last time a peer cared enough to do that.

Startled, Gai glances up at him, and Genma shrugs a little. “I could have been a medic-nin,” he offers, smile turning self-depreciating. “Thought about it, but—I'm not suited. Still, I can tell the difference between sleeping and unconscious.”

There's only honesty in his eyes, clear concern and a faint bit of awkwardness, a touch of caution that Gai can understand. Even though they’ve been a team for a week now, this is the first time he’s seen Genma reach out. The other boy is always friendly, but Gai isn’t blind enough to confuse that with openness. When Choza-sensei asked them to state their dreams, Genma's answer was simply a shrug and a carefully careless Not sure yet, but I’ll figure it out.

But here and now, Genma is reaching out. And Gai, of all people, is the one he’s reaching to.

“Thank you, Genma-kun,” he says, because there's really no other response he can muster at the moment. And perhaps it’s not the appropriate response to such wary worry, to a boy who isn’t quite a friend even if the possibility is there, but it’s heartfelt, and Gai can't grasp anything more suitable. He’s never been overly good with words.

But then it doesn’t matter, because something flickers in warm brown, spreads out over Genma's face, and his smile is breathtaking, charming. Genma laughs, quiet and warm, and reaches out. He slings an arm around Gai's shoulders, no longer just for support, and tugs him forward.

“Come on,” he says cheerfully. “You definitely won't stay youthful if you keep passing out without eating. Teuchi’s place makes pretty good ramen. My treat?”

Gai can't remember the last time someone besides his father actually wanted to eat with him. Can't think of a time when anyone volunteered to do so without him suggesting it first. He’s always been a little too weird, a little too off-putting, but—

But Genma catches his eye, still smiling that sweetly crooked smile, affection on his face and good humor in his eyes, and Gai knows with a glance that it isn’t a front. This is genuine, and it warms him from crown to toes to see it so clearly.

“Of course!” he manages after a startled moment. “What a perfect expedition to undertake in the springtime of our youth! Let us eat together and nurture the sacred bonds of friendship!”

Genma laughs, and the arm around his shoulders squeezes gently for just a moment. “Sure,” he says, not like he’s just humoring Gai—far closer to amused agreement. “I could always do with some more friends. And I think you're going to be a good one.”

No one’s ever said that about Gai before, either.

(Maybe that’s the moment it starts, Gai thinks later. Cool twilight, the stars just coming out above them, streetlamps shading gold and yellow over them as they make their way back into the village. Soft brown hair beneath his fingertips, like raw earth-toned silk, a genuine smile that doesn’t falter no matter how much of himself Gai shows. A meal, a friend, a moment of care where he hadn’t expected any—

Yes, Gai thinks. That’s definitely when it started.)

 

 

A firm hand on his shoulder, a gentle shake. The warmth of sunlight on his skin, when the last thing he remembers is stretching out in the cool evening breeze to rest for just a moment. A voice, soft and affectionate and so warm, to go with that fond touch against his arm.

“Hey. Come on, you big goofball, wake up. You're going to get a crick in your neck sleeping here, and then the medics will laugh at you.”

Gai blinks his eyes open, a face coming into focus above him. Brown hair swinging forward, stray strands clinging to one corner of a crooked smile. Brown eyes two shades darker than his hair, flecked with sparks of green and gold that bring them to life and give them a familiar warmth, crinkled at the edges with near-permanent good humor. Tanned skin, scarred from a shinobi’s life, over long, graceful limbs and deft, deadly fingers that have never faltered in their craft.

(Many, many times before, Gai has been accused to effusiveness, of using needlessly flowery words when simple ones will do, and perhaps that’s true. But either way, he thinks Genma deserves every lavish word or description he can bring to mind, and then some.)

“Hey.” The eyes crinkle a little further, the smile deepening with amusement and fondness in equal measure. “Morning, sleeping beauty. Back with us?”

“Genma.” Gai blinks once more, then sits up. He’s in the training grounds again, stretched out on a patch of particularly soft grass, with the dawn casting long shadows around them. Genma is on his knees next to him, dressed for sparring, a bento box behind him. It’s become a ritual over the past few years, their early-morning training and Genma's gift of a homemade lunch even when Gai insists he needn’t go to the trouble. Gai knows that Genma only returned from a mission late last night, and had expected his friend to skip their workout. That he hasn’t sets off something like a warm-hot sunburst in Gai's stomach, and he beams. “Genma! You’ve returned!”

Genma laughs, and as always it sends a thrill of joy through Gai to hear it, to know that besides Genma's four adopted children, he’s the one who can most easily inspire such a sound. “In one piece, too,” the older man agrees warmly. “Thanks for keeping an eye on the brats for me while I was gone. I heard you had to bail Kotetsu and Iruka out on that mission to the capital. Appreciate it.”

“It was my honor to support those you love!” Gai assures him. “They are very good shinobi, full of youthful vigor! Even without my help, I believe they would have managed to complete their mission and return triumphant!”

“Sure,” Genma agrees, smile turning just a bit more crooked. “Still, it helps to know you were there.” There's a brief pause, and then he arches a brow. “Now, I thought we talked about the fact that you’ve got a perfectly nice apartment to crash in. You’ll get sick if you keep sleeping outside. It’s almost winter, Gai.”

Gai flushes a little, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck and giving Genma his most sheepish smile. “Truly, my friend, it wasn’t my intention to fall asleep here, and certainly not my intention to cause you worry! I lay down to rest my eyes for a moment, but my training must have tired me more than I expected.”

“Hmm.” Genma eyes him critically for a moment, then nods and rises smoothly to his feet. “I’ll bet you forgot to eat dinner, too. Come on, we’re getting breakfast before we do any sort of training. I won't have you passing out on me like you used to.”

Gai thinks about protesting, about reminding Genma that he isn’t a tiny, insecure eleven-year-old anymore, forever pushing himself past his limits, but—

But Genma remembers the very instance Gai was just dreaming of. But Genma still thinks of it, that first time they took a step towards friendship and out of their wary distance. Their first meal shared, the first time Gai saw something behind the cheerful persona Genma always presents. Not a mask, not quite—too genuine for that, too close to his actual nature, but…a wall. A shield, to protect himself and keep others at a safe distance. His mother’s death, his father’s, Minato's—they all touched him with loss, showed him what it was like to lose someone so dear, so close. Genma learns from pain, and he learned those lessons well.

“I am certain you will always take good care of me, my friend,” Gai says cheerfully, and takes the hand Genma offers him. He closes his fingers around Genma's, feels the calluses and lean strength as Genma pulls him to his feet. And if he lets his hand linger for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary…well.

Gai has never been entirely normal anyway, and Genma just smiles the way he always does.

“Always,” Genma says warmly, dropping an arm over Gai's shoulders the way he does so easily, so often. He squeezes just a little, then leans in and gently taps their temples together. “Thanks,” he murmurs again. “Wouldn’t trust a lot of people to look after my brats, Gai, but you're at the top of the list. I can't wait until the Hokage gives you a genin team—you’ll be the best jounin instructor ever, I bet.”

Genma is likely the only person who would believe so, Gai thinks, more fond than anything else. He considers it for a moment, even as he breathes in the pine-and-earth scent that always clings to Genma's skin. For Genma, his four boys are everything. They are his center and his drive and his heart and his soul. They push him forward, ground him, keep him steady and sane. As an ANBU, an assassin, a shinobi who constantly walks the darkest paths in their world, Genma needs that, and Gai knows he, Ebisu, and Choza, despite their close ties, aren’t quite close enough.

But Genma is the first to offer Naruto a home, and has therefore become Naruto's home. He’s the balm to Iruka's emotional wounds, the bravery that Izumo has but needs a push to show. He’s Kotetsu's anchor, and the center of gravity all four boys rotate around. They look up to him, love him, and he brings out the best parts in each of them.

Gai wonders, a little wistfully, just how amazing it would feel, to be that for three small children dreaming of becoming shinobi.

“I—do you really think so?” he asks, and even though it doesn’t happen often, he falters. Falters like the little boy he used to be, the child who was never good enough at anything and always took second-best.

But that little boy reached out, took the strong, callused hand that was offered to him, and pulled himself to his feet. Surely, surely, Gai as he is now can do no less.

And Genma smiles at him, as if reading that thought. He leans up across the three-inch difference in their heights, and for a brief moment Gai is utterly confused. Then, for a second time, soft, slightly chapped lips brush his forehead in a gesture that is half comfort and half reassurance, and Gai's stomach leaps into an acrobatic flip and leaves him utterly breathless. It’s nothing much, just an instant of heat and pressure, but—

But the only other people Genma offers such a gesture to are his children, and surely that means something.

(Surely that means everything.)

(Surely that means he has a chance.)

“Yeah,” Genma says, and his voice is gentle but also fierce, in the way it always gets when he’s planted his heels, made up his mind, and won't be swayed. “Gai, I remember how hard you used to push yourself, how much you did for Ebisu and me whenever we floundered. When you get a genin team, you’ll be fantastic. There is no one in Konoha more inspiring than you.”

Gai meets those warm brown eyes, flecks of gold and green hiding the pure unbending steel that is Genma's core, and smiles.

“Yes!” he laughs, and wraps an arm around Genma's shoulders in return. “I will show them the true meaning of youth, and the vitality required of a Konoha shinobi! Perhaps my Eternal Rival will also take on the responsibility of a team, and it can be one of our challenges, to see who produces the best shinobi!”

Genma snorts, but resumes leading him in the direction of the village. “Kakashi, with a genin team? Poor little bastards. I think you’d win that one hands-down, Gai.”

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Genma, Gai thinks warmly, is his faith. He has such unwavering belief in the abilities of those around him, in their strengths and virtues and skills, that he makes everyone want to live up to what he thinks of them.

It’s quiet, but steady, just like Genma himself, and Gai loves him all the more for it.

“With your faith in me, my friend, I surely would,” Gai agrees, and wonders when Genma will finally realize just what he means when he says such things.

Genma smiles back at him, crooked and kind, and there's an impossible warmth to his beautiful eyes.

(Somehow, Gai doesn’t think he has long to wait at all.)