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New Year's and Forever

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Kakashi’s alarm went off at 8 a.m. Usually, he would hit snooze and sleep for another hour or two, and wake up to the bustling sounds of Gai beginning to cook them breakfast, but today was different.

He climbed out of bed and stumbled to the window; their short lawn was entirely free of snow, but it was still freezing inside the house. Kakashi wrapped himself tightly in his bath robe and stepped into his single pair of house slippers; brown and black and shaped like small dogs, they were one of his favorite presents that Gai had ever given him. He chose not to put his mask on, and would not do so unless they decided to go out later that day.

The house was messy—it was his week to clean—but he found yesterday’s newspaper on the living room couch without any trouble, and checked the weather once more, ensuring that it really wasn’t supposed to snow today. He hoped that Gai was taking care of himself out in the cold; his foot ached especially badly when the weather began to grow chilly, but neither injury, nor inclement weather, nor old age would stop Gai from completing his morning workout routine. So, he rose faithfully from their bed every morning at 4 a.m., and wheeled to the center of Konoha all the way from their small house on the outskirts of the village. He would exercise for several hours and return home just as Kakashi was rising, and together they would proceed to cook breakfast. So it had been, each day pleasant, each day peaceful, in the ten years since Kakashi’s final day as Hokage.

Except of course, for January 1st, which was distinguished each year. Circular in effect, Gai’s birthday had always been a familiar point of return for them, and occasionally marked the beginning of progress; it was a tradition that began by chance, but now each year Kakashi set out to make it special.

Today was no different, and he would begin by making Gai an enormous breakfast, with stacks of pancakes, waffles, and toast, as well as large piles of sausage, bacon, and eggs. They went through eggs faster than anyone else he knew; Gai ate at least six of them every morning. He used to crack them open and swallow them raw, but Kakashi complained endlessly about this practice and eventually volunteered to cook the eggs himself. Rather late in his life, Gai was introduced to the rich taste of a fluffy omelet, and now he loved them, always covered in cheese and stuffed with vegetables.

The omelets should be made last, though, so that they didn’t grow cold before Gai returned home, but Kakashi would prepare the ingredients now; he set the eggs to the side and began to chop peppers, then mushrooms, and then onions. He remembered Gai, eight years old and stubborn, sniffling as he chopped onions, his eyebrows set firmly in determination. Kakashi smiled, because that was Gai’s first birthday that they had celebrated together, albeit accidentally, and in the difficult years following it, while his own denial had grown stronger and his will had become weaker, Gai’s limitless patience had blessedly stayed the same.

****

As far as cooking went, Kakashi had experienced a bit of a learning curve after his father had died; he recalled with great detail the slime of undercooked fish and sour taste of spoiled milk. For several months, he faced the hunger, fatigue, and illness that came with eating a steady diet of instant ramen and rice. Although these troubles placed a heavy strain on him, he never would have dreamed of voicing them. At the time, he hadn’t necessarily understood that there was anything wrong with his situation, and accepted it as a trial of life; plenty of children in Konoha lost their parents at early ages, and many, he assumed, also struggled to provide for themselves.

This had been early in the days of their rivalship, before Kakashi had acknowledged Gai, and when Gai was especially prone to leaping out at him from behind corners and bushes, demanding a duel. It was a habit he never entirely lost, but one that had certainly declined over the years.

He had been watching the house when Kakashi, who had staunchly avoided the stove since his father died, caught the kitchen curtains on fire trying to cook donburi. He should have realized then, that if there had been any indication that Gai would grow to be worryingly strong as an adult, it had been his ability, at barely eight years old, to bust down a locked wooden door once he’d seen the flames and smoke through the window.

Kakashi remembered very little of it, not the heat of the flames, or the bitter smell of smoke, or even Gai dramatically breaking in to help him. He knew that together they had filled a large bucket with water and tossed it onto the flames, but once he grew into adulthood, Kakashi was only able to picture the black, charred curtains that hung afterwards.

He had stared at the wreckage for just a moment, and then immediately began to clean up; the kitchen was covered with water, and the donburi was now several ugly black lumps, stuck to the bottom of the pan. He returned the few ingredients he had set out to the fridge, and then began to work on the pan; he stood on a small stool in front of the sink, scrubbing it vigorously.

Gai stood silently in the background as Kakashi worked. He had gazed anxiously into the empty fridge, and looked from the hollow cabinets to the bare countertops. Finally, he looked at Kakashi himself.

“Rival...are you not eating well?” Gai’s voice was low, but his question hung uncomfortably in the still air.

Kakashi did not turn away from the sink.

“Go away, Gai.”

Gai stepped towards him, “But you can’t fully enjoy the passion of our youth if you’re not health-”

“I said go!” Kakashi spun around and threw the sponge at him, “I’m not going to fight you today, so leave.”

The sponge hit Gai on the forehead and bounced away, leaving a small wet mark. Gai rubbed it away, and Kakashi turned back to his dishes, now rinsing the pots over and over since he no longer had his sponge.

Gai watched him for a few moments longer, and then turned back. He had issues closing the door, which, due to his intrusion, no longer fit properly in its hinges.

Kakashi looked back at him, “Just leave it.”

Gai stammered several quick apologies before he finally left, closing the door as best he could.

Many hours later, after Kakashi had finished fixing the damage done to his home, there was a short knock on the newly refitted door.

Sitting on the front porch and wrapped in a small cloth was a wooden bento box. Kakashi opened it slowly and was greeted with the enticing aroma of golden dumplings, rice, and a stir fry of vegetables and beef. He replaced the lid and glanced around; the sun had gone down, but he could see a shuffling in the bushes across the street. He stood up and immediately went back inside, closing the door rather loudly, and leaving the bento box behind. He waited until he knew that Gai was no longer watching his house, and to Gai’s credit, it took several hours. Eventually however, Gai rose from behind the bushes where he had been squatting, and walked home dejectedly, not even attempting to hide the weight of his footsteps.

Kakashi immediately returned to the door and, checking that the street was empty, quickly brought the bento inside. He did not doubt that Gai had told his father; because the shinobi mortality rate did not spare kunoichi, and many fathers were left to care for their children alone—both Kakashi’s and Gai’s fathers being examples of that fact—it made sense that housekeeping skills were not only limited to women, so most of the men in Konoha were at least somewhat adept at cooking, and Dai Maito was no different. The bento had grown cold, but Kakashi thought it was delicious.

It was not until he had eaten all of it, scraping the sides clean in search of more food, that he realized he had a problem; while keeping the bento box was entirely out of the question, he could not think of anything worse than returning it to Gai in person tomorrow at the Academy.

This dilemma kept him up all night, but the next day Gai didn’t mention the bento and only approached him to request a duel, which Kakashi, feeling indebted, decided to humor, defeating him in three moves.

That evening, there was another short knock on the door; on his porch sat a fresh bento, this time containing sweet and sour chicken. Kakashi went back inside, and then returned to the door a moment later. Hesitating, he swapped the previous day’s bento, which he had washed, with the new one. When he returned to the door ten minutes later, it had vanished.

The bentos appeared and disappeared in a steady rhythm, and Gai never once felt the need to broach the subject to him. Kakashi appreciated the Maitos’ generosity, but he felt embarrassed and did not want the process to go on any longer than necessary. He could not allow the free bentos to become a permanent fixture in his life; while it was not an immediate concern, once he grew into adulthood he would certainly need to be able to cook for himself, so Kakashi practiced cooking in his free time, accepting the bentos until he felt capable enough to sustain himself.

One day, many months later, he returned the bento box not empty, but filled with tonkatsu and rice balls; a gesture of thanks, but also a small demonstration that their help, while appreciated, was no longer needed.

After that, their lives proceeded quite normally; Kakashi cooked healthy and well-balanced meals for himself, and Gai continued to request duels, which Kakashi accepted at an ever-increasing frequency. His life became almost—though Kakashi was suspicious of the concept—peaceful.

Later that same year, Dai Maito opened the eighth gate.

After the news initially broke, after the obligatory sympathy from the village had been given, and after the day of the funeral, Kakashi began to worry, quite frantically in fact, about Gai’s ability to feed himself. This worry was further fueled by his own memories of the experience, but he had no idea how to ask if Gai was alright, as he was entirely inexperienced when it came to displaying friendly concern.

Many weeks passed, and the weather grew cold. Gai displayed no outward signs of malnutrition, but even those could be deceiving. Kakashi did not find the opportunity to verify the quality of Gai’s eating habits until one crisp winter evening, when he encountered Gai struggling to pay at a grocery store.

Kakashi eavesdropped from several feet away; Gai was flustered, and babbling to the cashier—he had forgotten his wallet at home. To most, this would appear to be an ill-covered lie, but Kakashi knew Gai, and knew that he always told the truth. The cashier tapped his fingers on the counter in annoyance, and Gai searched through his pockets for money that did not exist. Kakashi glanced at the counter; Gai was trying to buy a single sack of potatoes.

Kakashi finally approached them, startling Gai. “Here,” he handed several small bills to the cashier, as well as his shopping basket, which was empty.

“R-Rival!” Gai stammered, “I-I appreciate your help, but it’s really not necessary, I can run home and-”

The cashier handed Kakashi his change, and Kakashi pushed the sack of potatoes into Gai’s arms.

“Just take the potatoes.”

Gai followed him out of the store.

“I can bring you the money tomorrow at the Academy, or if you would accompany me home I could repay you immediat-”

“Why do you need that many potatoes?” Kakashi asked suddenly, hoping to distract him.

Gai’s face lit up, “I’m making big dinner tonight, a hot pot! Why don’t you come with me? Since you didn’t buy anything yourself, and to say thank you, I can make us dinner!”

Kakashi hesitated for just a moment, “Okay.”

Gai did a rather dramatic double take, “Wait really?”

Kakashi shrugged and looked away. They were quiet the rest of the way to Gai’s house, their path lit by the setting sun.

He had never been inside Gai’s house before, but it didn’t matter much, because it was largely impersonal; it was very orderly, and the only thing that gave the house some form of unique flare was the set of workout equipment in the corner of the living room.

The kitchen was already laid out with a large number of ingredients—six different types of vegetables—and it appeared that Gai had stopped working rather abruptly, halfway through the task of chopping onions, to go and buy the potatoes.

This all indicated a large amount of culinary skill, greater that Kakashi’s, in fact, and he felt quite relieved.

Gai walked into the kitchen and stopped in front of the cutting board that bore the half-chopped onion. He picked up the large knife and, swinging his arm in a wide arc, brandished it at him; Kakashi stiffened, his reflexes responding automatically to the sudden threat, but Gai simply grinned at him.

“Rival! I challenge you to a competition to see who can chop the most onions without crying!”

Kakashi’s muscles relaxed, and he stood normally once more, annoyed at his overreaction.

“No.”

Gai’s face fell, “Why not?”

“Because that’s ridiculous.”

Gai promptly put down the knife and took up a defensive stance, “Then fight me!”

“No.” Kakashi walked into the kitchen and, eyeing the remaining ingredients, picked up a green pepper, “I will chop this.”

Gai beamed, “Excellent, Rival! A competition to see who can chop their vegetable the fastest, an excellent test of agility!” He turned his back to Kakashi and picked up his knife again, beginning to chop at a worryingly high speed.

Kakashi was dumbstruck, “Gai, no—I just meant I’d help.” Gai didn’t answer him, wholly absorbed in his chopping, “But I’m not participating.

He sighed as his protests fell on deaf ears once more. Kakashi began to cut his green pepper at a responsible, measured pace, listening to the frantic, hollow sound of Gai’s knife hitting the chopping board. The rhythm was suddenly cut short, followed by a sharp inhale, and then silence.

Looking up, he saw Gai’s index finger, smeared with blood.

“Ow…”

Kakashi sighed and took Gai by the wrist, leading him over to the sink. “That’s why I didn't want to have a chopping contest.” He made sure the water was running cold, and then stuck Gai’s finger under the stream, “Where do you keep bandages?”

The cut was rather deep, and it took a while to stop the bleeding. Kakashi used an excessive amount of gauze, so that once he had finished, the end of Gai’s finger looked comically large and bulbous.

With Gai finally patched up, Kakashi looked over the ingredients that still needed to be skinned and cut; there weren’t many, just his own green peppers and the newly-bought potatoes.

“I’ll cut up the rest of this stuff,” he said, picking up the knife, “why don’t you start heating the stove?”

This was a good system for them, considering Gai’s injury and Kakashi’s residual dislike for cooking on the stove since the fire.

Kakashi handled the preparations well, but left the actual cooking part to Gai, as the hot pot was certainly outside his own culinary depth, and he had no idea what order the ingredients should be added, or in what amounts. He watched, somewhat in awe, as Gai meticulously added salmon, radishes, carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, the offending onion, and the potatoes to the deep-bronze broth.

It smelled incredible, and when Kakashi was finally permitted to take his first tentative taste, he felt wholly convinced that Gai was in no way suffering from unhealthy eating habits.

“It’s delicious,” he said, “really, well done Gai.”

“I’m so glad you think so, Rival!” Gai grinned and leaned towards him, “Then I challenge you to an eating contest!”

Because they had cooked their food in a pot on the stove, instead of in a more traditional stone hot pot bowl—Gai said he didn’t have one—the contest required a great deal of sprinting back and forth from the table to the kitchen. This process became increasingly difficult the more they ate, and they eventually settled with standing in the kitchen, eating hurriedly over the stove and spilling large amounts of broth on the floor and countertop.

It was the first of their many competitions that would end in a draw; not because they couldn’t eat anymore, but because they ran out of food, having eaten seven bowls each.

It had grown very dark by the time they finished, and the temperature had dropped considerably.

Both his hands resting on his stomach, Gai waddled over the window and peered out.

“Rival, it’s snowing!” He turned back to Kakashi, “Why don’t you stay the night? That way you won’t have to walk home in the snow.”

Kakashi stood up and started to gather his things, “But I’ll have to walk through it in the morning.”

“But it’ll be warmer by then,” Gai insisted, blocking his way to the door, “it wouldn’t be good if you got sick.”

Kakashi was rather adamant about leaving. He had enjoyed the evening, but he felt a little too comfortable, too warm and content, and now hazily full on top of that; it was a state of relaxation that always worried him, and a freezing trek through the snow was just the thing to re-stimulate his senses.

But then he looked at Gai, and his fortitude left him. There was something in Gai’s face, something extra, which made him stay; Gai was always earnest, always eager, but this went beyond enthusiasm and felt closer to need.

Kakashi put down his things rather roughly and held up a finger, “Just this once.”

Gai jumped victoriously into the air, “Excellent, Rival! I will go make up your bed space.”

He hurried off, and Kakashi watched him go, hit with a sudden, painful realization; Gai too, wandered around a large house all alone, tiptoeing past his father’s empty bedroom with his gaze pointed towards the floor the way Kakashi did, as if looking into it was forbidden or dangerous.

Watching him made Kakashi uncomfortable, and he turned away, deciding to begin cleaning up the kitchen. He started by wiping up the hot pot drippings that had fallen on the counter and floor, and then he began to wash dishes. He made it through all their plates, bowls, and pots, and after he had dried them he was faced with the task of figuring out where they went. He pushed a chair around the floor, stopping every few feet to position it in front of a cabinet. Standing on it, he checked the contents of that cabinet, putting away what he could, and then moved on to the next.

Finally finished, he stood on the chair with his hands on his hips and surveyed his accomplishment; the kitchen bore no trace of a messy hot pot cooked by two children. From his elevated position, he spotted a calendar hanging on the adjacent wall. It was too high for either him or Gai to reach normally, and it had fallen several months behind.

Kakashi pushed the chair over towards it and, counting the pages to make sure they were correct, flipped the calendar to the correct month. A great deal of time had passed, and it was now January. Some time ago, someone had circled the first day of the month in a thick, red marker, and written two words inside it. For just a moment, Kakashi’s heart sank, and he felt unable to breathe.

He heard Gai’s footsteps coming back down the hallway, and he rounded the corner seconds later. His eyes grew wide with surprise when he saw Kakashi, still standing on the chair. They stared at each other, and Gai’s eyes flitted to the calendar. Kakashi swallowed, feeling guilty.

“Happy Birthday, Gai.”

Gai blinked several times and then shrugged, letting out a shaky laugh. For the first time since Kakashi had met him, he looked shy.

“Thank you for spending it with me, Rival.” Gai looked away from him, his gaze traveling over the kitchen. His face brightened, “You did the dishes!” He walked over to where Kakashi stood and held out his hands, helping him down from the chair, although they both knew it wasn’t necessary. “Are you tired? I sort of am, we can go to bed now if you want.”

Kakashi nodded once and followed him into the bedroom, seeing immediately what had taken Gai so long; even though a child’s bed sat in the corner of the room, Gai had prepared two futons in the middle of the floor, laid out side by side.

Kakashi raised an eyebrow, and Gai rubbed his neck, embarrassed, “I just thought it’d be better this way, since it’s a sleepover…”

Kakashi stared blankly at him in response, and then climbed into the futon on the right. Gai turned off the room’s sole lamp and Kakashi heard him lay down on the second futon.

They were quiet for several minutes, and Kakashi’s eyes adjusted to the darkness. There were two windows in Gai’s room, and Gai had set their futons directly in a patch of moonlight. Kakashi thought it was an odd way to sleep, with their figures casting long shadows across the floor.

He heard Gai shifting under his blankets, followed by a sharp gasp.

“Rival,” Gai whispered, “it came undone.”

Kakashi rolled his head to look at him and saw that Gai’s bandage had begun to unravel, hanging down in a long strip of gauze. He sat up and took Gai’s hand, readjusting it in the dark.

Gai waited patiently and watched him as he worked.

“Thank you for taking care of me, Rival.”

Under his mask, a heavy blush crept into Kakashi’s cheeks. He shrugged, trying to appear unaffected; he knew that Gai had done a great deal of helping him as well. But of course he wouldn’t say that.

“You’re good at cooking,” he commented, “I’m glad.” It was all he could manage.

Gai nodded vigorously, “Oh yeah—my dad taught me all about it when he was making you bent-” Kakashi stiffened, and Gai faltered, “he-um...m-my dad taught me.”

They were silent for a moment. Gai’s bandage refused to stay tied, and Kakashi worked at it with a steady diligence, thinking over what Gai had said.

The moon swelled outside the windows, and the air felt very still.

“I wish I had thanked him.” Kakashi’s voice was low, not more than a whisper. Embarrassed, he bit his tongue, and finally managed to tie Gai’s bandage. “There.”

“It’s okay, Rival, he knew. I know he knew.” Gai flexed his hand, inspecting Kakashi’s work, “They would be proud of us now I think, your dad and mine, for helping each other.” Gai smiled at him, and then curled his newly-bandaged fingers around Kakashi’s own. “I will always help you, Kakashi.”

Kakashi wanted to run; fear gripped him, and he imagined himself standing up and storming out of the house, wrenching the front door open and slamming it shut behind him, feeling far more comfortable in the frigid snow than in the warmth of Gai’s bedroom, or the glow of his compassion.

But somehow, he allowed himself to stay there, in the kind place, holding Gai’s hand.

“Let’s go to bed, Gai.”

Gai nodded once, and then let go. Neither of them spoke again that night, and Kakashi found it surprisingly easy to fall asleep.

****

Kakashi would never use a word like tradition to describe the dinner that he and Gai held every year on Gai’s birthday, but it did become a fairly important practice. Gai usually hosted, but it was sometimes held at Kakashi’s house when he was in an especially good mood. He wasn’t as good of a cook, but the evening was generally about more than the food anyway.

Gai protested several times over the years, insisting that they celebrate Kakashi’s birthday as well, but Kakashi always refused, stating that Gai’s birthday served them well, as it fell on a holiday that they would both be spending alone otherwise, and his own birth date offered no such benefits. Truthfully however, Kakashi didn’t like being the center of attention, even if it was just the two of them.

This non-tradition continued for several years, but became more difficult to maintain as Kakashi was sent on more and more missions, which increased in both difficulty and amount of time spent outside the village. With each year that passed, it seemed that he only grew sadder, only suffered more tragedies, only pulled farther away from the support that Gai extended.

Although he and Gai had dinner every year, he had not slept over at Gai’s house since that first night, even though Gai politely asked him every year. Kakashi did not come to him, no matter how difficult living became. He did not come to him after Rin and Obito died. He did not come to him after the nine-tails attacked, killing both his sensei and Kushina, whom he had been tasked to protect. The first night he came to Gai’s window, injured and bloody, had been after his first Anbu mission—his first real Anbu mission, not the simple task that Minato had given him.

They were both fourteen, and Kakashi had been injured on his way back from the Land of Water. He perched on the window sill, looking in at Gai snoring peacefully in his bed. He tapped on the window, quietly at first, and then louder. Kakashi was wheezing, and trying very hard not to pass out, and felt more than a little impatient with Gai’s pleasant slumber. He leaned back and smacked the window with his whole fist. Gai jerked away, and even in the darkness, Kakashi saw his mouth fall open.

He watched Gai stumble out of bed and rush to window, throwing it open, “Rival! What on earth are you doing here? You’ve been gone-”

Kakashi teetered on the edge of the window, “Couldn’t...make it...home.” he mumbled. He tipped forward slightly, falling through the window. He expected to hit the floor with a dull thud, but instead felt Gai’s arms close around him just before he lost consciousness.

Kakashi awoke several hours later, initially panicked, and then he realized where he was: tucked safely into Gai’s bed. Gai himself was fast asleep in a futon on the floor, less than a foot away from the bed.

Kakashi was still wearing his standard-issue Anbu pants, but Gai had removed his bloody vest and shirt, and cleaned and bandaged his wounds. They were deep, but not life threatening, and Kakashi was relieved that Gai had not taken him to the hospital. His Anbu mask had been placed on the bedside table, and Kakashi noted with gratitude that he was still wearing his personal black mask.

Before he noticed any of these things however, he noted immediately, and with some displeasure, that Gai, finding it pertinent to give a shirt that was not covered in blood or riddled with holes, had given him one of his own thick, green pajama shirts, which he had buttoned all the way up to the collar.

Kakashi, feeling smothered, tore open the first two buttons and sat up. He gazed around the room, slowly accepting that there were no threats, no dangers. He sat safely in a warm bed in a friendly house, at the heart of the help Gai had been offering him for years. He swallowed hard, realizing that nothing bad had happened to him for accepting it.

He hesitated. It was a clear night, and although the moon was cut rather thin, he could see Gai breathing, slow and measured. Kakashi shifted, and placed a single toe on the cold floor—he realized that Gai had removed his shoes—and then a second, and then both his bare feet.

Carefully, and so, so slowly, Kakashi lowered himself to the floor. He raised Gai’s blanket with careful calculation, holding his breath. Gai never stirred, and Kakashi settled in close to him, not quite touching. It was warmer under Gai’s blanket, and Kakashi breathed a small sigh of relief. He watched Gai sleeping, and contemplated the comforting power of Gai’s presence, only further amplified by proximity.

For years, Gai had been reaching out to him, and Kakashi had only pulled sharply and farther away, a private island that Gai could not penetrate, but he had never stopped trying. When he laid beside Gai, Kakashi thought he could forget that he was a faceless instrument of Anbu, could forget his title as friend-killer Kakashi, could forget that he was the White Fang’s son, once a compliment, now a sneer. Gai’s presence was healing, and Kakashi could feel all the broken parts inside himself being picked up and mended back together; when he laid close to Gai, he simply felt like himself.

If there was anything close to a forehead-smacking, universe-altering, gaping it’s been you all along, moment for Kakashi, it was this; but although it did terrify him, it had been wholly less dramatic than that.

He simply laid there, and imagined himself taking Gai by the shoulders and shaking him awake to say, “I think I love you, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Because terrible things happened to people that he was close to, each unsuspecting, each meeting some awful end. Kakashi felt as if he had cursed Gai horribly, simply by loving him.

In the end, Kakashi didn’t wake him. Instead he laid there for hours, listening to Gai’s steady breathing, straining, and trying to hear his heart. Once or twice he thought he heard it, in a few seconds of light drumming, and it made sense to him that Gai’s heart would beat stronger and louder than most people’s. He didn’t dare fall asleep, but stayed there until he saw Gai’s eyelids twitch and heard his breath grow stronger.

After that, Kakashi spent the night at Gai’s house frequently; always after he had returned from a mission, and always with some flimsy excuse. Gai was happy to shelter him, and each night Kakashi would quietly creep out of his own bed and lay beside him until the sky outside grew light and Gai’s eyelids began to flutter. He only allowed himself to be close to Gai when he was unconscious, because he thought that maybe then it wouldn’t really count, wouldn’t be real closeness, and maybe then Gai would be spared.

For a while, it seemed to be going well. Gai was safe, Kakashi was happier, and so it went for two years—until Gai’s sixteenth birthday.

It had been past two in the morning, and technically no longer Gai’s birthday, but Kakashi raced to his apartment anyway, returning late from a mission. Over the past year, they had each moved from their childhood homes to apartments closer to the city’s center. They had helped one another move, and Kakashi had felt a great loss saying goodbye to Gai’s house, much more than he had his own. But both of their new apartments were nice, both with kind neighbors, and both on the second floor.

Gai had yet to celebrate a birthday within his new apartment, and unfortunately, it seemed, he was going to have to wait another year.

At least it wasn’t snowing, or even that cold, for an early morning in January. Kakashi knelt outside Gai’s window and peered in; he could see Gai sleeping in his bed, but he had set out a futon and blankets for Kakashi just in case, and the simple gesture made Kakashi smile, even though a throb of guilt ran through his heart. He slipped into the room—ever since Kakashi’s first late-night visit, Gai had started leaving the window unlocked—and shut the window a little harder than he had meant to.

Gai’s reflexes, while typically excellent within conscious hours, were absolutely abysmal while he slept, and he was an uncommonly heavy sleeper for a shinobi.

Kakashi untied his Anbu mask and placed it lightly on the bedside table, glad to finally be out of his sinister disguise. Gai would be awake in only a few hours, Kakashi knew, to begin his absurd workout routine, but that didn’t stop him from quietly settling into the bed beside him. It was warm, as always, and Kakashi felt oddly light and airy, having slept on the hard ground in the cold forest for the last several months.

Kakashi thought about joining Gai on his morning jog, something he never did, but he had missed Gai during the months he had spent away, and a brisk jog together at the crack of dawn seemed better than nothing.

A smile crept across Kakashi’s lips as he imagined Gai challenging him to a race, and then without meaning to, without any thought or warning, his eyelids slipped shut, and he was oblivious to the world.

A much lighter sleeper, Kakashi was awoken by Gai’s slight shifting. He was waking up. Kakashi contemplated fleeing to the window, but it was too late; one of Gai’s eyes was already sliding open, growing wide with recognition.

“Ka-ashi?” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes, “What are you doing here? You’ve been gone for a long time.” He sounded almost pouty, and reached out a hand, possibly to caress his face or touch his hair, but Kakashi stiffened when it was only halfway towards him, and the hand froze midair.

“Gai...go back to sleep.” Kakashi’s face had grown pale, hollowed out in desperation, “Go back to sleep, please.”

The hand reached for him again, and Gai held it back once more, looking frustrated; it pained Gai not to comfort him.

“But-But I’m glad to see you,” Gai gave him a weak smile, “why do you want me to go back to sleep, Rival?”

Kakashi’s voice became very small, “Because I can’t lie here if you’re awake.”

Gai’s face softened, and he looked almost sad, “Kakashi...” the hand finally reached him, and wound around his back, pulling him close.

Kakashi was momentarily stunned, but gave no resistance. He hid his face into Gai’s shoulder, trying to keep his breathing steady. Gai’s hand rubbed a slow trail up and down his back in a slow, calming rhythm, and he spoke in a low whisper, “You can always come here, Rival. You don’t have to hide, it can be like this.” His hand rested for a moment over the nape of Kakashi’s neck, “It’s good to be close sometimes.”

Kakashi listened to him carefully, feeling unsure. He lifted his arms and wound them lightly around Gai’s chest, soft, gentle, and hesitant.

“I’m sorry I missed your birthday.” He mumbled.

“I’m just glad my dear Rival has returned unharmed,” Gai’s voice was strained, “you were gone for a while this time.”

Kakashi nodded against Gai’s shoulder, and feeling braver, held him more tightly. This small motion made the back of his shirt lift upward, and for just a moment Gai’s hand rested on the bare skin of his lower back.

It had been an accident, but Gai stammered an apology and quickly pulled his shirt back down. Kakashi however, far from feeling uncomfortable, was struck by how warm Gai’s hand had been against his cold skin; the tender touch had felt ablaze, and a small sound escaped his lips, part hum, part whimper.

He felt Gai stiffen, uncertain what to do, and Kakashi’s whole face burned red; before Gai could comment or begin to make fun of him, he lifted the front of Gai’s shirt and placed his cold hands against his stomach.

Gai yelped and rolled over, attempting to pin him.

“A rather unsportsmanlike move, Rival!”

They wrestled for a moment, rather lightly; neither of them were serious, and they both were smiling. Gai had grown stronger in Kakashi’s time away, and his own weary body was no match for Gai’s new and more powerful muscles.

Gai straddled his waist, grinning brightly and pinning Kakashi’s hands above his head.

“I win, Rival!” Gai’s voice boomed through the room and his chest expanded every time he breathed in, pressing pleasantly down on Kakashi.

Kakashi tried to appear unaffected and forced a yawn, “Were we competing? Well you should have said so-”

“Of course we were!” Gai’s voice chided him, “That’s nineteen to twenty, I’m only one behind now.”

“Yes I suppose,” Kakashi’s face grew grave, “unless I break free…” he watched in amusement as every muscle in Gai’s body stiffened, preparing for the escape that Kakashi had no intention of attempting.

A single bead of sweat rolled down Gai’s forehead. The tension in the room mounted, and then broke, as a loud banging erupted on the wall adjacent. It was just past four in the morning, and they had been wrestling rather loudly; Gai hadn’t lived there long and was slowly discovering that the most prominent drawback of apartment living was the close proximity to other people.

The banging stopped, and Gai looked nervously at the wall, but Kakashi clenched his jaw until he could stand it no longer, and then erupted into laughter.

Gai looked horrified, “Shhhh, Rival, you’re waking the neighbors!”

But Kakashi could not be silenced; weeks he had been away, weeks without smiling or even much talking, and it felt good to laugh. It seemed that the only times he laughed nowadays were with Gai.

Gai stared down at him, entirely at a loss. His lips twitched upward and he emitted a short sigh, followed by a small chuckle that built into a great echoing laughter.

The banging began again, rather counter-productive to its purpose. Their laughter receded slowly, with many sudden revivals, until they were both flushed and panting.

Gai threw his head back, and Kakashi saw tears forming thickly in his eyes. At first, he thought they were from laughter, but then Gai looked down at him, his lips trembling as he smiled.

“I’m really glad you’re back, Rival.”

Affection surged through Kakashi’s heart, but a great lump grew in his throat; words failed him, as they so often did, and he knew he could never say something like that in return. But because he was not good with words, he often found methods of expressing himself in other ways; he felt his body moving, moving because it had to, as easy and natural as fading into sleep. Still pinned back against the bed, he arched upwards, and kissed Gai on the lips.

It was almost childish, brief and innocent, still over top of Kakashi’s mask, but Gai’s eyes grew round.

“Kakashi...”

His warm breath blew across Kakashi’s face and they both hesitated, waiting to see what the other would do. Gai’s grip on his wrists relaxed, and he slid his hands upward, gently taking hold of Kakashi’s fingers.

Slow, slower than anything, Gai leaned over him, his hair falling across his face. Gai kissed him back, his lips heavy and warm.

Kakashi closed his eyes, and saw Gai dying. Saw him cut down by some unforeseen enemy attack. Saw his body mangled and broken, lying at the bottom of a ravine. Saw him slumped forward, his eyes wide and staring, with the Chidori torn through his chest.

Kakashi sat up abruptly, knocking Gai back against the bed. He fled to the window and heard Gai calling after him, begging him to wait. He threw open the window just as he heard the unmistakable sound of bedsprings creaking, but it was too late, he was already out the window, he was already on the roof-

Something strong closed around his wrist, and he could not break free. Kakashi looked back at him, stunned, because Gai had grown faster in the time he’d been away. They were tied, they were absolutely equal.

He considered throwing a kunai to make Gai let go, but that felt a little excessive for the situation, and he would have felt bad about it later.

“It was a joke,” the words came out automatically, and Kakashi didn’t look at him, “just a dumb joke, to distract you and break free.”

Gai was really crying now, and tears ran down his cheeks in thick rivers, but at least he was alive, at least it wasn’t a dead-eyed stare.

Usually, Gai would have reprimanded him, told him that it was a cruel joke, and he did not appreciate it, but that fact the Gai did not chide him, meant that he did not believe Kakashi’s excuse for a moment.

“Okay,” he said gently, “okay, Kakashi, I understand.” He tilted his head several different ways, but Kakashi kept avoiding his gaze, “I just want you to know that you can always come here, and it can be however you want, as close or far as you need.”

Slowly, he relaxed his grip on Kakashi’s hand, until he was only gently holding it, but not letting it go. It was crueler that way, Kakashi thought, because it forced him to be the one who pulled his hand away, disappearing into the darkness.

Kakashi slept badly that night, alone in his own apartment.

He was worried the next day, afraid that Gai would try and bring up the night before, but his fears were unwarranted; on his way back from the training ground, he heard the fast approach of heavy footfalls behind him.

“What a wonderfully crisp morning, Rival!” Gai smacked him cheerily on the back, “I’ll race you to the top of Hokage Rock!”

They didn’t make it far; on their way outside the city, Kakashi stopped in front of Ramen Ichiraku and suggested they eat instead.

Later that same day, when he knew Gai was out, he returned to Gai’s apartment to retrieve his Anbu mask. It was no longer on the bedside table, and after ten minutes of searching he found it badly hidden inside Gai’s dresser, wedged between two pair of leg warmers.

If only it was that easy.

After that, Kakashi stopped spending the night at Gai’s house, both when returning from a mission and on birthdays. He was still several years away from being free from Anbu, and Gai’s endless support, whenever Kakashi gave in and allowed it, was the only reason he made it through them.

****

As they both grew older, Gai was sent on an increasing number of dangerous missions outside the village, the kind Kakashi had been going on for years, but their conflicting schedules usually became free, by some stroke of luck, for at least a few hours on January 1st each year. Sometimes they could only meet in the early hours of the morning, or the late hours of the night, or only had time to meet for a quick bowl of ramen in the middle of the day, but it was enough.

It was an odd transition for Kakashi, because he was used to being the one who was always away. He was free from Anbu, but he hadn’t yet had his first team. Gai had trained a few, but they were infrequent, and none yet as special to him, or as talented, as that of Lee, Tenten, and Neji.

Gai had been away on a mission when Asuma and Kurenai started dating. Although Kakashi had known them since he was a child, and he considered them both skilled shinobi, during those first few months, time alone with them became unbearable. They certainly did not behave as mushy or sentimental as Kakashi felt that they did, but their brief, loving interactions always irritated him, and more than once he had snapped angrily at them. He knew he was being unfair, and as their friend he should be supportive, but their open affection made him uncomfortable, a feeling always coupled with a twinge of something else, that he refused to acknowledge as jealousy.

It did not help that Gai was away—had been for months. It was supposed to have been a long mission, that Kakashi knew, a several-weeks long reconnaissance of the Land of Wind, but it now had gone months over schedule; Gai had departed alone in the late summer, and the seasons had grown slowly into a crisp fall, and finally faded into a heavy winter.

Kakashi in no way doubted Gai’s capability, and knew that he himself had been on equally long missions, but he was worried, and with Gai gone, he had no one to comfort his anxiety. There was also another, slightly more irrelevant worry festering away in his heart—a deep fear that Gai would not be back for his birthday. It felt oddly like an ultimatum: if Gai was not back by his birthday, then he surely must be dead.

Some part of him knew that he was being ridiculous, and of course Gai returned unharmed, albeit running very late, but this fear ate way at Kakashi for months, until one cold winter morning, when the sky was growing light, but the sun was still half an hour from rising.

A very light sleeper, Kakashi had been stirred to half-consciousness by the weight of heavy footfalls on the steps in front of his apartment. By the time he heard a hollow knock on his front door, he was on his feet, with his mask pulled up and a kunai in his hand.

He stepped towards the door without making a sound and then hesitated; peepholes were not a very clever ninja tool, but they served their purpose well enough. He raised his eye peephole, prepared for the first sight of his assailant, and instead discovered a single dark eye peering back at him.

If Kakashi had stopped to think, for just a moment, then he could have decided to take his time opening the door, to give his frantic heart some time to process and relax, but instead he undid his three locks in under half a second and opened his door to see Gai, grinning and intact, silhouetted against the early morning sky.

“Good morning, Rival! I have returned!” He took an eager step forward, a still uncontrolled reflex to hug him, after being away for so long. He stopped himself though, and instead only ended up standing a little closer to Kakashi than he usually would have.

While Kakashi had wished for Gai to return, had longed for him, and sometimes felt as though he would die without him there, he stood motionless in the doorway, not knowing how to express it.

Gai grinned, Kakashi stared.

Kakashi cleared his throat, “Yo...”

“Is that all you have to say to your Eternal Rival?” Gai demanded, throwing an arm around his shoulder, “I’ve been away for months!”

Kakashi felt like he had taken a breath, deep and echoing, for the first time in his life. A lump formed in his throat, and he needed to sit down.

“It’s early,” he said, turning away, “come back later.” He shut the door quickly.

Wheezing, he leaned back against the door, slowly sliding down to the floor. He sat there shaking, listening to the sound of Gai pacing back and forth across his doorstep. He waited there for several minutes, no doubt hoping that he would come back out, but Kakashi said nothing until he heard the weight of Gai’s footsteps begin to recede, heading back down the steps.

“Gai!” the name tore out of his throat, sounding more desperate than he meant it to, “There’s a festival tonight...make sure you come.”

“A festival?” Gai’s footsteps stopped, and after a moment, began to return.

“To welcome in the New Year.”

Silence greeted these words, and Kakashi sat quietly, listening to the long silence of Gai piecing together several bits of information: the upcoming festival, the current temperature, and the amount of time he was away. There was a sudden intake of breath as Gai realized his birthday was tomorrow.

Kakashi smiled and a small chuckle escaped his lips.

Gai banged a fist on the door, but his voice was cheerful, “Do not laugh at me, Rival! I’ve been very busy, it’s been weeks since I’ve seen a calendar!”

Kakashi chuckled again, this time louder, and a single tear rolled down his cheek; he didn’t know how to process the overwhelming tides of relief, as strange and foreign as the feeling was to him.

“It’s nice to hear you laugh.” Gai’s voice was quieter, but closer, right outside the door, as if he was kneeling down to speak to him, “Come out and watch the sunrise with me, Kakashi, please?”

Kakashi gave no indication that he had heard Gai’s request, but after spending several moments furiously wiping his eyes, he opened the door once more.

They moved up to the roof because it offered a clear view of the eastern horizon. The sky had grown deeply pink, but the sun had not yet begun to rise. Kakashi sat down first, and because it was easy, they talked about the mission.

“I was able to gain less information than we had hoped,” Gai explained, “but I believe it will still be considered a success.”

Kakashi raised an eyebrow, “Lord Hokage doesn’t know you’re back yet?”

Gai reddened and looked away, “I sent him a message...I figured he’d still be sleeping, but I will go after I leave here.” Kakashi didn’t need to tell Gai that it was irresponsible to not report immediately to Lord Hokage, especially when he had been gone for so long and the mission was so important, so he intended to say nothing, until Gai continued, “besides, I’ve been sending him updates, so not much of my information should be new to him.”

Beneath his mask, Kakashi’s mouth fell open, “You’ve been sending him messages?”

“Every few weeks, yes,” Gai scratched his head, “we ran the risk of them getting intercepted, so it happened very rarely, and they were coded.”

“And you didn’t send them to anyone else?” Kakashi’s voice rose sharply, “People were worried about, ah-about the fate of the mission…”

Gai was momentarily stunned and then appeared deeply apologetic, “I-I’m sorry, Rival, I assumed that Lord Hokage relayed the information to everyone else.” He paused for a moment, “...Was anyone worried about me?”

Kakashi shrugged, and suddenly became very interested in the tiling on the roof, “I suppose some people were.”

“Some people.” Gai repeated.

“Asuma and Kurenai started dating.” Kakashi blurted out, desperate for change of subject.

“Have they now?” Gai’s face broke into a massive grin and he leaned back on his hands, “Well, I suppose it was bound to happen.”

“You’re not surprised?” Kakashi looked at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Oh no, they’ve been best friends since we were all kids, practically inseparable,” he shrugged, “to me that seems about as close to soulmates as you can get, they were practically destined.”

The sun peaked over the skyline, throwing its first few golden rays over the horizon. Kakashi wondered if Gai saw the similarities he was describing, and whether or not people talked about the two of them like that. He imagined their friends arguing over it, and the village’s little old ladies gossiping over their evening tea; such a nice boy, they’d say of Gai, far too good for that Kakashi, he’s rather dangerous, don’t you think?

Gai let out a long whistle, gazing at the sunrise, “It’s a pretty one, that’s for sure. It’s the rainy season in The Land of Wind right now, you wouldn’t belie-”

Kakashi shifted his weight to the side and tilted his head, resting it on Gai’s shoulder. The movement itself had been executed with a high level of technical precision, and had come across fluidly enough, but internally, Kakashi was reeling. He regretted the action almost immediately, and realized in horror that his hair was probably sticking out, poking Gai in the face.

He sat very stiffly and waited. Gai had entirely forgotten what he was saying, and his sentence dangled awkwardly. Hesitantly, and with several sudden stops and withdraws, Gai shakily rested his head on top of Kakashi’s own.

They were quiet for several minutes, both trying to remain calm. Gai’s shoulder was not the most comfortable pillow; it was very hard, all muscle, but it was warm, and although they sat bathed in the rays of the rising sun, it was still mid-winter, and the roof all around them was cold.

The sun rose higher, and light quickly spread through the sky, igniting the few puffy clouds that dotted the horizon, dying them pink and orange. Kakashi watched the shadows recede, and for the first time in months, allowed himself to relax. Something somewhere had taken pity on Kakashi, and brought Gai safely back to him, and he was grateful.

They stayed there until they received the day’s first reminder of other human life within the city—a window thrown open in the street below, squeaking loudly. Kakashi lifted his head quickly, and Gai gave a startled jerk; Kakashi realized he had fallen asleep, and he suddenly felt very guilty, knowing that Gai must be tired. He was introverted in many regards, but was in no way afraid of people seeing them together—it was quite the opposite, in fact—but he had indulged himself long enough in the closeness of Gai’s company, and now it was time to abstain.

“You should go,” Kakashi stood up, “and report to Lord Hokage.”

Gai rubbed his tired eyes, “Yes...yes, he will probably be waking up soon.”

Kakashi had always assumed, whether stronger or weaker, Gai felt in some capacity what he felt; he liked to think he did, even though he knew it created a very unfair and unreasonable situation, which had been painfully playing out for years now.

Gai looked very hurt at that moment, and stood up, preparing to leave.

“Gai...” Kakashi’s voice faltered, and Gai looked back at him. I missed you. He swallowed, “I’m glad you’re back...we can spar a bit later, if you want.”

Gai’s face lit up, and Kakashi marveled at how easy it was to please him.

“Of course, Rival! I want to see how you’ve grown in my absence!”

Under his mask, Kakashi smiled, placing a hand on his shoulder, “I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

Gai look scandalized, “You could never!” He grinned at Kakashi, his smile shining like it was made up of tiny little lights.

Kakashi spent the day in town, watching as merchants and vendors prepared for the festival and set up their stalls. Children from the Academy swept the streets clean, and he helped string lanterns and banners from the trees and buildings. Despite their promise to meet during the day, Kakashi did not see Gai until late that evening; the temperature had dropped considerably after the sun went down, and just an hour before the festival was to begin, it began to snow. Most of the venders who had set up along the streets quickly shut back down, and a strong effort was made to move the festivities indoors. Although every citizen of Konoha tried their best to continue the festival with their usual energy and enthusiasm, the weather had certainly put a damper on the evening.

Still, the glow of the festival lights mixed prettily with the snow, and the Jounin, at the very least, were able to celebrate quite merrily, holed up inside Ramen Ichiraku. When Kakashi found Gai, he was already very drunk. He apologized heavily to Kakashi for breaking their agreement to spar; after reporting to Lord Hokage, he had returned to his own apartment, vacant for all these months, and fallen asleep until nightfall.

He forced his drink into Kakashi's hands, instructing him to drink it, and then went to order them both bowls of ramen. It was crowded, and the owners had set up several collapsible booths along the wall to create more seating. They sat in a booth at the back with Ebisu and Anko, who had also drank quite a lot, and welcomed Gai back with gusto. Music rose from somewhere else in the restaurant, and a loud hum of chatter filled the room.

Anko and Ebisu, predictably, asked Gai about his mission.

“I’m glad to be of service to Konoha,” Gai slurred only slightly, “but I think I’m going to stay in the village for a while, maybe take on a team.”

Little did they all know, that next year Gai would meet Rock Lee, and he would leave the village very rarely after that.

Anko finished her fifth glass and slammed it heavily on the table, her lips twisted into an evil grin, “Well that’ll certainly be good for the rest of us! Some people,” she threw Kakashi a teasing look, “have been in an incredibly sour mood since you left.”

Kakashi’s face grew very grave and under the table he pressed a kunai against her stomach. Anko however, being incredibly drunk, did not notice the sharp blade pressed against her abdomen, and Kakashi thought it would be somewhat unreasonable to actually kill her to prevent her from telling the rest of her story. She continued speaking however, and he almost changed his mind.

“You could see him sitting alone up on top of Hokage Rock, he’d be there for hours just brooding, and god forbid anyone try and talk to him, the simplest thing would set him off!” She leaned across the table, “This is the first time he’s been out with us for weeks!”

Gai blinked dumbly back at her, his expression unreadable, and Kakashi sank down in his seat; he began frantically planning an escape route, but was saved the effort by the sudden appearance of Asuma and Kurenai. They both greeted Gai warmly, and Gai congratulated them with equal zeal, and they took the final two seats in the booth.

With Asuma and Kurenai present, Anko had a new, more accessible target to taunt, and Kakashi leaned back into the booth, relaxing slightly. He could feel Gai watching him, but he hid behind his glass, allowing himself to become slightly tipsy.

Kakashi had always thought that Gai was very funny when he was drunk; while most people, when inebriated, became louder and less inhibited, Gai was already like that on a regular basis. Conversely, when he became drunk, Gai grew very calm; he blinked a lot and looked around quietly, watching other people. He also seemed wholly amazed by everything; he had not noticed their ramen delivered, and when he finally spotted the bowl before him, he stared down at it in wonder, believing it to have just suddenly appeared.

He leaned over to Kakashi, “Is this a new jutsu or something? Incredible...”

When it grew close to midnight, everyone stood up. Anko began a drunken sing-along, which was loud and mostly incoherent due to the slurring. Kakashi did not participate, but Gai did, his voice booming across the room, and midnight came and went without much attention. Kakashi saw Asuma and Kurenai kiss, and a few other couples embrace, but otherwise the moment went largely unnoticed.

Kakashi watched Gai singing, and realized that it was now technically his birthday. He stood just a step in front of Kakashi; they were at the back of the room, with no one else behind them.

No one was watching. Kakashi stepped forward, his chest almost touching Gai’s back—normally, he could never have gotten this close to him without Gai noticing. Kakashi stood on his tiptoes and leaned forward, over his shoulder. He pulled down his mask and pressed a quick kiss to Gai’s cheek.

He was gone in an instant, disappeared out Ramen Ichiraku’s back door; he knew Gai had not seen him, but of course, there was no one else it could have been. The snow was falling more heavily, in huge, puffy flakes that made it difficult to see. With each step Kakashi took, his foot sank several inches deep.

He trekked through the dense snow, down the street, heading home. He heard the unmistakable creak of Ramen Ichiraku’s back door. He could have hidden easily, used a jutsu or simply leaped on top of the one of the buildings; as drunk as Gai was, he would have never found him, but some part of Kakashi wanted to be followed.

He was walking fast, and heard the unmistakable crunching of snow as someone hurried after him with shaky, uncertain footsteps. Gai caught up to him after a few moments, but didn’t immediately speak. They walked on in silence for several minutes, until Gai recognized the path Kakashi was taking.

“Where are you going?” He asked, though of course he knew.

“Back home.” Kakashi answered without looking at him.

“Oh…”

Kakashi’s apartment building loomed into view through the snow.

“Kakashi...” Gai’s voice was soft, “are we like them?”

“Like who?”

“Asuma and Kurenai.”

Kakashi’s pace faltered for a fraction of a second. He cleared his throat, “Is that...something you would want?”

Gai blushed, “Well...well I have thought-” he stopped, realizing that he had been tricked, rather easily too. His mouth sank into a frown, “Rival, you are not answering my question.”

“We’re...something.”

“Something?”

“We’re Rivals, aren’t we?” Kakashi started up the stairs to his apartment. He knew how ridiculous a thing it was, to deny their romantic prospects, when they both knew that just minutes ago he had kissed Gai on the cheek.

Gai swallowed, “Yes, and I would not sacrifice that relationship for anything, it is one of the most important relationships I will have in my life, and it is very dear to me...but still, I thought maybe it was worth asking.”

Kakashi stood at the top of the stairs now, protected from the snow by the ledge above his door, and he could see Gai clearly. Still standing at the foot on the stairs, snow was beginning to pile on his shoulders and he looked up at Kakashi with unrestrained anguish.

The reason, Kakashi supposed, that Asuma and Kurenai’s relationship had developed so suddenly, and proceeded with such great velocity, was that as shinobi they both faced the constant, overwhelming presence of death. Kakashi had seen it, had caused it and had suffered from it, and for the same reason that Asuma and Kurenai were embraced probably in this very moment, Kakashi would not allow Gai in from the cold.

But of course, this all made no sense to Gai, who accepted so patiently Kakashi’s erratic behavior, Kakashi, who would grant him occasional, spontaneous affection but deny all other times. He stood there and wondered if it would really be so bad, would really be so hard to say it out loud, for the first time, just to alleviate confusion.

“Gai,” he spoke quietly, “could you come here, please?”

Gai was frozen for just a moment, briefly stunned, and then he began to climb the stairs quickly, taking the last few two at time, but he stopped several feet away, not yet under the ledge on the roof.

Kakashi let out a shaky laugh, “You can come closer.” Gai stepped towards him, and Kakashi raised his hands, resting them lightly on Gai’s arms. He leaned his head forwards and pressed it against Gai’s chest. He smelled of alcohol, but Kakashi thought that he probably did too, and it didn’t bother him in the slightest.

“I wish.” He breathed. And that was his answer, he so incredibly wished.

With that, Gai decided it was safe to hold Kakashi in return, and placed his arms around his waist, clutching him tightly. Kakashi wound his arms around Gai’s neck and pressed their foreheads together, watching his eyes light up in surprise.

“If you can help it, don’t go away for that long again.” It was unreasonable, and not his request to make, but Gai nodded vigorously.

“Never.” He answered, and raised a hand to Kakashi’s face, glancing down to where he knew Kakashi’s lips rose under his mask, patiently asking permission.

Kakashi looked at him sadly and shook his head incrementally from side to side. Gai nodded in understanding, and instead nuzzled his head affectionately, squeezing him slightly. Kakashi’s back pressed against the door, and he imagined himself reaching for the handle, turning it, and allowing them fall into the room with the door sealing shut behind them, leaving them perfectly at ease to spend the night kissing and caressing in the darkness. Oh how he wished.

They stayed there until their skin grew pale and chilled, and because they were both happy to remain there until they were frozen stiff, Gai pulled away from him.

“I’m going to go, Rival. You should get some sleep.”

Kakashi nodded slowly, still holding his hands.

“The sun hasn’t even risen, and this already the best birthday I’ve ever had. Thank you, Rival.” Gai squeezed his hands, “For years, I’ve been trying to make known to you my youthful feelings of romantic affection, and now I know that I have.” He leaned forward, and Kakashi’s heart stopped beating for just a moment, because his flesh was weak, and in that moment he was wholly willing to give in, but Gai only tilted his head to the side and kissed Kakashi softly on the cheek.

“Happy New Year, Rival.” Smiling a final time, Gai turned and began to walk back down the stairs.

“Goodnight, Gai.” Kakashi called after him. He went inside and watched through the window as Gai trudged home through the snow, a cheerful swing in his step.

Kakashi crawled into bed alone, and tried to tell himself that it wasn’t such a bad thing to do, since Gai was pleased with the evening’s events, but he imagined Gai lying next to him, knowing how possible it could have been, and couldn’t help but feel lonely.

****

Several months after their long night in the snow, when the weather was growing warm and humid, Gai found him in Ramen Ichiraku, picking at his food and reading Icha Icha Paradise. Little to nothing had changed for the two of them; Kakashi was grateful that Gai never mentioned their brief but intense romantic encounters on a day to day basis, but their silence on this matter often led, as the coming months and years would prove, to an extreme lack of clarity.

“Rival,” Gai sat down beside Kakashi, turning to look at him seriously, “I need to discuss something with you.”

Kakashi gave a small nod.

“Do you know Hozumi-san, who works part-time in the bakery? She asked me on a date.”

Kakashi did not look up from his book. He had, in fact, already heard this news from Anko.

“I want to know what you think.”

Kakashi turned a page, “Hozumi-san? She’s a Chunin isn’t she? A decent kunoichi I suppose, she has solid aim, but her chakra control could use some work.”

Gai stared at him, and his voice became a grumble, “You know that’s not what I mean.”

The ramen cook glanced up from sorting his orders and gave them a curious look. Kakashi tapped his fingers on the counter and then finally put down his book. He still did not look at Gai.

“Do whatever you want, it’s not like you need my permission.” He stood up and placed several coins beside his half-finished bowl of ramen.

Gai watched him leave, frowning deeply, “If you say so...”

Gai went on a total of five dates with Hozumi-san from the bakery, and the process influenced both participants rather minimally, but it seemed to open the gate to the dating world—the gate, admittedly, had been straining for some time—and after that, several other women asked Gai out in quick succession.

Anko began to threaten Kakashi that if he was ever especially rude to her, she would take a crack at Gai herself, to which Kakashi always responded by sending a well-aimed kunai whizzing just above her head. Her threats aside, the general consensus of the village was that Gai would meet a nice girl and settle down any day now. Still, years passed, and none of these attachments continued for very long, and Kakashi was able to remain relatively unaffected; it was a facet of Gai’s life that he never asked about and Gai never mentioned, and they went about their lives like normal. This arrangement worked well for them, with little to no emotional distress or rabid jealousy on Kakashi’s part, that was, until Gai dated his first man.

It was unfair of him to demand that he be the sole object of Gai’s affection, especially when he was both unwilling and unable to return it, but truthfully, Kakashi never thought about it that thoroughly; he simply knew that there was a part of him that was hurt, hurt deeply, that Gai would not simply resign his life to one of pining ever after his Rival, as Kakashi had done.

His name had been Hidetora, and Kakashi had loathed him, had hated his thick glasses and his pointy black goatee, hated him like none other. It hadn’t been overt, and was not displayed in any direct words of anger or criticism, but manifested itself in smaller ways, such as frequently forgetting his name on purpose, or leaving every time he entered the room.

Kakashi would remember always the betrayal he had felt late one afternoon when, hoping to exercise a bit and clear his head, he rounded the corner to the training ground and found them sparing. Gai noticed him and called out, but Kakashi was already walking the opposite direction. Hidetora would accompany Gai on his 4 a.m. jogs, participated in almost every aspect of Gai’s crazy training schedule, in fact, including his absurd dietary habit of raw eggs every morning. He had been, in every way, a better partner for Gai than Kakashi could have ever been.

That was the part that bothered Kakashi the most, the one commonality that ran through all of Gai’s men and women alike; they would all do a better job of loving Gai than Kakashi ever could, even though he knew they could never love Gai as much as he did. He wasn’t sure, from Gai’s perspective, which was better.

He accepted that fact during those months, though of course he had known that he loved Gai for years, he finally grew at peace with the feeling when Gai began dating other people.

Their friendship grew strained, and Kakashi found it increasingly difficult to contain his resentment, culminating in the absolutely inexcusable: they did not spend Gai’s birthday together that year. When Gai asked him about it, Kakashi was still irritated about seeing him and Hidetora kiss at midnight the night before.

He delivered a deadpan, “Oh, I thought you were going somewhere with Hidetora to celebrate.”

Gai looked appalled, “Of course not, Rival, we always celebrate together!”

“Well I made plans,” Kakashi shrugged, “sorry.”

Gai’s face fell, and Kakashi went home and ate dinner alone.

The week after, Gai broke up with Hidetora. He had cut them all loose eventually, of course, and this was no different, but their relationship had gone on much longer than Kakashi would have liked.

He hid the in trees above and listened, something he had never done before, feeling a malicious sense of gratification.

Hidetora had been angry at first, and then resigned, and then accepting.

When Gai told him that he was sorry, it was painfully clear that he meant it.

They hugged goodbye; even after breaking up with someone, Gai always left them as friends. After Hidetora had gone, Gai looked up, straight into the trees where Kakashi was crouching. He looked a little angry, but mostly disappointed.

Kakashi dropped down from the tree, because Gai knew he was there and there was no point in hiding. He only saw the selfishness of his behavior now that their relationship was over; he had ruined something that made Gai happy, even though he would not allow himself to fill that same roll.

“I’m sorry.” It was all he could say, and he knew it wasn’t enough. He hurried away, leaving Gai standing alone behind him.

They had reached an impasse. It became clear, given the tension and anxiety those years had placed upon them, that they could no longer continue as they had, but any change Kakashi imagined seemed entirely out of the question. He saw how they could do nothing else, be nothing else, given his own rules and limitations, and he was reminded frequently why he had put them in place. Asuma’s death, for example, gave him ample enough reason never to abandon these principles; Kurenai was strong, undoubtedly so, but his death had worn on her tremendously, like no other loss Kakashi had ever seen.

But then, not much later, the unexpected happened, the impossible. Something Kakashi had never predicted or prepared for, during all the years he had spent worrying that Gai would be taken from him; he died. It appalled him. Because Gai had not died; he had died. He had died, and Gai had continued to live on without him. This event poked a rather large hole in the logic by which he ordered his life, and while it hadn’t been quite shocking enough to entirely topple Kakashi’s world view, it certainly confused him, and he proceeded with less conviction.

For Gai, it must have been disorienting, a very strange, very terrible moment; Kakashi didn’t know who told him, but he imagine the conversation a hundred times over. Kakashi died—he pictured the crushed look on Gai’s face, the tormenting pain in his heart, and then— but it’s fine, Pain revived everyone, he’s fine.

Gai stuck closely to him all that day. Repairs needed to be made, with their whole village almost decimated, homes had to be rebuilt and buildings reconstructed, but they had time, and those goals were all long term. Everyone was alive, at the very least, and in the aftermath, Tsunade had allowed only the most pressing repairs to be made, and then allowed everyone to enjoy the rest of the day in celebration.

The festivities quickly faded into evening, and as the sun set everyone set up tents outside the wreckage of their city. There were bonfires and there was music, and everyone was cheerful. Kakashi and Gai both drank some, but not much. Eventually, when the night grew late and people began to retire, Kakashi stood up.

Gai leaped to his feet, “Where are you going, Rival? Are you sure you should be moving? Wouldn’t it be better if you-”

“Gai, I’m fine, really.” He had been repeating this reassurance all day, “I’m just going for a walk.” he paused, “Why don’t you come with me?”

They discovered that the city had been damaged worse than they thought; the Hokage’s residence would need to be rebuilt from scratch, the hospital had collapsed, and the Academy barely stood. Still, some parts of Konoha were damaged worse than others, and in some areas, it looked as if families may be able to move back in the next day.

They stood side by side and looked at the pile of earth and splintered wood that was once Ramen Ichiraku.

“Let’s go check out my apartment,” Kakashi suggested, “we never celebrated your birthday.”

It was mid-summer, and although it was late, still quite humid.

Gai looked confused, “But we just ate back at the camp.”

“Yes.” Kakashi looked at him for a long moment.

“Yes.” Gai’s repeated, staring blankly at him. Kakashi wasn’t yet sure what exactly it was that he inviting Gai over for, but it certainly wasn’t dinner.

Gai’s eyebrows arched in what appeared to be understanding.

“Okay Rival, thank you.”

They walked back in silence. There were things that they probably needed to say, but they could wait. The village was safe, the weather was warm, and the stars shone brightly above Konoha. They walked close together, with the backs of their hands occasionally touching.

The apartment building was still standing, which Kakashi took as a good sign, but the stairs were blocked by two great boulders and they worked together to move the rubble out of the way. The door had splintered, and the remaining wood hung rather sadly from its hinges. Still, inside the apartment was relatively undamaged. The furniture looked like it had all been tossed in the air and then set back down in odd places, and several of his tables and chairs had turned over on their sides, but all were luckily intact. The objects on them, books, clothing, and unclean dishes had all been thrown with equal force, and were scattered across the floor.

Gai tried the light switch, but nothing came on. Kakashi walked into the room and picked up a chair, setting it up right; he looked at the wreckage of his home and all of his possessions calmly, and strangely felt little loss. He crossed quietly into his bedroom, and Gai, seeing that he was disappearing, took several quick steps to follow him.

Kakashi’s bedroom appeared on par with the rest of the apartment, with one glaring exception; a large hole, roughly three meters wide, gaped through the center of his ceiling. Through it they could see the night sky, covered with stars. They were the same stars as always, but appeared exceptionally beautiful tonight.

Splinters of wood and dust covered the floor, and behind him Gai coughed.

“It’s-uh...it’s nice.” He said, “Very well-ventilated.”

That made Kakashi chuckle, “As long as it doesn’t rain.” He stepped into the room, and Gai followed him closely, almost in synch. Kakashi suddenly stopped walking, and Gai bumped into him.

Kakashi looked back at him with an eyebrow raised.

Gai reddened and took a step backward, “Sorry, I...I won’t-”

Kakashi looked at him sadly; he could not imagine the loss, the hopeless distress, and he was lucky not to know.

“It’s okay,” he raised his arms only minimally, just a small fraction, but Gai understood.

Kakashi was momentarily swept off the ground, raised several centimeters, as Gai rushed forward and wrapped his great arms around him, pulling him into a crushing hug. It hurt only a little, and Kakashi hugged him back, none too gently himself.

Kakashi’s shoulder grew wet with Gai’s tears. The Green Beast of Konoha was shaking terribly in his arms, and Kakashi balled his fists around the fabric of his jumpsuit. He let Gai hold him as long and as tightly as he wanted to, caress however he needed, in order to completely affirm his existence, until he felt fully convinced that Kakashi was truly still there.

“Gai,” He wanted to give some poignant words of comfort, something profound, but all he could offer was the same bland phrase he had been repeating all day, “it’s alright, I’m okay. I’m okay. ”

‘Y-yes,” Gai’s voice filled with a false bravado, which sounded all the more sad because of its lacking strength, “of course my Rival would not be killed so easily.”

“No,” Kakashi’s voice was gentle, “of course I wouldn’t.”

They let it rest at that, though they both knew very well that his revival had only been circumstantial, and easily could not have occurred. But that was not something either of them could dare consider at that moment.

“Let’s lay down.” He looked determinately over Gai’s shoulder, so that he didn’t have to worry about meeting his eyes as he said it.

Immediately, Kakashi felt a tug and sudden lift. He stiffened, momentarily alarmed, before he realized that Gai had intended to carry him, rather comically, to the bed, with Kakashi’s toes dangling just inches above the floor. Gai started to put him back down, but Kakashi stopped him.

“No, it-it’s fine.”

Tonight of all nights, was not going to be ruined by his anxious traits, even though they may be hard to suppress; but this was Gai. He loved Gai, he trusted Gai.

Gai laid him down, gently and slowly. He quickly brushed aside some debris that had fallen from the roof to the bed, and then joined him, and they were in each other’s arms once more. A desperation that had been mounting all these years had suddenly ruptured, breaking across their hearts, outweighing reason and logic.

Gai’s hands reached upward and rested on his headband; he nodded once, and Gai gently pulled it from his head. Kakashi opened both eyes into Gai’s, and it was nice, looking at each other closely like that.

Gai’s fingers wound into his hair, “Do you remember the last time we laid like this?”

Kakashi finally had to look away, “No.” He lied.

Gai knew he was lying, of course, but it still protected him somehow.

“Why didn’t you ever come to me again after that?” Gai’s voice grew small, “I was so worried about you, always.”

Kakashi took a long time responding; there were several answers, several complex reasons, but they all boiled down to the same thing.

He looked into Gai’s dark, impossibly kind eyes.

“Because you could die.”

Gai nodded slowly, as if he had guessed as much, and conceded, “Well Rival, guarding your heart is the best way to keep it safe.”

“It was to keep us both safe,” Kakashi corrected. He still had nightmares about Gai dying, viciously cut down by his own hand.

He expected something comforting, some kind platitude that echoed Gai’s endlessly positive outlook, but instead he fixed Kakashi with a steady gaze and said simply, “I will not die before you, Rival.”

It was a macabre challenge, the final challenge, to see who could outlive the other. Kakashi’s face fell, twisting in both hurt and disappointment. He felt repulsed, but then Gai raised a hand to his face, continuing softly.

“I will not die before you, because you have lost tremendously, lost more than anyone should ever have to.” He stopped, as if the next part was difficult to say, “I have lost you once now, and as painful and shattering as it was, I believe I could bear it again, so that you do not have to.”

Kakashi knew that there was no way Gai could guarantee that, guarantee it for sure, when neither of them knew what their future held, but Gai was looking at him with such conviction, and Gai never broke his promises, and Kakashi wanted so badly to believe him.

Kakashi took hold of Gai’s hands, guiding his fingers, and slowly pulled down his mask. Gai’s eyes sparkled with tears, as if Kakashi had given him some great gift. He didn’t move, uncertain of his boundaries, and let Kakashi do it all, at least until Kakashi tipped his head upward, and kissed him tenderly.

Gai’s lips were warm and thick, and pressed back against his with considerable weight. Kakashi lost track of their hands, in a desperate mess of holding and caressing and touching. It was the kiss he had been waiting for his entire life.

They separated slowly, long and drawn out, and afterwards Gai gently touched his face, trailing his fingers across his cheeks and the arch of his nose, brushing softly by his lips.

“You’re beautiful, Rival.” He saw clearly for the first time what it looked like when Kakashi blushed, “I knew you would be, you always were.”

“Gai…” Kakashi began slowly, “can we take tonight, only tonight, to have everything that we’ve always longed for, and when the sun rises, can we go about our lives normally, like it never happened?”

“Just tonight…” Gai repeated. He tried to smile, but it only thinly veiled his disappointment, “Not every day? From here on out?”

Kakashi swallowed, “No.”

His face must have shown how much he hated giving that answer, because Gai accepted it readily.

“Okay, my Rival.” He leaned forward and nuzzled Kakashi’s face, “What did you have in mind for our unspoken night of youthful passion?”

They were less frantic than Kakashi had always anticipated, less rapid. Still needy, still very desperate, but if this was to be their only night, then they would take their time and rush nothing. Kakashi’s vest came of first, as it was most intrusive and most easily removed, but no clothing followed it for a long while. They kissed until their lips were bruised and their tongues were swollen. They kissed until they were both sweating, and their clothes felt stuffy and uncomfortable.

This elongated, modest makeout was half due to Gai’s apprehension; he would make no move without Kakashi’s first initiation. However, Kakashi’s confusion was equally to blame; he had always wondered how Gai got in and out of his jumpsuits, with no apparent zippers or buttons, and finally he tugged at its fabric helplessly.

Gai quickly understood, and grabbing his jumpsuit by the collar, pulled on the fabric until it tore open, splitting straight down the middle. Ordinarily, this would have caused several hearty chuckles from Kakashi, but Gai’s skin shone with a thin layer of sweat, and he raised his hands immediately, running them over Gai’s chest and stomach, his muscles warm and dark, cut in sharp angles.

Gai’s hands slipped momentarily under Kakashi’s own shirt and then re-emerged. He looked at Kakashi questioningly. Kakashi nodded, and Gai raised his shirt slowly, trailing kisses up his chest. He started at his stomach, and paid extra attention to all his marks and scars. Kakashi’s skin flushed beneath Gai’s lips and tongue, each nerve alight. Finally, the shirt was pulled from Kakashi’s head, and Gai placed a number of delicate kisses along his neck; while he and Gai hurt one another minimally whenever they sparred, Kakashi had also always relied on Gai to be the one who touched him gently, so he didn’t fear the contact entirely.

Gai shifted on top of him, and their hips rolling together in one great, shattering motion. The first time caught them off guard; Kakashi gasped loudly, and Gai let out a low groan that came from deep within his chest. Gai looked at him once more, silently asking permission. Kakashi nodded vigorously, his mouth hanging open.

Gai gently lifted one of Kakashi’s thighs, rolling their hips together once more, in great, thundering waves, making them both gasp and moan until they were breathless, desperate, and straining against their pants. Gai’s hands hovered over his waistband, and Kakashi began to kick his pants off before Gai could ask permission.

Gai bent downward and apprehensively mouthed around him, through his underwear, in a wet heat that sent hot, electric currents running up his spine. Kakashi leaned back helplessly against the bed, and quickly grew closer than he cared to admit.

“Gai wait,” Gai lifted his head immediately, looking up at him from between Kakashi’s legs, his expression anxious, worried that he had gone too far, “that’s not what I want.”

“That’s not…” Gai’s face flushed crimson, “are you sure, Rival?”

“Yes.”

Gai blinked once, and began to kiss trail up Kakashi’s chest once more, stopping at his face, and kissing him roughly. He slid his tongue inside his mouth and swirled it around Kakashi’s own. His thumbs slotted underneath the waistband of his underwear, slowly sliding them down; he watched Kakashi’s face each moment, making sure each action was not only allowed, but welcome. He watched as a flush invaded Kakashi’s cheeks, and working to remedy this embarrassment, Gai split his jumpsuit further, peeling it away until he sat there in only his underwear. Kakashi reached out, and rested his hands on top of Gai’s thighs, watching his muscles ripple beneath the skin; he saw Gai’s outline, much thicker than his own. Gai slipped out of his underwear seconds later, so that they were both naked, perfectly exposed in front of one another.

Kakashi stared, and had the urge the reach out and touch him, to bend forward and feel him with his mouth. Gai positioned their legs together and then rolled his hips forward a single time. Kakashi whimpered and his head flew back, paralyzed by the feeling of Gai bare and rubbing against him.

Gai leaned forward and kissed him quickly, speaking in a breathy whisper by his ear.

“Rival, do you have...something to help us?”

Kakashi reddened, “No.”

Gai frowned, and thought perhaps Kakashi did not understand because he had been delicate.

“Do you have lu-”

No,” Kakashi repeated again, this time louder. Gai looked at him with surprise, “I-I ran out.” he lied. It had always confused Kakashi how he had gained a reputation for extensive sexual delinquency, when he was also well known for his aversion to most physical contact.

Gai nodded, and seemed to accept this excuse without question. Deciding on a different yet necessary course of action, he slipped his index finger inside his mouth. When he pulled it back out, it was gleaming with warm saliva. His expression widened with surprise as he slowly slid the finger inside him, discovering how tight Kakashi was, but he made no comment.

“Try to relax,” he said gently, and Kakashi knew that Gai had figured out the truth. Kakashi covered his face with his arm, feeling humiliated, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it for too long; Gai’s finger swirled inside him and Kakashi gasped. It was ceaseless, sliding out momentarily and then pushing back in, grazing gently against his sides.

Gai added a second finger, and then a third, until Kakashi’s chest rose and fell with heavy pants, and his back ached from arching.

“Enough.” he said finally, pushing Gai’s hand away, “That’s enough.”

“But-But Rival,” Gai spoke gently, “if you don’t prepare thoroughly-”

“It’s fine.” Kakashi said, and while his tone wasn’t angry, it was firm. He knew Gai wasn’t trying to be condescending, but the concern annoyed him for some reason.

Gai repositioned himself, and Kakashi felt a great heat emulating from him. Gai placed a firm hand on either of his hips, and pushed into him with agonizing slowness. Kakashi inhaled sharply and threw his head back; there was a brief flare of pain, and then endless, rippling bliss.

Gai slid all the way inside him and then looked up at Kakashi, his expression soft, his eyes brimming with tears.

“Rival...”

He was so sure and so calm, so confident in his actions. A lump grew in Kakashi’s throat, and he found it difficult to breathe. He felt as if he had lost out on something; he imagined them both younger, fumbling around in the darkness together, both inexperienced, both shy and hesitant. But tonight Gai had held him with the certainty of someone both experienced and skillful. Kakashi swallowed, and imagined Gai doing this with other people; he realized how different it all could’ve been, if only he had asked Gai to be his years ago. A small sob escaped him, and tears rolled down his cheeks.

Gai’s eyes grew wide, immediately alert, “Rival? What’s the matter? Are you alright?” He began to slowly slide out of him, but Kakashi shook his head and placed a quick hand around his waist, stopping him. Gai’s face tensed with worry, “Does it hurt?” He had likely never seen Kakashi cry from physical pain alone, but it seemed pertinent to ask. Kakashi shook his head again, his breaths short and quick. Gai leaned over him and pressed their foreheads together, “What’s wrong, Kakashi? Please tell me.”

It was hard to look at him, but Kakashi had nowhere he could turn, “You’re a veteran.” He tried to say it sarcastically, but it just sounded pathetic, bitter and hurt.

Gai blinked several times, and then his eyes grew wide with understanding. He leaned forward, and gently began to kiss his face, pressing kisses to his forehead and cheeks, fluttering by each of his eyes. He took Kakashi’s hands and curled their fingers together.

“Kakashi,” tears swelled in his eyes and fell freely down onto Kakashi’s own cheeks, “ever since I was a child, you have been my most precious person. It’s only you, only ever you. Always.” He kissed Kakashi gently on the lips, and then pressed a trail of kisses down his throat, broken by soft murmurs of only you.

Kakashi opened his mouth, determined to tell him all as much or the same, because Gai deserved to hear it, finally after all these years—but the lump still clung to his throat, pressing painfully down on his lungs.

“I’m sorry.” It was all he could manage. I love you, I’m sorry. I’ve loved you for years. I can’t say it, I’m sorry.

Gai shook his head, and squeezed his hands, “Don’t apologize, Rival. I know there are many words that are hard to say.”

Kakashi had tried to suppress another small sob, because while that may be true, Gai had said them all so well.

Gai reached up and held his face, gently brushing away his tears, “I know, Kakashi, really, it’s okay.”

“You know?”

“Of course I know.” Gai gave him a reassuring smile and brushed the hair out his eyes.

Kakashi sniffed, and then took a deep breath, the lump in his throat finally dislodging.

“You can move now...” he mumbled.

Gai began slowly, rising in and out of him in long, heavy drawls. Gai’s strong hands left small imprints of his hips, until Kakashi could only say his name, murmuring it over and over like a prayer. He quivered, and came looking up at Gai’s face, lit by a backdrop of a thousand twinkling stars. A few moments later Gai shuddered, and then collapsed on top of him, going limp and panting into Kakashi’s shoulder. Kakashi gently rubbed his back and gazed up at the sky.

They lay naked together afterwards, Kakashi on his stomach, his head turned towards Gai, who lay on his side, his head propped up under one arm. It was nothing short of perfection, an eternity in a few brief moments, the pinnacle moment of Kakashi’s whole life. He thought it must be.

“Kakashi,” Gai’s murmur broke through the silence, “in the morning, can I borrow some of your clothes?”

They stared at each other, and then Kakashi laughed, long and loud. The torn jumpsuit was crumpled at the end of the bed, looking rather sad and forgotten.

“I’ll get us pajamas,” he said, starting to stand, “do you want to shower? The water may still work. Are you hungry? There must be something in the cabinets...do you want some tea?”

An hour later, they laid back down, both full, both clean and clothed. The sheets were fresh too—Gai had insisted on helping him change the bedding. The held each other lightly, not clutching as desperately as before, but still seeking and finding comfort within one another. They spent a long time looking at each other, smiling through the darkness and starlight.

Gai fell asleep quickly, but Kakashi did not feel disappointed; he would stay awake through the night, cherish these last few hours, watching him sleeping and dreaming.

He thought of Gai’s question, Not every day? From here on out? He imagined having Gai with him always, feeling him every night, kissing him every day. At that point in his life, it seemed a tier of happiness that he did not think possible, did not believe existed. Surely, he thought, it was a dream too grand. Also, he could die. Gai could still die.

Kakashi lay awake and wrestled with those thoughts all night. He had a rather good view of the sky, and watched it grow lighter as the sun crept up slowly, budding over the horizon.

Gai awoke just after the sun rose. Kakashi pretended to be asleep, but held his fingers so tightly no one could truly believe him to be sleeping. Gai shifted slowly, raising the covers. He was leaving, leaving promptly at daybreak, as Kakashi had asked him. But Kakashi’s hand held tightly, and prevented him from going.

“Kakashi,” Gai’s voice was soft, and he leaned over him, “what do you want me to do? I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

There was a moment, a long moment of hesitation, and then Kakashi’s fingers relaxed, slowly relinquishing Gai’s hand.

“Okay,” Gai didn’t sound angry or upset, a great well of understanding, “if you will allow me to say one last thing on our unspoken night of youthful passion,” he leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, “I love you, Kakashi.”

He was gone in an instant. Kakashi’s eyes fluttered open, and with Gai gone, he began to cry. It seemed almost comical; his whole life was a tragic cycle of him asking Gai to leave, and then being surprised and upset when he did.

****

After that, to put it simply, things got better. They understood each other now, and while they never discussed their devotion to one another openly, it manifested itself in small ways, like a pin held a little too long when sparing.

With anyone else, this mingling of violence and sexual attraction could’ve been dangerous, but this was him and Gai, and their rugged pins, always accompanied by smiles, only served to remind them of the affection and intimacy that they still shared, even though it went unmentioned.

It wasn’t pining, not exactly. More like self-imposed restraint. It was still frustrating at times, and they still longed for each other, but it was much better than the terrible aching from before.

After that, the odd pattern of significant moments occurring on Gai’s birthday suddenly stopped, and Kakashi realized much later that they had only happened on Gai’s birthday because that’s when he chose to let them happen. It didn’t bother him much at first, but the changes in the world grew larger, more random and echoing, as if to tell him that he had slowly lost control of their lives. These changes marked the beginning of a series of events he had never expected, though perhaps always feared. The eighth gate, unfortunately, fell into this category.

The green days of Konoha are over. The time has come to become the red beast.

Lee had grown older, had become mature, and took this decision much better than Kakashi had, and with more dignity. His face had set firmly, tears streaming down his cheeks, “I am proud that you are my Sensei. It is your choice, and I support your decision.”

“I don’t.” Kakashi stepped forward, partly for emphasis, partly so that Lee and everyone else would be unable to see that his eyes had filled with tears. “You promised.” Gai flinched at his words, and then looked at the ground, “Gai, you promised me.”

Gai waited a moment, and then turned back to Rock Lee. Kakashi was stunned, and wanted to shout at the unfairness of it all, his protest overlooked, their promise broken. But then Minato placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, and told him to listen.

“Lee, this is your final lesson, and it is the most important one I will ever give you. When you find someone who you love, who you love more than any other, you must take hold of that person and love them for the rest of your life. This love will become the greatest, most precious and rewarding thing in the world, so do not be afraid of the feeling.” A small smile crossed his lips, “You will be thankful for it every day, and if the time comes, you must die to protect it.”

Kakashi shook his head incrementally, his voice filled denial, “Don’t.”

Gai stepped forward, and answered the question that Lee had always wondered; he placed his arms around Kakashi’s waist, and pulled him into a final kiss.

Kakashi let his anger fade away. Gai’s kisses were always warm, but this one quickly grew hot, scalding even, as Gai opened the eighth gate. The tears on Kakashi’s face evaporated, and small blisters began to form on his fingertips. The fabric of his mask was slowly being singed away, his lips burning underneath, but he only clutched Gai more closely. Eventually, Gai had to pull away, so as to no burn up his most precious rival.

Gai looked at him, long and apologetic, and then turned away. He said something to Lee, but Kakashi couldn’t hear him. He watched Gai step into battle, his whole body on fire.

They watched him fall. They watched Madara rise, injured yes, but still undefeated.

Kakashi did not allow himself to think that it had all been for nothing. They rushed to Gai’s side. Lee cried, and cradled his head in his arms. Kakashi stopped at his feet, and fell to his knees, his head hanging. It was heartbreaking to look at him; his skin, always so dark and so beautiful, was scorched and charred, almost black, broken with large cracks that ran in deep currents of orange and red. His body was slowly breaking down into ash.

This is what it feels like , he thought, the thing he had feared most his entire life. It was here; the worst thing he could ever imagine, and he could not see Madara kindly reviving everyone once this was all over. It was agony, and it felt like dying. Kakashi felt his arteries and veins shutting down, and his heart slow its beating.

But that wasn’t pragmatic, and it wasn’t what Gai had wanted.

“Lee,” Kakashi had very little control of his voice; it came out in gasps and long wheezes, sometimes soft and sometimes incredibly loud, “I will do my very best to train and guide you the way he –“

Lee’s voice cut through his pathetic rambling, sounding strangled and disbelieving.

“He’s breathing.”

Kakashi looked at the ground and shook his head sadly, because when had he ever been given a second chance when it came to someone close to him dying?

“He opened the last gate, Lee, the gate of death, he’s not-”

“Kakashi-sensei,” Lee’s voice grew urgent, “he’s breathing.”

Kakashi shook his head again, because the poor kid was imagining things. Though he knew it was foolish, he lifted his head just enough so that he could look at Gai properly once more. He watched him for a moment, and then saw the incremental rise and fall of Gai’s chest. He was imagining things—they both were, they both wanted it to be true so badly.

Kakashi scrambled forward on his hands and knees, and placed his ear against Gai’s chest. He waited. He listened. And there it was; a gentle rhythm, slow, with long stretches of silence in between, but it was there. It was beating, just barely.

****

Kakashi waited outside the medical tent with a level of restraint and patience that he thought quite responsible, mature even, given the circumstances. Other injured shinobi were crowded all around him, and healers dashed back and forth among the wounded, treating those with the most serious injuries and shouting self-care instructions to those who were hurt only mildly. One of them tried to look at his injuries, but he denied their help.

There was rustling at the entrance of the tent, and Kakashi sprang to his feet. Tsunade emerged, a deep frown lining her mouth. She took one look at him and shook her head.

“No,” her voice was firm, “absolutely not.”

Kakashi’s face fell and a thousand different protests sprang to his lips, but she let him speak none of them.

No, he needs absolute rest right now, no exertion, no talking,” she gave him a meaningful look, “no touching.”

Kakashi felt unfairly attacked, and was wholly ready to agree to those terms, if only he could just look, confirm with his own eyes that Gai was alright.

A voice rose from inside the tent, terribly hoarse, wonderfully cognizant.

“Ka-ashi?”

Tsunade gritted her teeth, and then let out a long sigh. She raised a hand and poked Kakashi hard in the chest, “Do. Not. Touch. Him.” She began to walk away, “And get back out here when you’re done! We need you to-”

Kakashi hurried inside the tent before she finished speaking. It was small, and left him little room to stand. Gai lay on his back, with most of his body covered in bandages. His skin was cracked and charred at places where it showed through the wrappings, lined with deep rifts where it had split open and fire had raged in a deep red-orange lines.

His face was burned too, and cracked with wide grooves, but he broke into a weak smile when he saw Kakashi.

“Rival...”

Kakashi knelt down beside him, his lips quivering.

With what looked like a great effort, Gai raised his hand to caress Kakashi’s cheek. He couldn’t feel most of it, but the fingers that touched the cheekbone above his mask were terribly rough.

“Doesn’t that hurt?”

“A bit.” Gai admitted. They looked at each other, and Gai’s head moved incrementally, like he was nodding, “You want to yell at me.”

“Yes,” Kakashi’s voice faltered, “but not right now.”

“I’m so sorry, Rival.”

Kakashi swallowed hard; the thing he feared for decades had come true, and it was still okay. It was all okay. A small tear escaped his eye and rolled freely down his cheek, before Gai brushed it away with his thumb.

Kakashi smiled down at him, “You should rest.”

Gai removed the hand from his face, grunting sharply as he put it back down.

“You’ll stay?”

“Of course.”

Kakashi shifted, and with extreme care, slowly laid down beside him, very close, but not touching. They were looking at each other, their heads turned to the side, gazing into each other’s eyes. They had been through pain and loss and war, and the very worst, they had lost and returned to each other, and still emerged intact on the other side. Scarred, perhaps, and older, yes, but Kakashi felt oddly young at that moment. Youthful, even, lying beside Gai, careful not to touch him, as if he was fourteen again, and had just realized that he was in love.

“Gai,” his voice was clear and the words were easy, “I love you. I’m sorr-”

“I love you too, Rival.”

“I’m so-”

“I love you too, Kakashi.”

“I’m-”

I love you.”

Kakashi frowned at him, but Gai smiled; he thought it was funny.

“I love you, Kakashi.”

“I-I love you too, but-”

“And that’s all you have to say.” Gai made it sound final, but Kakashi wasn’t willing to accept that answer.

“But…but I-”

“Rival,” Gai’s reached out for him again, this time taking his hand, “do you know what ‘eternal’ means?”

Kakashi stared at him, “It means ‘forever’.”

“That’s us.” Gai smiled, “Death cannot stop a youthful heart that loves.”

Kakashi blinked, and then gave a dry chuckle, “So you’re saying, even if you died, a ghost-Gai would still show up at inconvenient times and challenge me to rock-paper-scissors?”

Gai laughed, “If that was what you wanted, yes. But being alive, this,” he squeezed Kakashi’s hand, “is only one very small part of that rivalry, the shortest part, in fact. We’ll be dead for most of it.”

Kakashi wondered if that was always what Gai had meant, intended to be together always, the forever sort of always, even when he was child. He gently let go of Gai’s hand, because he knew it must hurt him to hold it, and balled his own hands into fists, because the urge to hold him back was overwhelming.

“Gai, things will be different when we’re back in Konoha, I promise.”

****

Several weeks later, Kakashi stood outside of Gai’s hospital room, wanting more than anything to go inside, but not knowing what he would say once he did. He took a deep breath, because he knew that simply standing there helped no one, and entered the room with one short knock.

“Rival!” Gai looked up at him in surprise; he had been crying.

They hadn’t been alone with one another since that day in the tent; there had been a flurry of activity in the hospital for weeks, and they were always surrounded by their students or nurses or other well-wishers. Not today though, not on the day of the funerals.

A week ago, the doctors had given Gai the all-clear physical contact. Immediately, he had been pulled into a tremendous hug from Lee. Kakashi had stood by his side, and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Two days ago, the doctors had told Gai that the damage to his foot was irreparable. He responded to the news positively, but Kakashi was unsure how genuine it was. Even for Gai, it must have been difficult new to stomach, and it was the thing that kept him from attending Neji’s funeral that very moment.

But Gai looked up at him fondly, full of his usual good humor.

“Have you finally come to yell at me, Rival?”

Kakashi walked up to his bedside and gave him a small smile.

“It still seems like a rather unfair time to do it.” He lunged forward, quickly planting a fist in Gai’s gut. It hadn’t been hard really, just caught him off guard more than anything. Kakashi kept his fist there, pressed firmly against Gai’s stomach, “That’ll be fifty hand-stand laps around the village,” he swallowed, “and don’t ever do it again.”

Gai placed a hand over his fist, holding it there, “Anything for you, Rival.”

Kakashi lifted his knee, slowly climbing into the bed and falling into Gai’s arms. He lay with his ear pressed to Gai’s chest, listening to the strong, steady beat of heart. Even now, Kakashi was relieved to hear it.

Gai held him tightly, “Thank you for coming today, Rival.”

Kakashi thought of Neji. He had lost Sasuke for a while, but he knew it wasn’t the same.

He spoke softly, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

Gai stroked his hair, “Me neither...Tenten and Lee are devastated.”

“They’ll be alright,” Kakashi said quietly, “they have each other, and they still have you.” He reached up and gently wiped his tears away, “They love and trust you.”

That made Gai smile, and Kakashi felt somewhat proud of himself for saying something right.

“Tsunade says I’ll be able to go home soon,” Gai said, “though I’m not sure about the stairs.” He gestured to his injured foot. He was laughing as he said it, but Kakashi sat up suddenly.

“Move in with me, Gai.” He sounded urgent, but he was very serious, “We can get a house on the outskirts of the village.”

Gai’s mouth fell open, “But won’t you be moving in to the Hokage’s residence soon?”

Kakashi frowned. Apparently, the news that Tsunade was retiring had traveled quickly.

“It doesn’t matter.” He knew he was being immature, “I’ll be the Hokage, I can do whatever I want.”

Gai grinned at him, clearly amused, “Is that the type of attitude the Hokage is supposed to have?”

“I’ll sneak out at night then, “Kakashi remedied, “if they really want me to live there, I’ll leave shadow clones behind. No one will ever know.”

Gai laughed, “And you’re prepared to do that for years?”

“It’s only until Naruto is ready.”

Gai looked at him, long and searching, and then—“What type of house did you have in mind?”

Kakashi smiled and guided Gai’s hands to his face, pulling down his mask. He stood on his knees and bent forward, kissing Gai’s face.

“A small one, just one floor.” Gai sought his lips but Kakashi smirked and denied him, kissing his cheeks, forehead and eyelids, “With a large kitchen for us to cook in.” He traced kisses down Gai’s throat. “A big front porch, and lots of windows.” He pulled Gai’s hospital gown open, pressing hot, wet kisses down his chest; he still bore lines and swirls of scars from where his skin had cracked open, now faded, but subtly lighter in pigment and raised above the rest of his smooth skin. Kakashi thought he was beautiful. “And we’ll have a large bed-” He had reached Gai’s abdomen, his hand searching underneath the rest of the hospital robe; Gai groaned and leaned back on his pillows.

There was a sudden, brief warning of footsteps, and then the door swung open.

Kakashi quickly pulled Gai’s gown closed, and Gai returned the favor, promptly pulling up Kakashi’s mask.

Tsunade entered, “Gai, we’ve-” She stopped, blinking several times, “Well, we had come to cheer you up, but I see that position has already been filled by somebody else.” She shifted and they saw Lee and Tenten standing behind her.

They all stared around at each other, shifting uncomfortably, and then Kakashi stood up.

“I should go.”

Gai protested, but Kakashi inclined his head towards Lee and Tenten.

“You have things to talk about.”

Then, in front of everyone, Kakashi bent down and kissed Gai briefly on the lips. Tsunade, Lee, and Tenten all stared after him as he left, and as the door was shutting he heard Tenten snicker, “Gai-sensei, you’re blushing.”

****

Moving in together had not occurred as hastily as Kakashi had hoped; with Madara defeated, there was still much work that needed to be done. There was also a high amount of anxiety that their alliances with the other nations would not stand, now that they no longer faced a dangerous mutual threat, and Kakashi was absolutely swamped his first few months as Hokage. He lacked the time to even go looking for a house, let alone begin to move into one.

Gai was nothing but patient, only making efforts to help and support him, and Kakashi relied on him tremendously during those months. They stayed together most nights; Kakashi’s shadow clones had proven quite affective, and he frequently snuck out to Gai’s apartment. Gai, still blessed with an incredible amount of upper-body strength and a propensity for acrobatics, had little trouble traveling up and down the stairs to his apartment. He saw it almost as a challenge, and Kakashi was glad their lack of one-floor home neither hindered nor upset him.

They did not find a suitable house until early winter that year, and began to move in just as the cold air began to hit. It was a bit bigger than they had initially planned, with one extra bedroom than they needed, but it was private, and because Kakashi had been firm about this particular aspect, it had a very large kitchen.

They were supposed to meet early for dinner on their first day after moving in. It had been Kakashi’s idea; a large meal to christen their new home, but there had been urgent news out of the Land of Lighting, and an unexpected visit from the Raikage.

Kakashi walked through the door just after midnight. Boxes and were still scattered around their home, not yet unpacked, and Gai greeted him in the living room. He was all smiles, not irritated in the slightest; Kakashi had sent him a hasty message that he would be late, and while Gai accepted the change of plans without complaint, Kakashi felt like he had failed him.

“I put your food in fridge,” Gai wheeled towards him, “it should still be good, all you have to do is heat it up.”

Forgoing the promise of his cooking, Kakashi stepped towards Gai and dropped to his knees in front of him, completely exhausted. He wrapped his arms around Gai’s waist and buried his face in his stomach. This was an action he had taken to performing quite frequently, a cure for both his exhaustion and his need for comfort. Although Kakashi had not planned for the outcome, it usually ended with rather desperate and frenzied sex, ill-supported by the wheelchair—they had broken two already.

Not tonight thought, Kakashi felt too guilty.

“I’m so sorry,” his voice was muffled, “I really wanted to be here tonight.”

Gai’s hands held his cheeks, gently tipping his head upward. He smiled, and slowly pulled down Kakashi’s mask, bending forward to kiss him sweetly. This was a habit he had grown accustomed to only recently; at the beginning, Gai had only removed his mask when Kakashi guided him through it, but now he reached for Kakashi’s face freely, knowing that the action wasn’t just tolerated, but treasured.

Gai pulled away, holding him tightly.

“You have nothing to apologize for. I’m so proud of you, Rival, and the work you are doing. I love you, Kakashi, and I love our home.”

“Gai,” Kakashi looked up at him, his expression sincere, “will you marry me?”

****

A wedding may not have been the best thing to begin planning when his work load had reached an all-time high, but it was something Kakashi felt needed to happen, and quickly. It didn’t help that the only real demand he had for the wedding was the date; however with New Year's fast approaching, they needed to either finish all their preparations in a few short weeks, or else be forced to wait until next year. They had intended for it to be small and private, mainly because it would be easier that way, but Naruto got hold of the information one morning, and then the whole village knew before noon, and the announcement across the front page of the next day’s newspaper informed anyone else who had been left out of the loop.

Many people attempted to convince him to not have their wedding outdoors in the middle of winter, but the date was the only thing Kakashi was truly adamant about. Gai was pleased with almost any decision, and so the preparations were taken rather forcefully out of their hands; Sakura and Tsunade, newly retired with nothing but free time, took charge of most of the planning. Lee and Naruto were also eager to help, both excited that their senseis were getting married, but they had no skill for planning weddings at all, and Sakura frequently complained that they were more hindrance than help.

Despite Naruto and Lee’s destructive good-intentions, the wedding took place on New Year’s Day that same winter, with most of the village in attendance. The snow was just barely holding off, and held in the town’s main square, the wedding was the culmination of everyone’s greatest hopes and wishes.

The wedding was held under a large, ivory tent as Tsunade envisioned, and displayed the small bits of crimson flare Sakura had imagined; a long red carpet ran down the center aisle, highlighted nicely by golden bowls of large, leafy poinsettias. Gold ribbons decorated the tent’s posts, and strings of warm lights glowed above their heads. Naruto and Lee were pleased because they were in the wedding party, serving as Kakashi and Gai’s best men, in charge of safe keeping the rings until the special day. For Kakashi and Gai, it was everything they had hoped for, simply because they were marrying each other.

After the ceremony, Kakashi moved to stand behind Gai, preparing to push him back down the center aisle. Unknown to Kakashi, the only part of the wedding Gai was adamant about, apparently, was the ending. He turned the wheelchair sharply, knocking Kakashi’s legs out from under him, and he partially fell, partially was lifted, into Gai’s lap, where Gai held him in his arms in an unmistakable princess-style. There was laughter from the crowd, and Lee stepped forward immediately and began pushing them down the aisle, indicating that this had clearly been premeditated.

Gai grinned and bent over him, kissing him tenderly, to the many whoops and cheers from the crowd, their friends and loved ones.

A large blizzard hit that night, snowing them in for days.

****

Kakashi gave a start; he had become deeply distracted while reminiscing, and now the pancake he had been cooking was badly burned. He sighed, knowing he would have to start again. Usually, when they cooked breakfast together, he and Gai held a contest to see how many times they could get a pancake to flip in the air before catching it back in the skillet; Gai held the current record at seven, but they held the challenge less frequently after a pancake was thrown a little too high and hit the ceiling. It had stuck there for several moments and then crashed back down onto a plate of bacon.

Kakashi finished making the pancakes and began to set the table. All else was done, ready and accounted for, except Gai himself. He frowned. Gai was late. Not terribly so, but having lived together for many years now, Kakashi had grown familiar with Gai’s schedule, and he usually had returned by now.

He worried that the food would grow cold, but just as Kakashi began to contemplate going out to search for him, he heard the sound of the front door opening.

Gai called out to him, “Husband, I’m home!”

After they had gotten married, Gai began using the words “Husband”, “Rival”, and “Kakashi” interchangeably.

He wheeled into the kitchen, his mouth open, but he forgot his words when he saw the table, laid extensively with food. Kakashi stood above it, pouring them tea.

“Happy Birthday, Gai.”

He set the kettle down, and then the infamous copy ninja, the honorable sixth Hokage, advanced towards his husband, wearing a white apron and dog-shaped slippers.

He stooped and kissed him, still warm, still kind after all these years. He felt Gai shift, and opened his eyes to find a large bouquet of flowers pushed in front of his eyes, the reason for Gai’s lateness. Gai grinned brightly.

“Happy Anniversary, Rival.”