Now is the Time

Gai-sensei once went over seventy-two hours without using his left foot.

I wasn't there to know for sure how it began, but I assume it had something to do with his rival, either a challenge or an offhand comment that snowballed into some sort of personal test. (I write all these things down in my notebook regardless.) Sometimes I wonder if Hatake Kakashi has a mean streak under that mask. But Sakura-san wouldn't tolerate someone like that, so I know it's really me who's tainted with jealousy.

I was there to see how Gai-sensei managed it, however, balancing his left foot against his inner right thigh—Tree Pose—while fixing dinner. And when his right leg fatigued from overuse, he'd switch to his hands and walk, or stop to stretch his inverted muscles with pointed toes. Even this would become a test as his legs bent and curved forward, poised to strike above his head—Scorpion Pose—while the rest of him strained to hold still as long as possible, no matter where he was in the village.

I went by his house about three days after he'd started this new habit. He hadn't canceled our training session, so I hopped partway on one leg and then cart-wheeled on just three limbs up to his door in preparation, programming my body to endure the same handicap whether I understood it or not.

Gai-sensei greeted me at the door with both feet on the ground.

"GAI-SENSEI!" I pointed in shock. Then I kicked at his foot and lunged into the apartment so that his record wouldn't be broken—the idea of him losing to someone like Kakashi was unthinkable to me.

"Wait, Lee!" he said, flipping over a stack of bar-bells in his living room floor and out of my reach. "It's okay, don't worry!"

"But—" I stood inside the door, still on only one foot, unsure.

Gai-sensei laughed, closing his eyes and throwing his head back. I think I must have frowned; he saw my expression and came closer to thump his arm around my shoulders and topple me back out the door.

"That training is over, Lee."

"So… then you won? Gai-sensei?" I watched his face, so close to mine. His eyes flicked down, and his mouth smoothed into something wistful—I ached to know who it was in his thoughts.

"Lee. We're going to do something even better today."

And he was right—only not in the way I'd hoped.

I probably have thirty notebooks full of information on training and philosophy. And on Gai-sensei.

Neji and Tenten know, I think, but they've never called me out even though we still tussle and tease each other. The rivalry between me and Neji remains, although the needle of my compass now points elsewhere. Our team is much the same all grown-up.

I was headed North, busy scribbling in one such notebook when someone called my name.


I looked up to see Sakura—her smile as gorgeous as ever—hurrying over from across the street. She held a bouquet of daffodils, and I glanced behind her to see the familiar calligraphy on the sign of the Yamanaka shop.

"Sakura-san!" I grinned, thrusting my notebook into a pocket so that I could return her friendly hug in greeting.

"Oh, Lee-san, did you hear?"

I shook my head, my eyes catching the dark circles under hers even through their happy green sparkles. She was positively glowing.

"Kakashi's going to make a full recovery!" She sighed and closed her eyes while mine boggled at this unexpected news since I hadn't heard he'd been injured. Had I been that busy with training?

"Sakura-san, what happened? Was it serious? He's okay? Tell me everything!"

She laughed and squeezed my arm. "He's fine, he's fine." Her smile quieted from the relief of deep emotions. "He was injured on his last mission; it was pretty bad. For three days he was hardly out of surgery—but he finally stabilized and pulled through."

"Three days?"

"Yes," she nodded, curling a short lock of hair behind her ear. "We'd fix one thing, then something else would go wrong… he's lucky Tsunade-sama is here. I'm lucky. It's a miracle—just like when she healed you."

"Three days…" I repeated, a sharp thud in my chest recognizing the correlation, but not the one Sakura thought she was reading on my stunned face.

Sakura smiled, turning her body to suggest we walk together. "Are you going this way? I'm headed over to see Kakashi now, would you like to come?"

I could see her standing beside me, so expectant, but my eyes were focused inward on Gai-sensei's form moving from one task to another using only one foot, a silent vigil while his eternal rival fought in the hospital to stay alive. And all at once I knew I couldn't wait anymore—the surge of my feelings was overwhelming faced with Gai-sensei's humility and his capacity to endure for the sake of others.

I folded Sakura into my arms, squeezing her tight. "Kakashi-san's lucky to have you," I said, stepping away. "I'll visit in a few days when he's got his strength back, but please give him my best!"

"Ah, okay then!" Sakura smiled, adjusting the flowers in the crook of her elbow. "See you!"

"Goodbye, Sakura-san!" I waved, and then put both my feet in motion.

Gai-sensei couldn't have been expecting me, but I found him at home, in-between tasks, yet with nothing simmering on the stove to stop me.

He said my name, his lovable face curious about my sudden arrival but not opposed to my company. I took off my flak jacket, slid my arms around his body and kissed him.

If it had been anything less pure, I think he would have stopped us there. But like I said, we're not men who do things halfway, or men who seek an easy path when we can meet a challenge and grow—perhaps together—instead. I clutched this belief to me as we moved from the genkan to entwine on the sofa, our mouths quickly raw from such immediate, intense kisses.

In the bedroom, we stripped each other's last pretensions. I don't know what it's like for others, but for us there were no games, no egos. Just honest desire and mutual admiration, a discipline so ingrained in us both that our first union stretched on for hours. Gai's hard muscles and gentle hands stirred me to the core, my legs spread wide for our hips to meet—The Flower in Bloom—in a slow, excruciating rhythm that built and built until it transcended far beyond the pleasure of our bodies… and I think I'm falling into something even more significant than love, yet love all the same.

Gai-sensei taught me long ago how to achieve bliss from physical exhaustion, yet I'd never dreamed it could be like this.

It's true that Gai-sensei snores.

I knew this from the beginning, at twelve years old, from our first away-missions as Genin: Gai-sensei sleeps with the same full-throttle attitude that he lives his life.

Those snores tickled my neck and collarbone where I held him close against me for the first half of the night. Somewhere between the conflict of wanting my notebook and not wanting to move away from the precious person beside me, I fell asleep, waking to find that somehow we'd shifted so that he held me from behind.

What woke me up was Gai-sensei easing his arm from underneath my head, the warmth of his body following as he slipped out of bed. Disoriented, I turned my head enough to see him disappear into the bathroom. The toilet flushed, and the shower started, and I had time to study how the blue glow of dawn filled the room.

I wasn't sure whether to get up, or to stay where I was under the sheet. My muscles ached in an entirely new way. Then the shower stopped. My heart leapt into my throat when the bathroom door clicked open and Gai-sensei came out, rubbing his head with a towel. I blinked, not knowing exactly what to say, but he walked right past the bed and through the door. From the other room I heard the clink of something in a kitchen cabinet, and then water running from the tap.

Perhaps if we'd had the excuse of alcohol, it wouldn't be so awkward.

Hiding behind a hangover must be so much easier; so much easier to pretend it didn't happen, to shut our hearts away so they can't be broken by the other. But that's not the kind of shinobi we are. I'm not a man who takes the easy road, and I'm exactly this way because of him—so why won't he look at me? Why are my eyes having trouble looking at him?

Gai-sensei returned and set a glass of water on the nightstand beside me, then sat down on the edge of the bed and continued to rub his hair dry. I watched and wondered if it was discipline that kept him at a distance, or if it was discipline that kept me from closing it. Eventually he shook his hair more or less into place, resting the towel around the back of his neck.

"I thought pancakes would be good for breakfast," he offered, turning his head towards me but not enough to meet my eyes. Mine dropped.

"I heard that Kakashi-san is going to pull through," I said, shocked at what had decided to come out of my mouth.

Gai-sensei started from the abrupt change in topic, and I knew my cheeks had gone red from chagrin. What the hell? Couldn't I have said something more generic like… like "I love pancakes" or something?

"Yes, he is," Gai chuckled despite the awkwardness. "We're very lucky that Konoha has the best medical specialists in the world."

I could see Gai's mouth curl into a smile, and it pained me to think how Kakashi could influence him so strongly, jealousy rising even though I knew I'd been the one to bring him up. I'd also been the one to take the first step, so I made a fist to steel myself. There really was no turning back now.

"I know why you stood on one foot," I said. "But… what if he'd died? Gai-sensei?"

Gai's brows shifted into the center of his forehead, and for a moment we were both still, until he reached out his hand and found my leg. We watched the movement, instead of each other, while he tugged on the sheet and pulled my left foot onto his bare thigh. He stroked his hand along my shin and down over the slant of my toes.

"Losing Kakashi would be like losing my left leg," Gai said. He turned to me, his eyes wrinkling at the corners as he smiled a smile that warmed my whole being. "But losing you, Lee, would have made my life meaningless."

"Sensei," I whispered.

I couldn't help the tears, and most of me didn't mind them since Gai-sensei had them too. We moved so that the last distance between us would be quashed for all time, pressed into nothingness between our heartbeats. Gai smelled of soap and sunshine, and I rubbed my nose into the side of his neck and kissed the line of his jaw. And then we made pancakes.

I could have said, "You're the most precious person I've ever had."

He could have said, "You've always been the only one for me."

Instead, at least this time, we filled our bellies with carbohydrates and then returned to our lessons of the flesh. Gai-sensei brushed all my jealousy away, his body giving any and every reassurance until I was satisfied. I held him in my lap, his legs wrapped around my shoulders as we rocked together to discover that The Lotus was not just a Yoga pose, or a forbidden Taijutsu move. But we are the only masters of all three.

I'm definitely going to need another notebook.