Kakashi remembered a time when the word 'challenge' meant something. Fight with only fists to see who could last longer. Climb to the top of the mountain first. Swim farther. Race to the end of the longest trail in Konoha. Devise the perfect trap and force the other to spring it. Throw kunai the closest without grazing the other's skin. All of those challenges were dangerous, all of them a terrible idea, and all of them were ones Kakashi had accepted.

Over time, Kakashi thought prudence had led them to dial challenges down. Lift more weights. Do more sit ups or pushups in a shorter amount of time. Balance buckets of water while crossing a river. Climb up a rope faster. Hit the target with the kunai more accurately. Sense each other blindfolded.

But sometimes he thought things were a little too dialed down. Tic tac toe? Rock paper scissors? Saying tongue twisters faster? A ramen eating contest? Sometimes he felt like saying, We aren't old men, you know.

Bemused, Kakashi considered last week's challenge: hop across the training field on one leg, blindfolded, trying not to drop an egg held between chopsticks.

Kakashi flipped the page in his book without really concentrating. The words, as enticing as they were, drifted in and out of his head. He glanced up, across the sun-dappled field. A mild breeze brushed past him like a friendly cat, bringing with it the scent of sweet grass and honeysuckle. He gazed across the training field, at the peaceful grace of the forest. A thought whispered so subtly that he had to stop everything to put his finger on it.

How did things get like this?

He frowned, furrowing his brow. How did things get like this? He didn't know. He didn't know when the challenges changed from death defying to merely acts of skill and endurance, and when that had changed to these childish games they currently challenged each other at. Though Kakashi wouldn't be caught dead doing it in public. Gai had the flair for publicity. He didn't. He preferred their games to be a secret.

Gai, he reflected, doesn't care one way or the other. He is the supremely confident ninja, always sure of his own worth.

Whereas Kakashi perpetually worried that he was useless. He feared that one day a representative from the Hokage would come and retire him on the spot – whether he was training students or about to set off on a mission.

Gai would wait through his anxiety attacks – Kakashi never knew why – listen to all his worries, and then offer him some simple advice. The same advice, every time. Train. 'If you train,' Gai said, 'You won't have time for these thoughts anymore.'

And it worked. For a while. Then Kakashi would end up on Gai's doorstep again, half-drunk and mumbling about what a disgrace he was.

He wasn't a habitual drinker; he turned to alcohol every time he had an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, he'd learned much too early in life to medicate with sake. Jiraiya did the same thing, and after his father had committed suicide, Jiraiya had done a lot of self-medicating. Jiraiya and his father had been cousins. When his father committed suicide, Kakashi ended up in Jiraiya's care for a few years. Kakashi had watched him take down the bottle of sake from the cupboard with a little glass, sit down at the table, and drink. He'd pour, drink, pour, drink. Sometimes three times, even, before he'd say a word. Without looking at anything, really, just staring down at the cup or his hands. Kakashi watched from the shadows, habitually stealthy even though Jiraiya had always known he was there. It was always at night, after dinner.

'What are you doing?' he'd ask.

Jiraiya would always say the same thing. 'I'm fine.'

Then, when Kakashi was thirteen, the moment finally came. Instead of telling Kakashi he was fine, Jiraiya said, 'Want a drink?'

Kakashi never shared this story. Most of his teammates had similar first time experiences when their father or uncle finally turned to them and offered them a drink. They always reported being happy, even eager, to share in the adult ritual. Kakashi remembered well what he'd done.

He'd taken a step back. "What? I…me?"

Jiraiya had gestured for him to come over and sit at the table. "Sure, you're a jonin."

Kakashi had made jonin earlier that year. He crossed the room quietly, pulled out a chair across from Jiraiya, and sat.

Jiraiya poured him a cup of sake into the cup he'd already been using and passed it to him.

Kakashi's nose had burned from the fumes. He looked down into the cup at the clear liquid, picked up the cup with both hands, and drank it in one gulp. He thought he was supposed to. That was how Jiraiya always did it. He choked and coughed, then wiped his mouth. Sake burned. He'd never imagined that sake burned. It was like drinking acid. His mouth was on fire, then his throat, and chest, and stomach. He groaned.

'Wait for it,' Jiraiya advised.

Kakashi set the cup down, wiped his mouth again, and looked at Jiraiya warily. Then it had come: the buzzing warmth rising through him, making his face feel hot, his hands heavy.

'You drank a lot for a first timer,' Jiraiya said. 'One shot of sake should be enough to send you on your ass.'

'Why?' Kakashi mumbled.

Jiraiya had looked at him for a long moment. 'Feel that? It's gone away.'

And Kakashi understood. He looked at his hands, watched how slowly his reflexes responded, the way the ceiling was suddenly very interesting, and understood. Neither of them was real anymore, so neither of their pains was. 'It' had gone away: the world.

Sake was the perfect solution for an anxiety attack: the anxiety was tied to the world, and when the world went away, all that was left was mild discontent. For that Kakashi consulted Gai, and Gai always had the same solution. First, they'd snuggle on Gai's couch, and Kakashi would pour out all his worries, more or less in comprehensible words. Gai would hold him, and tell him comforting things he couldn't remember afterwards. Then, when he'd sobered up, Gai would tell him, 'Train, and do the best you can. No one can ask more of you than that, Kakashi.'

So how did their challenges go from fist fights and foot races to tic tac toe and games of tag?

Kakashi realized he'd completely drifted off subject. Not that that was a surprise. His thoughts tended to go in spirals, like the whirlpool symbol on his uniform. He sighed and closed his book. He couldn't concentrate. Not even Jiraiya's Icha Icha stories could distract him from the feeling that he didn't know something of impending importance.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed again. Gai should be along any minute now. Just when things were particularly still, Gai made his entrance. It was a skill. Predictable. When Kakashi felt like he did now, Gai's habit was welcome.

"Rival!" Gai's familiar voice carried across the training field.

Kakashi smiled and slipped down from his tree. He waved at the distant, green-clad figure. "Yo." He knew Gai knew where to find him. He never made a secret of his whereabouts. Still, it was common practice for him to acknowledge Gai unless he was intimately involved with his book.

"Rival," Gai called again, gladly. He ran across the field with typical youthful enthusiasm. When he was several yards away, he leapt into the air and crossed the distance between them with a somersault. He landed in a crouch, then straightened and planted his hands on his hips. "I have come to challenge you."

Kakashi snorted. "What is it now? A vision test? What happened to all the hardcore challenges we used to do?"

Gai stepped closer and placed his hand on Kakashi's shoulder. His eyes were filled with concern. "I don't want to hurt you or put you in danger."

Kakashi looked at him in surprise. That wasn't what he expected Gai to say. Maybe, 'I never want to use the same challenge twice.' But 'I don't want to hurt you?' "Gai…"

"If it's dangerous, or puts you in danger, I don't want to do it," Gai said. He frowned. "And that is not an insult, because if you could be injured, then I could be, too, and I don't want to run the risk of being injured when you need me the most. What if something happens to you, and I need to save you, but I can't, because I played some stupid game?"

Kakashi was silent. He looked at Gai with wide eyes, worried and uncomfortable. He didn't know how to answer the loyalty, the depth of feeling Gai easily offered up. His heart pounded painfully at his helplessness. Compared to Gai, a man who offered up his emotions for all to see, he was cold. He didn't know how to do the same.

"Gai…" He struggled to find words. "You've…never…" His gaze dropped. "…said something like that before."

"You never asked me before," Gai said softly. "Kakashi…I would do anything in the world to keep you from harm."

"Anything?" Kakashi's gaze slowly traveled back up to Gai's face.

Gai nodded, his expression serious. "Anything."

"Ah…" Kakashi didn't know what he wanted to ask for. He licked his lips. His mouth was suddenly dry. "I don't…know what to say."

Gai looked at him with curiosity and sympathy. "Say whatever comes from the heart."

"I want to…" Kakashi felt a surge of anxiety that stole the strength from his knees. "I want to…ask you…" He reached out with one hand, realized what he was doing, and dropped his hand back to his side, looking away in embarrassment. "Ah…" He'd never felt more self-conscious. He could only be glad there were no witnesses to this discussion. "I want to keep you," he muttered. He flushed at the awkwardness and weirdness of that statement. "In my life." That was less weird. "I mean, I don't want you to leave. Or…Or die."

Gai hugged him. He wrapped his arms around Gai's neck awkwardly, having to go for the high ground since Gai's arms were wrapped around his waist, constricting which parts of Gai could be embraced. Kakashi hadn't hugged Gai when he was sober. For one thing, he'd thought the touch would be unwanted. Who would want to touch him? Gai had done it out of sympathy, he'd thought.

"I'm not going to leave," Gai whispered in his ear. "Or die."

Kakashi felt a shudder travel down his back, and an electric surge of arousal shot through his stomach to his groin. He gasped, shocked at himself. "Don't."

"I won't."

A surge of arousal shot off again, stronger than the first. Kakashi felt his stomach tighten and his pulse race. He had never experienced Gai this way. But then, Gai had never whispered promises into his ear before.

Gai cradled him, pressing their bodies together. "I won't leave. I won't die. I'm not going anywhere."

Every breath on his ear gave Kakashi a burst a flutters. He'd never known someone could make him feel this way. Especially not by breathing on his ear. "Ah…" He closed his eyes and clung onto Gai, panting and needing more. If he had to let go of Gai now, he'd have a psychotic break. "Gai." Kakashi pressed his face against the side of Gai's neck, hoping Gai got the message.

Gai let out a surprised whimper. "Kashi."

A burst of warm flutters cascaded through Kakashi at hearing the intimate shortening of his name. Gai hardly ever used that name. Every time he did, Kakashi felt…special. Somehow irreplaceable. He kissed Gai's neck where his lips rested against the warm, soft skin. It wasn't enough. Kakashi moaned, nibbling and sucking. He could feel himself getting hard. "Don't. Ever. Leave." He punctuated each word of that command with kisses.

"I won't."

Kakashi could feel Gai's voice rumble through his body. He moaned, past the point of being able to pretend like this wasn't happening. He mouthed Gai's neck and ran his tongue over the spots he'd kissed. Gai shivered against him.

"Kashi, don't stop, either," Gai said. "Don't stop." He squeezed his eyes shut plaintively.

Kakashi's legs went weak with the surge of arousal that flooded him. If this were a manga, he'd collapse with a nosebleed. "Oh, god." He never imagined that something like this would happen to him. He read Icha Icha because he thought that was the closest he'd get to actual sex and intimacy. "I won't," he promised, his voice coming out stronger than he'd intended it to.

Gai moaned and bared his neck to Kakashi's consequent licks and kisses. Kakashi felt a surge of love and protectiveness. No. I will never let you down. He was suddenly determined to make Gai feel as much pleasure as humanly possible. He felt oddly in control; something else he never could have imagined. He'd always thought himself too much of a coward to make the first move on anyone, and here he was, kissing Gai's neck and doing all sorts of other things with his mouth to try to get Gai to moan the loudest.

Gai gripped Kakashi's vest tightly, digging his fingers in. "Kashi. God. Kashi. Need to lie down."

The announcement made wetness bloom in Kakashi's underwear. Lie down?

Kakashi suddenly realized they were in a public place. He did not want anyone watching this. His feelings were private. Gai's privacy ought to be protected. He teleported them into his living room.

"My…My bedroom?" he offered hesitantly.

"Take me there."

The needy note in Gai's voice made Kakashi's stomach tighten with arousal. "Okay."

He led Gai to his bedroom, one arm around Gai's waist, bodies still pressed together. Gai snuggled against him shamelessly, a fact that made Kakashi blushing and hard. He pushed open his bedroom door and gazed upon the full size bed within. "Okay," he said softly. "We're here." He led Gai to the bed, grateful that he'd done his bedroom laundry yesterday and that his bed was made.

Gai sank down on the bed, lying on his back, tilting his head back to expose his neck and closing his eyes.

Kakashi's heart skipped a beat. He climbed onto the bed and crawled into position, laying himself over Gai's body. He felt hot all over at the intimacy, the way their bodies fitted against one another. He extended his tongue and licked Gai's neck tentatively.

Gai moaned.

Kakashi was suddenly achingly hard. He let out a small, breathless moan of his own. He suddenly realized he had no idea what he was doing – only passion and scenes from Icha Icha. He wondered if Gai was in any better shape. Probably not, knowing Gai.

Still, he couldn't stop here. And he didn't think Gai wanted him to, anyway.

He licked and sucked Gai's neck until Gai was crying out and squirming. Gai's shifting underneath him made Kakashi leak in his underwear, the friction enough to tease his erection. "C-Can I take off your flak jacket? Gai?"

Gai let out a whimper and nodded, opening his eyes at the question, looking up at Kakashi through his eyelashes. "Uh…Uh-huh."

Kakashi unbuckled the flak jacket slowly and tenderly. He helped Gai out of it and dropped it on the floor beside the bed. A moan caught in his throat at the sight of Gai's torso, green spandex a second skin. He caressed Gai's ribs with both hands, sitting up and straddling Gai's waist. "Gai…" He was mesmerized by the sight of Gai's hardened nipples underneath the spandex. After a moment of wide-eyed staring, he slowly shifted his hands upward to stroke them.

Gai let out a plaintive moan and arched his back.

That sound crashed through Kakashi like electricity. "You like this…Gai?" There was something wonderful about saying Gai's name in a situation like this. It became a soft, intimate word. He stroked Gai's nipples through the spandex.

Gai arched his back again and whimpered. "Yes! I do…"

Kakashi was brought to panting. "You want me to do it some more?"

Gai trembled underneath him. "Yes. Yes…"

Oh, god. Kakashi struggled to catch his breath. He was dizzy, overwhelmed at this moment. Someone was begging him to touch them. Him, the person people acted like they wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. The person who was unofficially voted the scariest person in Konoha. And the person who wanted him was Gai, of all people. Gai, the person he relied on, the person whom he'd shown his vulnerable side to. He drank in this moment, stroking Gai's nipples, squeezing them gently, rubbing them.

"Kashi…" Gai shifted, and Kakashi could feel Gai's erection for a second against his tailbone. Gai moaned, his head resting to one side, his eyes closed. His long, dark eyelashes were beautiful. A contrast to the strong features of his face.

Kakashi knew suddenly that he was in love. That this feeling was always just beneath the surface. This feeling was the reason why he'd come to Gai in the first place, why he always wandered over to Gai to be comforted when he was sick at heart and half-drunk. He'd been in love the whole time.

Though it was a new experience for both of them, filled with stops and starts, they made love. And in the end, when they rested in each other's arms, they were both satisfied.