Chapter 2


The timing of going out with Kakashi was perfect. In two weeks, he would be meeting his old friends for a reunion. In theory, they would all be there; the major and minor players in his life before he became as close to Kakashi as he did in their twenties.

And even though Gai did not want to rub his sudden blinding success in their faces, he did want them to meet Kakashi and accept Kakashi's new role in his life.

He discussed it with Kakashi over lunch two days after their big breakthrough as a couple.

"I've met them before," Kakashi pointed out.

"I know." Gai squirmed. "But that was as my friend – my rival! This is different. I want them to see who you really are."

And Kakashi laid a calming hand on his arm. "I'll go." The small, soft smile he'd begun giving Gai when Gai confessed his feelings emerged again, making Gai's anxieties melt away.

The day of the reunion came, and Kakashi and Gai headed out for the reunion lunch. It took place at a barbeque joint that Gai and his friends had settled on years ago. Gai assured Kakashi it was a come-as-you-are kind of gathering, so they both wore their ordinary work clothes.

"Besides," Kakashi had teased, "I don't know if anyone would recognize you if you weren't wearing skintight green clothing."

Gai's response that his friends knew what he looked like and had much better eyesight than that missed the point that he was being teased, and in truth, a tiny part of him actually knew that and just enjoyed the banter he and Kakashi fell into with each other.

When they arrived at the barbeque joint, Gai saw his friend Kuriga already sitting at a table, awaiting everyone's arrival. He stood out with his bald head, short nose, and baseball jacket. Underneath the unzipped jacket was a white shirt with a blue logo. Kuriga's habitual baseball cap, white and red, rested on the table.

Gai marched up to his old friend proudly, his arm around Kakashi.

"I am not wonderful and virtuous!" Gai announced.

Kuriga stared at him; that kind of stare he received when someone had fundamentally failed to comprehend him. "Uh…"

Gai broke out into a beaming smile. "I am gay!"

Kuriga's jaw dropped with a sound of disbelief. "Are you serious?"

Gai tightened his arm around Kakashi and stood proudly, his head held high and his chest puffed out. "Indeed! I have found the love of my life."

Kuriga fell out of his chair and stumbled. He recovered his balance and then jabbed an accusing finger at Gai. "You're not gay!" he yelled, his face flushing.

Kakashi chuckled and leaned against Gai, smiling. "Maa, maa, calm down."

Kuriga's chakra flared, flaming blue, and he turned his fury on Kakashi. "This is your fault! You did this! What did you do to him? You pervert!"

Gai took in Kuriga's reddened face with wide eyes, blinking and stunned. Then he pulled Kakashi behind him protectively. "Kakashi didn't do anything. Please, Kuriga. Don't be angry with him."

Faced with his childhood friend, inches away from a battle, Kuriga deflated. He sighed, hanging his head.

Gai relaxed. Mostly. He looked at Kakashi uncertainly.

Kakashi rubbed his back, looking at Gai with concern.

Gai's shoulders slumped.

Kuriga raised his head and looked at Gai, dropping into an incredulous stance, one hand propped on his hip. "Really, Gai. You think you're gay?"

Gai felt prickled. He clenched his jaw stubbornly and allowed Kakashi back out to his side. "Yes, I do, Kuriga. I'm asking you to respect that. As my friend."

Kuriga dropped back into his chair with a sigh and looked up at Gai with a sulking expression. "You big dummy."

Gai was aghast at this. "What's so dumb about this?"

Kuriga sighed. He propped his chin in his hand and ordered a beer from a passing waitress. Then he turned his attention back to Gai. "You're not gay, that's what."

Gai's arm tightened around Kakashi again. Somehow, he felt threatened that Kuriga could actually take Kakashi away from him. He knew that would be impossible…and yet he was scared. "I am, too. Don't you think I know myself well enough that –"

"You don't know yourself well enough," Kuriga pointed out. "This is a pretty sudden decision, coming to the decision that you're gay. That alone says you're not secure in who you are. Gai, don't kid yourself. This isn't something you can realize overnight."

"Yes, it is," Gai said, hurt. "I did realize it overnight. And everything's better now. Why can't you be happy for me?"

Kuriga sighed. "Because you're making a mistake."

"Oi," Kakashi said, his voice calm and yet firm. "Gai is the judge of Gai's sexuality. That is not something another can dictate to him. You can't tell a man his identity, nor did Gai ask for any advice on his identity."

Gai's gaze flicked to Kakashi. He studied Kakashi's face, wavering inside. Then he grudgingly looked to Kuriga. "Let's sit down and wait for the others. We'll have a nice time." His tone was not as cheerful as he would have liked. In fact, there was a hardness to it just underneath the surface. He didn't often give orders, and he didn't like giving orders to his friends. But he had always been the unofficial leader, and though he usually ducked that responsibility...Kakashi motivated him to take charge for once.

Kuriga studied the grain of the table. "Yeah."

Gai wished Kuriga would respond to Kakashi, but he knew realistically that Kuriga would drop the subject altogether.

He looked to Kakashi again. "Shall we?" The unspoken question: Do you want to just leave? I'm sorry how things turned out.

"Certainly." Kakashi dropped into a chair with a practiced air of ease, the definition of laidback, although in truth he was on guard for verbal attacks.

Gai pulled out the chair next to Kakashi's and sat down, trying to swallow his nervousness. These were his friends. He shouldn't be scared of them. Certainly not. Not even nervous. He should be overjoyed to see them again. And I was, the thought rebelliously popped up. Until Kuriga opened his big mouth and - Gai couldn't even allow himself to think it. He didn't dwell on people's flaws.

Gai settled his arm around Kakashi and vowed to stay, no matter how choppy the waters got. This was his reunion, too. He was entitled to it.

He forced a smile. Though to most people, it looked as innocent and cheerful as always. "So how's your wife? Where is she?"

Kuriga looked up from the table and relaxed at the sight of Gai's smile. "Oh, she's running late. The kids, you know."

"Ah...how is that?" Gai had no idea what one did with biological children. That kind of responsibility was frightening to him.

Kuriga scratched his head and looked away, an affectionately wry smile emerging. "Oh, you know. Kids are kids."

"Will Tomoya-san be here?" Gai asked.

Kuriga's gaze jerked back to him. "Oh, yeah, she'll be here. She knows how important this is to me. She likes the guys, too. She's really warmed up to them over the years."

Tomoya, an elite kunoichi, had been an ANBU captain before marrying Kuriga, and still was part-time. She was as sharp as razor blades around most people. Initially, she'd cut the whole group to ribbons. Gai had sympathized; sort of. Tomoya reminded him of who people thought Kakashi was.

Gai caught himself drumming his fingers on the table and stopped, guiltily withdrawing his hand. He shouldn't give himself away with such an obvious nervous habit.

Kakashi watched Gai's nervousness with some concern. He knew how badly people could take this kind of news, so he was sympathetic. He hoped for Gai's sake that Kuriga was the only one who would object.

Being introverted and around an unknown man, he chose to remain quiet.

Kuriga soon launched into a rambling story about what his five year old son had done the other day, thus leavening the mood until the next two people arrived. They arrived side by side, though they weren't particularly together. In fact, Gai noticed for the first time that all his friends seemed sort of separate from each other. Aside from fighting together on the battlefield from time to time, no one had much in common with anyone else.

Yoshida, tall and slim as ever, had grown out his hair again. His glossy black hair was tied back in a ponytail. He wore a green sleeveless martial arts shirt with orange gi pants, his classic training clothes. In addition...

Gai stood and pointed. "Ah! Your face! It's -"

Yoshida laughed. "I know. Right?" He touched the new scar on his cheek self-consciously.

"Hey, Yoshida!" Kuriga grinned at him without getting up. "How's things?"

Yoshida dropped into a chair beside Kuriga. "Things're going. It's alright."

"What did you do?" Kuriga asked with a smirk. "Cut yourself shaving?"

Yoshida laughed, though it had that edge of so-help-me-I'll-kill-him Gai was so familiar with. "No, no, it happened in an accident on the battlefield. My mask slipped - someone cut the strap - and then I was facing this missing nin bare-faced, right?"

Yoshida gestured. "So I'm trying to put my mask on, trying to kill this guy at the same time, and wouldn't you know it, my partner's asleep! Snoring away."

Gai withheld comment.

Instead, he turned to Kakashi and smiled. "This is Yoshida." He looked back to where his other friend had been standing. "And this is-" He stopped when he realized his other friend had disappeared. "Huh? Where did he go?"

"Usui?" Yoshida said casually.

"Yeah."

Yoshida shrugged. "I dunno. He does that."

Gai rubbed the back of his head and smiled at Kakashi apologetically. "He does do that..."

Usui was another ANBU friend. In his case, it showed.

Kakashi gave Gai a sheepish grin. He hadn't caught Usui's disappearing act. "I see . . ."

Gai slowly sat back down. "He'll come back. He probably just..." Actually, Gai had no idea. He never had any idea.

Kakashi was filled with the 'all these people have a long history and I'm the odd one out' feeling, although he had agreed to this willingly. "That's all right. I'll see him when he returns."

Gai smiled at Kakashi awkwardly. He saw the look in Kakashi's eye and was reminded that his loved one was the type of man who was happiest reading porn in an abandoned training field on a sunny day. Internally, he winced at the fact that he'd dragged Kakashi out of his comfort zone.

Kakashi ordered a mint julep from a passing waitress and began slowly nursing it as soon as she returned with it.

Given it was a BBQ joint, the cocktail selection was very small.

Gai, marginally relieved by that move, wondered if he shouldn't drink himself...except for him, that always turned out poorly for some reason.

Yoshida finally registered the difference in the group at the table compared to previous reunions. His gaze slid to the silver-haired man with the mint julep. "Hey...You're Sharingan Kakashi, aren't you?"

Gai grinned his biggest boyish grin. "Gomen...Yoshida, this is my eternal rival, Kakashi. Except...we're not so much rivals anymore, we're more like..."

Kuriga raised an eyebrow, waiting for it.

Gai flushed hotly.

Kakashi sipped his julep nonchalantly.

Usui chose this moment to come out of the bathroom, visible across the restaurant from where Gai sat. He wore his usual billowing white cape and Suna-style turban. Trussed up with extra tasuki was a man Usui dragged along beside him. He deposited the man at the bar with a few muttered words. The nearest waitress let out a shriek.

Nonchalantly, Usui turned away, leaving the tied-up man on the floor, and walked over to his friends. "I found a suspect in the bathroom."

Gai laughed. "No..." He studied Usui's solemn expression. "Really?"

Usui nodded. "He's on the most wanted list."

"In our barbeque joint?" Kuriga complained. "These missing nin have no propriety."

Usui sat down, not even cracking a smile.

Gai laughed for him. He usually did.

He turned to Kakashi and gestured. "This is Usui."

Kakashi took this in with dry humor. "Yo," he said to the man.

Usui looked at Kakashi with a moment of puzzled interest, then inclined his head. "...Yo." Comprehension dawned. "You're Gai's rival, aren't you? The one that keeps him on his toes? Gai talks about you." He gave Gai the slightest hint of a smile. "Actually, you're all he does talk about."

Gai found himself blushing again. "Well...It's a boring life aside from Kakashi..."

Kuriga snorted. "Kakashi-sama certainly makes things interesting, that's for sure."

Gai was filled with an unfamiliar feeling. The feeling like...he really wanted to grab Kuriga by the neck and squeeze.

Kakashi leveled an expressionless gaze at Kuriga. "I do my best," he said, deadpan.

"As do we all," Usui said solemnly.

Kuriga rolled his eyes and cupped his chin in his hands. "Killjoy," he muttered.

Yoshida laughed, interrupting the would-be argument. "So how are things going, Usui?"

"Work is work," Usui said.

Gai cleared his throat. "Kakashi is..." He found himself looking at Yoshida and Usui nervously.

"Yes?" Usui asked.

"Yeah," Yoshida said, sitting up straighter. "You were just about to tell us something when Usui came out of the bathroom."

Gai felt an unaccustomed wave of misery. He ran his arm around Kakashi's waist and squeezed. "Kakashi's my boyfriend," he mumbled, unable to look at anybody. His chest was hot in an unpleasantly fluttery kind of way.

Kakashi lifted one hand and waved at them cheerfully. "That's me!"

Gai grinned in spite of himself, some of the burning in his chest disappearing.

Yoshida's eyes widened for a split second. Then he was laughing like a man driven.

Gai knew that laugh. That was the Yoshida laugh of utter hysterics.

He resisted the urge to smack his forehead.

Yoshida realized his reaction did not bode well and attempted to stop laughing. He brushed his hair out of his eyes. "I mean...Gai...You...Really? I..." His voice cracked. "That's wonderful!"

Gai really wanted to beat his head against the table, but he'd crack it in two if he did that. The poor table wouldn't be able to take his hard head.

"I realized it two weeks ago," Gai said. His voice came out shakily.

"That's wonderful!" Yoshida exclaimed. "I mean...fantastic!" He'd broken a sweat. A panic sweat. "You just - you knew - so you -" He declined into laughter again, which trailed off after a moment. "I'm happy for you, Gai. You've never been completely happy before."

Gai flinched, and then rubbed the back of his head. He prided himself on always appearing completely happy.

"Shut up," Usui suggested in a monotone.

We cracked him, Kakashi thought.

He mentally shrugged.

Yoshida looked at Usui, startled, and then at the table.

"Yeah..." Kuriga muttered.

"Your choice is not unusual," Usui said, staring Gai down.

Usui' stares were uncomfortable, but Gai had to admit he was relieved that his most level-headed friend actually approved. Or respected him.

Kakashi took in this response with a nod. Usui seemed reasonable, if dry.

"Congratulations," Usui added as an afterthought. "To both of you."

Gai gave Usui a small but genuine smile. "Thanks."

"Thanks," Kakashi said as well. He sipped his julep again. It was more bitter than he'd expected, but it was good enough.

He leaned into Gai a bit, relaxing further. Or appearing to, at any rate. Internally he was still very alert and on guard for Gai's sake.

Gai squeezed Kakashi gratefully. He had to admit he could relax knowing at least Usui was on his side. As much as he hated to value one friend's opinion over another, Usui was someone he respected to a near-painful degree.

Kuriga reacted to the next arrival first. "Hey, Bara!"

Yoshida looked up with wide eyes.

A blue-haired vixen bounced in, wearing a tank top and cargo shorts, a pair of sneakers, and fingerless gloves. "Hey, boys!" She plopped into the chair between Kuriga and Yoshida, reclining and folding her arms behind her head. "What'd I miss? Sorry I'm late." She winked at Yoshida.

Yoshida immediately blushed crimson.

"Well?" Bara prompted at the moment of dead silence.

Yoshida glanced at Gai with a nervous chuckle. "Um...Bara...Gai has something really interesting to tell you. I bet..." Another chuckle emerged. "It'll be a surprise!" He beamed, which looked more like a cringe.

Bara blinked. "What's going on?" She looked at Gai with wide eyes.

Gai reflected in an instant on his relationship with Bara. She had literally been his first female friend, and his first indication that women did absolutely nothing to him. She'd been bold, cranky, and sometimes helpful...but always blunt. She tended to expect the same from others.

Gai blasted a blinding grin at her and squeezed Kakashi in a one-armed hug. "Kakashi's my boyfriend and we're in love and that means I've been gay all along!"

She fell over. Literally, she toppled her chair, overbalancing.

Gai winced.

Then she picked herself back up with a self-deprecating laugh and plopped back down. "Gai, that's wonderful. I hope you don't beat yourself up now."

That was not the response Gai had been expecting. He looked at her blankly.

Kakashi merely took another sip of his drink, staying relaxed and following Gai's cues.

Bara looked confused by Gai's confusion. "You know...for not really..." She looked around the table for support. No takers. She looked back to Gai. "Um, Gai, you did notice how you...well, you, you didn't really react to...well, that is..." She gave him a nervous smile and punched Yoshida on the arm. "Oh, come on, you guys! If Gai didn't fall in love with me like everyone else did, it means he's gay!"

"Vain, Bara," Kuriga muttered. "Really vain. Classy."

Yoshida burst into laughter, but it was less hysterical this time. "You know, you're right?" He rubbed the back of his head.

Bara grinned triumphantly. "Of course I'm right."

Usui stayed dead silent.

"It could have meant lots of things," Gai protested feebly.

Kakashi suppressed a snort.

Bara crossed her arms over her chest. "Like what, Gai? You were a teenage boy. I was a busty, nubile teenage girl with piles of bright blue hair. You would have been putty in my hands."

Kuriga pouted, clearly outraged at having his past behavior mocked and used as a model.

She wagged her finger. "The fact that you weren't proves that you're gay. I knew that."

Kuriga slid her a look.

"You could have just not been my type," Gai said with all the dignity he could muster.

That earned him the eye twitch and subtle smile-frown he was so fond of seeing for some reason.

Gai grinned.

Kakashi smiled to himself as well.

He was also inclined to agree with Gai's assessment. He was bi, and Bara was not his type. Nor would she have been when he was a teenager.

"Well, you'll never know, will you?" Bara said after that skipped beat. "I mean, you're gay." She reclined in her hair luxuriously.

"I may be gay, but I know my type," Gai retorted. "And you're not it."

Kuriga snorted.

Gai glanced at Kakashi and then back to Bara, his grin widening. "My type isn't so arrogant and bossy."

Bara almost fell over in her chair again. "Why, you -"

Gai burst out laughing.

That set off a group chain reaction that Bara had to bear with good humor or pull up the strength to commit mass-murder. She smoothed down her hair with a wry smile.

"I'd never go out with a girl like you," Gai said, crossing his arms over his chest in a fair imitation of his teenaged self.

Bara blushed, recalling that particular conversation.

Ah, now this is what reunions are for, Gai thought with satisfaction.

"Well, you won't go out with any girl, anyway," Bara said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "So I have no reason to feel bad."

"True," Gai conceded.

Then Bara had one of those gleaming moments of actual friendship. She turned to Kakashi and gave him a serious look. "You better treat him good, you know."

Kakashi gave her a small smile. "I will. He's-" He wondered how to say what he thought without sounding sappy. "He's The One." His eyes twinkled. "And one of a kind." In the best way.

Gai blushed and rubbed the back of his head, shrugging his shoulders.

Bara's look softened. "Good. Go make each other happy." She gave Kuriga and Yoshida a Look, as though she suspected them both of foul play. "And don't pay attention to what these jerks have to say. You're a good guy. You deserve to be happy."

"Hey, I wished him well!" Yoshida protested.

Kuriga hung his head. "It's just a shock, you know?"

Bara reached over and smacked Kuriga across the head. "I knew it," she accused.

Kuriga sulked.

"Gai went to your wedding, and he didn't even like Tomoya," Bara declared. "Then you begrudge him someone who makes him happy? Honestly, Kuriga! You've got the brain of a bowling ball!"

Gai looked shifty.

"No one liked Tomoya," Yoshida pointed out. "She's scary."

"But she's Kuriga's someone!" Bara retorted. "And we all have to be respectful. You can't go around badmouthing someone's Significant Other. Get your acts together."

Gai wasn't sure what to do when Bara was in Preaching Mode.

Kakashi listened to this speech silently, still sipping his julep in slow motion.

Yoshida broke into the sermon. "Hey, remember when you were trying to find us on the battlefield, and you got into trouble, and you would have been a goner because this missing nin guy snuck up right behind you? And then you turned around in time to see Tomoya snapping his neck?" He chuckled. "You screamed."

Bara turned bright red.

"I heard you all the way across the battlefield," Yoshida teased. "I thought you'd been murdered. Who knew you'd shriek so loud about getting saved?"

"I was just startled," Bara said defensively. "I'm grateful to Tomoya-chan."

"You asked not to be alone with her on the trip back," Yoshida said.

"That was...because..." Bara gave up. "Oh, you guys!"

Gai grinned reluctantly.

Kakashi chuckled faintly.

"Okay, okay, so she scared me," Bara complained.

"Ha," Yoshida said.

Kuriga blushed. "She scared me, too." He looked away. "And I liked it."

If Bara had been drinking, she would have done a spit-take.

The corner of Kakashi's mouth bent downward and twitched; he tried not to laugh out loud.

Gai stared at Kuriga, slack-jawed. Then he grinned brightly. "To each their own!" If he were ever afraid of Kakashi, he wouldn't be able to trust Kakashi with his life. Or love.

Kakashi was thinking much the same, although he didn't comment.

Said blonde shortly entered, sauntering in wearing typical ANBU gear, minus the mask: a black t-shirt and pants with white armor over it. She kissed Kuriga on the top of the head and stared at Yoshida until he moved. It didn't take long. Then she sat down beside her husband and wound her arm through his.

Yoshida relocated to the other side of Usui.

"Hello, gang," Tomoya drawled. She glanced at Kakashi and raised an eyebrow. "Plus one. The Copy Ninja, if I don't miss my guess. What's the great Kakashi doing here - without his mask on, no less? Isn't that some kind of breach of personal code?"

Gai smiled nervously.

Tomoya took in Gai's expression and touched her chin, instantly thoughtful. That calculating look had once frozen Gai stiff on the battlefield - before he'd realized she was an ANBU agent on his side. They'd met when his mission accidentally crossed with an ANBU mission going on at the same time.

"Hardly," Kakashi said. "Although admittedly I don't do it often. However, I am among Gai's friends here."

Tomoya smiled. "Yes." She gave Gai a friendly glance. Then, at her husband: "Has anyone ordered yet? I'm starving."

Kuriga jumped, startled. "Ah, no...We were waiting for you to get here, I guess."

"Hardly necessary," Tomoya said dryly.

Kuriga blushed. "Well...other stuff has been going on, too. It's not like we just sat here like lumps."

"Hn. Good." She kissed the side of his head.

"Right," Gai said. "What do we want?"

Minor discussion on food took place.

They placed their orders and then waited.

"So you're pretty close to Gai, aren't you?" Tomoya asked Kakashi, appearing at ease with Kakashi's presence.

"He's my boyfriend," Kakashi said blandly, as though they were discussing the weather.

"Ah." Tomoya smiled and slanted a glance at her husband. "That explains why Kuriga was so jealous."

Kuriga spluttered. "I wasn't - not...jealous..."

She smiled and stirred her strawberry lemonade with her straw. "He told me how often you were training together, and he seemed to think 'Sharingan' Kakashi was making unfair attempts to..." Her smile widened. "Well, do something anyway," she teased her husband.

Kuriga blushed bright red.

"It explains a lot that you're actually going out with each other," Tomoya said.

"Ah," Kakashi said noncommittally.

"I know," Tomoya said.

Gai didn't know what she was referring to.

Kakashi nodded and merely sipped his julep again. He was almost to the bottom now.

Tomoya pinched Kuriga's ear, playful but with an edge. "He probably gave you a hard time thinking it would never get back to me." She tweaked his ear gently.

Kuriga still winced. "Tomoya..."

"Hmm? What is it?"

Kuriga said miserably, "Gomen nasai."

She released his ear. "That's better."

Whupped, Kakashi decided. He didn't respond to the apology given it was forced out.

"He picks on my brother, too," Tomoya said casually. "I don't know what his problem is with gay men. It makes sense that if he suspected he would resent you."

Kuriga stared at the table.

Gai had it in him to feel a little bit bad for his friend.

A little.

"Oh, you know," Kakashi said airly. "I think the reigning theory is security in one's own sexuality." He knew he was being vicious, but the jab about Gai being secure in his identity had irked him.

Kuriga forced a grin and rubbed the back of his neck. "You may be right."

Tomoya raised an eyebrow. "Interesting theory." She gave Kakashi an amused smile.

Gai thought for a moment that would be the end, but then she added in her own airy tone, "I guess I like my men insecure. My mother always told me that was a failing. But then, to each their own."

Gai wondered if it was entirely appropriate for Tomoya to pick on Kuriga, given that they were...well...married, and stuff, but then, he didn't pick her. At one time, he'd even had a crush on Kuriga himself. Not that he'd known to interpret it that way.

Given that Kuriga was busy rubbing salt in Gai's wounds, Gai couldn't hang on to much pity for him.

"So, Tomoya, how are the kids?" Bara asked brightly.

"Oh, they're fine," Tomoya said. "They're being watched over by my mother right now."

Unexpectedly, she offered up, "It's obvious that Gai was fascinated by you, and he's an adult man. I don't think he needs any watching. You're an upstanding Leaf nin, and I have no reason to suspect you're any less than an upstanding person in other areas of your life. I couldn't be concerned less what you and Gai do."

Gai had the feeling that was also the Official Order for the Kuriga household. Or should he say, Tomoya household.

Kakashi got that distinct impression as well.

Gai smiled wryly. "Kuriga."

Kuriga's head shot up. He looked at Gai apprehensively. "Gai?"

Gai made himself say it. Yes, it will hurt, but there's nothing worse than a false truce. In the long run, this is good for me. It's just another kind of training, that's all. "You don't have to like me anymore if you don't want to."

Kuriga's jaw dropped.

Kakashi grew stiff.

Gai swallowed and forced himself to remember all of the good times they'd shared. He gave Kuriga a tiny smile. "You know, it's okay if we part ways now. We fought together a lot of times. When it really counted...we were always there for each other. You always pulled through in the end, and I couldn't have won the battles I did without you there, supporting me. Cheering me on." Literally. Kuriga could be very excitable in a battle situation. That hot feeling was back in Gai's chest. "You don't have to owe me any more stuff. I mean, if you ever did, that's long gone. You don't have to ever see me again."

Everyone at the table was dead silent, staring at Gai.

Kakashi understood Gai's tactic. He watched Kuriga silently, tense with apprehension.

Kuriga's expression was slack. There was a look in his eyes like...Gai didn't know what it was. He couldn't interpret that anymore. He couldn't look in Kuriga's eyes and assume he knew anything.

"Sometimes people change, or they're not who you thought they were, and it's okay not to like them anymore," Gai said.

Kuriga looked away, his eyes filling with tears. "Gai...It's not like that."

"Then what is it like?" Gai asked gently.

"You're just..." Kuriga glanced at him suddenly, eyes full of tears, accusing, angry. "You're not a bad person!"

Gai was speechless.

"Bad person?" Kakashi repeated quietly.

Kuriga folded in on himself, ashamed.

Gai didn't know what to say. He experienced a moment's panic, then looked to Kakashi.

"Gay people are bad people?" Kakashi questioned, quietly still.

No one at the table seemed able to speak.

Gai glanced at Usui and saw that instead of being speechless, however, Usui looked mildly interested. A sure sign he was actually hanging on every word. Usui was the master of being stoic.

"Well..." Kuriga shifted. "No."

Gai knew that tone of voice. Kuriga was in take-it-all-back mode.

"You don't have to," Gai said. "I'm not offended...I don't think Kashi is offended, either. We're just...confused." It was the clearest plea Gai could make.

Kuriga squirmed, and then stilled. He looked at Gai with an expression Gai remembered once from their heart-to-heart talks. Weary cynicism. "It's okay. If you're gay, I'll just have to..." He shrugged his shoulders irritably. "I'll just have to change my mind, that's all. Because you're not bad. You're not a bad person. And I don't want you to think..." His voice trailed off into a mumble. He cleared his throat and tried again. "I don't want you to think I think that."

He glared at Gai. "Cause I don't. You're the best person I know, Gai. You're always there for everybody. You're flawless. But you're - just -" A flush of frustration crept into his cheeks. "No one could ask for more."

"I'm not asking you to think I'm flawless," Gai said helplessly.

"But you're not bad!" Kuriga retorted.

It seemed to Kakashi that Kuriga was clearly stuck on something, but from his point of view, it was something Kuriga had to work out for himself.

Gai wrapped his arms around Kakashi and leaned on him. "I'm not bad," he whispered. "I don't feel like I'm bad. I love Kakashi." He looked at Kuriga pleadingly. "I don't want you to take him away from me."

Kuriga slumped, stunned. "Oh, God, Gai. I'm not gonna take him away from you. How would I do that anyway?"

Tears came to Gai's eyes. "By disapproving..." He wished it didn't sound the way it did, and that how it sounded wasn't exactly how he meant it.

Kuriga smacked his forehead. "What do I care? Go out with him!"

Gai tightened his arms around Kakashi. "You promise?"

"I promise," Kuriga declared, scowling. "Now stop crying."

"I never started," Gai said with shades of his usual lofty tone when he was trumping one of his friends.

Kakashi tentatively relaxed.

Gai clung to Kakashi anyway. "You promised," he warned.

"I promise." Kuriga threw up his hands. "I'm not gonna take Kakashi away from you."

Gai only had one retort. "You better not."

For him, that was an awful threat.

Everyone around the table knew that, too. Bara laughed nervously.

"I wouldn't let him anyway," Kakashi pointed out in a murmur.

Gai relaxed, smiling. Somehow, that was exactly what he needed to hear.

Bara twisted in her chair and pointed brightly. "Oh, look. Food's here."

"Oh, good," Gai said contentedly. He was more or less fulfilling what everyone wanted him to say. What he would say, if the situation were normal. And he wouldn't begrudge them that. "I'm starving."

And everyone laughed - Usui even managed a small chuckle - because for some reason when he said that it was always funny.

Gai would never quite understand that.

But as he relaxed against Kakashi, he did understand one thing: At least he hadn't messed up.


Author's Note: Ariel D wrote Kakashi for the bulk of this chapter, starting from when Kuriga accuses Gai of making a mistake. I needed her help.