Getting Soft

While Kakashi had made a mild-mannered exit from the bathhouse, in truth, he went immediately to the training field where Gai spent his days and took the man aside.

"Did you know Ebisu-san was a closet pervert?" Kakashi asked.

Gai blushed and looked away, flustered. "Kakashi. That's a secret."

"Not anymore," Kakashi said. "Naruto yelled it out in the middle of a crowded bathhouse." He raised an eyebrow. "Considering Naruto's stance on perverts, I would have liked to know that before asking Ebisu-san to train Naruto for the Chuunin Exam."

Gai bowed his head. "I promised not to tell. He made me promise, a long time ago. I couldn't go back on a promise I made to a teammate."

Kakashi's expression softened. "Alright. If that's the way it is, I understand." He touched Gai's arm. "I'm sorry for criticizing you like this, before even saying hello."

Gai looked relieved. "It's alright."

Kakashi realized Gai had been afraid of his criticism and anger, just as Gai had reacted with hurt a few days earlier at his criticism of teaching Lee the Eight Gates technique. He looked at Gai with unaccustomedly wide eyes, studying Gai's face. He realized something fundamental had changed between the two of them. When they were younger, not even his harshest criticism could dent Gai's enthusiasm or change Gai's opinion.

A slight smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "Gai, are you getting soft?" he teased.

Gai looked into the distance. "Maybe." He held out against the serious undercurrent of the question for another moment before buckling. He sighed and let his shoulders slump. "It's just that as we grow older, I think more about what I value and…what I don't want to lose." He turned and met Kakashi's gaze. "Kashi, you're one of those things."

Kakashi covered up the depth of his emotional reaction to that with a beaming smile. "I'm touched, Gai." And he was. Far more than simple thanks could ever say. He knew suddenly that he had security in this world: the security of having a place in someone else's life.

A warm feeling in his chest spread to his arms and legs. He'd miss me. After a moment of reflection, he realized he'd miss Gai, too.

Kakashi acted on his feelings instinctively. "Well, a challenge. We haven't had a challenge today. Rock paper scissors." He raised his hands and assumed their ritualistic pose.

"You're on!" Gai instantly mirrored him, eyes gleaming, teeth bared in a wide grin. "I'm going to win – or I'm going to do 500 sit-ups hanging upside down from a tree!"

"Make it a thousand," Kakashi retorted, grinning underneath his mask. "You're getting soft."

Gai's chakra blazed. "Am not! I'll do 2,000 just to prove you wrong!"

Kakashi resisted the urge to laugh. "You won't be able to stand after doing that many sit-ups, hanging from a tree or not."

"That's what you know! I'll show you I can do ten laps around Konoha after doing 2,000 sit-ups."

Kakashi dropped his expression back into his steely façade. "I'll watch you and make sure you do. I think you're lying."

"You're on!" Gai gritted his teeth, trying to hold back a retort, but it burst out anyway. "And I can do twenty laps around Konoha with you watching!"

"I'll be there," Kakashi said.

And he would. They were a part of each other's lives now. Always would be. They were Kakashi and Gai, or perhaps from Gai's point of view, Gai and Kakashi; inseparable, when one came down to it. Living a joined life.

He was glad.

Because the truth was, getting soft was nothing to be ashamed of.