Author's Note: Shitamizu literally means 'water flowing underneath', but is actually a metaphor meaning 'one's true feelings'.
Gai, Kakashi, and two other members of ANBU were in a fight for their lives. Their two comrades, Ox and Beetle, were already down. Neither one of them looked like they would be getting up any time soon. Gai suspected Ox was dead, judging by the way Ox's chakra signature dropped off of Gai's radar. But there was no time for that, no time even for dragging their teammates out of the line of fire.
When the twisted Sannin Orochimaru was driven out of Konoha, he left behind various bunkers. As the Leaf rooted out Orochimaru's hidden bunkers, cleansing their village of the evil, their search expanded into the forest surrounding their home. Last week, another bunker had been found. Labeled extremely dangerous, the bunker was classified as ANBU's responsibility.
The strongest ANBU team - Kakashi and Gai's team - was dispatched to take out the bunker.
The trek through the woods was uneventful, if silent. Aside from the sound of the wind in the trees, the world was a wash of ghostly light through the pillars of ancient trees, filtering down on the team.
Recently dug up and exposed, the hatch of the bunker sank six inches into the rich red soil native of Konoha's forests. A soft mix of earth, bark, and pine needles, the soil was springy underfoot as they approached. The sharp smell of disturbed earth and pine resin filled their nostrils.
Gai was tense, perched on the cutting edge between split second reflexes and performance anxiety. The tiny flickers of chakra not suppressed by his teammates revealed the same emotion.
Kakashi gave the sign to open the hatch and climb down into the bunker.
Beetle opened the hatch of the bunker with a gently buzzing swarm of black insects, working together in concert with far more dexterity and gentleness than even Kakashi could have accomplished. The metal hatch grated with a sound of metal on metal and slowly rose, supported by the weight of the insects. They shifted it aside and trailed back to their master, disappearing beneath Beetle's extensive white armor.
The bunker was dark, drenched in a chemical stench. Gai didn't recognize the smell, but he thought of it as a hospital gone terribly wrong.
Kakashi walked up to the first of many cylindrical glass cases hooked up to machinery. The cases were enormous, as big around as tree trunks, disturbingly futuristic looking to Gai, who was not versed in machinery.
Gai, frozen in place by an irrational sweep of dread, watched Kakashi reach out and brush away the thick coating of dust with one gloved hand.
A gray reptilian face was revealed on the other side of the glass, submerged in fluid.
Ox turned involuntarily, catching the sight out of his peripheral vision. The sharp tone of his deep voice shattered the silence. "What the hell is that?"
They'd expected traps, poisonous vapors, forbidden jutsus lying around half activated.
They had not expected an underground lab housing horrors left over from Orochimaru's genetic experiments.
Trying to destroy the monsters in the growth chambers around them had only set them free.
So now, in the once pristine forest above where the bunker was buried in the ground, Gai and Kakashi were left standing against the last remaining monster: a brute of a creature seven feet tall, easily three times their girth. He was halfway transformed between a man and a reptile, with what Gai swore were spikes of steel sticking out his back. In addition, he had a tail similar to an alligator's, with enough strength to break bones. Beetle had gone down with broken legs after being caught by that monster's tail. The strength had crushed Beetle's loyal legion of bugs. And the monster's skin...it was more like the plated armor of an armadillo. Nothing they'd tried so far could scratch it.
Gai saw only one option: using the Eight Gates forbidden technique to release all of his body's chakra at once. His speed and strength would more than triple, and then he might be able to punch through the monster's armored skin.
Kakashi glanced Gai's way, worried. He suspected he knew what Gai was plotting, and he didn't like it at all. The Eight Gates technique was forbidden for a reason, after all. He didn't want to see Gai destroy his body. "Gai . . ." He had been using a plethora of copied jutsu on the monster-fire and water techniques both-but so far to no avail. He couldn't even imagine what Orochimaru had done to these former humans.
"No," Gai said firmly, cutting off the conversation. In spite of a firm friendship and solid work relationship, conversations in the heat of battle tended to run the same worn track: Kakashi would tell him not to do something stupid, Gai would do the self-same stupid thing, and Kakashi would scold him. After he had defeated the badguy, of course. Which meant next time Gai listened about as well as before.
He immediately opened the first gate, the Kaimon. All of his chakra rushed through his body at once, energizing his muscles and releasing all of his strength at once. His eyes glowed white with pulsing energy. He leapt at the enemy with his fists leading, taking the direct approach as always.
With his increase in speed, he avoided the swipe of the monster's mutated claw of a hand, ducked the tail, and landed a solid Blossom Uppercut to the monster's jaw. He followed it up with a Blossom Kick.
The monster plowed a furrow into the ground and lay still for a moment.
Gai closed the gate, panting. Leaving any of the gates open for more than thirty seconds was extremely unwise. He had to use the technique in bursts.
He wiped sweat from his upper lip. "Come on. Get up."
The monster twitched, face down in the dirt, and let out a noise suspiciously like a laugh.
"Are you going to give up, or are you going to get up and fight?" Gai demanded.
He knew wisdom would dictate that he should hope it stayed down.
Kakashi watched this from the side, sweating. "Gai . . ." It was typical Gai, of course. That didn't make it any less scary to watch.
Gai glanced at Kakashi with a grin, even though he knew Kakashi couldn't read his face underneath the turtle mask.
The mutated creature stumbled to his feet. "You hurt me, human." Its voice was deep and distorted, as if he had a chest cold.
He rubbed his chest, where Gai could clearly see a crack in the armor. No blood, though. "Orochimaru-sama said no one would be able to do that. He said this...this armor...was invincible." He narrowed his eyes. "You should pay for that."
Gai had no response. He merely tensed, waiting for the retaliation the brute promised.
He didn't have to wait long. A split second later, the thing lunged for him. He opened the second gate, the Kyuumon, reasoning that he needed to double the strength of the first gate if he was going to do more than crack the monster's armored shell.
To most, Gai would appear as nothing more than a white blur, like a large firefly. He landed a dozen punches in the space of a second, hammering on the thing's chest, avoiding deadly claws and teeth. Then he jumped back again, having to turn off the gates or suffer injury. He leapt out of the way of the tail just in time. The mutant clearly possessed the intelligence of a man; he was watching Gai, and he saw the obvious weakness of the Eight Gates.
Gai's heartrate was through the roof thanks to the second gate, and he needed to steady his breathing.
On the other hand, black blood was oozing down the mutant's chest, and he could see the armor split, the fracture pattern like tough plastic. Or ceramic. In either case, it was disturbing.
"You move pretty fast," the mutant observed. "But then you slow down."
Gai locked gazes with the thing. In the back of his mind, he knew he was putting himself in harm's way on purpose. He knew he was trying to keep Kakashi out of the battle altogether, and he knew rivalry had nothing to do with it. He wouldn't be able to stand it if Kakashi got hurt.
And Gai also knew it would be just like Kakashi to try to distract the monster at this point, especially with such a blatant threat hanging in the air.
"So attack me while I'm slow," Gai retorted. "Or are you a coward?" He smirked. Not that anyone could see his expression.
Kakashi swallowed a groan, created a whip out of water, and ran behind the mutant, striking it in the back several times to pull its attention away from Gai. He followed the water strikes with a Grand Fireball, converting the water into burning steam.
Gai felt a stab of pure, instinctive annoyance that Kakashi either hadn't grasped his intent or was ignoring it in favor of trying to protect him from his own bravado. Underneath the annoyance was a substantial wellspring of fear.
It was the fear that tore the exclamation out of him. "Damn it, Kakashi!"
Even as Gai said the words, the mutant let out a roar and pursued Kakashi, clearly thrown into a rage. It bore down on Kakashi with intent to kill, a shocking difference compared to the way it had toyed with Ox and Beetle. His enormous, distorted hands and long tail lashed out at Kakashi in concert. It was obvious that Kakashi had wounded the creature further - the places where the steam scalded the armor it turned bright red like a lobster. And the howls of agony were hard to miss.
Kakashi dodged the strikes, leaping backwards. He wasn't as fast as his mentor, but he was quicker than the average shinobi. He made the hand signs and produced four shadow clones, each with water whips. They lashed out at the monster as well, following with Grand Fireballs.
The monster let out a cry like a dragon, his armor boiling red, and unleashed a sudden wind release attack like a cyclone. With a cry of pure pain that sent a chill down Gai's spine, wings ripped themselves out of the monster's back, dripping green goo. Kakashi's shadow clones popped under the force of the surprise wind attack.
Gai cursed and gave up the futile effort of trying to breathe. He'd just have to attack breathless. One fraction of a second longer and Kakashi might be lying on the ground with Ox and Beetle. "Open! Seimon!" Unleashing the third gate, Gai rushed the creature and tried to snap its neck, hoping for a quick end. With his strength roughly increased tenfold, Gai hoped that he could actually pull off such a move.
The mutant responded with lightning speed, kicking off into the air and whipping around, trying to dislodge him. Gai's hands slipped against the slick armor of its skin. He quickly rethought his strategy and ripped off the plate of armor on the back of the creature's neck. Hot blood spurted, hitting him in the chest, and muscle like none Gai had ever seen before was exposed.
Gai threw down the armor plate in his hand and summoned a disk of wind.
The monster twisted around successfully, speed increased by pain.
Gai cut off its wings instead and landed an open-palmed chakra punch to its chest before he had to retreat again.
With each successive use of the gates, he was weakening tremendously, but he had to keep on going until this thing was defeated. Feeling 'tired' wasn't an option.
The monster landed on the ground heavily, sending out a shockwave and toppled the nearest trees.
Gai narrowly avoided the same fate, leaping out of dodge. He dropped into a crouch to keep his balance as he landed. His vision was blurry.
Kakashi picked himself out of fallen branches several feet away, having been blown off his feet by the wind attack. He stood stiffly, saw the exposed muscle on the creature's neck, and began forming a plan. "Gai, stop," he gasped, trying to get his breath back. It had been knocked out of him when he'd been tossed.
Gai heard Kakashi's strained voice, and knew that he could pretend not to hear it. He weighed his options uneasily, glancing back and forth from Kakashi to the beast. The mutant could stop writhing and screaming about his wings and start attacking at any moment.
And after the fact, he was aware that seeing Kakashi blasted back by the mutant's wind release had filled him with terror that ran white-hot.
He blinked, wiping sweat off his forehead. "Why?" he called back finally, grudgingly giving in to the knowledge that he had, in fact, heard Kakashi's plea.
Kakashi couldn't exactly say, I have a plan. He paused. "Even lame dogs can bite back," he said finally, banking on Gai's understanding. His code name was Dog, after all.
Gai stared at Kakashi, conflicted. He knew Kakashi was smart, a genius, after all, everyone said so. He also knew that Kakashi was the dearest thing in the world to him, living or inanimate.
Unable to bring himself to respond, Gai merely turned his head away, bowing in the end to his need to respect Kakashi's status as a fellow Leaf.
But so help him, if it even looked like Kakashi was in danger, he was going to open as many gates as he had to in order to keep Kakashi safe.
Kakashi formed a chidori in his hand and charged, intending to plunge the lightning blade directly into the monster's now-exposed neck.
The creature heard the distinctively chirping of Kakashi's specialty attack and responded with an uncanny understanding that it was about to die. He whirled around and punched the ground. An earth release attack exploded. Towering shields of rock and dirt crashed forth from the ground, showering surrounding area with clay-rich soil in a blinding mud storm.
Gai's heart plummeted. Without an understanding of what a chidori was, that was a fairly good response to one.
Kakashi stopped short, forced to work his way around the obstruction.
The monster was wary, on its guard, and its tail lashed dangerously.
Gai was too heartsick to watch this battle through to the end. He prayed that Kakashi would forgive him and then charged in, opening the fourth gate. If Kakashi hated gates one through three, Kakashi had a special kind of loathing for number four.
With a roar that was half distraction and half pain - though he would never admit the pain part - Gai rushed in, his chakra blasting outwards and scrubbing away the earth release barriers in an instant.
The monster froze a moment in shock.
Gai took that opportunity to grapple with the thing head on. "Come on! Show me what you've got!"
He grabbed the thing's oversized hands and started a wrestling contest, a move that would prove utterly pointless if not for the fact that Gai knew Kakashi was aiming for the back of the monster's neck. The monster towered above Gai, providing lots of clearance. Gai didn't think he would be hit by the chidori.
The monster found himself grappling with a much smaller creature that could actually wrestle him to a stand still. In spite of Gai's earlier demonstrations, this clearly shocked him.
And to the monster's credit, the force needed to hold him still was tearing Gai's muscles under the strain...but Gai was not about to let that on.
Kakashi cleared the earthen walls in a sprint, hurdling into the air and twisting to give himself momentum. He slammed the chidori straight into the back of the monster's neck, hitting it right in the exposed muscle and blasting out his neck. The blood splattered onto Gai's chest thanks to the angle.
The monster's head fell, narrowly avoiding hitting Gai. Gai felt the monster's chakra snuff out, and the sudden dead weight would have been too much for him if he hadn't had the gates open. He tossed the mutant's body aside easily, watched it hurtle across the clearing and mow down a couple trees. The agony of his muscles ripping at that action reached a level where Gai was almost numb.
He fell down on one knee and closed the gates.
For a heartbeat, he froze. Irrationally, he couldn't help but look beyond the carnage of their comrades and the other mutants – tentacles and rotted flesh, a mountain of fur and muscle – to where the reptile lay sprawled and beheaded. He couldn't breathe, thinking that the thing might get back up.
But it didn't, and its chakra stayed gone.
Gai lifted his mask, sliding it up on his head to expose his face. He let out his tension and gave Kakashi a tired smile. "Good plan."
Kakashi knelt by him, deeply worried. He lifted his mask as well, showing his burrowed brow. "Gai . . . you're hurt." Unsaid: Again. He gripped Gai's shoulders gently. "Sit down. Please."
Gai tried to rise to his feet instead and winced when that didn't work out so well. He transitioned into sitting down instead, trying to make it look like that had been the plan all along. "Kashi, please," he complained. He gave Kakashi a pout. "It's not that bad. It would be worse to be dead, wouldn't it?"
Meanwhile, his body was giving out a litany of ouches. Gai tried to ignore the insistent pulsing, burning, and spasming of abused muscles.
Kakashi stared at him. "Dead would be worse. This is bad, however." He wasn't fooled. He wished he'd copied more medical jutsu. "You need to just stay still. Lying down would be even better."
"I am not going to lie down," Gai protested. "In a minute, I'm going to walk away from this and go home. I'm not -" He wished he knew what he were really arguing about. "It's not that bad. You're exaggerating things. Sure, it looks dangerous, and I know you don't like it when I use the Eight Gates technique..."
His body wanted him to lie down. Traitorous thing. It thought lying down sounded great. He hated it when his body sided with Kakashi.
Kakashi took off the kid gloves and forced Gai to lie down. He did his best to enact a basic medical jutsu. He could copy them, but that didn't mean he had the right talent to use them well. "No exaggeration," he assured Gai.
Gai wanted to insist that this was an infraction against his dignity, but he knew the point was proven rather well by the fact that he couldn't fight back with enough force to resist Kakashi pushing him to the ground. He blushed at the vulnerability that was in such sharp contrast to the way he'd fought just moments ago.
And he pouted rebelliously, even though it did him no good.
He felt Kakashi's chakra buzzing under the surface of his skin. "You used up a lot of chakra, too, doing your chidori..."
And yet Kakashi was able to stand and he wasn't. Even though Kakashi had been half drained by the water and fire releases before using the chidori. Gai sighed. He still had a long way to go in training his stamina to handle the Eight Gates. More chakra wouldn't hurt, either.
"Not the point," Kakashi said pitilessly.
The pain dimmed as Kakashi went along, proving that Kakashi's medical jutsu was working.
"If I can't get out of this prone position..." Gai threatened. Without having any clue how to finish the sentence.
Kakashi ignored the threat utterly. "The only point is that you're hurt, and I'm going to do my best to heal you." Kakashi didn't admit he could only to first aid at his level.
Gai deflated. He watched Kakashi's face with a kind of unhappy emotion he couldn't pin down. He had a headache from the first two gates being open. They were located inside his skull. He wished something, he realized suddenly. He wanted something. But he didn't know what it was.
Belatedly, he realized the self-deprecation Kakashi had employed. "You'll heal me," he said, giving Kakashi the wide-eyed look of earnestness. He added, "I feel better already."
Kakashi seriously doubted that, given the level of damage versus his skill level, but he knew he could get Gai up and walking. He also knew better than to argue. "Good." He couldn't say much else without feeling like he was nagging or harping, so he didn't. He just swallowed his worry and kept pouring chakra into the jutsu.
Gai saw that his assurances went over like a lead balloon, and also saw that Kakashi would never contradict him. What a strange relationship, he thought for the first time.
He'd never thought about his relationship with Kakashi before. He wondered if this meant he was going into shock. He'd just seen two of his teammates killed, after all, and been menaced by a horrible monster that threatened to take his life and Kakashi's.
He and Kakashi were friends, though no one else would ever call them that, and neither one of them felt the need to explicitly clarify to others or each other. They weren't rivals in the classic sense of the term. They weren't competing for anything and didn't harbor ill will towards each other. Challenging Kakashi was habit. They were co-workers, but the relationship didn't end there, or else they wouldn't spend as much time as they did with each other outside of work.
What are we?
"Kashi..." His brow burrowed. He wished he knew what to say. Kakashi never held back with him. Of course, Kakashi was not the most emotionally demonstrative person, but by comparison, around Gai he was an open book. And Gai never held back with anybody. So it seemed they had a level of closeness. But he still didn't know what to say.
It was much easier when he wasn't the injured one.
But at the same time, he preferred to be the injured one, because then other people had a chance of walking away unharmed.
Gai was shaken from his contemplation by the sudden impact of his pain dropping down to a natural post-training soreness. "I think I can walk," he offered.
Kakashi ceased his jutsu, knowing he was running out of chakra. Not to mention they had a long walk back to the village ahead of them. He glanced at Beetle and Ox and sighed. It was getting ridiculous how fast he lost teammates these days. He turned back to Gai, still concerned. "Are you sure?" Gai did have a way of downplaying his own pain, after all.
Gai smiled and nodded. "I'm sure." He sat up. His body let out cries of stiffness, but it was nothing like the throbbing agony he'd felt before. He put his hand on Kakashi's shoulder. "Thank you." He squeezed gently and then got to his feet. He was a little unsteady, but he was proud of Kakashi's healing ability.
He looked over to their dead teammates. "We never really knew them," he mumbled. Neither one of them had seen Ox or Beetle's real face, knew anything about them, or could recall a single distinguishing characteristic.
They'd kept their utterances few, their responses monosyllabic, and their habits contained. Now they were clean, featureless dolls with masks.
Gai turned to Kakashi. "Don't you think that's odd? Don't you think it's odd how..." He grappled for words. "We never really knew them," he finished lamely.
"I don't think I can do this job for the rest of my life," Kakashi admitted. "I think I'll have to return to the normal forces or risk losing my soul."
Gai hugged him. Just...held him, and clung on, and hoped he wouldn't be dislodged. Tears blurred his vision. The mention of souls sent a resonant shiver through him. He imagined Kakashi like a corpse, moving but not breathing. He didn't think he could stand that any more than he could stand Ox and Beetle's version of dead.
Kakashi wrapped his arms around Gai's waist, hugging him closely. He felt his body relax at the touch; Gai had that effect upon him. He rested his head on Gai's shoulder.
Gai took a gasping breath and cradled Kakashi against him. He didn't want this moment to end. As horrible as it kind of was, with the bodies of mutated fiends and their teammates scattered around them in a decimated forest clearing. As tired and sore as he was. He didn't want to have to let go.
Kakashi's head on his shoulder was a special kind of nice.
"If I lost you, if would be my fault." The words quietly emerged, just falling out of him.
Kakashi jerked faintly, startled at the sudden claim. "It would?" He couldn't imagine. "I can think of a dozen scenarios in which that wouldn't be true." And the irony: "Not to mention previous teammates of mine have wished me dead." There were at least three who likely hated him to this day.
Gai smiled painfully. He knew the likelihood that Kakashi was not joking was high, but it still sounded like a strange joke to him. "You're kidding. Well, if they show up trying to collect on that wish, I'll just have to refuse them, won't I?"
"They won't show up," Kakashi said quietly. "It's more likely they curse my cold-heartedness behind my back. Soundly. And count me the problem, the . . ." He couldn't finish the sentence. "From everyone's point of view, I am always the problem," he said after a pause. "Cold. Distant. Aloof. Disengaged. Abrupt. Gai . . . you are the only one who seems to not think so."
It was out.
He couldn't bring himself to wish he hadn't said it.
Gai shifted so that he could look into Kakashi's exposed eye, touch the small patch of exposed cheek above Kakashi's mask. "Those self-same habits they describe so harshly are the familiar habits of the person I love. I couldn't live without those things from you. Your evenhanded pursuit of justice, your way of leveling with people when you need to say something to them, your calm silences, your way of staying focused even when everyone around you is panicking...I see those as good things. As well as your quiet reserve respecting everyone else's space and your ability to see through everyone's manipulations. You don't take any shit and you don't let anyone's whining get you involved in things."
Kakashi appreciated Gai's point of view. He also knew his past friends-including a past boyfriend-counted him as heartless. The man who cut and run with little or no explanation, the man who froze them out without communication, the man who left them confused and hurt. They looked upon him as cruel, heartless, cold. They looked upon him as the problem. They never even considered that they shared any fault or had any issues of their own.
And Kakashi had also been incapable of telling them. You're abusive. You give me nothing. You're manipulative. You hurt me.
So he carried condemnation from them and his own pain as well.
"I am glad you think so," Kakashi said quietly, his cheek tingling faintly from Gai's touch. "To you, I . . ." He couldn't finish that thought. "I'm glad," he repeated.
Gai hugged him tightly. He knew Kakashi had a battered heart. He wished, helplessly and often, that he'd been there to protect Kakashi from those other people in the first place. Their fellow Leaf tended to view Kakashi as the have-it-all genius, the 'cool' attitude king who was the epitome of what being ninja was all about. Gai couldn't explain to them that being a genius didn't impact Kakashi's self-esteem at all.
And there was no 'cool' attitude. It wasn't an act. Kakashi was just Kakashi.
Gai wasn't above teasing Kakashi about his reputation on better days, when their hearts were lighter and they could laugh about it. But that didn't mean Gai bought into everyone's perceptions about his friend.
"Kashi, let's go home," Gai said.
Standard practice was to leave the bodies of fallen ANBU and only take the masks. Gai always felt a little queasy about that part.
He'd built up a reputation of annoyingly carrying the whole person home, but this time, he didn't think he could manage.
"Okay," Kakashi whispered, sorry to release his friend. Gai made him feel safer somehow. But Gai was right; they had to head back. He reluctantly let go.
Gai squeezed Kakashi's arm and retrieved the masks of their fallen teammates. He deliberately didn't look at their faces. He wouldn't be able to handle the shock. Once he tied the masks to his belt with tasuki, he rejoined Kakashi, wrapping an arm around Kakashi's waist and leaning on him as they walked.
After a moment, he remembered to slide his mask back down into place.
He hated masks.
"You know, I joined ANBU because I thought this was where the heroics were," Gai said suddenly. "I thought that these heroes fighting behind the scenes were what...fighting was really about. I think..." He hesitated, on the cusp of a dangerous statement. "I think I want to leave with you," he redirected.
Kakashi wrapped his arm around Gai's waist to help support him; he was glad for the physical contact. "I think we should. Enough is enough."
That statement seemed to summarize everything Gai felt. The tension in his chest relaxed. "Yeah." He squeezed Kakashi gently. "I think we should. Enough is enough. You're right."
They started the long trek home.