Written for an origami challenge.
A nurse was standing over Kakashi, her slender fingers touching the IVs leading from the body. There was a soft, persistent beeping, and Gai looked at the monitors, watched the lines rise and fall with the rise and fall of Kakashi’s chest.
“Gai-san?” The nurse’s voice was questioning and Gai beamed at her.
“I came to see my Eternal Rival,” he nearly proclaimed, teeth flashing as he spoke. The nurse blinked, then gave him a slight smile.
“Kakashi-san’s sleeping now, but you could wait,” she said hesitantly, and Gai stepped forward. His footsteps were long and sharp, and he was standing next to Kakashi’s bed before the nurse could finish her sentence.
Kakashi’s mask, Gai realized with what, in another life, would have been a cringe, was gone. The younger man looked too young without the mask, looked too still and too dead and too gone. Kakashi’s hands were lying limp on the sheets, palms turned inwards. His fingernails were broken and there was blood, dried a rusty red, beneath them. The nurse followed Gai’s gaze and touched one of Kakashi’s hands. The hand twitched, the faintest of movement.
“He should wake up late tonight, Gai-san,” the nurse said. She let go of Kakashi’s hand and grabbed a folder from atop the monitors and, with one last smile at Gai, left the room. Gai watched her leave, then turned back to Kakashi. His eyes slid over Kakashi’s face, then slipped off to focus on the younger man’s shoulder. It was strange, too strange, to look at that face. He couldn’t-
Gai grabbed a pillow from the closest empty bed and pulled the pillowcase off. He tugged at it, pulling with thick fingers, and the cloth ripped once, twice, three times. Gai tossed the pillow and mutilated pillowcase back onto the bed, holding the strip of cloth he’d torn free between his fingertips. He turned back to Kakashi and stepped forward, leaning until he was next to the still man. The piece of cloth was straightened out, then set gently over Kakashi’s face, adjusted with twitches of Gai’s fingers until it covered the lower half of Kakashi’s face. Kakashi breathed out, a faint breath that barely moved the cloth, and Gai leaned back, satisfied. Kakashi looked just a bit more like the copy-nin, just a bit. Pulling a chair over, Gai sat down, pressing his hands down onto his knees, and began to wait.
“Gai?” Kakashi’s voice was rough from disuse, and Gai looked up, surprised.
“Kakashi?” Gai scooted forward on his chair, sitting on the edge.
The copy-nin rolled his head to the side and the cloth covering his face slid away, crumpling next to Kakashi’s neck. The jounin looked out the window and licked his lips. “Feel like shit,” he remarked softly, eye drooping. He licked his lips again, grimacing, and spoke again, even softer. “How long?”
Gai leaned closer, balancing his weight against the hospital bed, and forced a smile to his face. “You got back three days ago. I came this morning.”
Kakashi nodded, then sighed and seemed to sink lower into the bed. He was thin, thinner than Gai remembered him, and there were dark smudges, like bruises, around his eyes. He opened his mouth, then lifted a hand, pulling away the cloth trapped beneath his neck.
“What?” he asked tiredly, confusion dull in his eye. Gai’s smile faltered.
“I couldn’t find your mask,” Gai said. Kakashi fingered the piece of rough cloth thoughtfully, then, with exaggerated care, laid the cloth back over his face. Gai’s smile grew marginally and Kakashi raised an eyebrow.
“Shouldn’t you be with your team, Gai?”
Gai flashed a smile at Kakashi as he entered the room. He grabbed a chair on his way to Kakashi’s bed and dragged it across the floor, the chair legs scraping as he went.
“They’re training on their own today,” Gai said, giving Kakashi a thumb’s up sign. Kakashi blinked. The piece of cloth from the pillowcase was still tied around his face, and he rubbed at it.
“Like they have every day this week?”
Gai’s smile widened. “It’s good for them, it helps their teamwork.” He sat on the chair, leaning forward, and Kakashi’s eye curled up in a tired smile.
“I get out tomorrow,” he stated. “Stop by my apartment and get my mask?”
Kakashi’s apartment was small, cramped. Everywhere, there were little touches of Kakashi’s life. A pile of kunai on the table, waiting to be polished and put away. A well-worn book, a slip of paper set inside as a place-marker, on the window sill. The bed was meticulously made, the pillow set in the exact center. Everything in the room was perfect, in its place and of its place, and Gai felt like he was drowning. He pulled open a drawer, grabbed the first mask his fingers touched, and fled the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
He stumbled home, somehow clumsy, clutching the soft mask in his hands like it was a lifeline, and maybe, just maybe, it was. When he reached his door - how long it took! - he opened it numbly, kicking off his shoes and closing the door carelessly. He stood there, in his doorway, for minutes, staring at something he couldn’t see, just beyond the window. He couldn’t- he couldn’t- he couldn’t-
With a start, he remembered the mask. He looked down at it, curious, and lifted it so he could see it better. He flipped on the light, and frowned when he stared at a mask covered in mottled bloodstains. Gai twisted the material of Kakashi’s mask in his hands, calloused fingertips pulling rough over the soft cloth. Spots of dried blood flaked off onto his skin from the mask, and he tilting it, peering at it until he could see the patches of dark red. Gai pulled the mask one more time, then tossed it onto his table, sitting down in a chair heavily.
Tomorrow. He’d take it to Kakashi tomorrow. Kakashi got out of the hospital tomorrow, and he’d give the mask to the younger man then. Tomorrow… Oh, god, tomorrow Kakashi would be ready for another mission.
Gai pressed his forehead against his hands, digging his fingers through his hair, and breathed, shallowly, through his nose. He felt sick, felt dizzy and empty and so tired. He was sick of Kakashi’s missions, of Kakashi’s escapes from death, of Kakashi’s flippant attitude, of Kakashi himself. He was sick of all of it. He wanted to lie down to sleep, and not get up for a long, long time.
He shoved the chair back from the table, moving blindly across the room to his bed. He fell onto it, twisting so his arms were free, and dragged off his hitai-ate slowly. He dropped it over the side of the bed, then threw his arm over his eyes, shielding them from a light he was too tired to turn off.
Tomorrow… God, but he was sick of tomorrows.
Kakashi was standing next to the hospital bed when Gai arrived the next morning, swinging his left arm carefully. He looked up when Gai stepped in, curious, and Gai paused. In all his life, the only times he could remember seeing Kakashi’s face was when Kakashi was hurt and dying, when he was coughing up blood and vomiting poison and gasping for breath, and for the first time in his life, Gai saw Kakashi’s face when he was doing nothing but smile. A smile is a strange thing. It can calm people, or make them angry, or make them blush. When Gai saw Kakashi’s smile, he felt like he was dying. The smile was crooked, higher on the left than on the right, and all together, it was an unremarkable thing. Maybe, then, that was why Gai felt like he was a little boy, caught peeping at girls.
Feeling like he was going mad, Gai looked down at the mask in his hands. It was damp from washing, and the bloodstains were nearly gone now, just faint patches of red here and there, only seen when eyes were strained. Gai held out the mask, and Kakashi grabbed it with a crooked smile. Gai grabbed a chair, busying himself with turning it and sitting on it, to avoid Kakashi’s face.
“Eternal Rival,” Gai began, full of false bravado, “I was going to challenge you today, to a contest of origami. Cranes, to symbolize Springtime and Beauty and Youth-”
“I have a mission tonight.” Kakashi’s feet moved into Gai’s line of sight and Gai slowly looked up. Kakashi fixed his mask one last time, then shoved his hands into his pockets. “When I get back, Gai?” He sounded tired, exhausted, and Gai stood slowly.
“Of course, my Eternal Rival. When…?”
Kakashi started for the door and Gai followed, their footsteps unhurried. The hallway was still cool, and the linoleum was dull under the lights.
“A week, maybe less,” Kakashi said carelessly. He stepped out the doors into the sun, blinking slowly, and Gai stopped next to him, standing in the road. “Do you care?”
Gai gave him a thumbs up sign, grinning widely. “You’re my Rival,” he said, as though it was an answer, and maybe it was. Kakashi fingered his mask, then tugged it down past his chin. He leaned forward quickly and brushed his dry, cracked lips against Gai’s. Gai froze, shoulders pulled up reflexively, and Kakashi stepped back quickly, looking away.
“Just-” Kakashi began, pulling his mask back up. “Just- God, I’m just crazy. Shit. A little crazy, you know, Gai?”
He was babbling and Gai just wanted him to shut up. He forced a smile onto his face, the smile becoming a little more real when Kakashi’s shoulders slumped, relaxed.
“Crazy, just crazy,” the copy-nin said again, each word more flippant than the last. Gai nodded slowly, unsure of what to say.
“Crazy,” he finally said, and he tried to ignore the way Kakashi flinched. There was an awkward silence, and Gai finally coughed. Kakashi shoved his hands into his pockets and slouched further, shoulders rising then falling.
“Mission, then.” Kakashi gave Gai a faint smile, eye curving slightly, then shrugged. “Mission,” he repeated, swallowing. He stepped back, then turned. “I’ll see you when I get back,” Kakashi said, in that careless tone, and Gai didn’t say a word about the lie. Kakashi walked away, in that slow way of his, but it felt like it was too fast, like everything was moving too fast, and that Gai couldn’t keep up. He watched Kakashi disappear down the street, and when the copy-nin was finally out of his sight, Gai wondered why it felt like he couldn’t breathe.
He wondered why it felt like he was dying.