[ The title is a line from Tennyson's poem 'Lady of Shalott', and it is the one following the line 'Out flew the web and floated wide'. I chose that title for my other story because the entire stanza felt so fitting, and because I was hoping to make a series out of it. This would be the second installment, and hopefully I can follow through with my original plan. ...also, lots of angst...damn you, Tennyson! ]

The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side

"You're challenging me to a vow of silence?" Gai asked, blinking at Kakashi with a mixture of concern, disappointment, and confusion.

"I might be asking too much of you," Kakashi said, wishing his off-handed taunt didn't sound so pathetic and dead in his own ears as he kept a wary eye on the toddler playing beneath the tree across from them.

"I...no, it's not out of the realm of my youthful determination and will!" Gai said with too much false enthusiasm, clasping one hand into a fist. "But-"

"Good, then we have a challenge," Kakashi replied quickly, forcing his mouth to make the words faster than what his voice wanted. It sounded withered and distant to him, but he ignored it and darted his gaze to the two teens walking past the man reading on the other bench in the garden.

"Kakashi, I don't think-"

"You're right," he interrupted too swiftly again, fighting down the urge to cringe and scoot his feet away from the path as the teens wandered toward their bench. "I have an unfair advantage with that challenge, you'll just lose unless we even it out."

"That is absurd!" Gai almost shouted, his eyes ablaze with stubborn pride as he gripped Kakashi's shoulder tighter and squeezed too hard. "Our contests are always evenly matched, and my passionate flames of youth will not lose to you!"

Everyone in the garden stopped and stared at Gai with varying degrees of discomfort and startled disbelief. The teens looked at each other and veered away to stay a safe distance from the crazy man next to Kakashi. The ANBU – no, that wasn't right...he was an ex-ANBU now – allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief, but he didn't dare close his eye or relax. The toddler was watching them with wide-eyed fascinated innocence, a hint of a smile tugging at his gaping mouth. At least the man on the other bench had gone back to reading with a shake of his head, and the woman admiring the flowers that climbed the stone walls was polite enough to pretend not to notice the outburst.

"But, Kakashi, my friend...remaining silent all the time-"

"Will cause problems for you, I know," Kakashi nodded. Well, he tried to nod. He couldn't really tell if he managed to convey the gesture correctly with his neck muscles so rigid and tense with the stirrings of panic as the toddler giggled happily. "We'll make the challenge fair; I'll take a vow of silence, and you take a vow of noise. I won't speak a word, and you'll shout everything you say." The little boy was scooping whatever he'd been playing with up into his hands and hopping to his feet.

"I can't accept this challenge, Kakashi," Gai said sadly, his voice rumbling and thick with a wealth of concern that made Kakashi want to throw up.

"Mission's are exempt," Kakashi continued, swallowing the bile down and hating the way he could feel his lifeless voice fading to a reedy whisper as he watched the child wobble over to his side of the bench with a beaming smile to proudly display the clod of dirt that had been formed into an unidentifiable shape. "I can't have you getting killed over a stupid rivalry," he rasped, struggling with the desire to claw his way out from under Gai's heavy arm and run.

"That isn't the problem!" Gai insisted firmly, grabbing Kakashi's wrist and somehow managing to grip his shoulder even tighter without squashing Kakashi into his green-clad chest.

Kakashi opened his mouth and got his lips to move, but he honestly wasn't sure if any sound came out as he focused his wild gaze on the lump of dirt at the edge of the bench and the cheerfully giggling toddler bouncing on his feet as he presented the gift. "Gai...how many people are in the garden aside from us?"

Gai went completely still, and as scrunched as his shoulder was against the side of the man's chest, Kakashi could feel that he'd stopped breathing. Fuck! He had sincerely been hoping the man reading the book or the woman looking at the flowers were real. He just couldn't tell them apart when they were only vaguely familiar to him. As inhumanly traumatizing and horrific as he knew it would be, he couldn't help wishing the ghosts LOOKED like ghosts. He couldn't help wishing they were covered in the bloody wounds they'd died from, hobbling around and pointing accusing fingers at him as their eyes rolled back and screams filled the air. The pleasant normal way they acted around the one who'd killed them was intolerable.

Gai took a deep breath, squishing him even more as he yanked Kakashi's wrist up to his chest in a vice-like grip. Kakashi would have said something, but it was pretty obvious that Gai had forgotten he'd grabbed his wrist in the first place, and Kakashi was too busy quelling the urge to screech in delight at being completely distracted from the little boy dancing happily a few feet away.

"CHALLENGE ACCEPTED, MY ETERNAL RIVAL!" Gai bellowed heartily. Kakashi chose to ignore the wobbly edge to the statement, sagging just slightly as the toddler backed up several paces in shock and his ears rang with the volume. "I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED IN THIS MOST WORTHY COMPETITION BETWEEN THE HEARTS OF MEN!"

Something twisted agonizingly in Kakashi's stomach, making his breath come sharp as he coughed at the sensation. It took him a minute to realize that it was his body trying to laugh, and suddenly he was just too exhausted to think.

"Oh, but before we start this contest officially, there has to be an exemption for you as well," Gai said, thumping Kakashi's shoulder till it felt like his bones were rattling.

Kakashi simply glowered at the exuberant man. It was easier to do that than let his eye settle on the scraps of red-stained bandages twined around the fingers of his free hand, or on Gai's vest where the blood dripped from the deep scratches around the chakra-suppressing cuff at Kakashi's wrist.

"For you, it will be the Hokage-sama, Inoichi, and the doct-"

"Ibiki," Kakashi gasped hoarsely, his eye flying wide open as spots clouded his vision. He didn't trust his brain enough to put any faith in the validity of the medical staff. The temptation to conjure up a "you're free to go outside" was too much. Ibiki, on the other hand, was someone that he would most likely see every once in a while, and if he actually hallucinated that man's presence then he damn well needed to be kept under lock and key.

"But-"

"I can always write," he said, twitching his fingers and wondering if his words sounded as slurred and fuzzy as they felt.

"Very well," Gai sighed in resignation, then straightened up and gave Kakashi's shoulder another brutal squeeze. "But if they tell you to say 'ahh', then you have to say it!"

"Challenge accepted..." Kakashi mumbled as his head became too heavy to hold up and the world was plunged into darkness.

Gai's visits were often but sporadic due to his mission assignments, and every time Kakashi heard the effusively shouted replies to mundane questions far down the hallway outside his room he felt the urge to smile just a tiny bit more. The ridiculously sadistic glee was only enhanced when Inoichi was in the room at the time. Kakashi had no sense of time other than witnessing the slow changing of seasons in the walled garden whenever Gai came to take him outside where they both pretended to ignore the ghosts that came and went. His room had no windows and no one would tell him what the date was, but it felt like it wasn't all that long until the Yamanaka broke down at the outrageous noise of Gai's approach, glaring at him before saying: "You're an evil bastard, Kakashi..."

Kakashi cracked an invisible smile and made no apologies.

Inoichi laughed and threw Kakashi's personnel file on the floor as Gai opened the door and bellowed a polite greeting, then turned crimson and roared a meek offer to return later as he spotted Inoichi. The next time Inoichi came, all he brought was miso soup with eggplant and a copy of Icha Icha.

Kakashi started telling the truth.

The day the apparitions lost their individual scents, allowing Kakashi to distinguish them from live people, he bit his lip so hard he had to get stitches on top of the healing efforts of the nurse he had secretly hoped wasn't the real one. It was a bittersweet day, but when the kindly older nurse came into his room to again scold him for not finishing his meal he obliged her and finished the disgusting bowl of medicinal soup anyway. When the ghosts started to become transparent, and the little girl that always sat in the corner of his room holding her burbling newborn baby brother grinned happily at him one last time before their mother – who was still wearing the maternity dress that now draped loosely over her slender figure – FINALLY came to take them away with a thankful smile, he had to cover his face with a pillow in his desperate efforts not to scream.

The morning he saw his own face in the broken mirror above the sink instead of his ANBU mask had him spending a few days on his knees in front of the toilet between being passed out on the washroom floor. Everyone, real or not, left him alone during that time, and the only way he knew someone had come in to check on him was the pillow under his head, the heavy blanket over his shoulders, and the tray of soda crackers, soup broth and ginger tea that magically replenished itself while he slept.

Two weeks after the hallucinations disappeared he was released into the sunshine and freedom of not being able to stray past the walls of Konoha before his psychological re-evaluation in a month. He ignored the watchful presence of the all too familiar ANBU guards shadowing him, feeling safe and secure in knowing they would slit his throat if he made a wrong move. He kept his chin up because he wanted to let them know he was okay with that, especially since the first place he went to was not straight home like the doctor had ordered, nor was it to the Memorial Stone.

Cremation was not an uncommon practice, and the various family plots in the civilian cemetery tended to be spaced unevenly depending on what tradition they honored. As ill as he truly felt remembering how high the flames had gotten when he'd burned the corpses, there was somehow a lingering sensation of calm in knowing that even the Hokage had done the same thing with the last remnant of the poisoned village. Following the instructions the Sandaime had given him, he made his way to the far corner, near the edge of a small wooded area, and crouched down in front of a humble but well-crafted grave marker.

The little girl who had haunted his every waking moment from the corner in his room had prattled on endlessly about how her baby brother had been given the cutest name, and she couldn't wait until she got to call him that all the time, and she just knew Kakashi was going to like it because he'd trusted the nice old man to take good care of the baby and give him a proper name, and their mother was going to be so happy that Kakashi had kept his promise to save the baby, so why didn't Kakashi smile a bit, because it was alright, and everything was fine, and they didn't hurt anymore from the strange dust that had been in the air, none of them did, not her family or her friends or her neighbors or anyone that had been in the village, because he had made the horrible pain go away, and her family hadn't gotten separated thanks to him, so it was okay to smile because of that, because if he hadn't taken the baby with him like he did then her brother wouldn't have gotten a name, and they never would have been together, so it was okay, really it was.

He had to admit that it was a cute name carved into the stone, and it was a name he never came back to look at after that day.

When Kakashi was confronted with Gai for the first time outside the hospital three days later, he weathered the incredibly loud greeting and consequent inspection for...whatever the hell Gai looked for when he circled around him and carefully grabbed his wrist to flex it and poke at his fingers. He didn't bother hiding the wry smile as he gazed at his friend with content boredom, and when Gai planted his fists on his hips to blind him with an enthusiastic show of happy teeth, he simply bowed subtly before saying two words and walking away.

"You win."


END