Title: Genius of MasksAuthor: Picklesticks
Pairing: Unresolved Gai+Lee
Rating: PG
Genre: Angst
Summary: There are many types of genius in Konoha. This is Gai's.
Author's Notes: Gai angst. LOLWHUT. I got the idea for this a while ago -- when I first saw how bad his memory supposedly is. It made me go "No way, he's totally faking that" because I just can't believe that someone that dumb could actually survive as a jounin. It makes a lot more sense for him to be doing it deliberately to get people to underestimate him, and it certainly seems to work!

People in Konoha tend to spread the word 'genius' around very liberally, but very few of them have ever thought of applying the word to Maito Gai.

Hatake Kakashi is a technique genius, thanks to the sharingan that lets him learn so many. Nara Shikamaru is a strategy genius – after all, things are easier to do when you do them as efficiently as possible. Tsunade-sama is a healing genius, one of the best the world has ever seen. Rock Lee – Gai's own precious, beloved Lee – is a genius of hard work, to the point where he can and does put his teacher to shame with his dedication.

Maito Gai is a genius of masks.

Say "masked jounin" and most people will think of Kakashi. It's natural, after all. But his mask is plain to see, and sometimes it has to be removed, and it only partially and imperfectly conceals his face. Gai's mask is invisible – that is the first genius of it. The mask that is in itself masked. People who know him tend to think that he is incapable of concealing his emotions, that everything he feels he expresses. They think that everything that crosses his face is genuine, is real and true and shows what he feels, thinks, is.

He likes it that way.

People see smiles and enthusiasm, certainty, confidence, cheerfully zany behavior, an apparent inability to process the realities of the world around him, a memory that rates somewhere on the 'goldfish' level. They see the 'nice guy pose' and an obsession with youth that, while somewhat disturbing, is ultimately harmless and amusing. That's the mask. When Kakashi – currently the only person who truly knows about Gai's mask genius – first found out about the mask, his natural assumption was to think that those things, if they were the mask, must be pure pretense.

That's the second genius of Gai's mask.

It's real. Well, perhaps not the swiss-cheese memory. That started out many years ago as a joke that somehow simply never faded, and Gai finds it useful. When your enemies underestimate you, it's always advantageous. But it amuses him that everyone thinks he's really that unintelligent. You can't be a jounin – more to the point, you can't survive as a jounin – unless you're mentally keen. It just goes to show how good his mask is, that people don't question. But the rest of it – the idealism, the enthusiasm, the antics, the obsession – they're all real. They just aren't the whole story.

Kakashi is perhaps the only person to know this, and he is certainly the only one around whom Gai has lowered the mask in years. Over a decade. Even the mask genius has to remind himself every few years that there is something under the mask, otherwise he lives with the danger of forgetting his own face.

Of all the different kinds of experts among ninja, taijutsu specialists tend to lead the shortest lives. Because they fight always up close and personal with their enemies – directly in harm's way – and because they rely first and foremost on their physical bodies, which suffer gravely from the ravages of age, rather than chakra techniques that can be practiced as well at fifty as at fifteen, the years attack them with a vengeance. The ten years between a taijutsu specialist's thirtieth and fortieth birthdays are known as the "deadly decade" – very few, even (or perhaps especially) jounin, will live to see forty unless they retire. And Maito Gai will never retire.

He's just turned twenty-nine. For the average shinobi, that's somewhat past the halfway point of life. For Gai, it means the end may very well be near. True to his mask-genius, he hides the knowledge of his own mortality under a cartoonish, amusing obsession with youth. The substitution is deft. People laugh and joke about Gai being a pedophile; the truth is, he wishes he could show his students how to value their years of full physical fitness. People joke about Gai being afraid to grow old. The truth is, he's afraid of not living long enough to.

And deep down, he's afraid for Lee, too. As a sixteen-year-old taijutsu specialist, Lee is probably about half done with his life. Gai has never shied away from teaching the boy about his own mortality, teaching him techniques that can or will kill him and making sure he knows the consequences. But in this case, he can't – it touches a little too close to his own fears, his own carefully-masked knowledge that his life may very well be drawing to a close even now. If he told Lee, well – Lee's not stupid either. He doesn't know Gai's precise age – that lives under the mask – but he can estimate well enough. Well enough to know how few years his sensei has left, barring a miracle.

And Gai doesn't want Lee to know that, because it's no secret how Lee feels about him. It isn't all that unusual for a student to come of age, and then promptly climb into their sensei's bed. Some people even consider it healthy, a first sexual relationship with someone who does care, with someone who has spent years with the student's wellbeing in mind. Better than an anonymous encounter, better than two virgins fumbling together. Less chance of 'accidents' spreading disease or teenage pregnancy. And if things were different, there would be no problem. Gai adores Lee, and if they had all the time in the world, he would take him as a lover in a heartbeat. But is it kindness to create those deep bonds when you know that with each passing day, the odds of you being torn violently from your precious person only increase? It's less than a year now – three hundred fifty-two days, to be precise – until he enters that deadly decade.

Over the course of his training, Lee has broken almost everything in his body at least once. Gai doesn't want to be the one to break his heart.