Turning Over a New Leaf
Brightly colored paper lanterns hung from the trees and were strung around the booths and restaurants participating in the festival. In addition, houses boasted flags and streamers. The Festival of Changing Leaves was upon Konoha. Every year, the festival was announced as soon as the first leaf of the first tree in the village changed color. It was a time-honored tradition dating back through the country of Fire before the formation of the village. All around the country of Fire, every village monitored for the first leaf to change from green to yellow to gold and then finally to fire. Some legends said the country of Fire was actually named for the way fiery red hues swept through their vast forests in the autumn.
Yesterday a patrol had announced that a tree on the outskirts of the northeast quadrant of the village had produced one yellow leaf. So the festival had been planned. Every year when the air turned crisp the villagers started stocking up on things for the festival. It was no surprise, therefore, that everyone was ready in record time, throwing out their decorations and planning booths in the space of twenty-four hours.
Kakashi walked through the village in a daze. So it's come again.
Every year the festival took him by surprise. People seemed so ready to celebrate. And for what reason? There was nothing going on that was worthy of throwing out the red, yellow, and blue decorations, declaring sales, setting up booths, and dressing up. What was so important about leaves?
But, then, people were like that. Kakashi had noticed that trait in Obito. His teammate hadn't needed an excuse to be happy, to throw a party, or to make a fool of himself dressing up and having fun on the town. In fact, as soon as they got back from their mission, Obito had raced off to his family home to shuck off his mission gear, scrub down, and dress up in his festival finest. He'd talked about what he was going to do at the festival all day. Much to Kakashi's exhaustion. Kakashi was as a result filled with unimportant mental images of Obito wearing his red and gold yukata and white headband, catching goldfish, fanning the flames of a grill cooking special foods, and running around with his friends to try to catch fireflies.
Meanwhile, Kakashi wanted to get a bowl of ramen like always, keep his head down, and ignore the antics of everyone around him. Then he would trudge home, take a shower, and go to bed. He didn't want anyone to get in his way, festival or no. But he couldn't. All the ramen stands were closed for the festival, or converted into stands for festival food, like yakitori and cotton candy. The festival was a nuisance to his thinking. Why did it always spring up so unexpectedly, and why did everyone cherish it so?
He suspected the answer actually had to do with family, which was another reason to hide in his apartment and pretend like no one else existed. His rent-controlled apartment, special housing for ninjas without families that needed a place to stay. The place where village elders had stuck him when his father died. He'd pull the covers up over his head and hide, and everything would be fine. He would definitely not think about Obito attending the festival with his mother, father, brothers, uncles, and cousins.
Kakashi glanced up and saw a man setting up his booth. He wore a blue yukata with white markings on it and a white headband. The sleeves of the yukata were very full. Currently he was bent over with his back turned away, working on locking the collapsible booth into the upright position. Kakashi knew that this man, a stocky man in his forties, would never be seen in such a ridiculous get-up if it weren't festival time. What compelled people to dress up in silly costumes when the time for festivities rolled around?
Again, Kakashi could only assume it was nostalgia, past memories of festivals attended with loved ones.
Well, that's a joke. My father never took me to any festivals. He was far too busy with his work.
On the next street down, a woman was making caramel apples, pouring the caramel over them while they stood on a tray lined with paper, sticks already inserted. Her booth was already set up. In the back, Kakashi could see that she'd prepared dango and skewers of fruit. They lay on the table behind her ready to be purchased.
Kakashi inwardly groaned. How far to his home would the festival preparations stretch? He wanted to get away from reminders, and soon.
When he turned onto his street, he saw his apartment complex in the distance, and no signs of the festival except for a few streamers attached to a few of the houses. Most of the street was taken up with apartment buildings, and they didn't allow personalized decorations on the outside, only the inside. The lack of garish reminders of the impending celebration was a relief. He could pretend that it was just another day.
He didn't get four steps before a green-clad figure jumped down from a hiding spot on the roof of the nearest building and blocked his path. Kakashi stopped short and stared at Gai.
Gai, legs planted in a wide stance, hands on his hips, late afternoon sun gleaming off his hair.
Kakashi glared, but as usual, his severest expressions had no effect on dissolving the barrier between himself and what he wanted.
"Want to go to the festival with me?" Gai asked.
No. Kakashi didn't have to think about that part. His answer was so obvious that he sidestepped the question altogether. He knew that Gai was aware he had no interest in going, with someone else or separately. "I would have thought you would be dressed for the festival if you intended to go." He gestured at Gai's attire.
Gai glanced down at himself for a fraction of a second, not daring to take his eyes off of Kakashi.
Kakashi couldn't blame him. Every time he managed to distract Gai, he slipped off without conversation. It was a trademark at this point.
"I did not ask if you thought I was dressed properly, I asked if you were going to go with me," Gai said.
"No," Kakashi said, caught out. He glanced over Gai's shoulder at his apartment complex longingly. He felt a self-conscious urge to be hiding in his home already.
"With Obito-kun, then," Gai said.
"No." Kakashi tilted his head, openly peering around Gai's body.
"Then who are you going with?"
"No one," Kakashi said.
Gai looked tempted to slide one way or the other in case Kakashi went around him, but he didn't budge without a body signal from Kakashi. Wise. "Are you going to the festival?"
Kakashi's gaze snapped back to Gai. He had no idea why Gai persisted in wringing things out of him. "I don't have a family."
"That's okay, I don't, either," Gai said. "My grandfather died when I was nine."
Kakashi tried not to absorb that new information and failed miserably. He couldn't help but be taken aback by Gai's apparent stability and cheer. He'd assumed that Gai came from a strong, supportive, numerous family that heaped adoration on Gai's shoulders as fast as anyone else tried to tear Gai down.
Gai held out his hand. "Want to go to the festival with me?"
Kakashi swore Gai actually wanted him to hold hands. He was shocked and irrationally wary, so he didn't move a muscle. Aside from the fact that he didn't want to go to the festival.
"My treat," Gai offered. He looked at Kakashi hopefully.
Why? Kakashi's shoulders slumped. Now he was too interested in Gai's motivations to go home and hide peacefully. He wanted to know what was so important about him going to this festival. With Gai, no less. The corner of his mouth quirked upwards, invisible under the mask. "Why? Normally I don't ask people to reconsider their offers of generosity towards me, being a natural opportunist and all. But…you're an exception."
Gai looked baffled. His brow furrowed, and he visibly tried to work out whether or not he'd been insulted. "Why? Why me? Why am I the exception?"
"Because I know nothing about you," Kakashi said.
Gai lowered his hand and tilted his head. "What do you need to know before you'll accept my offer?"
Kakashi frowned. This was turning into a two-way information gathering exercise. He didn't like it. "I don't…" He sighed. "Just go away, Gai. It's simpler that way."
Gai frowned his Determined Frown. "I don't always like things the simpler way, Kashi."
"Kakashi." He narrowed his eyes at Gai.
Gai looked startled. "What?"
"You left out a syllable," Kakashi said. "My name is Kakashi, not Kashi."
"Kashi-kun, then," Gai said with a triumphant smile that could have been a smirk had Kakashi suspected any kind of arrogance was involved. He didn't.
"Gai-kun." Kakashi pronounced the word with exaggerated patience.
Kakashi started around him.
"Now, now, wait a minute," Gai protested, turning and grabbing his shoulder.
Kakashi stiffened, halted in his tracks. "What?"
"I'm trying to keep you company," Gai said.
Kakashi reacted with instinctive fear and anger. He wondered where it came from. "What for?"
"You're always alone," Gai said simply. "I don't like it. I want you to have company. No one else seems to keep you company…so I will."
Kakashi sighed, relaxing to a state of gray, monotonous weariness. "I don't suppose we can talk this over."
"Not unless you invite me into your home," Gai said. "Since that's where you're going."
Kakashi felt neatly trumped. "Alright." He turned and walked slowly, leading Gai down the street to his home. He went upstairs to the second floor and unlocked the door, expecting Gai to follow. Gai was a reliable green shadow the entire way, a step behind him. Kakashi turned and shut the door after Gai entered the apartment.
"Is this where you live?" Gai asked with interest, looking around at the clean white spaces. He walked into the living room, inspecting it. "It's very neat. It doesn't look like anyone lives here at all."
"I don't," Kakashi said pointedly. "I'm on missions. I'm a busy person."
Gai turned and beamed at him. "Well, you're not busy today."
Kakashi couldn't refute that. "I'm tired. I want to take a shower and go to sleep."
"And miss the festivities?" Gai's eyes twinkled as if he expected some clever banter to ensure.
"I'm not interested in the festivities," Kakashi said slowly and clearly. "I am going to bed. Gai-kun, if you follow me there, I will suspect you of being a pervert and kick you out of the apartment. Please do not make this any easier on me than it has to be."
"You mean harder," Gai said.
Kakashi stared at him.
"You said easier," Gai said. "Any easier than it has to be. But you meant harder."
Kakashi quickstepped, appearing in a flash in front of Gai and grabbing the front of Gai's shirt. He lifted Gai easily, Gai's feet dangling two inches off of the floor. "Easy is me tossing you out the window. Hard is me escorting you out the door. I said 'easier' and I meant easier. It's easier for me to lose my temper at you and chuck you out the window than it is for me to be civil and allow you to leave in the manner of the normal person. A guest, if you will. Though I don't have any of those."
Gai swallowed with a gulp, looking slightly intimidated.
Somehow, that expression on Gai's face expended all of Kakashi's impatience. He set Gai down. "I'm sorry. I've had a long day." He turned and walked over to the armchair, passing a hand over his eyes. He dropped into the chair, feeling he might as well sit down. He also didn't think he had the strength to stand eye to eye with Gai and argue for much longer. His legs were stiff, and he knew they would be sore tomorrow.
Gai walked over to him and knelt in front of his chair plaintively. "I'm sorry…"
Kakashi was tempted to make a comment about the oddness of Gai's decision to kneel by him instead of sitting down on the floor, or, god forbid, use the sofa in the nature it was intended. A smile struggling to the surface won out. It was oddly sweet of Gai to react in this way.
He still felt uncomfortable at the message of power dynamics their positions implied. He didn't consider himself superior to Gai. He just didn't like the boy. And he didn't even dislike Gai that much. He just…something about Gai made him feel as though his personal space were being tested, prodded for openings. And he didn't know what Gai would do with that kind of opening.
"You know, a festival might make you feel better," Gai said. "Seeing all the happy people around you…it might make you feel happy too. Psychology says that…" He trailed off at Kakashi's nonplussed look.
"You still want me to go to the festival with you?" Kakashi couldn't decide whether or not to be exasperated. "Even after I said no? What for?"
"I want to go to the festival with you," Gai said. "Isn't that enough?"
"Enough for what?" Kakashi muttered.
"Enough of a reason," Gai said helpfully, his eyes wide.
Kakashi smacked his forehead. "There's nothing to it other than that?"
"Does there have to be?" Gai looked at him with an honest, open, utterly confused face that tempted Kakashi to believe him.
"There's no other motive at stake here," Kakashi said. "You just want to go to the festival with me."
"That's right." Gai looked hopeful again. He stood up. "Will you?"
"What?" Kakashi was dazed at how this conversation had managed to turn full circle.
"Will you go?" Gai asked.
Kakashi looked away, faintly blushing for some reason that he couldn't name.
"Will you go to the festival with me?" Gai held out his hand. "Please?"
Kakashi glanced back at him, saw the hand, and knew in an instant it would be easier to just give in. He clasped Gai's hand and allowed Gai to yank him to his feet. "Okay." Now that he was decided, he was just as brisk as he had been when his answer was a dismissal. "Let's go."
He gestured to Gai. "Aren't you going to dress up?"
"No," Gai said.
"Neither am I." Kakashi pulled a cheerful, energetic front from somewhere and grabbed Gai's arm, dragging Gai out of the apartment. He locked up quickly and started down the stairs.
"I can't dress up because I don't have anything to wear," Gai explained helpfully. "What about you, Kashi?"
Kakashi glanced at him. "I don't have anything either."
"We'll have each other," Gai said.
Kakashi snorted. Walking around the festival in his work uniform, trailed by the only other person in Konoha wearing their work clothes. A ridiculous image. We'll stick out like sore thumbs. "We'll be two of a kind. I suppose that's the best we can do."
"I was thinking that we could use Henge," Gai said. "I-If we wanted to."
Kakashi stopped mid-stride and looked at Gai in surprise.
"To make festival clothing," Gai said. "To at least make it appear as though we fit in."
Kakashi was momentarily overwhelmed. "That…is an excellent suggestion." He let go of Gai's arm and made hand seals. "I will implement that suggestion immediately." To get a mental image of what he wanted to appear to be wearing, he thought back quickly to the last yukata he saw in a storefront display. Blue and purple. Perfect. It'll do. "Henge!" A cloud of smoke burst forth. When it cleared, he appeared as himself, only instead of his navy and gray work clothes, he wore a blue yukata with an abstract purple design on it, secured with a silver obi.
He smiled at Gai. "Your turn."
Gai reacted with hands clenched with emotion and tears in the corners of his eyes. "Yahoo! Let's do it, Rival! Alright – here I go!" He performed the Henge, and out of the cloud of smoke, he appeared again, wearing a green yukata with orange goldfish on it, secured with a blue obi. In addition, a small red fan stuck out of his obi in the back, a perfect festival-related touch.
Kakashi nodded approvingly. "A superior Henge." He humored Gai's challenges for a reason. Though he was better than Gai in terms of speed, strength, and chakra, those qualities were technicalities. When put his mind to something, when Gai wanted to do to it, he did it, no matter what the costs.
Gai looked happily flustered at the praise.
Kakashi suddenly realized that Gai had done something for him that no one else had done: dragged him out of his shell and encouraged him to have fun, simply for the sake of having fun. A festival was like that. Fun for the sake of fun.
He didn't know what to do with this moment. "Ah…let's get to the festival, then."
Gai nodded, visibly controlling the urge to cry. "Hai."
An idea flickered through Kakashi's mind. He smirked at Gai and took off at top speed, belatedly calling, "Race you!"
"Hey! No fair!" Gai recovered from his momentary shock and ran after Kakashi, trying helplessly to close the gap between them.
Kakashi was waiting at the candy apple stand for a full minute before Gai arrived, panting and strands of hair out of place.
Gai bent over double. "That…was…" He straightened with a snap. "So cool!"
Kakashi jumped, taken by surprise.
Tears flowed down Gai's cheeks. "A surprise challenge! You are a rival worthy of my constant attentions!"
Kakashi cut him off by holding out a candy apple. "For being such a good sport and not becoming angry with me."
Gai's eyes widened.
"I already paid for it." Kakashi waved it. "Go on. Take it."
Gai took the candy apple with a look of amazement. Then he grinned and grabbed another candy apple from the rack. "For being my rival!" He paid for Kakashi's candy apple and then thrust the candy apple into Kakashi's hand by the stick. He let go and looked at Kakashi triumphantly.
Kakashi stared down at the candy apple, bemused. Then he pulled down his mask underneath the genjutsu. "Hai." He raised the candy apple. "As rivals."
"Yeah!" Gai raised his apple as well.
As one, they took a huge bite out of their apples. Gai grinned, and Kakashi couldn't help but smile back at him.
They started out for the center of the festival, walking side by side.
Gai then spent the next two minutes making expressive faces and chewing.
Kakashi glanced at him. "What's the matter?"
"Too much caramel," Gai mumbled, muffled. "I can't chew."