Kakashi was laid up in bed again, after being dragged back from the Wind country by Gai. He lay flat on his back in his bedroom, an egalitarian, clean space with a hardwood floor. His window showed a great view of the village when his curtains were drawn back, as he had them now. Gai had pulled the curtain back and opened the window, so he would get fresh air and sunshine. That was all he could have, since reading would burn out his vision. A long time ago they'd found out the hard way that if he tried to read while recovering from sharingan overuse…
Well, bad things happened. So he didn't do that anymore. Nope, it would be sleeping, using the bathroom, drinking, and eating. Life stripped down to the basics. For the first few days, it would be mostly sleeping.
People didn't visit him when he was resting from sharingan overuse. Not usually, anyway. It was not recommended, if not outright discouraged by the med nins. Since the village was currently being run by a med nin, he supposed the Hokage herself was discouraging people from visiting. Psychological stress, loud noises, and company that would tempt him not to rest were all bad for his recovery. And he didn't know anyone that wouldn't produce stress, make loud noises, or stay by his bed day and night trying to comfort him, and thus tempt him not to sleep.
Even Gai knew not to come, for at least three days.
Three lonely days. Kakashi drifted in and out of sleep, limped to the bathroom and back, dragged himself to the fridge for sports drinks he always kept there, to the freezer or cupboard for instant meals he would then deliver to the microwave. Whenever possible, he crawled back to bed and ate there.
Thanks to Gai, he wasn't in the hospital this time. If he had made himself walk all the way home, he surely wouldn't have recovered enough to move. Most of all, Kakashi was glad he could sleep in his own bed. He could barely sleep for all the unfamiliar smells, sounds, and tactile sensations at the hospital. Not to mention the med nins always coming in to check his blood pressure just when he'd dropped off. Hospitals made him cynical, too. Thoughts like, They don't care about me. They just care about keeping my sharingan healthy so they can make me use it next time. were a common nagging worry.
And because Kakashi knew that Tsunade continued the tradition of assigning an ANBU detail to guard him whenever he was laid low like this, he didn't fear being surprised and assassinated.
When Gai came to visit, he'd tidy up Kakashi's apartment, cleaning all the dishes and getting rid of all the instant meal packaging left around. If Kakashi asked him, he'd go grocery shopping and fix meals, too. Gai wasn't a bad cook, in spite of the rumors that Gai's cooking should be toxic because of his unholy enthusiasm in every other area of his life. In fact, Gai had lived on his own for more years than anyone else Kakashi knew. He'd had to learn to cook, or else he wouldn't have survived. Gai was of the super old school of Throw-The-Kid-Into-The-Wilderness Martial Arts Training. It was a technique employed by one of the oldest families of Konoha, a dead clan that Gai was the last of.
Privately, Kakashi thought that training was one of the reasons why Gai had struggled with school so much. He couldn't help but be relieved that the experience had molded Gai into someone who watched his students very closely and would never abandon them to those kinds of living conditions.
A childhood that harsh had also taught Gai to worship amenities like microwaves and refrigerators. Not to mention beds, floors, and everything else he never had living by himself in the forest. When they'd met, Gai had exclaimed to Kakashi about the wonders of soap. A conversation that admittedly did not make the best first impression. Looking back on it, Kakashi knew he had snubbed Gai hastily. But then, they were children. They were all children.
Kakashi closed his eyes. Children… He took a deep, slow breath, savoring the in and out of his lungs, of his life. After staring at the ceiling, the darkness of his closed eyelids was restful. We never felt like children. Never seemed like children to each other. But we were. Just little children.
He'd rejected Gai's attempts at friendship so many times, rejected the challenges and the enthusiasm because he'd been trying to be cool. Because he'd missed the point. The point was not that Gai could never win. The point was…
Kakashi drifted into sleep before he finished his thoughts, not realizing it until he woke from a tangled dreamscape, populated by strange people doing strange things. He couldn't remember accurately what he had been doing. Trying to use the new sharingan, he thought. But just as in the battle against Deidara, he couldn't get it to aim accurately. Then – then other people had entered his line of vision. And he'd tried so hard not to hit them.
A piece of the dream hit him, and Kakashi scrambled, fell of out bed with a resounding thud, and stumbled to the bathroom. He threw up in the sink before he could get to the toilet and hung on to the edge of the vanity, his legs giving out.
Vomiting made him sweat and hurt all over, but Kakashi was glad it was a physical reaction and not his sanity cracking. The thing that saved him was that he hadn't hit anyone he loved. The sheer stress of almost hitting his loved ones with the devastating sharingan in his dream was more than enough for him. He didn't need to bawl his eyes out and curl up in a ball on top of it, like he would if he had actually dreamed consuming them with his horrible mangekyou.
He cleaned up the sink as best he could by running the water, and rinsed his mouth out. He still felt sick to his stomach, but there was nothing he could do about that. Kakashi glanced at himself in the mirror, then splashed water on his face and stumbled his way back to bed on shaky legs that threatened to give out again at any moment.
He wrapped himself in his covers and vowed to himself never to get out of bed again.
A horrible thought occurred to him. His dream was right: What if he never learned to control the mangekyou sharingan? What if he hurt someone he loved? He'd have to fight alone, and then he'd have no backup…What was he thinking, using it in the first place? How did he think he was going to control it?
And worse, if he kept using it, he'd go blind faster. Like Itachi.
Kakashi cried after all; slow, painful tears that he hid against his pillow.
Kakashi stared up at the ceiling. "Would you still love me if I weren't a ninja?"
Gai stopped in his cleanup quest and left the half-full garbage bag by Kakashi's dresser. He walked over to the side of Kakashi's bed and squeezed Kakashi's hand. "What do you mean?"
Kakashi gave a belabored sigh. That was Gai. Always asking too many questions. "Would you love me or not?"
"Of course I would," Gai said with soft-spoken conviction. He sat down and pulled Kakashi into his arms. "Now what is this about?"
Kakashi clung to him, leaning his head against Gai's shoulder. "My sharingan's going to burn out. My sharingan's going to burn out, and then I'll just be…a…a has-been." He felt more tears push their way out and squeezed his eyes shut. "I knew that. I mean, I knew that all along. But I was trying not to think about it and now I can't…stop…" He clutched Gai tighter. "Itachi – Sasuke's brother – is going blind from the sharingan. Sasuke – Sasuke's not going to be far behind. And I've been using the sharingan for longer than him. So if Itachi's going blind, then I…should be, too…"
"But maybe it won't happen," Gai murmured, sounding sad and lost. He cradled Kakashi tenderly. "Maybe it won't happen to you."
The words tore out of Kakashi in a ragged scream. "The only way to get better is transplant a new eye! Someone else's eye! I can't do it again! I don't do it!" Broken sobs wracked his body, stealing his breath and exhausting him. He felt like someone was squeezing him, wringing the life out of him.
Gai held Kakashi tightly, pressing Kakashi against him and cupping the back of his head.
"I'm scared," Kakashi choked out. "I'm scared, and I'm getting old…I don't bounce back like I used to." He sniffled, feeling his nose running, and hid his face against Gai's shoulder. "First it was three days. Then it was a week. Now it's two…three…I'm never coming back, am I? I'm never coming back from this. I'll keep using my sharingan into oblivion. I'll be a brief, bright-burning star."
That was the term for unfortunate ninjas, the ones like Minato, who rose to fame young and died young. Kakashi always thought the poetic language was meant to smooth over the horrific nature of what it described. But it never did. Not for him. There was nothing poetic about being a prodigy who was pushed too hard, too fast, and burned out. Buried in the ground like a piece of crap or left to wander around the village aimlessly, it wouldn't matter. He'd still be burned out.
Kakashi found himself crying again, his breaths hissing through his teeth. "No one ever asked me. No one ever asked me what I wanted to be. I was just…picked."
Gai stroked his head and continued to hold him.
"What did I want to do? What if I wanted to do…something that was not being a ninja?" Kakashi clung to Gai desperately. "Would you love me? Would you?"
"I would," Gai said. "I would still love you. I would still love you no matter what."
"What if I was an artist?" Kakashi asked. "What if I was the lowest of the low? What if – You'd never meet me, because you'd be a shinobi and I wouldn't be."
"I'd still meet you," Gai said. "It's a small village."
"Would you love me, even if I were an artist?" Tears welled up and dripped down Kakashi's cheeks.
"I would." Gai stroked his head, hugged him. "I'd love you no matter what."
"What if I was a manga artist? Not even a real artist? Just someone who draws cartoons?"
"I'd love you still," Gai said softly. "More than ever, because you were happy."
Kakashi cried helplessly. "Oh, Gai. I'm scared."
"I know." Gai shielded Kakashi against his chest protectively. "I know. I'm here. I'm never going away."
Kakashi never spoke about this conversation when he recovered. And he had to recover. He had to keep going. Even if it got harder every day. Because he was a ninja, and that's what ninjas did.
When his breath burned in his lungs and his torn flesh stung, and the sickening feeling that this might be his last battle settled into his stomach, Kakashi knew for a certainty that he'd just hit the end of his prime.
And when Minato's son showed up in the nick of time to save him, he wondered if this were a sign that he could finally retire without shame.
If he lived long enough.
After the war ended, he might become an artist. And then Gai would visit his studio, and help clean up the instant food wrappers from his apartment when he'd gone into overdrive on a project and just plowed through until his latest manga chapter was finished. He'd make Kakashi go to bed, and cook Kakashi some nutritious food to eat. And then Kakashi would get a lecture about taking care of himself.
Because Gai would still love him.