If there was orange sherbet at the convenience store on the way home, he’d stay alive. They always had pints of ice creams and other frozen treats—it was something he had promised to treat himself to when he felt this way. They had made him write down all these promises during his last few mental health sessions with various Yamanakas, listing three people he could talk to when he felt lonely, three distractions he could use to keep himself sane for a few minutes longer, three reasons to stay alive. When he felt like he couldn’t stand to live another day, he had to summon Pakkun, read Icha Icha, and eat something special and different. Pakkun was still recovering from their last rough battle together. He had read each volume of Icha Icha so many times they risked falling apart upon his next touch. So orange sherbet it was.
He’d never cared much for sweets, of course. But there was something nostalgic about orange sherbet, it wasn’t quite as punch-in-the-face sugary as ice cream, but still gave a slight buzz and coated his tongue. In the back of his mind, he remembered his father—or was it Minato?—buying a pint for each of them and snagging two disposable spoons so they could enjoy them as they walked back from the training grounds. Or was it three pints with Rin and Obito after difficult missions? Something Gai or Tenzou insisted on buying for his birthday one year? Everything blurred in his mind, unable to clearly break each memory apart to see it again.
He pushed open the door, hearing the dull chime of bells as it swung forward to let him into the packed corner shop. He made his way to the freezer without taking in any of the other colors, sights, or smells around him. He remembered his goal. One pint of orange sherbet. Buy one, eat it, and try life again tomorrow.
The freezer door was coated in a light fog, but he was in no hurry to see through it. It was just him and the shopkeep cashing out an older civilian woman. He skimmed his eyes across the rows, looking for the familiar orange carton.
Where was it?
He tried again, looking more carefully at each row, all the way across, then moving down to the next systematically. His heart rate jumped roughly 15 more beats per minute.
They always have it.
He opened the door, searching furiously with his eyes now that there was no frost in his way. He knelt to the ground, checking the bottom rows thoroughly.
It has to be here.
He glanced at the shopkeep, bagging the woman’s groceries as she talked animatedly about something he didn’t care enough to make out. He slid his headband up a couple of inches, barely exposing the crimson eye hidden beneath. With as much chakra as he dared use given his current state, he searched the frozen rack again.
Every flavor of ice cream he could think of, and a least a dozen more he would never consider. And toward the bottom, there was lime, lemon, and raspberry,
No orange sherbet.
He wasn’t sure how long he remained squatted down with the freezer door open, focused on the empty slot where it should be. The shopkeep, now with no other customers, cleared his throat loudly and gestured for Kakashi to shut the door. He blinked twice, then rose, hearing the door seal as he returned to his feet.
“Anything I can help you with?”
Kakashi blinked, again. There was all this noise roaring in his head, and he felt flushed. After a beat too long, he understood what had been asked and shook his head.
“No, ah… Thank you.”
He nodded and quickly ducked out of the store.
That was it. He had to write down three reasons. Reason one was currently out of commission because of him. Reason two had been violently abused so that he had something to do with his hands when he was so full of fire and anxiety that if he wasn’t holding something he’d— well, whatever came easiest or first. Digging his nails into his arms, forming tiny red divots. Scratching until the skin was raw and angry. Slamming fists into his thighs. Step one was always untying his kunai pouch and letting it fall. He’d learned that early on.
Reason number three to stay alive, and the agreement he’d made with himself today, was the convenience of dropping by the store for a small treat. Without that, he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
Walking back to his apartment, he thought about the previous weeks. Those promises had all begun the same way, but ended in a different direction. The format was simple: if blank, then I won’t kill myself today. He used to use a similar format: I can’t kill myself until blank. The problem with that was dreaming far enough ahead to find a goal worth the pain, effort, and time, and also, what to do when the goal was met. You can’t kill yourself until you make chunin. You can’t kill yourself until you complete an A rank mission. You can’t kill yourself until you make jonin. You can’t kill yourself until… what? Until I come back from a mission with no casualties? Until I can become close to someone without them dying in front of me? It spiraled too quickly to come back from.
The simpler way to go about it was short-term goals. Can’t kill yourself till after dinner. Then you’ve gotta brush your teeth. Then read a chapter of a book, or two. Then you’re tired, and you can sleep until the alarm wakes you far earlier than the sun would, and you live until you feel like you can’t again. But even that had its downfalls—if you can’t be bothered to brush your teeth tonight, you’ve gotta find something to keep going.
It had been Gai who suggested rephrasing the prompt to its latest version. On a day I challenge you, Rival, you can’t end the passion of youth! The challenges had been almost daily for a couple of months after that, until Gai had left for an extended mission and Kakashi had been thoroughly encouraged to stay a similar amount of time in the Yamanaka’s care. He’d begrudgingly admitted later that both of those developments had helped, and it had been a few years since his last bout with depression like this.
But it had been like this for a few months now, and the clouds fuzzing over his mind didn’t seem to be letting up. So he revisited some old advice. If it doesn’t rain on the way home, he’d stay alive. The sky remained cloudless. If Naruto pulled something stupid during training, he’d stay alive. It only took fifteen minutes before Sakura started yelling at him. If there was orange sherbet in the corner store—
But there wasn’t.
Somehow, he made it inside his apartment, not quite recalling the rest of the walk through the dull ache behind his eyes. He slipped his unzipped vest off his shoulders, not noticing it hit the floor. Routine dictated that next was the kunai pouch, then the bandages, then—
He was sitting on the floor and wasn’t sure how he got there. Sitting was a generous term, he supposed, as his legs were fully outstretched and he was propped on one forearm with his head against the wall. His eyes slowly screwed tight as the dull ache sharpened briefly, then the static between his ears picked up in volume. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and gradually got back to his feet, stumbling into the living room.
He slumped across the couch, staring at the ceiling. He remembered the routine, drilling itself into his head. His vest was off, he needed to remove the kunai pouch, then the bandages, then the shoes, and put all of that away before removing the rest of his clothing to take a shower. After that was dinner, then two hours of free time to fill with whatever he was capable of, then bed. Lately the free time had been compromised of staring at the pile of clean laundry on the chair opposite him that had needed to be put away since Wednesday. He knew the routine. He decided to get a jump start on free time anyway.
He began counting all of the socks he could see sticking out of the collection of clothes. Organization and listing had always helped situate his mind and get him back on track. After ten or so minutes, he was finally able to unstrap the kunai pouch, tossing it across the room, taking care to not pay attention where it landed. There had been a week where Kakashi didn’t even carry the bag because Gai had taken it and every sharp object he could find in the apartment under the pretense of helping him hone his taijutsu by not relying on weapons. He had been content to let Gai keep the explanation at that. That might be something to revisit soon.
No. Gai had already done more than enough for him.
Kakashi found himself standing in his small bathroom. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he’d been in the living room, but he was now free of his bandages and shoes. He shrugged, reaching behind his head to untie his headband. Somehow, it had gotten knotted worse than usual and a section of his hair was caught in it. He yanked viciously at it, breathing in through gritted teeth at the sting then feeling himself relax ever so slightly. Forgoing undoing the knot, he slid it along the trapped segment of hair until the headband came free. That made it on to the counter. That never saw the floor, unlike every other part of his wardrobe had.
Next to the headband on the counter was a scattered collection of varying sizes of orange plastic bottles with thick white caps. The clinical labels all had his name, and the names of various antidepressants and antianxiety medications, as well as several painkillers and muscle relaxants and some antibiotic from the mission a couple years back where everyone returned miserably ill. Most of the bottles were empty, and he had held on to them meaning to get them refilled. He always had good intentions, but there was so many things to do in a day, and he ran out of energy usually three or four items into his list.
The one thing he could always count of having around, though, was some kind of pain relief.
Missions were hard, somehow harder now than ever with him as a jonin leader. He still had teammates, but they relied fully on him to take the brunt of every attack and to protect them at all costs. He couldn’t blame them, of course. They were children. He wanted nothing more than for them to be children and not suffer the same losses he had.
Still, he was sure to return from every mission above a D rank with at least a few nasty bruises. And any time Gai could rope him into a training session, he knew he’d come home needing ice packs and the heating pad and whatever else he could get to be able to train with his team the next morning.
And that was how he found himself glaring into the mirror, the bottle of white tablets shaking in his fist.
He was certainly in pain, that couldn’t be argued.
But how many to take?
No orange sherbet.
He shook his head vigorously again, walking back into the living room and falling onto the couch. He focused on a mark on the ceiling, breathing faster than he understood why while his vision started swimming.
There wasn’t orange sherbet.
He was a drain on Gai.
His students didn’t need him—they’d surpass him soon enough.
There were still villagers who called him Friend-Killer Kakashi,
He still saw faces every time he laid down to sleep.
He felt Rin’s blood splash onto his chest every time he used the Chidori,
He couldn’t help Itachi
He couldn’t help anyone,
Sometimes he understood what must’ve gone through his father’s head.
Sometimes, the corner store doesn’t have orange sherbet.
Sometimes, the little orange bottle that rattles doesn’t rattle any more.
He was in the kitchen, water dripping off his face and hands as he panted over the sink. How did he get here? He swallowed hard, his mouth somehow still dry, and turned the water off. The prescription bottle was laying on the floor. Then so was he. Against the cold tile, he was able to relax just a bit again.
It’d be over soon. He wouldn’t hurt anyone else ever again.
His thoughts became harder to string along, but that didn’t bother him. The thoughts he could connect didn’t sting as much as they usually did. It might be nice to put away that laundry, actually.
Every muscle was heavy. There was so much weight on him, and he couldn’t move. How much time had passed? He thought his heart was starting to race, and wondered if he was having second thoughts. But he couldn’t feel the ground beneath him any longer. He struggled for hours, days, to move his index finger to trace the hem of his shirt over and over. Could he feel it? Was he moving?
He rolled to his side, slowly bringing his knees up to prepare to stand. But his body didn’t move. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. He couldn’t? His… It was his body. But? Was he? Could move? …Him?
Several centuries had passed before he heard the key in the door, and the door had already been sealed shut before he understood what the noise was.
“Ka-KASHI! In celebration of your return home from your latest mission, I made sure to grab a treat. Do you remember when you left the ANBU and we went to the corner store together? What a celebration to end all celebrations that day was! I was sure to grab the finest, most youthful of every snack—orange sherbet!”
Gai held the thin plastic bag up triumphantly, two pints rolling against each other. Normally he would have also grabbed spoons, but assuming Kakashi would be home, he was sure he could find two spoons somewhere in the apartment, even if he had to wash every dish himself.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed to him that Kakashi was on a downswing lately, but he’d always been the counter to balance his own exuberance, and he had complete confidence that they would move past this, too.
He nudged the flak vest that was crumpled on the ground at his feet. Kakashi must’ve been itching to take it off to have removed it the second he got inside. But why wouldn’t he have hung it up, or placed it at least near the hamper? This wasn’t part of the routine. Had he been badly injured on this last mission?
That must be it. He would have come home, shed his clothing, and jumped in the shower to clean his wounds and begin loosening his muscles. Much to Gai’s dismay, Kakashi seemed to be magnetically repelled from hospitals, preferring to treat his wounds himself as long as he could walk. So he must have some sort of torso injury, maybe bruised ribs or a minor stab wound, and he was surely tending to it quietly deeper inside the apartment.
The laundry he had helped Kakashi wash last week was still in the soft, cushioned chair in the dim living room. That wasn’t too surprising, he knew that was the first thing Kakashi would let fall by the wayside if something wasn’t going to get done. As long as the clothes were clean, he could wear them, even if they hadn’t been neatly hung, and that was something Gai could live with.
What he did not appreciate the sight of, however, was the kunai pouch halfway under the end table near the entry way. With such an inconvenient location, Kakashi surely must have made an effort to lose the bag and the knives it contained. He felt his heart swell with pride that Kakashi had the forethought to disregard the bag, but his heart deflated just as quickly with the knowledge that Kakashi felt it necessary to do so.
As he continued into the apartment, he called out his rival’s name once or twice. He must be home. The barrier seals hadn’t been placed over the front door, which means he either was here, or kidnapped from here, and the building still existed, so he must not have been kidnapped. So where was he?
Conscious of the rapidly melting sherbet in his hand, he turned down the hallway to the kitchen to leave the bad in the freezer while he helped Kakashi, presumably in the bedroom, bandage his wounds.
As he rounded the corner, flipping on the lights as he went, he heard a small groan. Nothing at eye level. Cautiously stepping forward, his foot sent a small orange plastic bottle skittering across the tiles.
Gai was barely aware of the sherbet hitting the ground.
Kakashi looked terrible. It was not particularly strange to find him lying on the ground, but there was absolutely no color in his face. Both of his eyes were lazily opened, and neither focused on Gai’s as he kneeled down to check his vitals. His breathing was shallow and his heart rate garbage.
“What did you DO?”
Gai yanked Kakashi up into a sitting position, grabbing for the prescription bottle. Depending on what it said, maybe this wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Maybe he’d been poisoned. Maybe even food poisoning. But the signs of an opiate overdose matched the label printed in cruelly clinical terms and he crushed the plastic in his fist. Kakashi needed to get to a hospital, and he needed to get there immediately.
He gathered his rival in his arms, not noticing his weight nearly as much as he noticed how limp he was, making no effort to not be ragdolled around. As he stood up, he took stock again of Kakashi’s breathing—shallower than a moment ago. After a second’s hesitation, he reached for the edge of his mask and yanked it down under his chin, hoping the direct access of air to his lips and nose might help. His lips had some color in them still, and he looked away, trying to respect the privacy of the man who he would kill as soon as he was saved.
Some time in the next twenty-four hours, Kakashi’s eyes opened. When they did, blinded by the light and surrounded by medical whites, he was shocked to find himself actually in heaven. What brought him back to earth was Gai, unceremoniously slapping his shoulder.
“What, my dear, dear rival, were you thinking?” he said, thankfully not as loudly as he could have.
Kakashi was at a loss. There were dozens, hundreds of thoughts racing through his head, but they all seemed password-protected and he didn’t have administrative access. He could barely open his mouth, covered by a thin towel, let alone form an explanation that would have made any sense to Gai.
Instead, he surprised himself by feeling the towel suddenly go cold and cling to his skin.
Gai panicked for a moment at the sight of Kakashi’s tears, then took a deep breath and slid forward to the edge of his chair. He brushed a warm, calloused thumb across his rival’s face.
“I know you’re in pain. I do. I don’t understand it, but I believe that you’re in pain and we’re going to help you get better.” He took a shuddering breath, noting that it was thicker with emotion than he had anticipated. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold for us, but the passion of our youth, and especially of your youth, Kakashi, is not close to over. So, whatever it takes, whatever the Yamanakas advise and whatever you need, we’ll make it happen. I love you, and you’re not going anywhere.”
Kakashi’s eyes widened, and Gai became aware that he had opened his Sharingan at some point to record this moment in his memory. He swallowed, feeling his throat begin to ache.
“I love you.”
Kakashi’s tears began falling in a steady stream, and Gai remained exactly where he was, brushing soft, silver hair off of his rival’s forehead. After a moment, he leaned further forward and pressed his forehead against the space he had just cleared.
In a small, scratchy voice he had not heard from the man laying before him ever in the past, he heard a whisper that nearly broke his heart.
“I love you too.”