Chapter 10: The Kissing Initiative
Meeting with Gaara, talking to him, and interacting with him was easy. Meeting with him, talking, and interacting—all without looking at him…while this was slightly more difficult to pull off at first, Naruto gradually brought himself to do it. The difficult part came in when Naruto tried to do all of this while being consciously aware of Sasuke's advice to "Just kiss Gaara". But it was not "Just kiss Gaara". It more like, "Just you try and kiss Gaara," because every time Naruto thought he might attempt the outlandish advice, he found it was not as easy as Sasuke had surmised. And how was he supposed to go about it, anyway? Should he just do it at some random moment, without warning, or should he ask first? But asking Gaara for a kiss did not seem very realistic. At all. So Naruto continued going to tutoring sessions, thinking occasionally, "Hm, I might kiss him now," and much more often, "I am never, ever going to kiss Gaara."
And it would have gone well, had not Gaara started looking at him strangely after roughly the third day of the blond's strange behavior.
"What are you doing?" he asked, when Naruto had stopped working and was staring at him intently. And Naruto thought, now it was his chance, now he could ask, now—
"Nothing," he harmlessly replied, going back to his work. But the damage had been done. Naruto had not looked at Gaara directly for at least two weeks. And Gaara didn't look any different. The problem was that he looked the same. Exactly the same. Attractively the same…but in a purely platonic way. Boys could recognize and appreciate other boys' looks, right? Besides, girls did it all the time.
Gaara continued to watch him, placing his pencil on the table and narrowing his cool gaze. "Nothing?"
"Platonic," Naruto blurted out before he could think.
Gaara blinked. "…Platonic."
Naruto looked up at him and grinned. "Yeah…our relationship is…platonic." He pointed toward his book. "It's a new English word I came across. Doesn't it mean something like, 'pure' or 'non-romantic'?"
"It means 'free from sensual desire'," Gaara said emotionlessly, glancing indifferently at his own book. "'Companionable', 'nonsexual', or 'nonphysical'."
"Right…Nonphysical," Naruto repeated, cursing himself inside for his tourette's-like behavior. At least he now had proof that their association was simply what it was. Simple. Companionable. Nonsexual. Non—wait. Nonphysical? Was it really nonphysical? As in no touching? As in no bodily contact? As in no Narutos lying on top of any Gaaras?
Patting his cheeks, Naruto disregarded Gaara's skeptical glance and started writing. He had to stop his thoughts. He didn't want to remember the tumultuous emotions that had gone through him when he had been so close to Gaara. And he was close to Gaara now. Of course. This was why he didn't want to think. Thinking only complicated things, and things were better when they were simple.
"We don't have to continue," Gaara said, pausing once again as he looked over at the clearly-frustrated blond. "If you have other things to do, you can leave, Uzumaki."
Naruto leaned back, regretfully placing his pencil on the table and letting out a long sigh. Sasuke was right. Gaara was right. Everyone was right. Everyone but Naruto. "It's not that." Shaking his head, he repeated once again, "It's not that at all."
"Then what is it?"
Naruto did look at Gaara then, as if he hadn't heard correctly, but Gaara's veiled eyes were unreadable as he looked back in silence. Should he do it now? They were in separate desks, but still. Just lean in—then a tentative press of the lips—and then? And then, Gaara would slap Naruto just like Sakura had, and Naruto would have to live the rest of his life as a recluse or a monk, but preferably as a recluse, because he did not want to have to shave his head.
"It's like this," he began, bracing his hands on the metal bar that connected a portion of Gaara's chair with his desk. Gaara immediately began to glare, but Naruto held his ground, because if he was going to actually do this, Gaara's glare was the least of his worries.
But something was wrong. Or, at least, something was not quite right. It wasn't there. It wasn't the same. Naruto was sure that he couldn't kiss Gaara like this, because, while his heart was beating rather quickly once again, he did not feel the inexplicable spark—the involuntary magnetism that had spontaneously activated during all of the other inopportune times. Now, when Naruto wanted it to happen, it wasn't there, and then what would it be? It just wouldn't be right.
Releasing the metal bar, Naruto sat back in his seat. Gaara seemed to relax as well, softening his look of irritation and turning back to his book. He really was something. And yet, he was almost indescribable. But what on earth was he to Naruto? He wanted to know. He really wanted to know for sure. He was scared…but he wanted to know.
"Hey, Gaara?" Naruto spoke up, smiling apologetically as Gaara clearly put across with a subtle shift of his face that he did not like to be interrupted.
"What?" Gaara said, turning a page of his book.
Biting lightly on his lower lip, Naruto picked up his pencil and spun it between his fingers. He felt like he needed something to do. "When did you know…that you were gay?"
Even though Naruto was no longer facing him, he saw Gaara stiffen out of the corner of his eye, looking up at nothing and letting his book droop a little in his hands, before pulling his eyes back to his text.
"You're right," Naruto said quickly, hastily scrawling on his paper. "It was stupid. And nosy. And wrong of me to ask. Very wrong. I'm an idiot."
"When I kissed a boy," Gaara levelly replied, continuing to read.
Naruto looked at him again, but with a kind of amazement this time. Gaara really was a strong person. He was comfortable with himself; he seemed perfectly okay with who he was. It was qualities like these that had drawn Naruto to him from the very beginning, from the moment they had emerged from the closet together and Gaara had faced the questioning stares with an admirable kind of confidence. Naruto couldn't even face one boy, let alone the rest of the school populace. It was somewhat pathetic.
"Why don't you care what other people think?" Naruto couldn't help but ask, staring at the other critically.
Gaara turned another page, not bothering to look up. "Why do you?"
With a small laugh, Naruto drew himself back to his studies. "Good question."
Who am I?
Naruto stared down at the three words at the top of the otherwise blank white paper, the black ink a startling contrast to the bright hue of the sheet. It was a simple assignment. It was simple, and yet horribly complicated.
"Tonight, practice your written English skills," Gaara had said, pulling out a piece of paper and writing something in the upper margin of it. Extending it toward Naruto, the blond accepted it and tilted his head at the words.
"'Who am I?'" he said, repeating the neat handwriting verbatim. Naruto had always secretly admired the redhead's penmanship. It was a kind of art, each word drawn out a certain way, each letter possessing its own unique quality. Or maybe Naruto was looking much too closely at what was only handwriting.
"Just take it home over night and think of how you would answer it," Gaara said while gathering his things together. Stopping at the door, he looked skeptically at Naruto from across the room. "Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be."
Right. Don't complicate it. "Don't complicate it," Naruto even said aloud, voice filling the vacancy of his room. Sitting back, he dropped his arms at his sides and stared above at the ceiling. Who was he? He was Uzumaki Naruto. Right? Yes. And no. He was more than a name. Gaara was more than "Gaara" after all. Gaara was the quiet, introverted junior who liked to read. He was bright, both of mind and of body, because, while he had a gloomy disposition, his fiery hair and glittering eyes could light up almost any room.
"Focus," Naruto groaned, rubbing his face and rocking slightly in his chair. At least that was a start with how to begin with himself. Though, while he finally felt like he was starting to get somewhere, he realized he was getting nowhere with Gaara. What did Naruto know about him, save for his physical appearance and obvious likes (reading) and dislikes (Naruto)? And what did Gaara know about him? What did Naruto even know about himself?
Who am I?
"I'm complicating it, aren't I?"
A sudden knock at the door jolted him out of his musings, and before Naruto could even start toward the front door, the knocking sounded again. But who could it be? People rarely visited Naruto anymore. He preferred that they didn't.
The knocking sounded again, and Naruto jumped out of his chair and headed to the front of the house. "I'm coming," he called out, flipping on the hall light and walking to the front door. Again, the knocking sounded, and, glaring, Naruto hastily opened the door, ready to start yelling at someone.
But any dispute was lost as Naruto stopped and stared at the person before him. "…Sensei?"
Kakashi smiled, flashing a peace sign and tromping on into the house. One of his arms supported an overstuffed duffle-bag, while the other held a haphazard stack of papers. A few flew out of the stack, fluttering randomly around the room, and Naruto could only stare at them, and then at Kakashi, and then back to his open door before closing it. Kakashi hummed his own little tune as he sat his things down on the floor and heaved a triumphant breath.
"Iruka was right," he said agreeably, glancing around the front room. "Lots and lots of space."
Naruto walked around to the silver-haired man's front, so as to face him. He still looked at a loss for words. "Kakashi-sensei…what are you doing here?"
"Weeeell," Kakashi began, drawing the word out purposefully, "for professional purposes, let us say that I'm conducting a teacher-to-student case observation." Removing his glasses, he folded them and placed them in his breast pocket. "But, for candid purposes…I have been kicked out." He smiled brightly when he said it, so his words didn't quite match up with what he was saying.
"Kicked out," Naruto repeated, still trying to grasp the concept. "And you're staying here? Sensei, you can't—"
"But how else can I observe you, my dearest Uzumaki-kun?" With a scheming glint in his eye, he placed his hands on Naruto's shoulders. The gesture did little to reassure the blond as it should have.
"Why can't you stay with Iruka-sensei? He's your friend, isn't he?"
"He's my friend," Kakashi agreed. "But I can't stay there."
Naruto stared at him for a few more seconds, before stepping out of his arms and swatting away a question he looked ready to pose. "Fine—you can stay here." Why was he agreeing so readily to this? Perhaps he was losing his ability to care—at least about things that made no sense in his life. "Just don't make a ruckus."
"Me? A ruckus?" the teacher asked a little too innocently. "I shall be on my very best behavior. Did I tell you you were my favorite student?"
"You're hilarious, sensei," Naruto commented dryly, crossing his arms and sighing. "I have homework to do, so make yourself at home. If you need anything, I'm just down the hall." Kakashi's unreadable smile bore into Naruto's back as he made his way back to his room.
The blond stared blankly for another hour at the white paper before him, but any answers to the question eluded him. And then Kakashi started in on his requests. He asked for everything. Everything. And he was shamelessly nosy. He seemed to poke his nose everywhere, and into every possible space imaginable. The way he went about things was weird, too. He would walk up to something and just stare at it, seemingly taking it apart in his mind, before he would smile and walk away with a cryptic "Uh-huh". But he was company, and Naruto had not had company in a very long time, so, in a strange way, he appreciated the older man's presence.
Until Kakashi took his bed. And set up Naruto's room as if it were his own. He sprawled across the sheets carelessly, arms and legs sticking out of the sheets, face buried in a pillow. But Naruto took it all in stride, and when he woke up the next morning, having opted (been forced) to sleep on the couch, Kakashi was gone. His things were still strewn about the house, but he was no longer there. Something else told him Kakashi would be back.
"What's this?" Gaara asked, tone flat as he glanced at the paper Naruto had handed him. It was filled with numerous black splotches of ink, and where it wasn't covered in ghastly blobs, it featured half-written sentences that had been scratched out once or twice and a stick figure at the bottom of the whole thing that seemed to indicate he had given up. Who am I were the only three words on the paper that made sense. "I see." Gaara held up the paper. "You fail."
"Fail?" Naruto said in disbelief. "I thought the stick-figure held a strong resemblance to me."
Gaara seemed to look from the picture to Naruto as if to judge his words. "This isn't an art project, Uzumaki," he said flatly, crumpling up the paper and dropping it into a nearby bin. He was clearly irritated as he pulled out another piece of paper and used the wall to write the heading once again. "Now," he said, holding the paper toward the blond, who begrudgingly accepted it, "try again. Write yourself—put you into words." Gaara had obviously said too many words, as he was shaking his head as if it was something Naruto could never understand. "Try again."
With a skeptical departing look, he started to head to class. Naruto wasn't sure why, but he caught up with him. "Who are you?" he asked, shrugging his hands in his pockets and ambling beside him. The few people that also occupied the hall glanced at them and then turned back to their own matters. By now, Naruto and Gaara together had become commonplace. The rumors that there was something else going on died down, though they were still present, but at least the buzzing whispers had substantially lessened.
Stopping momentarily, Gaara looked from his watch to Naruto's inquisitive face. "I'm the one who's not failing English. Try again." Saying nothing else, he was gone into a nearby classroom.
With a smirk that said he was not surprised, Naruto turned to head to his own class. But stopped. Ahead of him, coming his way, walking almost right toward him was…well, it was Hyuuga Neji. It was Hyuuga Neji. Neji. Neji. Why did Naruto suddenly feel defensive? More than that he felt small. Insignificant. He didn't like it.
He started to turn and leave when a hand rested firmly on his back, guiding him toward the long-haired student once again. "Hey, Hyuuga," Kankurou smiled, not looking at Naruto, but patting his shoulder. "Where are you off to?"
Neji's face before he had seen Kankurou was rather unusual—a naturally unhappy face of sorts. Regardless, he didn't look pleased, but when Kankurou had warranted his attention, his face softened somewhat, until he was not quite smiling, not quite frowning, but still revealing enough to show that he knew his addresser and was quite clearly used to his antics. "To class, Kankurou. And yourself?"
His voice was soft, Naruto decided. Very soft, with a strong undertone. But decidedly male, and while he walked with a kind of feline grace, he possessed an indescribable quality that alerted others of the fact that, beyond a reasonable doubt, he was a boy. And he was clean—clean-cut, with his white button-up looking as if it had been recently pressed, along with the optional navy vest. And he was tall, a little taller than Naruto. Maybe that was why Naruto was having a hard time liking him. Then again, maybe it was something else.
"You know me," Kankurou replied, yawning and stretching and bringing both his arms behind his back. "I'm a studious child, so, of course, I'm off to class."
"Of course you are," Neji agreed, his tone indicating a strange tension between the two. "If I know you, you're heading anywhere but class." He did not do anything overtly—this Naruto noticed as well. He was subtle, humble in a strange way as he put forth his emotions with the smallest amount of blatancy that was necessary. Like Gaara. Only not like Gaara, because Naruto refused to lump the two together.
"I'm highly insulted," Kankurou replied, faking a look of shock and hurt.
"I'm sure you are." He finally seemed to notice Naruto then, turning toward him, and ever-so-slightly elevating a dark brow. If Gaara was bright, Neji was most certainly dark. His black hair jetted down his back and stopped almost abruptly, a few locks tumbling over his shoulders and swaying with the slightest movement. His skin was very lightly hued, like a touch of cream had been thrown in, and his eyes were even more peculiar. More…dazzling. An odd shade of crystal-amethyst. Like Gaara's, they drew one in, but seemed to taunt one by reflecting nothing. But unlike Gaara's, Neji's seemed a little more kind. "Hyuuga Neji," he said, extending his hand toward Naruto.
Naruto shook his hand, surprised at the firmness of the grip. "Uzumaki Naruto."
"Uzumaki." Again, his brow lifted slightly, before his normal reverie was restored. "Nice to meet you." Withdrawing his hand, he tossed a black wave over his shoulder, but the act which Naruto had only seen girls act out seemed not at all out of place on the senior. He made everything his own. He seemed like the sort of person who could turn anything he wished into Hyuuga Neji. He was intimidating. Gaara had liked him—maybe loved him once. Maybe still did. "I prefer 'Neji'," he said after a moment, seeming to size Naruto up indiscreetly, "but call me what you wish. 'Hyuuga' is not who I am, so I don't care too much for it. Which is, of course, why Kankurou calls me as such." He cast a sidelong look at the other senior who was all smiles.
"Neji. Okay," Naruto said shortly. It felt weird to say, seeing as Naruto had only just met him, but it also suited the other student quite well. Neji knew who he was—didn't mind making sure that others knew. Wanted others to know. Tall, thin, and naturally gorgeous. Handsome. There seemed to be much more to him than this. "Nice to meet you, too."
"I'm not so sure." There was the slightest hint of a smirk at one edge of his mouth, but it had vanished, leaving Naruto to wonder if it had really been there after all. "How did you come to the unfortunate happening of meeting Kankurou?" He was forward, direct, didn't try skirting around things. He made his feelings known. It was admirable, but Naruto couldn't quite bring himself to like him. He couldn't quite not like him either.
"I met this kid through the kid-brother," Kankurou answered for him, tousling Naruto's locks but never once breaking his gaze with the other boy. "You remember Gaara? But then…how could you forget?"
It was then that Naruto became doubtlessly aware that Kankurou did not like Hyuuga Neji. It was in his stance, his voice, that smile that was just a little too nice. He was also quite positive that Neji did not like Kankurou, either. The black-haired student didn't quite glare, but he was certainly not smiling as he stared at the taller student before him.
"I have to go," Neji finally said. "Goodbye, Kankurou," a bow, and then, a little more softly, "Uzumaki. Give my regards to Gaara."
"You never could do that yourself, eh Hyuuga?" Kankurou asked, but Neji only stared at him with that oblique glare and left. Naruto and Kankurou watched in silence as he disappeared around a far-off corner. "As much as I'd hate to admit it, Hyuuga Neji doesn't walk." He seemed to smile slightly, genuineness peaking through. "He floats."
"Like flying with your feet on the ground," Naruto mused almost dreamily.
"Exactly," Kankurou turned toward him with a slight look of surprise, like he never imagined such words could come from the other's mouth. "Poetic. No wonder Gaara's having such a hard time with you. You can do wonderful things with words."
"Not really." If that was true, why couldn't Naruto say the right things when it counted?
"That's also why he's having trouble with you," Kankurou added. "You need to have more confidence in yourself; be comfortable with who you really are."
Naruto was suddenly sullen. "Like Neji?"
With a small grimace, the senior said, "Maybe not so much like Neji, but at least you can tell that Neji knows who he is."
Who am I?
"You know about Hyuuga, right?" Kankurou asked, switching to more formal language. Though the question was broad, Naruto was able to discern what he was talking about rather quickly.
"Last year, maybe mid-October, there was a letter that had been posted all throughout the school."
"Yeah," said Naruto. "I know about him."
"It was a letter Gaara had written to another boy."
"Well, be careful about believing what you've heard about him. He's a good guy, in earnest. It's just that I'm like an elephant," Kankurou quipped lightly. "I'm faithful. And I never forget."
Naruto agreed, but he still didn't like the long-haired student. And he didn't really want to think about why that was. Instead, he looked at Kankurou, who now seemed the drastic opposite of Neji. "Your shirt's untucked," he pointed out, taking in the full unkemptness that was Kankurou. Oddly enough, he pulled it off in a defiance-of-authority sort of way. His collar was even popped.
"So?" Kankurou asked, indicating he was aware of his state of dress and was quite possibly the reason for it.
Looking a little closer, Naruto could've sworn he was seeing things. "And is that a cigarette behind your ear?"
Kankurou's eyes went wide, seemingly confirming what the blond was seeing. Reaching behind his ear, he raised a brow at the pencil-thin object and tucked it in his back pocket. "So it is."
Naruto looked to be either disappointed or disbelieving or a mixture of the two. "An untucked shirt is forgivable, especially for a senior, but I hardly think they'll look past a cigarette. Smoking is strictly forbidden on school grounds. Does Gaara know?"
"Yes and no," nodded Kankurou. "But you won't tell him." His tone indicated that this was non-negotiable. "This is one of the conditions of our friendship."
"Conditions?" Naruto repeated, still in slight doubt. "Don't you know those things kill you slowly?"
"Maybe that's why I like them," Kankurou seemed to tease. Then again, he also seemed to be serious. "Anyway Naruto, I must be off to class. You, too, if I'm not mistaken." Elevating a hand in a wave, he smiled and took a step back. "Don't forget to return my clothes, kouhai…Condition Number Two of our friendship."
Naruto slapped a hand to his head, remembering it had been two weeks since he had borrowed said articles.
"It's not the end of the world, Naruto," Kankurou chided lightly. "Just drop them by sometime this week."
"Will do," Naruto said reassuringly, wishing, deep down, that the end of the world would come soon. The life he had known, the one he had been comfortable with, was slowing flaking off in small pieces, revealing a foreign world beneath. Matters of letters, of Kankurou, of Neji, of Gaara—these were not part of what he had known. Maybe it wasn't the end of the world after all, but simply the birth of a new one.
"Welcome back, Naruto," Kakashi greeted as the blond walked in. He was in the kitchen, which was visible from the front room (because Naruto's house was normal-sized, unlike Gaara's), and he was busy cooking something that actually smelled good.
His optimism was a stark contrast to Naruto's conflicted attitude. "How did you get in?" the teen asked absentmindedly, before shaking his head and slumping back into a couch in the front room. "You know what? Never mind," Naruto said tiredly. "I don't even want to know."
Kakashi regarded him from the kitchen for a moment, before pulling off the oven mitt he had on and laying the apron he had found who-knew-where across the back of a kitchen table chair. Then, very slowly, he walked into the front room and stopped in front of Naruto.
"What's wrong?" he asked gently, in a tone that Naruto was unfamiliar with. It was a tone of caring, a tone of concern. A parental tone.
Naruto looked at him, and then looked away. "It's nothing."
With a small smile, Kakashi took a seat next to him, resting his left arm on the corresponding left arm of the couch. "Naruto…I've known you long enough to know when you're lying, and I know you well enough to know that this is one of those times."
"You've only known me for about three years," Naruto told him, looking at him skeptically. "As long as I've been at Konoha High."
"You're wrong," Kakashi respectfully disagreed, looking forward into memories past. "I've known you much longer than that." Turning toward him, he said, "I taught a few odd years at your elementary school, remember?"
Naruto raised a brow at him. "You're right," he said, as if it was all starting to make some strange sort of sense. Kakashi had known him for a much longer time than he had considered—since he was but a mere child.
"Iruka is your official guardian, but I am your back-up guardian—his study, if you will. It was supposed to be me in Iruka's place, but I knew he would be more reliable than I. He always is."
Naruto was looking at him in a new light now, a light strongly fueled with disbelief. "You…knew my parents?"
"Yes," Kakashi smiled, one eye hidden beneath its black patch. "I knew them quite well. Just as I made it my duty to know you and ensure that you live a normal, happy, adolescent life."
Naruto almost laughed, turning away and shaking his head. "What is 'normal', anyway?" To Naruto, it now seemed like a horrible term created and defined according to a certain group of people's standards in order to be forced upon others. Those who didn't fit the determined criteria were simply looked down upon. Like Gaara was looked down upon for being homosexual. It wasn't right.
"Normalcy is not always what you think," Kakashi replied, also looking away, but into a nothingness of his own making. "Normalcy can be what's okay for you, Naruto." And then, as if he could read Naruto's thoughts, he added, "It's not always what other people think."
"I guess so."
"I know so," the silver-haired man said adamantly, turning again toward Naruto. "I also know that your parents would be sad to see you like this. What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing," Kakashi sighed, looking a little disappointed. "Honestly, I might believe it was nothing looking only at your grades. You've shown great improvement in the past few weeks; I've been pleasantly surprised, and very proud. You don't have to worry about your grades. Well, you do, but you know what I mean."
"I know," Naruto said, playing with a lock of his hair and sighing as well. "It's not my grades. It's me."
"You? What about you?" Kakashi suddenly became wary, if not a little on his guard. "You haven't gotten into drugs, have you? Mingled in with the wrong crowd? Owe money to the wrong people—"
"No," Naruto laughed, looking at him finally. "And you sound like Iruka-sensei."
Kakashi's smile seemed a little more real for a moment, a little less false. "He rubs off on people. Anywho, if it's not drugs or gangs, what is it? It's not Gaara-kun, is it?"
Naruto looked at him quickly. "Why would you say that?"
"No reason in particular. It's just that I know how adamant he can be. He's rather set in his ways."
"Comfortable," the blond quietly corrected. "He's comfortable with who he is."
Kakashi glanced at Naruto with another unreadable expression. "Indeed. You two seem to be getting along as of late."
"Seem," Naruto repeated, tone slightly bitter as he scratched his chin, before rubbing his face altogether. "Everyday I sit beside him after school, and I think that we seem to be getting along…but we're not. We're just…going along with it all. We're just…pretending."
"I think Gaara hates me," said Naruto, biting on the end of his thumb as the red-haired boy's image conjured before him. "From his point of view, I'm just that boy who doesn't know anything—who won't go away. No wonder he only thinks of me as an idiot. I am an idiot. And…," he turned toward Kakashi with a contrite smile, "I'm not making very much sense, am I?"
"So-so," Kakashi answered with a small smile of his own. "But you make enough sense to show that you care about him."
Naruto seemed to laugh again, the short chuckle coming out more as a release of breath than anything else. "Sensei, did you know what you were doing?"
"When you asked Gaara to be my tutor."
Again, Kakashi looked at Naruto, before turning away and smiling to himself. "Of course I knew—," Naruto looked at him fast, but Kakashi's grin revealed nothing, "—I knew that Gaara was the best person for the job. He can be difficult to read, no pun intended, but when it comes to English, there's not a student better suited to the subject than he is. I knew he would be able to make you see the things that I couldn't."
"He's amazing," Naruto said in agreement, before he could really think about his words. Even after considering it, he knew no better words to describe it. Gaara really was amazing. But. "I know absolutely nothing about him."
Naruto nearly went blank at his teacher's reply. "So…So, that's what the problem is. What do you mean, 'So'?"
Kakashi looked at him like he was the one saying strange, indecipherable things. "So…it's your fault, then. You're the one who cares, so you need to make the effort. Right?—Of course I'm right, why am I even asking?" He smiled to himself, and Naruto couldn't help but smile, too.
"You're right," he said quietly, even though it was unnecessary. And Kakashi was right. Naruto cared, but he hadn't tried as hard as he could. He hadn't done everything he could have, either.
"But don't forget," Kakashi spoke up again, holding a finger in the air, "you're not the only one—who cares, that is. Gaara cares too, though he might not show it. It's just that you seem to care a little bit more. So show him."
Naruto wrinkled his brows. "Show him?"
"That you care."
"How should I know?" The older man even shrugged a bit. "That's between you and him. What do they say—'Actions speak louder than words'? But words are good, too. Ultimately, I can't tell you what to do. You'll know and do it when the time is right. Right? Yes I am, thank you."
This was sounding more and more confusing than it probably should have. "And then?"
"And then…you pray to the gods that Gaara opens up to you."
Naruto could only bring himself to blink. "So there's no guarantee?"
Kakashi looked over at him and smiled a bit. "Of course there's no guarantee. Who wants a guarantee? That's what's so great about life, right? You never know what will happen. All you can really do is hope for the best. And be yourself," he added as an after-thought. "That's really all that matters."
"Be myself?" repeated Naruto, looking at him and unconsciously screwing up him face so that Kakashi had to chuckle at him. "What if I don't know…who I am?"
"Then you're a normal teenage boy." Kakashi patted the blond on the head. "And you should be dazed and confused for a few years yet. But you should know who you might be. Even if you don't know who you are, you aren't nothing. You're you…whoever that crazy student is. And only you can know who you are." He nodded agreeably. "It's that easy." Naruto could only look at him, slowly taking apart his words and finding the undeniable truths within them. For a man close to his thirties, who seemed dull and aloof most of the time, he spoke surprisingly-wise words.
Tilting his head, Kakashi then asked, "Why the philosophical questions all of a sudden?"
Naruto turned toward the window, now dark with the onset of night. "Gaara just asked me, that's all," he shrugged out. "He even made it an assignment, but it's giving me some grief."
Kakashi regarded him silently, staring at him for a few moments before looking away again. "Maybe you're not the only one who cares, after all." Standing, he stretched a bit and looked toward the kitchen briefly. "Well, I'd better get back to dinner."
"Can I ask you one more thing, sensei?" Naruto suddenly spoke up. He was still looking at the window, out of it, into the world.
"Of course," Kakashi replied, resting a hand on his hip.
"I know it's a weird question, but…did kissing someone ever tell you how you felt about that person?"
Kakashi's eyes went a little wide before he reclaimed his normal composure. And then he smiled. It was the same smile Kakashi had donned when he had told Naruto to take care of Gaara. "Almost always," he began fondly, "a kiss has told me what I already know."
"Already…know…" Naruto went over the words slowly, before shaking his head and turning toward his teacher with a sheepish half-smile. "I know that was really random…I was just thinking about things. Non-related things," he was sure to clarify, but Kakashi just smiled back at him. "Just forget I even asked," he ended with dejectedly.
"Whatever you say," Kakashi said calculatingly, starting toward the kitchen.
"Um, sensei?" Naruto spoke up again, feeling bad to do so, but knowing it was necessary.
Kakashi stopped and turned. "Yes?"
"Thanks," said Naruto quietly, looking down and rubbing his arm. "…Thanks a lot for listening to me. And giving me advice. I appreciate it."
"…Anytime," the silver-haired man said warmly. "And I mean that, Naruto. Anytime."
"Thanks," Naruto said again. Looking at Kakashi, he could only squint his eyes a bit. "Kakashi-sensei, why don't you have kids? I think…you'd be a good dad."
For a moment, Kakashi turned away from him, before facing him again with his usual smile. "I don't have a uterus," he finally replied. "Besides…" Walking back over to the couch, Kakashi placed his hand on Naruto's head simply kept it there. "I have enough of a kid to look after right here."
Naruto could only look down, feeling suddenly like he might cry, which was funny, because Kakashi was starting to feel that way, too, and he never cried. Withdrawing his hand, he walked into the kitchen and commenced his cooking.
"Oh, and I didn't quite know what I was doing," he called out after a few minutes had gone by, "but I did have a pretty good idea."
Naruto didn't know what he was talking about, until he skimmed through the conversation they had had. And then his eyes went wide. "I hate you," he said, but laughed the sentence out.
Kakashi's smile was even in his voice. "You love me."
Kakashi was gone the next day. Miraculously, he had packed all of his things up sometime during the night and had left—all without Naruto knowing. Naruto tried to tell himself that he wasn't as disappointed about it as he felt, but that only made him feel worse. Still, Kakashi had told him that he would be there for him "anytime", and Naruto found comfort in knowing that that had been the truth. He also knew it would only be a matter of time before the silver-haired adult would be driving him crazy once again.
Then, to add to matters, Gaara refused to tutor Naruto until he got the assignment right. But Naruto kept thinking that he had got it right, so this made things rather frustrating. He brought a new piece of paper to school every day, but Gaara would always glance at it and say no, before taking it out of his hands and crumpling it into a ball. He made a dramatic show of it, too. The way he crumpled the paper worked in such a way that it sounded as if the world was breaking apart—Naruto's world, as he struggled to find himself somewhere within it. His resolve was breaking, too. Sasuke was right, because every day Naruto didn't see Gaara, he became more and more frustrated about everything. When he got right down to it, he didn't even know what he was frustrated about, but he knew that it had something to do with Gaara. And he had almost given up on kissing him. How could he kiss someone who was slowly driving him crazy? And he certainly couldn't press his lips to someone who took such pleasure in turning his work into little, crumply balls.
Sasuke refused to offer any more advice on it all, and Kakashi's advice returned in the form of unreadable smiles. Thankfully, he didn't see much of Neji or Kankurou, because he didn't need to be feeling any more inadequate. All of the frustration and disturbance went on for a good four days, until the fifth day when everything seemed to collapse.
Gaara did not come to school. Granted, this would not have been such a surprise had it been someone else. Like Kiba, for example. He occasionally missed a day. Or even Naruto, who often missed any number of days. But Gaara never missed. In the entire history of Naruto's interactions with him, the blond had never known Gaara to ever be absent. When he should have felt relief, he felt an inexplicable fear, more of a trepidation that stayed with him for the better part of the day. And then the worry settled in. What if something had happened to him? What if he had moved to another country without warning? He would do it, too. Gaara was the type of person to move to another country without warning, just for the personal enjoyment of making Naruto worry about him, and so Naruto spent the remainder of his day trying to figure out which state the redhead had resided in. He told himself that this had to be the reason, because if it wasn't, then that would have to mean that something had happened to him, and Naruto did not want to worry about him. No one else knew otherwise, and the one day he actually wanted to, he couldn't find Kankurou. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Outside, the skies opened up, and it finally started to rain.
By the time the afternoon bell rang, Naruto uttered a rushed goodbye to Sasuke and left. He didn't have an umbrella, but it didn't really matter. Of course, it was pouring outside. He walked, but walked fast. And then he thought of Gaara speed-walking everywhere. He didn't want that speed-walking redhead speed-walking anywhere else but Japan. He hoped Gaara was all right. When the large house came into view, he had never felt so relieved. And alarmed. A fire-truck backed out of the driveway and started off down the street just as Naruto bolted into a run. He sprinted faster than he could ever remember running in his life, pellets of water stinging his skin, and as his muscles seemed to tell him that he was not in shape for this kind of torture, he ignored them and continued pumping his arms and legs until he all but collapsed on the front lawn. And then he did collapse. Thankfully, his arms flew out to support him, but his knees had not been saved from the rain-soaked earth. He tried not to grimace too openly at the two brown patches of mud on his brand new khakis. Because, of course, Naruto had just bought that pair the previous day, and everything that could go wrong with his life was quite contently going wrong.
Collecting himself and trying to catch his breath, Naruto stood, brushing his hands off on his shirt (why not his already soiled pants, he did not know), and slowly limped over to the door. Knocking seemed to take more energy than he could remember, and his bookbag now felt like one-hundred pounds had been slumped over his shoulders. But he didn't care. The house was still standing. Thank the gods, the house was still standing.
An eternity seemed to span before Kankurou opened the door, looking out at Naruto soberly. He didn't seem to notice the blond's state of dress. "Now's not a good time—"
"Is Gaara here?" Naruto nearly cut him off, bracing his hands on the doorframe and still trying to pace his breathing.
Kankurou finally looked him over, raising a brow in puzzlement over his soaked clothes and random mud and grass stains. "He's…" he began, trailing off unconsciously. Finally, he looked behind himself, turning so Naruto could just barely glimpse the red-haired student a few feet away at the bottom of the staircase. Where the staircase should have been. Where the staircase was no longer. Gaara was looking down, probably at the large pile of ash on the floor. Maybe at nothing at all.
"It was an accident," Kankurou cleared his throat, turning back toward Naruto. "I left the fireplace lit last night, and a freak accident happened. The stairs, well—," he tried to smile, but gave up, settling instead with a broken grin. "The stairs are gone."
"It was an accident," Naruto repeated, more so to cheer him up. "Accidents happen. No one's hurt, right?"
"Not physically." His thoughts seemed to go somewhere else for a moment. "Anyway, you might want to come back later…when things are…fixed." His smile was a little more perfect this time. "I'd let you take a shower, but we currently cannot access the second floor. Sorry about that."
"It's okay," said Naruto, almost mechanically, before shaking his head and propping a foot in the door. "No, it's not okay. What am I saying? Don't you have cram-school?"
"Well, yeah, but I can't go. I have to stay with Gaara."
"I'll stay." Naruto watched as Kankurou looked at him with a strange hesitance. "I'll stay with Gaara, Kankurou."
"…You." Kankurou looked behind him again, before chewing on his lip and turning back toward the blond. "You would?"
"I would," Naruto said with assurance.
The senior regarded him for another span of time before breaking into a small smile. "You would." Sighing, he reached behind the door, picking up his helmet and pulling out his keys. "Thank you, Naruto."
"Anytime," the blond said with a smile. Stepping aside, he let Kankurou pass him as the older boy fastened his helmet and pulled on his gloves.
"If anything happens, you have my number," he said at last, glancing over Naruto's shoulder and toward the back of the hallway. "And Gaara has it. And you know where the food is by now; feel free to use it. And—"
"College-bound, sempai," Naruto said with a laugh, all but pushing the older boy out the door. "Drive safely, Kankurou."
Kankurou smiled at him—a grateful smile—before flashing a thumbs-up and heading over to his bike. An engine rev and a nod later, he was gone, motorcycle starting on down the street. Naruto waved until he couldn't see him. Then, sighing and turning toward Gaara, he heaved his sopping wet bag onto the floor and crossed his arms, finally making his way toward the other.
Gaara didn't even hear him approach. He just stared at the black pile on the ground, musing about the delicacy of life. Everything suddenly seemed so fragile. Life seemed so fragile. Life was so very, very delicate. It registered much later than it should have that Naruto's arms were around him. Drawing back and whirling to face him in an automatic well-up of anger, Gaara was slightly thrown off by the blond's disheveled state.
"Naruto," he finally said in slight surprise, revealing more emotion than he would have liked to. Settling into his usual, irritated expression, he followed with, "What are you doing here?" He was angry to find himself cold after losing contact with Naruto's body, the dampness of which now seemed to linger on his skin and send an involuntary shiver through him.
Naruto just stared at him, nearly laughing quite bitterly. "Finally." Gaara just looked back at him. "Finally, you bring yourself to call me by my name."
Gaara's look of surprise returned, replaced almost immediately with annoyance. "It doesn't mean anything, Uzumaki," he said in aggravation, but Naruto only looked at him as if to say, You know it does.
And Naruto was mad now. He was mad, and he couldn't quite figure out why, but it probably had something to do with the confusion of his feelings up to that point and Gaara's stubborn nature. "Why didn't you call me?" he asked, raising his hands before dropping them to his sides. "I was worried about you."
"Why would I call you?" Gaara asked monotonously, irritation still edging his words.
"Why?" Naruto asked in disbelief. "Why?" He felt himself raising his voice, and so carefully lowered it again. "I just spent my entire day worrying about you. I didn't know what had happened. You could have called."
Gaara looked away, feeling he couldn't quite look him in the eye, afraid of what he might see there. "It's none of your concern."
"None of my—," Naruto began, mouth open in shock. "When you form a relationship with someone, you begin to share each other's concerns; therefore, it is my concern, Gaara."
"Relationship?" Gaara was able to look at him then, feeling his voice threatening to rise as well. Again, Naruto's ability to rile him up instantly set in. "There is no relationship, Uzumaki. How many times do I have to tell you this?" He narrowed his sharp gaze, irritation giving way to a cool disinterest. Numb. He felt completely and utterly numb. "You're nothing to me."
A bolt of electric anger seemed to surge through Naruto's body, and he took a step forward. And then another. And yet another, nearly trembling as both his frustration and the dampness of his clothes seeped almost into his very core. Gaara glared daggers at him, backing up until he bumped into the wall, and the whole moment seemed surreal because they had walked through where the staircase had once stood, passing through the space into the shadow cast by the level above. Naruto was going to start yelling. He knew he was going to start yelling as he braced his hands on either side of Gaara's face, gritting his teeth and clenching his fists. He had never felt so frustrated before, never felt so confused. Things were spiraling so drastically from what he had planned.
"Nothing," he said, tone a cross between disbelief and resentment as his blue eyes seemed to flash. "Nothing?" he repeated, voice a broken whisper as he stepped even closer. Close. Too close, yet again. And Gaara pressed his hand against Naruto's chest as if to say, No. And Gaara's hand was warm, heat radiating through wet fabric to cold skin. And Naruto closed the space between them.
And Naruto kissed Gaara.
Hm. Talk about spiraling out of control. The end of this chapter completely spiraled away from what I had planned. Oh well. I like it. I hope you do, too. This story is officially insane. But, knowing that, thanks for reading. And read T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" if you can. The earlier half of this chapter reminds me of it a lot. And it's a great poem.
((and "aoh": seriously, thank you. You always make my mind start thinking about things I hadn't thought before))