AN: Trying something a little different. Rated for language and drug references. Might be some sexual content in later chapters.
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
"Who are you, anyway?"
Shikamaru spoke the words aloud to his bathroom mirror. His reflection answered with a bored stare.
Did he really expect an answer? It wasn't him in the mirror. Just rays of light bouncing off a medium. What was Shikamaru, anyway? The cells that made up his body? The chemicals forming thoughts and emotions in his brain? His soul, whatever the hell that was?
When people said Tahiti or omelet or love they meant something—some specific set of images, emotions, concepts, whatever. What did people mean when they said Shikamaru?
He took inventory of his features: narrow hazel eyes, sharp nose, thin lips, dark hair pulled back into a stiff, spiky ponytail. He wanted those features to tell him something, but they withheld their secrets. "What do you want?" he muttered, staring at the familiar-unfamiliar face. "I mean really want? What's your purpose?"
After a moment, he turned away, annoyed by his reflection, annoyed by the questions he couldn't seem to stop asking. Normally he wasn't prone to this sort of morbid navel-gazing. But lately he'd been picking at these issues the way someone might pick at a scab—you knew you shouldn't, you knew it would just make it worse, but somehow you couldn't stop.
"Hey, Shikamaru! You ready?" called Chouji's voice.
"Just a sec." He splashed cold water on his face and dried it off with a towel. He glanced at his reflection again, then left the bathroom.
Shikamaru had the soul of a sloth and the brain of a NASA engineer. These two tenants of his body got along about as well as a cobra and mongoose sharing a small cage. And always, while he indulged his easy-going nature, he could hear the angry hornet-like buzz of restless neurons: Use us, you lazy fuck!
But using his intelligence would get him attention. And that would be troublesome.
According to the standardized IQ test he'd taken (the one time he'd actually made an effort, that was) his IQ was over 200. He was in the top one percent of the top one percent of the human population. If he'd tried, he could have breezed through high-school and college and into a lucrative but hideously stressful career designing nuclear reactors for the Man.
The thing was, he didn't try. He'd gotten C's throughout most of his school life and dropped out of high school in his junior year, over the strident protests of his mother. Schoolwork was a drag. Why bother? Not like he was planning to go to college, anyway.
He wasn't planning to do much of anything, really. He was making enough money on his poker winnings to get by, so he saw no reason to alter his current lifestyle. Shikamaru's ideal afternoon consisted of getting stoned, ordering take-out pizza and watching Yo Gabba Gabba with Chouji. Then they'd jam for awhile. Or sometimes they'd go down to the field by the canal, where they'd sit and smoke and watch clouds while talking in run-on sentences about whatever floated through their heads.
Now, he and Chouji walked down the narrow gravel-covered path toward their cloud-watching field. Pearls of dew sparkled on the grass, birdsong filled the crisp air, and a thin, milky fog clung to the ground. The sky looked like a giant upturned pottery bowl, cool gray in the center, warm buttery gold around the rim, and glazed with early morning iridescence.
"Got the stuff?" Chouji asked.
"Right here." Shikamaru patted the baggie in his jacket pocket. "Got the munchies?"
Chouji held up a giant bag of barbeque-flavored chips. Later they'd probably want ramen and snack cakes washed down with copious orange soda. For now, this was enough.
Suddenly, Chouji stopped. "Someone's in our field."
Sure enough, there was someone laying in the grass—curled up in the grass, actually. Someone with red hair and pale, pale skin. He frowned. "Is he okay?"
"I don't know," said Shikamaru. "Let's go see."
They approached. Shikamaru crouched next to the shivering form and studied it.
It was a boy, maybe a year or two younger than himself—fifteen? Sixteen? He wore nothing but an oversized black t-shirt and green boxers. He was small—short, slender, kind of delicate-looking—and dark flesh ringed his eyes. The rings stood out like make-up against his paper-white skin, giving him a raccoonish look. Sweat dampened every visible inch of that skin, glistening in the pale morning light. His eyes were closed, and Shikamaru could see his eyeballs twitching beneath the thin veils of his lids.
"What's wrong with him?" asked Chouji uneasily. "Is he sick?"
"I don't know." Shikamaru stared. There were bruises on the kid's arms and legs; greenish-purple splotches. "But I think I recognize him. It's Gaara. Remember?"
"Yeah. I remember."
Gaara had been in the class below theirs. Shikamaru remembered seeing him sitting alone at lunch, sometimes picking at a bag of chips, sometimes staring blankly into space. He almost never spoke, and he had a reputation for being dangerously unstable. In Gaara's freshman year, few kids had tried bullying him because of his small size and goth clothes. Those kids had gone home with bloody heads; one nearly got his ear ripped off.
After that, most people avoided Gaara. People were scared of him. There'd been whispers that he was the sort of guy who might show up at school with a gun one day and start shooting.
Right now, though, he didn't look dangerous. He looked small and helpless. Vulnerable.
"Hey." Shikamaru touched his shoulder. "Hey, Gaara."
Gaara's eyes snapped open, and he jerked back, breathing hard. Shikamaru could see his pulse fluttering in his skinny throat.
Shikamaru held his hands up. "Take it easy. We don't bite."
Gaara sat up, his eyes huge in his pale face. "Stay away," Gaara said in a hoarse, trembling voice. He scooted backwards across the grass. "Don't come near me."
"Okay." Shikamaru hesitated. He seemed a bit unstable—but he was small enough that he probably didn't pose a threat. Gaara had lost weight since he'd last seen him, and he'd been skinny to begin with. He looked like he weighed all of ninety pounds. Or less. "What's the matter?"
Gaara pressed a hand to his face, covering one eye. He was shaking, breathing hard, almost hyperventilating. "I can't be near anyone." His tongue darted out to lick sweat from his upper lip. "I—I'm a bad person. I can only hurt people. So it's better if I don't go near anyone at all."
Shikamaru glanced at Chouji, who stood behind him, eyes wide. "Shika, this kid like…needs help. He needs a hospital or something…"
"No!" Gaara cried. He leaped to his feet, but his legs buckled, as if they were too weak to support him. He fell on his ass and crawled backwards through the dew-damp grass, panting.
"Please, no," said Gaara. "No hospitals. I don't want to go back to a place like that. I'd rather die."
"Then we won't take you to a hospital," said Shikamaru, keeping his voice level and calm. He glanced at Chouji. "Buddy, can you do me a favor?"
"Can you go get the car and drive up here?"
Chouji hesitated, but he didn't ask questions. He nodded, turned and ran across the field, in the direction of the apartment they shared.
"You should leave me," said Gaara, hugging himself. "It would be better for you if you left."
"I can't leave you like this."
Gaara squeezed his eyes shut. "Just—just go. Or I'll hurt you." His voice had gone soft and plaintive, like a child's. He wasn't making a threat, Shikamaru realized; it sounded more like a warning. "I don't want to hurt anyone else."
"You can't hurt me. You're almost too weak to move."
"You don't understand. There's a monster in me."
"There's no such thing as monsters."
"You're wrong," Gaara whispered. "There are monsters everywhere."
Shikamaru decided not to debate the point, for now; there were more urgent matters. "When's the last time you've eaten anything?"
"I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. I can't sleep. I don't think I've slept for about four days. Things are all fuzzy." He pressed a hand to his forehead again. The corner of his eye twitched.
"Are you on anything? I mean like meth, or…"
"No. I just can't sleep. Not safe to sleep. Not at home."
"Do you have a home? Do you live with your folks?"
"My dad," he murmured. "But I can't go back there. He'll kill me. Don't take me back there."
"I won't." Shikamaru inched closer. This time, Gaara didn't back away. "I just want to help, okay? How can I help you?"
"I don't know." Gaara looked away. His mouth trembled. "I don't think anyone can help me."
"Give me a chance." Gaara seemed marginally less scared now, at least. Keep him talking, thought Shikamaru. Maybe that would help him stay calm until Chouji got back with the car. "How did you get out here, anyway? You're not really dressed to be outside on a morning like this. You must be freezing."
Gaara didn't seem to hear him. He stared into space. "I just want it to end. I can't deal with people anymore. They hate me. I can feel it. They're afraid of me and they hate me."
"I don't hate you." It was the truth. He'd never had any feelings toward Gaara one way or the other. But somehow, he wanted to help him now. He knew the easiest thing—the smart thing, most people would say—would be to just call someone and hand him over to people who knew what they were doing. But somehow, he couldn't. Not when Gaara was so clearly terrified of the idea. And the truth was, Shikamaru had never quite trusted the system, or adults in general.
That meant, unfortunately, that he was going to have to take responsibility for this situation himself. It was troublesome, but the alternative was to abandon this person who so clearly needed help. And he wasn't prepared to do that.
So he crouched in the grass, motionless, as if Gaara were a wounded animal that might bite him if startled. He stared into those wide, wild eyes, straight into his dilated pupils. They were like two dark tunnels leading into Gaara's head, and Shikamaru had the strange feeling that if he looked long and deep enough, he'd reach him—reach the consciousness behind the walls of paranoia. "Trust me," he said.
Gaara stared back. After a moment, his soft voice broke the silence. "You don't hate me?"
"No. Why would I?" Shikamaru reached out a hand. "Come on. Let me help you."
Gaara inched closer. Slowly—very slowly—Gaara reached out. His hand was slender and pale, with chipped, fading black paint on the nails. He placed it in Shikamaru's, and Shikamaru's fingers curled around his. That small hand was burning hot, as if with a fever.
"It's okay," Shikamaru said.
The tension bled out of Gaara's body, but he did not so much relax as collapse. He fell against Shikamaru and went limp, head on his shoulder. Shikamaru slipped an arm around him to hold him up. "Can you stand?"
"Don't know," murmured Gaara. "Everything is spinning."
Because he didn't know what else to do, Shikamaru lifted the smaller boy into his arms, bridal style. Shikamaru wasn't exactly a bodybuilder—he rarely lifted anything heavier than a jug of milk—but it took almost no effort to pick up Gaara. He could feel the kid's heart fluttering in his chest like a trapped bird. "Jeez, you're a skinny little guy," he murmured.
"I don't eat much." Gaara's voice seemed to be coming from faraway. His eyes closed fully. "So tired…"
"Sleep a little, if you can. I'm just going to take you back to me and Chouji's apartment for now. You can rest and we can get some food in your stomach. After that...well, we'll see."
Just then, he heard the rumble of an engine, and a rust-splotched, tan Volvo pulled up. Shikamaru approached, carrying Gaara. He opened the back door, gently lay Gaara across the backseat, and draped a blanket over him. Gaara seemed to have drifted into that half-sleep state again; his eyes were mostly closed and fluttering restlessly. Tiny moans escaped his throat. Shikamaru lay a hand on his forehead. It was drenched with sweat.
Chouji, in the driver's seat, looked over one shoulder. "Is this really a good idea?"
"I don't know what else to do. I mean, we can't just leave him out in the middle of the field wearing nothing but a t-shirt and underwear. It's like forty-five degrees." Shikamaru got in the passenger-side seat and shut the door.
Chouji turned the car and drove along the gravel road, out to the main highway. He glanced over his shoulder at Gaara. "Do you know what's wrong with him? I mean, why he was freaking out like that?"
"He said he hadn't slept in four days, so that probably has a lot to do with it. But there's something else going on too. He says his dad will kill him if he goes back home. I don't know if he means it literally or not, but I'd rather not take the chance." He paused. "I'm sorry about this, Chouji. I'll figure something out, I promise. I just…"
"It's okay. He doesn't really seem dangerous. But what if he is sick? I mean, even if he doesn't want to go to the hospital, wouldn't that be better for him?"
"You saw the look in his eyes when you said that. He's already scared out of his mind. I'm not going to force him to go to someplace that scares him even more. Maybe there's another place he can go. Relatives or something. We can ask him when he wakes up."
-To be continued