I do not own…well, you all know this bit…nor do I profit…you know this bit, too….
Chapter Twenty-Two: Crossroads
Gaara stood at the front of the classroom and stared coldly at the children, his arms folded across his chest, the bouquet awkwardly resting against his shoulder.
The children stared back at him.
What was it Kankuro called them? Ankle biters?
He had a sudden, horrid vision of the children gnawing on his leg bones and shuddered inwardly.
Except for his student, Matsuri, he generally had very little to do with children.
He had once longed to play with others, had watched them chasing each other on the playground, laughing and joking. The few times he had tried to join in the games, the mothers had hustled the children away, shooting looks of fear and revulsion at him.
He hadn't needed many of those humiliations and hurts before the longing turned into hatred.
He could feel tugging on his robe.
Gaara opened his eyes and stared down at a boy with wild shocks of black hair sticking up from his head.
"Why you got those flowers, hunh, Mister?" said the boy, "Ryu says you got those flowers for Miss Hinata. Didjoo? Hunh? Didjoo, Mister?"
He felt tugging on the other side of his robe. A bright-eyed girl stood on his other side, her head cocked to one side and one hand wrapped securely in fabric.
"Yeah, Mister," said the girl, the two pigtails over her ears waving cheerfully, "You got those flowers for Miss Hinata? Dintjoo? Dintjoo?"
"I -," faltered Gaara.
He was the Godaime Kazekage, for Kami's sake! Scourge of the Desert! Less of a scourge, now, perhaps, thanks to the Akatsuki's extraction of Shukaku, but an acknowledged figure of fear.
And he was tongue tied by these two.
"Come on, Mister," said the girl, pulling him forcefully towards Hinata, "I'll help you. Come on. You gotta give those flowers to Miss Hinata, right? Come on."
"Hey!" said the boy, yanking on his robes from the other side to stop him, "I was gonna do that! You stop it, Ryu-Stupid-Head! I was gonna take him to Miss Hinata. Let go!"
"I'm taking him, Stupid Head! He's mine," shouted the girl, grimly wrapping both hands in Gaara's robe and pulling it towards Hinata.
"You let go, you Stupid Head!" The boy wrapped his own fists in the fabric on the other side and pulled it with a loud groan.
Both children dug in their heels and turned red in the face.
Gaara had a moment to reflect on the high quality of craftsmanship that prevented the cloth from tearing. He would have to commend the Suna Weaver's Guild when he got back.
He heard a soft sigh in front of him and looked up to see Hinata.
"This could go on all day," she said.
"Really?" he said.
She's talking to me!
"Oh, yes," she said, "They're very persistent."
"Persistence can be a very good quality," he said, watching her face carefully.
She looked up and studied him with a slight frown.
"It can be," she said. Her eyes shifted to the flowers and then back to him.
"I brought you flowers," he said, lamely.
He unfolded his arms and held the bouquet out to her.
She hesitated before taking them, her hands brushing his for a moment.
They both shivered at the contact.
She stepped back hastily, her eyes wide.
"Thank you," she said, turning to hurry off to the sink in the corner of the room.
Oh, she was a fool.
Undone by the touch of his hand, the look on his face.
Where was all that 'we are woman, we are proud' kind of energy she'd had going just a moment before?
Completely flown, the moment she'd seen that look, that complicated, vulnerable look, flash across his face.
The cellophane flower wrappings crackled alarmingly in her shaking hands. She buried her face in the pink and white and red blooms, gasping in their rich scent. The petals brushed her cheeks like kisses, cool and soft.
She hastily filled a bucket with water and thrust the flowers stems into it.
The look she'd seen, searing need, longing, fear, hope, had cut her to the heart.
It had lasted a moment, barely perceptible, his eyes shuttered in seconds.
But she had seen it and recognized it.
She'd lived with people who didn't show emotions all her life. The Hyuuga clan was famous for their cold personalities and stony demeanor. The fact that she could not keep her emotions concealed was one of the many reasons why she was an embarrassment to her family; she wore her heart on her sleeve.
It had shocked her to see the open longing in his eyes.
Longing for her.
The water flowed over the edge of the bucket, flooding the sink, cooling her hands.
She lifted them to her face and pressed them against her hot cheeks, thankful for the cold. She took a deep breath, centering herself.
She turned and looked calmly at him.
He stood surrounded by children, his arms folded across his chest, his face austere and beautiful.
Her heart melted and she felt a wave of warmth flood her face.
Gaara watched Hinata turn off the water and turn back to the classroom.
Her wide violet eyes swept over him and he swallowed in disappointment.
"I told you," said Ryoku, "He's the Kizzykuggy, you bakka! Like the Hokikuggy, only not so good."
"Yeah?" said Atsushi, staring critically at the silent Kazekage, "Well, if he's the Kuzzykuggy, where's his robes? Hunh? Where's his funny hat? Hunh?"
"It's Kizzykuggy, stupid-head, not Kuzzykuggy. Don't you know anything?" said Ryoku loudly, "You really are a stupid-head!"
"I'm not a stupid-head! You're a stupid-head! Where's his funny hat, hunh? He should be wearing a funny hat!"
Should he correct them? Would it make a difference if he did?
"Alright, children," said Hinata, sternly, "Time to learn some more characters. Sit at your tables now."
The children raced over to their tables and there was a moment of chaos as they jostled for chairs.
Gaara hesitated a moment, watching Hinata. She turned away and wrote on the chalkboard. He walked to the back of the classroom and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest.
She could ignore him all she wanted.
He was not leaving.
Not without her.
Hinata was not the only one distracted by the presence of the Godaime Kazekage.
He loomed, a glowering presence, his eyes trained unerringly on her, stern and silent.
The children kept turning around and looking at him.
It was difficult not to follow their example.
Somehow, she managed to continue teaching her simple lesson plan, although she couldn't really say that she'd been successful at imparting knowledge to her students.
When the classroom door opened and Tetsuyo, her upper-school class aide, entered, everyone sighed in relief.
Tetsuyo looked Gaara up and down and frowned.
"Hinata-san, are you alright?" he said, his adolescent voice cracking a little. He stepped in front of her protectively.
Hinata smiled at him warmly, patting him gently on the shoulder.
"Yes, thank you, Tetsuyo-san," she said, "Everything's fine."
Tetsuyo looked at Gaara suspiciously. From the corner of her eye, Hinata saw Gaara push himself off the wall.
"Would you take the boys to the restroom before lunch, please, Tetsuyo-san?" said Hinata hastily.
"What?" said Tetsuyo, "Oh, yeah, sure. C'mon, kids, line up."
Tetsuyo stood by the classroom door and waited for the boys to form a line. He cast another suspicious look at Gaara.
"I don't like to leave you alone with -," Tetsuyo's voice cracked again and he straightened his shoulders. He stared defiantly at the intruder. "I'll stay until you're ready to go, Hinata-san."
Hinata looked at Tetsuyo with her mouth open in astonishment.
He stood with his shoulders squared, a skinny awkward boy of fourteen, his pale face set and determined.
He suddenly reminded her of Naruto, stubbornly fighting against all odds.
She suppressed her smile of nostalgia and glanced at Gaara with a frown, shaking her head. She caught his look of surprise before she turned back to Tetsuyo.
"Everything's alright, Tetsuyo-san," she said warmly, "you go along with the boys."
"Hinata-san," said Tetsuyo sternly, "I think it would be best if I –."
Kami, not another man telling her what to do!
Hinata stifled a twinge of impatience and smiled sweetly, ignoring the hint of a growl behind her.
"Yes, it would be best if you take the boys now," she said, waving Tetsuyo and the line of boys out the door. "Don't forget to wash your hands,"
Tetsuyo opened his mouth to protest again, and shut it with a snap. He paused at the doorway and stared significantly at Gaara, "I'll be looking for you in the lunch room."
"Yes, of course, hurry along now," Hinata smothered a sigh as Tetsuyo and the boys finally left.
While it was flattering to know that she was the object of a crush, something she'd never expected, seriously, did it have to be now? Wasn't one glowering man enough to manage?
She turned back and frowned again at the glowering man.
Who frowned back, his aqua gaze narrowed and burning.
"Alright, girls. Ryoku, you lead the way."
"Yes!" shouted Ryoku, her fist in the air. "Line up, everyone," she said importantly, standing by the door with an imperious look on her face.
Hinata glanced briefly over her shoulder again.
Gaara was watching her with a predatory air that made her skin tingle.
Hinata followed the girls out the room, pretending that she wasn't making a hasty get-away.
She needed a break.
He had no success getting close to Hinata during lunch. When she had sat down at the teacher's table, Temari had hastily sat down next to her, tossing a wicked, mocking look over her shoulder at him.
There was no way he was going to join them and endure whatever conversational barbs Temari was prepared to fling his way.
He sat next to Umino Iruka and pushed his rice around, his appetite gone, politely answering Umino's questions about the differences in elementary school teaching methods between Suna and Konoha and ignoring Temari's grin across the table and down a few seats.
He studied the boy who had protected Hinata.
The boy was clearly infatuated with her.
Gaara hadn't missed the look of longing on the boy's face or the look of jealousy.
He was familiar with those looks himself, having seen them in the mirror ever since he'd realized he was in love with her.
He also hadn't missed how Hinata had smiled tenderly at the boy and frowned at him.
He growled quietly, gritting his teeth.
He realized that Umino had spoken to him and shook himself inwardly.
"Kazikage-sama," said Umino hesitantly, "If you are finished with your lunch…"
"Ah," said Gaara, "yes. I'm finished. Thank you."
He stood up abruptly and bowed to the table slightly.
Everyone looked at him in surprise.
"Thank you for your hospitality," he said, "I should -."
"You should see the playground," said Hinata loudly.
The dulcitory conversation around the table stopped as though a switch had been thrown.
All heads swiveled towards Hinata.
Who seemed to be studying her onigiri with deep concentration.
Even from across the table and two people away, Gaara could see the furious blush burning her cheeks.
"Well," said Umino, clearing his throat, "Yes, I suppose the Kazekage should see the playground before finishing his visit."
The other teachers at the table shifted and muttered under their breath.
Temari winked audaciously at Gaara.
Gaara sank back down in his seat.
"I suppose I should see the playground first," he said mildly and attacked his rice bowl with enthusiasm.
If he'd been a different person a grin would have split his face right about now.
Oh, why hadn't she kept her mouth shut?
What demon had possessed her?
She should have let him go, given everyone, given herself, some relief from his intense, brooding presence.
But when he said, 'I'm finished', her heart had stopped.
Had he meant simply that he was finished with lunch?
In which case, she had acted completely inappropriately and would die of embarrassment.
Or had he meant, as she was sure he had, that he was finished with the game they were playing?
She had blurted out the first that had come to mind.
The first stupid thing.
Oh, she was so bad at this sort of thing, so inexperienced, so guaranteed to make a fool out of herself.
Blood rushed into her head and pounded sickeningly.
Kami, please don't let me faint.
She opened her mouth and panted.
Of course, it wouldn't be the first time that she'd made an utter and complete fool of herself in front of a crowd of people.
Actually, people who knew her were probably used to it.
There she goes again.
Stupid, foolish, useless Hinata.
The pounding in her ears grew louder and blackness filled her head.
The warmth of the hand gently pressed between her shoulder blades calmed her immediately.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
The hand moved in a smooth slow circle on her back, filling her with energy.
She looked up gratefully, expecting to see Iruka-san's concerned face.
Instead, she found herself falling into Gaara's fierce aqua gaze.
They stared at one another for a moment before his hand fell away.
She shivered a little as the cooler air brushed her back.
"The playground, Hyuga-sama?" he said, politely, stepping back to allow her space to push her chair away from the table and stand.
"O-of course," she said, turning back to clear away her dishes.
"Don't worry about that," said Temari, grinning broadly. "I'll take care of it. You two run along, now."
She shooed her hands at them and loaded Hinata's dishes onto her own tray.
Hinata stood still and took a deep breath.
He was right. It was time to be finished.
She turned and faced Gaara.
He stood wrapped in his solitude as tightly as his sand shield.
His face was impassive, his eyes carefully shuttered, but she could see his pain and lonliness as clearly as her own.
She smiled gently and put her hand lightly on his sleeve.
"Shall we go?" she said.
Well, it's been a long time. I'm sure you don't want to know how many times I rewrote this chapter. Short version – it just wasn't working for me. I'm not sure it does yet. Still, better to finish what I started. Hope you like it. Please let me know. M