Summary: The person closest to him is also the furthest away. A story about expectations, distance, and the lengths some people will go to to protect themselves from other people. NaruGaa, among others. Yaoi. AU.
Warning(s): Expect anything—within reason. (Whatever that means.)
Author's Note: This was originally going to be a oneshot, but then the story just kept growing. I'm thinking that the actual story itself might not end up being more than four or five chapters, but there's a very good chance I might be wrong. In its entirety, the story as a whole could have anywhere from five to eight chapters. I know this doesn't make much sense now, but it will—a statement which can also be applied to this story. It's…different. But hopefully a good different.
Twelve Degrees of Separation
"We're different from the others
because we share the same pain.
- Trevor Hall, "Parachutes"
Naruto could hear the rain.
Even in his foggy state, the gentle pitter-patter still made it through. He had woken up before his alarm for the third time this week, which hardly made much sense, considering he was averaging five hours a night. Even so, he was content to lie there, absorbing the assortment of sounds around him. Because once he got out of bed, he would have no choice. It would begin all over again.
He jumped a little when his alarm finally did go off, which he couldn't help but find just a little bit funny. Sasuke used to always mock him about that, the fact that he could fire a gun without flinching and still recoil from small, inconsequential things.
"Time to get up," he said to himself, forcibly ceasing his thoughts. It was dangerous to let them drift for too long, and if he was late, he would never hear the end of it from Shikamaru.
His school uniform was still where he had left it, tossed in the disheveled pile on his desk from which he pulled his crumpled white shirt. While thin, the oxford material was opaque enough that it concealed the bandages on his arms and torso. If anyone asked, he had gotten into a fight, which really wasn't that far from the truth. In the bathroom, he washed his face, running his wet hands through his hair in an attempt to pull some life back into it. He practiced smiling a few times until he achieved the desired result. Later, at school, he would have to remember exactly how he had done it.
His stomach growled, but he only had time for toast and maybe a glass of milk—make that orange juice. The milk had gone sour. Tossing it, he put two slices of bread in the toaster and filled a nearby glass with juice. In another, he poured water.
"We'll be late," came a flat warning.
Pausing in his movements, Naruto glanced in the direction of the common room, eyes locking instantly on the figure in the window seat whose green eyes never once lifted from the floor. Even in the dim morning light, his hair was a brilliant shock of red, his skin a pale, unmarked canvas. In their three months of working together, Gaara had never once been injured. Any injuries Naruto had sustained were due to his own overconfident follies.
With an enervated sigh, Naruto made his way over to him. "We won't be late," he said. Gaara's navy pants and sneakers were on, but as always, his shirt was a neat folded pile beside him. Naruto picked it up and brought it around Gaara's shoulders. Lightly grasping Gaara's wrist, he carefully slipped it through one sleeve before doing the same with the other. Gaara never once moved even as the buttons of his shirt were fastened, so that Naruto couldn't help but think that he really was like a doll sitting there, even if the term was considered offensive.
"We have to check in with Shikamaru this morning," Naruto said, finishing up the last of the buttons. "And then we have school, of course, but after that, I'm not sure. I'll have to find out."
When Gaara said nothing, Naruto was not surprised. This was how it had been for the last three months. Most of the time, he might as well have been talking to himself. He was surprised, however, when Gaara's eyes lifted from the floor and matched his so that they were actually looking at one another. That was rare, exceedingly rare, and it made Naruto feel…uncomfortable. No, vulnerable was a better word.
"What?" he asked.
Gaara looked back toward the ground. "The toast is burning."
Headquarters was a mass of energy. In any direction one looked, people were bustling about, disappearing into doorways and crowding the stairs, waiting for the elevator or for a superintendent or for someone, anyone. There were people at desks filling out paperwork, and telephones ringing that could not always be located so that sound in and of itself was a monotonous and integral thing.
Naruto pushed through the main set of glass double-doors into this controlled madness, the golden letters "A.N.B.U." flashing as they swung closed. Gaara was three steps behind him, his eyes forward and unfocused on anything particular.
"ANBU"—"Assassins' Nationwide Bureaus, United"—was a government owned and operated subset of the nation's defensive division. Aside from the main branches of the military that were responsible for protecting the land, sea, and skies, there were also smaller offices in charge of training smaller units—assassins—who typically worked on their own or with a partner. Regardless of the varying nuances attached to the term by the media and other avenues of popular culture, assassins were heavily trained and heavily respected individuals. However, unlike more well-known militaristic branches, assassins had to keep their identities a secret. Such concealment was simply another means of ensuring nationwide security.
ANBU itself was the center of operations in relation to this covert government branch. Any of the smaller offices in charge of training or deploying assassins had to report back to headquarters and maintain regular communication concerning any activities or operations. In this way, ANBU was able to disseminate any orders given by the government to the various sites around the country, depending on location, circumstance, and availability, while also maintaining constant surveillance of these sites.
Similar methods were used to determine who could actually become assassins. A person could not simply sign up for it. Sometimes they were scouted, sometimes they were inducted from other military branches, and sometimes they were born into it, as was the case with Naruto.
"You're late," Shikamaru said, looking up momentarily from an open binder.
Naruto looked puzzled. "No I'm—crap, yeah I am," he said, frowning at the wall clock. "I really thought I'd be on time today, maybe even early."
"That would be a miracle."
Making a face, Naruto took a seat and watched as Gaara sat down on a flat, white cot that was nearly lost in the room's general austerity. Shikamaru's office was rather large and certainly impressive for a seventeen-year-old, but it was also rather plain. With all that space, Naruto might have expected paintings and pictures to color the white walls, but there was nothing. There was just a lot of empty space. But Naruto was not surprised, not after he grew to know the boy so many others referred to simply as "The Genius." Because for all of Shikamaru's mental capabilities, for all of his astonishing brainpower, for all of his genius, he was a surprisingly simple and plain person.
If there was one thing Naruto had noticed over the years, it was the fact that simplicity could be either warm or cold. While it sometimes wavered indefinitely between the two poles, Shikamaru's simplicity was typically warm—as it was today.
"All right, Gaara," he said absentmindedly, writing something in his binder before placing it on a nearby table. "You know the drill."
When Naruto had witnessed Gaara's first check-up, he had been mildly uncomfortable. It was awkward enough to undergo one's own physical, but to have to sit through someone else's…He just hadn't expected it. What made it worse was the fact that Shikamaru forced him to stay in the room under the pretense that it was "standard protocol," because Naruto couldn't quite figure out how in the world it could be protocol to sit back and watch as someone essentially felt up someone else. "You're partners," Shikamaru had said with a sigh. "What's the problem?"
But now it was to be expected. Now it didn't bother him in the least. He watched as Shikamaru took Gaara's vitals, the tip of a butterfly needle slipping soundlessly into the redhead's arm. Gaara was asleep less than ten seconds later.
"Bah," Naruto groaned, draping his arms over the sides of his chair and throwing his legs out.
"Excuse me?" Shikamaru said. In one swift movement, he pulled over the keyboard cart and began entering in various commands and prompts.
"I just don't know how much more I can take, Shikamaru. Seriously."
"Then see a psychiatrist."
"No," Naruto stood, shaking his as he began traipsing about the room, "it's not me. It's him. Gaara."
"Gaara," repeated Shikamaru. "What about him? Is he defective?"
"No, nothing like that—well, he can't put his shirt on, for one. And secondly, he just doesn't talk. It's like I don't have a partner at all. He's just…there."
Pushing aside the keyboard, Shikamaru turned to face Naruto, his expression apathetic at best. He could've almost been compared to Gaara were it not for that underlying warmth. "How was last night's mission?"
Naruto shrugged. "It was fine. I mean, it went great and all, really great. But…"
"I just…wish he'd say something every once in a while, something...I don't know. I mean, if we're going to be living together and working together for a while…I just…" He faced Shikamaru with a bothered expression. "You know?"
"Actually, I don't know, Naruto. If the missions are going well, and you guys aren't fighting, then I fail to see what the problem is. Unless…how are things at school?"
"Well, we don't associate, of course, but it's okay."
"And he hasn't done anything to jeopardize any of the missions?"
Naruto already didn't like where this was going. "No," he said.
"Then you have nothing to complain about." Turning away, Shikamaru began buttoning the few buttons of Gaara's shirt that he had undone. "He's a Gemini, Naruto."
"Yeah. Yeah, I know."
Aside from being the central hub for the nation's assassin organizations, ANBU was also responsible for the Gemini Project, a program laid out and crafted by the government. Once the planning was complete, it was simply a matter of bringing it to fruition. However, certain aspects of the program were…controversial, at best, and would definitely generate public criticism were it to become public knowledge. As such, the program was kept a secret in the name of national security and placed under the control of an organization that was already very much aware of what it meant to be unseen and unheard.
Within the parameters of the Gemini Project, ANBU was able to apprehend the bodies of any deceased persons who had donated their bodies "to science." While it was somewhat of a stretch, those initially responsible for the project were able to prove that such bodies were actually benefitting scientific research. It was scientific research for the greater good, research that made it all right to take human bodies and breathe life back into them—the greatest good, some might argue.
The Gemini Project had nothing to do with cyborgs or androids, although research in these fields was consulted. It was a matter of reworking and restarting the human body using extensive biomedical methods. Of course, there were various politics associated with such research—the question of what to call them, for one. They were not robots, nor were they exactly human anymore, not completely, not when they could be reprogrammed, thus lacking a genuine will. There were some who called them "dolls" even now, but such a term was frowned upon and seen as degrading. The only inoffensive term seemed to be "Gemini," the label of a person who could be one person in life and another even in death.
Gemini were not superhumans; they were not magical beings possessing increased and altered human skills, just as they were not immortal. They could and did get hurt. Some even died. In the simplest sense, they were weapons, trained to obey and protect their partner.
It was best if one did not try to think too much past that.
The main door to the lab opened and Sakura poked her head in the doorway.
"Did I leave my umbrella—ah, there it is," she said, walking in and retrieving the green-plaid article from beneath one of the chairs. "Thanks, Shikamaru—and Gaara," she paused, "which means…" She turned on the rubber heels of her rain boots, a smile curving her lips. "Naruto."
"Hey, Sakura," Naruto said cheerfully, a small grin on his face.
"You're going to be late for school. Again."
"No, I won't."
"Uh huh…" She glanced over her shoulder toward Gaara. "And how have things been with your partner? You haven't been mean to him have you?"
Naruto was incredulous. "Mean? No way. Besides, he's pretty much like he is right now, all the time. Barely ever talks. And did I mention he still won't put on his shirt by himself? Yeah."
Sakura and Shikamaru exchanged looks. "Think about it, Naruto. Gaara's trained to fight. A shirt isn't exactly necessary, not when you think about it. And is it really so hard to help him out?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Gotta go, Naruto," said Sakura, waving him off. "I'll see you at school. Buh-bye, Shikamaru. Oh," she stopped at the door, "and tell Gaara I said hi."
"Yeah," Naruto said unenthusiastically, once she was gone.
Shikamaru was back to scribbling in a notebook, looking back and forth between the pages and the closest computer screen. "She's got a point."
Again, Naruto said, "Yeah."
"Actually, she wouldn't be a bad person to talk to about it. Sakura and her Gemini had great communication."
"That's not what I heard."
Shikamaru looked at Naruto for a brief moment. "Well, I suggest you talk to her anyway."
Naruto glanced in Gaara's direction. It was strange to see him asleep, seeing as he didn't sleep any other time. He was almost…tolerable. "Yeah, maybe I will."
"Listen, Naruto," Shikamaru said, putting his notebook and pen down and facing him directly. "If you put something into it, you'll see results. Gemini can learn, if you teach them."
Naruto had started laughing. "Teach him? Gaara? He's seventeen, like you and me. What do I need to teach him?" He stopped laughing when he saw Shikamaru's expression.
"Don't make me go into the specifics. You wouldn't understand anyway. We are talking about people who have been…reincarnated, in a manner of speaking. Sure, they're brought back to life, but once a person dies, their body begins to deteriorate. Brain cells begin dying—it's inevitable that there's going to be memory loss and decreased cognitive function. They don't always retain social skills, and while they're trained, they're trained primarily to fight. You know that. But they can learn—by watching, just like any other person. Typically, it's frowned upon to actively teach them yourself, but—"
"Because. They have the potential to develop a mind of their own."
"What's so bad about that?"
"Do I really have to say?" Shikamaru said skeptically. "These are government weapons."
Shikamaru was back to his paperwork, shuffling through a stack of manila envelopes on his crowded desk, his fingertips flitting through the labels. Even in the disarray, he knew exactly where everything was. "Just let me know if anything weird happens."
"Anything out of the ordinary," he said, plucking a cream-colored file from the stack.
Naruto looked confused. "Like what?"
"You're Gaara's partner. You tell me."
"…He'll never change."
"Maybe you'll be surprised."
When Naruto continued to stare at him for a protracted length of time, Shikamaru lowered the file and looked at him with a dull uncertainty. "You know…You could always be assigned to a new partner, just a regular human."
"No," Naruto stated firmly. His eyes found Gaara's face and then lost it. Sakura was right; he was going to be late, but he didn't care. "It's too complicated when emotions get involved."
Shikamaru considered this for a moment. The flickering icon on the computer screen signaled Gaara's awakening. "But don't they always?"
Ah, the obligatory introductory chapter. This is not going to be as far-out as it might sound…Things will start picking up from here on out. And check out Trevor Hall's song, "Parachutes," if you can. It's just…beautiful. If this story had a theme song...