A/N: Right. So, remember how I said this story might only be around five or so chapters? Well, that was when I only had about four full pages of written notes. In the meanwhile, I've somehow worked my way up to nine full pages. Granted, these are only notes…But still…I suppose we'll see, eh?
And naruo-713 mentioned that Naruto seemed dark, and he is. While it pains me to write him like that, half the fun is going to be his transformation. The other half will of course be his burgeoning relationship with Gaara. (Teehee.)
Just keep in mind that everyone in this story is who he or she is for a reason.
It wasn't always so difficult to smile.
It was effortless.
Chapter 2||The Floater and the Outcast
It was early Autumn when Naruto first met Gaara—a tenuous meeting, at best.
He had not known what to expect and frankly did not care. The preceding months of paid "leave" had done nothing for his dark mood and frazzled emotions. And wasn't he supposed to feel better? All those months to himself, and paid for it, no less, and he wondered if he didn't feel worse.
Everyone expected him to smile. He knew that before he even arrived, but once he passed through ANBU's glass doors, he was made painfully aware of it. Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, he noticed how careful everyone was being with him, as if, any moment, he might break.
"Oh, Naruto—Welcome back!...How are you?"
"Good to see you again, Naruto…How have you been?"
"Naruto, it feels like it's been forever!...Have you been well?"
Thankfully, Shikamaru spared him the pleasantries as he walked into the bleak office, offering a straightforward, "You look terrible," before turning back to his laptop.
That at least pulled something of a smirk from Naruto, but even that felt wrong—foreign somehow. "Thanks," he said.
"By now, I assume you've received and read my email regarding your new partner?"
"Good. Then I don't have to say anything unnecessary." Exiting out of an online program, Shikamaru stood and motioned for Naruto to follow him. He spoke as they made their way to the lab. "By now you know your partner is a Gemini. Seeing as he's fairly new, you'll need to help him with some things, but most of that is covered in the email I sent you, and I don't plan on rehashing it." They came to a steel-enforced door, which Shikamaru unlocked by way of retinal scan and lengthy pin number.
The adjoining room was as equally bleak as Shikamaru's office, making the body on the metal table that much more visible. Particularly that red hair.
Naruto stopped and pointed. "Is that—?"
"Your new partner? Yes."
Shikamaru came to stand by the table, and Naruto stood in place for a moment, staring at the boy clothed only in a white medical gown.
"Insomnia due to illness," Shikamaru said. "A previous condition."
Naruto walked the few steps that brought him directly to the boy's side. "Isn't he…cold?"
"No. Gemini don't feel, just as they don't sleep."
Naruto looked up at him. "Why?"
"They're not human, Naruto," said Shikamaru with a skeptical expression. "Such characteristics are an aftereffect of the processes that their bodies go through following original death. While they can be reprogrammed, it's unnecessary. Did you read any of my email?"
"I skimmed it," Naruto admitted.
Shikamaru's sigh brushed against the air. "Right. Well, presently, he's in an induced catatonic state. He should be waking up shortly."
Naruto nodded, glancing back down to the pale face, the dark-rimmed eyes, the lips parted slightly for breath. Gingerly, he traced the mark on the pale forehead. "Does he have a name?"
"He has a label—'Gaara.'"
"Gaara," Naruto repeated quietly.
"I've performed multiple tests on various subjects, and he's the least likely to have an E.R."
"E.R." was short for "Emotional Response," and it referred to a phenomenon within Gemini wherein they would act on emotions rather than logic. While popular opinion held that they were inhuman and therefore incapable of feeling or expressing emotions, there were still some Gemini who exhibited behavior that could really only be considered emotional. Seeing as those who worked for ANBU were assigned tasks that were only inhibited by the interference of emotions, E.R.s were seen in a negative light.
"He operates strictly on your orders, Naruto," Shikamaru continued. "His enrollment at Konoha has already been taken care of. It's best if he attends school, if for no other reason than to maintain a short distance between the two of you should a mission arise. It also wouldn't hurt for him to be around people—moreover, in a learning environment. Just don't fall into the common habit of thinking he's stupid. He's not. His brain, in particular, is right about at the same level that it was prior to his original death. It just might take him some time to fall into the normal pace of things. Of course, all of this was covered in my email…"
Now, Shikamaru was careful. "Maybe this will be good for you," he said, instantly regretting his words as he watched Naruto visibly close up.
The awkward tinge to the atmosphere dispelled somewhat as Gaara's eyes slowly opened. Neither of them missed it, because Gaara's eyes were of such a brilliant, emerald green that they were impossible to miss. Gaara blinked, and the minor act seemed to bring him to full wakefulness. Pressing his palms onto the cool metal slab, he pushed himself up, looking briefly at Shikamaru before turning round to face Naruto.
"Um…Hi," Naruto said.
"You're my partner," Gaara stated plainly.
As Gaara pushed himself off the table, Naruto shot Shikamaru a tentative look. Shikamaru only sighed.
"Well," Naruto said, scratching the back of his neck as Gaara turned to face him. "I hope we can work well together. If you need anything, just ask—or, I guess you wouldn't, would you?" Gaara stared at him, and Shikamaru's eyebrow raise was a distinct motion in Naruto's peripheral. "Okay, the quiet type, right, so...yeah." He extended his hand, "I'll do my best."
Gaara's expression was indecipherable as he glanced from Naruto's face to Naruto's outstretched hand, as if he didn't comprehend the gesture. But then, slowly, he raised his right hand so that it hovered an inch away from Naruto's hand.
Naruto paused, a feeling of uncertainty swirling, suddenly, in his stomach.
Gaara's hand was cold as he took it. Naruto wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but he definitely hadn't expected this—"this" being Gaara, "this" being their first encounter, "this" being everything, really. And the recurring thought on his mind for the next three months would be how very wrong Shikamaru had been, because, honestly—how on earth could an antisocial kid who rarely spoke and couldn't even put on his shirt be even remotely good for him?
It was Naruto's hastily-determined opinion that not associating with one another at school would be best.
"I'm not saying we have to be enemies or anything," he had explained, unnerved by Gaara's apathy. "I'm just saying that we should stay away from one another."
True, part of the reason for this temporary separation was the prevailing lack of separation the rest of the time.
After several months on his own, it took Naruto a good amount of time to get back into the swing of working with a partner. It also didn't help that this particular partner was so very…different. As he only had a few hours everyday during the week to himself, Naruto preferred to spend those hours worrying only about himself. And besides, Shikamaru had been right. Gaara was not stupid. He was just quiet—perfectly capable of operating on his own, at least, within the confines of school.
So, they did not associate.
At a mid-sized private school like Konoha, it was inevitable that they would occasionally cross paths, but high school had them in different cliques, and therefore different realms. Gaara's quiet nature and distinctive looks made him something of an outcast. He was an average student with average grades and by no means did he stand out. Not the way Naruto stood out.
Naruto was loud. Not only that, he had a reputation for being a profound disturber of the peace. As a result, his grades often suffered along with his teachers' opinions of him. He himself belonged to a diverse group that could not exactly be characterized; there were students from all walks of life that he mingled with. He was something of a floater, cascading among the various cliques at his own pace. But he was sure to stay away from Gaara's realm. Because something about Gaara disarmed him, just a little, except that he could not exactly pinpoint just what that something was—a fact which disturbed him even more.
But school also meant Sakura and her benevolent ways. Her caring smile and companionship. Within ANBU's confines, her presence often meant whispers and stares were soon to follow, but at school, she was followed only by catcalls and wistful silence. Their relationship was not something that Naruto had to force or fake. It was real. Their constant interactions over the past two and a half years had made them something of an item at Konoha, but there was only friendship between them.
She had been with him through the worst of it. She had been with him when no one else was.
Naruto picked up his lunch tray and headed toward the usual spot outside the bright blue doors of the gym. When he saw that a small crowd had gathered there, he knew instantly that something was up, but that something was blocked by several bodies. As if psychic, Kiba turned in his direction and waved him over.
Offering a smile, Naruto jogged the rest of the way, placing his tray on the ground by a small shrub so that he could see what everyone else was looking at.
And honestly, he wasn't sure why he didn't expect it, because he was not exactly surprised to see Gaara crouched a few feet away, his lunch tray in front of him on the grass, the school cat lapping up milk from his opened carton.
"This kid," remarked Kiba, shaking his head. "This kid is really something."
"Yeah," Naruto muttered.
"What's he doing?" someone asked, to which someone else replied, "Who knows?"
And even though it was blatantly obvious what was happening, it was the ritual to mock those who acted outside of the lines. Naruto didn't even think it was all that interesting, certainly nothing to make such a spectacle over, unless one was a pompous brat with nothing better to do. As the whispers and gradual insults of "Freak" and "Loser" persisted, Naruto finally decided he had had quite enough of it all, walking through the group and over to Gaara. He was decidedly surprised when Gaara looked up at him, his expression devoid of expression, which was almost something to admire, considering what people were unabashedly saying about him not more than five feet away.
"You could try not to stand out so much," Naruto said through closed teeth, his voice low and quiet and unheard by the others.
Gaara looked back at the cat and stood. "I could," he stated briefly, brushing his hands together as he walked away. Naruto watched him go and let out a small puff of air, his hand coming to rest on his hip as his expression turned sour. He hadn't noticed when she had come out, but Sakura was suddenly beside him, her hand pressing gently on his shoulder.
Naruto shook his head. "Is it just me, or does he seem a bit—snarky."
Sakura's soft smile could almost be heard. "You're not supposed to get along, remember?" When Naruto continued to sulk, she said, "If it's too difficult, you could always try and befriend him."
"Yeah. Like that'll happen."
"At least you're staying positive."
They both started walking so Naruto could grab his lunch, moving to a nicer spot within the shade of one of the few trees. By that time, everyone else had disbanded, probably in search of other interesting spectacles. It was hot, but not to the point of discomfort.
"I tell you," Naruto said, taking a sip of his milk, "sometimes…I just don't know about him. He's something else."
"You're something else."
"I'm serious, Sakura. I don't know how much more I can take."
"Then get a new partner."
"I don't want a new partner."
"Then stop complaining."
Sakura had a point. Naruto knew this. She always had a point. And besides, Gaara had become a point of stability, of assurance, something which did not change, and therefore something he could count on, in a skewed sort of way. "Fiddlesticks," he said. She immediately started laughing.
"You like him, don't you?"
"I don't hate him."
"Well, that's a start." She fingered a piece of grass, plucking it and letting it drop. "You never could hate anybody."
Naruto poked his lunch around. He had lost his appetite. "Any news about Sasuke?"
"Well…" He stopped when the school cat rubbed against his arm, purring vigorously. Naruto scratched it between the ears. "You little weirdo. Here you go." He pulled his half-empty milk carton over and opened up the top. Sakura was laughing again. "What?"
"Nothing. Just thinking about you and Gaara. You really are alike, you know?"
"We're nothing alike." Naruto flicked over the now-empty milk carton and was silent for a moment. "I just don't get him. He's a great partner, and we work well together…but there's nothing else. I just don't get it."
Sakura quirked her lip. "Well…Gemini can be…difficult. They're very—sensitive."
"Sensitive?" Naruto snorted.
"Yes. Almost everything they do depends on us. And whether or not you realize it, you make an impression on them. Think back to three months ago when you first met him—your state of mind. You had just come off leave, and you were guarded. You're still guarded. I'm not saying he is who he is because of you—he is who he is. I'm just saying that it does affect him."
Naruto was quiet. The other students who were outside had started collecting their trays and going back inside.
Sakura sat up and retied her navy sash. "I'm not saying it's too late, Naruto. Gemini are like regular people. At some point, they're going to reach out. Maybe Gaara already did; I don't know. But if he hasn't, then you have to be ready to also make an effort when he does."
They both stood, brushing themselves off. The lunch bell rang.
"Sounds complicated," Naruto said.
"It's not. It's just people."
Later that day, Naruto received the details of his next mission via cell phone. When he relayed the specifics to Gaara, the red-haired teen said nothing. Naruto was not surprised.
He did start thinking, though—going back in his mind to life three months ago, and Sakura was right. As much as he had pretended to be fine, he was anything but. He had just…existed, but he certainly hadn't lived, and while, back then, everything had seemed okay, he could see now how very wrong it had all been. How wrong he had been.
But it was a whole other matter to actually do something about it. He wasn't good with such things; he wasn't used to them. Such things were…awkward. And Naruto usually avoided awkwardness altogether.
No, it was easier to just wait things out. Besides, they did work exceptionally well together, and perhaps that was enough. Gaara proved that only hours later when Naruto sat with his arms tied behind the back of a plastic chair, their latest hit circling him with a sadistic grin on her face.
"You know…I never thought I'd ever be able to actually catch you," she said. A beautiful woman, but also deadly. "Lune," as she was known, was responsible for twenty-three acts of terror around the country—and those were only the ones that could be confirmed. "Now arises the question of what to do with you…"
Naruto smirked. "Statutory rape is a crime."
"Your brass is almost commendable—considering your position. Then again, you always were cheeky, even to your detriment." She pressed her finger against the reddening spot on his cheek that would later bruise. The pressure seemed to ignite the pain in the various other injuries he had sustained in their earlier tussle. Naruto fought the urge to wince. "It seems too easy. Far too easy. You're not the type to let yourself get caught…Unless you wanted to get caught. Which would mean you're trying to buy time. And if you're here…then that means that someone else—"
She had barely turned her head when the silencer was fired, nailing her in the forehead so that she crumpled into a small pile on the floor. Naruto looked from her lifeless body to Gaara, who stood in the doorway. Gaara, who said nothing as he walked over and sliced through Naruto's bonds, freeing him.
Naruto thought about saying something—something like "Thanks" or "Good job," a wise-crack even, but he settled with silence—a decision he would regret in the taxi as they headed home, and later, as he got ready for bed, and later still, when he woke up the next morning, before his alarm, as he often did.
The next day was nothing special. There was nothing significant about it. It was the usual: Get up, get dressed, put on Gaara's shirt, and then go their separate ways to face another day at school.
Naruto had an exam, but he hadn't studied, not with last night's mission. Not to mention his body hurt. Lune knew had to throw a punch. She also had a sick fascination with a riding crop that had bit into his shoulder, leaving a nasty little gash. While he was not unused to pain, that didn't make him any more enthusiastic about it—particularly when he had a basketball scrimmage in gym that day. He wasn't sure how his team was able to pull off the win.
Afterwards, he changed and showered carefully, trying his best not to get his bandages wet, before drying off and pulling on the pieces of his uniform. He didn't bother to tuck his shirt in as his friends called for him to hurry up. They were waiting for him in the hall.
Grabbing his bag, Naruto jogged outside, displaying his practiced grin and trying his best to maintain it as his friends clapped him on the shoulder and back, celebrating their victory. As they started heading to their next class, Naruto stopped, feeling a light tug on the back of his shirt. His friends stopped too, looking back at him quizzically.
The last person any of them expected to see, Naruto included, was Gaara, the tail of the blond's shirt pinched firmly between his pale fingers. He didn't look up at Naruto, but instead kept his gaze lowered, submissively.
Naruto's friends were already starting to make faces.
"Naruto," one of them said, snickering, "everything okay?"
"…Yeah," Naruto grinned at them. "You guys go on ahead. I've got this."
"Let's go guys," said Kiba, chortling. "He's got this."
Naruto smiled after them until they were out of sight. Then his smile dissolved, and he grabbed Gaara's wrist and pulled him back into the locker room.
"Are you trying to blow our cover?" he asked, locking the door behind them once they were inside. He surprised himself with the irritation in his voice, but the building pressures of the day had spoiled his mood. What surprised him even more was how much he was starting to sound like Sasuke.
Gaara's prolonged silence and averted eyes didn't help, and Naruto was about to leave. And then he noticed that one of the buttons on Gaara's shirt had come undone, and his frustration seemed to dissipate just a little.
"Honestly," he mumbled, re-fastening it. A wave of pain shot through his shoulder, but he shook it away.
Gaara was looking at him. Naruto hadn't expected him to speak, and so it took a while to reply.
"I'm fine," he said, a casual dismissal.
But when he exited the locker room, he wondered if somehow he hadn't just missed a rare chance, if somewhere, in all of that, Gaara had been reaching out, and the moment had been lost.
As usual, after school, Gaara went home alone. Naruto missed him at his locker by about a minute, which he decided was for the best, because he wasn't even sure what he would have said anyway.
It had just hung over him—the thought that he had missed his chance. And he felt guilty, largely because he just kept going over Sakura's words, and he wondered what kind of impression he had made on Gaara all those months ago, and what impression he was still making, even now.
When he got home, Gaara was in the window seat doing his homework. Naruto glanced at him as he closed the door behind him, but Gaara didn't meet his eyes. He used that as an excuse to go on to his room. By that point, his shoulder was aching dreadfully, and he had a sneaking suspicion that it might be infected, or at least on the way there.
One of the things Naruto was anything but good at was bandaging wounds. It was a good thing that Gaara had never been wounded, because the best he could have done would have been to slap a Band-Aid on it. That was what he usually did for himself until he saw Shikamaru or Sakura and could have one of them bandage his injuries properly.
Now, that wasn't a feasible option, which was problematic, considering how his bandage had come off with his shirt. He performed some entertaining acrobatics, attempting to see the extent of the damage to his shoulder, but to no success. And pressing it only caused him to nearly curse, stifling a warrior scream.
He stared at the antibiotic cream and the bandage roll.
"Not gonna happen," he said, nearly tossing them into a desk drawer—nearly. And then he thought about Gaara out there in the window seat, and about reaching out and all of that, and he figured that he had little, if nothing, to lose. Or maybe it was the possibility that he had much more to lose than he realized.
Gaara seemed to be working on some complex mathematical problem when Naruto walked in, or at least that's what he surmised, judging by what looked like upside-down algebraic symbols. Whatever it was required deep concentration such that Gaara didn't notice Naruto standing only a few feet away for several minutes.
"Hey," Naruto said, once Gaara finally looked up at him. He fought the urge to fumble around like a complete idiot. "You have a moment?"
"Oh. Good." Naruto bit his lip, fumbling. He didn't know why this was turning out to be so difficult. "Listen, I just—Could you help me? My bandage came off, and…yeah."
Placing his homework aside, Gaara said plainly: "Sit down."
Naruto eyed him skeptically before sitting down so that his bare back was toward him. "Here," he said, holding up the tube of ointment. Gaara took it from his fingers. "I always have trouble with—yeowoookay..."
If his shoulder hurt before, it was on fire as soon as the balm touched it. Plus, Gaara slathered it on with no small amount of force.
Naruto bit his lip against the pain. "It would help if you were gentle."
Gaara's hands stilled. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. Somewhere in the tedium of that voice, Naruto wondered if he might have heard something akin to remorse. But that would have been impossible.
"No. It's okay."
Gaara's fingers, when they moved again, were soothing. Tender almost. It was enough that they seemed to take away even a little of the pain.
"...Thank you." Naruto said, closing his eyes.
Ohoho, next chapter is going to be fun. If you've made it thus far, you can rest assured that there'll be much more NaruGaa next chapter. Sorry if it seems scant up to this point. Slowly but surely, right?
Thanks for reading!