Fluff! Still trying to get back in the swing of things with writing. I've been away so long I feel practically incompetent. Used to be that 5,000 words was a snap in an evening. I guess I have to work back up to that. Until then ya'll are going to reap the benefit of my forced practicing! Oh AU oneshots, I just can't leave you alone.
I may try to take on the infamous loony bin scenario next. Maybe. I'm not sure I like the idea of anyone working at a mental institution dating a patient there. Seems a bit too much like a betrayal of trust to me... but then I always liked a challenge. Have to get creative to make it work if I do it at all. Urgh, now I'm just rambling.
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, I don't pretend to, I'm just borrowing character types to amuse myself.
The dreams rode that line between reality and fiction gave him cold sweats. He'd wake up with the blankets wound around him like a python strangling its dinner, and all he could do once up was stare at the alarm clock accusingly. Insomnia had become a lifestyle to him, and the neon green digital display simply drove home every sleepless hour. He rarely turned off the alarm as he got up and wandered into his kitchen to fix breakfast. It went off eventually, and Gaara would be right next to it waiting for the numbers to turn with the outward stoicism that imperfectly defined him to those who knew him. Every day he evaluated the temptation to smash the clock with a final crash of his fist, and most days he resisted. Rage was incidental. Work was mechanical.
"You look like hell, man." Naruto would cheerfully laugh as he passed by Gaara's office. The blond moron was always breaking his laptop in the field, even though all he had to use it for technically was answering fan mail and updating blog posts. Being the youngest reporter on the station's crew, and also the most handsome, had given him an edge with the Millenial target group and they insisted on social networking. Oddly enough, Naruto was also a favorite among—for lack of a better term—cougars. His fanbase was becoming demanding, and Naruto ended up dragging his laptop everywhere.
"Do I have to do a full cleanup again?" Gaara pulled himself away from installing a new fan in the blazing hot tower that Lee had delivered up that morning. The silly overzealous researcher burned up computers faster than anyone alive, but Naruto seemed to feel like it was a competition with the frequency of his visits to the beleaguered IT chief Gaara Sabaku.
Naruto had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "It isn't like last time. I didn't click on 'suspicious links,' though I still think the last one was a set up. I mean, it said it was a funny dog video! How I was I supposed to know?" Naruto handed over the small laptop. It was cheap and prone to problems, since the budget for a newbie like him was non-existent.
"So the fact that it linked to didn't tip you off?" Gaara said in his deadpan voice. Naruto cringed but recovered with aplomb.
"It was an email from Jiraiya! So…I guess I should have known. Do me a favor and don't tell Sakura, though. She'd be all over me if she knew I'd messed another laptop up. I still say the whole lake incident could have happened to anyone. Anyone!" Gaara felt his fist try to clench at the sound of Sakura's name, only to have it push on the laptop casing with an ominous creak. "You coming to the Halloween party tomorrow night at my place?"
"C'mon man, I know how you feel about crowds but how can you say no to a Halloween party when you know all the girls are going to be trying their best to out-sexy one another? Best holiday ever right after anything that involves eating until you're comatose!" With that smile, Gaara actually believed he meant it.
Gaara had been resisting the whole idea of attending parties ever since he and Sasuke had had to take it outside in a drunken fit of male stupidity his first week on the job. That egotistical reporter had made Gaara want to smash a fist into the Uchiha's perfect teeth. They'd each gotten off a couple of solid shots before an avenging angel in pink had separated them with surprising strength and a solid left hook of her own.
Later on, Gaara would always think of that as the day he had fallen for Sakura Haruno. It was also the first time since he was fourteen that he'd had a black eye.
"Our 'mutual friend' won't be attending so there won't be even a chance of a repeat offense. And I know for a fact you need to score some points with everyone's favorite film editor…"
Gaara felt all the blood drain from his face as he slammed the much abused laptop down on the desk and turned to Naruto in some terrible mix of panic and fury. "How did you know?" he hissed, debating in quick succession whether he could make it over the border before authorities located Uzumaki's remains or if he should simply self lobotomize and avoid the pain altogether.
"Whoa, whoa, I didn't say anything to her. Jeez, I wouldn't do that to a bro." Naruto's smile became about as sneaky as he was capable of as he leaned in and confided in a stage whisper. "I think it's about time Sakura stopped being dramatic over Sasuke, agreed? I think you'd be good for her."
"I never asked for your approval." Gaara, heart still beating fit to burst his ribcage, tried not to let hope swell inside of him. He was a short, creepy, introverted IT worker and he knew that people like him did not get the girl except in some bizarre parallel universe where computer programming was a sign of sexual fitness. Somewhere out there was a woman who would faint at the sight of his impenetrable firewalls, but he had a feeling that girl was probably not Sakura.
"You didn't need to ask for it. We're a lot more alike than you think, Gaara. You can count on me!" Naruto focused an amiable smile upon him that practically defined peer pressure. "And I can count on you to show up for my party, right?"
Gaara weighed his options. On the one hand he could ignore the invite and be subjected to phone calls every hour on the hour until Naruto was too drunk to remember, such as what happened with last year's Christmas party, or he could just put on some crappy costume and try his luck socializing. There must have been some sort of third option, but it wasn't making itself known and the blond annoyance was waiting for an answer.
"Fine." Naruto gave a short whoop of joy in response to Gaara capitulation.
"You won't regret it! Show up at 8 and bring some mixers. I have plenty of drinks, clearly marked this time." Naruto got a thoughtful look on his face as he wandered away from Gaara's office. "We don't need a repeat of Lee and the Christmas party. You guys really need to get yourselves under control."
Absently rubbing at the tattoo on his forehead, Gaara tried not to think too hard about what he had just gotten himself into. Naruto playing matchmaker, hanging around people he worked with in a setting that obliged him to talk to them, and possibly making an ass of himself again in front of the girl that made this mediocre workplace appealing… oh yes… he had lots to look forward to tomorrow.
When he had splattered himself with the fake blood concoction, he hadn't counted on it hardening as it dried. Everywhere the blood had bled through the fabric he could feel it rub his skin. Hypersensitive because of anxiety, he was feeling positively murderous by the time he rang the doorbell to the house Naruto rented on the edge of a middle-class suburb. A dying streetlamp backlit him as Hinata answered the door and nearly shut it back in his face when she saw him.
"Sorry, Gaara," she apologized as she let him in. "I thought you were a real zombie there for a second. I really don't do well with scary stuff."
"I'm not a zombie." Gaara said as he entered to a cacophony. Hinata shivered in her thin toga and sandals and quickly shut the door to the cold October air. It was more than a little crisp. Inside it was hot and humid with the press of bodies all in the process of moving and talking.
Hinata gestured towards the kitchen even though Gaara had been here before and was familiar with the layout. She had most likely been playing hostess for a while since Naruto was probably doing what he did best: getting into trouble.
"There's drinks and snacks in the kitchen. I think there's a cooler on the back porch since Lee seemed to think if a six-pack of beer was good why not bring a case." She shrugged, eyes kindly examining Gaara. She had stopped being so jumpy around him once she started dating Naruto. Whatever kept them together seemed to be doing them both a world of good.
"Here." Gaara held up the cran-apple juice he had purchased at the store down the street.
"I'll take that. Go on in."
Hinata disappeared into the bowels of the house and Gaara was left to wonder why he hadn't just stayed home like his first instinct said to do. He could be avoiding trick-or-treating children in his apartment building right now, but against his better judgment he had come here. There must have been some Uzumaki mind trick to make this happen. As he often did when he felt anxious, Gaara rubbed at the tattoo on his forehead. He took a deep breath and waded into the fray in the living room.
Some of the women waved, some of the men nodded. Gaara was infamous and people knew enough to be polite or face the wrath of broken machinery. He was not a staff member to be trifled with. A glance around confirmed what Naruto had asserted: the women had in fact all seemed to come to some sort of consensus that Halloween was a chance to wear as little as possible and have it be socially acceptable. An apparition of horror approached him fast from the left and it took a lot of willpower not to intercept it with a fist in its gut.
"Gaara!" Lee, in his Richard Simmons costume, made Gaara wonder anew how they had stayed friends for so long.
"Lee." His eyes widened a bit as he saw the plastic cup in the mop top's hand. "You're not drinking are you?" While it would be a convenient excuse to leave and escort his friend home, it certainly was never a pleasant experience being forced to spend time with an angry drunk. And Lee was a very angry drunk.
"Not at all! I brought pomegranate juice with me. Very healthy, lots of antioxidants. You should drink it with me! It promotes better blood circulation to the heart!"
"That's not what I want to hear. We need to live to a ripe old age so we can show the next generation the benefits of our wisdom!"
"I'm so glad you asked, you see I have this theory—"
"Gaara!" Naruto interrupted, his cheeks rosy from the beginnings of a buzz. He was dressed like Thor and wielding his plastic hammer in a particularly irresponsible way. Tenten noticed in time and ducked as he threw an arm around the shoulders of both Gaara and Lee. "Nice zombie costume!"
"I'm not a zom—"
"Hinata told me you'd arrived! Let's all go to the back porch, I found some fireworks in the back of the hall closet and I think they'll fit nicely inside the pumpkin I carved today."
Gaara, Lee, and Naruto navigated through the house as someone found the stereo and turned it to some station playing a Halloween themed music show. The back door shut out the sound of organ music almost entirely as Naruto finally let them go and bent down to get a beer for Gaara out of the cooler. Gaara looked at it speculatively, then realized it would probably make the evening more tolerable and popped it open.
Naruto gave a glance left and right, making sure the couple of people out smoking on the porch were out of earshot and then seemed satisfied enough to turn back to him companions. "So, Operation Pink Thunder should commence in about ten minutes."
Lee seemed slightly confused. "What are you talking about?"
"Sakura will get here in ten or fifteen minutes. Our job, Lee, is to engage in conversation anyone she's talking to who isn't Gaara and draw them away." Lee's thick eyebrows almost disappeared into his hairline with surprise.
"Gaara! I wondered why you showed up tonight. It's all some nefarious plot to get Sakura?" Lee looked a little dismayed. He'd had an off and on crush on Sakura for ages, but any time he had tried to tell her she'd say something that put him so securely in the friendzone that he wasn't sure how to broach the subject any longer.
Rolling his eyes, Gaara didn't respond and let Lee think what he wanted.
"Don't you want Sakura to be happy?"
"And Gaara too?"
"Then you're in, Lee?"
"How could I say no to a friend?" Lee seemed to only just realize he'd played into Naruto's hands.
While Naruto explained some conversational strategies to Lee, Gaara glanced over at Shikamaru who was smoking on the far side of the porch, and grabbed another beer for him as he went to join.
"Smoke?" Shikamaru said as he accepted the beer with a nod.
The man only grunted in response and they drank in silence while across the deck Naruto and Lee furiously plotted. It was nice to be around someone who didn't give a damn for a moment. Once his beer was finished he wandered back over to throw it in the bin with the rest of the empties and grabbed a second.
Hinata poked her head out the back door. "She's here!" was all she exclaimed before darting back inside. Gaara felt his stomach flop, and told himself to get a grip. Sakura would see the lame plot in place because she was smart enough to notice the inept machinations of her best friend after all these years, and once failure was assured he could go home having done his part to be social. Maybe he could use this to get off the hook with Christmas. A one holiday party a year policy.
"We'll get her out here, Gaara, you just wait. Think of some things to talk to her about. All we can do is give you the opportunity, and then the ball's in your court." Naruto and Lee moved with purpose inside and after another cigarette Shikamaru went back in as well.
Alone, on a dark porch, beer in hand actually felt pretty good. If more parties were like this he could get used to them. He had just settled down and begun to relax when a vision in white practically burst onto the scene. True to the mysterious female pact regarding costumes, even Sakura had gone the sexy route. The nurse uniform actually looked endearing on her, however, and he stole glances at her legs cloaked in sheer white stockings only openly oogling her when she bent over to get a drink from the cooler. By the time she's straightened up he was back to staring at the back lawn. He cleared his throat.
"Oh! Gaara, didn't notice you there. Aren't you cold?"
"Not really." His hand went to his tattoo before he forced it down and away self-consciously. "Nice costume."
She blushed a pink slightly darker than her hair. "I wanted to get the doctor uniform, not the nurse but Ino talked me into it. You look good too, really realistic blood." He tensed for the inevitable conclusion to her thought pattern. "Zombie, right?"
Even though she had been poised to leave, his terse negation actually brought her closer to him at his seat on the stairs. "Oh? What are you then?"
"I was going for psychotic killer."
"Hm, well maybe you should have brought a plastic axe with you or something. Or gone a little easier on the eye makeup." She actually sat down next to him and opened her drink. His body temperature began to rise with her in close proximity and his palms threatened to break into a sweat.
"I'm not wearing any eye makeup." He commented, making her shift in embarrassment.
She actually made sure to look him carefully in the eyes to verify the truth of that claim and for a moment she was close enough that he caught a whiff of her floral shampoo. Every nerve ending in his body clamored for him to grab her to him, but he simply sat there until she was satisfied.
"How much do you sleep? Those circles are terrible."
He sighed. "I don't know, two—three maybe—hours a night?"
"That's really unhealthy!"
Gaara looked at her, waiting for her to say something more constructive than the obvious. He leaned back and looked at the night sky, avoiding the possibility of staring at her nearly bare thighs mere inches from his.
"Did you try medication?"
"I don't trust it."
"What about exercise?" Gaara shrugged. "I know you spend a lot of time at work, but you have to take some time to take care of your body. You'll work yourself to death."
He got the feeling she was more reminding herself, being a perfectionist and workoholic. Gaara never took his work as seriously as she did. "My sleeping problems are not because the job is stressful."
"Then why?" She asked the million dollar question.
My family despises me. I despise me. "I don't know. It's probably exercise or diet, like you said. You're always leaving later than I do, I can't imagine you sleep much either."
"I catch up on the weekends." She seemed to notice for the first time she had a drink in her hands and she took a long sip right before her whole body shuddered from the cold. Instinctively, he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her next to him. He had done it naturally, without thinking. As soon as he consciously processed it his body stiffened.
Sakura's surprise kept her from resisting and it seemed like she hesitated for a moment before deciding to melt into his side and rest her head on his shoulder. Gaara was sure his heart was beating hard enough for her to know how she was affecting him but he didn't give a damn.
"Gaara! We can't find her anywhere and I think she might have left the—OH." Naruto burst through the back door followed by Lee, Ino, and Hinata. Gaara sprang up and away from Sakura like she was on fire, and Sakura turned towards the crowd behind her with a look so venomous that everyone but Ino took a step back. Ino, Gaara noted, looked oddly smug. Wheels began turning in his head and some silent conversation passed between the women before somehow everyone found an excuse to go back inside.
Something was up. Gaara had a feeling Naruto was not the only person who had had a plan in the works for tonight's party. It dawned on him that this changed the power differential considerably. A predatory smile spread across his face as Sakura turned back to him, her cheeks bright red with some combination of anger and embarrassment.
"Our friends are so dumb." She said weakly.
Gaara moved from the lawn back up the stairs to stand next to her. He purposefully stood a little too close and watched her fidget but not move away. A shiver went up his spine, a thrill of anticipation.
"Ino promised me that—God I feel like such an idiot." She started to brush past him but he grabbed hold of her elbow gently but firmly to prevent her from fleeing. He wasn't the kind of guy to socially engage where he wasn't wanted, but he was also not the kind of person who could passively accept a retreat like this just because of a little interruption.
"Stay." It was a question and wishful command both. He let go of her arm as her eyes narrowed and glanced down at his hold. She wasn't the kind of woman who'd allow herself to be coerced. "Just pretend that didn't happen." He nodded at the back door.
Even though every fiber of his being hated it, he forced himself to go sit back down on the steps and not look back. She'd appreciate the choice, he knew enough from observing her. As much as he wanted to force the interaction to move faster, he knew she wasn't a machine and he couldn't rule her with a few dexterous button presses. Not yet anyway. His mind wandered someplace dark and intimate, which was why he was all the more shocked when he felt her settle next to him.
She had waited long enough to make him doubt, but as she put her head back on his shoulder and he curled his arm around her, he couldn't give a damn. His mind wandered to a rare happy place and he closed his eyes. Tonight maybe he'd sleep more than the couple of restless hours. His body sagged in anticipatory relief.
"I may like you, but you better move that hand above the equator before I smack you."
Oh yes, he liked this woman.