His skin used to be sun-kissed, a rich almost-caramel color that offset the bright blue of his eyes. The crashing waves and the calm tide seemed to be captured in those lively irises, so that each smile hearkened back to the sea, and to toes curling in warm sand, and pop cans cradled in coolers shaded beneath the protective dome of an umbrella.
A surfer. That had been Gaara's first guess. Something about that blond hair, scattered with blonder streaks, conjured up the image of a boy on a board, his arms out to his sides as he laughed and tried his best not to fall.
Gaara was wrong, though. Naruto had never surfed. The ocean was something he saw in pictures and on television, out the window of a car as he was transferred here and there. It was something he looked at and kept, like so many things.
Laughter in the Rain
It was unnecessarily cold—artificially so. The kind of cold that was forgotten with good company and good conversation. It was quiet, too, but it was never perfectly quiet. There was always some noise in the background, voices, wheels rolling across the floor, the steady thrum of footsteps as someone ran past the door. Beeps and buzzing. Machines spitting out endless paper trails and an urgent, underlying energy that extended beyond the four corners of the room.
Naruto was sitting upright, his hands in his lap. His face held one of those small smiles that seemed to be leftover from a previous expression, and the tides were still in his eyes. The overhead light hit him harshly, coloring him in pale, bleak tones that made him appear washed out and tired, no matter how many times he insisted that he felt nothing but.
"You could be a model," he said.
Gaara pressed his lips together, his eyes falling toward his hands. His voice, as always, was quiet, level, lacking inflection or excitement as he replied, "I don't think so."
"No, really. You could." Naruto became more animated then, light reflecting off his eyes as his face seemed to, all at once, come to life. "You could definitely be a model. You've got something. There's something there—something perfect. Something beautiful."
Frowning a little, Gaara could only say, "No," glancing over and toward the window. His chest seemed to constrict, so that he could feel each heart beat thumping against his ribs. It was a funny sort of feeling. Scary, almost.
"Well, I think you could. I tried it once." That earned Gaara's attention, his face turning so that they were looking at one another. "Yeah, I tried it. It fell through, though. I don't know. That industry is kind of tough, expectation-wise."
The word "expectation-wise" struck a chord in Gaara's mind. He remembered learning something in class a long time ago about made-up words, but he didn't say anything. There was no point.
A soft laugh disturbed the silence as Naruto shook his head, tilting his face just a little. "You don't like when I say things like that, do you?"
"Things like what?"
"Nice things about you."
Gaara had to look away again, his eyes locking onto a small flock of Canada geese past the blinds as they lifted from the water into the air. Their wings seemed to beat to the gentle rhythm of Naruto's laughter.
Gaara hated hospitals. Everything about them inspired some sort of disgust that was not tied to anything personal. He just didn't like them, not the sanitary smells, not the watercolor flowers on the walls, and certainly not the people, wasting away in beds and waiting.
Something about it all reminded him of himself, of how he, too, was just waiting—waiting for something to happen, waiting for his life to start, waiting to feel something other than the bleary numbness he woke up to and fell asleep with. Waiting. Always waiting.
Gaara did not like waiting.
Naruto made him wait.
It was one of those days where Naruto was particularly energetic. It was in his voice and his eyes and his lips curved in that perpetual smile. He was up and walking around, hands clasped behind his back as he peered around the room, rearranging things here and there. Tilting a picture infinitesimally to the left or hanging up another "Get Well Soon!" card. One wall was covered in the folded greetings, adding splashes of color to the otherwise bleak room. Naruto looked them over, smiling, before he swung around with a triumphant smirk.
"What about an instrument?"
Gaara blinked, his fingertips closing over the chair arms. "What about it?"
"Do you play one?" Naruto asked, in a tone that conveyed his never-ending amusement.
"Oh yeah?" He rushed over, sitting on the edge of the bed so that they were close, mere inches away from one another. "What do you play?"
Gaara leaned back slightly, saying, "The guitar."
"Guitar? Really? I tried that once. I bought a guitar and everything. It was so nice. I really loved that thing." Naruto looked over at the corner of the room as if his past was there. "Yeah, I tried. It just didn't work out. Hey, will you play for me?"
He was looking at Gaara again, his expression one of anticipation and rapt interest. When his face opened up like that, Gaara couldn't help but think that he looked much younger than he was, like a twelve-year-old version of himself rather than a nineteen-year-old. Then again, his actions did not always coincide with his age. Gaara had learned that the first time they had met.
"I can't," Gaara replied, rubbing his arm and feeling the goose bumps there. "I don't want to bother anyone."
"Bother? Who would you bother?"
Everyone, Gaara wanted to say. But most of all—himself.
Sakura was a thin rail of a woman with startling green eyes and a wistful sigh. Her hair was always pulled back into a messy bun, and when she talked, small pink wisps would begin slipping out and around her face until she pulled the band from her hair and redid it. Once her hair had been secured, it was never long before it would start coming loose again. While she was one of the younger nurses, she commanded and demanded respect from her peers, her hands propped on her hips as she looked up into the eyes of what should have been her superiors.
But no matter how stern she tried to be with Naruto, she always ended up smiling. Gaara couldn't help but think their relationship a tad remarkable. She would walk in, lips thin and eyes narrowed from some preceding argument, and Naruto would have her grinning and laughing in record time. And Naruto, persistent and stubborn Naruto, would always end up doing whatever she told him to do.
Her foot tapped out a metronome of sounds whenever she brought him his tray of food and he started in on his whining.
"What is this? This—this isn't food."
"It's chicken cordon bleu with broccoli florets."
"More like chicken cordon gross."
"Hilarious," Sakura said flatly.
"I'll be here all week," he grinned, turning toward Gaara with a wink.
"You're a regular comedian," she finally conceded with a warm smile. And then, "Watch him, Gaara. I'm leaving it up to you to make sure he eats every last bite."
Gaara could only nod. He wasn't about to tell her that Naruto probably considered his presence to be some monumental joke.
Batting his eyes, Naruto waved as she left, immediately morphing into a scowled slouch once she was gone. "Hospital food sucks. It just sucks."
"You need to eat," said Gaara, for lack of anything better to say.
"Yeah." Sitting up, he leaned over, his teeth exposed in one of his sneaky smiles. The expression indicated Trouble—capital T and all. "Hey, maybe you could sneak me in something? A hamburger? A candy bar? Good lord, something. Please?"
"…I don't think so."
Shoulders heaving in defeat, Naruto sighed and brought a forkful of broccoli to his mouth. He then proceeded to go into a spastic fit that ended with him falling back on his pillow, as if vegetables were his personal kryptonite. Gaara was not worried. There was a time when he might have been worried—days, weeks ago now. But Naruto's theatrics had become commonplace, routine. They were to be expected, like the way he sometimes placed his hand on Gaara's leg when spoke, or a certain smile that sometimes crept up, and a manner of speaking which could really only be considered flirtatious. In the beginning, it had been annoying and uncomfortable. Now, it was akin to custom.
Eventually, Naruto peeked open an eye before abruptly closing it and sticking his tongue out.
Despite himself, Gaara found himself amused.
Gaara had thought it to be a joke at first—Naruto's attraction toward him. It had certainly seemed like one. Particularly that first day, when Gaara came in and introduced himself, extending his hand for a handshake, and Naruto took his hand and kissed it, telling him he had beautiful eyes. Sakura had been in the room then, and she slapped Naruto on the head, ignoring his whiny complaints as she told him to apologize and greet him properly.
By that point, Gaara had already slipped out, and it wasn't until he was all the way outside, nearly to the parking garage, that Sakura caught up with him. She clasped a hand onto his shoulder and bent over, attempting to catch her breath.
"Je-Jesus...I thought I'd…never…catch up to…you."
"You're—" Gaara began.
"Sakura. The nurse. Yes." She straightened, pulling her hand to her hip. Her hair band seemed to have been lost during her sprint, hair bending around her face and barely brushing her shoulders. "Listen, I'm sorry about that. About Naruto, I mean. He's like that."
Gaara didn't say anything, mostly because he hadn't anticipated this turn of events and he was still trying to make sense of what had led him to leave in the first place.
"What I'm trying to say is, please come back. He needs you, and it's a miracle that we even got someone to come over. He doesn't mean anything by it. He's just…" She laughed, then, shaking her head as if she had already failed. "He's just silly. I promise you, he's harmless."
If there was one thing that four years of high school had taught Gaara, it was that he couldn't say no. He obeyed his teachers when they asked if he could help clean up the classroom at the end of the day, and his friends when they had him deliver notes to girls, and his brother when he asked him to do his chores, and anyone else who asked him to do something, because he was gullible, and he knew he was gullible, only he couldn't stop himself from being that way. So he went back up with Sakura, and Naruto introduced himself in a more typical fashion, and what should have taken one day stretched into the many more that were to come.
Gaara quickly learned that Sakura was wrong. Naruto did mean something by it, and it was very clear what he meant.
Despite being close in age and height and other random things, such as a shared fondness for Root Beer, Naruto was much more open than Gaara ever had been or ever would be.
He might be in the middle of discussing the latest hospital gossip, and he would suddenly get out of bed and go to the bathroom, not bothering to close the door even though the toilet was well within Gaara's line of sight. Or he might be sitting quietly, watching Gaara, who had taken to watching the ducks and geese outside, and he would stand, pulling off his gown so that the entirety of his body was exposed. Because Gaara never expected this, he had gotten an eyeful on several occasions, quickly averting his gaze as Naruto changed into something more comfortable—sweats and a t-shirt, or an oversized tank-top and boxer shorts.
Gaara found it difficult to even change around his classmates in the locker room, so Naruto's openness took some getting used to.
Worse still were the things Naruto said. Compliments that were more than kind words. Words like "beautiful" that Naruto tossed around without reservation, except that they were more than just words.
"You look really nice today," and, "I'm so glad you're here." These were not simple accolades. They were admissions. The way he said them, the way the sea seemed to shift in his eyes as he spoke—it moved Gaara. Naruto was nice, but he rarely said such things to anyone else. At least, not when Gaara was there, but he had a feeling that even when he was not there, Naruto saved such sentiments, gathering them up and withholding them until the next time Gaara came to see him.
On certain days, Naruto did nothing but sleep, his face tossing and burying into the pillow as Gaara watched from his chair. On such days, Gaara would flip through Naruto's file, trying to make sense of it all—of something, trying to connect some of the scattered dots littered throughout the pages. Naruto was an anomaly to him, incapable of being understood. Almost as if he didn't want anyone to understand.
When his thoughts failed to get him anywhere, Gaara would stand, and sometimes Naruto would remain asleep as he left, pulling the door closed behind him as he emerged into the vigorous flow of the hall.
And sometimes Naruto would wake up, no matter how quietly Gaara had gathered his things. His eyes would crack open slightly, and he would mutter a sleepy, "Stay," rolling over onto his other side.
"What?" Gaara would ask, wondering if Naruto was sleep-talking. But Naruto would always say again, "Stay," more clearly the second time, so that Gaara would sit back down, almost dumbly, his eyes finding Naruto's form, that wild blond hair and the now-pale skin of his arms, and then the hastily scribbled pages that were his notes and the perfect letters within the yellowing pages of a novel.
And Gaara would stay.
"Tell me about yourself."
"I want to know all about you."
Outside, the leaves were on the verge of changing, and some of them shuddered in the wind, revealing their backsides. Rain was on the way.
Gaara said, "We're supposed to talk about you."
"Yeah, well, I wanna talk about you. Any girlfriends? Boyfriends?" he grinned.
"Naruto," came Iruka's warning tone. "Behave."
From what Gaara had gathered, both from snippets of conversation and Naruto's file, Iruka was practically Naruto's father. He was the closest the blond had to one, anyway. Like Sakura, Iruka's mission seemed to be proving his capabilities, but, unlike Sakura, Iruka usually failed—at least, when dealing with Naruto. Both of them seemed to be aware of this dynamic, to the point that Iruka's "Behave" really meant, "Yes, I know you're not going to, but I'm going to say this anyway."
Iruka showed up once every week, or more, if he could, but, as he explained to Gaara one evening while a male nurse took Naruto's vitals, it was not always easy to make the trip across two cities. Yet, he always managed, body sagging against the doorframe, a tribute to his sagging smile. Gaara really couldn't help but like Iruka. The older man at least attempted to keep Naruto focused.
"Have you decided?" he asked, sewing up a small hole in one of Naruto's socks.
Naruto fell back onto the bed, his arms spread out at his sides. "I don't want to talk about that now," he said.
"You're wasting Gaara's time."
For some reason, Gaara found himself saying, quietly, "He's not wasting my time."
Naruto closed his eyes and smiled.
Some days, Gaara could only stop in for a few minutes. As the year progressed, he found himself burdened with college applications and standardized tests, and deadlines, there were always deadlines to be mindful of—something to pay for, something to sign, something to send in, something to do.
During such fluxes, he could have called and told Naruto he wasn't coming in, but he preferred face-to-face communication. Naruto was always very understandable about it all, even if he had never suffered through the horrors of senior year. Early on, he had casually explained that he had dropped out of high school halfway through his sophomore year.
"It just wasn't for me," he shrugged, dismissing the entire educational system with the listless gesture.
Before—before Naruto, to be exact—Gaara would have made immediate judgments based on such knowledge. His mother hadn't finished high school, but that was way back when. Now it was simply the thing to do, so when he came across people who diverged from this path, he was inclined to think a little less of them. But that was before Naruto.
Now, the knowledge pulled an eyebrow raise from him and no more.
What did surprise him was Naruto's sympathy and understanding, his words of encouragement, as if their roles had suddenly been reversed.
One Sunday when Gaara came in, Naruto had his feet propped up on some pillows and a magazine open on his lap and he was bobbing his head to the poptastic cadences circling throughout the room and into the hall as Gaara opened the door.
Looking up, Naruto said, "Neil Sedaka," nodding his head toward the stereo. When Gaara stared at him blankly, Naruto's jaw dropped and he closed his magazine. "Tell me you know who I'm talking about."
"I don't," Gaara replied.
"Blasphemy!" he cried, throwing his head back and pulling his hair. "It's only Neil Sedaka, one of the best singer-songwriters of our time!"
"Neil? It's a man?"
Gaara stood, listening. "Sounds like a woman."
"Like a—I'll pretend I didn't hear that. Sedaka is amazing. He makes beautiful music, and I cannot believe you've never heard of him. My heart weeps for you." Narrowing his eyes, he patted the bed beside him. "Come on. You're going to sit here and listen to a genius."
It seemed to be against his better judgment, but Gaara sat his book-bag down and took a seat, the mattress giving little way beneath him. He wondered how Naruto was able to sleep on it night after night before recalling the blond's numerous complaints on the subject.
Naruto clearly knew every single word of every single song the man had ever sung, as demonstrated by his dramatic renditions of the tunes. When one song ended and another began, Naruto paused, looking at Gaara with wide eyes and a stupefied smile.
"I danced to this song once," he said.
Gaara's eyebrows pulled together. "Danced? You mean at school?"
"No. I mean I performed a contemporary piece to this song."
Gaara knew what he was hearing, but it didn't seem possible. "You're a dancer?" he asked, unable to hide the skepticism in his voice.
"I was. For a minute. I did all kinds of dance—ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap—"
"Tap," Gaara repeated slowly.
Apparently, this was the wrong thing to say, because Naruto jumped up into the small open space of the floor and said, "Allow me to demonstrate." And demonstrate he did. Gaara's deadpan was not an accurate expression of his surprise. Because this definitely surprised him. Naruto's feet began moving, and even if he wasn't wearing tap shoes, the muffled sounds of his socks were still strict, exact sounds as they danced across the floor. "It's not as complicated as it looks," he said as he moved, not sounding as out-of-breath as Gaara expected him to. "It all boils down to step-ball-change."
Gaara didn't have the faintest idea what that meant, and anyway it certainly looked complicated, especially when Naruto broke out into various styles of dance, switching between them fluidly and with incredible ease. Gaara's face must have been an open book, because Naruto laughed and leaned over, gripping his wrists and pulling him to stand. "Don't look like such a deer in the headlights," he said. "It's easy. Now—" He placed one hand on Gaara's shoulder and clasped Gaara's right hand in the other, "Shoulders down, hands up."
Gaara's face was permanently locked in a blank stare as he realized that Naruto expected him to put his hand on his waist. When that didn't work out, Naruto threw his head back with a short laugh and curled his own fingers around Gaara's waist, pulling him into a swift twirl as Naruto spun him around the room. Not knowing what to do—Gaara had skipped out on the junior prom—he let himself be led, Naruto smiling and laughing the whole time and making the room seem so much larger than it actually was.
When the upbeat song faded away and another, slower one began, Gaara made to pull away, but Naruto didn't let go. Instead, he stepped in close, very close, guiding both of them into a gentle sway. His cheek was warm as he pressed it against Gaara's cheek, and he smelled of soap and Old Spice. Naruto never spoke, and Gaara rarely spoke anyway, and it was quiet, even with the music. In fact, the music seemed to make it seem that much more quiet, so that Gaara could hear his heart beating in his ears—thump, thump, thump—and he wondered if Naruto didn't hear it, too.
That was the first time Gaara had ever danced.
Naruto was thinner now, his skin stretching over the muscles in his arms and legs and making him look like a runner. He couldn't run though, not lately. He had fallen into a difficult period, a period of rain that matched the season's turbulent weather.
He did not talk as much as he used to, and he would nod off without warning. Gaara might turn his head to watch someone whipping their fishing rod across the water, and when he turned back, Naruto's eyes might have closed in sudden sleep. When he stood, Naruto did not move or tell him to stay, but sometimes, Gaara sat down and stayed anyway.
He brought things for Naruto, like cans of pop and magazines and CDs, and Naruto expressed his thanks in the form of smiles and, more often, the touch of his hand on Gaara's leg or arm.
Gaara was uneasy. He wanted Naruto to tell stupid stories and nod his head to the music and break out in dramatic intermissions. There was something excruciatingly frail about his body—all sharp angles beneath the sheets—and the cold that Naruto didn't seem to notice anymore, that Gaara was only too aware of.
"It will pass," Sakura said.
"No way, just no—Gaara! Gaara, thank god you're here!"
Naruto's energy had apparently returned, illustrated by the three nurses who hovered around his bed cautiously. Sakura stood further back, her hair falling freely into her face as she examined a clear bag of fluid for any faults. Looking up, she faced Gaara with a weak smile.
"His body isn't retaining fluids," she said, gathering a thin strip of tubing from the counter. "We have to give him an I.V. You might want to leave—"
"No!" Naruto shouted, a high-pitched element in his voice. "Don't leave, Gaara. I don't—" He paused, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking a deep breath to calm himself. "I don't like needles," he said quietly. "They make me nervous."
Gaara found something then, a swell of firmness brought on by necessity. He said, "This has to be done, Naruto."
When Naruto looked up, Gaara could see the alarm, the way the waves crashed against rocks in his eyes. "Well, just…just distract me or something. Tell me a story, tell me about your day, tell me about your applications. I don't care, just anything."
It might have been necessity, but it was also something else, something purer that prompted Gaara to slide past the nurses, appropriating his usual chair, which he pulled closer to the edge of the bed. Naruto had started rocking, pressing his face into the tops of his knees. He didn't stop until Gaara's fingers slipped into his palm. Then he stilled, his face buried in the crook between his kneecaps as he clasped onto Gaara's hand, softly at first, and then more tightly until it was all over.
"Mmmmm, you smell good," Naruto said, leaning on Gaara's shoulder with a sigh of content. He still had not decided, and Gaara was beginning to wonder if he ever would, and if it even mattered now. A chill wind blew through the grounds, picking up leaves and taking them on a winding journey of flight. There were not too many people outside. It was brisk, and the sky had darkened with the progression of the day so that the sun just barely shone over the tops of the houses. The wooden bench had been cool at first, but now it was warm, like Naruto, nestled up against Gaara's side. Gaara forgot to tell him to move. He could have moved himself, but he forgot to do that, too.
"It might rain," said Gaara, finely attuned to the damp in the air and Naruto's radiating warmth.
"Maybe. Why, do you not like rain?"
Naruto chuckled, pulling his arms out of his sleeves and into the thick body of his gray sweater. It was a little bit difficult because of the I.V. line, but he managed, wheeling the stand over a few inches. "That doesn't surprise me. It's kind of funny though. I miss it. The rain, I mean." His voice was soft and gentle, full of nostalgia and a deep longing. "I miss getting caught in it," he said. Then, "I miss a lot of things. Like mowing the grass, and coming inside, smelling like the lawn. Or times-tables that I never could seem to memorize. Or crushes, even if they sucked and made no sense whatsoever. Or that feeling you get when you're driving and you let someone into your lane, and they give you that wave, you know? And you might give them a wave back and you feel great for some reason. I used to call it my good deed of the day. It really is funny…I never thought I'd miss that, but I do. You don't realize how much you'll miss little, inconsequential things like that."
It was quiet then, for a little while. The sky was getting darker, and Sakura would be wondering where they were. She would probably be angry, but her anger never persisted for very long these days. After all, it was only with her help that Naruto was even able to venture outside.
"I think I might have a crush on you."
Naruto's laughter was crisp. "I thought you might," he said.
He was in a bad way, his body doubled over, fingers clutching a cardboard bowl. Every few minutes, his form was wracked with harsh shudders and he would begin heaving violently into the container, tears collecting in the corners of his eyes.
Sakura rubbed his back and dabbed at his face with a damp washcloth, but Naruto's stomach seemed determined to rid itself of everything.
"Didn't Iruka tell you not to come?" he asked, sounding perturbed. Mostly, he sounded tired. He pushed the bowl forward and Sakura took it, disposing of it in the hall.
"He did," Gaara replied from the doorway.
Naruto chuckled a little, rubbing his face and laying it on his folded arms. His knees were tucked into his chest. He wouldn't look up, as if he didn't want Gaara to see him like that. When Sakura returned, asking soothingly if he needed anything, he shook his head.
"You should get some rest," she said.
"I can't sleep. Not like this."
"Please try." The brightness of her green scrubs emphasized the dark circles under her eyes. She switched the charts and left.
Gaara lingered in the doorway for a few seconds more, and then he stepped inside, shrugging off his jacket and placing the guitar case on the floor in front of his chair. It tapped onto the linoleum with a soft thud, the metal clasps springing open as he released them. The instrument was nothing special. It was not as ornate as some were. It was a simple, nylon-string guitar with a mahogany soundboard. The pick was tucked beneath the headstock, a plain black plectrum.
The guitar always felt good in Gaara's hands, familiar. Music was something that simply came to him, unlike the answers to questions about his future and what he was going to do, and how on earth he was going to do it. He strummed it once, cutting off the sound with a quick press of his fingers, and then he plucked a few notes out, tuning it when necessary. The random notes gradually strung together, and they became a song, and Gaara stopped worrying about his fear of playing in front of people, because that was not important. What was important was Naruto, who looked over finally, a hint of a smile on his face. He finally pulled himself up so that he was no longer closed like a clam, and the lines left his face, along with some of the pain.
When an older nurse walked in, telling Gaara that he needed to stop, Naruto wilted a little, closing back down. But Gaara did not stop. His fingers pressed out chord after chord, drowning out the woman's voice and replacing it with song. She left and returned with an older man, some supervisor or something, judging by his nametag and air of authority, and Gaara did pause then, his hand stilling so that the final note hummed both close and distantly.
"Young man," said the supervisor, "you can't do that here. It's disturbing the other patients."
Normally, Naruto would have been a ball of contention, but any energy he had had seemed to have been spent throwing up. He had just enough to lean his face back on his arms. Gaara, not wanting to make trouble for him, lowered the guitar onto his lap.
"Um, excuse me," came a soft voice. A young woman stood in the doorway, her hair in straight black waves that fell like a curtain around her face. She appeared soft and small, but she quickly garnered everyone's attention. She looked straight at Gaara. "My brother was enjoying that. I hope you'll continue. It wasn't bothering us."
An old man across the way yelled, "Yeah, I liked it," and then he began grumbling about how everyone had to take the joy out of everything. That was the first time Gaara had ever heard him speak. The elderly man had always seemed to glare at Gaara whenever he walked by.
The hall was all at once filled with conversation, and it was loud—alive. The supervisor and the older nurse left in defeat, and Naruto looked up again. Weakly, he smiled.
"Thank you, Gaara," he said.
Naruto would fall asleep to the placid sounds of Gaara's guitar many times.
One morning, Naruto would say only, "I don't want you…to come by anymore."
Gaara would show up the next day.
Gaara was attempting to knit. Naruto had somehow cajoled him into the leisure pursuit with a confident, "I've tried this before."
Looking over at the blond's mess of yarn and lost needles, Gaara had his doubts.
But it was fun. Sakura got a kick out of it anyway, and Iruka didn't know what to make of it, which really tickled Naruto. Iruka had started coming over more frequently now, and Gaara sometimes spent the night. He might be knitting—or trying to, or he might be playing his guitar, or reading, or watching the calm surface of the water outside the window, and suddenly it would be ten or eleven, or later. Sakura would bring him a warm blanket and a pillow, if she could find one, but Gaara started bringing his own. Drawers that had previously been empty were now filled with Gaara's things, spare outfits, scarves, and sweaters, and several books he liked to read.
It was not uncommon to walk in and find Naruto pilfering through his belongings or wearing his clothes. It was strange, however, that such moments gave Gaara a feeling of contentment that made no more sense than Naruto's feelings for him.
It rained a lot more, the droplets tapping against the pane as if they wanted in, and one day, it even snowed. They watched the plump tufts as they fell, delicate things that looked like feathers and made Gaara's throat constrict until he cleared it. He did not jump when Naruto's fingers combed through his hair, stopping at the base of his neck. A soft, tender gesture. When Gaara did look over at him, Naruto smiled, pulling his hand back to his side.
He said, "I've decided."
It was quite a while before it rained again. Several weeks, in fact, to the point that Gaara wondered if it ever would. He began to doubt himself, too, or at least Naruto's latest harebrained scheme. The air was colder now, much colder, and only a few leaves clung to thin branches, the rest threading through the grass and coloring it in red, orange, and gold hues that crunched underfoot.
Moreover, Naruto was unpredictable—prone to chronic fevers, fatigue, and pain. He might be all right one day and bedridden the next, unable to even speak. He no longer ate solid foods; he had been switched to a liquid diet which he received intravenously. Sometimes, Gaara brought him outside, but Naruto shivered easily and could not stay for very long. The pond began to frost over at the edges, softening in the noon sun.
And then, one day, it began to rain. Naruto had just finished his standard meal, and he looked over at Gaara with mischief and excitement in his eyes. While Gaara knew this might turn out to be a bad idea, he felt a little excited, too. The immense trouble they would get in when they were caught, because they would get caught, was little more than an afterthought.
Naruto seemed to know how to detach himself from the I.V., and then it was only a matter of changing and making it through the front doors undetected. His toothy grin flashed from beneath the hood of his sweatshirt as he and Gaara left the room and, after some furtive tactics, the building.
It was a little after three o'clock, and the sun still glistened with a warm amber glow that reflected off the windows in a fiery display of light. It seemed to warm the rain as it soaked into their clothes and through to their skin. Naruto held onto Gaara's hand and started running so that Gaara had no choice but to follow him. They dove into the parking lot, angling around cars as the rain fell harder and harder. Naruto's hood fell back and he laughed, his hair catching the droplets and plastering golden strands to his face.
Gaara almost tripped, and Naruto stopped, his chest heaving. He had a ridiculous grin on his face as he looked at the hospital, now a faraway place, and then back to Gaara. Gaara kept pushing his bangs out of his eyes only to have them slip back down again with the falling rain.
"You call this a date?" he asked, still breathing hard.
"Only the best date ever," Naruto said. His smile had a charming, infectious quality.
"And this is what you want?"
"This is what I want." Shading his eyes with his hand, he looked around. "Where's your car?"
Gaara mulled over his words, stating, "We can't leave."
"Why not? Aren't I in charge of the date? It's my wish."
He had a point.
Nevertheless, Gaara tried to pretend that it was with nothing but the utmost irritation that he let Naruto have his way. They both knew better.
His room was an empty rectangle with cornflower-blue walls and cream-colored drapes. His bed was tucked into one corner, the sheets tight and exact, and his desk fit into another. The only adornment seemed to be the navy-and-white-striped rug in the very middle, a small island amidst the dull brown of the carpet. Naruto surveyed all of this with a keen eye that took in every detail. He shook his head approvingly.
"Nice," he said.
"Do you have a preference?" Gaara asked, in reference to clothing. They certainly weren't going back as they were—wet and waterlogged. Outside, it was not a problem, but inside, his shirt clung like a second skin, and it was uncomfortable. Gaara peeled his off, slipping a white undershirt on instead. He fished around until he found a second one. When he held it out, Naruto bounded across the room, his shoes flying off as he sprung onto the bed, sending the coils screeching and popping. He was grinning from ear to ear.
Gaara frowned. "We have to go back."
"Eventually," Gaara repeated, turning the word around in his mind. He liked that it meant not now. Soon, his family would start coming home, one by one. Later, they would be in a colossal amount of trouble. But not now. "You should change," he said, padding over to the bed. The white shirt hung limply in his hand.
Naruto said, "Make me."
Gaara released a slow breath. He placed the shirt on the bedspread and clasped the hem of Naruto's sweatshirt, pulling it up and off of him. Naruto's hair was a little wild now, but it was starting to dry in soft patches. His eyes reflected the cool pitter-patter of rain as it slowed and stopped. Naruto's fingers played with the buttons of his shirt, but Gaara pushed his hands away, working the buttons through their respective holes.
Naruto's chest was as pale as the rest of him. Gaara could make out several of his ribs. Their eyes met, and it was Naruto who looked away. Gaara folded then, his body collapsing forward. His arms found Naruto's sides and back, his face pressing into the blond's neck. Naruto's sigh was long and slow. It matched the pace of his arms as they wrapped around Gaara, pulling him closer.
A minute, maybe more passed, and Gaara straightened himself, slipping from Naruto's arms. He helped Naruto into the dry shirt, passing him a pair of jeans to change into and getting a pair for himself. Once they were both in fresh clothes, they sat beside one another on the bed, their backs to the wall so that their ankles draped over the edge. Naruto was humming a song, one of Neil Sedaka's that Gaara soon recognized. He leaned back, listening, closing his eyes. The room was cold; the heater had not yet kicked on. Gaara pressed over, closer, and there were Naruto's arms again, around him, fingertips pushing into his shoulder and side. Gaara felt something rising up in him, like a cough or a sob. Thankfully, Naruto's hands smoothing through his hair dispelled either of these possibilities.
"Why do you like me?" Gaara asked.
"Why? I don't know. Why do we ever like anyone we like?"
"That's a good question."
"I can come up with them every once in a while," Naruto said, almost laughing.
Gaara looked up at him, and it became one of those awkward, not-quite-intentional things. It worked, though, after they figured out who was tilting his face which way. Naruto's breath was warm, his hand on the back of Gaara's neck. The room was still with near-perfect quiet.
Gaara's first kiss was a little clumsy, and unnerving, naturally. But he quickly forgot about this. There was something about kissing and first kisses that helped them fall into place. Something about Naruto's smile as he pulled back, and the ghostly touch of his fingertips, pushing Gaara's hair away from his eyes. Gaara pressed his temple to Naruto's chest. Faintly, he heard a door opening somewhere in the house. Someone had come home.
They got into a lot of trouble. A lot more than either of them anticipated.
Naruto's attitude certainly did not help matters. He sat back as someone hooked up his I.V., rolling his eyes and saying, "Yeah, yeah," every so often. Predictably, this only angered everyone even more, especially the supervisor, whom they had lucked out into meeting a second time. It turned out that he was in charge of the entire oncology department. Sakura, a quiet presence in the background, could do nothing but agree with him.
As a result of their "little escapade," as the supervisor kept calling it, Gaara would not be permitted within the hospital for a week, and Naruto would be kept on close watch for the duration of the month. Once everyone had crowded out of the room, Iruka glanced between them both, sighing in defeat and announcing that he was going to get a cup of coffee. He did not look angry, only tired.
"I hate that guy," grumbled Naruto.
"It could have been worse," was Gaara's flat reply. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the supervisor's shadow cross the doorway several times. "I better go."
"Will you be okay?"
Naruto grinned. "Will you?"
Gaara stared at him until Iruka came back. He thought about that question on the way home, the lights from oncoming traffic illuminating his face, and later, in bed, where the only light was that of the stars that he could see even when he closed his eyes.
That was the longest week of Gaara's life. He called Naruto everyday, and sometimes they talked for hours, Naruto filling up the space with the latest news, and sometimes they didn't talk at all. Sometimes, Iruka answered, or Sakura, saying only that Naruto was not feeling well and could not talk. His chest tightened whenever he heard Naruto's brittle cough in the background.
There was also a level three snow advisory in effect that weekend, the weather coming out of nowhere and ending up everywhere so that Gaara had no choice but to remain home. On Saturday, Naruto talked to him until he fell asleep. He woke up hours later with the phone under his ear, pillow-like. On Sunday, Gaara woke up early and made the drive. The streets were slick, so he drove slowly, the wheels skidding with each gentle pump of the brakes. The marble floor of the hospital foyer was a welcome sight.
Naruto was not yet awake when he came in. He dozed peacefully, face tucked into his pillow as his chest rose and fell to an internal tempo. Iruka sipped cold coffee, smiling as the Styrofoam left his lips. "Good morning," he whispered. Gaara sat down in the empty chair beside him, and Iruka filled him in on Naruto's latest antics.
Hours later, when Naruto finally woke up, he started to berate Gaara for chancing the icy roads, his face lit with frustration and concern, and then he just stopped, holding his arms open.
Gaara stood, fitting himself into Naruto's arms.
Weeks passed. Soon, there was no longer a watchperson outside of Naruto's door. It didn't matter, anyway. Naruto was practically confined to his bed. He tried to explain that he was just tired, but it was more than that. He was sick more often—once, if not twice a day. And he was restless. He woke up in the middle of the night, coughing or confused, and his pain was a chronic presence. Gaara could see it in his eyes, the murky waters there. He helped Naruto into different positions—upright, flat, fetal—but they were only temporary solutions. The morphine drip was almost useless.
Gaara, too, felt useless. He could do nothing but sit and watch, offering his hand when a wave of pain passed and reading to him in a feeble attempt to help him sleep.
Naruto assured him that that was more than enough.
"You know what I want you to do?" he asked, squinting a little into the overhead lights. The fluorescent paneling was a stark contrast to the opaque blue-black of the night sky.
"What?" said Gaara.
"I want you to sit over here."
Naruto pressed up on the mattress, scooting over to the edge of the bed. He rubbed the vacant space beside him.
Gaara looked confused. "But Iruka's here."
The dark-haired man had his head craned backwards over the back of his chair. His magazine had almost fallen completely out of his hands, balancing precariously on the ends of his fingers. He wouldn't be waking up any time soon. Considering this, Gaara walked over, climbing into the bed. Naruto spread the blanket over so that it covered Gaara's legs, and their wrists touched, a perfect accident. They looked at one another. Both of them leaned forward at the same time, and it was sweet, like a sigh on a beautiful spring day. Naruto's hand was cold as it stroked Gaara's cheek, but it borrowed warmth from Gaara's hand as their fingers wove together. The blond squirmed, settling down into the bed, and then he gave up, placing his pillow and then his head on Gaara's lap.
"There we go," Naruto said, clearly satisfied. Gaara put his fingers through the flaxen strands, massaging the spot behind Naruto's ear and earning a wordless murmur.
"How do you feel?" Gaara asked.
"You know what I mean."
Naruto looked up at him, his smile a consolatory meniscus. "I'm happy. That's all that matters. And what about you?" He squeezed Gaara's hand. "Seriously. You never tell me how you feel. I wanna know."
The words were there, but Gaara had to swallow a few times before he could say, successfully, "I'm happy, too."
Iruka's voice was broken and clipped over the phone. Urgent. "You'd better come by," he said.
Naruto was not responding.
He did not open his eyes when Gaara walked in, his upper body propped up on pillows. He just lay there, motionless, breathing out and then in. There was a low rattle deep in his throat, like something had come loose. Gaara ignored it, laying his hand on top of Naruto's hand. It was cold. It did not turn upward to close over Gaara's hand like it used to.
Iruka looked up at him but said nothing. Like Naruto, it was in his eyes. Gaara sat down, placing his guitar case gently on the ground. The black leather was old and weathered, peeling in some places and stripped away completely in others. Cool water from melted snow pearled out from the soles of his shoes, soaking into the edge of the case as Gaara picked up his guitar and began to play.
Faintly, Naruto smiled.
Students spilled out of the building, pushing into one another and around each other as they rushed to a waiting bus or car or onto the crowding sidewalk. Their breath hung before them, steady puffs that suggested the harsh chill of January. There was not so much snow anymore as there were blocks of white ice, scattered and broken on the pavement, impervious to salt trucks. Gaara stood still, jostled every so often by classmates that rarely apologized, that were entangled in their own universes.
Sakura's name was flashing on the screen of his phone. The device vibrated in his hand, up his arm and to a deeper part of him. He couldn't bring himself to answer.
He did not go to the service.
He made it as far as his bedroom door.
That was where everything began to blur.
It was a while before he could go back. Even then, it was Sakura's gentle pleading encompassed in voicemail after voicemail that drew Gaara back to the hospital.
The room was empty, smelling of harsh astringents and sanitary fluids, as if someone had scrubbed the place clean of him. The only evidence consisted of small scraps of tape catching the light from outside the window where someone had hastily ripped the cards off the wall. Beyond the glass, the pond had finally unfrozen, and a dog nosed around the edge as if he sensed the return of the birds.
Sakura appeared in the doorway. Her hair was longer now, stopping just below her shoulders. She struggled between a smile and a more somber expression. "Hello," she said," ending up somewhere in the middle.
"You wanted to see me?" Gaara asked.
"Yes." She nodded, tucking some of her hair behind her ear. "Yes," she said again. She went over to the bed, kneeling beside it, her arm sliding underneath, and when she pulled it back, she dragged out a shiny black case. She placed it on the bed and said, "Here."
Gaara looked at her, and then he looked at the case. He knew what it was. The latches sprung madly against the sides as he released them. It was a nice case. Solid. The guitar was even nicer, with a smooth spruce soundboard. The body and headstock were blue, and as the light rippled off of them, it mimicked the moderate flow of water.
"That was his," said Sakura. "He wanted you to have it."
"I can't take this."
"I don't deserve it."
"What makes you think that?"
"I never did anything for him," he said. "I couldn't do anything. I was useless."
"What? You mean your job?" She sighed wistfully, looking around the room. "Foundations like that are good and all for what they do. They've done some amazing things; I'll give them that. But if there's one thing I've learned while working here, it's that not everyone wants a trip to Disney World, or some other lavish request. Mostly, some people just want someone to be there with them. In that regard, I think you did an excellent job."
The sound of squealing wheels grew louder and louder until a gurney passed by the door, pushed by a nurse in blue scrubs. The girl from next door, the one with the dark hair, followed, and she stopped to offer a smile-less wave, because this was what she could do. Gaara shut the case, hefting it off the bed and into the hallway. It weighed him down on one side, and he had to stop. He could see the old man across the hall, shifting in his sleep. The young woman to his left was pleading with the nurse, asking if he could do something about the pain. There was a seat outside of the now-empty room. It had been Gaara's when both he and Iruka had started staying over. It would be moved somewhere else now.
He sat down in it and took out the guitar. It needed some tuning, but this was easily accomplished. He waited for it, for the alien feeling that accompanies new instruments, but it only felt familiar and right, instrinsic, and when he began to play, no one stopped him. Not even the oncology supervisor who walked by, offering a curt nod. The young woman stepped out in the hallway to listen, and the old man stopped fidgeting in his sleep, and Gaara would stay there for a little while, plucking out a tranquil tune until he became aware of himself and of the time. By then, the halls had hushed somewhat and the foyer floor glistened with water that had been tracked in. Outside, the skies were gray, light flashing from behind clouds in the distance. The sun tore through in some spots, spilling toward the ground in great beams. It was raining.
Gaara took a moment to stand in it.
I tried to end this some other way. I tried. To the very end, I tried, but I just couldn't. Some of you know I lost a family member a few months ago to cancer, and I just couldn't romanticize it, no matter how much I wanted to. It just didn't seem fair, especially for those of you who have lost someone to a life-threatening illness. I still see it as something of a love story though. Regardless, I hope you'll let me know your thoughts. They're always important to me, particularly with this one.
Thanks for reading. And to anyone who—either directly or indirectly—has dealt with a life-threatening illness, you have my deepest empathy. It is anything but easy.
(I need to go write something unbearably happy now.)