Chap 4: All of you who have been waiting for this chapter hereby as of now have free license to hit me and hit me hard. I have been keeping you waiting for far too long and none of you deserve that. I'm sorry. #braces self for abuse#. You can hit me now….

Munin regarded the scene beneath him with curiosity. It was unusual for the Raven's human partner to be interested in someone outside of his work, and the boy that he wanted the Raven to watch seemed worthy of that interest. This Shikamaru person was certainly the center of much action. Like this fight for instance with the Inuzuka clansman was just one interesting incident.

The youth was clearly too wearied from overwork to put up a decent fight, his apparent surrender, while cowardly-seeming, was the right choice if he wished to escape real injury. Usually the assailant would grow bored and go away. Although Hugin, Munin's more raucous brother, didn't want to just watch the boy get hurt. Munin had to warn him off, and was puzzled by the need to do so. First Itachi, and now Hugin? What was with the boy that he could charm people into becoming defending champions?

Ah, here came another defendant, a middle aged man that somewhat resembled a bear, what with his beard and strong, sturdy build. Munin flinched at the strong punch the bear-man wielded, the Raven wouldn't want to be hit by that. He was surprised that the Inuzuka was able to stand up after that hit.

The attacker and the defender were arguing now, and oh, there went the boy. Munin couldn't help but agree with his human, Itachi. The boy was very clever with the jutsu's he made. It was difficult for even he, Munin, Son of the Morrigana Raven of the Shikigami Raven demon clan, to see the boy when he cloaked himself in his confusion jutsu.

Munin was torn now, watch the boy, or watch his defender and ex-friends. He hadn't missed the appearance, and disappearance of the former teammates. Hugin took off, calling scolds down on the noisy humans while he flew in the general direction of the boy. Ah, so the decision was made, Hugin would look after the boy, and Munin would watch the bear-man.

The bear-man, a Jounin by his dress and demeanor, punished the Inuzuka, assigning him petty, demeaning chores, and then he turned to look for the missing boy. He found the missing teammates first, and lay into them hard.

The scolds were quite censorious, and not even the upset tears of the blonde female could sway his righteous anger. He did not care that she was on her monthly cycle, she should have been kinder to her hardworking teammate. And the overweight boy should have been willing to risk her wrath to reassure the other boy.

A pink haired female came up to them then and asked after the missing Shikamaru. She had looked for him everywhere, seeking him out at his usual haunts and even going all the way out to the Nara compound to ask for him. She shuddered, she didn't think much of the mother, and thought more of the boy that he was as nice as he was with that woman as a 'role model'.

The bear-man sensei, Asuma, told her that Shikamaru had been here and gone, and that he was worried about the boy. He'd appreciate her help in looking for the missing boy. The look at the other two said that he expected their help whether they were willing or not.

They went looking, and Munin followed at a discrete distance. Not that anyone expected a blackbird, as he was disguising himself as, to be of any threat. He watched, and listened. The sensei was really worried about the boy, who, Munin thought, had become near as dear as a son to him. Given what the Raven knew of their collective past, that was to be expected. Humans could not spend as much time together as these two had without either growing to love or hate each other.

That included his two other students, yes he was mad at them and had scolded them severely, but he didn't hate them, nor they him. They appeared to be chastised only, and were now looking for their missing comrade with good energy. But he wasn't to be found.

Munin's connection with his hyperactive brother showed that the boy was well hidden and wouldn't be found. Between natural camouflage, a good hiding place and the Nakare kan o ware, Munin would be very surprised if the boy was located before he was ready.

The Raven wondered if he should still watch the former teammates and leader, he knew how they felt about the boy, and that the pink haired girl was also concerned. Itachi would be interested to know that, and whether or not that concern was reaching the boy. It wasn't, right now, but it might later.

Yes, he'll want to hear this report, Munin thought, working his way deep into a decorative shrub and disappeared.

Out at the border of the Fire lands, there was a small village that was entirely unique. At first glance, it looked just like any other border village. It had a small population; it was largely independent, handling most of its needs with its own labor and so on. In truth, there was nothing different about this village, save in one small, over-looked area; its loyalty.

While all other villages in the Fire lands were utterly loyal to Konoha and the Daimyo, this one was loyal to another power and another individual entirely. It was loyal to Akastsuki and to Uchiha Itachi.

Many years ago, just after Itachi had joined Akastsuki, he and his then partner had been sent to collect a rogue demon. The Bijuu demon he and his partner were to collect was of the worst kind, one that had been bound into a human and had fully merged with its host.

This demon had been terrorizing a small border village, killing all who would go for help. No one even knew the demon was there, so no one knew to help the poor villagers. And then Akastsuki came.

Itachi and his partner subdued and bound their prey successfully after two days of fighting. Civilian casualties had been kept to a minimum, mostly due to Itachi's efforts. He despised unnecessary deaths. The villagers had been pathetically grateful, and had celebrated their liberation to the full extent of their limited abilities.

To Itachi, the celebration was gratifying, if more than a little embarrassing, and a welcome chance to rest and relax after a hard mission. To his partner, the celebration was a chance to satisfy his… less savory appetites. Itachi's partner at that time was none other then the Genius Snake Sennin, Orochimaru.

One of the people that was serving Orochimaru food and drink had been a nine year old boy. Itachi had kept a careful eye on his partner and had noticed the Snake's unhealthy interest in the boy. When Orochimaru grabbed the child with a lecherous gleam in his eye, the Uchiha had made his move.

Itachi had wrestled the traumatized boy away from the Snake, but not before everyone knew just what had been planned for the child. The two super powers had faced off, glaring; Orochimaru using all of his intimidating aura, Itachi using all of the as yet unexplored power of his Sharingan.

Orochimaru had looked away first and had left immediately after. Itachi had stayed another day to clean things up at the village, he never left a task half done, and dragged back the unconscious demon. When he'd gotten back to the Akastsuki head quarters, Itachi found out that he had traded partners with Sasori. Now the Snake was partnered with the Scorpion, and Itachi was partnered with Kisame. The Uchiha was soon very grateful.

After that day, the border village had sworn undying gratitude and loyalty to Itachi and all he swore by. Because all that Itachi asked of the village was hospitality and whatever information they could share, that gratitude and loyalty was undiminished, in fact some could say it was even greater than it had been, with Itachi becoming the villager's personal hero. It was all very embarrassing.

It was at this village that Itachi had left his current partner, Kisame, while he had gone to 'gather information'. Well, it wasn't a lie, Itachi had gathered a great deal of information, and much of it could be useful to his leader if properly used. And none of what Itachi had been doing would seem suspicious to the organization. Kisame was hopeless at information gathering, he stood out too much and had too violent a temper and knew it. His staying behind while Itachi did the information gathering was a well established pattern for the two.

Itachi reached the entrance to the small village and was greeted by the same young boy, now fifteen, that he had rescued all those years ago. The boy looked up at him with blatantly worshiping eyes as Itachi looked down at him. A quaint peasant child, sturdily built with sun tanned features, and rather blank, unthinking eyes. The Uchiha found himself wishing for the company of another boy, a year younger but with a far more mature and intelligent gaze.

"I'm here to collect my partner," Itachi said to the child.

"Okay! I know where he is! I'll show you!" The boy said, sprinting off, eager to impress his hero. The 'hero' Itachi regarded the figure with patient amusement, not in the least impressed. The boy led the Uchiha to a clearing near the village square where the market and a few fairs took place. Right now there was nothing there, which made it a perfect place for Kisame to do his daily exercises. He had an audience; no matter how often the Shark came here and did his exercises, he'd still have an audience.

Itachi found a spot to watch and wait, critically studying his partner's movements. There wasn't much to criticize; Kisame was an expert swordsman and warrior. His movements tended to be heavy and slow, but the Shark was working towards speed and agility, becoming a little faster and a little more flexible each day. That's what made the two such good partners; Itachi was fast and agile in terms of physical combat, filling in Kisame's lack. In terms of jutsu, Itachi favored genjutsu, while Kisame favored Suiton jutsu. Odd as it seemed, the two meshed quite nicely. But the most important fact was that the two never stopped trying to improve themselves, a trait that all true warriors should have.

The mayor of the village, a surprisingly young man in his mid-thirties, came up to Itachi's side and waited to be acknowledged. After a moment, Itachi nodded his head to the man.

"Hiroshi-san," The Uchiha said.

"Itachi-sama," The man replied, "I have a small amount of news to share, mostly gossip…"

"You know what I've said in the past." Itachi pointed out after the hesitation.

"'No knowledge is ever wasted,' I know." The plain featured man said with a small smile. "One of these days I'm going to prove you wrong with all of my idle gossip." Itachi allowed himself a snort of skepticism, it paid to try and mimic normal behavior while around the peasant class as they tended to get overawed rather easily.

"Tell me," Itachi ordered politely. The mayor launched into a recitation of gossip from beyond the boarders regarding alliances, who was buddying up with whom, which nation was glaring at which and so on. The inner nation gossip was also interesting, apparently Danzou's party was becoming more active and was also said to be grooming a replacement for the current Hokage. Very, very interesting.

If Itachi had wanted proof that there was a faction actively angling to make sure that Naruto never became Hokage, this was the closest he was going to get without it being some form of physical evidence. Danzou's party had hated the Sandaime and had damn near vilified the Yondaime. They had wanted Orochimaru in the Tower and anyone else may as well have been a heretic to their eyes. Undoubtedly to them, the thought of Naruto ever obtaining the Hokage seat was the darkest of nightmares. So, anyone who was likely to help him there had to be dealt with now. Thus, Shikamaru's persecution. It made plenty of sense, to Itachi at least.

"Thank you, Hiroshi-san, you have yet to prove me wrong." Itachi said. The man let out an exaggerated sigh and rolled his eyes. Kisame, who had just finished his kata, came over and cocked his head curiously.

"Did I miss something, again?" The big man asked.

"Nothing of great importance this time." Itachi reassured. Kisame grunted and adjusted his sword.

"Boss sent a message while you were out, we're to head back as soon as you're done."

"Let's be off then." Itachi said before turning and thanking Hiroshi for his hospitality. Kisame thanked him gruffly as well, one of the reasons the shark man was a welcomed guest. Hiroshi protested that it was his honor and duty to see them comfortable. Itachi thanked him, nonetheless, the reason that he was still welcome and even wanted after all these years. After that, the two warriors headed off.

Itachi felt himself start to relax for the first time since he'd left Kisame's presence. It was nothing major, he didn't drop his guard entirely, it was just that he didn't have to watch out for everything by himself anymore, his partner would watch and guard his side as he would guard his partner's in turn. Of all the partnerships in Akastsuki, Itachi and Kisame were the best, the most respectful of each other and all it had taken was acknowledgement of each other's skills and an unspoken promise that they wouldn't betray each other.

And neither one would betray the other, there was no reason for it. All that either of the two really wanted was to get stronger in his own arts, nothing else. Therefore there was no conflict and much that could be improved with cooperation. There was no need for treachery, and really, neither Kisame nor Itachi wanted to have to watch his own back while waiting to be stabbed by the other. It was so much more restful to just trust each other, to an extent, and work with each other. Maybe that was the real reason they got along so well, both acknowledged that treachery without a real reason was just too annoying to bother with.

Over time, that basic acknowledgement became cautious trust, and respect became a distant breed of- not affection, but camaraderie. If you put either one on the spot- and good luck with that!- and demanded to know what the other really meant to him, both would grudgingly admit that they thought of each other as friends. But mostly they were shield brothers and comrades-in-arms. Their relationship was odd, but it worked and satisfied a craving within each for simple, sensible companionship. Hence the reason that Itachi was willing to relax while in Kisame's company. He knew that his partner wouldn't kill him because then the shark wouldn't have his sensible partner anymore.

"So," Kisame said as the two entered the tree line and took the upper highway, aka: leaping on the large, sturdy tree branches. "What are you up to now? And don't deny that you're up to something, I can tell when you're on a project."

Itachi stifled an amused smirk, "I wouldn't call it a project as such…" He trailed off and caught Kisame's 'not funny' glare. "It would be more accurate to say that I'm attempting to cultivate something."

"Oh yeah? Cultivate what?" Kisame asked.

"Also I'm gathering information," Itachi continued, ignoring Kisame's question entirely, "Apparently there's a great deal of political unrest within Konoha, which may be very useful, seeing as Naruto-kun is at the heart of the controversy."

Kisame had been about to demand to know why Itachi was ignoring him, but the reference to politics made him break off with a groan. "Politics again, arg."

"Agreed." Itachi said, "Still, it can be useful if the opposing side succeeds in driving Naruto-kun away, unlikely as that may be."

"Yeah, cause isn't the current Hokage a fangirl of his?" Kisame asked in all innocence. Itachi permitted his features to gain a pained expression.

"Kisame, please. The Hokage is in her fifties and Naruto-kun is only fourteen!"

Kisame coughed in a very amused fashion. Tweaking Itachi's tail was one of his more enjoyable pastimes, although he was careful not to cross the mutually acknowledged line. The Uchiha didn't need to use his Magenkyou to break someone's mind with illusions.

"Yeah, sure, alright, age difference and all that, but still, the Hokage is on the 'Naruto's my best friend' bandwagon ain't she?" Kisame asked.

"Yes, she is." Itachi replied, placated by the concession, for now, "As are several others in key positions. Many of the heirs of powerful clans are friends and staunch supporters of his."

"So he ain't gonna get kicked out anytime soon then. Damn, and we can't get to him until the Jiraiya bastard backs off, grr."

"Indeed," Itachi agreed. "So for now, we may as well focus on your demon."

Kisame paused a moment to engage in wanton deforestation to vent some of his frustration. Not that Itachi didn't understand completely. Information on the Hachibi, the Eight-tailed demon, was lacking. None of Kisame's sources could find anything on it past the fact that it had disappeared ten years ago. The Uchiha had diverted a few of his information sources to assist Kisame's and they had gotten roughly the same thing. Itachi's informants had managed to narrow down an area, but that mightn't be concrete. If the demon had been sealed into something, it could have been moved from that area, meaning it could have ended up anywhere or might still be traveling. Hence, Kisame's frustration.

I know where the Kyuubi is, but I can't reach him due to his guardians. Kisame could probably easily acquire his, if we knew where it was. Everything's at a standstill for now, which is not something individuals as active as Kisame and I are, appreciates. So why shouldn't we indulge ourselves in something diverting, like unnecessary deforestation?

"Feel better?" Itachi asked once Kisame stopped turning forest giants into sawdust.

"A bit, yeah," The shark said, panting a little, "Wouldn't mind a spar later on though."

"I'll arrange to make the time, if possible." The Uchiha said, trying not to sound eager. Kisame was such a challenging opponent though… Kisame grinned up at his partner, baring all of his formidable teeth. "Come on, you said the Leader requested our retur-"

Itachi cut off as he and Kisame saw Munin descend. He held out his arm to the Raven and braced himself to accept the weight of the large bird. Munin landed as lightly as possible and made his way to Itachi's shoulder to murmur his news into his human partner's ear.

"In-ter-es-ting." Itachi murmured at the news, "Please continue as you have been. I'll call you if I need you, if that's alright."

"Of course, your credit is excellent, as always." The Raven said before being launched back into the sky.

"What's interesting?" Kisame demanded after the bird disappeared. He recognized one of Itachi's Ravens, they had been invaluable spies in the past.

"Nothing of importance," Itachi said lightly, "Let's go." With that, he raced off towards the nearest lair.

"Dammit Itachi, don't blow me off!" Kisame demanded, giving chase, "What's 'interesting'?"

"Nothing to concern you."

"Itachi! You damned brat!"

(Three months later)

If I didn't know better, I'd say that the days have gained about six hours in length, Shikamaru sighed as he climbed the stairs to his apartment, that or I'm just not sleeping those hours. True to his plan, Shikamaru had moved out of his family house and had rented an apartment. But before he had done that, he'd left very, very early in the morning the day after his mother had hit him and had gone to the missions office.

The gods must have been trying to make him believe in them again, because the guy in the office wasn't anyone he knew and also didn't know who the heck Nara Shikamaru was, by sight or by reputation. The Chuunin also bought Shikamaru's cover story at face value. The Nara had claimed that he hadn't realized how low his bank account was when he'd gotten his days off, so he needed a mission and preferably one that was long in duration and thus high in pay.

The Chuunin had given Shikamaru a two and a half month mission as one of several guards for a gemstone merchant caravan. The merchants were concerned with potential robbery, and rightly so. Also, there had been shady activity with that caravan before, activity that had gotten a few officials in Konoha curious. The merchants thought that they had hired several honorable mercenaries; they didn't know that they had gotten shinobi.

It hadn't been an easy mission for Shikamaru, as he was the youngest of a group of twelve Chuunin, the next youngest being a full ten years his senior. None of them had become Chuunin on their first try, nor had they gotten a chance to even try the exam as young as Shikamaru. Only two of the others seemed to have the potential to move on to Jounin. The fact that Shikamaru was a Chuunin so young and, to their eyes at least, seemed to have so much potential did not rest easy with them. That and the leader now had to come up with an excuse as to why a child was part of the guard.

The cover story involved Shikamaru gaining an older 'sister' for the duration of the mission. Neither he, nor the next youngest, a twenty-four year old kunoichi, appreciated the fact that they were 'siblings'. What they did for Konoha!

Shikamaru's relations with the rest of the team only thawed in the last two weeks of the mission. It wasn't a total lose, but it had been wearing on the youth's nerves. He was glad that it was over and was even gladder to be- it wasn't home anymore, so he was just glad that he was back in Konoha. He had much to do to settle himself in. And much to do to avoid anyone who could hurt him, again.

When he got back, he went apartment shopping and found a decent, inexpensive place that he rented while under a false name. To still get his mail, he bought a box at the Post office. To avoid hateful and pitying stares, he went to the missions office at odd hours. To avoid everyone period, he requested a mission almost as soon as he got back from one. Shikamaru knew that he was going to burn himself out soon, but he didn't care. He hurt so much less when he was working…

Too… many… damned…Stairs! Shikamaru finally climbed the five flights of rickety stairs that led to his floor, the elevator hadn't worked since day one, and headed to his room. There was no one in the tacky carpeted hallway, thank gods. One of his neighbors was fifty-six year old pedophile and another was a raving lunatic who ranted about the glory of some god named Jashin. Shikamaru couldn't care less about either, except that he hated encounters with both. He entered his room, dark thanks to the lack of decent lighting, with a sigh of relief, stumbled to his bed, the only new thing in the room since he had bought it, and threw himself in it. He was so damned tired, again.

And, surprise, surprise, he was lonely. That was actually something that made him wonder. After the failed mission regarding Sasuke, Shikamaru had been lonely as one after another of his friends had deserted him in one fashion or another. But after his fight with Itachi, he hadn't been as lonely. And it was only after that fight that he had started getting those odd blank spots in his usually faultless memory. And I only got the blanks when I was on a mission alone.

Shikamaru hadn't been getting any blanks recently, and he was rather shocked to find that he missed them. He tried to think about them, hard, but it almost felt like his mind was getting nudged away from considering them. But he was a Nara, and all Nara's had the character trait of bone-headed stubbornness. How else could he have gone through the Academy for so many years and not learn anything useful if not through sheer stubbornness?

Beyond the similar fact that he was alone when a blank spell hit, the other thing that came from them was that he was often left with something useful. Sometimes it was a new technique that he knew he had figured out, but didn't know how he had figured it out, and other times it was leftover, cooked food that was just sitting there as he woke up in the middle of a camp that he knew he hadn't pitched. The other thing that they had in common was that he felt as if he had spent time with someone that understood him, and didn't blame him for his failure…

That's why he missed those blanks so much, he wanted that feeling back. And that was also probably the reason he hadn't reported those blank periods to a medic-nin. If he reported them, the Hokage may have wanted to try and find out how he was getting them. She may have tried to hospitalize him to try and see if there was a medical reason. Or she may have tried to send someone out to spy on him at a distance while he went on his solo missions, with or without his knowledge. Whatever Tsunade-sama did, it would probably stop the blank spells from returning and, well, Shikamaru didn't want that. It would take away the only thing like comfort he had left.

He hadn't heard anything from anybody, save for one letter sent to him by Asuma-sensei. It had been… very stiff and official sounding. It had felt like Asuma-sensei was trying to cut him off. Yes, Asuma-sensei had asked after Shikamaru's health and what not, but still, it had been… Cold. Very cold.

Unfortunately for Shikamaru, he didn't know that Asuma sucked at writing letters to anyone, and therefore had a very stiff and distant 'voice' in text.

The only good thing that had happened to Shikamaru in the past three months was that he'd gotten another letter from Naruto. Although, this one had left him feeling rather odd. Naruto had been full of concern and questions regarding Shikamaru's health and situation. It had once again pointed out the lack of any real concern from anyone that Shikamaru dealt with day to day. This was demonstrated dramatically in his last encounter with Kiba, Neji and Tenten. He didn't want to think about all of the not-so-subtly hidden disgust that had come from them.

The youth rolled onto his back and stared at the cracked plaster ceiling above him. He didn't have any missions lined up for today, but he did have one starting early the next morning. He really should get up and eat something, maybe see if there was hot water left in the showers and get a bath, and then pass out, but right now… movement was just too troublesome. Shikamaru's eyes drifted shut and he was soon asleep.

Itachi was annoyed. Why did the Leader's idea of a quick meeting to brush up on what everyone was doing have to involve it taking three months? Hadn't he any concept of just how annoying all of the rest of Akastsuki got when they didn't get a chance to kill someone on a regular basis? Plus, not a single one of them was capable of a simple, intelligent, sane conversation. Hence Itachi rushing off to the lands around Konoha. He was going through intelligence withdrawal, honestly.

Hugin had reported not long ago that Shikamaru- oh dear, sweet Nine Gods, someone sane- was heading off on yet another solo information retrieval mission. He should be heading in Itachi's direction. Deciding that he was safely far enough from Konoha, Itachi started to head towards Shikamaru. He really, really missed smart and sane conversation. Kisame only just counted as 'sane' under Itachi's definition but not particularly intelligent. Deidara didn't count towards either sane or smart at all.

The Uchiha finally spotted Shikamaru trudging down a tree lined path and felt his budding relief die a swift death. It had only been three months, how could the boy's condition have deteriorated so quickly? The Nara youth wasn't as painfully thin as he had been previously, but there was a light that had been there before that was simply gone now. The way he moved showed that he was exhausted and was probably fragile physically or mentally. Really, it didn't make much difference either way.

It was as if Shikamaru had some kind of wasting disease and was slowly dying. Itachi pretended that he hadn't gotten a cold chill at the thought. He lifted his hands and released the memory seal.

Shikamaru stumbled, tried to catch himself, but failed and fell to his knees. Then he just sat there slumped, face down turned, not even bothering to try and get up with his usual duty-bound stubbornness. This wasn't the Shikamaru that Itachi had come to know. There was something very, very wrong here.

"Shikamaru?" Itachi queried, approaching slowly.

"You again." The youth said, voice toneless, face still down turned. The Uchiha knelt just in front of him.

"Me again. Forgive me for prying, but… are you well?" He asked.

"Yeah, yeah, just fine…" Shikamaru said listlessly, "I'm just… so tired… and…" The youth trailed off.

"'And?'" Itachi prompted gently. Shikamaru looked up slowly. There was deep pain in his eyes.

"What did I do wrong? Why do they all hate me? What did I do wrong?!" The words had started out as a faint whisper and had ended as a sob. Acting on fuzzy, half-remembered, old memories, Itachi reached out to rub Shikamaru's shoulder. Apparently the youth took that as an invitation and practically threw himself at Itachi, sobbing into his chest.

Umm… One tenth of Itachi's mind that was not frozen in absolute, confused shock was flailing in utter panic. One did not have a young Chuunin affiliated with the enemy fling himself onto one's chest everyday, you know. And proceed to bawl his eyes out, no less. Another tenth of Itachi's mind was also flailing, but not in panic. Oh no, this portion just had to be flailing in hentai joy. Itachi made a brief mental note to burn Deidara's doujinishi whenever it was shoved to his nose again. He also decided to not acknowledge both flailing portions of his mind. Neither one was becoming of Uchiha Itachi.

Instead he started to, very awkwardly, pat Shikamaru's back in what he hoped was a soothing gesture. The youth burrowed deeper into Itachi's arms, knocking the Uchiha just enough off balance to force him to lean against a nearby tree. The first tiny corner of his mind had stopped flailing and was now wailing in confusion. The other tiny corner was cackling in glee. Itachi decided to have Mei Lin, the head medic of Akastsuki, give him a head examination once he got back. Having tiny voices like this couldn't be healthy.

He sighed and started to rub Shikamaru's back and slowly the boy calmed down, although he didn't release the death-grip he had on Itachi's cloak. And he was starting to snuggle now. By all the gods, I don't know which one of you is watching me but thank you that there is nobody else here right now because if Deidara ever knew of this I would never live it down! Visions of bad doujinshi made the Uchiha shudder. Itachi refused to acknowledge that he kind of liked how it felt to have the boy cuddled against him. This was indignifying! And his cloak was not a handkerchief to be sobbed into for the Nine's sake!

Shikamaru cuddled a little closer and Itachi felt his indignation start to melt. It's official, someone needs to kill me now. Anytime now.

"Should I inquire as to what happened?" Itachi heard himself ask. "And I don't believe that you have done anything wrong."

"Thanks. Don't want to talk 'bout it, please?" Shikamaru mumbled into Itachi's chest. Itachi tried not to twitch.

"Ah, alright…" He said, still rubbing Shikamaru's back as the youth was still sniffling. The youth sighed and leaned into him. Not helping!

"You're warm…" Shikamaru said in a not-quite-awake voice, "An' comfy."

So not helping! "Um," How did one reply to that?

"Stay? Please?" Now that was just plain unfair, using that tone of voice on Itachi. It sounded close to how Sasuke used to sound when the annoyance was a chibi. Crap.

"I'll stay." Itachi said somewhat reluctantly. He leaned back and attempted to make himself comfortable against the tree trunk.

"Thank you…." Shikamaru sighed and slowly went limp against Itachi. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Shikamaru felt warm and comfortable and his outburst was awakening every single one of Itachi's protective instincts and- Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap! He was not in the least feeling possessive over the young Nara and he most certainly was not attracted to him either. Certainly not!

De-ni-al. The perverted little voice in the corner of Itachi's mind chirped.

And I am not in denial either! Now to just think it and actually mean it…. Shikamaru shifted against him and made a kittenish sound. Itachi stifled a groan while the perverted thought purred in delight. It was going to be a long day.

'You're worthless! Everyone knows it! Why do you even still bother trying to prove that your worth anything at all?!'

Shikamaru whimpered as his mind replayed events from that morning. The night before he'd woken up at midnight, grabbed a bite to eat, sponged off quickly in lukewarm water and gone back to sleep with his alarm set to go off at five. At six a.m. he'd finally woken up to see that his alarm clock had run out of batter some time after he'd fallen asleep. He hadn't had enough time to eat breakfast or give himself a decent bath, so he'd just run to the missions office at top speed.

And then he'd very nearly run right into, literally, his mother. She was waiting to receive her mission as well. Behind her was Kiba, Neji, Tenten, and Shino; some of his least favorite people.

Shikamaru had barely had the time to take one step back before his mother had started, with clinical precision, to take him apart and verbally flay him to the bone. All the while, the other four had just watch, Kiba smirking with amusement and Neji sneering with disdain. It had not been auspicious beginning for the day. Shikamaru hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise, and the only way he'd been able to escape was that he'd seen his mission scroll on the top of the pile. He'd grabbed it and run.

By the time he'd gotten out the village gates, Shikamaru was utterly convinced he hadn't a single friend left. By the time he was two hours out, his fatigued and pessimistic mind had become convinced that he never really had a friend to begin with. Then Itachi had released the memory seal and had gently asked if he was okay. The enemy was more willing to care about him than his own comrades, and his own mother. It had been too much; Shikamaru had lunged at the offered kindness. He had needed some kind of reassurance.

Now, it was a long while later, and he wasn't sure where he was. He had been in a nightmare, but a gentle hand stroking his back soothed him out of the bad dream and into waking. He was warm, and felt very comfortable, like he was being cradled. That might be because he was. He was cradled in Itachi's arms, leaning against Itachi's chest. Uh, this is more than a little awkward. He looked up into his- friend's?- non-enemy's?- curious face.

"Um, hi." Shikamaru said, feeling his face burning with embarrassment.

"… Hello." Itachi said. Was that a light blush across his cheeks? Surely not. Shikamaru slowly pulled away, his ears and neck joining his face in turning bright red.

"Uh- I- um- that is- I-" The youth stammered as he scooted away and sat back on his heels.

"Indeed." The Uchiha said as he slowly unwound himself and stood. Shikamaru wouldn't have been surprised to be told that his hair was smoking from the heat of his blush.

"Are you hungry?" Itachi asked as he walked towards a more open area a short ways away, limping almost imperceptibly from a leg cramp. Shikamaru nodded, eyes still focused on a rock, ears and neck still a painfully bright red. "I'll fix something for you then."

"You don't- I mean I- The mission- I should be-" Shikamaru looked up at his not-enemy trying to find a good argument, locked gazes with the Uchiha, turned beet red again and resumed his study of that fascinating rock.

"You should be eating healthy food and permitting yourself time to get a full rest, or else you will burn yourself out and deny your village your services." Itachi pointed out for what was probably the tenth time in their association. Shikamaru couldn't bring himself to argue this time, hadn't he realized earlier that he was on a straight path to sending himself to the hospital thanks to exhaustion? Also, he was still too embarrassed to argue. How could he have- have flung himself into Itachi? That was- that was-

Really nice. A perverted section of Shikamaru's mind commented. Shikamaru's ears burned worse. He had known for a very long time that girls simply didn't interest him the way boys did. Ino hadn't excited him in the least. Chouji had been his first crush. Naruto was his current crush, or had been. Itachi was- he was-

Really, really hot. That perverted section of his mind commented again. There was no denying that Itachi was very easy on the eyes… With an effort of will, Shikamaru dragged his mind out of the path it was on, straight to the gutter, and stood up to follow Itachi. It took three tries before he was able to get to his feet.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" He asked the Uchiha humbly. Itachi was using his hunting jutsu again and paused for a moment to study his current companion. Shikamaru was still more than a little flustered looking, but coherent.

"If you could get the fire going, it would be appreciated." Itachi said, smoothly continuing to pretend the scene earlier just hadn't happened. Shikamaru decided to follow his example.

"Sure thing." He replied and started to do just that. It didn't take much effort to gather enough sticks and small branches from the cluttered natural clearing to make a small fire. Gathering stones to line the fire with was equally easy. Getting the fire going was another matter entirely.

Itachi had finished his hunting jutsu and was watching Shikamaru's efforts with amusement as he awaited the results. The young Nara was using every single word in the four-letter language as he tried to get the fire going. He'd forgotten to check his fire starting kit at the start of this mission to see if he had enough matches, and he whole three that he had had left were now lying burnt and shriveled in the pile of kindling leaves and moss. The sparks that he was throwing with his flint and steel were refusing to catch.

"Would you care for some help?" Itachi asked finally. As amusing as it was to watch the youth's efforts, raw rabbit was a dish that Itachi really wasn't in a hurry to try.

"No, it's personal now- aha!" A spark had landed in the dry moss and started a tinny, tiny flame. Gently, almost tenderly, Shikamaru nursed the tiny fire, feeding it leaves and splinters as if slowly grew. Well, it would have been tender and gently if not for the language that the Nara was still employing. After several moments of coaxing and swearing, a small campfire was soon crackling strongly and Shikamaru sat near it triumphantly.

"Ha, I win." He said. Itachi snorted and spitted the rabbits that he'd caught, killed and gutted while Shikamaru had 'battled' the fire. "I'd like to see you do better!" Shikamaru growled, miffed at Itachi's snort. Getting the campfire going was one of the harder chores that Team 10 had had, when they were still a functional team.

Itachi gave Shikamaru a look, made a few hand signs and blew out a tiny stream of fire. Shikamaru glared without heat and grumbled about cheats and jutsus and how it wasn't his fault that he didn't have a lot of fire in his nature or his sensei's nature, so how was he to use a technique he'd never been taught?

"Would you like for me to teach you that one?" Itachi asked as he set the rabbits to cook by the fire.

"Would you mind?" Shikamaru replied, somewhat eager. If he knew that jutsu, setting up camp would be so much easier.

"I wouldn't have offered, if I minded." The Uchiha said, and proceeded to explain the simple technique that only Uchiha's had known. It still gave Itachi some vindictive pleasure to share Uchiha clan secret techniques, even so simple a one as this. The description of the technique led into a discussion about elemental Justus and then naturally turned into a philosophical debate into the theories behind the all Justus.

The rabbits were cooked and eaten while the two exchanged theories and countering points, mulling over ideas while they chewed. Naturally, Itachi had more theories than Shikamaru, but the younger of the two had some good counters and additives that Itachi hadn't considered before. Both geniuses were secretly delighted to find someone who was not only interested in the topic, but understood the theories as well. Sunset caught them both very much by surprise, as did the realization that they were both hungry. The rabbits, eaten around eleven, had become bones a long time ago.

"Uh, yeah, so you got lunch. Want me to catch dinner?" Shikamaru asked, not particularly eager to have Itachi leave. Itachi blinked and turned to the smoldering remains of the fire.

"That would be appreciated." He said, reviving the tiny blaze. He wasn't all that eager to leave either. The rogue Uchiha was far more interested in staying with the only person he'd ever met that was his intellectual peer. Finally, sane, intelligent company!

A.S.: Got no excuses, I'm just late. Lot of stuff happened this summer, and I'm just late. Granddad's Ninety now, cousin stayed over for six weeks, got a new kitten, worked forty hour weeks all summer, and I'm just late. Gomen y'all, and thank you for your patience. Here's a free whiffle bat, don't hesitate to hit me in the future for late updates.

Also, check out A Different Path for more Itachi/Shika/Naruto interaction. Oh and Shisui, you can't miss him. Although I think Itachi wished he could ;)

Oh, and a question for y'all: Is Itachi really OOC or believable? I'm trying to keep him IC but sometimes it's hard with the situations my evil imagination comes up with for him. Let me know if you think he's okay or not, and it not, how and which way and I'll see if I can fix it. Arigatou! Ja Ne