Author's Note: Forgive me for the weird format. This is about the fifth time I've tried to change it, and I'm still not pleased. This is my first time submitting, and Fanfiction is being a total female dog about this. I'll change it to the way I like when it isn't 3 o' clock in the morning.
ALSO: If you haven't read up to the current chapter of the manga, spoilers for you. You shouldn't continue. If you have, then have at it my friends.
Chapter 1: Lifting the Burden
The flooding rays of a gently rising sun beamed through the calm, misty morning. The colorful east facing buildings captured the first warm highlights of the day, and smoothly blanketed over the sleepy village. The early rising birds made their daily morning routines of trying to wake each other up. It seemed that everyone was still asleep. The sun had barely woken up, after all.
However, on the dusty flat terrain of a training arena, stood a strained, motionless figure. His hands were tightly clasped, his fingers intertwined with palms sweating. His knees were severely bent and wavering, and his breath wisped violently through his gritted teeth.
"45 minutes….new record…" whispered a seething voice through a tight grin. His breathing was harsh, and his eyes narrowed and twitched fiercely. He could hear the grinding of his clenched teeth and taste the sweat that seeped into the dry corners of his mouth. He cringed and spat, but he did not release his hands.
What held him so focused and still, lay several hundred feet before him. It was a bizarre sight. There were five thin protruding rock formations, like columns, each being only a few inches thick in diameter—but more than that, it was what rested upon each one that looked so strange and baffling. At the very tip of each column, supported a massive newly unearthed boulder. Each boulder had to weigh several tons. It was impossible for the thin, bony columns to be able to support their weight. However…tightly wrapped around the quaking, teetering stones, were long, flat, broad strands of blackness. Undoubtedly, they were shadows, seemingly come to life. It appeared as though they were the only things holding the trembling boulders up, and keeping them from crushing the comparatively pencil thin columns beneath.
The broadest shadow itself seemed fatigued, as it quivered between the boulders and its tall user. Sweat broke erratically from his face. His parched breathing turned to panting. Every second rattled his bones harder. Anything was better than this. He was about to break down.
"Shikamaru, that's enough," came the authoritative voice of his father. He stood over a gated ledge that looked over the arena.
"Almost made it to 50…" came his son's answer. "Nearly 50 minutes—" his eyes suddenly shot up to his father, "Can you hold the shadow possession for 50 minutes? Almost a whole hour. My goal is an hour by the end of this week…"
There was a brief silence.
"That's tomorrow…" Shikaku looked away slowly and calmly, pretending as though his goal was both unlikely as well as insignificant.
"Yeah? I'll do it…just gonna take a bit more sweat down my brow…" Shikamaru continued his concentration on the boulders, losing sight of his father.
Shikaku silently stared down at his son…his boy….
Shikamaru, the laziest, most lethargic ninja and son to ever walk the earth, was showing a freakish display of purpose and drive. Sharpening the talents he was already blessed with was never apart of Shikamaru's grand scheme of things. He didn't even think he was as remarkable as everyone complimented him to be. He wanted to prove to the world that he was an average person, by accomplishing average things averagely, so that he could go about living an average life. In no way did he want to overexert himself, or exceed anyone's expectations. If Naruto wanted to scream and yell about becoming the greatest ninja and earning himself the title of Hokage, he could have it.
One would think that seeing Shikamaru finally apply himself; finally put his talent to his own use, finally use his own time to train instead of daydream—would actually put his father Shikaku at ease. Perhaps it should even make him feel proud... However, since this drastic change in his behavior, attitude and routine, Shikaku was anything but at ease. His son's change was abrupt and chaste. His absence from the house was constant. His training wasn't just hard work; it was merciless. Now, looking down at his son, Shikaku drew in a breath. It was almost frightening.
"Shikamaru, I said that's enough."
Shikamaru rasped through his teeth, "almost…"
The boulders were quaking violently. The pillars that clearly could not support their weight were shattering. The jutsu was finally starting to fail.
Shikamaru's snarled teeth and severely strained body suddenly released all tension at once. It was as if someone flicked the off switch in his body.
The young ninja gave out a single huff, and began falling forward. Shikaku suddenly appeared before him, gracefully grabbing him by the scruff of his collar, and held him roughly. He wasn't about to cradle the boy after two direct orders to stop. Shikamaru dangled limply, apparently unconscious. The five supported boulders crashed heavily to the earth.
"What good is it to break a self-imposed record if you're too exhausted to even attempt it?" Shikaku asked while holding him. Shikamaru's shadowed eyes didn't flinch, and his breathing was hampered. No answer came from him.
"Right…c'mon now." Shikaku grabbed the boy's arm, about to lift him to his feet—
Shikamaru's eyes snapped open and he wrenched his head up, clasping his hands together.
"Kage Nui!" he breathed fiercely.
Shikaku stopped spun around immediately. Sure enough, the Shadow Sewing technique was instantly activated.
Although the boulders had fallen, Shikamaru's shadows had never left them. And now, whip-like strands of black shadows suddenly pierced the boulders. All five stones crumbled to thousands of pieces to the ground.
"Shika-MARU!" Shikaku swiftly planted four huge knuckles into Shikamaru's stomach.
"Arck!" Shikamaru choked and gasped before crashing to the ground like the boulders before him.
Shikaku took a deep, exasperated breath and turned back to the ruble. The cloud of dust expanded and thinned out over the flat arena. Shikaku sighed and shook his head. Holding the shadow possession for an unheard of amount of time, which strained his network severally, only to finish it off with the shadow sewing technique was staggering.
How the kid managed to hold it for longer than fifteen minutes at his level was astonishing to Shikaku, but to see him use both techniques so strenuously for nearly an hour simply baffled him. Shikaku bent down and hoisted his son up.
Down in a large secluded woodland area, a gently sloping stone path led to a vast property, with numerous running creeks and a comfortable, cool atmosphere that picked up off the cold water. The broad house that settled in the middle of it all was a peaceable looking manor, which connected directly to the forest. Here, Shikaku carefully dragged his son to its front.
Just as he made it into the house, the heavy creaking of his feet, and the dragging of another hefty pair brought Yoshino out from the kitchen.
She stopped abruptly, eyes darting over her battered son.
"Self induced training mishap," Shikaku answered with a calm smile, "don't worry. He just needs some sleep… Lord, I didn't think I'd ever say that…" he grumbled.
Yoshino sighed with an uneasy smile as her husband disappeared down the hall. He came back scratching the back of his head, refusing eye contact with his wife. Yoshino noticed this and stepped back into the kitchen. Shikaku followed.
"Boy's gettin' big…" Shikaku smiled gruffly, " 'bout as tall as me now."
Yoshino silently poured both of them tea.
"Watch, pretty soon he'll get as big as Asuma and grow a beard, ha ha!"
"He better not!"
Shikaku looked at her cautiously.
"I already have to deal with your silly goatee," she carped, "Shikamaru's gotta fine face. He doesn't need to cover it up with fur."
Shikaku snickered, "Well, I was just comparing the two. I'll be quick to make sure he shaves..."
He looked back up at her with more seriousness. He knew there was more to her response. It came out too quickly, too sharply—even for her. Sure enough, she went on.
"I understand Shikamaru's going through a tough time about Asuma and all…I expected his behavior would change a bit, but this is just…drastic. I feel ridiculous for worrying, but all the same it feels so strange…"
"I understand…" Shikaku stood up and drew closer to her, "for some reason, I'm not exactly surprised, though he remains frustratingly unpredictable. It'll take awhile for him to cool down…"
His eyes drifted downward.
"You know, Asuma was the only one that prompted his training. Shikamaru always slacked off and slept unless Asuma was there to command him around. Even I didn't force training on him unless I was teaching him something new. And he always learned new techniques so easily…so I let Asuma take care of everything…"
Shikaku closed his eyes. "Now that Asuma's gone…I think the poor boy's freaking out a bit. No matter how cool and calm he acts, no matter how stone faced he can be— which compliments him as a great ninja by the way— he still wakes up every morning, knowing he's not gonna see his sensei…knowing he's got no one to play shougi with."
Yoshino looked at him quickly.
"Doesn't he play with you?"
"He never asks…" Shikaku smiled forlornly. "I have to go up to him and ask if I can play; then he'll play with me. Other than that, he never asks me…he plays alone…"
Yoshino sighed, and her gaze wandered to the window.
"He's been gone a lot lately…" she looked up at Shikaku, "I know when he get's missions. I'm so use to him lounging about and sleeping wherever when he has a break, but now, he's almost never here."
"Well…" Shikaku didn't want to attribute this to anything.
"You can't defend him," Yoshino said quickly, "it's been three months since Asuma's passing, and he hasn't had a single mission on Tsunade's order. Where on earth does he go? He can't be training all the time. For goodness sake, not even Rock Lee can do that."
Shikaku breathed through his nose and stared down the hall for a while. His vision slowly drifted about, never focusing on anything particular. Then, his eyes suddenly widened, and he jolted from his seat, standing abruptly.
Before Yoshino could get a response, Shikaku ran down the hallway and burst through Shikamaru's door.
"Ha… huh…" he gave a pathetic laugh. Yoshino followed quickly and paused at the sight.
Shikamaru was gone.
-In a secluded region of the village-
"Have you gotten the reports of the present Genin who passed and are entering the exam from their sensei's?" asked a young, dark haired woman, oddly enough, with a pig walking at her side.
"Yep, and I already gave out all approvals and disapprovals to the requests. We'll be having a meeting in a few hours," replied a near equally young looking blonde woman, though her voice sounded suspiciously older.
"You mean you already finished?"
"Yep. It sure pays off to do quick, sloppy work."
"I'm just kidding Shizune. Take a joke, huh? Not even I'm that irresponsible…"
Shizune stared skeptically.
'I wouldn't be so sure…' she mumbled in her head.
"I finished quickly so I could take a bit of a break, you know? What with all this nonsense with Akatsuki and the decision to go on with the exams anyway— it takes my breath away, and all I'm doing is sitting on my ass at a desk."
"I understand," Shizune giggled with sympathy. Their heels clopped hollowly over a wooden bridge mounted above a meager river.
"You deserve a good walk at the very least." She smiled. "Ton ton could use the exercise too…"
The little pink pig snorted at her with contempt. Just then though, it stopped short of fully crossing the bridge, and stared onward.
"What the matter?" asked Shizune. Tsunade too stopped but glanced upward.
Several yards away, a tall young ninja leapt from the trees and landed before them. He stood and gave a quick acknowledging bow before facing Tsunade specifically.
"Shikamaru…what a surprise…" Tsunade walked up and stopped a few feet from him.
"This doesn't feel like a random event. You look expectant."
Shikamaru lowered his head slightly.
"Lady Tsunade…I wish to continue my services as a shinobi and accept missions again."
He got straight to the point.
"I appreciate you privileging me specifically with this hiatus, even more so than my former teammates…but I'm ready to become active again."
Tsunade stared. She then turned to her assistant with a skewed smile.
"Am I hearing this right, Shizune? Shikamaru is actually asking for work? He's actually requesting activities that will inevitably restrict the time he has to watch clouds? Are you low on money or something?"
Shikamaru smirked. "No, I'm quite frugal, and I don't waste money shamelessly like you, Jiraiya or Naruto."
Tsunade frowned slightly, but was not greatly offended by the truth.
"I also appreciate you allowing me to take care of Kurenai…"
Tsunade's eyes softened, and grew more serious.
"She's due in a few months isn't she? Did you hear? It's gonna be a boy."
Tsunade and Shizune exchanged sympathetic glances.
"That's quite a responsibility you're taking up, Shikamaru. I'm very pleased and proud that you're keeping it up so strongly," Tsunade praised.
"So will you reinstate me on active duty?" Shikamaru reverted to his first subject.
"I'll start you off easy so you can get back into the groove of things. Though I know it won't take you long to readapt. But before I do, come to my office. There's something I want to speak with you about."
Tsunade sat at her desk and quickly rested her chin on her intertwined fingers.
"I've got a few C and B rank missions I think you can nail easily. You've been on more A and S rank missions than any other Chunnin, and even though you never seemed to take any mission seriously, you always completed them flawlessly and came back relatively unscathed. I've never met a ninja, even at your age, who hasn't been in critical condition at least once in his life, and yet you managed to avoid such great harm while doing two or three times as many missions—dangerous missions to be exact, as they have.
"I intentionally placed a Chunnin in such advanced missions simply because I knew how capable and talented you, Shikamaru, as and individual really is. Despite being a Chunnin, you exhibit all the qualities of the most elite Jounin, and I treated you as such, with only your immaturity as a hindrance to your advancement."
Shikamaru had a feeling of what was to come, and he wasn't really sure of how to feel about it. He was growing somewhat fatigued just listening to her, but he managed to stop his eye from twitching.
"But…" She closed her eyes, "I see that immaturity is vanishing rapidly. I think its time you hold a rank that finally suits you."
Shikamaru widened his eyes and opened his mouth slightly.
"If defeating an Akatsuki member by yourself, and knowingly aiding in the defeat of another doesn't get you promoted to Jounin, I don't know what will." She lifted her head with a smile, "Adding to your exceptional success record for completing missions, I say you deserve this promotion."
"That's right Shikamaru, you're a Jounin now."
-The Nara Residence 3:32 noon-
The sun had passed its highest and hottest peak in the day, and was now slowly gravitating to the horizon; splashing its vibrant western rays over the bustling village. Back in the quiet seclusion of the Nara household, Shikamaru swiftly climbed through his window and entered his bedroom.
Without any hesitation or uncertainty, he opened up his closet, grabbed a large bag and threw it on the bed. He then grabbed several articles of clothing, a backpack and books, and set them on the bed as well. He heard footsteps drawing near, but for the most part, he went about his business.
The door swung open, and the comparatively light footsteps indicated that it was his mother. Still, he paid no heed.
"Where've you been?" Yoshino asked quietly.
Yoshino drew her head back at the abrupt answer.
Shikamaru stood up and faced her.
"What's the matter mom? Something bothering you?" he asked neutrally.
"I have the same question, Shikamaru…" she replied softly.
"Asuma's dead. Of course it bothers me." He turned back around and knelt down over his bed again.
Yoshino was stunned silent. Though there was nothing bitter or harsh in his tone, his bluntness on the sensitive matter was disturbing.
"It's all right mom, don't worry about it." His assurance seemed to come at the right time, though it did little to appease her. Yoshino waited for him to follow through.
"I know it must look like I'm going insane to you and dad, but I've had a lot on my mind lately, and it isn't all about Asuma," he turned to her again, "it's also about his child, my teammates, and my other friends. It's a lot of things. Training's just one part of a whole. It doesn't consume me, and neither does anything else. I'm trying to make due with this break Tsunade's given me, that's all."
If Yoshino didn't know any better, she would think his answer was well rehearsed and thought over, maybe even written down and memorized. However, she knew her son all his life; and she was very aware of how well he could answer a question. She remained quiet as he continued…packing?
"What are you doing?" she asked, tilting her head, completely oblivious to the scene.
Yoshino's knees suddenly buckled, and she seemed to stumble in place.
"Wha—what?" she stammered.
"Yup." He zipped up the bag and stood, "I'll be making a few trips back and forth to get my stuff, but I won't be taking everything, obviously."
Yoshino didn't know what to say. This was ridiculous. It was absurd. This was happening too quickly. What on earth was wrong with him? What had happened to her lazy fawn she gave such tough love to?
"So…" she finally figured it out, "that's why you've been gone so often. You've been scoping out a new nest…"
Shikamaru lowered his head slightly.
"Wh…why? Why are you leaving?" she was breathless now.
"C'mon mom, I'm not leaving the village—"
"It's not just that!" she snapped, "it's…it's everything at once. It's all of this. Ever since Asuma—"
"I already told you…" he interrupted sternly. He didn't want this to turn into an over complicated, physiologically imposing argument of heedless emotional analyzing. He hated those kinds of arguments, or any kind of pseudo answer as to what a person might be feeling on any given circumstance because of some, "bad experience." He knew humans were just too complex for appropriate words.
"I already told you…" he repeated more gently, "now you just have to get use to the answer…" He turned away, "Kinda like how I did…."
Yoshino looked up at him.
He was tall… and still growing. His shoulders broadened and his muscles were continuously filling out the still perceptible gaps made by his big lanky joints. He looked so much more like a man than a boy— but the charming childishness till subtly flickered in his lazy eyes, and his face had yet to harden from the outer elements, and the inner turmoil. Yoshino could feel her eyes tightening and her jaw clenching, but she fought back any evidence of tears.
"Look, I'm just moving to an apartment complex a little over a mile down. I picked a specific place closest to the forest so I can tend to my assigned portion of the herd. Plus, my path crosses with dad's… so there's always a chance I'll meet up with him if he needs any help. And I'll come over on the weekends, 'cause I can clearly see you think I'm moving out of the country or something."
Yoshino wiped away the now streaming tears.
"You see? I have it all planned out," he assured.
Yoshino silently let a smile come over her. She knew Shikaku would look at this as further growth for him.
"You're going to be by yourself now…you have to be careful when training. You can't just train till you drop dead."
"I know…I got carried away. I'll be more careful."
It seemed rather awkward, but he knew it would be right to surprise her with a hug. His mother would often smother him with bear hugs and kisses before, after, and sometimes during her tantrums. Her anger could be quickly ignited, but she could forgive in seconds and become that sweet neighbor lady next door. She seemed to have no ability to hold a grudge.
Shikamaru was never one to initiate affection to anyone, though he tolerated it as long as it allowed him to breath. He looked up and reached out to her. Yoshino lifted her head and curled her fingers. Shikamaru knew what to expect next, as he slowly wrapped his arms around her. Yoshino stared forward, her stinging vision blurring as they welled up.
"Easy mom, take it easy…"
She rested her head on his shoulder and took a deep breath.
"I'm busy this weekend, but I'll see you and dad next week, all right? Then I'll get the rest of my stuff."
Yoshino released him and smiled with her head down.
"I was never prepared to think you would leave so soon. I thought you would at least come of age first…but…you're grown up mentally than most your age…and I know this will be nothing for you. It's me that needs to get use to this transition…"
Shikamaru hoisted the bag over his shoulder.
"I already said bye to dad before his mission, so don't get mad at him since he knew before you."
Yoshino silently nodded.
"I'll see ya, mom." He kissed her cheek and walked out of the room. He left the door open, and the long pauses between his footsteps from his large strides, quietly faded down the hall. Yoshino heard a second door open and shut, before nothing but silence hovered in the air.
3 weeks later…
If flocks of sand ever had an existence, they certainly prevailed in the vast regions of Suna. It was hard to believe that any life existed, let alone thrived in the merciless desert trap. However, even if the desert wasn't a violent wave of gritty shards of gravel, one would never know of the hidden, mud layered village, protectively surrounded by high, jagged cliffs. Though even this place was not entirely sheltered from the versatile, snake-like strands of sand that whipped through the streets of the village.
All of these redundant happenings were completely irrelevant in the minds of two ninja walking side by side within the largest, most dominant building in the village.
"Well I still think it's kind of unnerving that we're still going to continue with the Chunnin exams…"
"Wow Kankuro, 'unnerving' is a big word for you," Temari jeered.
"Hey, shut up!"
"Just give it a rest about the Chunnin exams will you?" Temari sighed with a kind of tired frustration, as though this had been discussed and argued about before, "I wouldn't have it any other way. We need to test their skills and promote the ones that deserve it. The last thing this, or any other village needs is to be overrun with Genin," Temari argued with sufficient astuteness.
"Gaara, the Hokage, and both village's elders agreed that it would be wise to continue with the exam despite Akatsuki's interference. Besides, Konoha has been doing an amazing job with getting rid of them. Whatever threat they posses, it isn't around here, that's for sure."
Kankuro said nothing, but his cranky face could be understood in any language.
"Even so, I don't like the idea of you going off for three days by yourself…" he pouted as manly as possible.
"What? I can't believe you didn't hear me screaming—I mean…debating with Gaara about that." She walked on silently for a moment. "I've got an escort this time. No matter how hard I try, I can't travel to Konoha by myself like I use to. Now I've got to keep an eye on some lame ninja that's suppose to keep an eye on me."
"Hey, c'mon, our ninja aren't that bad. And I'm sure Gaara picked the most suitable one."
"The ninja won't be from here. There a couple from Konoha, obviously."
Kankuro lifted a brow. "Really? Oh…well…I'm sure we can trust the Hokage to pick some suitable ones…"
Temari breathed with exasperation through her nose, and walked onward toward the double door exit. Just then Gaara stepped into vision from the stairwell.
"Hey Gaara, come to say goodbye?" She asked, in a much more civil tone than when she had talked with him earlier.
"Just a temporary farewell I suppose," he answered softly as the doors were opened for them.
The sand gently danced around their legs as the three headed toward the outside entrance, subtly masked by the wild spurts of floating desert.
As Temari mentally prepared her mind for this simple, yet very time-consuming mission ahead of her, she noticed a lone figure silhouetted against the blurry, scared atmosphere. He stood relaxed, completely at ease, though there was something intimidating about his silence. His shoulders jetted out from his body, yet there was a lankiness about his tall stature that easily told that he was not yet fully-grown, and youth still had a strong grip.
As the dark distorted colors of his clothing became more discerning amongst the murky air, Temari's eyes widened as she instantly recognized his face. His eyes were droopy, slightly fatigued, but very sharp. The right corner of his upper lip lifted slightly in a subtle, wry smile that looked roguish, yet calm and peaceable at the same time—the kind of smile Shikamaru, and only Shikamaru could pull off.
Temari lifted a brow to her own stuttering.
"Hey…" came the confident, slightly parched voice.
"Well, well, Shikamaru," she recomposed herself as a playful smile came across her lips. "Looks like you finally became a Jounin. I can't believe how quickly you accomplished my suggestion." She placed her hands on her hips.
"How do you know he's a Jounin?" Kankuro asked. He was very unaware of Gaara's dealings with Temari's escort.
"Because only a Jounin can escort me from the village," she answered.
She took a step closer to Shikamaru, entering into very close proximity. Shikamaru instinctively stood straighter and looked down at her with growing uncertainty. He flinched when her hand came hovering to his head.
"You got taller," she stated bluntly. "You've gotta stop doing that," she ordered teasingly.
"Right…I'll have a discussion with my hormones about that one," Shikamaru replied candidly.
Temari snickered quietly and looked to her brothers; the shorter, looking sober and tranquil, while the taller, looking significantly peeved. Temari pretended to ignore this as she turned to a quiet Shikamaru again.
Kankuro had narrowed eyes, a wrinkled nose, and screwed up looking lips; but he seemed to have no idea of how obvious his expression was.
"Why is there only one?" finally spoke Gaara. "I believe I asked for two escorts."
Shikamaru looked to him and bowed slightly.
"Apologies for last minute changes, Kazekage-sama. Originally, there was me, and another shinobi. However, halfway through the journey, we received a hawk. The message stated that my partner was needed in a joint mission pertaining to evidence gathering on a site where there has been major movement from Akatsuki. I was deemed more capable than him, so I remain as an escort, since his specialty lies in forensics anyway. I hope you understand. It was better than both of us not coming at all."
"I understand. At least we got the stronger of the two. I don't want Temari traveling alone. No ninja traveling a distance over a day is to leave without an escort at this time."
Kankuro, unbeknownst to himself, still had the stink face.
"Anyways," Shikamaru continued more casually now, "it'll be fine. We'll watch each others backs."
Temari glanced up at him, seeing his eyes fixed on her. For whatever reason, she found herself looking away.
Gaara lowered his head and nodded. Kankuro's extreme expression grew more fatigued, but it was still plastered.
"Right…so I'll see you guys in a few months," Temari waved and turned. Shikamaru lingered behind for a moment. He bowed one last time.
"I'll make sure she makes it to Konoha safely," he assured.
"Have a safe journey," Gaara replied placidly.
Shikamaru nodded and followed Temari's footsteps. Temari waited for him as he came running towards her. She instinctively picked up her pace and matched his as he came to her side.
Gaara turned away and headed back toward the tower. Kankuro remained facing the village entrance, staring out until the two disappeared behind a wall of hurling sand. Finally, he turned his back and caught up with Gaara.
"…I don't know…" he blurted.
"What?" Gaara asked.
"Don't you think they acted a bit…too friendly? I mean… it was weirdly subtle but man, you could like…feel it…"
"Where are you going with this Kankuro? Right now your explanation for something you haven't even clarified yet sounds, "weirdly subtle," " Gaara responded coolly.
Kankuro lifted his shoulders a bit, feeling intimidated. Even in his calm, raspy voice, Gaara could silence the sands around him.
"It just seems kind of strange that they're paired up all the time. Even if we're in a large group, those two tend to just… gravitate towards one another…"
"What's your point?"
"Fine, clearly you're ignoring subtlety, so here's my point: They're flirty. More and more every freaking time they see each other."
Gaara's eyes quickly flicked over to Kankuro, who continued.
"I mean, just the way she treats him and talks to him and all. Haven't you noticed she never talks to anyone else like that, just that kid? If you watch them and talk with them individually, they sure as heck don't act that way, but I swear the moment they're together…don't tell me you haven't noticed?" he asked, in an accusatory manner.
Gaara walked on quietly.
"You still haven't made your point. And yes, I have noticed."
"So…it doesn't bother you?"
"Why should it? She's older than both of us—"
"And he's as young as you!" Kankuro argued.
"That doesn't really matter, does it? Especially for him?"
Kankuro was quiet for a time. But clearly, he wanted to quarrel.
"Who the hell talks about hormones in front of a girl? I mean…what the hell!?"
"If it bothers you so much, talk about it with her when she gets back. There's no use, nor do I find it wise to be yelling at me about it." He looked to Kankuro darkly, who grew quiet again. "We both know she is very intelligent and discerning, so I am not worried about her in that sense. Clearly, she spends more time with him than any of us, and if she is comfortable enough to express herself more straightforwardly and comfortably with him, than I see no reason to argue about it if it makes her happy. Leave it alone for now, Kankuro."
Through the flailing sands that continuously sailed through the sky, Shikamaru and Temari ran on. A slight smile had remained on Temari's face since her departure. She didn't exactly know why it was there, but she had no problem with it, and let it remain. Shikamaru ran beside her, never saying a word. For nearly a day's travel, they ran on with no verbal communication, and only the wind to break the silence.
Temari's eyes lowered slightly, and they eventually drifted to her young escort. He was unusually quiet. He wasn't the most talkative person in the world, but he was always natural and comfortable with prompting and maintaining a conversation. As of now though, he hadn't said a peep since they left the village. He didn't look tired or drained. Quite the contrary, he looked fresh, and appeared to be holding back his strength. She looked onward again, and the silent travel continued. It wasn't until several minutes later though, that Temari began noticing something very peculiar—something that didn't start occurring until now.
Shikamaru was continuously turning his head to look at her.
He wasn't just turning his eyes, he would turn his whole head and look straight at her before returning his sight on where he was going— and then do it again. Temari had lost count how many times he looked at her. He even dropped back slightly, perhaps in an attempt to get away with the repetitive act.
"What is it?" Temari smiled calmly, lowering her head and closing her eyes for a moment, "you miss me or something?" This time she turned to get a good look at his face. To her confusion, his eyes lowered somberly, and freely roamed the earth they treaded on. They appeared darker than before. There was a strange dullness about them that actually made her catch her breath.
'Geez, who died?'She thought to herself.
Shikamaru suddenly came to a sliding stop. Temari stopped and looked at him.
"Let's stop here for the night." Shikamaru walked away and began unpacking.
Temari watched him for a moment before looking to the sun. Indeed, it would not be long before nightfall. He was observant despite whatever was ailing him.
She decided timing would be key here. Never in the years and many hours spent with him, did he ever act this distant. She waited till there was a chance he wouldn't be distracted with anything. As silently as him, she unpacked her belongings.
"Check out that sunset," he said pointing with his chin as he unraveled his sleeping bag.
'Well that was unexpected of him…'
She turned and looked to the setting sun. An unusual combination of purple and crimson smears fiercely pierced each other in violent beauty. Temari took a breath paused completely.
"Pretty isn't it?"
Temari silently agreed with him and nodded. She then quickly faced him. This was the most talking he had done since they left the village. Perhaps it was a good idea to pursue her curiosities.
"Need help?" she asked.
"Naw, I'm almost done…" he kindled the fire.
Temari kept her eyes on him a moment longer.
"I'm gonna get a better look at the sunset. You should take a break or you'll miss out on what you discovered," she turned away smiling, "look how fierce those rays are."
"I will…" he continued to set up the wood.
Temari didn't believe him in the least, and walked over to the top of a small drop off she spotted on the way to the site.
'What's with him…?' She thought with a hard look. 'He's bringing me down with his eyes alone…'
She grasped at a bit of desert grass with her hands. She felt unwillingly disturbed, and downright hurt…the subtle brush-offs, and general coldness of his attitude. Normally she could confront him of any bad behavior with tyrannical vigor, but the newness and suddenness of this depressing attitude he brought, was something she was struggling to confront.
She couldn't take three days of this. Three days of continually exchanging torment. She lifted her head and took a breath. Just as she contemplated on how to speak with him, a body suddenly planted itself next to her.
Temari flinched and turned. Shikamaru was sitting next to her, looking onward at the sunset. A slight smile etched across this scruffy, sand-beaten face; but his eyes…appeared darker than ever.
Temari shook her head in disbelief. Just when she thought she was going to have to pry him open for answers, he goes on a keeps his word…
"Hey…" he blurted.
"Hey, Shikamaru…" she said, gentler than she intended.
"Not too good…" she answered quietly.
"No?" Shikamaru turned to her in concern. His reaction had the most life in it since Temari lifted her hand to his head to comment on his height.
"No," she said slowly looking to him. "You see, a friend of mine from another village has been very distant and cold to me lately. I can see pain in his eyes in everything he does. I don't know what's wrong with him. He's obviously been through something rather traumatic, but he won't talk to me about it. So…in turn, it hurts me a bit as well…"
Shikamaru turned to face her completely.
Temari turned to him as well.
"How have things been going for you?" she asked kindly, though an obvious mocking in her quiet tone.
Shikamaru smiled, but his eyes just wouldn't let up on their misery.
Why did she shiver when he said her name?
"I want to apologize."
Temari raised her brows, puzzled.
"About what?" she couldn't help a laughing smile at this.
"Everything…" he said seriously.
Temari stared. She had never seen such serene misery in any face she'd ever encountered.
"Everything…" he repeated quietly. He shifted his weight, stretched out his long legs and fiddled with his fingers; all in some attempt to find the right words to explain himself.
"I was never really fair was I…?" He looked down and folded his hands, "particularly to you…"
"Shikamaru—?" no cognitive thought lapsed through her mind before she shook her head in bafflement. He went on.
"I always spewed out demands and standards that women should have—saying they should do this, be like this, act like this, behave like this…"
"And then I wouldn't apply any compatible standards for us guys…" his hands fidgeted more, "sure I'd have an innate obligation to protect the village, but those were someone else's standards, not mine. I had my own personal obligation to my comrades, but that was as far as it went—Alpha male, taking care of his pack…like damn animals…add ninjas, deadly weapons, strategic talk, and a flak vest, and you've got me."
Temari was absolutely stunned silent.
"I especially feel like I've insulted you." He looked at her. "You were the kind of woman I convinced myself I should be annoyed by the most. You were the kind of woman I thought needed finishing school. Never mind the fact that you were an orphan. Never mind the fact that you were old enough to have a relationship with your mother, but young enough to be consumed in writhing pain and confusion from her sudden death. Never mind the fact that despite all that, here you are, in a peaceable relationship with my village, and trying to make a friend out of someone like me."
Temari flinched and blinked repeatedly at his last statement.
"You lived the majority of your life without proper parentage, while all I did was bitch and moan about mine…" He cringed and lowered his head, "damn… I was such an ass back then..."
"Shi—Shikamaru!" Temari chocked. There was a sudden battle of emotions coursing through her. At the moment she wanted to combat his self-degrading apology, the partial truth of it caused near physical pain. It wasn't because she actually thought Shikamaru was an ass, no, it was because she herself never really thought about her lonely childhood in such a way. She wouldn't allow herself too. She channeled all anger, pain, fear and hatred through her crushing iron fan—through crushing her opponent's bones. Being a ninja was a best way to cope. It was a license to wield any weapon of her choice, and bash any opponent of her choice to bits. No one would ever question any violent tendencies—because she was a ninja—so it was okay.
Even so…when all was said and done, when her fan had slipped, bloody and drenched from her twitching fingers; when her knees had hit the ground, and victory was hers…she never really wanted to hurt anyone. She never really wanted to take anyone's life. Only when that life threatened the ever thin, fragile ties to her immediate family, was she willing to bury it in the sand, to be eaten away by its silent erosion.
What struck even deeper, and what shook her to the core even more; was the idea of comparing her childhood to his. She had never done such a thing. It never even occurred to her to do so.
"Shikamaru…" she took a breath and looked at him. He fixed his eyes on her. She had his full attention.
"Don't say anything like that," her voice was mild, but shrewd, "I…I always thought you were very kind." She brushed her bangs back and sighed. Being so bold and upfront was her forte, but that particular talent was sapped from her during this special occasion.
"You may not have always verbalized it, and you may not have so obviously expressed yourself, but there was a way you behaved…the little things you did, the things you talked about or mentioned revealed to me that …despite the visually obvious faults everyone else and even I accused you of… you proved that—you really were a good guy…"
'Lord…' she thought frantically.
"I mean—for crying out loud, Shikamaru, look at you. What was I doing when I was your age?"
Shikamaru raised a curious brow.
"Rescuing me," he answered.
"Okay, a few months before that?"
Shikamaru didn't want to bring it up.
"I was invading your damn village, that's what I was doing. Damn it, Shikamaru, you go on demeaning yourself and you can't even compare to the things I've done. Hell, you considered me a pain in your ass when I was on your side!"
"Temari!" he growled.
She took a breath and wanted to continue, but his eyes and his voice could silence her like nothing else.
"I don't think you realize that I already answered your explanation in advance," he spoke with more authority than she knew he possessed.
"Whatever it was you did in the past, I already acknowledged a viable reason, that being your tremendously sucky upbringing, and yet you still turned out fine and peace-loving in the end. I'm not comparing you to me as far as doing "bad things," " he clarified, "I'm comparing our past reactions to those past situations. You had a reason for your behavior. I didn't. You had a rough, frightening, painful childhood. I didn't. I lived as peaceable a life as any ninja could, and all I could do was react as a spoiled brat to it all…and I'm apologizing for that…I am…" he was starting to sound more feeble now.
"I'm saying I didn't have reason or merit for my demands of other people, particularly women. I'm saying you don't have to expect that from me anymore…"
Temari studied his eyes with keen focus. Everything was so sincere, and almost child-like about him.
"You…really thought about this, didn't you?" she asked quietly.
"Well…I did. It's tormented me for months and I thought I knew exactly what I was going to say but— I forgot all of it once I saw you in person at the village. All of that was on the fly..."
Temari kept her eyes on him before sighing and looking down.
"Shikamaru…I understand what you mean and where you're going with this, but before I prove you wrong, there's one thing you said that kind of disturbed me, and that I disagree with. What you've acknowledged about my childhood tells me you actually listened and bothered to remember the conversations we've had in the past. I really appreciate that—but you still didn't live my life…and you can't say I had a reason for my actions. Regardless of my harsh upbringing, I know now that it's in no way an excuse to how wretched I've been to people."
She turned to him.
"As for you…I always looked up to you, lazy bum."
Shikamaru eyed her curiously. He thought she was joking at first.
"That's right. You, Nara Shikamaru, have always impressed me. Ever since you could've, but didn't defeat me during the Chunnin exams, I always begrudgingly acknowledged your skills. Even when I was insulting you, calling you lazy, idiot, or whatnot; deep down, you always impressed me, damn you."
Shikamaru couldn't resist a smirk.
Temari looked away with seriousness now.
"As I got to spend more time with you though, I realized that you had a really subtle way of revealing how kind you are, and no matter how subtle, I've seen how it greatly affects everyone around you. You really know how my make your imprints anonymous, even if you're the main cause of success—all in your vain attempt to keep yourself hidden from greatness, and riding on the opinions of being average…"
Shikamaru's eyes flicked to her suddenly. He absolutely had no idea she had him under such acute surveillance. He was rather nervous now of how much more she may know of him, and was not revealing at the moment. Now he knew he had completely underestimated her.
As if expecting his reaction, Temari was staring at him with a triumphant expression.
"Well—not subtle enough I suppose," he responded, failing to hide his amazement, "I really had no idea you were so vigilant of my mundane routines."
"You call them mundane, Shikamaru. Being a genius I suppose that's expected of you. But someone with enough intelligence, minus the genius aspect, might find them fascinating," she responded coolly.
Shikamaru's eyes mellowed, and he faced her with a 'subtle' smile.
"I always observed how observant you were…" Temari said quietly, with a kind of finality in her tone.
"You aren't some animal, Shikamaru, and I never felt that you were obligated to apologize to anyone—particularly me." She eyed him carefully. He was staring at her expectantly, only making her suddenly nervous.
"But—if you insist…" She looked him straight in the eyes, and couldn't help a shy, crooked smile.
"I forgive you."
Shikamaru remained staring at her for a time. Then, a broad, content grin moved over his face, and he looked away.
"Thanks…I feel better now." He sighed, with his smile becoming fully genuine.
Temari unknowingly smiled back. It seemed that a heavy, nagging burden did lift from him, but she knew there was something that led to this very bizarre, and very un-Shikamaru like confession slash apology.
"So what is it?" she asked tonelessly.
"What happened? No matter what the situation, I'm always so use to you being calm and cool—even if you did do something that was your fault. I've never seen you so distraught and troubled. It's put me through a bit of stress to see you look so miserable in your attempt to hide some kind of agony, even over these few hours we've been traveling together. Something happened didn't it?"
"Yeah," he rasped.
Temari looked at him intently. Now she knew how serious this was. He could explain the situation more calmly to his subordinates or other sensei's, but he could not bring himself to even look at Temari when he intended on revealing—
"Akatsuki…" his voice cracked, "murdered my sensei…"
Temari didn't know what to say. She felt horrible for her jest at the thought of someone close to him dying, having witnessed his behavior earlier. She slowly clenched her hands. So this was it. This is what turned her cool cat into a voiceless mute. She knew how close he was to Asuma.
"They worked in pairs, like all of the members," he went on, "They were called the immortals. And one of them…really did seem immortal. They were Hidan and Kakuzu. Hidan was the one that killed my sensei."
Temari lowered her head and looked away.
"I'm so sorry Shikamaru…I know he wasn't just a teacher to you…"
"Worst part of it though…" Shikamaru gritted his teeth. "Asuma-sensei… and Kurenai-sensei… were married…"
Temari's eyes widened.
"And Kurenai is pregnant. She'll be due in about three months…"
Temari placed a hand over her brow and she took a breath.
"Well hell, Shikamaru…" she whispered. She understood everything now. It wasn't just his dead sensei. It wasn't just his dead mentor…friend. It was the fatherless child, the widowed mother, and the already broken home, before the child was even born.
She could only gaze sympathetically in his direction, knowing nothing to say, but strangely enough, Shikamaru was looking at her with a mellow smile.
"I'm going to take care of their child."
"Yup. I vowed to take care of Asuma's child when he's born. He won't have a father but…at least he'll have a guy to look up to."
Temari absolutely could not believe what she was hearing. It left her hand trembling to her chest, and all of her memories and thoughts of Shikamaru…well…
"You're…helping to take care of the child?" she breathed.
Shikamaru stared as if her reaction was expected. His eyes softened and his smile grew.
"That's right…Asuma's own son…I think we'll get along real well. He'll probably be a bit of a handful, but it'll be worth it. Besides— it'll be good practice."
"…Practice?" Temari grunted unintentionally.
"Yeah…" Shikamaru stopped there. He specially wanted to have this specific conversation at another time. He hoped she would be too timid of the personal subject matter, and would just drop it.
Sure enough, she folded her hands and looked away.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Nothing," she answered, "it's just…sort of unexpected and all…but at the same time," she looked at him, "I can see you doing that."
She laughed a little.
"Playing and wrestling with a little kid, doing silly guy stuff," she emphasized lightheartedly, "daring each other to jump on the biggest stag. It's so unlike you, but for some reason, it's easy for me to imagine." She smiled at him.
"That's what happens when you fantasize about me too much, see?" he blurted.
"Wh—What!?" she exclaimed, her heart racing and her cheeks flushing.
"That's right— the more you think about me, the easier it is to see me doing anything," he accused teasingly, his signature sly grin and furrowed brows encompassing his face.
"Yeah right, you wish!" she shot back; cheeks growing hotter still.
"Was I wearing a cowboy hat while I was riding that stag I was dared to jump on?"
"Shut uahahaha!" she started laughing hysterically at the sudden visual in her mind.
"I'm shirtless too, aren't I?"
Temari had officially lost it now. Shikamaru was the only person who could make her laugh so much, let alone laugh at all. His dry, blunt sense of humor, combined with his sly, devious mannerisms became something she came to love and long for when she remained at home, while he remained a three days journey in another village.
During the time of her laughter, Temari, in the quiet of her mind came to realize just how much she missed his company, and felt herself desiring more of it. Indeed, she was somewhat appeasing him, but she was still clearly enjoying the simple pleasure of what his presence did to her. She was very aware that something had changed in him. His personality quirks, inborn traits and characteristics would never leave him…but she knew he would not be completely the same. It was something she had seen so many times before, and it was something she had experienced herself. She understood, and accepted this. She accepted him as he was before, and she accepted him as he is now.
He was finally getting his lot of death in life—late— but it finally happened, and that was nothing new to her. Shikamaru had the guts to pour his heart out on the matter in one sitting, and apologize for something she could care less about to boot. At the very least, she could help him cope with this new and very real tragic experience. She knew how much his presence
comforted her. Perhaps from this point on, the comfort and ease could be mutual between them, if it was not already.
Next Chapter: Inevitable Details
Author's Note: Dear Masashi Kishimoto,
Can this chapter become canon? Please? I'll bake you a cake…or…something. No it will not contain illegal mind controlling substances. What do you take me for? Only the legal kinds of course…in America.
hugs and kisses- Riot