A/N: First off, I would like to thank Big Paja for Beta reading. He has been both helpful and insightful. I'd like to thank all of you who continued asking me to update this story. The last three weeks or so have been really rough for me and it helped me remember to write. Although, it is difficult to write about life when you're surrounded by death.

I dedicate this chapter to my grandfather who passed away last week.

Chapter 23

As overcast skies reflected the somber mood of the day, people began to file away in small groups. There were things that had to be done. Life went on, well, except for the people whose funeral service they just attended. Shikamaru paused for a moment to look back at those who still remained. Unlike them, he held no deep-seeded emotional attachment towards the deceased. Never knowing any of them personally, he went through the service like everyone else. They had died for the village and he assumed that he would feel something for their deaths. Even though there were only a few who broke down and cried, he could tell what people were feeling. He was unsure of how to feel about their deaths and he idly wondered if that made him less human.

Even with the attempted destruction of the village, work was hardly at a stand still. They couldn't put missions on hold to rebuild the village because their clients would go elsewhere. No clients would mean no income and with that, it wouldn't take long for any society to collapse. Through all outward appearances, it seemed as if the number of missions had increased but in reality, the number of missions had stayed the same. It was the number of shinobi to complete those missions that had decreased making it seem that way.

Sometimes, it seemed that they would complete more than one mission in a day. A task Shikamaru was not entirely too fond of but regardless of whether or not he wanted the missions, it was something that had to be done. Asuma had been sent to cover the more dangerous missions leaving the three of them to handle the more trivial of pursuits. Without a Hokage, it was uncertain if they were going to be able to pull this off but the advisors had pulled them together. Which is why team ten was now walking back to the mission room having completed their third D-ranked mission of the day.

Tired as they were, they knew that they were most likely to receive another mission before the day was out. To keep from wearing themselves out, they were walking at a casual pace rather than rushing back to head out for another assignment. Shikamaru had become the new, unspoken leader of team ten. Unsure of when this had come about, he wondered why his teammates had taken to deferring to him for decisions. Even the bossy, loud-mouthed Ino didn't argue with him over team decisions and that's what scared him the most.

"You know," Ino complained. "We could get these missions done faster if Chouji wouldn't screw up so much." Chouji looked as if he had been wounded. "I mean, come on, if you trained a little more, you wouldn't make mistakes and we would all have more free time." Continuing her little rant, she didn't even look in the direction of the person she was belittling. "With more free time I could maybe…go visit Sasuke-kun in the hospital!" Her voice almost sounded cheery.

"Gomen," Chouji apologized, hanging his head in embarrassment. While it was true that he had made a few mistakes on their missions, it was nothing they couldn't handle. They were Genin. It's not like they were expected to be perfect. Part of being a shinobi was learning from your mistakes and hoping that they didn't kill you. Plus, Ino had made her fair share of mistakes as well. As Shikamaru observed, her words seemed to carry some weight with Chouji, more so than with anyone else. Their team had a strange relationship.

"You shouldn't make fun of Chouji," Shikamaru scolded her. "He works harder than either of us. If he made a mistake, it's probably because we weren't holding our own." Ino appeared to take his words seriously and she cast an apologizing look in Chouji's direction which cheered him up. "Besides," he offered them. "Even though things don't always go as planned, we always complete the mission and make it back alive." With that, the conversation fell silent and the three of them kept walking.

With his hands in his pockets, he stared up at the sky contemplating whether things were going to turn out alright for their group when he felt a pair of skinny arms slip between his arms and his body and embrace him in a hug from behind. A pair of small, perky breasts pressed into his back and he gushed at the thoughts that went through his head. Not knowing how to respond, he just stopped walking and stood there willing his mind to overcome his hormones. His will would not have been strong enough but then she spoke and brought him back to reality.

"Shikamaru," Ino squealed into his ear. Finding it easier to be annoyed with her, his usual scowl returned to his face. Looking over at his friend, Chouji held the deepest concern for Shikamaru but he too was at a loss for what to do in this situation. Shikamaru gave him his best shrug of indifference in an attempt to set his friend at ease. Ino was never this friendly before and it had the both of them puzzled. "Do you know what next Tuesday is?" Ino asked with enthusiasm.

Thinking that he had nothing important planned for the next week, he wondered what Ino could be so excited about until he remembered what month it was and what day next Tuesday was. "It's my birthday," he answered irritated.

"Exactly," she squealed again, squeezing him even harder. For a second, his mask of indifference fell as once again his hormones coursed through his veins but he recovered as he remembered exactly who it was doing this to him. "And do you know what that means?"

His birthday was not something that he was overly excited about and he failed to see what caused her sudden interest in it. Even though he never really celebrated his birthday, he was just a year older and saw no reason to overtly revel in that fact but then again, this was Ino we're talking about. He knew the reason right away. "Next Wednesday is your birthday."

As if she had achieved a small personal victory, she squealed even louder and began jumping up and down, so much so that she forced herself to let go of Shikamaru, much to his relief. "You're so smart," she said with her own hint of sarcasm. Clasping her hands together, she gave him her prettiest smile, the one she reserved for manipulating her father. "So, what are you going to get me? What I would really like is…" and she began dropping not so subtle hints as to the things she expected for her birthday.

"Chotto matte," Shikamaru said holding up a hand to stop her. "I didn't know we were buying gifts for your birthday." Her face changed. She was trying to look angry but it came off more pouty than anything else. That only served to annoy him even further. "Besides, I didn't ask you to get me anything for my birthday." Chouji stepped up and placed a hand on his shoulder to convey that it would be wise not to say anything further.

"Friends always buy each other presents on their birthday, Shikamaru." Ino huffed as her angry face was now much more convincing.

"She's right, you know," Chouji said and Shikamaru looked over at his friend. "You all got me gifts for my birthday. We are friends as well as teammates. It would only seem logical." Shikamaru tried his best to convey the word 'traitor' with non-verbal language but his friend remained unaffected. He looked over toward Ino who was now looking away childishly with her arms behind her back and one foot drawing circles in the dirt. Raising a curious eyebrow, he looked at her questioningly.

Noticing that her teammates' attention was on her, she glanced up looking a little embarrassed. "I, uh," she fumbled her words. "I kind of already got you a present," she confessed. Even though he was slightly annoyed by her coyness, he had not expected her to think of him. Truth be told, he didn't think about his friends in that manner, therefore, he didn't expect them to either. These unwritten social standards proved to be more troublesome than anything else.

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he let out a deep sigh that his friends and teammates had come to understand was his way of giving in to their argument. Clapping her hands wildly, Ino was once again excited at the prospect of the awkward social event. His friend gave him a pat on the back which was strong enough to dislodge phlegm and if it was anyone other than Chouji, he would have scowled at them with extreme prejudice. His two teammates resumed their walk.

"I hope they don't have another mission for us," Ino wished. "I want to go visit Sasuke-kun in the hospital. He looks so cool when he's unconscious." With her eyes staring off dreamily, she conjured the image of the sleeping Genin. Shikamaru was once again dumbfounded by how quickly a woman's mood could change and wondered if he would ever be able to understand them. Little did he know, that even if a man took an entire lifetime, he wouldn't be able to understand one percent of what goes on in a woman's mind.

When dealing with a problem, the first thing you do is identify the source and compile as much information as you can about it. He had known the source for twelve years and one would think that would be enough time to gather information. Even though he was tempted to just outright ask her what she wanted for her birthday, social etiquette prevented him from doing so or at least, that's what he was told. His second option was to find another source similar to the original and by default, that meant his mother.

While he did not want to ask his mother, options were thin in the Nara household and she was the closest female thing that he had. Which is why he was entirely surprised when she took the whole problem off his hands. Of course, she did so while calling the men in their entire clan useless but he could deal with it as long as she took care of the problem. His grandfather was visiting and in exchange for her help, he would have to hang out with him. Shikamaru could think of a lot more troublesome things to trade for. At least, he wasn't required to hang out with grandmother.

Because his grandmother had come to visit, his grandfather had suggested they go for a walk to which Shikamaru gave no opposition. The two of them probably could have walked in silence the whole time but Shikamaru had a thought that just kept bugging him. As he looked up at him, he was hesitant but he knew the man had many years of experience. He might provide him with some insight that would enable him to solve his problem.

"May I ask you something, Ojii-san," questioned Shikamaru. Even though the only reply he received was a grunt, the curious look on his grandfather's face told him that he was listening. "I've been having trouble understanding women. You've had a lot of experience with women so I was wondering if you knew something that could help me out?"

His grandfather let out a deep, raspy laugh that sounded foreign to the ears. Reaching over, he pulled his grandson closer to ensure that he would hear what he was about to say. "Because you're young, I'm going to tell you this now and try to save you from trouble in the future. It's entirely up to you whether or not you take my advice but remember that men have lived and died without ever figuring this out." Since he was waiting for a response, Shikamaru nodded. He looked around as if he was protecting a closely guarded man secret. Leaning in closer, he whispered to his grandson. "As men, we are completely incapable of understanding women."

How could this information help him? He was no closer to an answer and he thought his grandfather was joking. Shikamaru looked at him incredulously and the elder Nara fell into a raucous laughter. "It is the greatest irony of the universe," he told him. "The relationship between men and women is both glorious and disastrous at the same time. We can't live with each other and we can't live without each other. It's like the yin and yang. You can't have the good without the bad and you can't have the man without the woman."

"Jodan ja nai zo," said Shikamaru exasperatedly. "You're no help at all." Looking away from the old man, Shikamaru gave what amounted to being a sulk. One would think that the old man, out of professional courtesy and mutual aggravation, would be willing to share acquired knowledge with the younger generation but alas, he found himself no closer to the truth than when he started.

The old man quelled his laughter and placed a firm hand atop the boy's head. Ruffling his hair to get his attention, it loosened his ponytail enough to cause annoyance which was plastered on the boy's face. "I told you that it was up to you whether or not to take my advice. Greater men than you or I have tried and failed miserably to understand the female mind. I'd go so far as to say that if a man ever truly understood a woman, his head would explode from the overload." The old man laughed at his own joke. "Instead of understanding them, it would be wiser if you started learning to live with them."

Despite the annoyance at the lack of information, the old man did make some sense. While he respected his grandfather for who he was, he wasn't about to give up that easily. "My father seems to understand my mother." He had to think about what he said. "At least, I think so. He knows things about her that I can't figure out."

The old man smiled and kept walking. "That's because he knows how to live with her. I'm sure that if you asked him, he would have no idea what she was thinking. When you live with a woman long enough, you start to pick up certain signs when shit is about to happen and you learn when you need to be close and when you need to make yourself scarce. Although, your father was just like you when he was your age." A skeptical eyebrow rose.

"Oh, yes," Nara-san mused looking nostalgic as he recalled the memories of his son. "I remember that he ran away from home because he couldn't handle living with your grandmother." The thought brought an amused smile to his face. Shikamaru could understand his father's dilemma. His grandmother was the matriarch of troublesome women and it was a wonder how his grandfather ever decided to marry her. "Oh, it was a tragedy. Your grandmother found him and dragged his ass back home by the earlobe. The house wasn't quiet for a month." The smile faded from the old man's face.

Shikamaru noticed the change on his face and wondered what he was thinking about. Not wanting to be annoying, he was just going to remain silent but curiosity overtook him. "Sounds troublesome?"

"It was," he said. "It was." Looking at his grandson briefly, he reached into his sleeve and produced a pipe. Tapping the heel against his palm, he cleared the bowl before filling it with a few crushed leaves. Striking a match, he stoked it a few times before letting the smoke fill his lungs. Exhaling, he looked back at his grandson. "I didn't know how to handle your grandmother at that time and I made a lot of mistakes. I thought about running away myself but that would have only perpetuated her anger."

Shikamaru tried his best to convey a sense of understanding for the old man but it wasn't working. The old man saw that his grandson was trying and he smiled. "As men, we learn from our mistakes so that we know how to handle them better the next time they happen. I learned a lot from that experience." Smiling back at his grandfather, Shikamaru felt that while his grandfather hadn't exactly answered his question, he had at least given him some information worth knowing.

The day of his birth had come and gone without any fanfare. That is because their parents had taken the easy way out by combining their birthdays into one celebration at the Yamanaka household. Even though he was sure his father was too lazy to host a celebration, Shikamaru had no complaints. He would prefer no celebration at all but those who cared about him required his presence. Apparently, they also required proper attire. Fidgeting with his formal kimono, he cursed whoever conceptualized the birthday celebration. He wished those bastards a horrifyingly gruesome death.

"Stop it," his mother scolded him as she straightened his kimono. "You're messing it up." Wanting to tell her how much he hated this, he scrunched his face in discomfort but he held his tongue. His mother may have been one of the sources of his troubles but she was a kunoichi. She was still deadly and he wasn't inclined to see what she was capable of. When she finished straightening his kimono, she moved on to his hair. His face contorted from discomfort to pain. This was entirely unnecessary. He saw these people every day and he never dressed up for that.

His father knocked and they were greeted by the Yamanakas. The Akimichis were already there dressed in their traditional clothing and they looked so much more comfortable. Shikamaru was starting to understand what envy felt like. When the adults became engrossed in updating each other on their menial existences, he took the opportunity to slip away and find his best friend. Chouji had found something in the corner of the room to entertain himself with. Noticing Shikamaru's approach, he took a look at his garb and gave him a questioning look.

"Mom," offered Shikamaru. Nodding, Chouji went back to tinkering with the item in his hands. Conversation wasn't really required with them and that was one comfort he found in this whole situation. The two of them could have just stayed there for the entire time and been completely content but social functions required participation. It was only a matter of time before their comfort would be disrupted again.

"Hey, guys," Ino called from behind them. Chouji turned to look and greet her but Shikamaru wanted the solace to last just a little bit longer. Slowly turning to see her, he noticed that she was wearing a simple dress with an exotic floral print and a bright smile on her face. He found that he thought she looked pretty. This was probably why they had to dress up for this stupid event. "You look good," she told him.

Instinctively, he reached up and fidgeted with the annoying collar of his kimono. A curt grunt was all he gave her in response as he was reminded that he was forced to wear this troublesome thing. The smile fell from her face and he immediately grew worried. Her sudden mood changes were the cause of some of the strife in their team and he wasn't about to get into it at the moment. Never once did it cross his mind that he was somewhat responsible for her current mood change.

"You look gorgeous, Ino," Chouji cut in and she turned to smile at him. His kind words had a way of absolving a touchy situation and Shikamaru appreciated that at the current moment.

"Arigato, Chouji," Ino thanked him and cast one more wary glance at Shikamaru. "It's time to eat." With nothing else to say, she turned and sauntered away towards the dining room. Chouji cheered for the idea as he hurried after her. Lingering a bit longer, Shikamaru contemplated the event a minute earlier. It was starting to seem that his grandfather was right but he wasn't about to relent just yet. As he made his way to the dining room, he wondered if he was supposed to say something to her.

Ino's mother had prepared a rather tasty meal which Shikamaru thought was delicious compared to the slop his mother made him eat. He wondered if the Yamanakas would mind swapping children for a little while. His mother might enjoy having another woman around to conspire with but he couldn't do that to his father. He wouldn't wish that fate on his worst enemy, not even the ones responsible for birthday celebrations. Dinner moved into dessert and then into exchanging gifts. Something he hadn't thought about since he'd dumped the responsibility onto his mother.

Quickly finding her, she produced a small box tied with string and handed it to him. As she smiled down at him, he recalled his history with his mother and her smiles were usually precursors to troublesome events. Taking the gift with reluctance, he was unsure of what to do next. His mother leaned down and kissed his forehead, pointing him in Ino's direction. Moving cautiously, he made his way towards Ino, while wiping his mother's kiss from his forehead. Feeling a bit apprehensive, their exchange earlier made him wary of how she would react.

Akamichi-san had given Ino her gift and the two women were in a polite discussion over something Shikamaru could guess if he tried. Politely, he waited for them to finish. Patience with women was a staple of Nara men and that was one thing he had going for him. When they finished their conversation, Ino turned to him with a look of disappointment and he sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck under her gaze. Dealing with women was ridiculously troublesome. "For you," he said extending the hand that held the box towards her.

She looked at the box skeptically before she took it from him and took her time unwrapping it. Watching her reaction closely, she was the closest thing he had for a subject of observation. Because he lived with his mother, the bias would be too great for a pure experiment. In spite of what his grandfather said, he would understand women. Opening the box and lifting the paper, she gasped and looked up at him smiling. He made a mental note that women know other women. This information would be useful in the future.

"It's beautiful, Shikamaru," she said pulling the object out of the box. "Thank you,"She said holding up a necklace with a silver charm in the shape of an exotic flower similar to the one on her dress. Shikamaru could only think that it was not a coincidence. Putting the necklace on, she let her fingers trail along the chain from the clasp to the charm as it rested right above her cleavage. He had to blink a few times to chase away unwarranted thoughts. One had to remain objective in order to eliminate bias in an experiment.

"Very nice," Chouji said joining them, a welcome distraction. Posing for Chouji, she looked happy again and Shikamaru wondered if it was the gift itself or just her own prerogative that had changed her mood. Looking at him, she sighed contentedly and then perked up as she remembered something. Turning around she grabbed a rather large box and thrust it into his arms. He just looked at the box as if expecting it to do something.

"It's my gift for you," she said excitedly clapping her hands in anticipation. Pulling the top off the box, he looked in and saw fabric. Curious, he reached in and pulled it out, holding it up to look at it. There was a deer drinking from a brook sewn into the top corner along with the kanji for Nara. The extensive calligraphy must not have been cheap. "I know how much you like lying down and watching clouds so I got you a blanket to keep you from getting dirty."

He would probably never use it because he watched clouds at random times and he wasn't going to haul around a large blanket with him everywhere. Looking over the top of his gift, he noticed that she seemed pretty excited about it and he knew that any comment he made would ruin the situation. She had taken the time to think about his lazy ass and that's more than he had done for her. Rather than becoming the catalyst for another mood change, he thanked her with a smile and she seemed pleased with that.

"Ometeto(1)," Chouji congratulated handing him a smaller box. Placing the blanket back into the box, he opened the lid of the smaller box and smirked at what he saw inside. Half a dozen little yellow spheres with the kanji for light printed on the side sat neatly in two rows. "For when you need to make more shadows," said Chouji.

"Thanks," Shikamaru said patting his friend lightly on the shoulder. Chouji rewarded his thanks with a huge grin and Shikamaru knew that Chouji was the best friend a guy could have. At this time, his parents walked up and greeted them. Yoshino pulled out a couple of books and handed them to him. They must have known him too well because they didn't even bother wrapping his gift.

"These are from us," his mother said smiling at him again. Shikamaru checked behind him just to make sure that nothing was sneaking up behind him. Satisfied that she wasn't springing a trap on him, he read the titles of the books. Barriers, Seals and Traps: A Complete Guide to Useful Ninjutsu must be from his father and Chivalry for the Modern Man must be from his mother.

"Read those," his father said. "You'll find them very helpful in life."

While the number of missions they had dwindled, they still hadn't heard from Asuma. A-ranked and especially S-ranked missions required a lot more time and the use of badass shinobi like Asuma, which is probably why they cost so much. Since those missions were such a large contributor to the village's funds, they were given the highest priority. The training of Genin would have to be put on hold until the mission requirements were met.

Word through the grapevine was that the advisors had negotiated the surrender and established a new treaty with Sunagakure no Sato. Even if they claimed that they were tricked into it, Shikamaru found it difficult to trust anyone who could be so easily deceived into treachery. While he was not old enough or experienced enough to know of the intentions of Suna, he wasn't entirely convinced that they wouldn't try it again. His encounters with their people thus far had left him questioning their sanity.

With his free time growing, he discovered that if he was reading one of the books his parents had given him, his mother would leave him alone. Even when she really, really wanted to interrupt him, she gave an impressive display of willpower to which Shikamaru was grateful but he wasn't into pressing his luck with her. She was a woman, after all, and at any point, the pendulum can swing in the entirely opposite direction. If this was the eerie calm before the storm, he decided to make himself scarce, not wanting to be there for the monsoon.

A friend could help time pass so he decided to head for Chouji's to see what he was up to. If anything, the two of them could watch clouds this peaceful afternoon without any unwanted interruptions. When he arrived at Chouji's house, he was dismayed to find that his best friend was not home. Chouji's mother informed him that he might be found training down by the river. Curiously, Shikamaru wondered who would willfully train on their day off but he remembered how Ino had berated him about it before. He decided to check on his friend as he was unsure of how Chouji was doing.

As he walked the path towards the river, he felt an earthshaking rumble beneath his feet as well as the sound of crushing rocks. Unwilling to walk blindly into destruction, he took to the trees until he was high enough to get a clear view of the riverbank. There, amidst the rubble in front of the flowing stream of the river, stood his best friend panting in an attempt to catch his breath. Undeniably, Chouji was the cause of the destruction but Shikamaru was more concerned with his friend's wellbeing.

Just like that, Chouji slapped his hands together in a seal and began molding chakra. Even from this distance, Shikamaru could feel the intense pressure of the chakra and grew worried because he had never felt a chakra like this before, particularly from Chouji. It was strong almost like the air pressure around him was increasing, making it harder to breath. In an instant, his friend of small stature was bigger than a two-story building. His immensity was astonishing.

Chouji reached down, picking up a boulder that to him was now the size of a large rock, and hurled it at the nearby waterfall rearranging the flow of water and causing the earth to shake again. Shikamaru swore to himself as he held on to the trunk of the tree for support to keep from falling off. He watched wide-eyed as Chouji stood up straight and admired his handiwork. His friend was a colossus capable of more destructive force than most shinobi he knew.

As quickly as he'd grown, the technique dispelled and Chouji was back to his normal size. Plopping down on the ground, he sat there struggling to catch his breath again. That technique must require a lot out of him. Shikamaru was worried about his friend and tempted to move in to inquire as to his condition when a butterfly floated over in front of Chouji. He held up a finger and the insect landed on his finger as if it wasn't afraid, placing a big smile on his face.

Shikamaru smiled, too. His friend would be fine and Chouji wouldn't push himself too far. Realizing his presence wasn't required here, Shikamaru turned to slip away but took one last look at his best friend. If he could choose anyone to wield such an amazing power, he would definitely choose the good natured person in front of him.

Some decisions are tough. They strain the psychological, emotional and intuitional aspects of the human mind. Often, they pit multiple outcomes against each other in which there is no clear-cut answer and one has to live and die with the consequences of his decision. People will often prepare themselves to make difficult decisions, weighing their options beforehand in an attempt to make the correct decision should the problem arise in the future. When faced with the choice of staying home with his mother or accompanying his father into town for business, Shikamaru chose the latter, fully understanding the effect of the universal consequences caused by his decision.

When his father had business, it was usually mundane and involved little to no effort. He would sign a paper here, collect a payment there, drop off an order and pick up some paperwork. It was nothing overly exciting but Shikamaru wasn't into exciting. The fact that his old man walked a slow pace didn't expedite matters either but it was a relaxed pace which suggested comfort and leisure. To the unperceptive eye, it would appear lethargic and sluggish but to Shikamaru, it was stability and reassurance. Rather than worrying that life would pass him by, he was taking the time to absorb all that life had to offer.

Their last stop was the Hokage tower which had remained largely undisturbed through the attack on the village but to this point, it still held no permanent tenant. The village had pretty much re-stabilized itself but the need for a strong leader had remained largely unfulfilled. Of course, there had been many rumors as to who would be chosen as the new Hokage but rumors spread like weeds and are equally as unappealing. Even so, people chose to believe them and passed them on without regard. Shikamaru couldn't understand the need for misinformation but society seemed to thrive on it.

Climbing the curved steps outside the Hokage tower, Shikamaru heard a familiar voice speaking at a ridiculously high volume. When they reached the top of the steps, two young women were walking away from a very aggravated Naruto. Shikamaru called out to his friend as he approached. "Naruto ja nai ka?"

The aggravated look on Naruto's face was quickly replaced with one of confusion. "Are? Shikamaru?"

"Why are you here?" asked Shikamaru. His father stopped to greet the young women.

Naruto's aggravation quickly returned. "I could ask you the same thing."

"I'm not sure, but my old man asked me to come." When Naruto seemed distracted by something, Shikamaru turned around to see his father. His father seemed to be carrying on a familiar conversation with one of the women and it piqued his interest. "Hey, Naruto," he whispered. "Who's that cocky, young woman?"

"She's the new Hokage," Naruto whispered back. Shikamaru reeled. This was worse than all the rumors. "And she may look like that but she's actually an old woman in her fifties." Shikamaru reeled again. This was entirely too much surprising information to be had at one moment.

The women waved farewell to his father as they began descending the steps and his father responded in kind. Naruto took off after them mentioning something about going to the hospital but Shikamaru's mind was trying to grasp the revelations of the last few minutes. To him, it was as if the world had come undone. Naruto stopped to shout back something about a new technique but Shikamaru had one thing on his mind. "Are ga… Godaime?" he said and his voice cracked a little.

"Oi, Shikamaru," his father said. Walking around to stand beside him, Shikaku bent over to get eye level with his son. "She is the strongest and most beautiful person here." Shikamaru was more confused. "Because she is one of the legendary Sannin."

Shikamaru looked away and sighed. There was still one piece of information that he just couldn't process and it was bugging him. "A woman as the Hokage?" he asked. "I don't really like women," he said without thinking about how it sounded. His father gave him a questioning grunt but he never turned to see the look on his face. "They say whatever comes to their mind. They're always scheming and I don't know whether they even like each other or not." He was not finished with his little rant either. "Besides," he crossed his arms as if to emphasize the statement. "They think that they can control men and make them do whatever they want. They're just troublesome."

Shikaku sighed and threw an arm around his son. "Shikamaru, yo," he grunted. "Without women, men cannot be born. Without women, men will become useless." Standing up straight he turned and walked towards the entrance. "No matter what kind of woman she may be, she will show her nice side to the man she loves."

Looking at his father's back, Shikamaru could only think about how wrong that statement was. Just by observing his parents' relationship alone, he had never seen anything to justify that statement. His old man was just pussy-whipped. Laughing, his old man must have been thinking upon similar lines. "When you're older, you'll understand," Shikaku said with a smile and then, as if remembering something important, he tensed and lost his smile. "Oops, we'd better hurry up and finish our business here," he ordered turning to walk inside. A hand reached up and rubbed the back of his head cheekily. "If we're late, your mother will scold me again. Hurry up, Shikamaru."

Even if he tried, Shikamaru couldn't think of a more contradictory conversation that he had had with his father. It was as if the man viewed the world in a completely different way compared to reality. To him, his own personal hell was a magnificent heaven that only he could see and he was content with that. Closing his eyes, Shikamaru sighed and mumbled under his breath. "And then there are men who are completely useless with women around."

Irony is a cruel, bitch mother because it became a self-fulfilling prophecy or perhaps it could have been the power of suggestion. They were late arriving home and his mother did scold his father about it. Shikamaru wanted to laugh but found it entirely too troublesome to do so. It had seemed as though his father had given up on life when he married his mother but Shikamaru was sure that there was more to it than that. It would have to be something he would figure out on his own.

Doing chores was a pain in the ass and if his mother were not within earshot, he would have probably expressed that opinion verbally. Yoshino had taken her son's time back seeing that the village had relinquished it back to him. Now, he couldn't even use reading as an excuse and it seemed his mother was not short on things to gripe about. He could only assume that his father had done something to piss her off again and no one was safe from her wrath. Managing an excuse to be out of the house today, his father had managed to stave off punishment.

Toiling under a heavy sun caused beads of sweat to drip from his forehead each time he stabbed the earth with an angry thrust of the shovel. Working in the garden with your mother was not the ideal way to spend the morning but Shikamaru found himself doing just that. A shadow cast over him giving him temporary relief from the hot sun until he recognized the shape of the shadow. Turning with a squint, he looked up at the towering figure that stood before him.

"Hisashiburi da na(2)," the figure said and Shikamaru recognized the voice immediately.

"Asuma," he said standing up to greet his sensei. Even though it had been a while since they had seen each other, there were no hugs or signs of personal affection. There were no handshakes or 'How you doing's', just a lop-sided smirk and a cheesy grin that said everything. Whether he would admit it or not, Asuma played just as big a role in his life as his father and it was good to finally see him again.

Surveying the landscape, Asuma could tell that he was doing his chores and felt somewhat sympathetic towards the young man. With Yoshino within earshot, he asked, "Do you have a moment."

Casting a wary glance to catch his mother's reaction, Shikamaru was relieved when she gave him the go ahead. Dropping the shovel, he led Asuma out of the garden so that they wouldn't have to stand around in the dirt. When they reached the edge, he turned to face Asuma who had a knowing look on his face. Even though he was a bit apprehensive, he asked anyway. "What is it?"

"The Hokage wants to see us," Asuma said. Now there could have been a few reasons why the Hokage would want to see them. Maybe she just wanted to introduce herself to the new shinobi personally. That's something a woman would do. Maybe they screwed up on one of their missions and she was going to scold them. That's another thing a woman would do. Unconsciously, Shikamaru glanced in his mother's direction as he thought about it. Asuma must have caught the glance because he addressed Yoshino directly. "Nara-san, would you mind if I borrowed your son for a while?"

At first, she looked disgruntled as she leveled he eyes at her son like it was his fault he was being requested. Shikamaru wondered which angry woman he'd rather face: his mother who was loathing his very existence right now or the Hokage who's purpose was an unknown but equally as scary. However, the decision was not left up to him and his mother relented but not without warning. "Don't think this gets you out of doing your chores."

The Hokage it was then. He began to mentally prepare himself for the verbal abuse he was fully expecting to receive as Asuma and he left the house en route to the Hokage tower. When they made no direction changes towards his teammates' houses, he began to wonder about this whole meeting. "Are Chouji and Ino meeting us there?" he asked his sensei.

"Nope, but they will be meeting us afterwards," Asuma told him and left it at that. Now, it was really looking like he was being singled out for something and he couldn't quite put a finger on it. They had been cautious enough not to write any mistakes into their mission reports and he had personally given the verbal reports so that they were close to exemplary. The only thing it could be was that someone filed a complaint against him and he knew exactly who it was. The woman who had hired them for their last mission had not liked him very well. In fact, she had complained to his face but he thought that it was over when the mission was complete. Maybe he was wrong.

Arriving at the Hokage tower just in time to make their appointment, the two of them walked up and knocked on the office door, waiting for a call to enter. Shikamaru found out that no matter if it's good or bad when you're anticipating something, the waiting is the hardest part. Nerves become edgy and palms begin to sweat. The mouth dries and standing still inevitably becomes the most difficult objective to accomplish. Trying to placate himself, he reminded himself that this wasn't the first time a woman would scold him and it probably wasn't the last. However, this was the first time he would ever stand in front of the woman Hokage and he really wished that he was elsewhere.

The call to enter came and Asuma opened the door allowing Shikamaru to enter before him. Being the first time that he'd ever seen the Hokage's office, he had expected something a bit more grandiose but the simplicity gave him a sense of ease. He also found that the office was occupied by more than the Hokage at the moment. Scanning the room, he saw the young woman whom he was sure was the Hokage's attendant. A few other familiar faces that he'd seen at the Chuunin exams were also present but the last one came as a surprise to him.

His father stood off to the side and held a guilty smirk on his face. Shikaku had known he was going to be here and had neglected to mention it to him. Now he was going to get scolded by a powerful woman in front of his father. I guess payback's a bitch. Trying his best to look unfazed by the number of eyes now cast upon him, he stood at attention and swallowed the lump in his throat. Facing the Hokage who was seated at her desk, he put on his most apathetic look in an attempt not to wither under her scrutinizing gaze.

"He looks just like you, Shikaku," she said without taking her eyes off of him. "I can definitely tell he's a Nara. The hair is a dead giveaway." She finally looked away from him to one of the papers on her desk. Shikamaru breathed a sigh of relief. For a woman, she could be very intimidating. No one said anything and the dead silence that Shikamaru would normally have enjoyed was now penetrating. Even more depressing was the fact that everyone seemed happy about his demise.

Fighting the urge to defend himself, he shoved his hands in his pockets so no one could see them shaking. A bead of sweat fell from his brow as he contemplated various excuses he might be able to use. Wanting to appear competent, he quickly threw out the overused and irrelevant ones. Although the Hokage looked young, she was in her fifties and was probably very cunning and experienced. It would take his best skills to get out of this one. Even though he knew better, he felt compelled to say something because the silence was unbearable. "Godaime-sama, I'd like to apologize."

The Hokage's smile dropped and she raised a questioning eyebrow. "Apologize?" she asked. "There's no need to apologize. I didn't call you here for a reprimand. Hasn't Asuma told you?" She looked quizzically at Asuma who was somewhat successful at suppressing his laughter. At this point, pretty much everyone else there was suppressing their laughter too. The only thing more embarrassing than being scolded was being made a fool of. "We're here to discuss your promotion."

Promotion? This was the first he had ever heard of it. Why him? He hadn't done anything to stand out. Hell, he hadn't even tried so why are they even considering it. Thinking back to the third exam, he'd almost kicked himself. Why did he let a woman push him into fighting? Letting his prejudices and his stubbornness push him into fighting better. If he would have known, he would have given up sooner. Now, a good long-term plan was going to waste and he would have to rethink his entire life.

"To be honest," the Hokage started dropping her hands into her lap. "I'm not quite sure of what to do. It is the opinion of some that there should be no qualifiers this time due to the fact that the exam wasn't completed." She reached over and picked up a brush from a box on her desk. "However, it has reached me that the Sandaime was extremely impressed with your fight." Cursing himself, Shikamaru had never desired to impress anyone. She dipped the brush in the inkwell. "I even heard that he considered recommending you for promotion himself."

Writing in the file on her desk, she kept talking without offering him a chance to speak. "All of the other Daimyo as well as the examiners share the same sentiment." Finished writing, she set the brush down and looked him in the eye. "Since that is the case and I was not here to see the fight, I don't think there is anything more for me to say on the matter." Even though she graced him with a smile, Shikamaru couldn't help but feel a small part of him die on the inside.

"Therefore," she resumed. "Continue to work hard and do not bring any disgrace to your hitai-ite." At the word, he glanced down to his arm and mused over the symbol of his village. It reminded him of what he was representing and it scared him a little. "Ometeto," she congratulated him. "From this day forward, you will be a Chuunin." It was at this point that he had finally realized why everyone was smiling and he was afraid he was going to let them down. "Dismissed."

The examiners began to file out of the room and his father walked over to him with a proud smile on his face. "You did very well, son. Try not to look so depressed." Finally looking up at his father, Shikamaru managed to give him a fake half-smile. "I have to take care of some business now but this afternoon I'll teach you a new clan technique." With a rough pat on the shoulder and a warm smile, his father left the room.

The Hokage's attendant walked over and handed him a forest green flak vest. She smiled and congratulated him and he thanked her in return. Holding up the vest, he inspected it with his eyes. While it was a little big for him, he was sure it wouldn't encumber him too much. The heaviest thing was the responsibility that came with it. Whether he liked it or not, the timetable of his life had been pulled dramatically forward. Sliding the vest on and zipping it up, he had always seen himself watching clouds and growing up slowly but now he was carrying the burden of responsibility a lot earlier than he intended.

The click of a lighter brought him out of his thoughts as Asuma lit up a fresh cigarette. Seeing the worry on the young man's face, Asuma gave him an encouraging smile. "Come on," he said. "Let's go get some barbeque to celebrate. Ino and Chouji will meet us there."

Arriving early, they took a seat as well as the liberty of ordering a rather large amount of meat in anticipation of their teammates' arrival, one in particular. Shikamaru, though, was lost in his own thoughts, trying to find his own reason for being promoted so soon. Asuma looked over at his student and understood what the child was going through. Now there were new expectations and people would be watching him closely to see exactly how he would fare. It was a burden he had never really desired. "Shinpai suru na," Asuma told him but Shikamaru just looked out the window. "You will be an excellent Chuunin, whether you know it or not."

"Eh?!" two familiar voices exclaimed as they joined him. Taking a seat opposite them, they stared at him as though he were a piece of meat. Even if they were his teammates, at the moment they were ogling him with a mixture of pride and envy and it only made him feel worse. "Even though you always lack the will to do anything, you look a bit more serious now." Ino said through a cheesy grin.

Chouji laughed. "It doesn't suit you at all." Shikamaru could only grumble as he tried his best to kill them with his eyes. For once in his life, he wished he had a doujutsu. The embarrassed look on his face only served to make his teammates laugh harder. Even Asuma had a good laugh at his expense.

"Well," Asuma managed through the laughter. "For now, let's have a toast." When everyone quieted down, he lifted his glass. "To Shikamaru's promotion." He gave them a wink as if it were some sort of inside joke. Shikamaru's worry was now thoroughly gone because it had been replaced by utter embarrassment.

"Itadakimasu!" Before anyone could offer up cheers, Chouji dove into the meet, skillfully collecting most of the slices that were sizzling on the grill and in a delicate manner placed them all in his mouth at once, much to the chagrin of the others there. Ino, particularly, felt the need to voice her opinion on the matter.

"Oi, Chouji," she scolded. "Don't start eating before we've made our toast!" Chewing his mouthful, Chouji looked at her with concern as if she had misunderstood something. Swallowing his bite, Chouji explained himself.

"It would be a waste if we let them burn." The concern in his voice was more for the meat than it was for Ino's impudence.

"There is plenty of meat," Asuma said. "So eat up." Chouji cheered for the idea and it had seemed that his team was back to normal. At least, they weren't concentrating on him and that suited him just fine. Chouji, as always, held Asuma to his promise and ate as soon as the meat was ready on the grill. Shikamaru, however, did not feel like eating, although he tried.

Eating like a machine, Chouji consumed most of the meat that had the luck of landing on the hibachi. Apparently, Asuma and Ino had not quite grown used to Chouji's eating habits as they watched in amazement. Although Ino had her concerns. "If you keep eating like that you'll end up in the hospital again. Don't you know how to slow down and enjoy your food more?"

"Ino," he said between bites. "I know how to enjoy food even if I consume a lot of it." He reached over and began pulling more meat off the grill. Asuma let out an exasperated sigh as sweat rolled down his face. Ino threw one piece of meat on the grill as that was the amount she was accustomed to. Flipping it once, she let it cook through on the other side. However, when she was distracted, Chouji reached in and pulled the piece of cooked meet from the grill and Ino became furious when she noticed.

"Chouji," she yelled. "That's the last piece I put on the grill!" Making an attempt to retrieve the aforementioned piece of meat, she swooped in with her chopsticks but Chouji skillfully dodged her attack, even raising his free arm to block future ones. When Ino realized that it was as futile as taking a piece of meat from a hungry lion, she huffed in defeat. Chouji took on a serious look as he held the meat a few centimeters form his face.

"This is the last bite," he said stoically. "It is the final one and, therefore, it is the one most suitable to be enjoyed." Looking at Ino out of the corner of his eye, Chouji maintained the serious façade. "No matter the cost, I will not relinquish this right to anyone." With that, he slid the sizzling, tasty piece of meat into his mouth and chewed slowly allowing the flavor to roll across his taste buds.

"Why are you trying to act so cool?!" Ino yelled in frustration. Her temper was flaring and while this was not unusual, it was the first time she lost it at the dinner table. "Baka!" Standing up, she pointed at him in frustration. She had somehow felt attacked by his nonsense and was feeling the urge to retaliate. "That's why everyone makes fun of you, de…"

"Ino," Shikamaru interrupted knowing exactly where she was going. This situation had happened before and he knew if he didn't stop it now that it would escalate into something much more troublesome. "You know that's a taboo." Turning to look at his best friend, Shikamaru knew that it was unfair to just scold one and not the other. "And Chouji, eating is not a battle. You should relax while you're eating." Ino relaxed and sat back down. Chouji let out a guilty chuckle.

"Chouji," Asuma spoke for the first time in a while. "All you do is eat. You should train sometime." Even though the words were meant to be helpful, Shikamaru could see the negative impact they were having on his friend. Chouji swallowed the last bite and looked down solemnly. After that, the table remained silent. Asuma got up to pay the bill and Shikamaru went to use the restroom. After washing his hands, he found that there were no paper towels with which to dry them so he shook them dry. As he neared the entrance, he overheard a conversation between his teammates.

"You have it so easy," Ino told Chouji. "You can eat all you want without caring about how you look. I have so much trouble dieting."

"Why are you dieting, Ino?" Chouji asked with confusion in his voice.

"A woman always desires to look good for the cute guy she likes." There was a dreamy sound in her voice.

"But what if that person doesn't like thin girls?" Chouji asked almost sounding desperate.

"Regardless of the situation," she told him confidently. "Men always like women who aren't fa…" She caught herself knowing that the situation could get out of hand. "I mean, women who are thin." She paused for a second and her voice almost became seductive. "And vice versa."

Chouji didn't say anything but Shikamaru knew that his friend was not too fond of the last part. He must have given her a face because she giggled at him. "Chouji, you should care a little more about how you look," she told him. Turning to walk away, she sang over her shoulder. "Or else no one will like you."

Shikamaru laughed aloud. "Man, she has no idea, does she?" Chouji looked at him quizzically as he didn't even notice his presence until now. "Men don't like skinny women as much as she thinks. Most prefer a woman with nice curves." He watched as Ino exited the restaurant. Stepping out into the hallway, he finished the statement. "And vice versa, right?" He winked and turned to see his best friend. "I bet Ino would be more popular if she put on a few pounds." As if to prove his point, he puffed out his cheeks in an attempt to look fatter.

Chouji let out a hearty laugh that instantly made Shikamaru feel better about himself. His kind friend had a way of making someone feel at ease. "Shikamaru, you're always funny as well as smart," Chouji complimented. Shikamaru looked at him questioningly. He had thought that he was supposed to cheer Chouji up so why was Chouji complimenting him? "I've always known you were a far greater person than Sasuke or that Neji guy, Shikamaru."

Blinking a couple of times, Shikamaru tried to comprehend what his friend was trying to say. While a compliment did mean a lot coming from Chouji, this particular one almost sounded unbelievable. It was as if his friend were trying to return the favor and cheer him up as well. "I've never thought about it," he said looking away. "I'm just me."

"Well," Chouji pointed out. "You were the only one to get promoted during this year's Chuunin exam."

"But if we had to fight, you'd probably be stronger, right?" This was turning into an argument. "If I had fought you, I probably would have given up as well."

"But Sensei says that all I do is eat and that I never improve…" This harmless argument had taken a serious turn. Chouji cast his eyes downward in humility.

"I told you that I am me and you are you." He took a step closer to his friend. "It's retarded to think about who is better at what." Placing a hand on Chouji's shoulder, he waited for his friend to look up so he could look him in the eye. "There is no point in letting what Asuma said get to you. All you need to worry about is living life naturally and comfortably." Chouji smiled again and Shikamaru felt that his job there was done. "I'll see you later. I've got to go home now. My father told me that he wanted to pass on a new, troublesome clan technique to me." He turned to walk away but Chouji called out to him.

"Shikamaru," he said. Shikamaru stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Shugyo ganbatte yo(3)!" Shikamaru acknowledged and continued walking. Chouji was a good guy regardless of what people said about him. Deep down inside though, Shikamaru wondered if he needed to take his own advice.

"Did you know that you can physically attack with your shadow?" his father asked. They were standing in a field on the edge of their property amongst the wild grass. "Once an opponent is captured by your shadow, you gain physical control over their body but you can also attack." His father's shadow flickered and then stretched out until it connected with his. "Simply by changing the last few seals in the sequence your shadow can extend as a hand enabling you to suppress or even choke your opponent." His father ran through a few seals and he could feel something spiraling up his leg and then his torso.

He became worried when it got closer to his neck. The feeling of not being in control of your own body was overwhelming. He could understand why opponents feared this technique. The hand stopped just short of his neck much to his relief before trailing back down body and his father's shadow disengaged from his and slithered back to his father. Choking the life out of someone was a rather cruel way to kill but also rather effective. It would enable him to inflict damage from a distance.

"Kage Kubi Shibari no Jutsu is a killing technique," Shikaku said. "Because of its lethality, we normally don't pass it on until we feel they are ready to burden the responsibility of lethal force." His father looked at him with pride as he spoke. "Now that you are a Chuunin, you will be given tougher missions and some which will require the use of lethal force which is why I have chosen to show you now." Shikaku looked off into the distance as if in deep thought. "I do not know when the situation will arise in which you will be forced to use it but it will come. I pray that when the time comes, you will be able to." Shikamaru nodded in understanding.

"Practice the seals and learn them by heart so that you will not falter in the moment of truth." Shikaku looked to the setting sun in the distance and a thought struck him. "Let's get home," he said. "You know how angry your mother can get when we're late. We will train again in the morning." With that, the two of them started the slow trek back home, neither in a hurry to get there. Shikamaru thought of the events of the day and how much his life had changed in such a short period of time.

That night, as he prepared for bed, he removed his flak vest and laid it upon his dresser. Staring at it, he wondered when he became the responsible type. The irony of the whole situation was that he never desired it in the first place. Whether or not he wanted it, he was more responsible now and he would just have to change his life's plan. A task more easily said than done. Sleep came to him that night but it came late as he formulated a new plan in his mind.

The morning came too early for him and his father as well. His mother saw to that. Slipping on his fishnet shirt, he went downstairs and joined his father at the breakfast table. His father looked no worse for wear than he did but he was sipping on some tea in an effort to wake up. Shikamaru chose to forgo the tea as he'd never really developed a liking for it. Letting out a deep yawn, he heard his mother coming out of the kitchen.

"Hurry up and eat, Shikamaru," Yoshino scolded. "Your father has a mission today. Meaning that you don't have a whole lot of time for training this morning." She reached over and refilled his father's cup of tea. Shikamaru sighed and looked down at the plate of food before him.

"Hai, hai," he grumbled and it seemed to irritate her.

"You only have to say it once," she said but was interrupted by the doorbell. Setting down the teapot, she turned to answer the door. "I wonder who could be here this early?" Shikamaru wondered why she had to be so fucking troublesome in the morning. As she left the dining room, Shikamaru had a thought.

"Na, oyaji," he whispered to his father who grumbled something in response. "Why did you marry such a troublesome woman?" His father closed his eyes and swished the tea around in his mouth. He seemed to be contemplating the question, searching for the right answer.

"Sou da na," he mumbled. "Your mother may be like that but there are times when she has a kind smile." He thought about it for a moment. "I guess that's why." Taking another sip of his tea, he said no more.

"That's all?" Shikamaru asked but his father never responded.

"Shikamaru," his mother interrupted sounding more pleasant than earlier. "The Godaime's messengers are here to see you." He looked at her quizzically but got up to see what the messengers needed. Arriving at the door, he found two of the examiners from the first exam standing in front of him.

"The Godaime has a mission for you, hurry up," the one in bandages said. Nodding, Shikamaru went upstairs to grab his things. He almost forgot to put on his vest but as he picked it up, he noticed something else. Next to the vest on the dresser was a small box that held one of his birthday presents. Not knowing what the mission entailed, it was better to be prepared. Reaching inside, he pulled out one of the yellow balls and placed it in his pouch. Walking down the stairs, he slid his vest on and headed out the door.

A/N: (1) Ometeto - Congratulations

(2) Hisashiburi da na - It's been some time or It's been awhile

(3) Shugyo ganbatte yo - Shugyo = Training, Ganbatte = Work Hard or Do your Best, yo - Exclamatory particle.