This fic is rated M for a reason, and this time it's for the violence.

Shikamaru/Chouji. Sequel to Trouble, but can be read stand-alone.

Many thanks to iFrank for brainstorming with me! Her review (and the passing of notes thereafter) are the reason there's a sequel!


"My world has gone to hell in a hand-basket," I comment offhandedly, shaking my head as I lean against her desk.

The mission? Failed. My career? Done-for. Chouji and I? Finished. I think now, for the first time, I'm coming to fully realize how much I've lost. Everything I've ever known and everything I've ever wanted is crumbling all around me. I just want to curl up and cry or lie down and die, but I can't afford that now. I have to make things right even if I know nothing will ever be right again. I won't be made to regret what I've done; until my dying day, I will stand by the choice I made. I can say without a second's hesitation that if I were given the chance to go back— to remake the decision which failed the mission and ended my life as a ninja…

"I stand by my decision."

I didn't know it at the time, but my life was already over anyway.

01001101010001

Three days previous:

I could be out on the hill right now, contemplating the clouds with Chouji, but here we are in the middle of some random forest on some random mission of goodwill to some random village I've never even heard of. Not exactly how I envisioned my day when I woke up this morning, but I'll take it. Chouji must be rubbing off on me; I think I've even started to enjoy my job again as of late.

"Shikamaru, are you smiling?" Naruto raises his eyebrow at me as we leap from tree to tree. He's leaving a much more visible trail, I notice.

"Don't know what you're talking about," I whisper, shrugging. "Now be quiet, Naruto. And watch your tracks, would you? We're going for stealth here, remember?"

Naruto's brows knit together as he looks down and he puffs his face up indignantly as he realizes that even he, with his nonexistent tracking ability, can clearly see the footprints he's leaving behind. His next steps are lighter and much less visible. "There, happy?" he mumbles.

"Much better," I nod, glancing over my shoulder to check on Chouji and Neji. I sincerely doubt either of them need to be reminded to keep a low profile, but it has been nearly a day since we left Konoha's walls.

'Better safe than sorry' is a good strategy to keep to at any time, but given the sketchy nature of this assignment, I'm making it a priority. Our mission briefing was blessedly short, but seriously lacking in any kind of helpful information, such as who or what we're up against. We don't even know what the problem is, exactly. The only thing we actually know for sure is that there have been a few unusual disappearances in the village we're headed to… Not that we know what makes those disappearances unusual. Apparently our contractor thought that information was superfluous. I sigh and roll my eyes.

"Seriously," Naruto whispers to me, "what's going on with you?"

"What?" I shoot him a look of confused skepticism.

"You keep doing normal stuff, like smiling and talking and making faces when you're thinking about stuff," notes the blonde concernedly.

Am I that transparent? I shrug. "It won't happen again."

"That's not what I meant," he pouts. "I—"

A dull cracking sound splits through the treetops behind us, and both Naruto and I wheel around in time to see Neji fall limply from his tree, hitting two branches on the way down before his body sprang back to life and righted itself. He swayed slightly as he climbed to his feet, but he was quick enough this time that Chouji wasn't even able to get to him before he was back up again.

"Neji, that's the second time today," I sigh, leaping from my branch toward him. "I thought you had this crap under control. Didn't the Hokage give you something for those narcoleptic spells?"

"It's not narcolepsy," Neji snaps as he rummages through his pockets. "It's the damn cataplexy."

"The what?" asks Naruto.

"The one where he's not actually asleep," I answer. "Don't you have pills for that too?"

"Yeah, but if I can help it, I shouldn't be taking them on missions," Neji sighs, drawing a couple of pills from his pocket and popping them in his mouth. "They give me headaches and I bleed like a stuck pig when I take them. Besides, I'm starting to get the hang of this. I think I'll be able to completely control these attacks soon."

"I'm sorry," whines Naruto, "but can we go back to the part where you said he wasn't asleep? Because that looked a lot like asleep to me. Chouji, you were closer, did that look like asleep to you?"

Chouji nods in his direction and Neji takes a very slow, deep breath before replying. "I wasn't asleep, I just couldn't move," he says slowly and levelly.

He's trying to calm himself down so he doesn't have another attack while his meds are kicking in. I think it's almost funny… His attacks are triggered mostly by stress or embarrassment, and most of that is caused by his attacks. Once he's had one it's like a landslide from there. And, of course, Naruto has yet to notice that he's the one who's been making it worse. Almost funny. Almost.

It'd be truly hilarious if we weren't in the middle of nowhere, hunting down who-knows-what. From what I hear, the last time he had this problem during a mission he was almost killed— awake and aware, but in complete paralysis as he was tortured. That shit will not be happening on my mission. If he has one more of these, I'm calling the whole thing off. He could get himself killed. He could get us all killed. I'm not risking that over such a petty mission.

"Neji," I speak seriously, "For future reference, my team will never include a ninja that falls out of trees when he gets his knickers in a twist. If you're not fit to fight from the moment we begin our job, you're putting yourself and the rest of the team in danger. If the medicine that the Hokage gave you has side-effects, you'd better deal with them or stay at home."

"And when I bleed to death because my blood doesn't clot well enough?" Neji asked sarcastically.

"It was your choice to take this assignment; there's always a chance of dying out here," I snap. "It's your business if you choose to do it at a higher risk than the rest of us. It's my business when you do it at a greater risk to the rest of us." I see Chouji giving the narcoleptic an apologetic look. I turn and leap forward to the next tree branch and continue when I hear the rest of them following me.

"Shikamaru, don't you think that might have been a little rough?" Chouji asks quietly once he catches up.

"You know I don't like being a hard-ass, but I think I have a pretty decent reason," I answer.

"You're making this personal when it doesn't have to be," chides Chouji. "They call him a genius, but he's not a genius like you are. He hasn't had time to come to terms with what's happening to him."

I sigh. "Maybe you're right. I think I know how he's feeling… But it doesn't change the fact that those things had to be said."

"You could have been a little nicer, though," he points out.

"…Yeah," I shrug. "Shoulda, coulda, woulda. He'll live."

"I'm going to tell him."

"I figured you'd want to," I frown. "I'd rather you didn't though," I continued, only just less than passively.

He gives me that chastising 'Chouji-knows-best' look of his, and I know he probably does, but a feeling of unease settles in my stomach. I know that as long as he is under my command he'll follow my orders, whatever they might be… But when we get back I can tell we're going to have to have a talk… How troublesome. I wonder if he'd agree to fight it out instead. At least then I'd have some small chance of winning… Well, maybe not. Until then, it's one foot after the other after the other after the other.

This is the absolute worst part of any mission: the hours upon hours of mindless running. I was once told that ninja run through the treetops rather than on the ground for the purpose of camouflaging their presence and maintaining high ground and a decent vantage point. I think the real reason behind it is that running along the ground is dull enough to dull the senses of even the most well-trained ninja. At least the forest canopy provides a more unpredictable track to run— having to judge every leap and bound in a split-second helps to keep a ninja's mind alert. Most ninja anyway.

I could do this backward and blindfolded at the age of twelve, but if I didn't have a few tricks up my sleeve I'd have run face-first into a tree trunk at some point in the last nine hours. What when I was younger fully engaged my every sense now takes no more than a passing thought to accomplish. In other words, it's mind-numbingly boring. While having a good time on a mission is not high on my list of priorities, I have the presence of mind to realize when presence of mind is required. A brain that is not being constantly challenged in new and different ways grows used to consistency. A ninja who allows himself boredom also surrenders himself to inattention to possibly important details.

I, in my effort to entertain my mind and to keep all my senses attuned to the mission, have come up with probably the most complicated, bizarre, and absurd travel-game in all of existence. If I could put it into words, I think I'd have to describe it as something like a multi-sensory role-playing strategy board game. Without a board. Well, okay, there is a board, but it's in my head. It's something like a checkerboard, but it's much larger, and instead of black and white, the board is made up of five different colors. Each space on my mental-game board is a piece of physical space, and the color is defined by strategic importance… Which, in turn, is defined by a multitude of different factors. And that's just the game board.

The main pieces, of course, would be my team. Now, I don't actually think them as pawns in some grand scheme; this game is simply a tool to entertain myself. While my game is one based on strategy, it's more aimed at predicting the movements and reactions of my team rather than utilizing them as soldiers. Besides that, Naruto would make a terrible pawn, Neji's more like a rook, and for some reason, Chouji reminds me of Go Fish.

Anyway, through a series of calculations based on the estimated number of living things in our given gamespace, the size and type of those creatures, and their proximity to any of the members of my team, I can basically predict the slightest of movements that even they don't know they're making. From the expressions on their faces to the almost imperceptible diversion from their original courses, I see it a split-second before it happens.

Of course, that depends entirely on external factors. They still surprise me all the time with acts that seem random or spontaneous that stem not from outside, but from within. I suppose a lot of that is probably fairly predictable too, but it would require more than observation to get inside the head of any Konoha ninja. I'm just not the kind of social butterfly that could really keep up with that. Hell, I'm hardly social at all if I can help it. People are way too high-maintenance… Chouji being the only exception that I'm aware of.

I shake my head and focus back on the game. It may seem like an absurd waste of time and effort over a very trivial task, but it's actually far more complicated (in both process and result) than I can express in words. I'm not guesstimating, I'm calculating, and for calculating I must first have viable data to rely on. My every sense— sight, sound, touch, smell… Well, not so much taste, but my important senses (Chouji would be so disappointed in me for thinking that) are constantly straining to perceive every detail of our surroundings. I track everything that moves and doesn't move around us.

I indicated before that the main pieces in my screwed-up mind-game were my teammates. However, there are also an infinite number of other pieces… Namely each and every living thing that is not one of my men. Some of the game-pieces I know to be definite when my senses confirm their presence, many are supposed (usually when I've sensed an anomaly, but am not quite sure what it is), and then there are an absolutely fantastic amount of possibilities that I try to account for despite having no proof or indication of a presence. Much of the last group is compromised of smaller insects. Hmm… Maybe I should call this game "Quantum Physics by Color."

Nah. Quantum physics is more about probabilities than actualities. I usually wind up taking it into consideration, but it can't really compare with cold, hard fact. I trust my eyes more than I trust my math. However, most of my sensory confirmations actually come from sound, not from sight. No matter how skilled ninja may be, our arts are designed to deceive and combat human foes, or demons who've taken on human characteristics. We hide in the shadows and pass with no trace, but the animals who live in forests like these still see us and feel our presence quite distinctly. They hide from our intrusion and, while that makes them more difficult to see, it causes them to make hurried movements which I am specifically trained to hear. The sound of leaves rustling in the wind makes a different sound than a small animal brushing against them, and I could tell the sounds apart in anything short of a hurricane.

Though perhaps not the most exciting game in the world, it keeps my feet moving and my mind on my surroundings.

01001101010001

"I didn't see it coming at all, to tell you the truth."


This fanfiction is complete, but the rest still needs to be revised and it's 1:30 am on a worknight. D: You can expect a couple-few more chapters to be posted within the next week or two.