A/N: Very late birthday fic for Juli whom I adore for all the little things she did for me back when I was always stuck in a hospital ward. This fic clearly got out of hand, and was written on and off for a period spanning over 2 years, within which my writing style changed and shifted, making this fic a patchwork that took considerable effort to smoothen out. In this time, several people have offered their support. My two sisters for their opinions on the first draft of the beginning of this story and their support, Aucifiel for when she would tell me that quality required time, Lazynin for being intrigued and for her insights on Shino and Shikamaru, Fyre for always being sunny and supportive and who also expressed a motivating interest, and last but certainly not least Rachel, who stuck by me through the last two weeks of unimaginable effort, bearing with my mood swings and sacrificing her sleep amidst her busy schedule to keep cheering me on. To all of you, thank you very much. To those who have contributed to this fic by supporting me and whom I have forgotten to mention, or in the unlikely event that the authors of the games and manga I've been reading that partially inspired the cathartic feel of this story ever read this, thank you for touching me and this work of mine. No influence, however small, would ever be overlooked; even if my conscious mind is a bit of an idiot, my subconscious is actually pretty smart, and both of them are grateful.
Lastly, while every effort was made to edit this to perfection, I'm sure many more mistakes remain- in fact I spotted one just moments ago- so I hope that if that happens, it doesn't put you off too much, and please feel free to correct me, but politely please, we writers have feelings.
And of course the disclaimer: Naruto and all its characters and related terminology belong to Kishimoto-sensei; and this work is not a reflection of how Kishimoto-sensei intended his work to be represented. This work also contains slash/yaoi, and is a work intended for a mature audience that does not mind homosexual themes, as well as moderate gore and violence. That being said, this work is not intended to be a pornographic piece and should not be taken as such, though it does venture into the erotic. Long story short- don't like, don't read.
If all of this hasn't turned you off yet, I hope you enjoy the read and drop a few comments if you wish. Oh, one more thing- I hope you enjoy your extremely belated birthday fic Juli. ^^
Mark of the Leaf
In the eclipsing shadows that fed off wildly swaying lanterns beneath bamboo-patterned roof tiles, he staggered under a single leaf held against his flushing cheek.
"No, Udon, wait," he begged, the hazel hue of his eyes swallowed in the inky darkness. His pleas rang out and faded into the silence of the secluded rock garden. Opposed to the quivering tan bridge of his own nose, was the silver-nickel crescent frame of his assailant's glasses, gleaming with an ominous bloody tint in the light of paper-wrapped flames. Through their thinly sliced lenses, eyes ever as black as the darkness they served in, studied the escalating irregularity of their prisoner's breaths, and the growing paralysis as the young man began to slide against the polished pillar.
Udon pushed it half a step further drawing the suffocating shadows in with him, and robbing the youth of yet another gasp of air. His captive's flaring mane of bistre brown hair grew matted at clammy temples, and the pained grimace was now joined with desperate clawing against barring walls. The wicked curve of a smile cut deeper into Udon's face.
The portent in the whispering stars- Konohamaru would lose everything tonight.
Konohamaru's first impression of the Hidden Leaf was that the decrepit coachman, so ancient that his gums were as smooth as his scalp, had made a wrong turn. While he stood there tearing and hacking in the dust cloud raised by the hastily departing rickety carriage, the lugubrious sounds of a little backwater town's afternoon street life were barely audible above the shrill bird calls, and the sporadic rustling from the great verdant wall of forest ringing it.
When his vision cleared, he found an amazingly unimpressive collection of mostly one-storey houses, barely even white-washed. Many were guarded by blackened, squat stools, randomly occupied by unperturbed men who looked well within their prime. It was well past noon, wasn't there any work in the village? Still not quite believing that this was the Hidden Leaf, the jealously guarded jewel of Fire Country, Konohamaru smoothed his hair back distractedly and stepped past the crude wooden fence that poorly marked the borders of civilization. The fact that it was sturdy oak, a good four inches thick, brought scant comfort to the young man who had envisioned towering walls of spiky defiance against frothing invaders. It was a waking nightmare. The commanding lookout towers were replaced by a cracked bucket holding a thin film of liquid dirt, while the stern armoured sentries scowling from their posts faded to the tranquil harmlessness of an ash-grey squirrel watching him curiously from its ringed tree stump.
Sighing dejectedly, he shouldered his teal canvas backpack, the only luggage he had brought with him for the ritual. He had only thought to bring three days' change of clothing and a few basic toiletries, along with a small dog-eared book his burly and tobacco-wafting Uncle Asuma had secretly pressed into his hand with a wink and a whispered, "Good luck." Konohamaru had taken a quick peek into the untitled plain-cover book on the bottom-bruising ride, and had spent the next three-quarters of an hour blushing furiously, while trying to grasp the main points in an acute fit of sudden performance jitters.
Now it just seemed a complete waste of time and a tremendous anti-climax to the weeks of endured teasing and the horribly embarrassing unsolicited advice from his home tutor, Ebisu-sensei, and his uncle and his boisterous company of heavy-set, chain-smoking, "happy hour" friends during a late-night coming-of-age party. Needless to say, he had been obliged to attend it under duress after a conspired kidnapping. He could just imagine the look on their faces when he returned home at the end of the three days with only dirty laundry to show for it, his navel bare of the Mark of the Leaf.
Sorry to disappoint you. I haven't completely become a man yet because the senile coach driver brought me to some remote backwater village in the middle of nowhere.
Yeah, that was going to go well with the welcoming committee. He'd be the laughing stock of his entire village. The priests would be furious with him, and he had been yearning to meet them after all the stories he had heard about the legendary keepers of the sacred Eldest Tree.
"You seem lost."
Konohamaru spun around, completely taken off-guard. He hadn't even felt any approaching presence. The owner of that dignified voice towered before him in bright flowing robes of white silk printed with jadeite green bamboo branches that seemed to sway in a breeze that Konohamaru couldn't feel. His wealth of dark hair slipped down onto his shoulders, held back from strikingly pale irises with a pure white sash of iridescent silk secured across the stranger's forehead. A vivid gold pattern spiralled in its centre, forming a prominently displayed Mark of the Leaf.
A Golden Mark of the Leaf!
Konohamaru hastily bowed, nearly colliding into the man as the overenthusiastic force tripped him forward a couple of steps. Only a select few could wear the Mark of the Leaf in gold. Among those qualified were The Daimyo, his heir and the most revered priests of Fire Country, those honoured with the title of Deva.
"Let us dispense with such formalities," the Deva urged, "I would not wish to impose the burdens of decorum on one who has travelled a long way." His voice, clear and refined, instantly enlightened Konohamaru on what one poet meant when he wrote of a voice 'like priceless tea glinting in a delicate cup'.
"Yes, honoured Deva," Konohamaru answered meekly as he rose, cheeks flushing with a rush of relief and admiration. His joy in the relief of having confirmed his arrival at the Hidden Leaf was overwhelmed by the sheer awe from the realization of who he was directly addressing. Sneaking a glance from a timidly downcast gaze, he noted how piercingly penetrative those uncanny white-jade eyes appeared. There was no doubt that he stood before a Hyuuga, one of the most honoured families in Fire Country. The Hyuugas were both feared and respected throughout the nation, partly because of their powerful influence, and mainly and traditionally because of the power of their eyes. Their milky radiance could peer through any veil, revealing anything that endeavoured to be obscured.
As those eyes appraised him, Konohamaru cringed in his heavily-starched shirt, realising belatedly that the act was unforgivably disrespectful. The high priest merely smiled as Konohamaru winced and surprised the youth when he dipped into a shallow bow.
"Pardon me for startling you. I am Hyuuga Neji, a priest of the local temple-"
"Ah! My name is Sarutobi Konohamaru, Sir!" Konohamaru barked remembering his manners.
Once again, that serene smile that threatened to remain there until Konohamaru wet himself, or fainted, or both. Neji extended a hand, hanging sleeves folding back in the gesture, revealing a peek at the unblemished suppleness of the Deva's inner arm. Catching himself staring and suddenly aware that the high priest expected him to take his hand, Konohamaru thrust his own hand into it, hesitating to grip until Neji secured a firm clasp. Spellbound by the simple grasp that encapsulated the greatest moment in his life his grandchildren would one day tell their kids about, the brief tug of his arm and his numbly moving feet barely conveyed to him that they were moving.
"So Konohamaru, have you secured lodgings?" Neji enquired pleasantly, not so much strolling as he was somehow permitting the air to stroke those fair cheeks and the heat to glimmer in his dark locks.
Konohamaru struggled to form a swift reply. "Yes, Sir! We were instructed to in the official letter, Sir," the young man responded stiffly.
Neji chuckled, pale eyes framed with relaxed mirth. "You'd be surprised by the number of those who forget. We finally surrendered last year and had a guesthouse commissioned. It's nothing too grand, but I've heard from some of our patrons that it's quite comfortable," Neji chatted freely before glancing over, favouring the puppy-eyed attentiveness with raised brows and a bemused grin.
"Y-yes, Sir!" Konohamaru replied flusteredly.
Above them, unobserved in the shaded corner of a home's balcony, someone watched, a mocking leer twisting across his face. The shadows wrestled over the face till the glow of the afternoon heat gilded its smooth outline, and revealed in restless brown eyes a liveliness that gleamed. The only acknowledgement of his presence was the barest suggestion of an incline along Neji's chin.
Hah, well he hadn't intended to deceive Neji anyway, although the fellow Deva was probably going to later give him an earful of, "Shikamaru, you're the Shadow Master now, leave the unbecoming skulking to your shadow priests!" The Divination Master was dearer to him than a brother, but that didn't sweeten the nagging one bit.
Shikamaru followed them with his eyes, trailing after the nervous wreck of a boy who seemed to slowly warm up to Neji's trivial talk.
Hold on a moment . . . if he remembered correctly, Konohamaru of Ichiraku street?
Shikamaru's brown eyes darted distractedly as he verified the suddenly thrown up mental red flag before they suddenly narrowed coldly.
Stepping away from the balcony, Shikamaru shoved his hands into the pockets of his dark green cotton jacket and shuffled pensively to the low table, accidentally kicking a zabuton out of place. Frowning as he toed it back, Shikamaru stared at the ceiling, seeing something in the greying plaster that was apparent only to him.
The faint rattle of a shoji panel sliding open didn't disturb his silent thoughts, but when the panel shut, he ceased his mental projections and focused instead on the lowered head of a kneeling acolyte. To most of the priests, acolytes were indistinguishable with their identical white robes naked of any branch or rank markings, the only memorable thing about them being their bowed head and the trim and tint of their hair. Having yet to earn the Mark of the Leaf on their robes, they thronged the clergy in near anonymity, preparing themselves for the Dark Vigil and the attainment of full priesthood. Until then, they acted as temple runners and only needed to be addressed as, "boy!"
Shikamaru could recognise each and every one of them with a glance, although the acolyte currently before him wasn't difficult to identify. Famous even amongst the more complacent priests, the dark brown hair sliding silkily to the floor held back with a looping knot of eternity, and the hint of jasmine that the acolyte loved, were well-recognised trademarks of the young prodigy.
"Udon, don't bother with such formalities," Shikamaru dismissed lazily.
The acolyte raised his chin and the gleam of cold lenses melted in the streaming light, revealing a level dark gaze.
"Done all that you need to?" Shikamaru continued lethargically.
"Yes, Sir," Udon murmured in a subdued but firm tone.
Shikamaru studied the picture of stone-faced passive resistance and exhaled slowly. There was no point in bringing up his objections here again, especially after the Council had decided to allow this young one to perform the Dark Vigil. He spared a lingering, reluctant gaze before nodding stiffly.
"Then let's return . . . just saw our latest charge arrive. There'll be work for all of us this evening, I expect," he predicted with a defeated sigh while his mind raced in private calculation. As he moved to step forward, pain ruptured in his temples and his vision exploded in sharp, violent colours.
The scent of jasmines fading fast . . . Shikamaru could not hold on to the blurring image of Udon's panicked movements.
". . ."
Distantly, the hollow strike of bamboo marked the interminable passing of time, and as the sweet aroma of sandalwood fed warmth into his numb sinews, Shikamaru awoke, blinking away the tendrils of sleep from his eyes. His deep brown eyes crossed stern white ones where Neji sat beside the white cotton futon Shikamaru discovered himself tucked into. Dressed simply in a black yukata printed with icy blue waves, the high priest was still every bit as intimidating as he was in his formal robes wielding his badge of authority above pale eyes that pierced through the hearts of men.
"This is going to be bothersome . . ." Shikamaru sighed, shutting his eyes and grimacing as he tried to sit up, desisting only when the firm pressure of deceptively delicate fingers pinned him down.
"Why did you not heed my repeated reminders to leave the task of escorting Udon to one of the priests?" Neji demanded, pale eyes wearing a hole into Shikamaru's face.
"Neji-" Shikamaru protested, but the knot of Neji's brows only thickened.
"Have you forgotten what condition you're in? Must you make the rest of us remember it for you? Have you any idea of how much panic you raised, returning unconscious over Udon's back? The entire temple had almost taken to arms, thinking that a high priest had been struck down by a hostile force! I must congratulate you though, Deva Nara Shikamaru, on at least being conscientious enough to mask your identity. Discarding your ceremonial robes for the robes of a commoner? What were you thinking?"
Neji paused mid-rebuke, panting as Shikamaru listened with a bored face.
"This does not reflect well on you, Shikamaru. You should know what the other clerics are saying," Neji added more softly, casting his gaze away as shame and regret filled them.
Shikamaru remained impassive, and was quite content to remain so all afternoon. Eyeing the discomfort of the fellow Deva however, he shrugged nonchalantly.
"I don't care," he declared, provoking a sharp glare from his friend. "Udon was being magnanimous. I know how heavy I am," he finished lightly.
"This is not a matter warranting mirth!" Neji hissed.
"Neji," Shikamaru returned steadily, "as long as I know I'm not crazy, even with this brain tumour, what does it matter what other people think?"
Neji recoiled as if struck, drawing a groan from his friend as the Hyuuga hung his head. The sharp sound of a slap startled the mollified high priest, and he raised his eyes to see Shikamaru sitting up and sporting a swelling red handprint against his right cheek.
"Why?" Neji whispered, wide-eyed and confused.
"Because I said the wrong thing," Shikamaru explained hazel eyes sheepish as he moved to rub his face and winced.
"Shikamaru- is it . . . truly alright for you to be just . . . waiting?" Neji whispered as he faced the edge of the creased covers. Shikamaru scrutinised the gold-bordered lime panels of the high ceiling, uncertain of what to say.
"I don't have any luck at gambling," he compromised half-jokingly.
"I think-" Neji began, unable to continue. He sensed fingers winding into his clenched ones, and he allowed his lids to fall over pale eyes in defeat.
"I'm still around, I'm happy enough with that," Shikamaru reassured, his jaw clenching as he felt Neji squeeze his fingers tightly. He knew all too well the unspoken words that were pressed into them.
The message in the Hyuuga's silent frown was plain enough for Shikamaru.
"You're still so soft Neji," he mocked with a small smile earning a half-hearted glare.
'You see the growth don't you?' Shikamaru allowed the dark thought to twist grotesquely in his mind, swallowing the question he could never ask. He knew the answer already. That was why that though it was bothersome, Shikamaru felt unable to brush the pale-eyed Deva off with his usual candour. He didn't even want to know if the rumours of the Divination Master weeping over death omens formed in the ink pool were true. He might not have the courage left to look his partner in the eye if they were.
"I'm sorry, I truly am at fault. Allow me to redeem myself with tonight's dinner guest," Shikamaru offered, gently pulling his hand away and patting his wrinkled t-shirt with a wry face. "I hope they've got my robes prepared back in my quarters."
"I saw you watching, but do you really intend to personally attend the Acquaintance Dinner?" Neji questioned doubtfully.
"It's the one duty they haven't stripped away from this invalid right?" Shikamaru replied distractedly as he climbed out of the covers and staggered to his feet.
Neji rose with him.
"I understand how you feel, but you do need the time to rest," the taller man countered stepping up to his friend, carefully examining the pallor of Shikamaru's face, and the feeble droop of lean shoulders. Neji's pale gaze fell critically upon the modest silver earrings that looped through Shikamaru's earlobes. Ear studs perhaps, or a single earring on either side, but earrings on both ears? Removing those earrings was a battle Neji intended to win, just not right now when there was a more pressing battle to focus on.
"Plenty of time to do that when I'm- I mean," Shikamaru hastily corrected himself, "I'll just get bored."
Neji merely continued his inspection, casually brushing over the high ponytail with a very grim look.
"That will have to go, I'll go get my comb and smoothen it down," he declared firmly, and Shikamaru had to swallow his complaints.
A sudden memory flashed urgently in his mind.
"Neji," Shikamaru called just as the fellow Deva was about to turn to his dressing table, "join me for dinner won't you; Udon too?"
Neji scrutinized him for a few moments before answering. "Won't we be in the way? Besides, if so many of us attend Konohamaru-kun would be quite alarmed."
"Nah, the more the merrier! The boy's quite smitten with you, so I'm really obliging him by having you over. Besides, I really need to thank both Udon and you for taking care of me today," Shikamaru casually explained under Neji's watchful gaze.
"Shikamaru, I believe Udon can pass the Dark Vigil. Even without the power of my visions to divine the result, I have no doubt in my mind that he would do us proud," the Divination Master stated bluntly.
"The two of you come along alright?" Shikamaru murmured quietly, shoving his hands into his cargo pants, knuckles white as his fists locked.
Evening had cooled a royal purple over the glowing embers of sunset, and the sleepy town repainted itself in the glow of swaying lanterns. Hearths had come alive in every homestead, crackling warmly before clinking dinner plates, relaxed conversation and laughter. The kindly old lady tenant had informed Konohamaru that she would wait up for him, in case he returned hungry from the Acquaintance Dinner. He had looked back at her smile-creased wrinkles in bewilderment. In a flash, the butterflies that had never left him since a week ago, when he first received his invitation letter, rioted in his stomach.
"Wha- what do you mean?" he had ventured to ask. Her returning grin had been no help to him at all.
"I'll just be by the fire doing some embroidery," she informed him instead before shuffling away, leaving him to gape at her departing bowed form.
Konohamaru found it quite impossible to calm himself down after that.
Tonight was his Acquaintance Dinner. The Acquaintance Dinner was the first official meeting between the youth who wished to achieve manhood, and the priests of the Hidden Leaf. Uncle Asuma had been very vague about the facts, but at least Konohamaru had managed to filter from the lewd jokes, that all initiations began with a meal with one of the priests. Aside from enjoying the artistry that went into the Dinner, he would be the subject of the hosting priest's study. This was for the purpose of tailoring the experiences of the next few days for him. No one had been able to tell him what it was that he would be judged for, and he was thus all the more desperate not to make any mistakes. That he was told that it wasn't possible to make one was not at all reassuring. There was a first for everything, and he did not want to be the unlucky sap to start a precedent.
The crimson lanterns grew thicker in number as he proceeded along the path, their amiable luminance unable to quell his anxiety, and his strong desire to have a friend to endure this with together. But the temple planned this well. To ensure that every participant focused with their fullest attention on the ritual, they avoided inviting two persons from the same village at once. To take it further, they managed the schedule and the lodging vacancies to minimize the possibility of any two participants from meeting. While all of these manoeuvres were intentioned at keeping each experience personal, and a boy hoping to gain the favour of the clerics made sure he abided by their intentions, it also meant Konohamaru had no one to share his insecurities with.
Smoothing the silver-grey fabric of his yukata, he felt ridiculously under-dressed, but Neji had made a point of reminding him to dress casually. Too many young men made the mistake of dressing too formally and ended up spending the entire dinner stiff and uncomfortable, or so he had been told. While Neji recommended a simple t-shirt and shorts if he so wished, the thought of walking bare-kneed into the temple of the Hidden Leaf had sent him into a frantic search through his bag for a suit or a formal kimono. Unfortunately, someone had decided to play the good little boy and had followed the instructions in the invitation to the letter, so the only decent piece he had was the yukata. Sighing despondently, he wished for the umpteenth time for someone he could talk companionably to so that this wouldn't be so damn hard.
Udon adjusted his sleeves self-consciously. As confident as he was, even the rising star of the acolytes felt ill-kempt next to the immaculate Neji. Looking every bit the part of the holy Deva in his pristine white robes, the high priest had neither a strand of his thick plume of dark hair out of place, nor a fault to find on the faint touches of makeup on that perfect, unblemished skin. The revered Hyuuga instinctively wrapped those who stood around him with feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Were it not for the Deva's mastery of social graces he would have been entirely unapproachable.
"Udon," Neji began, startling the acolyte who quickly recovered with an expression of alertness intent on what was to follow, "there's still some time before the Acquaintance Dinner, would you care to join me for a stroll in the rock garden?"
Humbly bowing his assent, he followed his mentor in a swift detour along the lacquered hallways, towards a deepening tranquil that finally led them into a courtyard tucked away from the rest of the temple. The garden opened up to them beyond a slim perimeter of well-tended grass as a rippling surface of white gravel. Their attention was drawn instinctively to the centrepiece of three equidistant oases of earth, encircling three poised rocks mimicking the majestic heights of famed mountains across the continent. At this hour they seemed shadowed in repose, even under the ruddy glow of the ringing lanterns illuminating them from beneath closely corrugated, sloping roof tiles. At the far north-eastern corner of the artful display, a large slab of pointed granite sat erect on its broader base, painted in orange light and retaining its original dark blue beyond the tint.
This garden was one of Udon's favourite haunts but he was not its only patron. Many others, who at some time or other had needed some inner peace, came to the sanctity of the Three Mountains where they knew they would not be disturbed. Hidden in a contrasting array of a verdant green curtain of fern stalks, was a fountain fashioned out of bamboo. A clear ribbon of water ran from its spout to a low stone basin. The deep, seemingly disembodied trickle tugged at the mundane concerns of life in their perpetual cycle, opening the mind to what lay beyond the veil of secular dust.
Deva and acolyte stepped onto the freshly cut grass, its pleasant scent welcome to the young men. Falling instinctively into step with the effortless gait of his mentor, Udon was steadily lulled into a peaceful lack of concern, happy to simply trail after Neji's willowy grace. Contentment- it was such a rare sensation that he revelled in it for a long moment before noticing that they had stopped, and that Neji had his moon-bright eyes set placidly upon him. Dipping into an apologetic bow, he found his movement stayed by a firm clasp on his shoulder. Udon raised his face, puzzled.
"It's been hard on you," Neji spoke at last, "with all the commotion lately."
Uncertain on how to respond he cocked his head over a shoulder, the hints of a frown marring his earlier passiveness.
"You've worked very hard to stand where you are now. I've watched you closely, so I know it well. You deserve the priestly mark more than any acolyte I've ever been entrusted with," Neji continued, folding his hands into flowing sleeves, a gentleness in his smile and a look of pride in his eyes.
Udon did not trust himself to speak at once. He bowed his head, brows knotting in an attempt to hold in the quivering emotion.
"I will always be indebted to you, Neji-sama," Udon replied at last when his throat had unclenched enough to permit it.
Neji shook his head, turning instead to the night's hidden moon leaving nevertheless, silver stars that glinted brightly above them. The wind teased a few stray wisps of dark hair out of their place, and sent them wavering through the chilly air.
"I can recall it with perfect clarity. The circumstances surrounding your admittance made you special whether you wished for it or not. Many eyes were watching, perhaps even wishing, for anything objectionable. The weight of this must have nearly crushed you, especially so soon after suffering such a terrible loss. Kabuto-san . . . he left us too early," Neji lamented.
The Deva's final words sent a faint tremor through Udon. Kabuto nii-san . . . the feral snarl, the remorseful tears and finally, the calm words of a dying man- those images flooded Udon in the space of a shuddering breath. Blinking back the burning sensation in his eyes, Udon took a deep calming breath and held it, willing those feelings to settle.
"Kabuto-san . . ." Neji went on hesitantly, as if he were aware it distressed his young charge, "I don't think many have spoken of him to you, but many of the clergy knew him and respected him. Though he only ever maintained his novitiate, he was highly skilled in both the medicinal arts and the art of our priesthood. Never hoarding his knowledge, he was more than willing to share whatever he knew with us juniors. When what happened happened, the temple searched frantically for him without result. Until that day . . . our Grand Deva, Iruka-sama had a vision of death, and felt Kabuto-san's life thread snap in the Hall of Virtues."
Silence filled the ensuing pause, and the heavens added to it a restless breeze in the subdued glow of dusk.
"He probably died hating us," Neji whispered so faintly that for a moment, Udon wasn't sure he had actually heard those words.
"No!" Udon refuted furiously, finally finding his voice, cheeks flushed with anger. "Nii-san didn't die like that! I was beside him to the end! He didn't!"
Neji turned around and held the youth's moistened eyes with his own, watching those painted lips bitten back to stem any more words.
"Is that so . . ." Neji answered thoughtfully, "that is a great relief to hear, a great relief," he finished distantly, turning his eyes again towards the dark sky.
Udon carelessly wiped his eyes against the back of his sleeve and replaced his glasses. Wondering what the high priest would say next, he silently berated himself for losing his grip on his emotions, and wondered if the Deva would take offence. Neji did not leave Udon to speculate his fate for long.
"Do you still remember when Shikamaru and I first met you? That afternoon, you were watching the dragonflies hover over the pond. In your arms, Kabuto-san looked as if he only napped. Slightly frowning as if he were merely concentrating on a fickle dream, his expression was ever so innocent. I remember that day, remember the urge to rush forward and wake him, but Shikamaru had held me back by my arm. I turned to him and he shook his head. Of course I knew Iruka-sama's vision could not have been wrong, but the senpaii whom we had been searching incessantly for was right before us, appearing to be merely in repose. I could not help but hope.
"Shikamaru had understood beyond the depth of what my eyes could perceive. The fading tear tracks on the dazed boy who held him, you Udon, told him that our search had come to a conclusive end," the high priest paused to turn back and favour the russet-haired acolyte with a fond smile, "as well as a new beginning."
Udon returned it weakly while his mind fended off the images his mentor invoked. Kabuto nii-san writhing in agony, his blood twisted by a fatal poison that consumed him from within; Udon's own hands shaking with helpless terror as he tried to pacify the physician whose face was gripped in turn by madness, anger and grief-
"I can't remember a day Iruka-sama smiled with greater joy when we informed him that the boy who had tended to Kabuto-san to his last days, wished to join our ranks. Naturally, for Iruka-sama and several of us, it was as if a part of Kabuto-san survived in you. With your aptitude in the medicinal arts, the way you first wore your hair and the glasses that you donned, you didn't disappoint us.
"Yet along with the nostalgia and fondness you owed to your one-time guardian, you also inherited the darker legacy from his past. I'm sure you are aware of how Kabuto-san came to leave the temple," Neji paused, half questioning.
Udon hung his head, eyes darting evasively but he finally nodded. It was probably no surprise, something any priest could have privately guessed from the essential facts made public. He had indeed heard of the incident, both the temple's official version and Kabuto nii-san's vague but impassioned one.
As if Neji had read his young charge's mind, he too nodded with a trace of regret.
"No doubt Kabuto-san had his views on how things had turned out. As far as the temple's official records go, Kabuto-san had an adverse reaction to the Oro's venom, throwing him into a panicked rage and leading to his escape and disappearance from the temple. The Deva Council convened in an emergency meeting and decided that it was a regrettable case of a failed Dark Vigil, and ordered for the immediate capture of Kabuto, for a priest-in-training of his considerable calibre under the influence of the Oro poison was a threat to himself and the public. Needless to say, the temple's reputation was also at stake. The Grand Deva mobilised all the priests he could afford to and thus readily approved Shikamaru's and my own request to join the search.
"At the time, we were just priests, young naïve priests who could not imagine how badly things could develop. Before the announcement by the Deva council, we had still been busy adding the finishing touches to our own private celebration feast for Kabuto-san, not even once entertaining the possibility of failure. But it wasn't completely naiveté. Kabuto-san was a mentor to us, one who was uncommonly companionable and approachable in the competitive world of an acolyte. We had every confidence that the only thing between him and his promotion was merely temple politics. We were sorely mistaken and Kabuto-san paid dearly for our error . . . for we were the ones who had recommended his taking of the test."
Neji paused again, his head dipping to his chest, the silken ropes of dark hair drawing over his pale cheeks. Udon held his breath, mouth wordlessly agape. He sensed it was an opportunity for him to speak though what exactly it was he could say he had no idea. His mind completely blank, Udon watched mutedly as his mentor raised his head, curtaining hair falling away from a pensive gaze.
"We weren't the only ones who had recommended Kabuto-san for the test of course. Our senior had made a lot of friends, peers and juniors who were indebted to him in various ways and who had entered priesthood before him. For some, that might have lessened the guilt somewhat, but we should have known better . . ."
"No one could have known," Udon consoled, finally finding his voice, "you were just doing what you thought was best." He looked unseeingly at the white gravel by his feet, picking his words through a welter of emotions. "Nii-san mentioned his beloved kohai with much fondness during his more lucid moments."
Another contemplative pause filled with difficult silence.
"I am grateful to know that, Udon," Neji thanked quietly, a hint of emotion in his voice.
The acolyte murmured a polite reply but a crease remained in his brow.
"It is not my place to enquire of this-" he began, stopping when Neji flapped his hand dismissively. Bowing, he continued. "Is Shikamaru-sama's disapproval because of . . . Nii-san?"
"Yes," Neji answered after a brief hesitation, "because he's afraid of repeating the same mistake. A mistake he had thought himself above committing." The Deva cast his charge a searching look.
"What do you know about the Dark Vigil?" Neji asked abruptly.
Udon gave his mentor a furtive glance and instinctively hid his gaze away from those penetrating eyes. As a rule, no acolyte was to know the details of the Dark Vigil. A part of the test was the quality of being intrinsically prepared so that the absence of foreknowledge would not affect the result. The Dark Vigil was not a mere ritual. It was a sacred ordeal where success came only to those who had acquired true enlightenment, and Neji had explained that this was the essential reason why seers could not divine the outcome of a Vigil. Enlightenment could only be experienced not observed.
In the past, failure was almost certainly fatal and those who succeeded were entrusted along with their Mark, the secret of the Dark Vigil. As death rates began to climb, successful generations of Devas pushed for, and eventually won a small victory over the relaxing of this secrecy in the interest of saving lives. The council came to an agreement to divulge a crucial element of the ritual's secret- the Oro poison. Thus, the jealously guarded secret was thrust into the spotlight of both the Fire Country's high and popular literature for the past three decades. The likes of top medical experts, the media and private groups with related interests, jostled with the temple and each other to learn more about the poison's history. The Devas however, were willing to do no more than discreetly provide small amounts of the potent substance for medical study.
In the meantime, both popular productions and academic theses flourished with speculations on how the fatal poison figured in the Dark Vigil and what secrets lay in the triumph over its power. A vent had burst in the dam and the entire wall strained against the pressure of public curiosity. Officially, the Dark Vigil was still regarded as a forbidden topic not to be discussed beyond the brotherhood of priests and Deva. However, In the face of overwhelming pressure and an increasing number of failing acolytes who survived thanks to research done on the poison, much of the secret had been disseminated as rumours; rumours on good authority. The Devas had clamped down hard on the rumour-mongering, threatening punishments as severe as life incarceration in the subterranean cells nestled deep in the bowels of the earth, hidden beneath the temple.
Udon's cheeks coloured awkwardly as he tried to decide on a fitting response that was neither falsehood nor incriminating. He was spared the agony when Neji clapped his shoulder reassuringly.
"It would not have been surprising if Kabuto-san had spoken to you about it," the Deva provided with a thin smile. Udon bowed his head in silence.
"No doubt you would have heard of all sorts of stories, some ringing of truth others less faithful to reality. Yet the single commonality they all have is the concept of peril, mortal peril. The Dark Vigil is an undertaking requiring its participant to place his life at stake in a test of his attainment. The slightest miscalculation on one's own self-cultivation could very well be one's last miscalculation. It is this strict regulation of our ranks that our temple owes for the centuries of good reputation it has enjoyed, the legitimacy of our priesthood beyond question.
"Still, one cannot ignore the price this system exacts. The death of a single acolyte, no matter how lowly he ranked in spiritual strength, is almost too dear a price to pay," Neji sighed, his eyes lidded while his brows lifted in recollection. "I would likely have paid this price along with our other less fortunate brothers had Shikamaru not stopped me."
Udon snapped his head up, watching his mentor intently. Neji was contrastingly relaxed however, and the corners of his lips were even tweaked into a fond smile.
"I was young and proud, particularly because I was embittered by my banishment into what I then felt, was a powerless vocation that was deemed respectable only through antiquated glory. I was doomed to carry the name of the Hyuuga triumphantly for a cause that would always be cosmetic, a matter of face, while my cousins, born more prestigiously in the Hyuuga family, were to make a name for themselves in the realms of politics, the military and other arenas of real influence.
"Frustrated and disillusioned, I was perhaps less than willing to socialise. This didn't change even when I was assigned a partner from an eminent family in the field of medical research, the Nara Clan of herbalists. I tolerated the man out of pragmatism; the Nara Clan was a useful, although not crucial, ally. I never opened up to him and he was quite content to leave me to my own devices. Nara Shikamaru seemed to be the perfect partner for me, useful without being a hindrance in any way. Or so I thought.
"At fourteen, I was given the honour of being the youngest acolyte ever permitted to participate in the Dark Vigil. No doubt the Hyuuga family had pulled some strings, and I had acquired some modest achievement by then. The risk of death did not factor in my rationale for accepting. The Hyuuga household had made it clear; I was to glorify the Hyuuga name by claiming a victory in the ordeal. I was determined to defend what little honour I had. It was easy enough after all, a path had been cleared and all that I was required to do was walk it.
"But an unexpected obstacle arose in my way. The day I was to partake in the Dark Vigil Shikamaru called me aside- to this very garden. I was a little surprised for he had never been so forward in our professional relationship, and more than a little annoyed since I had intended a day of meditation in preparation for the evening's ordeal. Still, in deference to the benefits of our continued cordial relations and perhaps even more truthfully, out of curiosity, I agreed to it. After we had walked a little ways into the rock garden, I asked him what he wished to speak to me about. With a great deal of reluctance he answered that even though he wasn't a good gambler and would like nothing more than to avoid anything troublesome, he was unable to ignore what I did any longer. Naturally, this didn't make any coherent sense to me and more than a little impatient, I asked him to pardon me for I had to leave and prepare. Not waiting for a reply, I turned to move, only to discover I could not even turn my head. Plunged into cold realisation, I raised my eyes to his impassive face, both fearful and furious. He had bound me with the one other thing the Nara Clan was famous for, their Kagemane no Jutsu, the shadow-binding technique. I was speechless in sheer disbelief and instantly alarmed when my body moved on its own volition, mimicking Shikamaru's movements and forcing me to sit, cross-legged on the carpet of grass. The first thought that came to my mind was that this treachery was an act of jealous rivalry. He intended to bind me past the appointed hour, robbing me of my victory. Without a word, I fought his control, telling myself that a Hyuuga's will could never be shackled by that of an inferior. But as my sweat plastered my hair to my cheeks and the sky gradually darkened, I wasn't so much willing myself free as I was wishing for someone, anyone to step into the garden and rescue me. I'll even confess that as the appointed hour came and went, I was close to tears of rage.
"Then come morning, Shikamaru collapsed, freeing me from his technique. I was on him in an instant, my palm raised to deliver a fatal Juuken blow to his heart. Yet I hesitated, not because of any mercy, but because he had shut his eyes and smiled. Insolently he whispered that he knew he was always bad at gambling. That gesture made the simple killing of the vicious traitor insufficient. I wanted vengeance, I wanted to see the fear and despair in his face. He had robbed me of my honour but he would not deprive me of my revenge. Grabbing his throat instead, I picked him up and threw him back into the ground, drawing a grunt from him. He lost his smile and his lids cracked open to reveal a dark gleam. I struck his face, hard enough to draw blood from his lip. Still his eyes held no rancour, not even fear, just a look of calm resignation. A few uncontested blows into it and my anger abated enough for me to realise that he was too exhausted to fight back. It would have been dishonourable to continue any further. As I released him unceremoniously onto the ground, I tried to regain a measure of composure. A seed of curiosity had begun to grow as well. This was all in all a desperate and ill-conceived sabotage, one that would definitely have him expelled if he survived my vengeance. I watched him stare back at me with idle fascination.
"'I thought you would surely have killed me,' he marvelled completely unconcerned that he was bleeding onto the white gravel.
"'What gave you the gall to cross me Nara?' I hissed in no mood for his nonsense.
"He watched me with a sudden interest but said nothing. Just when I thought that he would not speak he nodded at me.
"'You'll die. If you go for the Vigil, you'll die. I'm your partner right? I can't let that happen.'
"It was a long moment before I registered what he was trying to say and when I did, the smouldering fury had roared back into life. I swooped down on him and grabbed the man by his robes.
"'How DARE you assume, how DARE you presume-!'
"'I don't have your eyes,' he replied with a grin, 'but I don't need that to see that it's too soon for you to attend the Vigil.'
"It was just as well that at that moment Kotetsu-san found us. The priests had been searching for me and had finally succeeded in their task just in time to stop their quarry from committing murder. Shikamaru had to defend himself before the Deva council, which he did brilliantly I might add, and my Vigil was postponed. The rest is ancient history, but I have grown to admire his talents and abilities and now work closely with him. I won't deny that it took some time for me to acknowledge this, but witnessing his competent judgements over the years, his argument may have been a legitimate one, and the Council was right to have accepted it."
Placing his hand on Udon's shoulder, Neji offered a commiserating grin.
"Shikamaru has brought you a lot of grief, but he does so without any malice, and quite likely with a generous amount of affection."
"Then . . . since Shikamaru-sama has said I am unready . . . why are you still recommending me for the Vigil?" Udon blurted in frank confusion.
Neji drew his hand away, his gaze becoming distant once more. His lips moved for a brief moment but he shook his head instead.
"Shall we head to the banquet hall?" Neji suggested, smiling wearily.
The banquet hall was almost a misnomer. It was in design, a large room divided by sparse walls and a maze of shoji panels, creating a cluster of smaller private rooms veined with a network of pathways. When it served a large gathering, the panels were pulled back recreating the large hall, but when it received a modest company of guests, the company was invited into a closed off, cosy dining atmosphere. The furnishings were largely traditional. A lacquered low table flanked by dark-coloured zabutons equipped with back and arm rests in finely polished redwood, was an exquisite but simple centrepiece. The room was carpeted in plain tatami matting, and in a corner, a small alcove displayed a calligraphy scroll that along with its fluid, strong brushstrokes served as a foil for a small vase of Ikebana that harmonised with the current season of summer.
Shikamaru commanded one such room, after putting some thought into selecting a suitable one among the sixty-four rooms available. Having taken advantage of Iruka's gracious allowance of first-pick, Shikamaru had selected one in the northwest corner, furthest from the stoves of the kitchens below and from the dance halls above where acolytes took their evening lessons. It would be both cool and quiet, and with four participants for this evening's dinner this was a major concern. Besides, he expected Konohamaru to be in a sweaty mood. The walk to the room was also suitably long and the adjacent rooms fairly popular. This would hopefully impress upon Konohamaru on his irrevocable involvement with the temple as he was given the illusion of walking deeper into its heart, and yet be reassured by the jovial ambience of relaxed guests in dinners that had started a little earlier.
Having taken care of the location he had turned his attention to the food, but was promptly discouraged by his good friend from holding any doubts.
"Just hand me the guest list," Deva and Culinary Master Akimichi Chouji had reassured, "and the master will take care of the rest." Shikamaru had smiled wryly and given his buddy a friendly punch for the fake airs. Even though it was still clear that the chef was worried in the minute hesitations noticeable only to Shikamaru, who had known him for years, Chouji had done all he could to hide his fears behind his usual amicability. Shikamaru was truly grateful for that. Chouji would always be the man with a big heart and a gentle touch, always ready to be his support whenever things become too burdensome. Between Neji and Chouji, he had two good friends that he would sorely miss when this tumour finally took him.
Footsteps and a soft rustling roused him from his brooding, and in an instant, a warm smile lit his pale features. Two silhouettes kneeled before the shoji panel.
"Shikamaru, may we intrude?" one of them spoke in Neji's subdued but nevertheless authoritative voice.
"Is that Udon with you?" Shikamaru asked as he moved to open the door on his knees, and indeed finding the pair bowing in greeting. Returning the bow, he moved aside and let them pass, his eyes trailing on the profile of the acolyte who swept his gaze about the room somewhat apprehensively as if he suspected a trap. The boy was astute.
Neji had settled himself onto the zabuton next to the seat closest to the door. Shikamaru noted this with resignation. Sitting right next to the host's seat, Neji was declaring that he would play a supporting role. This was in line with the usual decorum, but Shikamaru knew Neji well enough to know that the decisive move was also a deliberate message. Udon settled himself opposite his teacher, appropriate for him for he was still technically in training and would benefit from his more immediate position of service for the guest. On the other hand, it was the seat furthest from Shikamaru . . .
The Shadow Master watched as his two specially invited guests turned to look at him, Neji politely questioning, Udon deferential and wary. Maintaining his welcoming smile, he inclined his head to both of them.
"I'm so glad that you managed to spare yourselves from your duties to attend."
Konohamaru had only one thing on his mind as he was guided along the corridor in what he had been introduced to as the Banquet Hall. The priest, or acolyte, (he could neither tell nor feel the difference when he felt so boorish before their polished manners and immaculate attire), had politely led him past several halls and hundreds of bowing clerics. Konohamaru found himself bowing pre-emptively whenever they rounded a corner or passed a doorway. His guide was endeavouring to remedy that with light conversation, at points surprising Konohamaru with what he knew about Ichiraku Street, but largely making no progress in soothing the young man's nerves. After what seemed like an interminable, albeit jovial, route to his personal torture chamber, the priest/ acolyte knelt down in a fluid, practised motion.
"Shikamaru-sama, I humbly beg your pardon, but I have come with the energetic young man from Ichiraku Street," he declared with a hint of mirth. Konohamaru coloured nicely when bemused chuckles met this remark.
"If so, the three of us might not be enough to satisfy his vigour. You'll have to join us Inari-kun," a speaker within teased.
Inari laughed and slid the door open, unveiling an audience as Konohamaru's face began its debut as a light bulb. Through the haze of embarrassment he spotted among the good-humoured faces the familiar profile of Neji. Ever since their chance meeting earlier that morning, he had found himself shamelessly daydreaming about the Deva's soft white skin, wondering how they would feel beneath his own coarse hands. Now that intrepid yet hauntingly delicate face beamed up at him, cheeks flushed with the colour of mild intoxication. Konohamaru choked on his own breath, his mind held in thrall by the vision until he realised that he was drooling all too blatantly. Scarlet cheeks darkening even more deeply, Konohamaru shrank into his yukata ready to bury himself into it, but the sharp-eyed man next to Neji had already risen and taken hold of his hand.
"Konohamaru-kun, you've certainly kept us waiting," the man, Shikamaru-sama, Inari-san had called him, rebuked playfully, and led him to the one vacant seat beside another priest who was frozen in the action of pouring clear wine into his cup.
For the moment and since the priest had his face bowed over the cup, Konohamaru only spared the man a brief glance, only noting that he was bespectacled and looked fairly young- about his own age. Konohamaru focused instead on the new Deva, recognising his status by the Golden Mark of the Leaf embroidered across the top of Shikamaru's left sleeve. The Deva's hair was sleek and was left unbound, lowered to touch his shoulders by bare hair-tips. Underneath the lamp light, it seemed brown, but Konohamaru suspected that in daylight it would be the hue of evening shadows, a non-descript black. His eyes however were decidedly brown, but their colour was the least striking feature. Shikamaru's eyes were like Neji's- sharp and penetrating, except that where Neji's eyes seemed to pierce through everything, Shikamaru-sama's eyes seemed to be reading every detail. Konohamaru had to resist squirming uncomfortably, unable to shake off the feeling that he was an open book to the great men before him.
As if the Deva could read his thoughts, the acuteness of his gaze dulled, making them appear more laid-back and relaxed. Picking up his cup and taking a sip of the wine, Shikamaru leaned back, propping an arm on the floor behind him and flashing the young man with a casual grin, his small silver earrings gleaming along with those lips. Konohamaru found himself grinning back. Neji was a great beauty, but Shikamaru could hold his own with his charming, suave demeanour.
"Shall I inform Chouji-sama, Shikamaru-sama?" Inari queried from the doorway.
"I'm very much obliged, thank you Inari-kun," Shikamaru replied with a small bow to Inari-san's deep one.
As the door slid shut, inspiring a surge of panic from the young man, Konohamaru stared fixedly at his hands, noticing for the first time how hairy his knuckles were, while keenly aware of three sets of eyes on him. His reprieve didn't last for very long.
"I see you took my suggestion," Neji began his pale eyes going over the vine pattern of Konohamaru's dark silver yukata.
"Sombre without being dull, while the creepers add a serene yet persistent strength; a good choice," Shikamaru contributed nodding his approval. "What do you think Udon-kun?"
Konohamaru, who had spared the shyest of glances to both Devas, now turned to the youth who sat beside him. Dark hair tied back, and skin with the lustre and smoothness of a pearl, Konohamaru's first instinct was to compare the priest with the pale, raven-haired Neji. The young man's skin wasn't as luminescent, like the glow of a pearl against the purity of white jade. The darkness of Udon's hair was the rich darkness of cinnamon, while Neji's was the unfathomable depth of dusk against which all light was soft and beautiful. The sharpest difference were those glasses, flashing white like frost for a split-second and just as suddenly melting to reveal black eyes, watching him in a manner Konohamaru could only good-naturedly brush off as frozen. The youth was staring intently at him.
Both Konohamaru and Udon started, turning to the Devas who both carried hints of a frown in their brows. Neji volleyed his attention between the two young men, Shikamaru however seemed to be devoting his to Udon.
"F-forgive me," Udon stammered, turning to his jadeite cup, but as his eyes fell, they swept over Konohamaru's surprised expression before the acolyte dragged them away, "I thought he was someone I knew."
"Aren't you from Ichiraku Street, Konohamaru?" Shikamaru queried, flicking a relaxed gaze at his guest.
"Yes, I moved there when I was about ten, although I don't seem to recognize Udon-san," Konohamaru finished uncertainly, searching the youth beside him for any clues to a forgotten memory.
"I don't come from Ichiraku Street," was Udon's terse reply, evading Konohamaru's gaze as he lifted his own cup to his lips, sleeves momentarily veiling his face.
"I apologise, I mean, I- of course I wouldn't know any priests of the Leaf . . ." Konohamaru responded awkwardly, queasily wondering if he had offended the man.
"I'm not a priest either," Udon returned brusquely, then catching his master's disapproving frown, he lowered his cup and forced himself to face Konohamaru's faltering gaze with as much a smile as he could manage. "I'm a humble acolyte, still unfamiliar with the rules. I hope you will forgive my inexperience and not tease me as much as you should for it."
"Not at all," Konohamaru answered hastily, "it's my fault for assuming- you're all so beautiful so I just thought- I mean that you're all dressed up so beautifully!"
Shikamaru chuckled freely and leaned over to pat the blushing youth's shoulder as Neji hid his laughter behind his sleeve. Udon smiled with glassy enthusiasm.
"A toast," Shikamaru declared expansively as he raised his cup, "to our beautiful clothes and your smooth tongue!" He downed the drink in one gulp, with Neji and Udon following suit and Konohamaru struggling to keep up.
Konohamaru wasn't a stranger to alcohol, and had tasted sake on more than one occasion. Thus, when he first spied the small frosted tokkuri server that sake at the bar Uncle Asuma frequented normally came in, he had expected the mellow rice wine. When the wine passed his lips, he realised his mistake. Although he hadn't the composure to slowly savour it, gulping it down instead, he was nevertheless hit by the wine's fragrance. Like the perfume of a flower, light and clean, it complimented the refreshing feel of the drink as it soothed down his throat. Though it didn't seem strong, he felt himself warming up almost immediately inside. Eyes flashing with a sudden alertness, he couldn't help exclaiming his appreciation.
"I'm glad you like it," Neji returned with a modest bow, then turning to Udon added, "Udon, don't let Konohamaru-kun's cup grow cold with neglect."
Udon bowed obediently and reached for the tokkuri server just as Konohamaru hastily did the same, their fingertips brushing. Udon's paler fingers hovered motionlessly over the tokkuri, while Konohamaru's jerked back as if burned. Their eyes met, the young man watching the acolyte with a sudden arrested interest. The silver gleam of lenses blurred and he lurched forward, his mind suddenly falling in a whirlwind of images, whispers, snatches of words being said to him, around him, and yet-
He blinked. It was soft and warm, a little dim but brightness rimmed the periphery of his consciousness. Whatever he lay against moved a little.
"Udon, maybe we should loosen his robe; the wine may have been too much for him . . ." he heard Neji advise.
"Yeah . . . although there really isn't anything to loosen . . ." Shikamaru returned.
The dazed youth bolted upright, sobering quickly. While he blinked rapidly to clear his vision, the blur of colours sharpened into Udon, brows knitted in a frown and cool lenses melting away to reveal concern. Konohamaru was hit by a sudden pang, of what exactly he could not tell. It left his mouth dry and sent a hollow chill into the pit of his stomach.
"I- I'm sorry," he stammered, the words heavy as his breaths grew inexplicably laboured.
Udon leaned forward and mopped his forehead of the beads of perspiration; cold sweat on fevered skin. His expression radiated only goodwill and tenderness, but Konohamaru trembled with dread. Hazel eyes bright with fear bore Udon's dark, searching gaze with unshakeable apprehension. He jumped when cool fingers touched his arm and turned gratefully to see Shikamaru cradle his wrist in his hands, two fingers against slightly protruding veins, the Deva concentrating on his pulse.
Neji was just beside Shikamaru, his eyes glowing attentively in the lamplight. Touching the side of Konohamaru's face, the lines about Neji's eyes relaxed, and Konohamaru had the impression that an examination had just concluded.
"You haven't had much rest," Neji half-chided, "when was the last time you slept?"
Konohamaru lowered his head, suddenly drained as the rush of adrenalin died down. When he looked up Neji was looking over at Shikamaru who nodded his head. Turning back to him, the pale-eyed Deva stroked his cheek, sending some life back into him.
"Would you prefer to lie down for a bit? We could have the guest room prepared immediately," Neji offered, jade-white eyes reflecting the warmth of the lamp's fire.
"I'll even get the cook to sneak in some food," Shikamaru quipped though lines of worry were etched into his face as well.
"But the dinner . . ." Konohamaru began privately ashamed that he was already willing to forgo it.
"Shikamaru will explain it to the cook," Neji answered promptly drawing a wince from Shikamaru and a hastily repressed sigh, "Udon will go ahead and inform the acolytes to spread the futon and light the incense. Don't worry about troubling us; we're quite used to this."
Shikamaru backed his partner's lie with a radiant smile. Udon was already bowing and rising to take his leave. Just before he left the room however, he took a backward glance at Konohamaru who happened to be watching him. From where Udon stood, troubled guilt was written all over Konohamaru's face. This did not surprise him. What did surprise him was the bewilderment that underscored it. An unsettling doubt was creeping into his cold fury. Grinding his teeth, Udon slid the door panel open and turned briskly out of the room.
If the here and now is what truly counts, than the past is what has been counted and tallied on the abacus of karma. People move like beads on this abacus, guided to balance in a massive equation designed to square all debts, and fulfil all destinies. The beads that now rest in momentary balance in their current position on the bar, once clacked and rattled with great activity.
In the present that had become the past, Udon had replaced his glasses that he had roughly cleaned with his grimy t-shirt. The world behind those glasses was more visible now, if tinted with a dirty green since the dirt was now evenly smudged against the lenses. His little hands gripped a fistful of rucksack but the best he could do was drag the heavy weight against the pitted cement. This was a good neighbourhood. The paint on the walls of the back alley was old and peeling and the trashcans were just as rummaged through as any of the other dark abandoned passages in a town, but he hadn't lost his rucksack yet, and that was something the ten-year old was both grateful and anxious about. You couldn't be too cautious after all.
He limped and dragged his way under the thin drizzle, blinking away the odd raindrop that slipped between his glasses and his wild head of grime-stiffened hair. He half-wished it would rain; the itch of filth could drive him crazy if he allowed it to. He needed to focus though, focus. Upon his shoulders lay the responsibility of food and shelter for Nii-san and himself. If they didn't find at least the former, come winter there would be two more corpses for the authorities to dispose of with their hard, grim eyes and their slowly shaking heads. At least for today, he had found their meal as well as a rumour of a place that they might be able to hole up in, away from the street predators that urchins like Nii-san and himself had to be wary of- thugs and constables.
A stitch in his side stabbed painfully, but the cut on his thumb throbbed distractingly, so it was bearable. It helped to remember that Nii-san was waiting for him. The patter of rain and the distant rumble of thunder filled the silence of the alley. Udon hated it; drizzles always seemed to sound like someone weeping softly, sobbing inconsolably in some dark corner. He wished the sky would just rip open, and no matter how it made him shake in his clothes later, it was far less melancholic and more liberating than this indecisive drip.
The soggy mound of cardboard boxes was a welcome sight when it came into view. This might not have been apparent to an onlooker since the mound seemed to breathe, heaving in and out asthmatically, but Udon knew it was just Nii-san, restless again in the hiding place he'd built for his big brother.
"Nii-san," Udon croaked hoarsely. Swallowing a mouthful of saliva to moisten his throat, he tried it again. "Nii-san it's me, Udon. You can come out now."
There was a muffled sound from the boxes.
"Nii-san, the boxes- I can't hear you," Udon reminded, struggling to drag the rucksack a little faster.
The mound erupted damp cardboard as his big brother thrust his limbs out, tossing and scattering the boxes about his lanky form. Yet what the fort of discarded boxes yielded was no dirty bum, but a silver-haired young man, clean-shaven and washed; his skin not the beige-grey of those who were too preoccupied with survival to entertain concerns over hygiene. It was a pale pink, like that of a rose Udon had once seen as a centrepiece for a teahouse's tables during the Lovers' Festival. Silver hair tumbled all the way to his shoulders, its silken sheen contrasting nicely with the warm tint of his big brother's skin. Nii-san's eyes were of the same silver colour, but it was hard to tell, especially with those dark-rimmed round glasses. Sometimes it seemed that they were just black, and at other times it revealed a hint of blue. Whatever colour they were, they were pretty, just like Kabuto nii-san.
Limping his way up to his big brother, he smiled at the wide-eyed watchfulness. With a gesture remarkably cat-like, Kabuto cocked his head and leaned on his arms, palms flat against the cement. Udon knelt down before his brother and fussed over his hands, fishing out a slightly smudged handkerchief from within Kabuto's clean satin robes.
"Nii-san, you can't put them on the ground," he taught as he wiped the soft hands carefully, "you'll get sick if you eat with them later." Kabuto did not resist the ministrations, merely watching the boy in detached bemusement, but when Udon relinquished his grip, the man quickly caught the boy's wrist. Udon glanced up questioningly, not alarmed. Slowly, and with some delicacy, dark silver eyes intent upon Udon's face, he pulled back the oversized sleeve hanging over Udon's right arm. A jagged, livid crimson line glistened as it bled slowly on the skinny arm. Udon grinned sheepishly.
"I got caught in some barb wire while climbing out . . ." he began, falling silent as he spotted the telltale glow exuding from beneath his big brother's fingertips, slowly enveloping the entire hand. No matter how many times he saw it, Udon still found himself transfixed by the incandescent glow, awed by what he had come to learn was divine grace.
As the hand hovered over his wound, he felt his shoulders tense then relax by degrees, until the faintest of moans escaped his lips. When his eyes finally focused he realised it was already over and a quick glance told him what he already knew. The wound was clean gone, not even a scar to mark it. Kabuto was already looking away disinterestedly, calmly watching the raindrops as they fell onto his face. Udon sighed. So like a cat . . . Fishing in his trouser pocket, he looked for the packet of rice he had secreted inside. There was quite a big piece of salted fish there too . . .
The beads on the abacus shift . . .
The place checked out. They said it was haunted, that it had been occupied by some crime syndicate to traffic organs as well as having been the site for gruesome cult sacrifice. Even to a ten-year-old, it had sounded a bit too far-fetched. At any rate, it was unoccupied and whatever curses lingered in its walls could join the queue behind starvation and pneumonia to kill him.
To say that the cramped space held within the heavily defaced walls and a surprisingly intact thatch roof was a house wasn't optimism, it was absurdity. Still it would be home, once the rats and bugs had been convinced that they had to move out. To that effect, Nii-san had been unexpectedly helpful. When they had first pried open the front doors, Nii-san had taken one look at the cobweb-choked hall and rolled his sleeves up, reaching into their rucksack of odds and ends and taking out some rags that Udon had scavenged and the small wooden bucket they collected water with. Those distant eyes had an animated vigour in them that had been initially alarming, but warmly reassuring when he saw the silent determination that claimed inch by inch, clean living space from layers of dead dirt. For the rest of the day he tagged after his big brother, teetering with the weight of the full bucket . . .
If they continued at this pace . . . they might even be able to clear the moss-ringed pond outside of its carpet of choking weeds.
. . . click, clack,
The rain thundered, hard and unforgiving. The limp body sprawled on the floor was as still as a gravestone, and just as cold. Udon shuffled helplessly behind his big brother as Kabuto bent over the boy, both hands incandescent as they rested on the boy's chest. Udon had no idea who the boy was; only that Kabuto nii-san had stalked off into the rain all of a sudden, crashing into the wild growth of foliage, before finally stopping to kneel in the mud beside the boy's unconscious form. In a glance, the hard rain beating on that frozen, slack-jawed expression, Udon had first thought it was a corpse. He had certainly seen a good number of them in his time on the streets. This one looked as if he'd been unlucky enough to meet the spiteful end of a dagger- his clothes of too good a quality to remind Udon of the other urchins who had died of neglect. He had still been searching for the knife wound when Kabuto leaned over and pressed his ear to the boy's chest.
"Nii-san," he had managed before Kabuto sat up and briskly scooped the body into his arms. "Kabuto nii-san!" he had called out again to unheeding ears. Standing by his big brother, hugging himself under the onslaught of the storm, he had watched as Kabuto unfolded himself onto his feet, the limbs of the boy dangling over his strong arms.
When they had finally negotiated their way back home, Kabuto had gently set the boy on the floor and without pausing even so much as to blink, had called forth the bright miracle from his hands.
Udon wasn't sure if his first guess had been wrong after all. Watching the frown of deep concentration in his big brother's brow, he had to believe that this was a siege against death. Not a mark lay upon the boy after all, save that of a few faint scratches from clawing branches; and yet even those were pale, as though they barely existed. Still Kabuto persisted, his face shining with glistening rain and sweat.
Then a cough, like a blast of sound in the tense silence, and Udon started. He rushed to the boy's jerking body as a coughing fit racked the young frame. Hesitating only a moment and getting no cue from his Nii-san's unhelpful look of intense meditation, he clasped the boy's shoulders trying to keep him still. Dark eyes glittering with tears squinted up at him before wrenching shut as he was returned to uncontrollable hacking. A sudden sharp sting informed Udon that he had bitten into his lip and he released it, tongue licking the pain absently, and the coppery taste of blood barely registering in his mind. As if he knew they were trying to help, their patient stopped thrashing, though he couldn't help the coughing, or the blood. Udon hadn't noticed it at first, but the dark sports on those frozen lips were blood.
Consumption? Udon was no stranger to the disease where your lungs bled, and where you couldn't stop coughing even as you choked to death. Recoiling instinctively, he thrust himself away from the boy, heart pounding as if he were the one now who had just had a brush with death. The murmurs of the street and the raging curses of a group of half-drunken constables as they pummelled some unlucky vagabond, had taught him that it was lethal not only for the sufferer, but also to all those who came into contact with him. His eyes looked up at Kabuto, wild and urgent. They had to get rid of the boy now!
Yet before that stoic determination in the firm set of Kabuto's jaw and the almost placid concentration, Udon felt unable to voice out his objections. He watched, pale with fright, as the fits slowly subsided and the agony on his face faded into tranquillity. His lids were still as if in a deep sleep. Though he was soaked through and his bistre hair was plastered to his face, the boy was a picture of peaceful repose.
Kabuto stirred and Udon hurried over to him.
"What do we do?" he asked not fully knowing what he meant but compelled to ask anything that could give him a sense of direction.
"Dry . . . clothes," Kabuto whispered haltingly. He had been more forthcoming with speech recently but it came sparse and uncertain.
Udon nodded and raced off to a glass cabinet they had converted into their wardrobe . . .
. . . five on earth is one in heaven . . .
"Konohamaru?" Udon repeated carefully.
Konohamaru nodded, playing with the apple Udon had passed to him a little earlier. He didn't know that Udon had been saving it for his big brother's and his breakfast. Now that Udon had come into home ownership, manners inexplicably mattered to him, and the boy was their guest after all. Konohamaru was wearing a faded, plain grey t-shirt that didn't even have any holes in it- one of Udon's treasured finds. Still, he was consoled by the fact that Konohamaru didn't seem to mind that he was wearing recycled clothes, particularly the spotted dark green shorts that had burn marks in them and were fraying at the end.
"Sarutobi Konohamaru. My grandfather named me . . . but he's gone now," Konohamaru whispered the last part a little hoarsely, "passed away three months ago."
Udon looked away awkwardly, uncertain of what to say.
"But it's ok . . . I thought I was going to see him too, since I got this sickness . . . but . . ." Konohamaru trailed off, brown eyes glancing over at the napping man behind them. The silver-haired healer was curled up on a makeshift mattress of several old cloaks piled on top of each other.
Udon had gotten his nice white robe out since they had company. It was the one Kabuto had worn when they first met, and Kabuto had struck the Street King down. Back then, he had looked like a heavenly warrior, with flowing white sleeves that streamed in the force of his martial dance. Not a single member of the Street Lords remained standing, or even stirred. Now that same fearsome figure slept like a cat with nothing to do on a summer afternoon, his glasses folded just beside his head.
"I was scared," Konohamaru admitted abruptly, Udon turning to watch him cautiously, "my father was talking about there being no other option and my mum crying all the time. They put me in a place so that I wouldn't get anyone else sick, but I still didn't want to be locked up," Konohamaru finished almost defiantly, turning to Udon as if daring him to disagree.
Udon met the gaze unblinkingly and didn't say a word. After a brief pause, Konohamaru turned away, staring at the stalk of the apple instead.
"So I ran away, snuck out along with the trolleys in the garment bag. It was dark, but I kept running because I didn't want to go back, was afrai- was afraid of dying." Konohamaru swallowed painfully and leaned his head against his raised knees.
"Then it started to rain, a heavy downpour. I couldn't breathe and started . . . coughing. My chest hurt so much I thought it would burst . . . That's the last thing I remember," Konohamaru finished falling silent.
Udon had been listening raptly and he now looked at the boy with an awkward tightness in his own chest. Squirming uncomfortably for a moment, he reached his hand out gingerly and patted Konohamaru's kneecap. Konohamaru lifted his head and watched Udon with red-rimmed eyes and smiled, shaking the tears from his eyes. Udon felt himself respond with a similar smile, the kind that twists a sharp pang in your chest.
. . . the numbers are balanced . . .
Udon was still uncomfortable with the house being so crowded, but he couldn't very well let the patients sit outside in the small space of sparsely vegetated wilderness that barely passed for a yard. Most of them were either sick, or here to accompany the sick. That left the curious onlookers, Konohamaru and himself. Nii-san was inside with a patient of course.
"It's amazing," Konohamaru whispered to him for the twenty-third time this morning. Udon was keeping count. In response to his friend's observation he merely nodded, though he privately thought that it was more gruesome than awe-inspiring.
Some of the patients looked as if the gods of blight had practised some new ideas on them. Some were gaunt, eyes bulging out of a face of jaundiced, papery skin; others were covered in at least two kinds of spots, some glistening with pus. There was something of a chorus composed of hacking, moans and hushed whispers. Udon had to exert a massive amount of self-control not to run out of a room full of deadly disease carriers. His skin crawled whenever one of them passed near him to cast a wistful glance at the draping curtain over the doorway Udon sat cross-legged beside.
Still he got what Konohamaru meant. Most of these were patients from different towns. Kabuto nii-san had almost cleaned out the hospice Konohamaru had escaped from of its ailing patients. Their conditions had been much the same with this lot, maybe even worse. All of them had been told that they could do nothing more except to hope that death would come gently, all the while watching their bodies fall apart in their isolated wards. Now these hospice officials experienced the same helpless withering in the fate of their establishment, unable to stop the wild hope Konohamaru had inspired with his miraculous recovery.
Yes, Konohamaru. Udon couldn't help his sideway glance at the wide-eyed boy beside him. A couple of night's worth of rest in a place he felt more safe in, and even Udon could tell that Kabuto's treatment was far more complete than they had originally given him credit for. He wasn't coughing anymore, and a nerve-wrecking check at the hospital proved their suspicions. His lungs were clear; the sickness was gone.
The world changed for them overnight. Konohamaru swiftly reconciled with his parents, quite forgetting, in Udon's opinion, that they had left him for dead. News of his miraculous recovery provoked an outcry from his former fellow inmates who demanded to be treated by the Divine Healer, as Kabuto nii-san was promptly dubbed. Unable to quell their patients any longer, they decided to put this Divine Healer to the test and provide him with one of their worst patients.
Udon could still remember the wispy thin frame that seemed little more than skin stretched on bone, and the dark bruises and softly bleeding cracks on his lips. His face was twisted in so much agony as he was carried in on a stretcher, that the boy had taken a step back. Konohamaru had explained vaguely that the person's blood was now eating him up and that the man lived each day with his veins on fire. Looking at the weak tears by the man's wrenched eyes, Udon believed it.
Kabuto nii-san had watched impassively as the patient was brought before him. When the bearers had set their burden down, he merely watched the man, eyes sweeping over the distressing bruises that marked him from head to toe like splattered blotches. Kabuto nii-san's eyes reflected neither pity nor despair, but the gentlemen from the hospice seemed to exchange gloating looks of satisfaction. A surge of dislike had arisen in Udon, the anxiety within him now touched with a spiteful determination to rub their noses into the ground. But it wasn't up to them was it? Udon had looked up at his big brother who was still quietly watching, not a ripple in his sleeves, only the subtle shift of light in his eyes.
"It'll be alright," Konohamaru whispered confidently into his ear. A quick glance told Udon that his friend was beaming like a banker at a blackjack table who knew he had a facedown Ace of Spades next to his open Jack of Hearts that no other player wanted to believe he had. Yet Udon had seen enough of underground gambling to know to look for the beads of perspiration right beneath the roots of Konohamaru's fringe. The first person who had been snatched from death's maw by Kabuto nii-san's hands no less.
Udon gave his friend a lopsided grin but made no comment. It said a lot about people. Even after experiencing a miracle firsthand, they'd still hold that expectation that it was just a trick liable to fail. He shook his head and turned back to watching the battle. A brief movement blurred at the corner of his eyes and he turned in time to see Konohamaru drape an arm around his shoulders and squeeze him comfortingly.
"It's definitely gonna be alright," the miracle boy repeated, his eyes set on the players in this clash of sombre necessity and divine grace. Despite himself, Udon felt his face heat up.
"En," he replied simply, returning to the silent contest.
Kabuto cupped the cheeks of his patient in his smooth hands and the air thickened with suspense. The ailing man turned watering eyes to Kabuto, the man he was told who could save lives and cheat the Lord of Death in his own court.
"Help . . . me . . ." he rasped. Two words choked with so much belief that Udon found himself looking away, eyes stung with tears. Konohamaru's hold tightened.
"It will be alright," Kabuto reassured him, unknowingly reasserting Konohamaru's earlier promise. Udon bit his lower lip, breaths labouring with some hope.
The green incandescence flashed drawing surprised gasps and disoriented shuffling. As both Udon and Konohamaru blinked away the afterimages from their eyes, they felt strong gusts of air knocking them back, forcing them away.
"Ug- wah- Nii-san!"
Konohamaru held on tightly to him while Udon blinked rapidly to clear his vision. Ethereal flames of emerald raged in the eye of the windstorm, engulfing Kabuto and his patient.
"Kabuto-nii-san!" he cried, fighting both the wind and Konohamaru to get to them.
"U- Udon- ngah- you can't!" his friend protested. Udon's efforts weren't giving Konohamaru as much trouble as the buffets of lashing winds were. As their intensity increased, he found his footing sliding back and he hugged Udon close to him while inching every ounce of his weight forward.
Squinting against the stinging blasts and the divine fire's glare, Udon forced his eyes to focus on the bowed form of his brother. Kabuto was cradling the man's head in his arms, robes whipping about as the wild winds tore at them. Silver hair tossed about wildly above a frown of deep concentration, not pain. Udon sagged with a rush of relief in Konohamaru's arms and his friend stumbled back a few steps with the sudden weight.
"Udon?" he gasped, squeezing his friend's limp body closer for reassurance.
"Nii . . . san . . ." Udon murmured unable to take his eyes off the sight of Kabuto engulfed in his own divine light. His patient arched away from the floor as the healing fire flowing out of Kabuto, coursed through his body. How much power could his brother take without burning out? Why hadn't he thought about how much healing took out of Kabuto nii-san before? Would his only kin end up trading his own life to save another?
"I- that's enough! Nii-san, that's enough! You don't have to try so hard! You don't have to-"
"U- Udon! Calm down! Ngah! Kah- ngah- calm down!" Konohamaru struggled to say as Udon fought his hold.
The emerald brilliance trebled and grew incandescently opaque, sealing off Kabuto and the sick man from sight. Udon opened his mouth to scream for his brother but a blast of air knocked him and Konohamaru off their feet. He heard Konohamaru grunt as Udon crashed heavily into his friend. Scrambling to his feet without any time for an apology, his wildly searching eyes fell still upon a wave of green fire bursting towards him.
Udon opened his mouth to call out to- who was it? Kabuto? Konohamaru? He wasn't given a chance to find out. The furious flames flared blindingly as it washed over his small frame, its sheer fury dragging him back. It drowned out all sensation except for that all-pervading light. His arms, his legs, his fingers, even his lungs- they melted away like sandcastles in the tide. He must have screamed- he had no way of truly knowing. For a terrible moment, he wondered if he too would melt away in the suffocating onslaught, and then-
Chaos roared in his ears. Sensation had returned only to inform Udon that they had been thrown into hell. His skin, his throat and nostrils they burned. Each breath seared his lungs and his eyes screwed shut in crimson agony. Tortured moans tore into the bestial cry of the combusted world, their unbearable chorus soon joined by his tormented sobs.
"U . . . don . . ."
Caught in the torrent of confusion, the voice, somehow reaching him, was an overhanging branch thrust before him. He grabbed desperately onto it.
"Konohamaru?" he tried calling out, shouting above the clamour of pain. His eyes cracked open a slim line, tearing from the welter of light-soaked images.
"U . . . don . . . Nahnh!"
Udon dropped to the floor where he had heard the cry for help, searching on his hands and knees, eyes peeled back as far as he could bear. He heard a whimper just a little off to his left and scrabbled towards the sound, immediately rewarded with the feel of heated skin to his touch.
"Udon?" Konohamaru called out in a voice quivering with hesitant hope.
The light faded enough for Udon to see his friend curled up on the floor, his right arm cradled in his left. Propelled by a sudden apprehension he scrambled to Konohamaru's side, ignoring the biting air while he pulled his friend's matted fringe back, wiping the large beads of sweat trembling against his forehead. Knitted brows relaxed as Konohamaru smiled.
"Th- thank goodness . . . I'm-" he began, but Udon was already looking at Konohamaru's gingerly held arm, fingers hovering over them as he turned a questioning glance towards his friend's pasty-faced grin.
"Must have hurt it when we fell . . ." he breathed, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment before opening them again. "The Divine Healer- ?"
Udon snapped his head up and spun back, his eyes locked upon the huddled figures lined in fading light, in the centre of the room. Kabuto nii-san remained seated on folded knees, but his patient no longer leaned against him. Instead, he sat staring at his own hands as if they didn't belong to him. Udon was similarly riveted by what he saw. The sores, the dully bleeding cracks- no aspect of them remained. By the aura of light suffusing them, his skin glowed with an unblemished milky radiance.
Whispers of disbelief caught the corner of his attention, but he couldn't tear his gaze away from the slowly rising man. His dull brown robes glittered with motes of gold, his skin the radiance of the moon, and his eyes- the soft green of tender shoots sprouting through a cracked pavement. Life gleamed in them. He had been reborn.
"He did it!" Konohamaru cried excitedly, forgetting his arm as he climbed to his feet and dashed towards Kabuto who was seated calmly in the rising commotion.
Udon beat him to it. Sprinting without a thought in his mind, he launched himself into Kabuto's arms, chuckling and weeping simultaneously while his arms tightened greedily about his big brother's shoulders. A warm hand patted his head and he looked up, tear-filled eyes distorting the fond smile his big brother favoured him with. A burst of warmth filled his young heart, and as it spread throughout him, he felt as if the Divine Healer . . .
. . . had revived something else that day.
The only other thing Udon remembered of that day was that he was fussing guiltily over Konohamaru afterward. Though Konohamaru never admitted it, the evasive reluctance to explain all the details gave Udon a good idea of how he had been responsible for the dislocation of his friend's arm. Konohamaru claimed he had fallen at a bad angle when the blast had first knocked them off their feet, but Udon suspected that had been only part of the truth. Konohamaru had broken his fall, and the sudden collision must have knocked his joint out of its proper alignment.
The sick- no, the healed man had thrown himself onto the floor before Kabuto nii-san in tearful gratitude. The snubbed hospice officials had dragged various expressions of disbelief, anger and defeat back to their quarters, probably to discuss whatever they could salvage.
Kabuto nii-san's healing prowess was irrefutable. Its power resurrected a third patient- their once abandoned home had revived into a holy sanctuary where the suffering would be forgiven, and divine mercy would absolve the sins of their bodies. Even the most frightfully stricken faces held in them an uplifting light of hope that emanated from within. It was that beautiful belief that Konohamaru found amazing, and if Udon was honest with himself, so did he. There was one other thing that Konohamaru probably hadn't noticed, that he himself had had a big role in all of this coming to pass. If it weren't for Konohamaru, Udon would still be living quietly and undisturbed with his big brother. While the ex-street urchin wasn't sure if he liked some of these changes, he knew he wouldn't be sitting here being a part of the daily miracles if not for the wide-eyed boy beside him.
"It really is amazing," he murmured in an almost belated reply, eyes softly watching Konohamaru nod empathetically.
It really was amazing.
. . . and beads turn beneath fingertips suddenly still . . .
He didn't understand what was happening, why it was happening. Tears were struck out of his eyes as another blow sent him reeling back into a chest of drawers. His vision splintered into dozens of exploding red shards, pain flaring all over him at once disorienting him. Yet deep inside he didn't want his vision to clear. He could still hear that familiar deep and comforting voice bark in the tone of a stranger- a vindictive and anxious stranger.
"Tell me why you poisoned me . . . tell me the TRUTH!"
Udon whimpered as he heard the crunch of footsteps over broken glass advancing towards him. His limbs twitched in vain, and his stomach tried to curl into itself defensively. He gasped when powerful fingers choked the breath in his throat, and he gagged as the vice-like grip crushed his windpipe.
"It wasn't fair . . . it wasn't . . . fair . . ." Kabuto went on rage turning to grief, "what did you to do me . . ." His words trailed off in a sob, and even as Udon felt his consciousness slip away a pang throbbed in his burning chest.
Whatever had happened to haunt Kabuto nii-san this way, it wasn't his big brother's fault. He was the victim of someone's malicious trap . . . who could have been as evil . . . as to . . .
Just as Udon was welcoming the oblivion, pain and air flooded into his lungs as the pressure was suddenly released from his throat. Hacking and tearing, his chest heaved desperately and through bleary eyes, he watched the blurred image of his big brother crouching before him, head bowed and fists gripping his hair in distress.
"Help me . . . someone please help me . . ." Kabuto keened, rocking on his haunches as he did so. Udon struggled to sit up, tears falling helplessly from his eyes.
"Nii . . . san . . ." he whispered hoarsely, perplexed as to what he could do, what he should do.
Silver hair shuddering over his glasses, Kabuto doubled over, clutching his chest as he howled in agony. Udon struggled to his side, wrapping thin arms around Kabuto's head and straining to lift it.
"Nii-san! Nii-san, what's wrong?" he panicked, "Nii-san!"
"U- don . . . my chest . . . it's so hot . . ." Kabuto moaned, muffled by the fabric of Udon's t-shirt. Udon hugged the quivering head to his chest, breaking into confused sobs.
How did this happen? He had only just been gone to buy some groceries for dinner. Konohamaru was going to join them again. Their happy family of three was going to be laughing over a warm meal.
"How did this happen?" Udon murmured tears streaking down his cheeks, "What should I do?"
"Udon, Udon are you . . . crying?" Kabuto asked worriedly, suddenly raising his head and watching Udon in dismay, "I'm sorry, it's my fault. Don't be upset . . . alright? Please?"
Udon shook his head but was unable to stem the flow of tears. Still he whispered quavering reassurance as he kissed his brother's cheek.
"Aa- I'll stop crying in a moment. I'm not upset, I'm not upset." A brittle smile seemed to allow Kabuto some peace as the healer's brows relaxed. "Does it still hurt?" Udon asked gently in an attempt to prevent his big brother's thoughts from straying into insanity again.
Kabuto's frown returned and Udon felt the man's body stiffen. Alarmed, Udon tightened his hold protectively, but Kabuto merely released a soft moan against Udon's shoulder.
"I don't want to see it . . . I don't want to see the bite . . ."
"It's ok, I won't let you see it; I won't let anyone make you see it," Udon quickly soothed, stroking his brother's back as if he were a frightened child.
"But Konohamaru . . . they did it to Konohamaru . . . and he let me see it . . . he let me . . ."
A sudden chill ran through Udon and he pulled himself back, terror slowly filling his eyes.
"Konohamaru? What happened to Konohamaru? Nii-san please tell me, what happened to Konohamaru?" Udon pleaded impatiently, unable to stop himself.
Kabuto winced as Udon's fingers dug into his arms and shook his head as if he wished to free himself from all the perplexity.
"I don't know, I don't know! He came, he was scared, they had gotten to him . . . He had the bite! They had gotten to him! I thought it was nothing at first . . . I had forgotten . . . but they had gotten to him . . . and then I remembered they had gotten to me too . . . Don't let them get to me- please, help me- don't let them-" Kabuto begged, eyes wide with senseless fear, fingers grappling for purchase over Udon's uncomprehending yet tearful face.
"I won't- I won't let anyone. Trust me, I won't. Trust me, trust me . . ." Udon kept chanting, as if willing the empty promise to be true. He couldn't protect anyone. He didn't even know what the threat was, or if Konohamaru was alright. Were the concerns of his big brother the phantoms of his past, or a real enemy who had finally found their scent amidst their newfound fame? He didn't know. The only knowing that mattered at that point was that he couldn't afford to lose his big brother to anyone or anything, real or imagined.
"Trust . . . you . . ." Kabuto nii-san echoed in a hushed whisper.
Little by little, in moments passed with excruciating uncertainty, Kabuto relaxed in his arms. Udon's throat had gone dry, and a brief sweep of his tongue over his lips brought the coppery taste of blood. He didn't feel sorry for himself- not in the least. As long as his big brother was willing to stay by his side, as long as he could hold on to those peaceful days they had somehow managed to grasp, he had no complaints. He soothed his hand over his big brother's back and fought the urge to cry.
"It's so dark . . ." Kabuto murmured suddenly and Udon hastily bit down on his lip, forcing the building emotions away.
"It's close to evening . . . I could go light some candles-" he began with weak cheer, but Kabuto shook his head over Udon's shoulder.
"No, it's alright . . . this feels alright . . ."
There was something in the quality of his voice that made Udon pause and lean back. Dark brown eyes scanned the distant light in steel gray ones. Kabuto smiled- a bittersweet emotion etched in a twisted arc.
"Nii-san?" he mumbled hollowly, his breath slowing in unexplainable apprehension.
"I . . . remember now . . ." Kabuto murmured, his eyes straying to their corners while he sighed, long and wistfully.
He remembered now? Was this what Nii-san had been talking about earlier?
"What Konohamaru made you remember?" Udon asked uncertainly.
Kabuto turned back to Udon as if seeing him for the first time. Then he smiled, as if the sight pleased him, yet somehow, somehow . . . something about it frightened Udon.
"Konohamaru . . . It started way before Konohamaru . . ." Kabuto answered vaguely.
"What did?" Udon pursued, trying hard to ignore the rapid pounding of his heart. What was this uneasiness?
"The Dark Vigil," Kabuto murmured, "my running away . . ."
"Your- your past? You remember everything?" Udon chuckled nervously, as if this was a bad joke he wanted to laugh off.
Kabuto watched him with eyes more penetrative than he had ever seen on his big brother. A kind smile strove to comfort him.
"Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."
"Really?" Udon blurted before he could stop himself, his hands clutching Kabuto's arms desperately. "You really won't leave me won't you?"
Kabuto nodded, but a sad light played on his smile.
"I won't be going anywhere," he confirmed in a tone that seemed more final than necessary.
"What do you-" Udon began but his big brother touched his lips with pale fingers.
"Can you help me up? I want to watch the sun before it sets."
It was Udon's turn to watch Kabuto as if he had never seen him before. The strength in his voice and the clarity in those eyes- Kabuto nii-san was a whole different person. He clenched his fists to stop them from shaking.
"The pond will be beautiful with all the white lotuses in the sunset . . ." Kabuto added as he shifted his weight, preparing to stand.
Udon hurried to his aid, draping Kabuto's left arm over his shoulder, but their height difference meant that worked only as long as Kabuto remained on his knees. As the healer rose, he set his hand on top of Udon's shoulder, careful with the weight he leaned onto the small frame. Udon sent all his strength to his left shoulder, a wave of protectiveness prompting him to wrap his arm around Kabuto's waist. Panting with the effort, Kabuto hobbled forward, Udon stoically bearing the weight, each step firm and unwavering.
The fiery gold rays of sunset touched Kabuto's sweat-beaded face first and he winced in their light. Udon looked up in concern but moved along with his big brother who pressed on, perspiration pouring off the side of his temples. They walked only a few steps more before stopping in the middle of the rouka walkway, Kabuto taking in the burnished sky fading into the west, Udon ever watchful of his brother's condition.
Grunting softly, Kabuto hunched down, lowering his body. Taking the cue, Udon grasped his brother's arm and draped it over his neck, his remaining arm still clutching his brother's waist as he helped Kabuto to the warm wooden floor.
"Thank you . . ." Kabuto breathed once he had tucked his legs under himself, his body leaning slightly over Udon who took comfort in the contact. He needed to hold on to a part of his big brother, for some reason he didn't completely understand yet.
"They're really . . . beautiful . . ." Kabuto sighed, watching the lotuses half hidden in shade, half lit by the twilight. Where the fires of evening touched them, they cast the extravagant illusion of full blossoms in flames, a brief vision of beauty complimented by its adjacent image of shaded gloom. The darkness that hugged each heavy blossom filled the heart of every symmetrical petal with an ashen shadow, as if to remind the onlooker that the exciting brilliance of life was always set against the muted repose of death. On the whole, it was a sight that Udon felt they could be spared of. The scene only made the knot in his throat that much harder to swallow.
"Yes, they are . . ." Udon agreed aloud, the growing discomfort moving him to rest his cheek against his brother's chest. He could hear his brother's heartbeat, beating so strong- so fast. "How are you feeling?" Udon asked, noting that his ears were burning against the feverish heat of Kabuto's body.
Kabuto didn't answer right away, the flaming flowers reflected calmly in his eyes.
"I'll be fine," he answered at last, his quiet voice in sharp contrast with the accelerated racing of his heart, "I'm not worried for myself."
"Nii-san?" Udon queried, his gaze darting over Kabuto's pensive expression that made the Divine Healer look as if he was trying to decipher an oddity that he could not quite grasp. Kabuto glanced down and gave him a rueful smile.
"You see, there are things I hadn't thought about while I was still trying to forget . . . but now that I remember . . . there are a lot of things I want to finish, people I need to meet."
"Then . . . I'll follow you. Konohamaru too. We'll all go; it'll be like a holiday!" Udon offered, the cheer in his voice sounding strained.
Kabuto shook his head slowly, lifting his gaze to the setting sun with a sad smile.
"It's too late . . . the sun is about to set; the poison in me has settled for too long . . ."
Udon didn't reply. Instead, he took more of Kabuto's robes in his grasp and pulled his big brother closer to him, his fingers winding stubbornly in them.
Kabuto gave a soft chuckle and dipped his face into Udon's tousled hair.
"Udon still has time though. Find Konohamaru. I must have terrified him. The poor child must not blame himself for what has happened here . . ."
"I don't understand," Udon whined despite his attempts for restraint, "what did Konohamaru do? Why don't you have any time left? I- I don't want to know . . ."
Kabuto winced and his body trembled as he lowered himself deeper into Udon's panicked embrace. Grasping Kabuto's shivering form in his arms, Udon fumbled with apology after apology. He didn't want his big brother to leave him, he could do anything, accept anything his big brother instructed him to do just as long as his Nii-san didn't leave him.
"Don't, don't apologize," Kabuto wheezed, "it's not your fault." The weakened man took a few deep breaths that ended in burst of uncontrollable hacking. "It's not their fault either," he rasped, determined to release them from his failing body, "my juniors, my teachers, my friends- would like to apologize to them . . ."
"You can . . . just rest a while and you can," Udon insisted, refusing to let go.
Kabuto didn't reply. His laboured breaths could only carry the feverish heat that consumed him.
"Should I get some water?" Udon asked gently.
No answer; still the same uncomfortable warmth.
"Or some of the herbs?" he pressed on.
"We could go inside- the air's getting cold-" Udon went on with a hollow desperation. Taken over by a wild fear, he drew Kabuto back and pressed his own cheek to his big brother's lips. For several painful heartbeats, he felt nothing, then a shuddering, fragile breath rushed against his face and Udon could breathe again.
Kabuto's heart would only stop beating barely past a quarter stick of incense's worth of time, after the evening star was joined by its myriad companions, and Udon would once again be alone in the world.
. . . for now the accounts had been recorded, and only debts remained to be paid.
The whispers on the edge of his consciousness trapped Konohamaru in a limbo between sleep and bare wakefulness. His mind suspended from the shackles of physical awareness, Konohamaru's attention naturally drifted towards the closely engaged voices somewhere above him.
"You're angry. Alright, shout at me- strike me even if that's what you feel like doing. I hate being kept in suspense," the laconic voice murmured in resignation.
Shika . . . maru? The Deva from his Acquaintance Dinner . . .
Whoever he was talking to didn't reply immediately, but the silence seemed to carry a palpable anger.
"I will not repeat myself," a voice Konohamaru recognised as Neji's hissed through gritted teeth.
Curiosity stirred through his mind but he was too weak to open his eyes. Mentally shrugging off some of the hazy tentacles of sleep, he listened with as much attention as he could manage.
"You do have something to say," Shikamaru pressed, "that I'm a low-down schemer with no scruples whatsoever perhaps?"
That cutting silence again.
"If you have nothing to say," Shikamaru continued after a short time, "I do. Udon is a bright boy, your best pupil as you yourself have professed, but he is not ready for the Vigil-"
"Don't bring the Vigil into this. Don't you dare!" Neji lashed out suddenly, his low, subdued voice sparking with danger.
Now it was Shikamaru's turn to hold a moment of silence.
"I know I might be placing Udon's safety at risk," Shikamaru confessed in a quiet voice that no longer held any half-hearted sluggishness, "but do you really think I'd want any harm to come to him?"
Neji did not reply. Whether he was mollified by Shikamaru's words or merely disdained to reply, Konohamaru could only guess.
"Konohamaru was the boy whose memories I sealed while you watched over Udon," Shikamaru explained abruptly in the awkward silence.
"What?" Neji hissed.
'What?' Konohamaru echoed mentally in shock. For a moment, he doubted his own ears but, Shikamaru went on.
"It was so long ago that I had almost forgotten. Even back at that time, almost six years ago, all I could think about was Kabuto-senpaii . . . Konohamaru's sealing had been just one of the many loose ends that I had momentarily tucked away for the right time to tie up. Under normal circumstances I would never have acceded to his parents' request, but that the boy was having such a hard time was partly our responsibility, and Konohamaru's father was on his hands and knees, pleading that his family had recently gone through so much, that they could not survive the strain of their son's inner turmoil.
"It wasn't hard to see his father's point. Konohamaru was distraught, begging me to take him to Udon. I very nearly gave in to the young boy- there had been so much pain and loss already; but I had taken too many liberties with the temple laws and protocol and suffered for my insolence. He was not of age, and his parents held the right to decide on matters pertaining to his safety and well-being. Iruka-sama had also instructed me to restore the peace in places where Kabuto-senpaii had left scars. I sealed his memories, and the following morning, confirmed that Konohamaru had woken up in the evening perfectly normal, and merely a little curious as to why they hadn't returned home."
There was a brief rustle of cloth, but Konohamaru wasn't listening anymore.
Shikamaru had sealed his memories at his parents' behest? He had wanted to see Udon, that acolyte his memory told him he had never seen before tonight, six years ago. He had been upset that his parents wouldn't let him. He had pleaded with Shikamaru as a child. All of it sounded so surreal and yet deep inside was a pulsing fear, and the strangest sensation that he should know all of this.
"And now you intend to unseal the memories," Neji stated.
There was a sigh and the sound of something clinking against the wooden floor.
"He is almost a man now. I made it clear to his father that if and when Konohamaru comes to claim his Mark from the temple, I would undo the seal on his memories. The ultimate decision to retain them would have to be Konohamaru's not anyone else's, not even his parents'."
"Why doesn't Udon deserve the same?" Neji fired abruptly.
"What?" Shikamaru answered simply, somewhat caught off-guard.
"The final decision has to be Udon's! I've judged him to be ready, Iruka-sama and the Council has given its consent; why do you insist on getting in his way when he has already decided on his path?" Neji railed at his partner.
"How can you be so sure? How can you be so sure you won't lose him in a moment of conceited self-confidence?" Shikamaru shot back.
"We're not scared to try! We're not scared to live! Don't judge his readiness through your own cowardly flight!" The furious snarl ripped so savagely out of an incensed Neji that Konohamaru was fully torn from the vestiges of sleep. In reality, the ensuing silence barely lasted past a third breath, but it was as sharp as a keen blade, biting deep into his consciousness. He would have flinched had he not been paralyzed with fear.
"Shika-" Neji began but did not continue. "Excuse me," he whispered instead, the faint rustle of cloth indicating that the Deva had risen, the low hiss of the sliding shoji panels marking his departure.
For a long moment, all Konohamaru heard was the pounding of his heart. For a brief irrational moment he worried that Shikamaru might hear the loud beats, and seal his memory in retaliation for what he had overhead. Konohamaru stewed in apprehensive guilt for half a stick of incense's worth of time before Shikamaru too rose, and left the room with a faint bump of the shoji panel. Even then, it was only when the last embers of the incense had faded into wispy fumes that Konohamaru had dared to rise from beneath the futon, hazel eyes haunted with mystified suspicion.
Memories were fickle things. They lived by the pulse of emotions and evolved with the passage of time. It helped to think that they were neither wrong nor right, merely there. With that settled, Udon leaned back against a column from his perch atop the balustrade along the currently deserted northern corridor, cradling ancient grudges to his heart.
But there were so many holes in this story, so many questions that begged to be answered. What did Konohamaru do that day? Was he responsible for Kabuto nii-san's madness? Would nii-san still be alive if things had gone differently, if the memories had not returned? Most important of all, what would he do even if he could learn the answers, whatever they might be?
"Konohamaru . . ." he whispered, a heavy sigh released emptily into the quiet night.
"It's been so many years-" a deep voice began suddenly, prompting Udon to whip his head about wildly in search for the source of the disembodied voice in the draping shadows. He recognised the Shadow Master's, Shikamaru's, wistful tone.
A curtain of insubstantial black came spontaneously alive with spreading dark ripples. Shadows wrested over a face, dark fingers across pale skin. His eyes were black in the barely illumined dark, staring out at Udon with a calculating light not unlike Neji's; its antithesis.
"Shikamaru-sama," Udon exclaimed suddenly erect, narrowed dark eyes gleaming warily.
Shikamaru neither responded to the poor greeting, nor did he attempt to move any closer to the startled acolyte. His eyes were unreadable in that darkness, but a depth heavier than the shadows rested in its depths. Udon recovered with a stiff bow and a distrustful glance.
"Don't worry; I'm as surprised as you are to see someone other than myself here," Shikamaru reassured, leaning back against a wall, hands shoved into the pockets of the simple khaki Bermudas that matched a form-fitting, dull green sleeveless turtle-neck.
Despite himself, Udon had to smile. Among the Devas, Shikamaru and Kiba Inuzuka, Beast Master of the Hidden Leaf, were most infamous for their dislike of their flowing ceremonial silken robes. That it was compulsory for members of the clergy to wear their robes at all times meant very little to the two Devas, as long as they weren't performing their official duties. What amused the young acolyte though, was that he was privy to the scolding Neji inflicted upon his partner for this bad habit. Still, Shikamaru remained the recalcitrant offender.
What little mirth there was faded like the warmth of a breath in winter. Regarding the Shadow Master with a guarded expression, he consciously loosened his shoulders, feet shifting further apart and body lowered into a slight crouch. A part of him was alarmed at what he was doing- if Neji had guided and protected him like a father to his son, Shikamaru had favoured him like a close Uncle. At the same time, he found it hilarious that he could imagine for a second that taking a battle stance before a Deva of the temple would be of any use at all.
Being Neji's student he had often seen the two partners sparring, and Neji's mastery of the two penetrative arts of the Juuken and the Byakugan would struggle for a mere inch of an advantage against Shikamaru's dance of shadows. Like a game of shogi, Shikamaru's shadow mastery consisted of moves plain in its execution and terrifying in its ambiguous strategies. As easily as a simple move could be a trap, so could a complex move be nothing more than a ruse, and the wavering uncertainty this caused usually placed his opponents at the Shadow Master's mercy.
They were buried in shadows now.
Yet Udon did not genuinely believe Shikamaru was going to harm him. Even if he set aside the trust built between them over the years, only recently strained, he knew how much Shikamaru loved and respected Neji, and that in honour of that, he would not harm his partner's student. Still, Neji's tale of capture the night he was supposed to partake in the Vigil came chillingly back to Udon.
He intended to bind me past the appointed hour, robbing me of my victory. Without a word, I fought his control, telling myself that a Hyuuga's will could never be shackled by the will of an inferior. But as my sweat plastered my hair to my cheeks and the sky gradually darkened, I wasn't so much willing myself free as I was wishing for someone, anyone to step into the garden and rescue me.
"How are you feeling?" Shikamaru asked placidly, waking Udon from his disquieting recollection.
"Fairly good," Udon answered curtly, not meeting the Shadow Master's gaze but focusing instead on his hands.
Shikamaru nodded slowly in acknowledgement and leaned back. Looking at the myriad stars arrayed in formation in the depth of night, he found the sole scarred moon lonely by comparison. The full bright orb seemed to swell with so many thoughts and emotions, that it couldn't begin to express to the rest of the firmament. Its light seemed to touch only the bare edges of its corona, and otherwise alone.
"I came upon Konohamaru while investigating the legacy that Kabuto-senpaii had left behind. It wasn't anything surprising in itself, since next to you he had the greatest involvement with Kabuto-senpaii. What was surprising was that I hadn't expected to acquire a patient in him."
Shikamaru paused, took a breath of the cool, crisp air and combed his fingers through his dark hair. Udon only watched him uncertainly, wavering between caution and curiosity, the latter relaxing his hostile stance.
"When I first stepped up to the small house I heard his parents were renting, the first thing I saw to my alarm, was a young boy, about ten to eleven years old, fighting the hold of his parents and clawing his way out of a window. Above the concerned pleas of his parents he screamed hysterically that he needed to see someone, that that person could be in terrible danger. It made me think of my first meeting with you, your uncaring vacant eyes watching over the flitting dragonflies, the cold body of Kabuto-senpaii clutched to your chest. One frantic, one still, both disinterested in what the world wanted and its opinions.
"I, of course, intervened. Inviting myself in over the gates, I rushed to the boy, and while his parents were still recovering from the unexpected intrusion into their family crisis, I took advantage of the boy's own wide-eyed surprise, lowered myself to his eye level, and asked one question. Did he trust me? The boy remained still for a moment, peering at me through bleary eyes before finally falling limp into my ready arms. Muffled by my robes, I heard his desperate plea to take him to Udon, his precious friend, the one he owed his life too. Or so I gathered from his emotion-choked imploration.
"It took me some time, but I finally managed to convince him that we had found Udon, and that he was in the care of someone both trustworthy and capable. Gently, and with the tacit cooperation of his parents who waited patiently in the background, I coaxed the boy into letting me carry him back into the house and set him down onto a chair. Kneeling down before him, I asked for his name. He shared with me that it was Konohamaru.
"Confirming my suspicions, I wondered how I could delicately bring up the death of Kabuto-senpaii. I wasn't given much time to think about this because I had barely managed to calm Konohamaru down before his father went to his knees and prostrated before me. While he didn't say a word, I could guess what his suit was. So I asked him to rise first while I spoke to his son and that once my duty in the name of the Hidden Leaf was done, I would fulfil my vows as priest of the country. Though somewhat hesitant, his father obliged and upon rising, stepped back to join his wife as anxious onlookers in the interrogation they must have dreaded more than their own son did.
"Your name, Udon, was on his lips when I turned to him. Once more he begged me to take him to you. I told him truthfully that you had suffered a bad shock and that my partner and fellow priest, Neji, was looking after you. He hung his head and fell silent. Worried that I might have upset him, I knelt by his side and peered into his face trying to gauge how far I could go with the questioning. The subject in question was still a minor and in obvious distress after all.
"He was crying but silently, not a sniff or a whimper. A bandage had been secured around his ankle that I fingered in a mixture of concern and curiosity, as I took in the dark bruises that marked his face and arms. Oblivious to my scrutiny and without looking at me, he asked me if that meant that the Divine Healer had hurt his friend. Trying to hide my surprise, I asked him why he would think that. Hands gripping his arms so tightly that his fingernails dug into their flesh, he confessed in a hoarse voice that he had made the Divine Healer angry. He tried to tell me that he didn't mean to do anything, that he had been scared himself of the snake bite and he grew so worked up in the account that he nearly threw himself off his seat. Alarmed I held him before he could fall, as well as to comfort him. Carefully, I teased out the details with a few gentle questions. Was the bandage around his ankle because of a snake bite? Who helped him with the bite? Had the bite made the Divine Healer angry? Not immediately but after the Divine Healer had treated it? Could he describe the snake to me?
"The answers painted a grim picture that didn't require much effort in reconstructing. Had Konohamaru not been bitten, by what ironically turned out to be a harmless garden variety, Kabuto-san might not have . . . but that had been his destiny. It didn't seem as if Konohamaru knew about Kabuto-senpaii's death, and I didn't think it would have been a good idea to tell him. I tried to reassure him that it wasn't his fault, that at any rate you were in good hands and that what you needed was some rest. I suggested that it might be better for him to rest too before he met up with you. He could not do his friend any good if he wasn't well himself. When I told him that I would at least inform you that his friend Konohamaru wanted to see him, those bright eyes looked at me with a light that could have been hope as much as it could have been terror. Whichever it was, it was powerful and the image stuck with me for a while."
Shikamaru paused for a moment to turn to look at the silent acolyte. The wariness hadn't completely vanished, but though Udon was still poised for a quick response, the quiet eyes behind those thin lenses did not roam in watchfulness but were focused on him. Realising that the Shadow Master was observing him he stiffened and involuntarily stepped back, bumping into the balustrade he had risen from just moments ago. Shikamaru didn't betray any emotion at all and continued instead, with his story.
"Coaxing him a second time to retire to his room proved to be an easier task than it had initially been. Drawing the covers over him as he settled uncertainly into his bed I advised him to rest while I discussed some matters over with his parents. Though that might have alarmed him, honesty is always the best policy with children; they have a keen instinct when it comes to being lied to. He didn't bring up the matter of visiting his friend, but I promised him that if he was well enough and if you were willing and ready, I would take him to you. This seemed to set him at ease, and as exhausted as he must have been, he lowered his eyelids, lashes still wet with tears.
"Leaving the room, I was once again greeted with the awkward sight of Konohamaru's father folding himself onto the floor and pleading with me to do something for his son, to seal his memory. It was no secret that priests who were permitted to leave the Hidden Leaf were of a certain calibre. Among their repertoire of skills, they had the ability to alter memories, a useful technique that aided in keeping temple secrets without the need of bloodshed. I was however, very reluctant to resort to that, and while I gently persuaded the man to at least raise his head, I advised him that these matters were best handled naturally. No sooner had I suggested that, his wife fell to her knees and repeated her husband's plea. They had been through a lot, she argued, having lost her father-in-law who had been so close to them, and having miraculously had their son returned to them after they had suffered so much having to give him up. Their family simply could not take any more blows. They were very grateful to Udon and the Divine Healer, but they simply could not let either of them threaten their battered family.
"I requested for some time to ponder over the matter. It was a grave decision to make. As a shadow priest I had the authority of course, Konohamaru did know enough about Kabuto-san to prove a liability to temple security, however slight. From the perspective of my other duty as a healer priest, Konohamaru had been badly traumatized in his relationship with Kabuto-senpaii and you, and his parents were clearly tormented by his condition. The Deva Council would not find me guilty of abusing my powers if I chose to seal his memories. Yet I was hesitant. Bonds could sometimes be painful, but their power does not always work adversely. His bonds could heal him as much as they could hurt him.
"I do not know why I did not seek Neji's counsel in the matter. Perhaps it was a difficult time for both of us. Then there was the eagerness inside me to return to the temple and return Kabuto-senpaii's body among our temple ancestors. Whatever the reason, I went back into the house and struck a deal with Konohamaru's parents. I would seal his memories, but only until the time he was invited to the temple of the Hidden Leaf to claim his Mark. The moment the dark green spiralling leaf around his navel was tattooed, the seal would break, and all his suppressed memories would return to him. Lines of worry folded away the momentary hope but I would not be persuaded otherwise. A man should always have the right over his own mind, but since Konohamaru was a child this rule could be circumvented somewhat in the interests of his safety. When he attained manhood, there would be no reason to deprive Konohamaru of this right. Whether or not they agreed with me, they had no other option. Perhaps to them it was the most expedient thing to play along at the time, and besides, it would be years before their son would be summoned to the temple. At any rate, I entered the room, and barely rousing Konohamaru, began to whisper the necessary chants that moulded thoughts and bound them. It was the first time I had ever felt ashamed of fulfilling the duties the black badge of authority on my robes demanded of me, for part of me knew that I had just wanted to resolve the matter as swiftly as I could, my mind only focused on my own selfish needs. I did confess my full sins to Iruka-sama, even Neji only vaguely knew about this, but our Grand Deva shook his head and told me that he expected nothing more from me, and that I had performed with a level of duty and wisdom befitting that of a priest of the Hidden Leaf."
Shikamaru raised his eyes skyward and the moonlight greyed the deep shadows across his face.
"Konohamaru has come, and the seal is weakening, not least because I arranged for your meeting with him. Trapped within that young man is the conclusion to an investigation that has been left open-ended since I unilaterally decided that Konohamaru could not cope with what he knew." Turning his eyes to Udon, a glimmer of emotion slipped behind the passive mask. "The mysteries of your past are linked to that hidden knowledge, things you may not have come to terms with and do not want to surface at the most crucial of moments."
Udon didn't answer at first, turning away from the Shadow Master towards the moon that filled his lenses with silver moonlight. "So what do you expect me to do?" he eventually whispered. "I had to seal my own memories too. It was the only way I could survive. Be it Nii-san or Konohamaru, I had to forget why they both left me. After finding a way into my heart, they walked out of it. What do you expect me to do when I find that one of them stands right before me, all innocent and confused? What do you expect me to do when my own seals start to crumble?"
The acolyte was trembling, fists clenched and tears spilling down his robes as a swallowed moan escaped in a choked whimper. Shikamaru could well imagine the view behind that turned back.
"You could face the past," he offered quietly.
"And if I don't want to? If I want to choose to live in the here and now, if I want to bury the past in the past? What's wrong with that?" Udon demanded defiantly, deep breaths steadying the tremulous tone of his voice.
"Udon, don't allow your haste to discard your past drive you into making a mistake," Shikamaru pleaded.
"Tell me what it is I'm doing wrong! Tell me what more can I do! What else must I do to redeem myself before your judging eyes?" Udon burst out, arms lashing out in frustration, catching the edge of a lantern, and sending it crashing to the stone walkway. The candlelight sputtered within the paper and wire frame, its flames licking dangerously close to the domed walls.
Realising he had gone too far, he hastened to pick it up, desperately thinking of any words that could remedy the situation. Shikamaru didn't give him much time. Already, quiet footfalls moved toward him, and the Deva stopped just as the light caught him at an angle that stripped him of all shadows. Crouching down to where Udon cradled the lantern in his arms, Shikamaru gazed thoughtfully into the acolyte's abashed expression for a moment and then smiled, reaching out a hand to clasp Udon firmly by his shoulder.
"You did nothing wrong. There's nothing you need to change. You make me so proud just looking at how fine a man you've become," Shikamaru tenderly assured him and sorrow clouded his features for a moment. "For all the things I've done that hurt you, I am truly sorry. If there's any way I can make it up to you, you only have to ask."
Udon could only watch Shikamaru speechlessly, a dozen conflicting emotions vying for his attention. He needed to respond, he knew he did, but all he could manage were the half-whispered beginnings of words. Shikamaru merely smiled, squeezing Udon's shoulder affectionately before rising, Udon's gaze rising with him.
"Do your very best for tomorrow, ok?" Shikamaru urged him with an encouraging grin.
Shikamaru shook his head firmly, but Udon felt more than saw the wordless pain that seemed to be pouring off the Shadow Master's presence.
"You did nothing wrong," the dark-eyed Deva repeated, stepping backwards into the shadows. With a departing nod, the inky darkness seemed to coalesce around him and before Udon could call out to Shikamaru a second time, the shadows relaxed their grip permitting Udon to see into them. The Shadow Master had vanished.
Dipping his head to his chest, he wondered why Shikamaru's reassurance had made him feel more guilty than vindicated. Absently hugging the lantern closer to him, he thought back to the time when he had first journeyed with Neji and Shikamaru to the Hidden Leaf. He had initially been unable to eat, hoping instead, that sleep could bind him forever. It had been Shikamaru-sama who had patiently coaxed him into allowing himself to be fed. He remembered Neji remarking that Shikamaru had a way with kids, drawing a harassed look from the Shadow Master that Udon had eventually come to learn, meant that the lackadaisical priest was embarrassed.
"Shikamaru-sama . . ."
A lonely ray of sunlight lit the jadeite teacup, and though the amber tea glistened with warm glints, the tea had long since gone cold. Neji sat staring at the still surface of his tea blankly, ribbons of dark hair wavering before his pale eyes.
"Shikamaru . . . said all that?" he whispered not taking his eyes off the cup.
Before him, dark brown hair combed back and worn a little longer than Shikamaru's, their tips curling over his icy-blue bordered lapels, Grand Deva Umino Iruka and current master of the Temple of the Hidden Leaf watched Neji, an awkward frown framing his chocolate-brown eyes. The Grand Deva nodded and then sighed gustily, absently fingering the old gash across his face and the bridge of his thin nose.
"Even though Shikamaru submitted himself to me for judgement . . . based on his original good intentions, as well as his merits in service to the priesthood, not to mention his current health- I would not feel justified in deciding anything for him," Iruka explained, his eyes straying to a spot beside Neji where mere hours ago just before the morning services, Shikamaru had lowered his forehead against the floor, begging the Grand Deva to deliver a sentence. "He refused to leave until I requested for some time to think about it," Iruka added, turning his gaze back to Neji.
Neji glanced up at Iruka, his face frostily impassive.
"Even if I am Udon's teacher, I would not feel right in deciding any punishment for a fellow Deva. As you have said, Iruka-sama, Shikamaru only did it out of concern. I cannot pass judgement on a man who, whatever his methods were, only wished to assist me in my duties," Neji promptly replied, though Iruka noted with a pained sigh that the Hyuuga's face remained carefully blank.
Shikamaru and Neji . . . Whose idea had it been to pair them up anyway? He knew both of them well, having taught them personally when he had still been a mentoring priest. Neji was an obvious talent, smart, beautiful and backed by the powerful Hyuugas. He was the envy of his fellow acolytes, and even the subject of many a broken-hearted poem. Cold and aloof, he carried an aura of inapproachability that dissuaded even the briefest eye contact. Shikamaru on the other hand was friendly enough, though he must have been a sloth in his past incarnation. He begrudged every act he had to perform save the act of complaining about the work he had. Still he was no less an intellectual than Neji, and was in fact a far more thoughtful and thorough planner than the Hyuuga who relied heavily on his divination and the power of his eyes. Their pairing was odd in so many ways. Most strikingly, the temple usually selected partners who were peers, but Shikamaru was a year junior to Neji, both in age and service. It was perhaps a mark of recognition of Shikamaru's potential that he was paired up with the temple's only other budding talent at the time. They had also both hailed from influential families, Shikamaru being the sole heir to the Nara family. Perhaps it was also because the unrepentantly nonchalant Shikamaru was probably the only other acolyte who would not be cowed by the imperious manner Neji carried himself. Yet there again was a paradox. How could two people, one who didn't care enough and another who didn't want to care, ever be able to develop that bond so vital between partners? But the wisdom of his predecessor withstood the evaluation of apparent logic. The result was clear in the now famous scandalous event where acolyte Nara Shikamaru was tried before the Holy Deva Council for capturing and detaining partner Hyuuga Neji without proper authority, with the intention of preventing Hyuuga Neji from attending a Dark Vigil properly ordained by the council. Although Shikamaru's defence had been characteristically laconic, it had been crucial to his acquittal.
"I stand here today, judged by the council to have transgressed for detaining my partner from risking his life in an ordeal sanctioned by the temple. Yet it is also the temple that sanctioned the vows of kinship I took with Hyuuga Neji. 'To begrudge neither life nor resent the price of death in the defence and protection of our bonded kin,' this was a promise I swore before the tablets of the honoured ancestors of our temple. I confess that I am guilty of adhering to those words, and thus will I humbly accept any judgement the council passes on me."
Naturally, there had been those who decried his arrogance and accused him of mere sophistry and to be fair, Iruka knew that there was a fair amount of truth in these accusations. Of course his accusers had hemmed themselves into a corner when they weighed their argument so heavily with his lack of authority, rather than questioning the reliability of his judgement, and Shikamaru was quick to appeal to a higher ideal than that of their outraged pride and sense of propriety. What truly marvelled Iruka however was that few thought to look at Neji for his reaction to his partner's defence. For the first time in his history of knowing the young Hyuuga, Neji had looked genuinely perturbed, white-jade eyes searching against Shikamaru's down-turned face. Though now they were many years past from the trial and Neji had learned to better mask his emotions, Iruka wondered if beneath the act of cold fury, there wasn't a twisting frown of confusion and indecision there.
"Shikamaru was indeed high-handed in his course of action . . . and in attempting to perform a service for Udon, also did a disservice to him. Then there is the risk of the seal on Konohamaru's memories coming undone prematurely after last night's provocation, potentially complicating his coming of age. Shikamaru himself will not be pleased if there is no punishment forthcoming . . . which means . . . although this seems a bit cruel to him, but it's the only thing that fits . . ." Iruka trailed off with a convincing act of regrettable resolve. He nearly broke into a smile when Neji stiffened. There was his answer.
"It's nothing too serious don't worry. I'm just going to share something Shikamaru's kept hidden for half a decade. It seems rather petty a sentence, but it's ironically appropriate, since this secret has much to do with the crime he committed," Iruka explained, his words drawing a quick frown from the Deva.
"This concerns Kabuto-san and the night of his escape from the temple," Iruka began and Neji's eyes widened in surprise. "Officially the records state that he escaped the attending Devas during his Vigil and fled through an air vent leading to the surface, bypassing the temple's security that had been promptly alerted of the status. My own confidential scrolls, accessible only to the Grand Devas, add only one more detail the official scrolls omit. There had been another priest who had come into contact with Kabuto-san right after he had gone rogue. The priest's account was that he had been on the way to gather some herbs from his private stores, to help enliven the atmosphere of an informal post-investiture party for Kabuto-san."
Though Iruka said this without so much as a raised brow, Neji coloured guiltily. He remembered that day, when the riotous priests had cheered on a Shikamaru who had finally buckled under the pressure to take out some of the Nara family's Kirin Antler Dust. He himself had clapped a hand over Shikamaru's shoulder with an unhelpful lopsided grin and a sympathetic shake of his head.
But Shikamaru having met Kabuto-san just before their senior's escape? Why hadn't Shikamaru told him about this?
"Iruka-sama-" Neji began but didn't continue. Iruka nodded in response.
"Shikamaru came to report to me privately, after having agonized over it for several years, shortly after Udon joined us. I remember he wasn't his usual laidback and confident self- understandably so seeing as how Kabuto-san had been his senior in the medical team, and how confirmation of Kabuto-san's death had touched us all with a deep sorrow. As for his report- the essence of it was that he had been on his way to his quarters when he was violently accosted by Kabuto. After a brief exchange, Kabuto managed to escape, eventually escalating to, as you well know, the temple's most infamous manhunt."
Neji nodded his agreement but his fine brows knitted in a frown. Iruka's explanation didn't answer the more important question of why Shikamaru had kept silent about it all these years. Neji could understand that his bonded partner would have added failing to restrain Kabuto to his list of personal guilt, but so much so that he had to keep it a secret? Shikamaru should be well aware that, acolyte status notwithstanding, Kabuto had far more training and skill than either of them had. Neji looked perplexedly at the Grand Deva, pale eyes framing the question that his lips hesitated to.
Iruka lowered his warm brown eyes, and for a moment they gleamed with a peculiarly sorrowful light. Without a word, he produced a small green scroll from within the voluminous sleeve of his priestly robes and set it on the low table. Neji raised fine brows, as the milky radiance of his eyes reflected the yellow cord that bound the small purple scroll.
"This is . . ." the Deva began.
Iruka bowed his head. "A scroll bound to my personal safekeeping that contains Shikamaru's handwritten report. He recorded it himself before me the day he confessed." Iruka paused for a moment, raising his eyes in a steady gaze. "Will you read it?"
Neji's lips parted in an instinctive decision to decline, but they hovered hesitantly as his lungs held that quick thought in the turning of his breath . . . and the draining of his resistance. Gritting his teeth, his hand unclenched itself as it inched across to the waiting scroll, and though it dipped momentarily in a moment of guilt, the burning desire to know propelled him to reach out and slide the scroll across the table towards him. Fingers working fastidiously, he undid the knot and unrolled the scroll. Instantly he recognised Shikamaru's flowing brushstrokes, legible, but sliding carelessly from one character to the other, sometimes missing a stroke or a dot with what Neji knew was the idiosyncratic calligraphy of the Shadow Master. His more petty detractors, mostly those inherited from family feuds between other aspiring medical families, mocked him for it for lack of any intellectual or professional failings to target. Pouring over the words with newfound alertness, his doubts now drowned out by the rush of adrenalin, Neji felt a welter of emotions beating within him.
"I, Nara Shikamaru, do hereby swear upon the sacred trust of the Fire that dances upon the Leaf that every word I record from this point is the absolute truth. No falsehood will I commit, and I do solemnly beseech the immortal spirit of Sacred Eldest to commend the integrity of my words to my lord and master, Fifth Grand Deva, Beloved Iruka of the Temple of the Hidden Leaf.
In the eleventh year of the Divine Emperor Hosen's Reign, in the third month and of the fifteenth day during the cycle of the Dog, I was returning to my quarters when the renegade acolyte Yakushi Kabuto accosted me as I was passing through the northern open corridor between the Hall of Tranquil Harmony and the Inner Bower Chambers.
He seemed wild and harassed and my initial concerns were of calming my senior down, for apart from pinning me to the banister, he made no other move to suggest hostility. He babbled feverishly about being pursued and attacked by saboteurs, and I confess that my senior's distraught state swayed me to believe him for a moment. Yet as he dissolved into tears in my arms and spoke of the sinuous snakes and the searing heat in his veins, I came to suspect that perhaps some of his claims were instigated by the Oro venom, and were mostly a product of the hallucinations the poison could induce.
Upon this realization, I attempted to reason with my senior, offering him some medical attention in my own chambers. Yakushi Kabuto was, however, too upset and wary to accept my offer and he begged me not to leave. His words were the only means of persuasion he employed, and by these words I remained by his side. When the pursuing priests came by the corridor, I hid Yakushi Kabuto and myself in a Shadow Excising Jutsu for concealment.
My sole defence is that I presumed myself to be in control of the situation. Unfortunately, my ministrations were not as successful as I had hoped, and I must have somehow agitated him. Abruptly he struck me and breaking free of my hold, he vaulted away. When I recovered from the shock, I searched for him but was hampered by the fact that I did not catch the direction he had fled in. The only option I had left, a random gamble in any likely direction, proved a fruitless move, and when dawn came, I heeded the emergency summons and reunited with my brothers.
The events of that night, I have recounted here with the honesty and preparation of one who has violated the guiding rules of the temple and betrayed your trust. I submit myself to your judgement."
Neji reached the end of the scroll and pale irises flitted up to reread a few lines and reached the end of the document with the same troubled light in them. Finally relinquishing his view of them, he looked up to the Grand Deva, a numb perplexity burgeoning into distress in his mind.
"I don't understand . . . I remember meeting him later that day. He had been flustered and distracted, but not long after we all were, so I didn't- why didn't he say anything?"
Iruka shook his head and rested his forehead against clasped hands.
"He wouldn't say. I have many suspicions but no answers. Even so, you might be able to find out." Iruka raised his head and offered a nonplussed Neji a wan smile. "Aside from Udon, Shikamaru particularly didn't want you to know about this."
Neji lowered his eyes back to the scroll, frown lifting in an inexplicable sense of guilt.
"So we'll meet at the cycle of the Rooster then?" Shikamaru asked, trying to catch the large, smoky-brown eyes of Kiba Inuzuka, Deva and Beast Master of the Temple of the Hidden Leaf. Playfully leaning on top of the Deva's rich brown hair, was a monstrous white muzzle that belonged to a colossal dog known to them as Akamaru; Aka meaning red. Despite its name, its fur was a spotless white, like the pelt of snow wolves, with only its floppy white ears and flatter muzzle distinguishing it from its wilder cousins. Right now, it slobbered affectionately on Kiba as it leaned its considerable weight against him. Kiba was trying unsuccessfully to get Akamaru off of him, the painted crimson fangs on either side of his face adding a feral element to his playful smile.
"Yeah, we are- Akamaru!" Kiba scolded laughingly, twisting around and trying to get his arms around his dog companion. Shikamaru was unnecessarily reminded of the image of a dog chasing its tail.
"And the Orochimaru is well?" the Shadow Master went on to confirm, prompting the Beast Master to pause and flash an evil grin.
"He must be," he replied with a barking laugh, "he nearly tried to eat me today when I checked on him." Akamaru barked emphatically and Kiba smiled. "Of course you wouldn't let him, partner."
That was the other disconcerting thing about the Beast Master and his dog- somehow they could understand each other perfectly. It wasn't just Akamaru either, Kiba could, with varying degrees of effectiveness, communicate with various animals. This made him the ideal candidate for the caretaker of the Orochimaru, the pale malignant serpent named after the King of all its kind. It provided the Oro poison that acolytes were brutally injected with, through compassionless fangs beneath baleful and hungry yellow eyes. The beast belonged to a species of snake renowned for its perpetual hunger for warm blood, and its poison was instrumental to that end. Impaled by its venomous fangs, the snake's victims would boil in their own blood as hormonal imbalances accelerated vital functions, and emotional paralysis sealed the prey's doom.
Over a hundred years ago, the species was thought to have been extinct with the changing climate and the many campaigns against the legendary beasts. Now only a small and controlled nest of them remained within the hidden pits of the temple. The title of Orochimaru was given to the healthiest member of the secret nest, and it was the Orochimaru's duty to provide the poison that would test the will and faith of aspiring priests. A succession of caretakers ensured that the Orochimaru was always fit for the task, Kiba being the latest in line. They also made sure that the Orochimaru did no more than lend its poison. Tonight however, this second task was going to be presided over by Shikamaru himself.
It was a special concession granted to him by Iruka after his proposal that Udon be given more time to prepare himself for the Vigil was vetoed by the vote of the Deva Council. Since then, Shikamaru had been practising his Shadow Binding technique with the Orochimaru, insubstantial shadow hands entwining the snake, gripping its head and controlling the pressure of its bite. Kiba had long since given his report to Iruka that Shikamaru could satisfactorily control the Orochimaru, and would in no way compromise the ceremony. Kiba would still be there to assist though, at least up to the Chamber of the Faithful.
"Will you be alright though," Kiba began uncertainly, "I mean you just collapsed yesterday." Shikamaru smiled at the tactless and direct approach that was the Beast Master's signature style. In some ways it was easier to handle than with the others carefully tiptoeing around him. "I could easily take over," Kiba went on to say.
"Chouji's filling me up with tonics this afternoon, and I'll spend some time meditating. We could ask Iruka-sama to permit you to join us if you're still worried," Shikamaru remarked casually.
"It'll be hot enough without me being there," Kiba scoffed though his eyes betrayed his discomfort, "still, don't push yourself."
A pang of guilt twisted within Shikamaru, and he smiled.
"If I can't manage, I won't hesitate to ask for your help," the Shadow Master reassured.
Kiba nodded a little shyly, and turned to Akamaru to hide his embarrassment.
"Akamaru, stop that! I'll have to wash this robe again- eh? This scent-" The Beast Master paused mid-rebuke to sniff the air in a practised, subtle gesture. Shikamaru figured it out a split-second before Kiba. A faint tug in the area of his chest came with the knowledge.
"Neji," Kiba called, echoing Shikamaru's thoughts. The Beast Master was the only one who smiled however. Shikamaru bowed his head, jaw clenching and unclenching, cheeks tight and crimson. He held his silence as the Divination Master and Beast Master exchanged pleasantries, Akamaru barking his contributions from time to time.
"Shikamaru was just asking about tonight and about Orochimaru. You must be so proud, Udon hasn't even been here for ten years and already he's going for priesthood," Kiba congratulated while Neji modestly attributed this to the selfless guidance the fellow Devas and priests provided.
"And as always," Neji added, "please continue to give him your support. When this night is over, I will personally hold a banquet as a humble expression of my gratitude."
Akamaru barked twice and whether or not Neji truly understood it, he chuckled in reply. "Of course your table will be prepared."
"Akamaru won't go easy on the wine you know," Kiba warned, laughing as his canine companion whined. "Shino has invited me over for tea, if you guys want to come-"
Neji shook his head.
"I have something to discuss with Shikamaru," he declined with less than his usual subtle grace.
Akamaru whined and Kiba wincing, nodded in agreement.
"We'll be moving off then," the Beast Master quickly excused himself. Leaping neatly on top of Akamaru, he released an exuberant cry as the dog bounded off over the walls, drawing shouts of alarm from the priests beyond the courtyard.
The minor chaos provided a brief distraction in the awkward silence between the two Devas, left alone together in the wide training space that the courtyard served as. Pitted scars in the granite slabs and rough gashes gouged into the wall were all the decoration the space needed. Any attempt at aestheticism would have been obliterated anyway.
"About Kabuto-san; what happened between you and him on that night?" Neji asked, thrusting right into the heart of the matter.
Shikamaru spun around, widened eyes betraying fear and alarm before they narrowed evasively and the Shadow Master turned away.
"How?" he asked brusquely, anger a poor mask for his panic. Neji knew him too well.
"Iruka-sama. You wanted to be punished remember? You didn't answer my question," Neji insisted stubbornly. Shikamaru glared loathsomely before whipping his head away, yet he was unable to stop his breaths from deepening.
"What's there to add? He met me, he left, I screwed up, that's all," Shikamaru growled, refusing to meet Neji's unrelenting stare. At length Neji allowed a gentle sigh to escape and treaded softly up to him, spreading his hands across his partner's broad shoulders and felt them shake beneath his touch. Instinctively he dipped his cheek against Shikamaru's neck. There was no need for words, just the prickling heat of Shikamaru's agitation and Neji's cool and calm presence.
A few shuddering breaths later Shikamaru forced a small chuckle.
"How much do you know?" he asked without turning around.
"That you tried to save him and that he got away," Neji replied truthfully keeping as still as he could, the dark ropes of his hair barely tickling his partner's neck.
Shikamaru sighed gustily shoulders slumping forward, but Neji wasn't fooled. The ear that rested against his partner's nape still burned. The apparently reticent Shadow Master was as deeply upset as he had ever been, and as much as Neji wanted to know the truth, a part of him ached to soothe Shikamaru.
"He wanted me to help him," Shikamaru said after a while, then lapsed back into a silence that Neji did not attempt to fill. Taking a deep breath and holding it for eight counts, Shikamaru released it slowly, head bowed and eyes clenched. "He was shaking like a candle flame caught in a violent gust. The only instinct I had was to hold him and search for any wounds or threats. He babbled about a trap, that the Devas were after his life, and that he had barely escaped. It was then that I saw the two swollen punctures by the side of his neck. The blood oozing slowly out of it was almost black, and the flesh around it had taken a garish green hue. I didn't know what exactly to think, but I knew that the truth could wait until Orochimaru's bite had been treated.
"Before I could even start on the wound, I had to calm him down. He was terrified about being left exposed and vulnerable in the open and kept begging me to hide him from the Devas. Knowing the potency of the venom, I chose the most expedient option I had." Shikamaru stopped at this point, raising his face skyward and forcing Neji to shift his head to the side of his neck, resting above his right shoulder. Neji's cheek grazed Shikamaru's and an abrupt urge to take full advantage of his perch tempted him strongly, but he sternly reminded himself that Shikamaru was reliving a personal nightmare for his sake. He settled instead, with wrapping his arms protectively about his partner's shoulders. Shikamaru grinned and grasped it as if it were a lifeline.
"I used the Shadow Excising technique, which as you would know-"
"-uses one's shadow as a conduit to bind other shadows and by distorting the space they cover, creates an alternate dimension folded within them. If done successfully the artificial plane would appear to even the most skilled shadow priest as nothing more than empty shadows, even as the technique's controller and whatever he chooses to cloak, remain hidden within," Neji finished for him.
Shikamaru turned to his partner quirking an eyebrow.
"Are there any of my family secrets left that the Hyuuga House hasn't spied on?"
Neji merely smiled in reply. The Nara family, on top of having a long history of medical research, also produced some of the best spy masters for Fire Country. Their cloaking shadow techniques both metaphorically and politically clashed with the Byakugan or "white-eyed" technique that pierced through all veils. The Hyuuga family thus thought of it as a matter of pride and principle to spy on their secretive allies.
"I also know it's an 'S' rank technique as well as a forbidden one. The creation of a dimension requires an enormous amount of Chakra and most of it must be comprised of the Spiritual Energy produced through concentration. The mental strain is enormous, and the slightest mistake could be fatal."
Shikamaru didn't miss the mild reproach but he only nodded his head.
"If the artificial plane collapses prematurely, everything linked by the shadow would be destroyed, including the technique's controller. It's useless even as a weapon of last resort because if you could already link shadows with your opponent you may as well use the Kage Kubari no Jutsu and neutralize him. It isn't a very useful infiltration technique either as it doesn't allow mobility, and simple Shadow Walking does the job without its added risks. My family has it listed as a protection technique to hide comrades and allies, or to simply avoid a dangerous situation, such as a large-scale explosion after springing a trap of exploding tags. Even so, the daunting risks dissuade my clan members from relying on it too often."
"That's one reason," Neji agreed, "but it's also because of the great difficulty in mastering the skill. You and your father are its only wielders in the entire continent. There are even reports that the young master of the Nara Clan is more skilled in it than the current Family Head."
"The old man is a lot more cunning than I am. I have a long way to go before I can use the Shadow techniques with equal prowess. My limited knowledge can't beat his vast experience," Shikamaru corrected with a thin, self-deprecating smile. "It was reckless of me to use the technique but I figured that as long as I didn't involve Kabuto-senpaii's shadow in the pattern, at least no harm would come to him. Of course, arrogance played a big part of it. I genuinely believed I could handle it. I was younger and more foolish back then." As he finished the last sentence his tone had grown heavy again.
A sudden breeze caught the silken lengths of Neji's hair and tugged it forward past Shikamaru's cheek, carrying with it the faint fragrance of sandalwood. He savoured the sensations for a few brief seconds before plunging on with the inexorable pull of the tale.
"The Shadow Excising was executed without any complications. The night was lit by a chain of lanterns and there was no lack of shadows to manipulate. Aside from Kabuto-senpaii, there was nothing to distract me, and all he did was cling on to me. The shadows yielded to my will without causing undue strain and when the chorus of crickets chirping had completely drained out of my consciousness, I called forth the mild blue glow that would be our only illumination in the pocket dimension. Slowly raising my lids, I peered down at Kabuto-senpaii who appeared somewhat sedated, though his eyes still held that wild look of terror in them. I don't think he realized what I had done exactly, but I believe he could sense that he was protected somehow. I decided not to take any chances however, and carefully explained to him that I had taken steps to prevent our discovery by the Devas. He looked at me, damp with fevered sweat, steel-grey eyes bloodshot. The expression he brought before me was one filled with such naked vulnerability and fear, that I could scant believe the face laden with those emotions belonged to him.
"He asked me if we were really safe and I confirmed that we were. I reached for his wound but he immediately pulled back in alarm, a wild plea in his eyes. It was painful to watch. Kabuto-senpaii had always been carelessly competent, exuding an air of amiable indifference to the priests and Devas alike, and he always had a soft spot for the underdog, fancying himself as their protector. An orphan himself with no notable parentage, he was the ringleader in his gang of the less celebrated members of the clergy, basking in their respectful adoration with a loose and fickle manner."
Neji smiled to himself, remembering a younger Shikamaru lounging at the back of calligraphy class with Kabuto-senpaii, both of them slowly and ostensibly grinding out the rough lumps in the dark ink with their ink pestles long past any real need for it, the horse hair on the ends of their brushes blatantly clean. Neji who had then been dragged to the back row by his partner had already been working on his seventh scroll. To Shikamaru, Kabuto-san was more than a senior to be respected; he was a mentor and an older brother, even if the Shadow Master would not care to admit it. Perhaps Kabuto-san responded in kind, for he cared for Shikamaru as his protégé and even as younger brother, for all that he appeared to remain aloof on the surface. He certainly never begrudged Shikamaru a second of his time, on many occasions even seeking his loafing junior out.
In the end it just made everything more painful.
"Maybe if it had been you . . . maybe Kabuto-senpaii wouldn't have left," Shikamaru wondered aloud.
"You were the one the Eldest Tree chose to help Kabuto-san. This was preordained, what-ifs and maybes have no meaning in the workings of fate," Neji maintained firmly.
"Fate?" Shikamaru echoed with a trace of self-mocking amusement.
"I am the Master of Divination," Neji quipped, softly bumping his head against his partner's.
"And I'm a high priest," Shikamaru added wryly, "I thought it would be an easy job. Tend to the Tree, spread your legs . . ." He ignored the stunned choking sound coming from Neji and sighed wistfully. "It turned out to be much harder . . . though I think all things accounted for, it's all been worth it."
Pale eyes dimmed, like twin moons suddenly veiled by the dark streaks of shadowy clouds. It was barely a hint, barely a hint that Shikamaru let slip of his acceptance of his impending fate, but Neji caught it like a dagger in his heart. Involuntarily an answering sigh escaped him, one heavy with his ache. Shikamaru stiffened then lowered his head and they lapsed into silence once more, each searching for a delicate manner to break the stalemate.
"Did his fear finally get the better of him that he broke away from your technique?" Neji finally asked, breaking the silence. Shikamaru puzzled for a moment over the question before he understood that Neji had returned to the marginally less painful subject of Kabuto-senpaii. Briefly he considered Neji's motives for broaching a subject that could in no way change the finished outcome. He didn't linger on that curiosity too long however, his eagerness to distract Neji from his own inevitable fate overcoming suspicion and reluctance.
"Not right away. He had flinched away from my touch but not out of any obvious distrust; he merely didn't want the wound touched. Careful not to alarm him, I lowered my hand and let my arm fall to his waist and held him, affirming the hold that he had on me. It was then that he broke into a mindless, racking sob and collapsed into my impulsively protective embrace. At that point any professionalism I had had melted away in the sudden rush of concern and affection. A fatal mistake of course, I know that now." As level as he kept his tone, Shikamaru felt his eyes fill up as his vision blurred and he broke off from his account, raising his face skyward as he struggled to master his emotions. His partner must have read the signs for he felt warm lips and breath touch the very edge of his ear and whispers rolled out soothingly.
"True thought is the manifested light that is gold, pure emotion is the manifested passion that is fire, neither consuming the essence of the other. Only compassion manifest in the miracle of water may quench the interminable suffering."
Shikamaru was familiar with the soft litany, having learned it by heart along with his clergy brethren. It was one of his favourite lines of scripture. Derived from an earlier text for a simpler hymn, it managed to avoid excessive obscurity while succinctly explaining a good philosophy to live by. The truth is like gold that is inviolate in its true essence even should the heat of passion that is fire render it weak within a man, yet it is also unable to tame the fire of emotions that scorches the soul. Only compassion, like the flow of soothing waters, may extinguish the fiery torture. Only selflessness may ease the pain of self-involvement.
Of course it was one thing to appreciate it in theory, quite another to maintain it in practice. While he had reproached himself many times since that night for allowing his emotions to get the better of his cool reasoning, he had to ask himself if given another chance, whether he would be able to avoid making the exact same mistake. Certainly he would be more cautious to prevent his senior from breaking free, but he would nevertheless be unable to prevent himself from holding his senior while the stricken acolyte clung to him seeking refuge. His failure and his subsequent loss were fuel to the fire that tormented him, but only because he acted out of a personal love that he could never turn into an impersonal compassion. Tears, unbidden and unnoticed, fell dimly down his cheek before tucking themselves beneath his chin. They hovered there, merging into a single glistening bead and shivering for a moment, fell onto Neji's sleeve, spreading a greyish patch on the white fabric.
"I tried telling him it was alright," Shikamaru struggled on, a note of distress quavering in his voice now. "I told him to trust me, that I wouldn't let anyone harm him. Why didn't he trust me? He didn't have to die, but he did. He left because he couldn't trust me, why couldn't he? Why?"
It killed Neji how broken the question came out, but that had little to do with the sudden heaviness weighing down on his heart. The understanding was a mere suggestion, a drop of ink into a bowl of water, curling into searching tendrils exploring the depths of a new idea. Still he could sense why Iruka had been almost transparently deliberate in orchestrating this confrontation. This wasn't about Konohamaru, this was about saving Shikamaru's life.
The question now was how he should use this opportunity.
"Is it really about trust?" Neji asked back.
"Will you tell me that that was all the poison's fault?" Shikamaru retorted in a brittle yet dangerous tone. Neji's white-jade eyes grew distant with inner contemplation while a watching Shikamaru relaxed, shoulders falling and a soft chuckle on his breath. Turning around and tracing a finger down a pale cheek, the Shadow Master lowered his lids affectionately as their eyes met in a twisting gleam of bittersweet love. "I never wanted to hurt you or Udon. I was wrong, please forgive me."
Neji shook his head and leaned in to wrap his arms around a mildly surprised Shikamaru. 'I want to save you,' he mouthed where his partner could not see him, but Shikamaru felt the brushes of Neji's jaw, and his lids veiled the stinging sensation in his eyes.
Konohamaru awoke in an alien and enchanted world. Opening his eyes, he rose automatically without his conscious bidding. Through the beautifully screened window contained within a slender octagonal wooden frame, the sun hovered just above the eastern walls of the temple. The bright disc shone just as transcendentally as the immaculate goddess Amaterasu was said to in the legends Konohamaru had known long before he had learned how to read. Through the silken screen, the heavenly sovereign seemed decked in a vivid satin robe of bright russet and she suffused his chamber with a shifting glow of warm amber.
Dimly, he registered that this opulent chamber wasn't his own. The futon was generously thick and as numb as he was feeling, its softness permeated his sense of it like the downy feathers of a dove or the gentle pelt of a fox. Glancing down at the covers, he was struck by the vivid embroidery of blossoms falling helplessly into the silver currents of an uncaring stream. His mystified brown eyes tracing the artful suggestion of petal tracks and water currents, Konohamaru somehow understood the harsh beauty of wistful longing and his chest throbbed with a sudden ache. Then, as if the knowledge filtered into his mind in faint whispers, he remembered the dusty journey in a rickety old cart and the pale lustre of a Deva's hand grasping his own. He had come here, taken some trouble to have finally arrived.
This insight did not satisfy him however and he turned to further examine his surroundings hoping to coax a few more memories that would fill the nagging blanks. Calligraphy scrolls ran parallel to each other, the characters thrust onto paper in strong black ink but their spirit and vigour leaping out at him with a powerful yet fluid grace. Konohamaru's command of the language was adequate, and he was competent enough to earn him sincere compliments from his peers and his tutor, but calligraphy was well beyond him. Even so, he could clearly see that the words before him held the touch of a master. Forcing his attention away from the script, he noticed a mellow fragrance that had been subtly warming the air and he instinctively looked down at it its source, a pewter incense burner shaped into an intricate lotus. Gentle fumes rose steadily through the vents skilfully disguised as seed pods. It was the delicacy of each fluted petal that brought the name of a Deva to his mind.
Neji. The immaculate and graceful Neji. This was the temple of the Hidden Leaf. Then the trickle of hints thickened into a welter of replayed events and he was swept into an urgent rush of recollection. The dinner, Shikamaru, harsh words in the night and- Udon. Udon. Udon. The cool unfriendly face was the reef upon which his thoughts crashed upon, then drew back and crashed upon again. As far as he knew, at least as far as he should know, he had no reason to be thrown into such shaking confusion, no reason to have collapsed before the acolyte and he would have probably explained all the peculiarities away as a case of nerves. Yet last night an answer had emerged when he had not been really seeking it.
"Konohamaru was the boy whose memories I sealed while you watched over Udon," Shikamaru explained abruptly in the awkward silence.
"What?" Neji hissed.
. . .
"It was so long ago that I had almost forgotten. Even back at that time, almost six years ago, all I could think about was Kabuto-senpaii . . . Konohamaru's sealing had been just one of the many loose ends that I had momentarily tucked away for the right time to tie up.
. . .
"It wasn't hard to see his father's point. Konohamaru was distraught, begging me to take him to Udon. I very nearly gave in to the young boy- there had been so much pain and loss already . . ."
Konohamaru's face sank slowly into his hands as if the weight of his thoughts was too much to bear. The throbbing ache in his temples was as much a product of the shock of the revelation, as it was his restlessly spent night, kept awake by the confused understanding that what he thought had been the seamless knowledge of his own personal past had been edited and trimmed to fit the wishes of those he was supposed to love and trust. The hurt would have been sharp had it not been for the state of bewildered disillusionment that he blundered in, lost and frustrated. He needed answers and the impulse to confront Shikamaru or Neji had seized upon him many a time last night, but in the first place, once they had departed from his room, he had no idea where to seek them and secondly, the Devas had the authority and power to banish the newfound discovery from his mind. He did not want that, and the realization that he clung to his lost memories so protectively surprised him. Though he had yet to learn the truth behind his sealed memories, Shikamaru's words had hinted at the possible horrors that remained hidden from him. Of course, he had been a mere child then and Shikamaru had mentioned that when his trials at the temple had reached its completion, he would be ready to learn the truth, and that would conclude in just a few days.
Raising his head and smiling bitterly to himself, he marvelled on how quickly he had overcome his anxiety over his passage into manhood. This liberation, however, felt like no liberation at all.
A gentle rattling hiss of the shoji panel in its frame startled him from his thoughts and brown eyes widened when they witnessed who stood beside the open panel. Udon's bright eyes were clearer than they had been when they were lit by the lamplight. A cool draft caught dark ribbons of silken hair that Konohamaru had only recently discovered, could be as becoming on a man as it could be on a woman. Thin white robes were fine gauze around the acolyte's slender frame and Konohamaru was privately alarmed at the effect it had on him as a blush crept over his cheeks. Resisting the urge to shake his head and clear his mind of those shocking thoughts he turned his attention instead, to what the acolyte carried in his arms. Neatly folded upon long-sleeved, folded arms was a bundle of dark fabrics. Konohamaru squinted in puzzlement.
Udon dipped to the floor, settling himself upon his knees and bowed, his manner and courtesy seemed freer than it had been since they last parted.
"I had hoped to wake you sir, since it had been some time since breakfast and lunch. I took the liberty of requesting some tonic from the kitchens. Akimichi-sama instructed me to inform you that he will personally attend to any further requests if your appetite has not been too compromised by your illness," Udon finished with a polite smile and watched Konohamaru expectantly. Konohamaru returned one of complete bewilderment and stammered an uncertain reply.
"Th- thank you. I will most certainly obey Akimichi-sama's instructions. So . . . I . . ." he trailed off perplexed as to what the kneeling acolyte wanted.
"Will it inconvenience you sir, if I enter with this change of clothes?" Udon finally prompted with not a trace of impatience in his smile.
"Yes! Yes, I'm sorry, please enter!" Konohamaru hurriedly invited, all but falling over himself to personally lead the acolyte in. Instead, he fell over his covers, collapsing heavily onto his futon. Wincing more out of embarrassment than from pain, he wrenched his eyes shut in pretence of discomfort as concerned fingers carefully wound themselves around his arms, steadying him. The scent of jasmines sweetened the taste of each breath.
"Please sir, your body has yet to recover from its momentary ailment, I would be most ashamed if you injured it on my behalf," Udon lightly reproached.
"It's not your fault," Konohamaru protested, finally opening his eyes and laying them with a small measure of distress. It upset him that the priests were always so careful to invite blame upon themselves. He did shrewdly suspect that it was deliberately affected so that their words would not carry even the mildest disagreeable tang, after all his uncle and those drinking buddies of his had lauded that attribute as part of their great charm, but he also knew that what you said often led to what you believed. Udon held his gaze with an unreadable one of his own before breaking into a small smile.
"You are the guest of my master and mentor, and we shared wine under a roof I call home, your slightest injury would shame me deeply," Udon insisted as he helped his guest settle back into the futon. Konohamaru could only look on helplessly while the acolyte draped the thick coverlet over his legs. "My master's brother has also instructed some of my brother acolytes to tend to your bath once you decide to have it."
"Master's brother?" Konohamaru asked distractedly, his eyes appraising Udon as his thoughts returned once more to the painful issue of his secret past. Udon looked up as he finished tucking the corners of the coverlet in, flashing a more genuine smile that lit his eyes.
"Aa. Shikamaru-sama, the host of last night's dinner," he explained, "they have long since pledged their ties as partners and are thus sworn brothers."
Konohamaru nodded mutely, the feeling that this was indeed a world apart returning powerfully to him. Sworn brotherhood was not exactly exclusive to the realm of the clergy but it had fallen out of practice amongst commoners and even the nobility and was maintained only in the clergy and the army. Though the notion was deeply romantic and attractive in that lyrical sense that you could sing about in an epic poem, the increasingly materialistic nature of everyday life had made it seem anachronistic for the lay man, while the daimyo were now more than ever increasingly concerned over the watering down of their blood lineage, to desire expanding their clans with members outside of their bloodline. Thus the idea held the sense of the archaic, but honourably so. That Shikamaru and Neji were thus bonded . . . He instantly thought back to the harshly whispered conversation last night and a flash of concern briefly overshadowed his thoughts. He hoped that their disagreement, which had partly been over him, would not strain the relationship between the two Devas.
"Do you have a sworn brother?" Konohamaru blurted surprising himself as well as Udon who watched him with a fleeting suspicion. "I'm sorry," he apologized, "I had no right to ask-" Udon was already shaking his head however.
"I have none," Udon freely admitted. "I came late into my novitiate and there was no suitable candidate so my master, Neji-sama, vouched for me instead. Thus I came into the exalted position of Neji-sama's personal disciple, one I do not deserve but am deeply grateful for. Shikamaru-sama also partook in my instruction for I was his brother's disciple and he regarded me as his own nephew."
Konohamaru watched in fascination at the emotions that came alive in the acolyte's fair face. It was no great surge of passion in his expression, but it became apparent in the little signs in the shifting light in his eyes or the subtle shift of the set of the acolyte's shoulders that Konohamaru was privately amazed that he could read. It wasn't all that much that he could decipher but he picked up the great depth of love and affection Udon felt for the two Devas, an attachment that he guessed had its roots in acquired trust and genuine respect. The brief twinge of envy was probably what prompted his next slip.
"It must be wonderful to have such love," he blundered again and hissed belatedly at his stupidity. Behind his thin lenses, Udon's dark eyes widened before relaxing into reserved curiosity.
"Do you not have someone you love and trust, sir? Sir's parents perhaps?"
"I love them," Konohamaru hurriedly assured but then looked away with an awkward grimace, "I can't explain it either but they seem . . . distant." That wasn't entirely true, at least not now when the knowledge that the almost fearful, furtive looks his parents believed he never noticed had a very real reason behind them, had just dropped unceremoniously into his lap. He stared unseeingly at the calligraphy scrolls, thinking back to how nervous his parents were over his rite of passage, and of the one time he had overhead his father reassuring his mother that nothing would change and that their son would take it all in stride now that he was all grown up. Bitterly he thought of how he had innocently assumed that his mother was reluctant to let her boy go and how he'd afterward checked his behaviour to avoid distressing her unduly.
"Sometimes our elders find great difficulty in expressing their love and concern, and looking past the surface we would certainly discover their love for us," Udon carefully advised though his searching eyes betrayed an inner disquiet, that his calm suggestion belied.
"Whatever the reason, they shouldn't lie to us," Konohamaru returned bluntly, past questioning his inability to keep his churning thoughts to himself, "you can't trust someone if they insist on deceiving you."
Udon watched him almost questioningly and Konohamaru held his gaze half challenging the acolyte to voice the question, half desperate. It was Udon who looked away but when he set his gaze upon Konohamaru again, his eyes held the cool indifference that made the youth feel somehow rebuffed. The acolyte parted his lips to speak but on an impulse Konohamaru beat him to it.
"Udon," he called out, entreating a favour he had not completely thought out with a familiarity forged out of his imagination. The effect was instantaneous. Iciness collapsed into a hunted look and lips twitched as a startled gasp escaped them. Plunged into a chilly feeling of fearful regret, his mind grabbed at the first rushed excuse he could think of.
"Is it alright if I speak to you after I earn my Mark? There's something I'd like to ask you then, and I may not have an opportunity to enter the temple afterwards." It was perfect, Konohamaru realized after the shock had drained away from the acolyte's face to be replaced by a deep wariness. Whether he had consciously desired it or not, he had stuck as close to the truth as he could without directly laying out the unembellished truth. Best of all, the pretence of a continued request aptly fitted his real position. He could neither directly approach the acolyte for he had nothing concrete to approach him with that Udon couldn't dismiss, nor could he forego a confrontation or reunion when whatever he needed to know finally came to light. At this point he could only buy time, or beg for it.
"Sir?" Udon asked in too innocent puzzlement.
"Please," Konohamaru insisted firmly though he bowed deeply, formally entreating.
Udon immediately returned the gesture though he was not as swift to reply. Sitting back again, Udon regarded Konohamaru with a guarded expression. The acolyte seemed to be sizing him up, coldly calculating behind thin lenses. Reluctantly he made his answer.
"I shall be at your disposal, sir, if that time comes to pass," the acolyte quietly agreed.
The affirmation brought a swell of relief in Konohamaru and he felt suddenly lighter. Grinning despite being aware of how inappropriate it was, he tried to think of more sober thoughts.
"I wonder if I will even earn my mark though; fainting in the middle of the Acquaintance Dinner probably didn't impress the Devas," he noted ruefully.
"No," Udon quickly disagreed, relaxing in a calmer certainty, "my master's brother is a man of understanding and great patience. He would merely hold another dinner if he sees fit to, or perhaps he has already decided who would best serve you as your guide in your rite of passage."
"Shikamaru-sama . . ." Konohamaru began distantly as a series of conflicting emotions competed with each other, "what kind of Deva is he?"
The look the acolyte returned him seemed to Konohamaru to mirror the complexity he himself contained inside.
"In the temple and beyond it he is revered as the Master of Shadows, the heir to the Nara Clan and its undisputed prodigy for the last three centuries," Udon declared with a note of pride and respect in his voice. "To his family and to his dependants he is fiercely protective without regard for himself." The last observation brought a soft glow to the acolyte's eyes and Konohamaru found himself caught in their gentle light. Noticing the youth's silent gaze, Udon smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, he may be a strict judge, but he would never allow you to leave the temple devoid of the Mark without first expending all of his power to aid you."
Privately, the chaos of emotions hadn't quite quietened, but in the face of that smile Konohamaru found himself inclining his head in meek acknowledgment. He looked up sharply when Udon suddenly rose, and finally noticed the sound of muffled footsteps padding their way. A white robed cleric appeared with a platter and a steaming bowl on top of it. He glanced with some surprise at Udon, who bowed smoothly in greeting, but quickly recovered, and with the platter in his way inclined his head in response instead. When his head of flaming red hair had been thrust back and the cleric lifted his face, light brown eyes turned towards Konohamaru with a concerned frown.
"Has the young master been waiting for his nourishment? I am so ashamed for my tardiness, even having to trouble brother Udon who has so much to do today to wait on you on my behalf-"
From the corner of Konohamaru's vision, he thought he spotted an abrupt movement, slight but startled. By the time his gaze had shifted from the dismayed frown on the new cleric to Udon, the acolyte was as unperturbed as an icy lake reflecting the borrowed warmth of the morning light.
"Atsushi-san stands too much on ceremony, I was selfishly monopolizing the young master's time." Turning to Konohamaru, Udon bowed and flashed a quick playful smile. "Atsushi-san has long been admired for his passionate, fiery mane that fully complements the raging romance in his soul. His feisty spirit might burn all ailments effortlessly, but the heat might test the limits of some."
Even as Konohamaru's ears began to burn, something tugged painfully in his chest as he watched Udon walk away.
"Udon-san is so cruel," Atsushi protested with a mock pout, "I'm just a noisy young brat. After having enjoyed Udon-san's company, I will seem like a spoiled child to our guest, yet you add such teasing."
"In other words Atsushi-san wants the third party to exit quickly?" Udon countered with a chuckle as he reached the fellow cleric. Atsushi tossed his head back, laughing freely. When he recovered there was an almost wistful sparkle in his eyes.
"We will all be toasting your victory tomorrow senpaii, with half-emptied bowls of sake; definitely."
"I'll appreciate it if you will go easy on me over the wine as well as for the other . . . activities . . ." Udon returned as he passed the acolyte now roaring with hearty laughter.
Realising that Udon was moving out of his vision, Konohamaru ignored his protesting limbs as he half-rose and froze when a backward glance from the acolyte swept over him. Unreadable despite his best efforts, the cool gleam of those lenses still sent a chill down his spine while sending his heart into a wild throb. Then, acting as if nothing had passed between them, the acolyte disappeared behind the screen doors, a drifting silhouette slipping away from his world back into the shadows.
The Shadow Master shivered with white pain, sight forcibly dimmed to the point of blinded darkness. Alone he writhed within robes damp with sweat, gritting his teeth against the vice-grip his temples were caught in. They felt like they were being ground back into his head to crush his brain. He almost wished they would. Then just as he felt as if he could not hold back the cries any longer, it suddenly abated, the pressure draining away as rapidly as it had developed. A familiar tingle in his nostrils told him that blood was trickling down them, and swallowing reflexively he tasted their coppery tang.
Breaths heaving as the myriad channels of sweat poured off him onto the tatami mats, Shikamaru willed the life back into his limbs and carelessly draped his left arm over his eyes. Slowly, and biting his lip as he did so, he clenched his quivering fingers into a tight fist.
"Just a little more to go."
Udon stood alone in the onyx-walled anteroom of the chamber. The tall, unfurnished room was really more appropriately thought of as being deep and wide, since it was in reality a tunnel. They were after all several feet in the catacombs of the temple, and the chill that penetrated the thin, albeit double-layered white satin robes, was the chill of secrets- those of death and of growth. That was all that the bowels of the Earth promised, for that was all it kept, corpses and roots. The teachings reminded them that one fed the other, and that in that pattern lay the secret of true immortality. Historically the second generation Grand Deva, Tobirama Senju, commissioned these chambers and legend has it that his brother's will, that lives forever in the Eldest Tree, extended the great tree's roots to coil about the rooms, forever protecting them. Whether this was merely a story started by Tobirama Senju, to honour his brother Hashirama Senju, the First Grand Deva, or if the conviction in the priests' who repeated the tale had true merit to it, the catacombs were sacred. It housed the bodies of the Devas who in death entwined their will with that of the Eldest Tree, and it was here that the three great trials were held- that of the acolyte for the black Mark of the priest, that of the priest for the Gold Mark of the Deva, and finally that of the Deva for the highest honour of First Guardian to the Eldest Tree, the rank of Grand Deva. Of the three, the trial of the acolyte was the easiest to pass, but the only one where failure was almost certainly fatal.
Thus the chambers had always been wrapped in alternating layers of growth and death, but it was death that preyed on Udon's mind now.
Shortly after parting from Konohamaru, he had bumped into his mentor and protector, Neji who had invited him to some snacks in his own chambers. It was a rare honour but Udon was a frequent recipient of it ever since he had first been adopted by the temple. The tacit support the gesture provided was one of the reasons why Neji had very naturally became a father figure in his life. The tea had been a pleasant quarter-cycle of refreshments and the rare opportunity to enjoy the Deva's mastery of the flute. The remaining time had been spent on a solemn but moving ceremony in his mentor's inner chambers, where the Divination Master blessed him with favourable signs and unbound a knot over his head to symbolize the undoing of all obstacles and the change of set order, enabling the humble pheasant to ascend into the lofty plumage of the phoenix. He had thanked his master formally, laying his forehead against the tatami flooring, fully aware that might have been the last opportunity he would have to do so. Somehow, his master must have understood his feelings, and had not moved to stop him.
Udon had retired to his chambers after that to clear his mind and prepare himself for the trial. He had barely silenced the uncertainty that nagged at his mind when the sparse few friends he had made, had come barging into his room talking about the small party they were in the midst of organizing to celebrate his triumphant return from the Vigil. Though he had met all of this with a wry grin, he had privately wondered if it would be in poor taste if they had to convert the celebration into a remembrance party. He could very well return with a white sheet draped over him instead. He could not shake off the lurking chill. The confidence and exhilaration he had felt just two weeks ago had been replaced with a morbid curiosity.
Udon and his friends had been bantering lightly when footsteps drawing closer brought a hush to settle down amongst them. When the approaching shadows identified themselves as Shikamaru and the Healer Priests under him, Udon rushed to admit them, the air having gone solemn in the presence of the senior priests, the Shadow Master's casual waving away of their kneeling bows notwithstanding. His friends retreated to the side of the room, watching wordlessly as Shikamaru's juniors aided their friend through the various tests the Deva administered. Finally, after an assortment of unobtrusive but thorough tests, Shikamaru nodded his head with a tired smile.
"It all seems in order," he announced, "apart from a little anxiety that you'll need some jasmine green tea for with some of Chouji's lavender biscuits, you're in fighting fit condition." He pursed his lips briefly and Udon noted the shadows beneath his eyes with a guilty frown. "Well, if you feel any discomfort at any time, don't hesitate to voice your concerns to me or any of my healer brothers," Shikamaru added reassuringly then broke into another wan smile. "Enjoy your party. I'll be meeting you again soon."
Udon bowed his thanks and saw the Healer Priests to the door, bowing respectfully once more before turning to his friends with a half-grin on his lips. The mood had become a little heavier with the reminder of the dangers involved, and there were a few dark faces over Shikamaru's brief visit- the Shadow Master had made himself very unpopular with his persistence over forbidding Udon's participation in the Dark Vigil. Quite frankly, before last night he would have been amongst those inimical faces, childishly casting the Shadow Master as the jealous superior in decline, in his own private drama. Last night however, he had somehow glimpsed past the veil of shadows and remembered the elusive warmth behind that cryptic veneer. It made him guilty to realize that in all his selfish concern over his own promotion, he had had neglected to do anything to aid the Deva in his daily battle against his deteriorating condition. Udon was going to remedy that once things had calmed down. A genuinely hopeful smile spread across his face, and he gathered his friends around to pick up where they had left off.
Ever flowing time saw to it that he was barely settled when his friends, noticing how late it had gotten, offered to prepare him. They activated the charms for heat and filled the wooden tub, dropping petals and pouring oils into the water for sanctity and protection. It embarrassed him to be tended to naked, surrounded by half-a-dozen fully robed acolytes, but they insisted on disrobing him and helping him into his cleansing bath while they poured the blessed water over his head, ritually soaking him as they whispered prayers of protection. It touched him mostly because he usually didn't spend much time with them, and that they had bothered to do this at all was largely unexpected.
He didn't have much time to indulge in the luxury of being touched by their gestures however. His friends swiftly dressed him as the hour drew closer, but he stopped them as one raised the silver-nickel framed glasses over his eyes. It was the same pair Neji had personally commissioned for Udon, when the Deva had discovered his disciple had been sleeping poorly ever since his old pair had been taken away from him. Shikamaru had finally succeeded in curing Udon's myopia with the Shadow Master's unique brand of shadow acupuncture, but while his vision had been restored to its true sharpness and then enhanced, he had grown increasingly dependant on one of Chouji's special teas before he could truly find rest at night. Udon had never suspected before Neji beckoned to him one afternoon after lessons, that the glasses had been the problem. But when he saw the new pair, resting in Neji's proffering hand that stretched forth from the Deva's flowing sleeve, understanding unravelled a buried memory of the innocent cat-like wariness framed in black-rimmed glasses in response to a raindrop. Neji had tactfully looked away when Udon picked the glasses up and settled them onto his nose, unable to focus on anything beyond the tears and the suffocating ache in his chest.
Smiling at his puzzled friend, he pressed the glasses back into the fellow acolyte's hand and turned to his suspended inner robe, held open for him by two more of his peers. He didn't need Kabuto's memory as a bandage over his heart; his Nii-san was protected within it with the warmth and love nurtured with Neji, Shikamaru, Iruka, his friends and peers, and the other Devas and priests who completed his new family. There was more than one way to seal the past- and one of them was to allow time and new experiences to heal over it.
His friends fussed over him until he insisted that his hair would be loosened out of their roots if they brushed it anymore, and dragged himself away from the dressing table. He did give them a few more moments to preen themselves before they were ready to escort him, with growing solemnity, on too short a pathway, to the official escorts.
They were priests Udon was unfamiliar with, perfectly motionless as they waited with grim expressions to collect him. From that point he didn't look back. He didn't remember if it was bad manners or bad luck, but he did remember that Neji had specifically instructed him thus. His escorts encouraged him to shut his eyes and pray, silently, and he had been prepared for that too. They walked at a slow, measured pace, one of his escorts resting a hand on his shoulder and gently steering him when needed. In the meantime he had wondered what to pray for. That he would honourably endure the Vigil, certainly, but also that he would be a good priest, faithful to his duties and a good elder brother to his juniors as well as a comfort to his seniors. On the list of personal wishes, he prayed he would not bring shame to his mentor, and that he would prove to both Neji and Shikamaru that he was well and truly capable of looking after himself. He also prayed that Kabuto would watch over him and witness how he would be avenged by the obstacle that had ultimately robbed him of his life. That last prayer he whispered more fervently than any other.
And so it was with the thought of death that he was finally left alone in the anteroom, his escorts taking their leave with a respectful bow. Udon thought he knew fully well the tacit meaning underlining those. The dead often received them. Now he waited in robes too thin to fend off the chill, and with too little courage to banish the tightness in his chest, contemplating if there had been anything he had failed to attend to, any words he should have said before he had arrived at this point. A sudden impulse to confess his fears to his mentor and to plead for Shikamaru's forgiveness seized upon him, but just as he resolved to do just that the moment the Devas opened the great black marble doors to admit him, he gripped himself and shook his head free of those thoughts. The symbolic fires dancing on open braziers in every corner of the room anchored him somewhat. He was a cleric of the Hidden Leaf, a protector of the flame, and he would be equally worthy of that title in life as he would be in death. Above even his personal fear of death and desire for glory, was the threat of dishonouring his mentors, his big brother and the temple.
The doors swung inwards far too soundlessly to be the work of well-oiled ball bearings, but instead, the extraordinary craftsmanship of mechanisms installed almost a century ago, that nevertheless proved as flawless as they had likely been when Deva Tobirama Senju had first inspected them. Inside he spied the impossibly high domed roofs surprisingly well-lit by high brackets that would have been impossible to reach with anything less than a siege ladder. Well-trained priests, or perhaps even the Devas themselves, might have had to continuously tend to them since decades past. While Neji and Shikamaru never behaved as if any task was beneath them, the thought of those exalted priests reduced to performing such menial tasks installed a new sense of reverence for the halls he stood in. Towering pillars were evenly graded with lamp-filled brackets, their relatively tiny glows touching each other to fill the looming hallway with a steady golden luminance. No wind here to make the flames gutter, no breath irreverent enough to disturb them. His eyes travelling down from the widening gap between the opening doors, he saw a man accompanied by an enormous lupine beast and instantly dropped into a bow. Only as he rose did he notice that Kiba Inuzuka, Deva and Beast Master had returned the gesture. When the wild-haired Deva strode forward, the huge white dog Akamaru, the Beast Master's unofficial partner, padding solemnly behind him, Udon straightened his back and locked his expression in what he hoped was stoic preparedness. The Deva known for his quick toothy grin and rough and wild appeal seemed like a whole different person, with his arms folded into his sleeves and his stately bearing. Even his untamed brown mane was combed down a little, and combined with his sun-rich tan and crimson-fang face paint, it made him seem more like a hardy but regal prince of the nomadic tribes of the Far North; with a residual hint of still being one that had a healthy appetite for brazen exploration. His smoky brown eyes that seemed for the moment less challenging and insolent, had adopted a gaze that regarded him with a sombre gravity, and Udon found himself drawn by its allure before he sternly reminded himself of its meaning.
When the Deva and his partner were close enough for Kiba's light bronze skin to fall under Udon's shadow, and for Akamaru's hot, moist breath to bring some queasy comfort in the oppressive cold that the hundreds of lamps failed to subdue, the acolyte found himself quailing with a very different kind of anxiety before the Beast Master's roughly hewn manliness. Even to someone who spent most of his time with the Divination and Shadow Masters, the Devas were still cruelly irresistible.
"It's alright Ramen," Kiba teased, spoiling the effect of his charm, "you should relax a little."
"It's Udon," Udon managed calmly with a small frown, though he felt a tiny sense of relief inside. Kiba loved to tease him over his noodle-related name, always pretending to mistake Udon's name for some other bowl of noodles. It usually earned a subtly barbed correction, but right then it was the first thing he had experienced since arriving there that ironically reminded him of home. He winced as the Deva slammed his palms onto his shoulders and squeezed them in what the Deva clearly believed was a comforting grasp.
"Neji and Shikamaru won't let anything bad happen to you," Kiba reassured, Akamaru affirming that with a short, cheerful bark. "That and I've fed Orochimaru with a few fat rodents about a cycle ago, and that always brings him out of a bad mood."
"Bad mood," Udon repeated in a tight voice, forgetting to feign ignorance of his knowledge of the trial's details.
Kiba hesitated for a moment, but then flashed a grin edged with incisors that a fair number of poets had waxed lyrical over in the year of his ascension.
"Like I said, I fed him a few plump mice, so all is good!" Akamaru's evasive look behind Kiba made it much less convincing for Udon. "Let's not keep them waiting, shall we? It's always a little chilly here. Want me to hold you and keep you warm on the way there?"
"No, thank you!"
Blushing furiously, Udon almost barrelled into the Beast Master as he all but ran into the next passageway with the Deva chuckling behind him.
A few steps into the sacred hallway and Udon remembered himself, obediently pausing to allow the Deva to properly guide him. Akamaru whined a little in disappointment that their quarry had given up so quickly, but the Beast Master had adopted a solemn expression once again.
"Are you scared?" Kiba asked so casually that Udon had to stop himself from repeating his instinctive nod.
"But I'll manage," he added in a valiant attempt to sound unconcerned.
"That's the spirit," Kiba encouraged with a wolverine smile. In a movement so swift Udon barely had time to react, he wrapped his arm around Udon's shoulders and gently suffocated him with a secure hug. "It's not special treatment- I'm off duty today so I can do as I want as a cleric of the temple," he clarified defensively, noting Udon's pained expression.
Udon stopped himself from making a face and decided that it was warmer this way, and he might as well take advantage of that while he still could.
"You're fast," Udon half-groused, belatedly appreciating Kiba's flawless capture as he tried to keep himself from snuggling up to the comfortable warmth the Deva was exuding. The higher ranked clerics of the temple were said to be skilled enough to endure any weather condition simply through the force of their will and the development of their bodies. The highest could even merge with nature and manipulate the elements to do their bidding. For the Beast Master, generating warmth in this oppressive cold probably took nothing more than an afterthought.
"Heh, taking Akamaru out for a walk is a great workout after all," Kiba explained modestly. Both of them turned to look at the giant dog who managed an almost winsome feral grin. Barking a burst of carefree mirth, Kiba continued walking, the dark shadows ahead becoming more defined, hinting of another set of towering doors.
"Shikamaru-sama will be alright, right?" Udon blinked in surprise even as he said it. Why had he blurted that out?
"He'll handle that Oro just fine," Kiba assured confidently.
"That's not what I meant," Udon began but then shook his head, uncertain of where he was heading.
"Or are you worried about his health?" Kiba asked quietly looking straight ahead as if he were merely talking to himself.
"He collapsed yesterday," Udon mumbled. An unnecessary reminder since the news had almost started a riot of panic in the temple.
"Fssssssssch . . ." Kiba hissed undecidedly while his face screwed up in some difficult thought. When he finally turned an apologetic smile to Udon, his eyes shifted hesitantly. "He's a bit lazy sometimes, but when he's serious he's amazing."
Udon nodded slowly, though he was left with the feeling that it wasn't what the Deva had wanted to say. When he lifted his head a pair of high wooden doors carved in the image of twining roots rose up to the roof lost in dim lamplight. Conscious of the crazy thumping of his heart, he allowed himself to slide out from Kiba's hold and approached the final doors with a resoluteness he wasn't sure he had. From behind him, the Beast Master's voice seemed to reverberate in the air, though it had only been a whisper.
Udon swallowed his knotting breaths and nodded once. This time, Kiba's voice boomed and echoed with proud ceremony.
"I, Deva Kiba Inuzuka and Beast Master of the Temple of the Hidden Leaf, have brought an acolyte who seeks the Black Mark of Priesthood. Will the guardians permit our entrance?"
The voice that replied seemed distant and hollow but of equal volume and presence.
"The guardians greet the honoured Deva and do bid him enter, but upon the sacred laws that we uphold, the acolyte may not enter on the pain of death."
The voice was severe and unrelenting but Udon had recognized it by the time it had mentioned him. It was Shikamaru playing the role that Kiba, as the Keeper of the Orochimaru, would normally carry out. Udon wasn't alarmed by the Shadow Master's threat. This was a ritual that Neji had instructed him thoroughly about. Confidently, though a little nervous, he made his reply.
"Will the guardians not hear my request?"
"He presents himself here by the will of the Holy Council," the Beast Master added behind him.
A second voice, even more familiar than Shikamaru's, made its reply in a calm, but no less commanding tone.
"He may speak then, but be warned: we may yet banish him if his speech proves him unworthy." It was Neji in an arrogant and coldly capricious voice that suited his refined beauty better than the distant yet gentle one Udon was used to. It comforted him a little to think that his mentor was waiting for him in that room of largely unknown trials.
Lowering himself to his knees, he stretched his body forward and prostrated himself on the cold marble, his forehead upon the backs of his hands.
"I, Udon, forgotten child of the streets, have been accepted as a son of the Temple and brother to its children. I now surrender my life to take upon the Mark and the Oath on these sacred robes. May the guardians, remembering the mercy of The Eldest Tree and the virtue of our ancestor clerics, grant me their compassion and permit my entrance into the Chamber of Triumph." Words that were worn with countless rehearsals, suddenly moved him as they were recited in this ancient air filled with honour and reverence, added to over the years from the spirit of the thousands of clerics before him. It seemed he was not the only one moved by them.
"Fair words he has spoken and fair will our judgement be," Neji's voice echoed back with more of its familiar tenderness.
"We permit your entrance; that you may lay your life upon the altar of trials and contemplate the compassion that you have sought," Shikamaru agreed in a more neutral tone.
In a low whisper, Kiba rushed his final words of encouragement.
"I'm not really permitted to go any further, but I will be out here waiting to receive you at the break of dawn."
Udon nodded gratefully though he couldn't find the strength to look up as his stomach did some advanced acrobatics. Shikamaru's voice verified the truth of Kiba's words.
"For the duration of this trial, only the acolyte may approach the altar. We must ask for the honoured Deva's forgiveness for we are bound by duty to preserve the altar's sanctity."
"Both guardians and Devas share this duty. I humbly abide by the judgement of the guardians," Kiba replied formally and bowed as the doors swung inwards to admit Udon.
The light from the room was dazzling. It was all Udon could make out for a while. Worried that the Devas would grow impatient with his disoriented delay, he half-staggered to his feet and would have stepped forward, if it had not been for the restraining grip on his shoulder.
"It's okay to wait a few seconds to adjust. It's hard for me too, but I have other senses to rely on," Kiba murmured, squeezing Udon's shoulder comfortingly.
Udon nodded and squinted into the new room. Looming ahead of them was what seemed confusingly to be a palatial house, but as his eyes grew more accustomed he realised there weren't any walls. In their place was a frame, long red wooden pillars that were erected along an octagonal pattern supporting an eight-sided domed roof. Below the roof was a large raised platform, a four-sided pyramid with steps leading to the summit where he could roughly make out two glowing figures seated on either side of a miniature white sun. It hurt his eyes to gaze directly upon it, and he instantly understood where all the light was coming from.
"They won't rush you, and I won't either, but these doors won't close until you step properly into the room," Kiba informed him.
Nodding tensely, he attempted a soft 'thank you' that came out as a croak. Clenching his fist, he took the first step forward and forced himself to take the following step and repeated the motion, until it became a full stride forward on a path that he was only just beginning to make out. A soft but echoing thud told him that the doors had shut behind him. Nothing would open them until he had either failed the trial or triumphed over it. The Beast Master guarded the doors to this hall; the Shadow Master and the Divination Master would guard him.
He walked past the supporting pillars, not noticing their design or if any of the scriptures such structures were usually engraved with were familiar to him. Instead, he focused on the stairs, his chaotic emotions having long since reached a blinding white plateau of false tranquillity. Numbly he was aware of reaching the first step and ascending. Climb, he told himself, climb. That was all his family up there expected him to do now. As he rose up the platform he was dimly aware of his mind running on automatic, sifting through a welter of thoughts and memories. He remembered his friends today and how they teased him about how they were definitely going to test how much of Neji's bedroom skills he had been imparted with. He remembered Shikamaru's alert expression when he tested his chakra reaction. Neji's haunting flute notes lingered in his mind for a moment, before Konohamaru's flustered invitation to enter broke that soothing melody with a fumbling sweetness that eased some of the bitterness and confusion. The internal slideshow had gone as far as the image of the lantern he had accidentally flung down before the Shadow Master, when he realised he had instinctively flinched away from a piercing, merciless brightness, to lay his eyes upon the very man he had been thinking about. Half-dazed, he blurted his greeting, completely forgetting the rituals.
"Shikamaru-sama," he murmured, uncertain if the Shadow Master could hear him. The white blaze made everything seem so distant and ethereal. Shikamaru's amicable reply and answering smile dispelled his doubt.
"You've come a long way. You can rest for a little while before we begin the test. Can you see the cushion?"
He blinked; half shook his head, and then squinted at the ground before him. It was painful to focus.
"Udon, relax. We're here." Udon recognised his mentor's voice and turned to the left of the unnatural brilliance. Neji watched him with a placidity tinged with concern. "Shikamaru, can you dim the glare in his vision for now?"
Something protested inside, the same part of him that didn't want his elders to believe he was weak and unprepared.
Shikamaru's firm voice robbed him of any opportunity to resist, and he turned to face the Shadow Master. "Udon, can you see my eyes?"
Udon squinted to focus against the blinding light but the dark orbs were remarkably clear, their lustre and intelligence somehow more prominent than the oppressive brilliance. The Shadow Master must have seen the recognition in his eyes because he didn't press the unanswered question. Instead, Shikamaru began to further instruct him.
"Vision is but balancing light upon darkness," Shikamaru explained almost as if this were just another object lesson for his brother's disciple, "take control." The last two words were uttered so softly, Udon was uncertain if he hadn't just imagined them. They echoed in his mind hauntingly and he was so engrossed in chasing their obscurity that he was surprised when Shikamaru spoke again.
"Better?" He asked with a smile. Udon blinked, and then blinked again. The light had dimmed down- no that wasn't possible. The prickling force on his skin had not relented. Though he couldn't begin to fathom how, he reasoned that his eyes had filtered the intense glare to a mere bright ambient glow.
"Is this an illusory technique?" Udon asked, so amazed that he had quite forgotten that he wasn't being tutored in one of their usual lessons.
"It's a psychic suggestion," Neji answered for his partner. When Udon looked at him quizzically, Neji explained further. "I know it sounds just like an illusory technique, but Shikamaru's not making you see what he wants you to with his chakra, but merely teaching your mind to do what you can't do for yourself just yet. Remind me to teach you basic vision control later, when things have quietened down. I didn't think this would ever be an issue."
"Normally you would expect it to be, but our Divination Master is too used to his unchallenged sight," Shikamaru quipped earning a glare from his partner.
Udon grinned, feeling more alive from his earlier stupor.
"Not a time for silly grins, Udon," Neji chided gently, "you're standing before a sacred treasure of our temple."
Udon started and his eyes shifted instinctively towards the earlier blaze now diminished in his modified vision as a pulsating incandescence. It was the symbol of the leaf, glowing brilliantly. Yet the symbol itself wasn't fashioned of light, through its illumination there was a coarse, uneven solidness of a material that Udon could not immediately identify. Even so, its hallowed nature would have been obvious to the most clueless acolyte, not least because of the corded straw rope hovering like a disc around it, proclaiming its sanctified status.
"It's a piece of root from the Eldest Tree," Neji revealed, "The Second Grand Deva personally begged for it from the spirit of his brother in the Tree."
"It burns forever more with the spirit of those who in life have guarded the Tree as it grew heavenwards above the earth, and who now protect it from below. Every Grand Deva, Deva, Priest and Acolyte has had his remains interred in the catacombs, and in this sanctified room, part of their Spirit collects, unifying them with the rest of the Tree."
Watching the Mark-shaped root roar with its spiritual white blaze, Udon didn't need a second reminder for him to bend his knees and submit before the miracle before him. Through his robes he felt the softness of feathers shaping around his knees- a prayer cushion of some sort that devotees typically knelt upon, relieving some of the stress on their knees as they prayed. Udon suspected that the work of the Devas must have gone into this particular cushion for it to yield such unnatural comfort.
"Ka- Kabuto-nii-san . . ." Udon began, voicing the first hesitant thought that came to mind.
"Kabuto-senpaii is here with us as well," Neji confirmed, but when Udon tore his gaze away from the flaming root to turn to his master, the smile that had been on the acolyte's face faded away. Pale eyes were narrowed intently upon the direction he faced and turning towards the focus of that gaze, Udon was just in time to see Shikamaru shaking his head, perhaps asking his partner to stop, or not to worry. Noticing Udon's attention on him, Shikamaru broke into a reassuring smile.
"The symbol reminds us that there is nothing to fear from our mortality," the familiar tutoring tone once again reawakening the illusion for Udon that this was just another lesson, "to console us and convince us to release our own personal pain and selfish desires that we cling so covetously to, in order to embrace the greater union with our brothers, family, and the Eldest Tree."
"Anyone bearing the Mark of the Leaf, even those who are not of our circle, is bound to this direction of cultivation," Neji added white-jade eyes now more compassionate and sagacious than vulnerable, "but we embody these ideals, and are the only ones who may pass them on to a new soul and a new body. Oaths to the Eldest Tree, however, cannot be made in vain, and a priest of the Hidden Leaf is not one who can merely preach the teachings, he must also sacrifice his body and his soul to the Tree."
Udon's back straightened as he recognized the change in the atmosphere. They were moving towards the real purpose of his presence here.
"Udon," Shikamaru continued from his partner, "you must first understand that Neji loves you dearly, and that he would never have offered your name before the council for such complete sacrifice in this terrible trial, if not for the great rewards open to those who walk our path."
"I am not worthy," Udon replied bowing before his mentor.
"That is not so, or the council would never have approved of your being here," Neji deftly countered pale eyes straying impishly towards the Shadow Master. "Perhaps those who were unwilling to let you sacrifice yourself loved you even more dearly."
"Yes," Udon meekly agreed, lowering his head and blushing as he remembered how childishly he had acted these past few weeks. "I have behaved badly," he admitted with crimson regret.
Shikamaru firmly shook his head. "The fault is mine, Udon. It was my lack of cultivation that made me reluctant to let you go. I cannot keep you by my side, for your destiny is greater than that."
Udon's eyes met Shikamaru's and there was in them an honesty that was somehow chilling.
This test will commence as soon as you have finished your greeting prayer to the Root Mark," Neji instructed. Turning to him, Udon bowed his understanding.
"Just a simple greeting prayer will do," Shikamaru added, "the hour fast approaches."
Once again, there was that ominous feeling, but this time it had nothing to do with the look in the Shadow Master's eyes. Hoping to banish it by telling himself that it was merely the product of nerves, he bowed his head before the Root Mark, fingers arching before each other to form the ritualized flame formation, and began to sing . . .
The chill of the evening touched the glistening beads of bath water in his hair. He had left the window above the tub open a crack for some fresh air. The deliciously warm bath the two priests, or acolytes- he really couldn't tell the difference just yet- had prepared after Atsushi had taken his leave, was now merely tepid. Konohamaru had only himself to blame for that, since he had chosen to soak himself in it well past the moment the first goose bumps had begun to show.
He was reluctant to leave the safety of his little sanctuary, the rippling waters soothing him with its lucid yet ephemeral patterns that in its simple ridges and dips, wove patterns with a capricious creativity no human could mimic. He shivered again, enough to send sparkling beads of moisture back into the water, setting off a fresh series of patterns. Wrapping his arms around himself, he leaned back against the warmer inner wall of the tub and thought about his family.
Had his father finally gotten that promotion at the Lord's Granary office that his superior had been strongly hinting at all of last winter? Had his mother given up on that new tofu and boiled carrots diet programme she started on two weeks ago, for that dress her sister had given her when she visited last month? Sighing, he began to sink deeper into the water and immediately aborted the idea as a violent shiver ran down his body. It was probably time to get out. Bracing himself on the sides of the tub, he hoisted his dripping body out of the bath water and rested there for a moment. A draft sent a gasping chill around the region of his buttocks and other unmentionables, but he wanted the water sluicing off his body in rivulets to stream into the tub before he got out. He had always been self-conscious of that when bathing outside, because his mom often accused him of leaving death-trap puddles. He did not want to appear like a slob, not if it might affect his final grade. He watched the reflection of his less-than-muscled body ripple at him and wished he had thought to apprentice himself to a blacksmith. During the last harvest festival, he had spotted a few of his friends who had done just that last summer, and they were definitely breaking hearts at the celebrations.
Shaking his head and sending out sparkling droplets that broke his reflection, he waded a couple of steps to the edge before climbing out of the tub. Grasping the towel draped on a peony-painted screen, he towelled himself off, rubbing his skin raw from being overly thorough. He could at least be clean and neat since he couldn't be delectably gorgeous. When he was done, he hung the damp towel on the side of the tub and reached for the fresh change of clothes that Udon had brought him. It was light cotton, cooling to the touch, and it still carried a trace of its bearer's jasmine fragrance. On an impulse, he buried his face into the dark fabric, and allowed the relaxing scent and the fabric's softness to suffuse his senses. Try as he might, he couldn't remember any more than the scant little that he barely had just before his collapse at the Acquaintance Dinner. The revelation after that, that the acolyte was intimately related with his sealed past, had aroused a strange, persistent yearning in Konohamaru. The image of those cold and indifferent lenses hiding the emotion in those dark eyes stood so clearly in his mind, it made his heart race and if he wasn't careful he'd-
"Damn it," Konohamaru hissed and took his face out of the black kimono, trying to think of something less simulating while his body began to react inappropriately. "You're in a temple for goodness sake," he growled at his uncaring body. Staring at the dark ceiling in resignation, he wondered what his feelings for the acolyte really were. A token of the past or temptation of the flesh- he needed to find out.
"But that's going to be impossible until I earn the Mark," he lamented aloud.
He spent a moment longer trying to breach that invisible wall in his mind he couldn't even begin to locate, before allowing his shoulders to sag and turning back to the screen to dress.
When the last few notes of the prayer had ended a little more wobbly than Udon would have liked, the Devas allowed a brief moment for the acolyte to compose himself, before Neji addressed his partner.
"Shikamaru, I think he's ready for the bite," Neji calmly informed, but his gaze was the most serious that Udon had ever seen it as.
Shikamaru nodded once, and held out his right arm, long sleeve quickly dropping and swaying as a weight revealed itself at the base. Reaching in with his free hand, the Shadow Master drew out a long thick cylinder, corded with red string knotted into charms of warding on every three finger spaces along the container. The container itself was made of ancient dark wood, quite likely anointed and enchanted with seals to safeguard and imprison whatever was inside. He imagined what it had been like for the early acolytes who would have wondered in terror at what manner of evil lay within, that warranted such strict containment, and how the obvious connection between absolute sacrifice and the potent evil in that container would have made even the most faithful balk at the altar. That he at least knew that a vile serpent lay coiled in that ominous cylindrical container brought scant comfort to him.
"Let your heart be still, Udon," Shikamaru warned with sudden severity, "fear is the enemy of compassionate love-"
"-and only upon compassionate love can faith be borne," Neji finished pale eyes intent on his partner.
Too tense to bow, Udon nevertheless inclined his head in acceptance. He was surprised by how much it took out of him. Sweat poured freely down his nape to soften the crisp collar of his pure white robes.
Shikamaru returned his attention to the cylinder, and it would have surprised Udon how deep that frown of concentration was, had he not been so nervous. The Devas were so accomplished in the various arts, they usually made their every action seem effortless. Gently placing the cylinder on the floor so it would not rock, Shikamaru raised his hands in a seal Udon had seen him form countless of times- the Shadow Binding seal. Next to the Root Mark's unending brilliance banishing all shade and darkness, Udon wondered if any but the Shadow Master would be able to defy the obliterating light by summoning forth the darkness to do his bidding. Pouring out of his robes like dark spirits harkening to their master's call, they wrapped themselves around the container just as it began to rock with whatever was held inside.
"Unseal!" Shikamaru barked. The shadowy incarnation of his will immediately seethed, as if it struggled with the cylinder it had swallowed.
"In the hearts of man, there is both light and darkness. The trial has always been, and forever will be, the triumph of one over the other," Neji recited while his eyes remained focused on Shikamaru's progress. Udon only half-listened, spellbound by the restless shadows.
When Shikamaru saw that his shadows' movement had begun to subside, he briskly delivered his next command.
The shadows separated and for the first time, Udon heard a faint hiss, even as the shadows were still in the midst of tearing apart. With a sick fascination that prevailed even over the tight fear in his throat, he found himself leaning forward slightly for a closer look. The combination of the sudden white blur darting out and Shikamaru's voice cracking like a whip, made him jump back in shock.
Recovering from his ungainly surprise he righted himself in time to see the last of the shadow fibres, twining into a thick dark rope that secured itself around the flat, heavy head of a pale reptilian beast. It quivered in the net of ropes, the muscles of its arched body rippling wrathfully as it fought the bind; but the shadow ropes held. Quickly glancing at the Shadow Master, he found Shikamaru staying absolutely still, his entire attention focused on the beast he held.
"As this Root and its Mark is light, so is this serpent, Orochimaru, and its poison darkness," Neji continued from his earlier recitation of the ritualized lines. Udon found his gaze straying towards the chilling beast, and found himself shaking uncontrollably as dusty green eyes turned balefully towards him. "You, who have come to lay your body and your soul upon this altar, must now prove your worth by suffering the violation of the Orochimaru's bite upon your flesh, and the corruption of its venom upon your soul. There is no where to return to past this point, only the destiny of serving the Tree in life and in death. Nonetheless we ask you: do you willingly consent?"
Though Udon had long since committed his reply to memory, he found himself unable to speak, his lips parting in vain. What was this thick feeling of fear that almost choked his breath? It left him paralyzed, just like the Orochimaru, but bound instead, by a sinuous embrace and the remembered spasms of a loved one dying in his arms. Kabuto nii-san. Suddenly, the scene of his death played vividly in Udon's mind. He was scared, too terrified to even stop the tears from welling in his eyes.
A warm touch by the side of his eye brushed away the filling tears; his mentor's touch. Shifting his gaze while the other untended tears fell, he saw Neji leaning forward, hand extended with grace and fine features softened with compassion. How often had that face been there to comfort him in moments when he thought he couldn't go on being someone he wasn't and couldn't be? Even from the beginning of the end, when Kabuto nii-san had left the world in his weak arms, Neji had been there with that steady gaze, as if all the light in the world could depart, and those pale eyes would still always be there, brimming with an inner light that watched over him.
"I consent," Udon murmured without realizing until after he had spoken, that the suffocating fear had melted away. As his master and mentor drew away from him with an encouraging smile that seemed tinged with sadness, Shikamaru called out to him.
"Udon, we believe in your faith," the Shadow Master reminded him in a voice uncharacteristically faint, his gaze still unmoving from the serpent.
Udon had no time to respond as a rushing white blur struck his neck, and his startled cry died in a red flash of pain.
A bout of laughter burst out from behind him, and Konohamaru tensed for a terrified moment, waiting for someone to suddenly notice him and raise the alarm. Turning his head he found the corridor behind him empty, and that the source of the good humour had probably been from one of the rooms he had just crept pass. Not that he had any real reason to be creeping about. Not really. After all no one had really forbidden him from leaving the room, and when he had carefully peeked out from behind the door panel, there hadn't been any clerics guarding him along the corridors. It was as good as giving him permission to roam, right? Wasn't it?
While he was stretching definitions, he might as well define his desperate wandering as an impromptu tour instead of just plain lost. Who would have expected the temple to be a veritable labyrinth? There wasn't very much to go by to distinguish one corridor from another. While he tried to keep track of certain obvious features such as the names of the corridors carved into the pillars, as well as those formed out of red wax paper cut-outs pasted onto the hanging lanterns lighting the way, it proved futile when he realised that one name was as good as another when he didn't know what led where. Did the Chamber of Harmony's Northern Corridor lead back to the Central Corridor of the Bower of the Drunken Immortal or into the Hall of the Golden Ivy? That he avoided any corridor that showed any signs of activity complicated his search. He needed a place to soothe the restlessness that had been driving him insane since his confinement in the temple's guest room. Now he wasn't too sure if being perplexed was necessarily an improvement.
"-it's exactly what I've been saying from the beginning, it's just not possible for Shikamaru-sama to actually have something against his partner's disciple."
Voices! Konohamaru darted behind a pillar with such eager haste that he nearly threw himself into the koi pond below.
"Just one fat jar of wine's enough to buy you over, eh?" the first voice's companion remarked with a hint of disgust.
A sudden rush of chagrin filled him as he realised the second voice had been badmouthing Shikamaru. Udon had been full of respect and admiration for the Deva. Still, his consternation was tempered with relief once he realized that the speakers had passed the opportunity to turn into his corridor.
"Not just any jar of wine . . . if Shikamaru-sama took the trouble to swipe one of the jars in the wine room and pretend right after our midday that he was merely recommending it to me, I'll bet my left eye that it's been spiked with Kirin Antler Dust- but that's not why I think he just cares about Udon by the way. Shikamaru-sama and Neji-sama have been bonded for years. Is there any grudge Shikamaru-sama has that Neji-sama can't settle in the futon?" the first voice asked leeringly.
"Pervert! Not everyone's like you," the second voice retorted sounding flustered.
"Hey, tonight we're staying up all night preparing for Udon's celebration, so tomorrow night's going to be extra alright?" the first speaker murmured in a lower voice. There was a short, vulnerable gasp that made Konohamaru blush to hear. The unheeded eavesdropper, he had only himself to blame as he burned with guilt and embarrassment.
"E- e- idiot! What if someone heard that?" the second voice growled as his partner laughed.
Their voices had already begun to fade as they went out of earshot, the laughter and subdued grousing growing increasingly distant. Taking a deep breath, he let it settle for a moment as he tried to absorb all that was said. He got as far as Udon being the centre of some big event before his mind strayed to the low, dissatisfied voice of the first speaker while he made his private request. Exhaling explosively, he panted for a bit wondering why he had imagined, at that moment, whispering in that same tone into Udon's ear.
"The clerics behave like everyone else in private, eh?" he said aloud, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his ears.
It seared- as if someone had stabbed two edges of pure flame into the side of his neck. He longed to scream, but all the sound he could make was a strained guttural stuttering that could barely vent the agony that threatened to rip him apart. Shock and the firm grasp of his mentor kept him from falling to his side and thrashing in pain. Then, as the pressure on his neck abruptly released, his teeth clenched in an effort to contain the pain within his shuddering body now bent over double. He was aware of Neji's fingers resting against his throat for his pulse rate, and even of Shikamaru's rapid commands that resealed the beast that he had unleashed.
"Neji?" Shikamaru asked tersely once he was done.
"He's heating up- fast. His pulse is erratic," Neji replied shortly, hands now carefully trying to support Udon's trembling frame.
"Do you remember reacting this badly?" Shikamaru demanded as he joined his partner in soothing the stricken acolyte.
"Everyone reacts differently," Neji replied anxiously, "but it hurt us all."
Neji mopped the large beads of sweat from Udon's nape, while Shikamaru clenched Udon's right hand in his own, the Shadow Master's free hand soothing the back of Udon's left which shook uncontrollably as it clutched his knee.
"Do you think we should call Kiba in?" Shikamaru asked nervously, clearly at a loss.
"Please-" Udon gasped, forcing himself to uncoil, "-please let me- let me complete-"
Neji dragged Udon's chin to meet the acolyte's tearing gaze with his.
"We can stop this immediately . . . unless you are determined . . . but your teachers also wish to know if you are fit to resume." That same steady, trusting glow that watched over him now faced him squarely, as he struggled with the crucial decision- but he had known the final answer from the start.
"Yes- please per. . . mit me," he fought to finish, then turned to Shikamaru his eyes repeating his plea.
It seemed to drain what little colour there was left in the Shadow Master's sombre expression, but he nodded and turned away as Neji embraced Udon tightly.
"The poison is far more fearsome than the bite. If you are determined to do this then you must rely not on your endurance, but on your faith," Neji whispered. Udon nodded his understanding, wincing as the agony of the bite wound reawakened. "We will help you. Listen to the scriptures we recite and meditate upon them. They will bring you comfort."
"I understand," Udon replied urging some strength into his voice. He was recovering his composure but the usual solidness and strength of his core seemed weak and insubstantial. It was as if he was attempting to stand on a sand dune with weighted shoes, a heavy sinking feeling. Neji had released him, and he wavered for a moment before he forcefully steadied himself. The earlier chill that had been partially forgotten in his earlier anxiety, now vanished as a feverish heat emanated forth from his body. He would have appreciated the irony a little more had Shikamaru not begun to speak.
"The earth and the heavens are forged of the five elements manifested from the Ultimate Dominance and Ultimate Submission, that themselves unite into the Ultimate Supreme. Those who truly understand these principles may ask of the earth's knowledge and listen to heaven's mysteries. " His voice was clear and deep, comforting to Udon's sense of hearing.
"Neither heaven nor earth exist without harmony, for existence is borne out of the harmony of the elements from which the manifestations of the Ultimate Supreme materialize. Fire, Wood, Water, Gold and Earth create life when they harmonize their strengths. Earth is enriched by the matter Fire incinerates, Gold emerges from Earth's protective womb, Water condenses on the welcoming purity of Gold, Wood drinks from the revitalizing power of Water while Fire draws its strength from the hidden energy of Wood." Neji's recitation flowed smoothly, his voice guiding Udon to a renewed understanding of the scriptures. When he suddenly stopped Udon felt as if he had been thrown off course, and the momentary feeling of loss invited the heat burning in his veins to return in full force. Just as his breathing became laboured, Shikamaru picked up from where his partner left off.
"Upon this principle did the First Grand Deva, Hashirama Senju, a man who through heaven's gift of the command of the element of Wood attained enlightenment, led his brother into the heart of Fire Country's desolate desert lands, and created the Eldest Tree and subsequently its surrounding forests. It was so named Eldest not because it was the first tree in the rejuvenated desert, but because it is the embodiment of the spirit of Wood. It is also a symbol of his oath to support the people of Fire Country with as much selfless stoicism and quiet dignity, as the Eldest Tree bears from season to season, year to year."
Shikamaru raised his eyes to Neji who smiled sadly and continued from his partner.
"He was the first in the line of clerics who have been tasked to inherit and promulgate his beliefs and ideals. It is a solemn and sacred undertaking that we clerics must safeguard with both our body and soul. Those who have proven themselves receive their priestly mantle, and swear a holy contract with the Eldest Tree, ceasing to become one man and embracing his greater existence as a part of the grand design. Like a limb unto the Eldest Tree, those of you who are worthy shall extend yourselves towards the heavens, and bear leaves that both grasp light to nurture life and raise darkness into shade."
"What are those leaves that you shall bear?" Shikamaru began, watching Udon carefully as the acolyte slumped forward, his shoulders quivering as a low moan escaped him. "They are the people who will bear the Mark upon their bodies as they receive first understanding of the purpose of the Eldest Tree. and who will pledge to fulfil their lives in obedience to its design. Their reward shall be the reward given to the enduring leaves, who upon their fall from the lofty boughs, reunite with the tree to be renewed again."
"So do we all return to the Eldest Tree, who itself is an immutable transient, a reincarnation of an immortal spirit. The harmonious elements lead endlessly into each other, and the cycle encircles the combined Ultimate Dominance and Ultimate Submission, in the union known as the Ultimate Supreme. Just as a drop of water vanishes in the ocean, true understanding voids the purpose of explanation, thus shall we say no more on this to permit your silent contemplation towards the absolute."
Though Neji had recited the last, and his personally favourite stanza of the introductory passage written by the Second Grand Deva for his disciples, he experienced far less inner peace than he usually derived. Udon's condition had worsened, his face flushed with fever and glistening with sweat while his lips were wrinkled and dry. The poison was quickly dehydrating him as his body temperature rose with the fluctuations of his emotions. What was truly worrying was that there was no awareness in the glazed expression in his disciple's eyes. Just occasionally his face would twist in a tortured grip as the inner battle burst momentarily to the surface.
Yet not even Udon's master could guess the dark red visions that haunted his disciple. The image of Kabuto nii-san thrashing like a wild tormented beast towards him, blood oozing out of twin puncture marks on his neck, rose vividly in his mind. A shadowy figure in the distance watched almost mockingly, and though he couldn't distinguish any clear features in his mind, he somehow knew it was Shikamaru watching him from afar.
'It's the venom,' he told himself, 'it exploits your weaknesses, wants you to lose control.'
The images didn't relent.
"The five elements," Udon started abruptly, drawing quick, concerned glances from the Devas, "govern the earth, and man born from the earth is so governed as well. Within the domain of the body, Fire guards the heart, Gold guards the lungs, Water guards the kidneys, Earth guards the spleen and Wood guards the liver. Within the domain of the spirit, Fire guards personal glorification and prominence, Gold guards divine inspiration and decisiveness, Water guards hidden depths and all that soothes, Earth guards the union of hearts and treasured bonds, Wood guards spirited growth and rejuvenating vigour."
It was a passage included in an acolyte's most basic repertoire of prayers, one that even the Devas called special attention to on occasions when great strength and endurance was required. Udon had never recited it with as much need as he had just done.
"Those who recognize these laws- those who recognize these laws may distinguish the five elements in themselves, but may- ah!" A stab of pain startled him out from his recitation, and drew the Devas to him as he clutched the front of his robes in agony. Red heat seared his chest even as cool fingers fought to feel his pulse and another pair of hands held him upright to both assist and comfort.
"Too fast! Neji-" Shikamaru pleaded in a strained voice.
"He's still fighting, we can't-" Neji protested though he held the quivering frame of the acolyte closer to him.
"It's too dangerous!" his partner retorted, hands busy cupping Udon's cheek and nape and frowning, clearly uncomfortable with what he felt. "At least let us ask for Kiba's opinion, he's more-" but Udon was already shaking his head, though his stomach had begun to cramp and his vision refused to clear.
"I can go on," he gasped breathlessly, "th- this is bearable, only . . . only my thoughts are scattered."
"Then let us recite the scriptures for you," Neji offered as much as for his student's sake as his partner's. Shikamaru wavered between the half-challenge in Neji's eyes and the firm grasp of Udon's hands on his arms that the acolyte had placed there unknowingly in his desperation.
"Those who recognize these laws," he began with a defeated shake of his head, "may distinguish the five elements in themselves, but may only observe and not balance the concert of elements to his favour."
"Let us begin to understand the Fire that our people have been bound to in these lands," Neji continued with an almost contrite smile for his partner. "The symbol of fire in man is of exalted brightness that is a beacon to those in its shadow. Its light is not the inner radiance of Gold, but an aggressive brilliance that consumes what it touches. It is simultaneously both protector and destroyer and holds both virtues without contradiction."
"In the body, the Fire-bound heart shows the truth of its nature for those who can see. The heart pumps blood and spreads through it the warmth of the Fire element throughout the body. When the Fire in our heart is extinguished, we grow cold and by the same principle, blood that flows upon the power of the heart is more readily consumed than our other components, and is created again from the Earth element in our spleen. Fire will summon Earth, the principle is immutable," Shikamaru explained with a hint of medical professionalism in the measured recitation.
"In spirit, Fire is the personal desire for a reputation that both attracts others and intimidates them, to be desired and lusted as well as to be unapproachable and unattainable. Fire empowers the desires of man, and inflamed with these desires, man is filled with a hunger that consumes insatiably. To endlessly pursue glory might lead one to an exalted position that empowers one to lead and guide one's subordinates, but its price is a proportionate sacrifice that may consume the seeker's life force and vigour, which is in turn bound to the element of Wood. Fire will consume Wood, the principle is immutable." The pale glow in Neji's unworldly eyes lent a mystic note to his words, though they never lost their watchful concern for his poisoned disciple. His silent pause was filled in by the patient but attentive Shadow Master.
"Fire tainted by personal desires is poisoned and its fumes corrupt the natural harmony, destroying it. Consider the analogy of the Fire in a man's heart pumping poison into the blood it empowers and destroying the Wood in the liver, the Earth in the spleen, the Gold in the lungs and the Water in the Kidneys, eventually killing him. Such is the danger for the spirit when one intoxicates himself with desire- his spirit eventually perishes. It is the superior man who, in recognition of this, reins in his desires and avoids the path of self-destruction."
Udon had long known the interpretation of the relatively straightforward scripture, but he found himself wondering, in the red haze of his strained consciousness, what it meant to him at all? The words were too abstract, so unimportant when it felt as if he would burn up into ashes whether or not he listened to the sermon. Flashes of memory battered the vestiges of his hold on himself- Kabuto nii-san's rage as he flung him about and how wrong it had felt when that tormented body had suddenly gone limp, an unheeding smile on its lifeless face. He told himself that there was nothing he could do or could have done differently, but the words were as meaningless to his problem as the sermon. It did nothing to soothe the restlessness and the anger that made the parched throat and aching bones all the more trying. Again, he reminded himself that the poison was wearing him down, and that was just the thing that Shikamaru would notice and pick on. He battled the surge of bitterness that he had only just convinced himself he had resolved, when the Shadow Master's voice gratingly continued with the canonized revelations.
"How does one rein in his desires and steer away from mortal and spiritual peril? Wood is vitality manifest; life bursting forth that may strengthen Fire with the sanctity of its pure energy; yet it may not purge Fire of corrupting influences. Earth is union manifest, love and attraction that may be made greater by embracing what survives the harsh flames of corrupted Fire, but not purify the taint. Gold is spiritual light manifest; knowledge and truth that while inviolate to Fire in its true essence; yet may melt and fall irresolute as Fire's uncontrolled passion overwhelms. Water is compassion manifest; soothing and veiling and it alone may extinguish the tainted Fire and quench the consuming hunger that exhausts the spirit. Water soothes and softens the- Udon!" The Deva broke off in alarm as Udon bent over in double and gripped his head, a half-strangled growl rumbling deep in his throat.
"Don't speak anymore, don't speak-" he gasped into his robes, biting the loose material in an attempt to bleed off the frustration.
"Udon, lift your head up," Neji urged levelly though his widened eyes betrayed his fear.
Shikamaru tried raising Udon from his crouch, his advice rushing out with forced calm. "You should rely upon your medita- nn!"
A sudden strike- unexpected, but the Shadow Master knew he should have been able to block it, had he not been startled by the wild and furious look in Udon's eyes as the acolyte lunged forward. Even as the blow impacted squarely into his chest, and a wave of internal energy struck his nerves that made his blood riot in the shock, Kabuto's anguished look resurrected in his mind. He heard Neji cried out in alarm. For a moment, watching the image of Kabuto's face blur back into Udon's, Shikamaru glimpsed a hint of anguish that lingered past the fading illusion. A torrent of internal energy pressed over the initial force of the Juuken blow, waves of invisible force crushing his breath and slamming into his heart as if to smash the vital organ.
White glowing eyes narrowing as the veins by them popped up against his pale skin like dark tattoos, Neji saw the flow of energy clearly with his Byakugan. Even as he flung his sleeve out and spread his own internal strength in a net of power along the fibres of his linen robe, he felt the terror pound in his own heart while Shikamaru's disease-weakened chakra signature flickered in the armour of shadows beneath the Shadow Master's robes. The tracks of Udon's power surged through spots in the armour where Shikamaru's chakra barely gleamed, and raced into the energy channels of his partner's body in a destructive stream.
Urging more of his chakra from his damaged core into the armour of shadows that he had thrown on in reflex, Shikamaru was only dimly aware of Neji darting towards them. Every other ounce of concentration he could spare was bent on the murmuring whispers that Udon forced through gritted teeth.
"I hate this . . . stop . . . don't-" the acolyte gnashed incoherently, though the force of his attack did not relent.
A rush of air that whipped their hair and sleeves back heralded the purposeful sweep of the wide, arcing sleeve that descended upon Udon's thrusting arm and coiled gracefully around it. Even before the fabric properly gripped him, it's deceptively harmless grazes sealed off pressure points in his arm, not merely breaking the flow of internal energy running through it, but also paralyzing it. Fully aware that once his mentor's sleeve had wrapped itself fully around his arm he would have no chance of escape, he leapt back as hard as he could, just managing to free his arm before he lost all control of it, a fresh new fire burning along it with the venomous ache.
Neji had already begun to twist on the soles of his feet, his free arm bent above his waist and reaching forward, two crooked fingers extended. Riding the momentum of his thrust, the Deva moved to connect with the opening Udon had exposed just above the acolyte's right hip. Helplessly aware of the futility and not much else, he threw caution and concern to the wind and thrust his legs apart to land heavily in a low crouch, finally twisting his body towards the strike of Neji's fingers, dipping to the side on one knee. Neji suddenly found himself aiming for Udon's throat, and hastily forced his body to a sudden stop, his muscles immediately freezing to a complete stillness even as his robes rode on the currents of his momentum. Trapped in the recoil of his own force, Neji couldn't stop Udon as his disciple thrust his weight through his palms against the floor of the altar, and somersaulted away from him.
Darkness ripped through the air, blurring ribbons as they darted after the retreating acolyte and outstripped him. Coiling back like angered serpents they lashed themselves around Udon's waist, tensing as they resisted the remaining force of Udon's somersault. Shikamaru formed several quick seals and the dark binding burst into an explosion of cables, wrapping themselves around the struggling acolyte.
The Shadow Imprisonment technique. Just as Neji's tension began to ebb, his white-jade eyes turning with relief towards his partner, he gasped in shock.
Neji's warning cry died in his throat as Shikamaru's hands dropped to his sides and his eyes rolled back behind fallen lids. The Divination Master started towards him in horror, but stopped dead in his tracks as he saw the dark gleam of blood trickling down his partner's nostrils as he fell unconscious onto the floor. As even the weak flicker of Shikamaru's chakra that had first alerted Neji extinguished, only the dim wisps of residual light remained.
"Shikamaru," Neji whispered in a small, unbelieving voice.
Through the power of his all-encompassing sight, he saw the chakra vanish in the shadows and saw them collapse. He saw Udon hesitating, chakra spiking wildly with his inner turbulence, before suddenly leaping from the platform in flight. He even watched the acolyte as he broke his fall with a few well-placed kicks against the wall of the altar before turning a few somersaults and landing in a crouch on the ground below. Almost as if fate mocked Neji, he looked on as Udon, after a moment's hesitation, plunged desperately into an air vent, chakra signature flaring as the acolyte executed a technique his now lifeless partner had once imparted, turning him into a discorporate shadow as he slipped past the barring steel frame. Yet the irony slid over his consciousness like raindrops running over a leaf, his heart strings twisting in agony over the one image that he could not bear to receive.
Quietly, his throat like a string on a zither drawn too tense to make a sound, he shuffled up to the empty shell of the partner he had vowed to never forsake and slowly sank to his knees. His eyes relaxing back into their normal pale gaze, yet still bright with shining tears, he lifted Shikamaru into his arms and with a shuddering breath that sent a tremor throughout his body, he cradled Shikamaru to his chest.
It was just when his hope of finding his way back seemed little more than a desperate plea, that Konohamaru stepped into paradise. There was no other description that would do justice to the wondrous garden he had abruptly intruded into. A sea of sparkling stars caught in the idyllic weave of scarlet clouds, over a second sea of glowing white gravel and pebbles rippling in currents about miniature mountains that captured the majestic spirit of the true heights. Not even the feudal lord's palace gardens, that his father had once brought him to see at work, could rival the celestial elegance and quiet dignity displayed before him. Feeling like an interloper, which was probably what he was, Konohamaru braved a few steps into the rock garden, briefly worrying if he was trampling over the soft grass that bordered it.
Distantly he heard, over the rustle of grass beneath him, the steady trickle of water as it splashed into a fountain. A quick scan revealed nothing to him, though he guessed that one of the collections of potted ferns beyond the rock garden hid the tastefully added fixture. It added to the suggestion of water, the rippling smooth stones by his feet, sought to effect. A breeze combed through his slightly damp hair that moved in sluggish response. The same steady flow sent the ring of crimson lanterns along the garden's perimeter jostling with crimson excitement. He grinned as he imagined their restless swaying to be over his unexpected intrusion into their private chambers. It made him wonder if the priests and acolytes he had eavesdropped on in the course of his secret wanderings would react in the same fashion, had they discovered him. Miraculously, he had been spared from finding that out for himself.
"They're just like regular people," he concluded with some relief, "very beautiful, graceful regular people." Yet were they? Neji's soft grace was iridescent silk wrapped carefully around glowing steel, the sublime beauty of submissive dominance. Shikamaru's careless charm was the innocuous taste of gentle, warm wine that trapped one down the slippery slope of intoxication. Udon was . . . he was the dark, mercurial gaze that seemed to both grip him tightly and shut him out at once. Konohamaru understood the social need for multiple masks appropriate to the occasion, but here was the sense that the entire stage and its elegant performance was merely the frame for the insidious reality backstage. It was as if the players came out with masks onstage, because they needed to step around whatever it was that lurked behind the backdrop.
Konohamaru shook his head, roughly dislodging the menacing thoughts from his mind. At the end of the day he was probably just worked up over his big secret past that only he himself wasn't privy to. When it came to sharp tension wrapped in duplicity, his parents were a study in perfect conscious denial. He couldn't help but wonder what could be so awful as to convince them that desperate deceit and preparatory emotional blackmail were the only viable options open to them.
The pathetic whisper was as lost and mystified as he felt.
"Why?" a voice echoed in a hoarse whisper. Konohamaru spun around. He was no longer alone. Dark blood stained the pallor of the interloper's neck while sweat glistened and quivered just beneath a drawn, panting jaw. Hazel eyes rose further to meet the burning hatred in the hungry gaze.
"Udon," Konohamaru gasped in surprise, taking an involuntary step back. The Udon right now was no cool, graceful beauty, his sweat-drenched robes no longer white and pure, but an angry pink where feverish skin clung to the fabric.
"Why did you run away?" the acolyte pressed, slowly stalking forward and forcing Konohamaru to retreat even further. A sudden wind buffeting dark leaves scattered the shadows as the lanterns danced wildly in its wake. Dumping the leaves it had carried from the sleeping forest that surrounded the temple and its outlying villages, the burst of air carved a path through the two figures in a cascade of falling fragments of ripped foliage.
Udon lifted outstretched fingers and trapped one by its stem, the wild, bright gaze of his dark eyes examining it with heavy wonder. Unable to help himself, Konohamaru joined his rapt study of the broad, elliptic blade, so deep a hue that it was nearly invisible in the night sky it was framed against.
"The Mark of the Leaf," Udon began making Konohamaru jump, though the acolyte had yet to even shift his gaze, "you came all the way for this. So shamelessly." Venom glittered in his dark eyes like the rich surface of poisoned wine. Konohamaru took another involuntary step back, his lips barely parting to whisper a plea before Udon's cold hatred stifled his breath.
"Kabuto nii-san was all I had. He was just fine when I left, just fine . . . but you- you hurt him- he would have been fine, but you awoke the poison in his body-"
"I don't- I don't know anything-" Konohamaru croaked, struggling to find his voice in the burgeoning panic he shook in. "My memories- they were-"
"-taken from you?" Udon asked with a mocking smile, the hand holding the leaf retreating over his heart. Tears fell unexpectedly and Konohamaru was transfixed by the bitter sorrow that wavered so suddenly before him. "While I carried all these memories, you- you conveniently forgot everything. You ruined everything but you alone got away with everything."
Watching the stricken acolyte before him, the twisting pang in Konohamaru's chest clutched tightly. "I didn't want to-" he began. A sudden stab of pain killed his speech, and he clutched his temples with a shocked gasp.
"How shamelessly you cling on to your innocence by pushing the responsibility to someone else!" Udon spat, the trembling anger rising in his voice again. "In the end weren't you the one who benefited from it all, while the Shadow Master bore the guilt?"
Straining to lift his head against the lancing agony, his tearing eyes met the murderous fury in Udon's and a fearful recognition seized his heart. "Di- vine Heal- er . . ." The brittle words blasted all other sense from him. Then, in the instant that it had taken to freeze him, his insensibility shattered as the thudding of his heart deafened him. "Divine Healer-" he rasped, his breaths growing wild and tears falling uncontrollably as his fear escalated. "Divine Healer . . . Kabuto nii-san . . . nggh! No . . . stay away! I- I-"
Udon watched the scene undecidedly, his expression shifting between a feral ferocity and a wary confusion. "Are you- remembering?" he began, lurching forward as Konohamaru shook his head wildly. "It's breaking isn't it . . . the seal?"
Konohamaru could only claw desperately at his skull as pain and pressure hammered at his temples, breaking rapidly in accelerating fear as his thoughts swelled with alarming speed with an ominous realization that was yet unclear in its details. The lenses, thin lenses . . . grey hair as bright and vivid as steel-eyes tinged with blood. Blood. Blood!
"So much blood! So much blood! You'll hurt yourself!" The abruptly hysterical cries echoed with such raw desperation, Udon could only stare dumbfounded as the emotions ripped out of Konohamaru. "Someone . . . please- help! Udon!"
The name that had tumbled so carelessly from his lips, struck his mind with a blow that sundered the chaos of memories with one clear image. "Udon," Konohamaru whispered, eyes widening even as the image of the stirring acolyte wavered through the welling tears. A hesitant smile- a knowing glance- bashful concern- a warm hand- a frightened friend- Udon. Udon. "Udon."
"You remember me," the blurred image before him stated plainly, the quiver of agitation in his voice betraying the façade of calm.
Yet Konohamaru could scarcely focus on what the acolyte was saying, much less the danger in those brief words. Imprisoned by insidious memories, he moaned an incoherent plea. Snatches of red made him flinch as if he had been struck. When? When was this? Anger that burst forth from a figure he couldn't bring himself to fully hold in his mind. A fleeting flash of a feral snarl was sucked into a turbulent mess of images.
He wept uncontrollably but could neither feel the tears, nor hear the copious pleas that tumbled from his quivering lips. Shaking violently, his tensed frame wavered where he stood.
Mutely watching the spectacle, a slow smirk twisted across Udon's face.
"How cruel of you to make such a pained face, when you finally remember all that we've been through," he coldly admonished. "That's not the way old friends should behave."
Barely emerging from his stupor, Konohamaru stared ahead in distracted distress, shaking his head slowly, brown eyes trembling in terror.
"Please, I don't know why. . . didn't do anything . . ."
"I know," Udon agreed as he advanced towards his old friend, "but you don't. At least you shouldn't. How did you reach the verdict of your innocence?"
The mocking amusement in the acolyte's voice forced Konohamaru to cover his eyes protectively behind the back of his hand, unable to bear up to the piercing, hateful truth.
"I ran away- I was so scared," Konohamaru heard the words find a way out of his own dry mouth, past shaking lips. "I was so scared- I thought he wouldn't let me go- he was so different- your Kabuto nii-san."
Udon kept his steady gaze, his unsandalled feet crunching against the white gravel. Konohamaru listened to their steady rhythm with a gaping ache pulsing in his chest.
"I wanted to go back for you!" The words rushed out in a torrent of desperation. His veiling hand had fallen to his side, tightly clenched.
Udon paid no heed, each advancing step grave and purposeful.
Feeling the fight drain out of his body, Konohamaru let the tears slip down in exhaustion. "Do you want vengeance for Kabuto nii-san?" he asked quietly, the tightness in his chest gradually growing cold.
"Vengeance? What use is that to gentle Kabuto nii-san... or to me, a person who to leave this filthy world soon?" Udon calmly replied. When Konohamaru's eyes widened he indulged the youth with an almost beatific smile. "Just like Kabuto nii-san you see," he added, pausing for a moment as he lowered the collar that barely concealed the dark bruise. The twin puncture marks were a garish purple, oozing with fouled black blood, while the pure white collar just below it bore its taint.
"What happened-" Konohamaru began but Udon silenced him with a burst of hollow laughter.
"Everybody talks about how it's all because of Orochimaru's venom or the dark legacy of my past, but it isn't really. It never was the reason for what came to this." Smirking at Konohamaru's baffled expression, Udon went on. "Kabuto nii-san and I- we could never have succeeded, could never have overcome the trial. In the end the Fire within us consumed us. That's why we needed each other, why Kabuto nii-san and I needed each other. We both understood our inherent weakness."
"I don't understand . . . but you . . . you need to get the poison out!" Konohamaru ventured a step forward but froze as Udon blurred in his vision, a burst of white sleeves and dark wisps rushing towards him. He recoiled as he felt a faint sensation of something grazing his forehead, and the unfocused image of a dark slender edge, hovered before his eyes. Along the blade of the dark green leaf that Konohamaru finally recognized, was the slightly indistinct smile of his old friend who had closed the distance between them.
"Do you want me to show you what happened that day when I returned?" Udon offered in a deadly whisper.
"Udon," Konohamaru began tremulously as he quailed before the malignant glare, "please . . . I didn't want anything to happen to you . . ."
The crushing impact and the crimson flare of pain obliterated all thought for an instant, and it was instinct that drove his body to clamber back onto his feet, as he coughed weakly, mind reeling and a dull ringing in his ears. He lifted reddened eyes to watch the glittering anger in Udon's.
"I won't really injure you," the acolyte seethed, "even if you don't deserve it, your life was still saved by Kabuto nii-san, and I won't undo what he has done." Udon took a moment to favour his old friend with a cold smile. "All the same, it hurts doesn't it?"
"Udon . . ." Konohamaru pleaded, but the steel in Udon's eyes did not relent.
"Did you know how it felt having him die in my arms? How his dying throes left me grasping in hopeless desperation? What that did to me- could you even imagine?"
"I didn't . . . know- I don't know . . ." Konohamaru stammered as Udon's venom burned in his chest. "I wanted to come back," he rallied in a flash of recovered memory, "I would have come back! I would have come back for you!"
"Then what? What would you have done had you found me? How would you have made it all better?" Udon demanded mottled scarlet with anger. "In the end all of you excuse yourselves behind pretty words, but none of them change the fact that I was alone-" Pausing abruptly, the acolyte's features contorted in a pained expression. "I-was- alone-" he repeated, though the words became strained and uncertain. It almost seemed as if he resisted the very sentiments that had ripped out of his raw throat.
Blinded by the tears in his eyes, Konohamaru only understood the tortured words as buried wounds now reflected in his own heart. "If this body can accept the misery that I've put you through, I would willingly surrender it to your fury without regret," he whispered brokenly. Through his distressed vision he saw Udon reach forward with a hand and shut his eyes as cold fingers caressed his cheek, brushing the tears slipping freely down his face.
"Is this the only way you know, dramatic self-pity?" Chuckling softly, Udon allowed his fingers to fall away. "But this has all been like a play that we're performing in once again, only now I'll take the role of the forsaken acolyte, and you can be the one who rocks him to his death."
Konohamaru's eyes widened in alarm, but his words died before they could stir past his lips, and he fixed his gaze instead, on the garish wound.
"Maybe then I'll forgive you," Udon mused, heedless to Konohamaru's distraction, "old friend." Glancing sidelong at the anxious focus on Konohamaru's pale face, the acolyte smiled. "Not to worry though, you could always ask Shikamaru-sama to seal your memori- hah! Mngh!"
There had been neither the time nor room to dodge Konohamaru's unexpected lunge. Taken by surprise, the pain lanced through his consciousness, barely before the shock had even begun to fade. Sharp bursts of agony shot through his body from the gaping fang marks in the side of his neck, each anguished spasm robbing Udon of his strength to resist Konohamaru's grip.
"Ngh- hah- what are . . . you . . ."
It was no use; his words were as weak as his limbs as his body leaned into Konohamaru who readily braced him. From the corner of his blurred vision, he saw a mane of bistre brown hair shifting at a rhythmic pace as its owner pressed his lips industriously against his neck.
A heaviness that outweighed the leaden paralysis of his body sank deep into his consciousness.
The dimness of the stars was a fine gauze of silver against the shadowed pallor of Neji's face. Shikamaru had not been expecting his partner's appearance in the very place where he had only recently experienced such severe humiliation. What was even more surprising was that they had stood there watching each other for well past twenty nervous heartbeats, and the Hyuuga still revealed no signs of murderous intent. Instead, delicate brows creased over confused eyes, assessing him with undisguised perplexity.
"You defied the council and still managed to escape punishment," Neji broke the silence in a curiously light tone of voice, "everyone is quite impressed." There was no apparent challenge there, but Shikamaru instinctively felt the thrill of excitement surge through him, as if he had witnessed a crucially offensive move being played against him in a shogi match. Carefully he nodded, but flashed a quick smile.
"But the Deva Council did set that one condition." Shikamaru scratched his head in a calculatedly offhand manner. "I can't attend my own Dark Vigil until you have given your consent."
Neji raised dark brows with a derisive snort. "They decreed it for all future Vigils. You even changed temple law. It is truly a remarkable feat that will be recorded for posterity." Pale eyes watched him with fiery curiosity. "Truly, I have yet to capture the reason behind these extraordinary successes. Would you not enlighten me?"
Shikamaru leaned his head over one shoulder, folding his arms before him as he lowered his lids in contemplation. This tension was good. This was the endgame, the conclusive move that would clear his path for the decisive capture. If he squandered this opportunity, they would be locked in yet another long battle of tiresome manoeuvres for the Mark only knows how many more months, or even years. He had to see this round with absolute clarity of heart so that the one true move would be revealed to him. At last, a slow grin spread across his face.
Of course, it still came down to that.
Reopening his eyes, he found Neji's intent gaze fixed upon him. Allowing his eyes to roam down along the thin robes clutching the lithe graceful body, before finally rising to meet powerful eyes that for all its cold, obliterating whiteness like a blanket of winter snow, danced with the passion of fire.
"Because I want to spend my last breath imprinting the image of the vision captured in my eyes, against yours," he finally answered, the words bringing out of him an uncharacteristic blush to his cheeks, just as if he'd stood to watch the snow out in the silent winter fields for too long.
Neji's hard gaze did not relent before he abruptly swept away from the garden's entrance, sleeves flung wildly in his wake. Shikamaru could only watch with fragile confidence as the stubbornly set shoulders swung out of view. Shutting his eyes he chuckled helplessly to himself.
That had been just a little more dramatic than he had intended it to be, but . . . the sway of those moon-bright eyes always seemed to throw him off course, just a little . . .
The memory faded into the dark depths of his mind, but a thought, like the deep amethyst glow of twilight surfaced in its place.
'To have the vision of you in my eyes, reflected in yours as I draw my parting breath . . .'
A beautiful thought; a keen wish, but somehow . . . not yet. Not now. He still . . . to be with Neji . . . he still- couldn't let that happen!
A gasping inhalation burned through his lungs and awoke the fire that seared along the nerve channels in his body. Unable to hold back a strangled cry, he forced his tearing eyes to focus on the blurred shadowed outline hovering closely over him against the incandescent light, and felt a firm hold wrapped around his shoulders.
A seemingly disembodied voice coming from just next to him. He struggled for a second but it was no use. His body, burning in a merciless internal fire, wasn't responding to his will. His mind alone seemed to retain its loyalty, quickly recognizing the term of address and the voice.
'Iruka-sama,' Shikamaru thought weakly, unable to even get his lips to form the words.
Then the person lying almost on top of him as he held him, the one most likely responsible for pumping this fiery chakra into his myriad tenketsu, possibly the only one in the temple capable of such a feat, crazy enough to waste so much hard-earned power on this lazy half-corpse was-
"Neji . . ."
The words finally came forth. It seemed as if, feeble as they were, he had never spoken any words more meaningful than those two tender syllables.
"Shika- no words" Neji hushed, "focus on your chakra."
Neji's pale eyes, aglow with potent strength, had just come into focus when a shocking jolt shot through his body, and a terrifying falling sensation seized him. Spasms shook his body as he reflexively tried to grab onto Neji, yet failing to in his weakness.
"Neji!" Iruka called out sharply.
"It's just a reflex, Shika, just a body reflex," Neji tersely soothed, "but you have to focus your chakra in your tanden, anchor it in your centre, or the energies will run wild and damage your chakra circulatory system."
That's right, that's why Neji sounded so urgent. He had passed out in the middle of one of his shadow capturing techniques. Assessing the facts quickly, it must have been because he had overexerted his ailing body and expended the very chakra energies in his physical core, which explained why his partner kept exhorting him to gather the freely flowing chakra back there. Had he already damaged his system as the darkness enveloped him earlier? He idly pondered the last thought before giving a mental sigh, and allowed himself to drop into a meditative state. It was easier willed than done. There was the brutal fire that consumed him from within, and the conscious knowledge of the urgency of the entire matter that he had to leave behind, before he could reach the optimum state of mind to gather the remnants of his scattered chakra along with Neji's. What was that trick that Kabuto-san had thought him?
Don't deny yourself; acknowledge your distractions and move on to the heart of your intentions.
Yes, he was having his spirit roasted, and yes, he might end up paralyzed or insane and even drag Neji with him to sustain heavy internal injuries- but it was alright to worry about these things because he should love himself and he definitely loved his partner. So then the only sensible thing to do was to cradle these concerns close to him and do something productive, like slipping into that half-trance, feeling the ebb and flow and all the currents racing along his chakra circulatory system driven by the force of Neji's chakra. It was an impressive thing, to keep someone's system running while the body had given up. Well, perhaps not completely given up- not even Neji could revive the dead. Drawing back so that his mind touched each of the pattern of flows, he noticed that there were some channels that were dim and some that only glimmered weakly, blocked somehow- no not somehow, it was the long toll of his illness. Unable to force his way through these passages without causing even more damage, Shikamaru sensed Neji trickling past what he could and circumventing the rest of the chakra through adjacent open channels. All of it flowed towards his abdomen, rushing towards his tanden where it should collect like a spiralling ball of ethereal blue flame- only it didn't. The flickers of power wrestled each other like a cloud of raw energy bolts, flashes of brilliance leaving smoky trails, unable to form into a stable rotation. Each surge of power was Neji's insistent chakra, stubbornly reforming the core that was swiftly swallowed into the darkness, like fighting to build a bright sandcastle before the rushing black tide.
To Neji the darkness was the enemy, but Shikamaru understood it better, well enough to become it. With a thought he allowed himself to seep into the darkness, within it and yet without it. The shadow in the darkness, the shadow of his life force, the place from where he worked best. Every flicker of life he mimicked with shadow, every ebbing motion thinned his presence. Keeping in time with the rhythm he flared as the chakra flared and dimmed as it dimmed, until it seemed as if one followed the other and the two were one connected existence. He allowed the calming rhythm to lull him for a few moments before reluctantly holding in the sense of himself as it bloomed, holding on to the rushing energies for as long as he could without strain, then allowing it to flow away from him and awaited its prompt return. The first few sets of catch and release yielded no more than a slight increase in strength and duration of the chakra whirl, but the patient repetitions gradually moulded a more solidly spinning sphere. Though smaller than he was accustomed to seeing, even during the latest stage of his illness, it waxed and waned with the strict form he had been taught to cultivate. The danger, that he had been distantly aware of throughout the exercise, had passed. He could sense Neji's chakra receding from his own and knew that his partner had seen and understood. Following Neji's power out, he ran through the rest of his chakra circulatory system to check for any abnormalities on top of those caused by his tumour. It was only as he reached the end of the channels of his fingertips, that he realized that the intense heat had vanished. Neji's chakra had retreated from his body and his own chakra circulatory system was functioning normally.
While Shikamaru didn't need the fiery presence of Neji's chakra to sustain him any longer, he did not mind the tight warmth of his partner's embrace. Taking advantage of his ability to release chakra from the various tenketsu points along his body, Neji had wrapped himself around his partner to stimulate as many of Shikamaru's tenketsu points as he could. Now that his condition had stabilized, the hold comforted them both instead.
"Release," a gentle voice commanded softly beside him, making Shikamaru colour slightly as he remembered that they were not alone.
"Iruka-sama," he murmured, muffled by the fabric of Neji's robes. He tried to rise but was held back by Neji's body pressing down against him. Feeling a wave of nauseating dizziness surge in him from the mere attempt, Shikamaru wasn't about to argue, brows furrowing as he broke out in large beads of sweat.
"You can't move yet," Neji advised, "you nearly- you need to rest a little longer."
Shikamaru gazed up into the sad pale eyes that continued to brim with power, unwilling to lower their guard lest something had been left out.
"What . . . happened?" Shikamaru grimaced at how hoarse the question sounded. His throat felt sandpapered as he swallowed in an effort to clear it.
"Udon struck you," Iruka answered behind him, making Shikamaru shift his head to take in the Grand Deva who knelt by his side. With his back against the Root Mark, Iruka's face was cast in shadow and outlined in an aura of light, while brown eyes glowed with kindness above the trademark scar slashed across a thin nose. One hand retreated within the open sleeve of his other arm, but not before Konohamaru spotted the edge of a bound scroll that the head of the temple tucked into the sleeve along with it. Noticing Shikamaru's interest, Iruka smiled. "Soul-binding scroll. Just in case. The vision of your thread alarmed me after all."
The warm voice could not soothe the chill that touched his heart at those words. Turning back to Neji he saw his partner shaking his head and felt the Divination Master pull himself more securely around him.
"But the vision didn't show the thread snapping, and you started breathing again," Neji explained in a low whisper, "so it's alright. You'll be alright."
Shikamaru wrapped his arms more firmly against the faintly trembling body that clung to him with as much restrained desperation as Neji could contain. All words of comfort died on his own faltering lips, his mouth dry as he heard Iruka complete the story.
"The thread shook violently in the vision, so I knew to bring the scroll with me. Thankfully the Eldest Tree and our ancestors within the Root Mark saw to it that the seals in the scroll were needlessly summoned. Neji's timely and persistent intervention held you back from the next passage of the Circle Path."
Shikamaru gently squeezed the silently grasping Deva, who only shook his head.
"When Kiba sent Fuu and Rai ahead with the news of Udon's escape and your collapse, Chouji went out of his mind with concern, and would have rushed here if I hadn't firmly left him in charge of the Sacred Hall of Eighty-One Pines to await any news from Kiba." Iruka watched Shikamaru with a kind smile. "You don't have to worry about anything else, the other Devas who'd been joining us in prayer have all seen to waking the temple barriers. Kiba and Akamaru should be able to pick up his scent in no time. Udon will be rescued before anything happens."
"No, the air vents are protected by strong cleansing seals," Shikamaru began weakly, ignoring Neji as his partner murmured a soft protest, "the scents would be obliterated within a minor fraction of an incense's worth of time. Given his speed and skill, Udon could make enough progress for Kiba and Akamaru to lose his trail, before ending up trapped in any one of the connected underground chambers, or collapsed along the branching tunnels."
"We know that," Iruka began calmly, "and Shino is trying to make up for it by spreading his insect friends through the tunnels to sense for any unnatural vibrations. The Priests have been alerted to search throughout the temple grounds for him. Other than that, there is little more that we can do but to place our trust in Kiba and Akamaru's tracking abilities- and in Udon's strength."
"Kiba and Akamaru are probably the best trackers in the country, but there's someone we've overlooked who could locate Udon in an instant," Shikamaru declared with a frail but confident grin.
Iruka, however, lowered his gaze, his soft smile straining as the hint of a frown touched his brows.
"I won't do it," Neji declared flatly as he abruptly rose, "I can't do it. Not now, not after what he's just done."
Shikamaru looked up in shock at the bitterness in Neji's voice. Neji stubbornly met Shikamaru's gaze, but its wavering strength fell as Shikamaru broke into a soft smile.
"Liar; your hands are gripping me so tightly. Neji, this isn't your fault, if you punish yourself like this, Udon and I will find ourselves even more reprehensible for all of this."
"I should have believed you-" Neji insisted in a hoarse whisper but Shikamaru firmly interjected.
"But I'm grateful that you remained strong in my weakness. You weren't afraid to go forward, confident in your ability to hold on to Konohamaru and me. I was still afraid- and that's been holding everyone back. Myself . . . Udon . . . you . . . You were the one who gambled everything for a tomorrow for us."
"I've been scared too, every day, every moment that you might-" Neji swallowed the rest of his confession and instead, lifted Shikamaru into his arms, resting his forehead against his partner's with a shuddering sigh.
The silence that lapsed between the partners was broken by Iruka's careful tone.
"It has been a long day, you should leave the other matters to me-" Iruka paused in hesitation as Shikamaru drew away from Neji and shook his head.
"Iruka-sama- no, Sensei, please let Neji divine Udon's location. I believe Konohamaru-kun might be in danger too."
Neji bit his lower lip with a pained frown, but it was Iruka who rejected the suggestion.
"Divination can be dangerous when the heart has been so badly shaken, not to mention the grave loss of chakra expended earlier. I can't allow it. Healing the many wounds must now take priority-"
"With your permission," Neji suddenly interrupted, lifting Shikamaru's bowed head by its chin, pale eyes shifting towards the Grand Deva, "with your permission, I would like to perform the divination."
"Divination requires absolute detachment, you should be well aware of the consequences of this violation," Iruka reminded dark eyes stern.
A trace of guilt marred the calm confidence of Neji's steady gaze but his reply revealed not a shred of doubt.
"I am unworthy and impetuous, but my duty is to serve the temple, from the greenest acolyte to the Eldest Tree itself, with the power of my visions . . . and I love him so much," Neji finished with a rare, unguarded smile.
"Well, it's reassuring to know that even Neji can be honest with his feelings now and then," Iruka noted with a straight face.
"It's refreshing certainly," Shikamaru added favouring Neji's growing blush with a light caress against the Hyuuga's cheek with the back of his hand.
"I see everyone finds this quite amusing," Neji grumbled sullenly, though his scowl was tinged with a resigned tenderness.
"Be careful Neji," Iruka cautioned simply, belying the lines of concern creasing along tightly folded lips.
"Iruka-sama . . ." Neji murmured and inclined his head, "with all my strength."
"I'll be waiting for you here when you reopen your eyes," Shikamaru promised, eyes glowing with a vulnerable lustre as he shifted out of his partner's grasp.
Neji shook his head and drew the weakened Deva up against his chest. "I won't be letting you go," he corrected. Shikamaru's gentle protest fell short when he sensed the rush of chakra and turned to see Neji's long fingers laced in a rapid succession of seals.
"It will be alright, you won't distract him," Iruka reassured his trapped spy master, "right now Neji needs you; the shadow that touches the ache of the moon."
Shikamaru gazed at Neji's beautiful face softening the harsh brilliance around his partner with a pearly radiance of its own. He noticed for the first time, against the contented smile gracing tender lips, part of his shadow wavering across it.
Acolytes who had even the faintest promise in the art of Divination were often separated from their peers at an early stage of their training. Apart from ensuring that they maintained a healthy amount of interaction with their partners, and that they received the essential training in the various basic arts of the priesthood, they were secreted away into the silent, polished marble chambers of the Hall of Lotus Frost. There, guarded by the intimidating expanse of featureless white marble floors and cavernous halls thick with sheer cold, they learned the most vital lesson of all- utter detachment.
They denied the silence and the cold, hoping to deny themselves and thus attain the void that would invite the vast wisdom of the Eldest Tree to take root. Those who had partners sharing the test with them were the most tormented by the ordeal. More vicious than any personal pain, was the gnawing concern for the condition of their partners. Some found themselves so torn between enlightenment and love that they broke their hearts- losing their love only to find that they could no longer recognize just what was the ultimate truth they sought.
Shikamaru had been so quiet and still when Neji had shared the sad tale, that the Hyuuga had thought that his partner suspected him of having once fallen to the same desperation. It was a week later, when Shikamaru had revealed his plans for the rehabilitation for such lost acolytes, that Neji appreciated how hard it was for his partner to allow himself to cry, but at the same time, how beautiful the unshed sorrow was in those heaven-searching eyes. Watching those eyes, Neji thought he could never lose sight of that single truth that could unite love and detachment- faith. Shikamaru had complete faith that love and truth were complimentary values in the ultimate essence of all creation, and he strove to prove its reality by living his life as a toast to that belief, offering an impression of languid acceptance that he had stubbornly fought for and painstakingly adhered to. Faith guided detachment to acceptance, and acceptance enabled one to hold love in any situation.
But fear was such an insidious enemy, and a far more primal ally to love. As the threat of loss clouded Shikamaru's clear gaze, he clung to love as if he could lose what could not be possessed. It confused Neji, and cut him deeply. Neji knew that the tumour struck at the very heart of Shikamaru's confidence, knew that the mistakes that he made as a result of that, further reinforced his self-doubt, but the understanding did not make it any easier. The truth was that Neji blamed himself for not being able to do anything to aid his partner, and that he could neither find acceptance for Shikamaru's state, nor faith that whatever path his beloved took would ultimately be for the best. With Shikamaru faltering, he was alarmed to find that he himself staggered. How had it come to pass that he had allowed himself to become so reliant on the loosely gallant Deva? How had it come to pass that Shikamaru could not rely upon his partner during this trial?
He had to grow stronger, he had to right the imbalance that sent his beloved sliding further, and further down the path of self-loathing and destruction. That had been the thought that had possessed him in the recent months until- until Shikamaru fell before him, a victim of Neji's own self-confidence as was Udon. At that moment, when he had lost the two most important people in his life, he had understood the answer in an instant, and would have laughed at its simplicity had it not been for the terror, that even now still had its talons biting into his heart.
He would follow Shikamaru, no matter where it took them. He might disagree with the destination, fight to take another path, but it would never take him away from Shikamaru. Whatever pain there was there would be none from separation, only the comforting solidity of their bond, of Shikamaru against him. The acceptance suffused every turning wisp of consciousness, bathing it in a warm golden dawn that lingered for an euphoric moment before it cleared into a draining darkness. Almost immediately, or perhaps because the earlier brilliance had deepened the effect of the night, the sky sparkled with the glinting fires of myriad stars.
A part of his consciousness acknowledged that the vision had arrived, but he was careful to retain his relaxed state. He simply admired the silver-blue celestial array, wise enough not to attempt to figure out what constellations they were in. Likely, they were patterned in a design that no man had yet to, or would ever, record. Nothing here was real, but it could reflect reality more truthfully than what could be gleaned from the mere surface of the world. Here he saw with his inner sight, the true sight that reflected knowledge, not images.
Like over-bright fireflies, the stars suddenly rose up with a silent roar of life, and swarmed higher into the sky. With barely a thought, Neji glided up in pursuit, but he didn't get very far before drifting to a stop as the stars shuddered in an abrupt halt. The regular lines they arranged themselves into, intrigued him into chasing the pattern to identify the possible clue. He had barely recognized the rectangular arrangement, separated into starry columns struck through with a small upper row and a larger lower row, before clusters of stars flitted up and down the columns.
Like beads on an abacus.
Something was being counted, tallied. Neji started to probe deeper into the possible meaning, but whispers at the edge of his consciousness distracted him from his thoughts.
"-owe . . . but this debt . . ."
Torn between the whispers and the unfinished puzzle before him, he wavered indecisively as more snatches tumbled into barely meaningful phrases.
". . . tonight we . . . arms, the cold . . . like I had to . . ."
Neji turned away from the celestial puzzle and fell. There was no warning save for a sudden lurch, and he was suddenly plummeting with blurring rapidity. Forcing himself to focus, he could just make out against the rushing landscape, the vague outlines of sparse greenery and dark shades of bluish grey and most importantly, the presences of two people. One wrapped in loose white robes and the other in a dark one. He recognized them before he could even make out their faces. The sleek dark brown hair tumbling over a novice's robe, leaning against the wind towards the thick mane of bistre brown hair, the scene that he had half-expected to see, Udon and Konohamaru together.
All conversation drowned out in the hollow roar of the wind that somehow rose in intensity, even as he began to gradually slow down, their faces growing clearer. Udon's icy calm features made a part of him grow cold, but the brutal bite mark purpling against his charge's neck awoke a surge of pain and guilt. Against all his wisdom, he allowed himself the yearning to embrace the youth.
In an instant, the sense of himself altered. He was standing right beside their oblivious forms. Konohamaru's helpless terror was clear in the tremors of his quavering jaw and the desperate light of his eyes. In the eclipsing shadows that fed off wildly swaying lanterns beneath bamboo-patterned roof tiles, he staggered under a single leaf held against his flushing cheek.
"No, Udon, wait," he begged, the hazel hue of his eyes swallowed in the inky darkness. His pleas rang out and faded into the silence of the secluded rock garden. Opposed to the quivering tan bridge of his own nose, was the silver-nickel crescent frame of his assailant's glasses, gleaming with an ominous bloody tint in the light of paper-wrapped flames. Through their thinly sliced lenses, eyes ever as black as the darkness they served in, studied the escalating irregularity of their prisoner's breaths, and the growing paralysis as the young man began to slide against the polished pillar.
Udon pushed it half a step further drawing the suffocating shadows in with him, and robbing the youth of yet another gasp of air. His captive's flaring mane of bistre brown hair grew matted at clammy temples, and the pained grimace was now joined with desperate clawing against barring walls. The wicked curve of a smile cut deeper into Udon's face.
The portent in the whispering stars- Konohamaru would lose everything tonight.
The thick odour of poisoned blood was a foul wine that slid with excruciating reluctance down his throat. Still harder he pressed his lips against the wound, his tongue probing the rents in Udon's flesh, milking the twin punctures for the deadly elixir in a desperate bid to save his friend's life.
A laboured moan stabbed him with a jolt of panic, driving him to suck more mercilessly. Udon could throw him off at any moment, so he had to make every moment before that count.
Still, he had to fight his repulsion as the thick coppery tang devoured his senses, even as he ingested the stolen blood. Yet he couldn't spit it out if it would mean giving Udon an opening to cast him off or worse, flee.
"We'll . . . both . . . die . . ." the acolyte struggled to warn, his hands resting powerlessly against Konohamaru's chest, "Oro . . . chimaru's . . . poison . . . you . . . mustn't . . ."
Orochimaru? The thing that made this bite? A vision of baleful reptilian eyes flashing with grim satisfaction as its fangs sank firmly into tender flesh, made him gag on the mouthful of tainted blood he was struggling to swallow.
"Kono . . . hamaru . . . stop . . . please . . ."
Could he do that? Could anyone in his place do that? Gulping the blood down, Konohamaru prayed that this would at least buy Neji and Shikamaru some time, before the poison claimed yet another of their brethren.
The numbness took him by surprise as his lower jaw mutinied, locked and shuddering with impotent will. Too fast! He needed more time. The Elder Tree alone knew how long the poison had been left in Udon's body. How much of the meagre residual poison left in the wound had he been able to withdraw? Had there been many more mouthfuls past the first five he had still been able to count? Would it be enough?
His body paid little heed to his calculations as his jaw slackened, and the numbness travelled down the lower half of his face and wrapped around his nape, forcing his lips to slump uselessly against the reddened flesh below the wound. When the numbness spread to his lungs and his heart he would suffocate to death; or perhaps a heart attack- he wasn't in a position to say. It wasn't the way he wanted to leave this world. There were still so many things he wanted to do, to say.
He was held away from the stirring body he had begun to lean against, to meet the searching gaze of a pale and half-terrified Udon who had shaken out of his earlier daze. Konohamaru tried to smile at the irony as it all fitted together in his mind.
The event that had been sealed away, that sudden rage that his benefactor had exploded into, his fervent desire to remedy his cowardly flight, to reunite with the precious friend he had inadvertently abandoned, all of it, all of it, to arrive at this conclusion. The person he had wanted to reach, the persons pursuing... they had finally met to connect the broken lines of their unfinished destiny.
Now that the desperate wish from his childhood had finally been granted, he discovered that he had one more wish, to take all the sorrow with him into the Cycle, where grace would allow that pain to melt in the warmth of compassion, setting Udon free . . .
As Konohamaru's eyelids lowered, a dazed Udon could only watch in disbelief. The breath locked in his chest crushed every other sense that he had, but he couldn't let it go. Konohamaru looked as if he were merely sleeping, even though the acolyte knew only too well how swiftly the angelic serenity could lose its warmth and lustre beneath his touch.
Konohamaru was going to die. The cold reality of it pierced through the haze of confusion that had risen from the ebbing rage and pain.
"The healer priests, we need to get to the healer priests," he mumbled softly as he struggled to hoist Konohamaru onto his back. His arms ached as if they'd been beaten sore, but the sensation was pleasantly distracting and even reassuring. He was no longer trapped in the fevered chaos that had descended upon him. There was a purpose now, he had to-
"Quickly, set him down, there isn't much time."
Startled by the unexpected intrusion, the Devas that suddenly appeared before him drove Udon from instinctive apprehension into a guilt-ridden fear. The Shadow Master looked so tired and wan beside his master who was watching his partner's laboured breaths with a deep frown. The temple's spy master seemed unable to fully support his own weight, and his grip on Neji's arm shook slightly. Still, that familiar voice was as firmly reassuring as it had been, when the Deva guided him to his first friend amongst the fellow acolytes.
"Udon, we'll have to take a look at him quickly- in a sitting position Udon, set him down in a sitting position," Shikamaru ordered briskly, squeezing Neji's hand before he stepped away from his partner's beseeching look. Lowering himself to the ground, he nodded at the stunned acolyte. "Udon, it must be done now."
Dashing away his tears, Udon fought to bring Konohamaru's limp form to the seated young master of the famed herbalist family of the Nara Clan. Neji swept up to him and helped his teetering student carry the unconscious youth a few steps forward, before folding Konohamaru's legs under him. Udon couldn't help the pleading hope in his eyes, knowing that Shikamaru could save Konohamaru but excruciatingly aware of the toll it would exact on the weakened Shadow Master. He didn't dare look at his master. Though he had already braced himself for whatever punishment the Council would bring down upon him, there was no courage left in him to meet Neji's gaze.
The soft swish of Shikamaru's hands shifting rapidly through a succession of hand seals held his attention as firmly as his own thunderous heartbeat. Only the prospect of burying another loved one held Udon back from seizing the Shadow Master's trembling shoulders and begging him to stop. Even as the writhing shadows about Shikamaru raised an unbearable rush of hope in him, his heart was gripped by the clammy fear that he was trading one life for another.
"I'm going to stimulate some of his acupoints and force his body to purge the poisoned blood," Shikamaru explained quickly as he held his hands in a final seal, "I'll be forcing him to spit it out- don't be alarmed." Udon nodded fervently, the sting of his nails biting into his palms barely anchoring him in the tumult of his emotions. "Neji, please, could you seal the major acupoints governing his heart? As strongly as you can; the poison targets the heart- if some of the poison's been absorbed . . . the seals will secure us some time either way."
Without a word Neji, gathering his chakra into his fingers even as he turned, issued four short jabs into four specific points in Konohamaru's chest. Each impact barely made a sound, but the force of the Hyuuga's chakra forced a muted grunt from the unconscious youth. Udon had barely managed to reach out to steady his old friend when a rush of dark, silken wisps shot past him. As Udon struggled with the urge to brush them away, the black threads swirled around Konohamaru in a sinuous circle tethered to a black cord that stretched in the direction of the thickly perspiring Shikamaru. Udon spared a worried glance for the Shadow Master before turning back to see the circle explode into a dense web of threads, snapping forward as they launched themselves into Konohamaru, eerily drawing no reaction from the youth. Udon recognised the technique, but he had never witnessed it performed at such a scale. There were hundreds of shadow threads fromwhat was , Udon had quickly realized, Shikamaru's own Shadow Threading technique. Its basis was an improvisation of the Nara clan's Shadow Sewing technique, refining the shadow fibres until they were thinner than a single strand of hair, and using them in acupuncture. Finer than the conventional needles, and far more versatile as they directly obeyed the user's will and chakra, the shadow threads more than trebled the effectiveness of the treatment. Shikamaru was under much pressure to share the medical breakthrough with the other healer priests, though his clan was very much against the loss of their secrets.
Now Shikamaru commanded them to seal the ability of Konohamaru's body to absorb the tainted blood, and to reject the poison. Careful to control the use of his chakra, he tried to ignore the burning stitch in his side as if he'd been sprinting all day, and the wave of dizziness that he barely kept at bay. Convincing Iruka and Neji to allow him to come along had taken quite a clever, and decidedly hasty, bit of explanation involving the Grand Deva's other pressing issues with countermanding Iruka's own orders, and his own mastery over antidotes. He had been quite certain it hadn't fooled anyone, when Neji had unexpectedly relented. Iruka couldn't bring himself to object after that. Shikamaru had been taken aback by Neji's swift compliance, and was even more puzzled when his beloved continued to shake with the agony of restraint. He knew that restraint could snap if the flow of events were to be jarred by a single misstep on his part.
Acupuncture was an exact and patient art. There was no room for error or impatience, and the art required mastery of one's body and mind before it began managing that of others. In essence it was like a game of shogi, where each move was calculated with every piece on the board taken into account. The points that would seal the rest of the poison from the boy's blood had been seized, but the renewal of his blood would take a lot more time. He couldn't drastically hasten the process; even sped up the body took its own course, though his technique greatly improved its responsiveness to the treatment. In the meantime, he had to force the undigested tainted blood out of Konohamaru, and that had to, and could, be done much faster.
Konohamaru's sudden convulsion took Udon by surprise, and it was Neji who steadied the youth as dark blood spewed out of his mouth. Pushing his left hand deep between the young man's shoulder blades, he eased a careful amount of chakra to ensure that the youth would not choke on the regurgitated blood. As the muscles wedging Neji's hand tensed like a vice around it, a second spray of blood burst out of the youth, followed by a volley of two more.
"Neji-" Shikamaru called urgently as Udon raised Konohamaru's slumped head with his hands, cupping his friend's chin.
"Udon, into his mouth," Neji ordered tersely as he thrust something smooth and cold into his charge's hand. Briefly scanning the object, Udon saw a small porcelain medicine jar reflecting a distorted image of himself. Without a second thought, he plucked the red stopper out and supporting Konohamaru's quivering chin, shakily poured the jar's contents into his mouth.
"What is this?" Udon asked tremulously, face blanched with fright as he grasped at any chance to understand what he could do.
"Just Tea, brewed specially by Shikamaru to mediate some of the effects of the venom, or neutralize trace amounts that might be left in the body," Neji explained, moon-bright eyes holding Udon's with calm reassurance. "There is another one here that you should drink soon," the Deva added reaching into his robes and drawing out another jar.
Hanging his head as he bit his lip, Udon nodded briefly and turned back to Konohamaru, raising the jar a little higher as it drained.
Shikamaru regarded the warning jolt that ran through him with grim resignation. How far had he let his physical state slide to have become so weak? The only silver lining in the thick self-disgust he sank into, was that Konohamaru's condition was much better than he had expected it to be, though he couldn't permit any complacency. Orochimaru's venom had once brought grave tragedy to a younger world torn apart by war, so much so that it was by common agreement that the surviving warlords and their retainers launched the first of many campaigns to stamp out their existence. After decades of campaigns and the favour of the heavens, they were finally thought to be extinct. Shortly after the First Grand Deva, Hashirama Senju, passed away in the defence of the temple, his brother Tobirama Senju, the second Grand Deva, discovered a nest of them had gathered beneath the Eldest Tree during the excavation for the Hidden Chambers. While the great man had used this unhappy discovery to create a system that would protect the integrity of the temple for generations after, even the legendary Second Grand Deva could not alter the fact that death followed wherever the evil serpent coiled. If Shikamaru underestimated this fact, he would lose Konohamaru.
He couldn't maintain the Shadow Threading technique for much longer, but he could not be certain if Konohamaru would be alright. Pushing himself to exhaustion would not alter his failure, but there was a slight chance that that might work.
"What reckless plan are you thinking of this time?" Neji's voice suddenly whispering right beside him nearly broke his hold over his technique. Turning startled eyes in the direction of Neji's sad, knowing smile, he coloured slightly and sighed.
"I can't hide anything from you . . . but this might be the only way out," Shikamaru insisted.
"It's a forbidden technique, you should be well aware of the reason for that," Neji objected. "Severing your shadow requires you to sever a part of your mind as well, and then even if you're lucky enough to merge it back afterwards, neither your mind nor your shadow will truly be whole again."
"Neji . . . you extended my life with your own. I won't defy your wishes when it comes to this body- but I can't risk letting this boy die. He's my responsibility," Shikamaru pleaded, panting with the strain of his technique as his emotions upset his concentration. Neji stroked his arm with a tender light in his eyes.
"Hey, Shika, it'll be alright. He's not going to die; you've paid your dues."
"What are you . . ." Shikamaru began before his eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "Your vision? What did you see?"
"The accounts being settled in a divine plan," Neji explained with a wan smile, "for now, the short version of this is that you've paid your dues to Konohamaru, and it's my turn to pay mine."
He had hesitated for far too long. The instant of red-hot agony that struck his tanden wrenched his mind away from the technique as he braced himself against the ground. Neji's chakra rushed to his aid in an instant, once more supporting the faint chakra channels in his weakened body.
The careless crunching of feet against the white gravel made him force himself to straighten up, only to fall back into Neji's waiting embrace.
"Time's . . . up, I guess . . . did you come over to-?" he asked Neji who held his gaze a little sheepishly while Udon settled beside the Shadow Master, breaths quick and heavy with anxiety.
"Yes, I did come to delay you, but also to tell you that the child must satisfy his destiny with another. There is a necessity that is keeping him alive. Surely you sensed it while treating him?" Neji asked while he timidly stroked the side of Shikamaru's cheek.
"Shikamaru-sama-" the shaken acolyte beside him began, though guilt and reservation held him back. Shikamaru tore his gaze away from his partner and offered Udon an apologetic smile.
"Sorry Udon, I can't help your friend any longer, but most of the poison has been expelled, and his body has already begun to renew and detoxify his blood. Most importantly," Shikamaru paused to turn back to a silent Neji whose half-shadowed features seemed tinged with sorrow, "your master and I believe that if you're willing to stay by Konohamaru's side, the boy will be in the only care he needs now. The Eldest Tree has revealed this to Neji."
Udon shook his head violently and grabbed Shikamaru's arm, burying his forehead against it. "Shikamaru-sama, your own health, at a time like this- please think about it for a moment!" A warm hand caressed his head, making the tears that he'd been fighting to hold back spill over the white gravel. "What have I done . . . what have I done . . ." he whispered in a daze as that moment of madness replayed over and over in his mind. Shikamaru's anguished helplessness as wave after wave of chakra struck him; and even then Udon had known that the defencelessness had been out of the Shadow Master's reluctance.
"Mn. I'll get better, I promise," Shikamaru soothed, "have you taken the tea?"
Without relinquishing his place against Shikamaru's arm, he shook his head. "I'll take it in a moment," he whispered hoarsely.
"Remember to rub some against the bite," Shikamaru went on, "does it still hurt?"
"It'll be alright," Udon replied shortly, though he didn't know for certain. Shikamaru's forgiveness made the guilt that squirmed in his gut all the more unbearable. "What should I do?" he asked aloud, as thoughts of deserved punishment stirred in his mind.
"Iruka-sama should have already informed the rest of the priests and Devas to give you and Konohamaru the night to recover," Neji informed his charge, "and in the morning the Council will review the matter. There should be nothing to worry about though. Shikamaru and I will vouch for you. Kiba and Chouji will likely do the same. Lee should also be easy to sway in this matter."
"Ah, Lee . . . tomorrow's meeting is going to be so noisy . . ." Shikamaru muttered with a barely suppressed groan.
"Please don't- I couldn't take it if you did," Udon rasped in a whisper, as if he could barely manage to say the words without his voice breaking.
"Don't be stupid," Neji chided gently while he reached over and squeezed Udon's shoulder reassuringly, "this is the kind of situation that I'm here for. No student goes through his novitiate without making mistakes. No one is above making a mess of things. During these situations, you need to accept the protection of those who care for you because that is our responsibility, and our wish."
"Well said," Shikamaru added with an encouraging grin which widened fondly as he felt Udon cling on even more tightly, and that his sleeve was growing damp. "I'll need to check to make sure that you'll be fine too, Udon," he reminded the acolyte after he had allowed the youth a moment to calm down.
"Mn-mm- could you give me a few more seconds like this?" Udon requested shyly.
"Alright, but you should know how jealous Neji is," Shikamaru teased as he continued to stroke Udon's head.
"I wouldn't remind me of that if I were you," Neji replied in mock agreement, "after all, the one who'll be punished for it will be you."
Looking up into Neji's half-joking smile, Shikamaru couldn't help but notice the other serious half in the ominous curl at the shadowed corner of his lips.
Neji's image on the great bronze mirror of the Sacred Hall of Eighty-One Pines lingered for a moment longer, before Iruka raised a delicate hand, palm facing outwards, towards the mirror. The polished bronze surface of the Mirror of Peering Dawn had barely returned to its bright reflective state, when the Devas thronged behind him began to raise another ruckus.
"Iruka-sama! We have to at least make sure Neji gets the attention of the healer priests!" a distressed baritone that was Chouji bellowed as he fought the two pairs of strong arms that were holding him down on his zabuton, their struggling forms bumping into the round zafu that had been knocked out from under the Culinary Master after Shikamaru had collapsed earlier, and sending it rolling into a perplexed Lee, whose thick brows were knitted in an impressive frown.
"What did Neji-san mean by 'easy to sway'? I've always thought I was a firm and unwavering man. Don't tell me, I've been ignorant of the fact that I'm truly weak of will!?!" The realisation sent the Deva jumping out of his seat in a rigid stance of horror.
"They cared to mention about your opinion at least," the Deva beside him noted darkly, the leather strap that he kept bound over his eyes hiding a dangerous glint that the frown above the blinder hinted at. "They don't seem very concerned about my opinion, do they?"
"Ch- Chouji! Calm down! Oi, Akamaru! Don't just lie down there, come over and help!" Kiba grunted as he wrestled with the struggling Chouji, while his faithful companion whined at him from a corner, clearly not eager to challenge the near-hysterical Deva who had also been responsible for the destruction of the Eastern Wing's training ground and three connected hallways two years ago.
"Akimichi-kun is quite strong isn't he?" Deva Sai noted with a plastic smile that revealed no indication of how much his back and arms bulged with tensed muscles, while he helped Kiba. "I guess being fa-"
"GAAAAH!" Kiba yelled to block out the last syllable with a wary glance at Chouji.
"-oes have its advantages," Sai finished without so much as a flicker of emotion.
Iruka sighed. These were the Devas that had insisted on staying behind, and who had pleaded with him to reconsider his decision on leaving Shikamaru and Neji to handle the situation with Udon and Konohamaru. The other Devas had not been too keen on Iruka's announcement either, but partly because they were mostly either from his generation or the one before, they would not even consider the rudeness of openly insisting on their contrary opinion. The younger Devas, who were also Shikamaru and Neji's peers, were far less reserved, and much more passionate in their view over the matter. That was the other part of the reason why the rest of his Deva brothers had left; they had retreated before Iruka could call on them for support before this unruly bunch.
'Those guys . . .' the Grand Deva thought bitterly to himself, while aloud he attempted to placate the younger Devas before him, fixing a forced smile on his face that made his old scar itch.
"Well now that we've established that they're really fine on their own-" he began but wasn't allowed to finish.
"Sensei!" Chouji called out, slipping into the old term of address, before Iruka had ascended to his exalted rank. "Shikamaru just collapsed a second time! He definitely needs our help!"
"Why did Shikamaru mention my name and then say the Council would be noisy tomorrow?" Lee went on in his petrified state. "I've always tried to be a true man- sparse with petty words and speaking honourably with his fists. Could it be that I've fallen into a rowdy brawler!?!"
"Well at least they remember that you're noisy," Shino grumbled with a pout that was almost completely hidden by the special high-collared inner robe he wore. "Why didn't they remember that I'm incisive as a conversationalist?"
"Ch- Chouji! Seriously! Neji can handle this, and I'm busting my veins here! Akamaru what are you shivering away for? C'm 'ere an' he- gah!"
While Kiba executed a desperate grab for Chouji's waist, after having nearly been thrown off, Sai staggered unsteadily though somehow managing to maintain his serene smile.
"Kiba's right, Akimichi-san," Sai began, backing up Kiba who turned anxiously to the raven-haired youth, bracing himself for the bombshell he had to hope he could divert, "didn't you see that suggestive leer Neji-san gave earlier? Shikamaru-san is going to get-"
"-all night. Is something the matter Kiba?"
Iruka covered his face in one hand while he massaged his pounding left temple with the other. Offering to let them monitor the situation until they were sure the four in the garden were safe, had only put off the inevitable riot and set it in an even more aggravating direction. He was close to breaking into his old habit of yelling for silence from his teaching days. Although . . . there had been some truth in what Sai had said and what Kiba had failed to essentially drown out.
Iruka grinned. His own partner, Mizuki, had passed away during his Dark Vigil, shortly after Iruka had conquered the test himself. Their nightly trysts had come to an abrupt end, and while he remembered his old friend fondly, they had never had had a chance to forge a really deep relationship as Neji and Shikamaru had. The instinctive twinge of jealously melted into a buoyant joy at having been blessed with the opportunity to watch them grow so magnificently together. Watching the rest of the younger Devas through a gap between his fingers, their wilful, animated gestures seemed to be more of a lively display of colourful youth, than just plain bad behaviour.
Pain. A splitting pain that lanced through his temples, but there was a soothing gentleness just above it. A rhythmic motion, like waves rushing onto the beach and dragging reluctantly back to sea, its departing whispers carrying promises to run along the white sand again. He could even smell the brine, only . . . for some reason, it was the scent of jasmines instead.
"Udon!" Konohamaru cried out jolting awake.
Something brushed against his cheek and Konohamaru flinched, before hastily whipping his head in its direction. His hazel eyes found a sorrowful smile on too pale a face, familiar dark eyes without its glasses but still so achingly beautiful. A wave of relief coursed along with concern and he struggled up on his elbows that dug into the damp grass and cool earth, and clasped either side of his friend's slender face, his thumbs stroking pale cheeks with great care. Slender fingers set themselves against the back of his hands, rubbing them reassuringly.
"I'm alright," Udon murmured, answering the unspoken question. "Thank you for saving my life." The words were barely finished before tears fell from the eyes Konohamaru had only just been admiring. Konohamaru lunged forward, gathering Udon in his arms and wrapping them tightly about him.
"Thank goodness . . . thank goodness," he repeated as he sank his face into Udon's hair filling his senses with its dark brown lustre, its gentle caresses and the heady scent of jasmine. He had been so afraid, so afraid that he had lost all of this. Though technically he could not lose what he did not own and yet abandoned, Udon would always irrevocably be a part of him. If it had not been so thus far, it would be so from now on, till the end.
"I was terrified that you would die," Udon whispered in a strained voice, "to do something so stupid as to swallow the poison . . . stupid, so . . . stupid." Yet even as he scolded, his arms found themselves locked firmly around Konohamaru who smiled secretly in the wealth of the acolyte's hair.
"Men lose their wits before beauty. You've become so beautiful Udon," he quipped, meaning it in a sense that softened his laughter. He winced as Udon squeezed him in mild rebuke and chuckled as the acolyte released him, laying him back against the carpet of sweet-smelling grass.
"You haven't changed at all," Udon remarked, brows frowning in reprimand while his eyes glowed with nostalgia.
"Why alter perfection?" Konohamaru replied with a cheeky smile that only grew broader when Udon raised a brow questioningly.
"I take that back, you have changed. You were so modest about your grass weavings when we were kids. Your ego has inflated somewhat since then I see," Udon noted dryly, though his eyes betrayed a trace of wistfulness.
"I'd rather you call it confidence though," Konohamaru complained with a grin that grew strained. How keenly had Udon kept the memory of their past and how often had he traced those faded images in his mind? All this while when he had been busy building his own life in blissful ignorance, Udon had been the only one keeping their memories alive, even if it meant never being able to forget those painful memories. The excruciating fact was that Udon had been alone in treasuring all that they had.
Noting the change in the mood, Udon ran his fingers through the bistre brown hair and offered a penitent smile.
"You have reason to be proud though. I owe you my life," he commiserated, misunderstanding the reason for his friend's faltering good humour. Konohamaru shook his head, his smile fading completely as his eyes burned with emotion.
"That I forgot about you . . . I'm so sorry," Konohamaru whispered, tears slipping down from the corners of his eyes.
Seeing this, dark eyes widened in alarm before Udon smoothed his fingers against his old friend's quivering lips, a fragile smile playing on his own.
"You have nothing to apologise for," he reassured, yet was unable to stop tears of his own from falling against Konohamaru's lapels.
"But you were alone . . . when you needed me most, I . . ." Konohamaru insisted, unable to stop the bright trail of remorse from streaming across his face.
"I wasn't truly alone. I had Neji-sama and Shikamaru-sama with me soon after. I-" but Udon couldn't go on. His brittle smile breaking into a sob, he threw himself against Konohamaru's shoulder, shaking with more misery than he could contain. "Konohamaru . . . Konohamaru . . ." he wept, hoarsely repeating the only thought in his mind.
Konohamaru slowly wrapped his arm around Udon's waist. He leaned his head into the acolyte's hair, eyelids lowering contentedly as he took in the jasmine fragrance. He couldn't remember a time when he felt any more fulfilled, any more complete. He had heard descriptions of happiness so intense that it hurt, but right now, almost bursting with this sensation that swelled in his chest, he truly understood it. He couldn't help the self-satisfied laughter that burst from his lungs, buoyant on his waxing joy.
"I'm sorry," he breathed amidst chuckles, "I'm so sorry, I'm just-" He paused to take a deep, calming breath, and faced Udon's tear-streaked face that sobered him somewhat. Fingering the tear tracks with a rueful grin, he pressed a gentle kiss into the hollow of Udon's chest on a sudden impulse.
"I'm just so happy," he coaxed, "Please don't cry."
Udon watched him with an unreadable expression before finally breaking into a small chuckle, though that too sobered quickly into a solemn expression.
"This isn't the time for jokes; the poison is still in your body. Shikamaru-sama helped expel the poison and hasten your body's natural detoxification processes, but the venom's effects have not been completely neutralized," Udon warned as he lifted himself off of Konohamaru, gently extricating himself out of the reluctantly relinquishing embrace. Privately he berated himself for getting carried away and forgetting the most important thing right now- Konohamaru's condition. His childhood friend's bouts of tearful guilt and effervescent laughter had duly reminded him.
'The Orochimaru's venom works on a person's emotions, feeding their strength and ultimately damaging the organs by severely disrupting the body's chemical balance. Konohamaru's fluctuating mood could well be a result of the poison's influence,' Udon reasoned privately, having remembered Shikamaru's rushed lecture on the possible symptoms he needed to look out for.
"I'll be alright, I have the Divine Healer's younger brother beside me after all," Konohamaru teased and attempted to wrap his arms around Udon's waist, which the acolyte deftly evaded.
"You're right," Udon affirmed in mock seriousness, "as the Divine Healer's younger brother, I can't afford to dishonour my brother's name by letting you come to any harm." Smoothing down the bistre brown fringe away from Konohamaru's forehead, he peered down at the bemused grin with a warm fondness spreading through him.
"Are you comfortable?" he asked in a hushed tone.
Konohamaru stretched his back, momentarily arching his body above the cold bumpy pebbles. To be honest, he felt a little sore, but then he didn't really care either.
"I'm feeling great," he assured, placating Udon's frown with a grin. Udon shook his head and took off his outer robe, ignoring the chill of the evening air. Konohamaru watched on in fascination as Udon unveiled long arms that shone with a milky radiance beneath the bright moonlight. The acolyte's inner robes seemed too baggy for Udon's small frame. The white satin failed to cover the finely muscled chest, and provided a generous view of its polished and graceful curves.
Udon lightly poked Konohamaru's cheek for the approving smile the peeking youth was giving.
"Shikamaru-sama was right, you really do like the slender type," Udon remarked noting with interest the blush deepening in his friend's cheek.
"It's not that-" Konohamaru tried to explain but Udon only raised his brows.
"But you were drooling all over Neji-sama," the acolyte pointed out and Konohamaru turned scarlet.
"Shikamaru-sama said that?" he blurted out frantically, dropping any attempt to deny it.
"No- but so what if he did?" Udon asked, raising his brows at Konohamaru's reaction.
Konohamaru heaved a sigh of relief and gave his friend a wry grin.
"No, it's just that, I get the feeling that Shikamaru-sama and Neji-sama are-" he hesitated and then whispered conspiratorially, "-together."
Udon rolled his eyes and lifted Konohamaru's head, settling his folded outer robed under it.
"Gossipmonger," he accused as Konohamaru settled onto the cushioning fabric with a distant, doubtful look.
"You don't think so?" the hazel-eyed youth asked.
In truth, rumour was rife within the temple that Neji and Shikamaru shared more than just their partnership and duties, more so than even the often ambiguous intimacy partners normally kept between them. Neji and Shikamaru were both his benefactors however, and Udon wasn't keen on speculating about their private lives.
"Neji-sama and Shikamaru-sama are long-time partners. Their bond is so strong, it's not surprising if others might misunderstand; other jaundiced eyes that is," Udon finished with a smirk.
"Jaundiced eyes? You're not referring to me are you? Spare me! Even without Shikamaru-sama as competition, I'd have no chance with someone as beautiful as Neji-sama," Konohamaru declared with a self-deprecating grin.
"That's right," Udon affirmed agreeably then cupped Konohamaru's cheek, a solemn light in his eyes, "right now you need to focus on your health. You just swallowed a great amount of tainted blood, your body is doing its best, but it might not have all the strength it needs."
Konohamaru nodded his understanding. "What are you going to do?" he ventured to ask.
"Right now the vital energy in your body is probably dangerously low, I will have to replenish it with some of mine," Udon explained and touched Konohamaru's nether lip, "mouth-to-mouth."
"Sounds kinky," Konohamaru teased although he could not hold back a blush.
Udon bumped a fist lightly against Konohamaru's shoulder, unable to help the smile spreading across his lips. "My mouth will just be hovering over yours. You need to keep yours open though. Our lips will be close but not touching. Just relax and let the energy move freely through you," he instructed more seriously.
"What about you," Konohamaru asked, brows knitted in sudden concern, "your energy will be depleted. I wasn't able to suck all the poison out-"
Udon smiled reassuringly.
"I'll be fine; I'm supposed to have been able to withstand a full dose of the poison remember? Its diminished amount should not be a problem for me. Right now we need to be more worried about you than me," he finished reasonably and bent over his friend who abruptly held him away.
"If you get sick because of me-" he protested but Udon shook his head, cutting him off.
"Don't I feel the same?" he countered emphatically. "Please Konohamaru, I want to do this."
The stubbornness in Konohamaru's jaw wavered, and he relinquished his hold with a defeated sigh.
"Alright, but don't do anything rash," he relented reluctantly.
"I won't," Udon agreed and before Konohamaru could change his mind, grasped his friends jaw in his hands, his own lips parting as his eyes slowly veiled themselves. Concentrating, he called upon the source of life within him. There were many approaches and schools of thought on the proper management of its benign energies. Udon's teacher, Neji, was a master of many of them, and had even requested of Shikamaru to share some of his own techniques with his pupil. Under the tutelage of the two Devas, Udon had developed a deep grasp of the art of vital energy control.
Selecting the visualization process he was most comfortable with, Udon imagined a spool of energy threads glowing an electric blue from within the pit of his stomach, two inches below the navel in his tanden. Picturing the end of a thread tucked away in the spool, he mentally tugged at it, coaxing it out and pulling it up his energy channels. Slowly, steadily, the sense of power travelled up his body. It didn't cost him any effort; it was just like his daily practice sessions with Neji. His mind glowed brightly with the vision of power in his mind. Eyes still closed, he lowered his head, his hands lifting up Konohamaru's chin, fingers tugging gently at the corners of his friend's mouth. Konohamaru parted his lips obligingly. Taking a deep breath, Udon released the pressure that had collected at the back of his mouth.
Vital energy mingled with the air in his lungs and coalesced into vital breath. Udon still had his eyes shut, but he had seen Neji demonstrate the effect with Shikamaru just yesterday. Soon after he had carried an unconscious Shikamaru back to the temple, his master had briskly instructed Udon to lay him upon the floor. Kneeling next to Shikamaru, Neji had breathed forth a mist of glittering blue light past Shikamaru's pale lips. Neji looked as he would have maintained it beyond his own endurance, had it not been for Grand Deva Iruka's intervention. Eyes gentle but firm above the iconic scar slashed cross his face, Iruka had persuaded Neji that Shikamaru had received enough vital energy for the time being and that his body needed to recover naturally. Chouji, who had looked as if he had been willing to take Neji's place earlier, had nodded vigorously in agreement. Eyes bright with emotion, the Culinary Master had helped a hesitant Neji to his feet and informed him that while the priests took Shikamaru straight to the Hyuuga's quarters, the drained Deva would be replenishing his energies with some tonic brew the Culinary Master had in safekeeping.
The memory brought a pang of guilt to Udon. When he faced the harrowing fact that he had struck an unresisting and severely ill Shikamaru, and when he thought of how fearful he had been when Konohamaru collapsed against him, and compared it with the vulnerable sorrow on Neji's face, the weight of his crimes crushed him with self-disgust that darkened into self-loathing. With Shikamaru and Neji handling his defence, he might very well find mercy in the judgment of the Council, but would his own heart receive forgiveness so readily? As he reflected back on his sins against the two Devas who still loved him so dearly, a ruthless fury against himself tore through his consciousness, and the flow of vital energy from his body thickened.
Konohamaru could feel the indistinct yet palpable heat growing in intensity, and he privately fretted over what this was costing Udon. Though it had been many years since they last met, Konohamaru was well aware of how Udon, for all his outward aloofness, was susceptible to emotional brashness. His lips twitched urgently but the force of the transfer kept them from forming any words. He tried pushing against Udon's draping body, but to his alarm found that the warmth of vital energy spreading throughout him gripped his body in a paralysis. Eyes narrowing, Konohamaru wasn't worried for himself. He may have had his mobility temporarily taken from him, but it was Udon who was weakening with every second.
That last thought, brought a stab of pain to him. Udon didn't have to try so hard. He didn't need to feel that it was his responsibility to protect this ungrateful coward. If it was out of a sense of debt because Konohamaru had drawn the poison out of the acolyte's body into his own, the reality was quite the reverse. It was he who first owed his life to the Divine Healer, and the courage to live it from the younger brother. There was no debt to speak of- save that of the debt of their friendship that Udon, weeping against his shoulder just moments ago, seemed to think he was bound by to protect him. Konohamaru would have laughed if the derision of that earnest innocence hadn't brought a thick bitterness against his own actions. Blissfully living in ignorance for over five years and leaving Udon to endure the aftermath of what, though the facts had not completely returned to Konohamaru, he must have had a hand in perpetrating- that was not a worthy deed for a true friend. Receiving Udon's sacrifice time after time, fulfilling his own life at the expense of the brothers; however shamelessly he had managed to survive up till the present point, he could no longer play the role of the unscrupulous beneficiary.
His jaw strained and he felt the power collect in his mouth and going no further. Somehow, his throat had locked against it, but Konohamaru suspected that that alone would not have been enough. His body, mind and soul rejected the downward spiral he was falling into. The crushing debt would rise no further. As the vital energy in his circulatory system settled into his energy channels, movement and strength was restored to his limbs. Blinking rapidly he was still unable to clear the afterimages that blinded him, but he felt Udon shifting above him as if in protest. Thrusting himself up in a sudden motion, he slammed through a stinging force of heat and life, thinking for a moment that the loose flow of vital breath would sear through his flesh. Yet this fear evaporated as swiftly as the warmth of the broken cloud dissipated, and in the fading seconds of an uncertain moment he felt softness rest against his lips, and tasted the fragrance of poet's jasmines that he so loved. Konohamaru felt Udon pull away from him and he lunged forward, crashing against unexpectedly yielding lips, inviting him to move deeper into the kiss. Heat engulfed him once more but he welcomed it, already inflamed with a yearning desire that quested in the encircling ferocity, slick and clumsy in his hunger. He lost his place, deprived of the seething fervour as his mouth slipped past Udon's breaking contact, leaving him breathless with the pang of loss, but he was allowed only two panting gasps before Udon, bleary eyed, clamped Konohamaru's bottom lip between his own lips, briefly licking along the tender flesh before leaning into his friend's mouth, inhaling the scent of blood on him and tasting the hints of its bitterness.
This was a pleasure hitherto unexplored by Konohamaru, and he was unashamed of the wordless confession in the ardent demands of his tongue. Each breath was divine heaven scorched with the torrid heat in the blood of young, passionate men. As fingers roughly groped his sides, he swooned with raw ecstasy that he paid back for in a renewed vigour, Udon eagerly yielding to his restlessness. Doubt buffeted somewhere in the clashing crosswinds of passion, but every half-hearted glance of concern failed to catch any sign that he was not welcome. Kneeling up against each other, bodies grinding in delightful lament over their stubborn solidity, their lungs crushed with such sheer primal hunger, that Konohamaru had half-expected to be devoured by Udon's insatiable yearning.
He felt fingers relinquishing his sides and drawing further out to his back, fumbling with the obi that secured his black kimono. It reminded him that mere shoulders, though delectable, were not all he wanted bared to him. He reached down and gripped the white cord of starched cotton that kept his childhood friend's robes closed. A teasing tug made Udon gasp, lips jerking against his own in surprise. Repentantly, Konohamaru pressed a placating kiss against his friend's left brow, but his fingers remained on the cord, working past its simple knot. Nevertheless, he felt his obi unwrap itself from his waist before he could undo the bound cord, and the cotton kimono fell loosely away form his sides. A fleeting sense of alarm came and went, swirling away with the rest of his caution. He was happy enough that Udon embraced him so easily, easing some of the awkwardness in this virgin exploration of intimacy.
For a moment he faltered in undressing his acolyte friend, relishing the delicate touch Udon slid across his arm through the cool fabric. The chill of the evening prickled across his skin as his shoulders were unveiled, the sensation spreading down to his chest and further still to his bare navel. Greedily, Konohamaru tugged at Udon's robe, suddenly painfully aware of the fires that burned inside of him. Udon stayed his hand, drawing his friend's roaming brown eyes upon his dark ones. For the first time since their sudden insanity, they locked gazes and each only saw their own reflection eclipsing over everything.
Feeling a blush creeping over his cheeks, Udon ducked his head beneath Konohamaru's chin, kissing the small hollow of his friend's chest where a manly tautness had begun to reveal itself from beneath a smooth youthfulness. Konohamaru sighed as the gesture brought brief respite to him from the searing fury of his deprivation. Kisses, feather-light, traced the ridge of his collarbone while fingers kneaded into his sensitive sides with a cruel grip. He was caught between easing into the tender caresses and stiffening in the shock of abuse. His body made the choice for him, painfully drawing his attention to the growing bulk in his nether regions.
"Udon!" he gasped, both in protest and in pleasure. Konohamaru silently bit his tongue, cheeks colouring at how lewd he had sounded.
"Konohamaru," Udon breathed between kisses, "Konohamaru, Konohamaru, Konohamaru." Each call thickened the erotic pull of the acolyte's lips, and while the acolyte's hands no longer tormented Konohamaru's sides, their rough roaming across the youth's back and chest was no improvement. His body throbbed painfully where the acolyte had gripped, the soreness forcing tears from his eyes and yet . . . and yet there were those kisses, gently picking his flesh in pliable lips and drawing away with just as much tenderness, clinging with reluctance. All the while his manhood filled with arousal that the youth was certain could swell no further, and that begged so urgently against the tent in his boxers, that Udon could surely not have helped but noticed.
"Guh . . . uh- hah- ah!" His gasps were crushed in the enveloping sensations that they had been borne upon. He needed to be touched, held by the thick desire of his shaft. His body trembled in the pulsing enormity of his want, the inadequacy of what he had, and the thought that Udon was merely teasing him. The last idea made his breath catch as he imagined that the acolyte cruelly toyed with him now, waiting for the pleas that were already by Konohamaru's lips. Even as they parted, and his tongue fought his pride in framing the obscene request, strong arms lifted him up on his feet and leaned him against rough granite, the bewildering shift marked by the surprising softness that cushioned the back of his head, while his back scraped painfully against the rock slab. To answer that mystery, the length of Udon's fair arm that cradled his head tensed by his cheek, as the acolyte drew forward to drop a whisper into his crimson ear.
"With your permission . . . I can ease the urges, if they discomfort you," Udon purred, sending a jolt into Konohamaru's groin.
"Such . . . such a thing . . ." he stuttered in glowing embarrassment, despite the physical proof of his more truthful intentions.
"I do not want to draw displeasure with my acts," Udon explained stubbornly, his free hand tracing a line running across the dark pink nub of Konohamaru's nipple. Flinching, Konohamaru lowered his lids, the tip of his tongue brushing over his lips.
"Please . . . Udon . . . that is . . . I . . . would like you to . . . attend to . . . it," each forced word straining against his pride but not his will, stoking the desire that heated the air between them.
Obediently, the acolyte ran his fingers down past the silky down that were the beginnings of thicker, bolder trail and coiled his fingers around the moistened patch of Konohamaru's boxers, holding the warm, throbbing shaft within it between stroking fingertips.
"Will it please you?" the acolyte asked solemnly, though he had clearly witnessed hazel eyes being flung open and a stifled exclamation that reverberated throughout Konohamaru's body. The suffering youth nevertheless replied with considerable clarity.
"You please me," he answered hoarsely, a weak smile offered to the mask of impassiveness on Udon.
The acolyte offered no more taunts, and dipped his head into the crook of Konohamaru's neck, planting calm kisses that belied the intent of his fingertips, stroking in maddeningly slow motions, neither granting the consoling intensity that the youth desired, nor sparing him the lingering agony of excruciating pleasure. Gradually inching up against a vulnerable spot underneath the head of Konohamaru's manhood, a kneading pressure sapped the strength from his knees. In response to an expected predicament, Udon slid his cushioning arm further down to wrap about Konohamaru's waist, holding him up.
Leaning what weight he could on the granite slab while he helplessly clung on to Udon's pure white robes, Konohamaru tugged at them in frustration, though uncertain of what release he wished for.
"Do my robes bother you?" Udon whispered against his friend's shoulder. "If it is your wish, discard them."
Konohamaru blinked in a moment of confusion, and then slid his hands against the hard lean frame through the slippery fabric, wondering at how hot his friend felt. Was Udon so powerfully aroused to hear him moan, and feel him shake beneath these cruel ministrations? With the tiniest amount of hesitation, he reached down and cupped the poorly hidden bulk, blushing more fiercely. Udon did not so much as wince.
"Yes, my body aches too," he admitted, unabashed as he raised his head and brought questing eyes before his friend's lost expression, "it needs to be attended too, don't you think?"
"What, what should I do?" Konohamaru asked weakly, brows rising as Udon spread a slow, inviting smile.
"Such beautiful lips, they would feel wonderful down there . . . though it would be a pity to be so rough on them," Udon purred wistfully while his pulsing arousal jerked in Konohamaru's grasp, and his friend pulled his hand away as if scalded.
"Udon-" he began, heart pounding so hard he could not think clearly. Once again, his body displayed an understanding where his mind struggled to keep up. Giving in to the buckling sensation in his knees, he felt his body sink only to feel his friend's draping arm tighten and crush him up against Udon's chest.
"Idiot," his friend hissed while gently filling his right cheek with kisses, "something like that is my job, not yours. I was only joking. You make the requests and I will serve you."
Konohamaru's eyes filled and he shut them, tears spilling from his eyes.
"Udon . . . together . . . this pain . . . this pleasure . . . I want to experience all of it together . . . that's all." Because all this while, all this time, he had monopolized all the sweetness- the life that had been saved from their meeting and the miracle that had been brought into it, while Udon alone carried all the heavy memories, all of the scars. This time, if only just this once, he wanted to correct the unfairness. "Share with me everything," Konohamaru finished in a bare whisper.
Out of Konohamaru's scrutiny, a pained expression passed over Udon's face. He idly traced the youth's bare back with his fingers, and felt it shiver under his touch. Then his lids folded shut and with his jaw clenched in firm resolution, he removed the rolled down kimono that still trapped Konohamaru's arms and let it fall onto the grass. As Konohamaru shifted his shoulders back against the granite in the sudden freedom, Udon turned his attention to his own robes. One hand gripping the left lapel of the remaining inner robe that he wore, he rolled his left shoulder out of its loose clasp, and then shrugged his right shoulder free as well. Gravity finished the task for him tugging the white satin down against his lean frame and fully disclosing the wonder that Konohamaru had only glimpsed earlier.
Naked but for the straining fundoshi that barely concealed Udon's engorged manhood, he was an alabaster statue carved in moonlight. His frame was slender but the curves bespoke of a supple strength of fluid firmness. Muscles were not built upon his body but into it, underlining a grace that was in motion even in stillness. Casting his gaze from the shadow beneath the acolyte's chin to the collected lustre running diagonally across his midriff, Konohamaru's eyes coasted the seductive incline of his friend's waist up to the pinning look of fierce desire in those dark eyes. He had not been the only one quietly appreciating the view.
Blushing furiously, he turned his head away but did not move as he heard the crunch of grass move closer towards him; before him. He felt Udon take his hand and did not resist as it was drawn forward, and set against warm flesh and the twisted thick cord of the fundoshi around the acolyte's waist. Heeding the unspoken request, his fingers clumsily attempted to unwind the cord, amazingly feeling it loosen and fall apart and making him suck in a sharp breath, though his eyes remained riveted on an unremarkable point on the opposite wall. Udon made no comment, but trailed his fingers instead, along the band of his old friend's boxers, lightly brushing the tensing muscles there and provoking an involuntary shudder. Udon could have asked if his friend was afraid or ashamed of the desires, that for all his noble yearnings, were hot and savage. He knew he did not have Neji's refined grace or Shikamaru's shrewd intellect to soothe any doubts with his words as they could. He plucked the waistband and eased it down as smoothly as he could, though the fine manhood that Konohamaru was sporting was inevitably jarred drawing a beautiful moan out of the rigid youth. With a brush of his fingertips, the fabric slid down easily down weakening knees, and as it fell to his friend's ankles, only then did Konohamaru turn to look at him fully in the face, his eyes both defiant and pleading at once. Udon shrugged helplessly fully aware that he could neither cast aside Konohamaru's ancient guilt, nor the shock of the revelations his body brought him, as easily as he could shed the youth's boxers. That was his friend's personal struggle, though he was more than willing to hold his hand through that fight.
As one might appreciate the polished work of a fine craftsman, he grasped the damp shaft appreciatively, shifting his hold experimentally to find a comfortable grip.
"Udon," Konohamaru gasped, but found neither a coherent nor a sincere protest he could raise. The acolyte glanced up and caught his lost expression with sly grin.
"Being honest about it might be easier. It's going to feel good whether you admit it or not, but admitting instead of resisting is less taxing on your body," Udon advised and kissed him suddenly just above his right eye. The movement brought him closer to the flushing youth, and Konohamaru groaned as Udon's fingers pumped him in a good solid stroke. As Udon slid his fingers back to repeat the motion and build a rhythm, his thumb alternating between sliding along and kneading the tender spot in the shallow groove right beneath the head. Konohamaru choked back a whimper, cheeks ablaze with the realization that he had never felt so gratified doing this himself, and that having tasted this unprecedented sweetness he wanted even more.
"Faster," he whispered, too torturously scorched by his passions to care about his reservations, "Udon, faster!" His knees buckled as the acolyte complied and Udon rammed him roughly against the boulder. Sharp points of rock scraped his bare back and buttocks, but they barely registered in Konohamaru's awareness. The ache in his loins throbbed painfully throughout his entire body and Udon's kneading sent wave after of wave of electrical ecstasy so powerful, that it seemed to numb his senses before another surge pierced through that shock, making his skin prickle restlessly as if tiny bolts of lightning danced over them.
"No, this won't do," his tormentor noted lightly in the tone of someone commenting on a dissatisfactory piece of flower arrangement.
"What?" Konohamaru sobbed between gasps, vision blurring through the tears he didn't remember shedding. Uncertainly he watched a cold calculating look framed within the almond-shaped outline of Udon's face crossed in glowing light and fingering shadows, as if something had been decided. He gasped in alarm when Udon suddenly grasped him tightly against the heated rod that was the acolyte's manhood.
"You feel so hot there," Udon murmured, momentarily taken aback, "of course you are. I can feel you better when I touch yours with mine." The acolyte visibly winced as he gave their straining manhoods a few experimental thrusts through his fist. Konohamaru whimpered with pleasure, nearly biting through his lower lip to stifle the moans. How could it feel so good? How could he have been satisfied with all those secret moments he fumbled through on his own?
Abruptly Udon stopped, and Konohamaru glanced up plaintively.
"Was there something you wanted?" Udon teased with a wicked smile, forcing Konohamaru to hastily cast his gaze away. Konohamaru didn't see Udon loosen the ribbon binding his hair, leaving the silken dark brown wealth to slide along his nape and luscious bare shoulders. When Udon reached forward to grasp both their erections in his hand again, Konohamaru shut his eyes and exhaled a shuddering breath of speechless satisfaction his mere body could not contain. Then a curiously cold sensation twined swiftly around him, yet as surprised as he was, he could barely wrench his eyes open through the thrills of pleasure the tight, and swiftly hot bind was giving him. It was then that he noticed the white strip that strained against the thick union of their members now stained an angry purplish-red. As the wild panic rose in his chest and his lips parted to protest, moist warmth suffused them and he felt Udon move in his mouth again. The grip of his thoughts slipped and fell once again in a pool of melting breaths and rushing urgency.
"Are you averse to a little pain?" Konohamaru heard the acolyte whisper against his lips when they broke apart. The tiny panic lighted up again in his mind, but through a haze of careless desire.
"As long as it's you. . ." Konohamaru answered, too lost in sensation to care about petty pride. Struggling to look down as Udon leaned his body away, Konohamaru noticed with a detached contentment the painfully swollen heads of their members overshadowing their perfectly wrapped shafts. The strip of ribbon, now stained with the fluids from their weeping manhoods, continued past its captives to hang loosely from Udon's left hand. Looking up again he caught Udon appreciating the sight as well.
"We're really matching, our bodies." the acolyte commented with a wistful sigh. "Just like Neji-sama and Shikamaru-sama." When Udon realised what he had let slip, he blushed and raised his eyes almost shyly to meet Konohamaru's mild confusion.
"Like lovers?" Konohamaru murmured the first thought on his mind. He noted the flash of surprise in Udon's eyes and felt an inexplicable rise in his chest when he spotted a gleam of warmth settle within their dark depths.
"Just for tonight, you may take me as such," Udon replied and jerked his hand back before Konohamaru could respond.
In the instant that the ribbon pulled taut, Konohamaru's vision blurred into darkness as pain seared mercilessly where he could least bear it. His hands clamped themselves on Udon's tensing arm, vainly trying to push it down. Yet even as he did so, he felt the responding pulse of his manhood trembling with an irrepressible force, as well as the beat of Udon's striving just as stubbornly against his. The realisation sent a jolt of pleasure in him that resonated between them.
"Keh!" Udon half-exclaimed; half-teased. Konohamaru had no spare energy to blush at its meaning, but even the half-taunt had the power to tease his senses. Udon's breath caught as he felt Konohamaru's stiff pleasure take its revenge by pressing even more firmly against his. "Kono . . . ha . . . maru-" he struggled to say over knotted breaths.
But Konohamaru could not reply. He was now operating purely on instinct, his sanity having caved to the riot of pain and pleasure in his body. Instead, he crushed his hard body against Udon's, crying out in ecstasy as their enmeshed heat writhed in the cradle of their grinding stomachs. Wincing, Udon raised his left hand higher to compensate for the ribbon's laxness in their sudden proximity.
"Ngah! No, please!" Konohamaru sobbed in frustration. He was so close, but this gripping pain/pleasure had thrown him into disarray again. Placating kisses that ran down his cheek were like snowflakes vanishing into a bonfire, serving only to stoke his desperation.
"At my limit too," Udon confessed through gritted teeth. His one free hand brushed away the tears that had collected by Konohamaru's eyes. "Are you alright?" he couldn't help but ask.
For an answer Konohamaru drove his body up against Udon's taut abdomen and barely let their mutual shivers run their course, before he bucked and slammed their cores into Udon's flinching body. Udon hissed, helpless to stop the single-minded assault as each collision sent a spasm of rough pleasure throughout his consciousness. Steadily pushed over the edge he stole a quick glance at the breathless determination in Konohamaru's sloping brows framed with running sweat, a befitting aura of manliness surrounding their focused frown.
'Konohamaru!' he silently called in his mind as the heat began to gather tellingly in his trapped manhood. This was the end, he couldn't go on, but his pride made him hold on to the trembling ribbon, their harsh bind cruelly restricting his own release.
Konohamaru had long since felt the clutch of his sack, and the fires that he could not contain finally finding and pressing up against their only outlet. The ribbon's stubborn grip paid no heed to the agony of a hot-blooded youth aflame with the fury of an incomplete climax. At a loss, his body only instinctively knew to heighten the continued provocation, hitting harder and faster in a wild attempt to force through an end.
Battered past endurance, Udon bit down on his lower lip and played his final hand. Lashing his hand back at a studied angle, he ripped the ribbon free just as his tormented friend crashed into him for what would be the last thrust. The intensity hit them both like a blow from the heavens, and they grasped each other without realising that they had as the reeling white-out of all thought buffeted in the consuming waves of fiery release. They fell to their knees, momentarily denied a sweet passage into an afterglow as a mild cramp twisted in their stomachs in payment for their earlier harsh play. Udon was mildly bruised from all of Konohamaru's enthusiasm, and still panting he rubbed the spot ruefully, ignoring even the quickly cooling fluids that clung to his chest where Konohamaru had released them in a delirious shot. Konohamaru, who had finally blinked away the spots from his eyes, had dipped his fingers into Udon's release on his own chest and watched their pale shine with a mystified expression.
"What is it?" Udon wanted to know watching him with raised brows and a bemused smile. Konohamaru looked at him as if he didn't recognize his friend and turned back to the dripping effusion.
"I used to think this is dirty," he began in a quiet voice, "when I did it by myself, I used to really worry about getting this on my clothes or my sheets." Konohamaru returned his gaze to the intent expression on Udon's fair face, still slightly flushed from their exertions. "I never realised how beautiful this can be when it's someone else sharing it with you."
Udon shook his head with an exasperated frown that had softened by the time he had stopped to rest fond eyes upon Konohamaru's peaceful contentment. "Stop saying the weirdest things with such a convincing air of natural logic," Udon chided gently. "Haven't you outgrown it yet?"
Konohamaru smiled but his eyes strayed to the acolyte's stomach where slender fingers gently massaged a darkening bruise. Udon had thought nothing of it, merely teasing an almost pleasant ache from the abused spot, but Konohamaru's brown eyes had grown grave.
"You got hurt again," the youth noted sombrely, but Udon was already shaking his head.
"Don't read too much into these things," he advised without much hope of being heeded. Konohamaru was just the sort of person who would take these things seriously, it had been that way too when they were kids.
"What do you mean?" Konohamaru asked distractedly, while he fingered the bruise.
Udon escaped the brushes of his friend's fingertips as he reached behind to take the outer robe he had earlier folded as a cushion for Konohamaru to rest his head on. Returning within view of the youth who watched him with sorrowful eyes, Udon leaned forward to brush his lips against the rounded tip of his nose, feeling it narrow reflexively.
"When there are two people together, it's inevitable for at least one of them to hurt the other," the acolyte philosophized as he scooped up the sliding mess on his friend's chest.
"Does that even apply to something like this?" Konohamaru pursued as Udon finished up on him and began to mop up the fluids on his own body.
"Especially," Udon confirmed without looking up as he folded the fabric and made a final sweep across his upper torso. "Because the closer people draw together the more likely it is for them to sustain injuries."
"That doesn't bother you?" Konohamaru asked leaning closer to dip kisses against the outline of Udon's collarbone. Udon chuckled and combed his fingers through his friend's unruly mane of bistre brown hair.
"No, because there is happiness and contentment that can only be obtained by sharing it between two people."
Konohamaru paused between kisses and looked up in surprise. "Are you happy?" he asked with a note of fragility in his tone.
"Yes," Udon answered simply, delicately cupping Konohamaru's cheeks with long, elegant fingers, "since way back then, you've shared with me a sweetness I never had before. At long last I've recovered it. How can I be anything but happy?"
Konohamaru hid his face by dipping lower and nestling his lips against the bruised spot. Udon flinched as the tender brushes tickled him. "Konohamaru!" he protested but Konohamaru licked the purple-blue patch without concern for how Udon squirmed at the contact. "Wait, I-" but his breathless plea broke off in giggles, that quickly faded into a pained gasp. Konohamaru's head snapped up with sudden concern, but the look Udon sent him awoke a restless heat that had only just cooled.
"Idiot, that's one of my weak spots," Udon whispered while his dark eyes smouldered with the embers of lust. "If you insist on going on, I won't allow any half-heartedness. Are you prepared to search and test my body for every one of its weaknesses?" the acolyte challenged with a shallow breath, as if his own words stoked his passion.
Konohamaru was hardly surprised to find his nether self coming alive. Was this the charm of the clerics of the Hidden Leaf with the power to humble the haughtiest aristocrat, or was this wild desire a precious development from their old bond? He seized arms so deceitfully slender, that they belied their corded strength when they had supported his writhing form earlier. Udon only smirked, leaning back slightly as if to offer more openings for Konohamaru to exploit. What would it feel like to wipe that smirk off, and light those cheeks with unrestrained pleasure? What would it feel like inside this deliciously tempting body? Would their combined heat burn his breath even as Udon, this time the pleading one, gasped for more? Just as the crimson veil of desire descended on his mind, Konohamaru shook himself free and released a startled Udon, fearfully turning his back on him.
"What's wrong?" the acolyte hastily enquired, cool hands spread against the youth's trembling shoulders. Konohamaru made no reply, shivering under his touch instead. "Konohamaru?" Udon pressed.
"I'm scared," he spoke at last. When Udon rested his chin against the crook of his neck and gathered the rest of him into a firm embrace, Konohamaru shuddered. "I'll fall further," he pleaded shakily, "forget myself; forget who you are to me."
"Then forget," the acolyte whispered softly, grazing the edge of his nose against the line of Konohamaru's jaw.
"Haven't I suffered enough from forgetting," Konohamaru argued, "haven't you?"
Udon's eyes grew distant. "Remembering everything so keenly- what good has that brought me?" Taking a deep breath as he slowly lowered his lids, Udon let it draw out through his lips. "Is holding on to those painful memories the best way to remember someone? Would it please them to know that they aren't forgotten even if their memory overshadows our every day? After what happened, I'm finally beginning to see this." When he felt Konohamaru twitch in his hold, he reopened his eyes and smiled. "I'm happy you were able to move on with your life. It makes me regret stubbornly clinging on to past sorrows, afraid to forget. If it weren't for you and Shikamaru-sama, I would have lost the precious people I still have around me today. So, don't follow in my footsteps. Keep that determined grin on your face and let me learn from you."
"Udon . . ." Konohamaru called hoarsely, heaving a breath so heavy it seemed to weigh him down as his shoulders sagged. "Even if you hide them in pretty words," he began wearily, "I can't hide from my conscience my sins against you, or even those against the Divine Healer."
"It's not about hiding, or sinning. It's about the moment forever in an endless flow of endings and beginnings." Sealing his explanation with a kiss across the bared nape before him, he went on to caress the tender flesh with the blade of his nose, his breath tickling it as he roamed. "Let me show you."
The protest of the youth in his arms might as well have been an invitation. The acolyte simply slid his fingers down those lean arms to slip into the sides they hung limply over. Konohamaru, who had followed the movement of those fingers with quivering, lowered lids, gasped as Udon gently stroked the sensitive spots nestled within those regions. As if to soothe his fear and mock the discomfort, a shock of moist warmth teased a line along the back of his ear, and his responding squirm was tinged with a licentiously arched proffering of his chest, that rose as his head dipped back.
"You're rather quick on the uptake," Udon informed him mercilessly though his touch remained as gentle as his patient, rhythmic breaths as they kneaded upwards and moved tantalizingly against the modest, labouring pectorals. "That's good."
"Don't want to hurt you," Konohamaru begged weakly as he felt his skin prickle with building heat where Udon's fingertips lingered.
"It will be alright." Udon ignored the choked whine from his friend as fingers tracked a path up inwards towards dusty pink nubs. "Did you ever consider that I'm afraid of hurting you too?"
The panic in Konohamaru's eyes flashed into dismay, before being quickly thrown into unfocused pleasure as his left nipple was caught in a tight wedge, and his right gently caressed from the shadowed portion of its tip.
Yet he couldn't lose himself now, he had to know.
"U-Udon . . . it's not . . . be- kh! Mhnn-uh! Because of just, just now . . . is it?" Konohamaru fought to finish, trying to turn around and watch his friend without success.
"Relax a little," Udon urged instead, "there's still a trace of the poison in you. Breathe a little more." When Konohamaru struggled stubbornly, the acolyte sighed and released the youth with a compliancy that took him by surprise. Shifting around and grimacing as his risen manhood swung awkwardly with him, Konohamaru picked Udon's folded hands into his own and repeated his earlier question.
"Are you still bothered about the confrontation earlier?" His brown eyes anxiously searched Udon's wry black ones.
"Wouldn't you be in my shoes?" Udon retorted with a gently impatient smile. When Konohamaru looked as if he was about to argue, the acolyte quickly barred the words with a single pale digit lingering over the parted lips. "This is my penance too. Give me a chance to take a step towards healing." Rising on his knees he wrapped his arms around Konohamaru's head, hugging that adorable high forehead that he had always admired, close to his heart. Feeling the youth stiffen, Udon grinned and drew back to an eye-level. "Don't worry, I won't rush you anymore. I'll proceed with greater caution, alright?"
Konohamaru blushed before the powerful attraction of those bottomless dark pools brought so close before him. He couldn't win, not before those eyes, not against the taunting pressure of Udon's body, not even against the single-mindedness that tenderly wrapped itself around his sense of right and wrong and swallowed it whole. How badly did he really want to win? Even now, their present contact filled him with such incomplete completeness that his bones wanted to melt just so he could merge more satisfyingly into the wonder that held him. Only the sharp pangs of regret for his past transgressions held him back from pinning the acolyte beneath him.
Locked between the warring emotions, Udon's feather-light kisses drifted into his consciousness only when they had caught him in their dance. Like a daydreamer realizing that he had blundered into a shower of petals riding an agreeable breeze, Konohamaru drew his throat back despite himself, welcoming the cleansing feel of the drifting brushes that obligingly raced up his throat to his chin. Lids fluttering shut, he let his breath ebb out of him, gradually relinquishing the confusion that gripped him.
"This is good," he murmured in a hushed voice, unsure himself if he meant to compliment his friend, encourage him or was simply expressing gratitude. Whichever it was, he was only replied in kisses, arcing along the curve of his jaw to trace along his left cheek. Fingertips sliding against the base of his shaft made his stomach clench involuntarily, but the stroke mimicked the kisses in their lightness, easing against Konohamaru as if to reassure him. The tiniest stinging sensation prickled in his eyes as he revelled in the softness that was the acolyte's attentive affection. It was as if he had returned to the broken but well-scrubbed porch, once more allowing Udon to coax him out of the heavy memories of his late grandfather with that small yet carefully grasping hand.
No one else had ever held him as Udon did now, as if eager to find a way in while afraid of placing too great a burden upon his body. It was a tentative but pervasive clasp that wore on his endurance, as the light urgings stirred him with achingly gentle speed. Caught in the swell of dissatisfaction, his inner thoughts rode out of him on a restless pant.
"Want to . . . feel more . . ."
Hearing the seductive note of his own voice, his cheeks flamed with shame and secret satisfaction. Obediently, the acolyte's ghosting kisses deepened into suffusing warmth as Udon pinched the flesh on the corner of Konohamaru's neck with his lips, and traced his tongue against the strained, white skin.
"Hah!" Gasping at the stimulation, Konohamaru's manhood throbbed with painful emphasis on the loss of Udon's grasp there. His own touch wouldn't do, it had to be Udon's. Their experience a few moments ago had imprinted that fact in his mind. "Udon . . ."
Dark eyes rose from their sampling of his body to the beseeching look in Konohamaru's hazel eyes. They watched the blushing youth, a question gleaming in their depths. Konohamaru struggled with the request his thoughts could not phrase, but that his body hungrily desired. Nevertheless, the acolyte understood.
"Kisses aren't enough are they?" Udon asked needlessly- he was not oblivious to the covetous glances Konohamaru had surreptitiously sent along his body. "Do you want me to receive you?"
Konohamaru stiffened, the expression on his flushed face a mixture of dazed weakness tainted with a haunted look. Udon smiled to himself.
"You're too easy to read," he teased, hands soothing across his friend's shoulder blades, "and also much too innocent." Seeing Konohamaru contradict him with a pained glance, Udon caught the youth's lips in a brief but disarming kiss. "It's not as if I'm doing this for your pleasure alone," he breathed across moist lips. Konohamaru's only response was his laboured breath. Encouraged by this, Udon let his fingers spread against the frame of Konohamaru's chest, like white outstretched pinions against a gilded mantle.
The enchanted youth felt only the tremors it sent into his core. Even his personal mortification at how quickly his values crumbled under the sensual assault, was lost in the readiness and expectation that his body cried out for with inflamed blood. As kisses fell upon the ridge of his right cheekbone, his mouth moved longingly in want. Even as he struggled to remonstrate with his errant instincts, his tongue curved eagerly against Udon's in the acolyte's obliging response, and his throat willingly drank the cocktail of their saliva, savouring their thick heat as an appetizer. Yet the acolyte teased him further, breaking away just as Konohamaru felt the tensions within him climbing dangerously. Watching the acolyte's impish smile dazedly, Konohamaru could only suffer in heavy breathlessness as Udon darted the tip of his tongue over his friend's nether lip and in a single swift swoop, stole a kiss just below them. Instead of moving back to study the effect of his theft, Udon slyly slipped another kiss just beneath Konohamaru's nether lip. A soft, dissatisfied moan protested the taunt, wordlessly wanting Udon to join with him just a little higher. Yet the acolyte would hear nothing of it. Deftly adjusting to the dips and rolls of his friend's insistent manoeuvres, he sucked on the same spot, barely tugging in a corner of Konohamaru's mouth but just enough to agitate his breaths even further. Releasing and catching again, Udon played the sharp kissing sounds with perverse glee knowing they were unbearable to the flushing youth. Each clinging kiss was an indecent message folded between Konohamaru's shivering chin and Udon's tender lips. Konohamaru's only resistance was in the trembling grip he kept his body in, but that alone did not mean his body could reject the provocation of the creeping advance of fingers from the hollow of his chest, down the middle of his heaving chest, gliding over the fuzz leading down to and past his navel, and without hesitation, stroking up his painful desire in one smooth motion. A soft cry escaped his lips and his cheeks burned themselves scarlet.
"Can't . . . forgive myself . . ." Konohamaru's tear-laced whisper forlornly stated even as the rush of numbing warmth suffused him. Guilt twisted painfully in him. He was beyond redemption. As if abandoning Udon for all those years wasn't enough, as if being blessed with this reconciliation wasn't enough, he was, as the acolyte had guessed, already hoping to straddle his friend and ride upon those urgent rushes. Despicable.
"Such nonsense," Udon murmured between kisses, "I told you I'll help you forgive yourself over and over again- if that's what you desire." His fingers shifted their grip experimentally, while his lips traced Konohamaru's bobbing Adam's apple.
"Why? Why, when all this time I'm the only one enjoying the advantage . . . all the time I-" Konohamaru protested but Udon rose up against his bottom lip, capturing its softness in his mouth. Drawing in its flavour against the edge of his tongue, Udon closed his eyes, briefly savouring the now familiar residual taste of blood and poison. His fingers slick with Konohamaru's over-spilling anticipation spread their grip outwards, drawing a moan from his childhood friend that Udon swiftly used to his advantage. Tilting his head ever so slightly he snuck his lips between Konohamaru's, prompting Konohamaru to do the same so that their mouths met in a cross, blooming and waning as they struggled to achieve a bliss just out of reach. Konohamaru was distantly aware of a part of him collapsing into darkness. Instead, he focused on the fluid amorous sounds between their mouths and within them, and deepened their effect in the heat of his glowing lust for their contact.
Udon willingly relinquished the lead, allowing his friend to urge the tide into himself, merely shifting with their rhythms to accommodate his whims and passions. Of their own accord, Konohamaru's hands gripped smooth shoulders that rolled back within his grasp. Raging instincts subtly led by this gesture, Konohamaru pressed his weight against Udon, forcing him to lie back against the grass, his sweat-glistening body a canopy for the acolyte beneath him. Staring at dark eyes that hooked him with a brazen light within their mysterious depths, the youth shook his head as if fighting to pull free while his own hazel eyes responded with a flash of reckless danger.
Supine, Udon welcomed that exhilarating prospect by drawing in his knee to touch his friend's throbbing need. Konohamaru winced with agonizing anxiety, swiftly concluding that while he might top his friend, he would never best him in this tousle. Idle appreciation of the wonder he had trapped underneath him would not be to his advantage. With greater abandon, he pinned the acolyte's hands against the soft earth, thrusting his head down against the lean slope of Udon's stomach. With a confidence borne out of primal masculinity, he drew a thick, glossy line with the broad surface of his tongue. Udon resisted, his abdomen flinching away, but Konohamaru persisted, dragging the line lower still. His grasp tightened in anticipation, but though Udon's fists gripped themselves with a bleaching tightness, they did not fight his hold. The slightest sign of resistance breaking away from self-restraint would have, more than an open struggle, frightened Konohamaru.
As Konohamaru raised himself back over the slightly dazed look that gazed up at him, the youth cast Udon in shadow with a worried frown. Udon's eyes focused and looked up at him with faint puzzlement that broke into an affectionate smile.
"It doesn't hurt . . . perhaps a little impatient, but it didn't hurt," he assured his friend who carefully rubbed his thumbs against the acolyte's thin wrists.
"I'll be gentler," Konohamaru promised, gaze soft behind the fine curtaining fringe of his bistre brown hair. Udon's chest tightened as his heartbeat quickened. Thin brows rose in the acolyte's pleasant surprise of the effect of Konohamaru's words had on him. Like the hint of yellow-grey in the sky before the strong billowing storm clouds rolled in, Udon was beginning to see the hints of the youth's impressive manliness.
'If it were Konohamaru, he would have certainly passed the Dark Vigil.' Somehow the admission was easier to face than he expected. Even as he thought so, Konohamaru had released his hold, and leaned into the crook of Udon's neck to lay a kiss there.
Dragging his nether lip over every inch of Udon's bare arm, moist suppleness loathe to relinquish every bit of precious enticement, Konohamaru was a study of jealous obsession. He begrudged the air that stroked the pliant creaminess of the acolyte's flesh, begrudged the stars for their view of the beauty flushed with desire, protesting on behalf of the acolyte's modesty while he alone savoured the vision that lay beneath him.
"Konohamaru," Udon whispered, feeling the insatiable hunger in his childhood friend's lustful half-kisses. His own body ached in ready response. "How would you want me?"
A distinct jolt from Konohamaru's loins and the youth was over Udon's lips in an instant, seething breaths locked in with tongues wrestling with unrestrained greed. Breaking the kiss with an intoxicated glance at Udon's mirroring expression, Konohamaru dragged his mouth over the fair youth's cheek, relishing the flavour of lost inhibitions, each taste melting too quickly on his tongue, leaving it sizzling in heat. Sucking harder he heard- felt Udon moan his approval.
"Ev- everywhere . . . I want you everywhere." Driven by his own impatient response, his hands redoubled their efforts, roughly kneading themselves into the chinks and vulnerabilities in the seemingly flawless construction. He was duly rewarded by gasps sharp with surprise.
"Konohamaru . . ." they ended each time in a husky whisper, making Konohamaru that much harder; tweaking his agony that much more wickedly.
"Have some mercy," Konohamaru pleaded half-jokingly while his breath ghosted over Udon's eyelids.
"Isn't that my line?" Udon retorted with a strained smile as mischievous fingers tugged at his left nipple.
Konohamaru chuckled, not getting the hidden meaning in those words. His eyes widened abruptly when Udon raised his legs and wrapped them around his waist.
"It'll be my first time doing this without . . . preparation," the acolyte confessed, a deep blush barely showing in his already reddened cheeks, "this is all pretty sudden after all." Though the acolyte's tone remained light, he starred at the pebbles beside him rather than meet Konohamaru's gaze.
"If it's about preparation . . . I may . . . may have an idea," Konohamaru began shyly staring at the same point Udon was, "there was this book my uncle gave me."
A burning silence pulsed between them.
"Then tonight, I entrust myself . . . to you," Udon submitted, defaulting to the now awkward but trusted ritual formula Neji had imparted to him on the night of his initiation.
Konohamaru gulped as his hands traced down the back of Udon's thighs and stroked firm buttocks. He dipped forward, hands just beginning to lift the acolyte's lower body when he suddenly stopped, brows drawn sternly over frowning eyes.
"You're not allowed to laugh," he warned to which Udon grinned in reply.
"I wouldn't be in a position to," his friend retorted, lids fluttering shut. "Neji-sama and Shikamaru-sama are the only ones I've done this with; once." Udon caught Konohamaru's startled expression and hastily explained himself. "As part of my training. Normally it would have been with my partner, with a mentor and his partner guiding us, but since I was a sudden addition to the trainees they didn't have a partner ready for me. So instead, Neji-sama was left with the task of initiating me, and naturally Shikamaru-sama offered to support."
"What happened that night was a formal ritual, what we're . . . I mean now what you and I . . . it's not about anyone else. This is something we're sharing, just for us . . ." Udon trailed off into a crimson whisper tinged with embarrassed affection.
While a visibly moved Konohamaru leaned forward to plant kisses by his neck, Udon recalled the night of the ritual, after he had been cleaned and the Devas watched over what they had assumed was his sleeping form. He remembered hearing kisses, and Neji whispering the Shadow Master's name.
"You carried yourself admirably tonight, even though it was so hard to do. I know your love for him would not pale beside the love of a father for his son," Shikamaru had gently murmured.
"Do you think I hurt him?" Neji had asked in a rare moment of vulnerability.
"No, because he knew he was in safe, loving hands."
Among all the debts he owed the Shadow Master, he had decided then that the confident reply was the debt he was most grateful for. Another pang of guilt came with the recollection of how just moments ago, Neji had been watching a deathly pale Shikamaru with a wounded expression of helpless sorrow.
Konohamaru lifted his head from its tender ministrations and cast his gaze upon fine brows drawn into a distracted frown. The sad light in downcast brown eyes lent them a fragility that glowed with a magnetic appeal. On an impulse, he closed the few inches between them in a rush, and lay kisses on hastily drawn lids.
"So beautiful," Konohamaru whispered, once again weaving his breaths against Udon's left earlobe down to the side of the yielding neck.
The acolyte moaned weakly, each touch, each caress heightening his sensitivity. His yearning guided him to lift Udon's hand against his lips, kissing them, and even that simple contact brought a measure of satisfaction to him. It just wasn't nearly enough; for either of them. Konohamaru shifted his own fingers to trace along the acolyte's slightly pursed lips, and Udon kissed the keenest of those digits; the longest, middle finger and then the closely following index finger on its right, this time drawing his tongue over it. The sudden shock of wetness made Konohamaru freeze uncertainly, but Udon did not give him time to decide whether he had liked it. Instead, the dark-eyed acolyte kissed those fingers again, drawing their tips deeper across his lips and against the arching surface of his tongue that flirted lasciviously with them. The moist warmth urged Konohamaru's finger deeper still, and the young man found himself unable to refuse. Eyes wide with fascination as a dreamy-eyed Udon soaked his fingers with outrageous serenity, Konohamaru paused in his kisses to watch. Lust dimmed Udon's sharp eyes with a smokiness that strained Konohamaru's resolve to ease into the lovemaking. Drawing his dripping fingers away he reached forward with his other lonely hand, and joined it with Udon's barely softened arousal that throbbed so tantalizingly against his stomach. His own hardness stroked the delicate flesh of Udon's nether cheeks, like a heron tracing the groove of a coveted peach. While Konohamaru worked his fingers gently around the head of Udon's manhood, he turned the wrist of his wet, free hand to gently push against the acolyte's inner thigh. Amidst soft, gratified moans, Udon released his scissor hold on Konohamaru and arched his legs on either side of the mesmerized youth, shifting his body slightly back from Konohamaru's torso. A twinge in the unfinished polish of Konohamaru's abdominal muscles, and the tight movement of his modest waist, eloquently conveyed the youth's inclination to bridge the loathsome gap, however meagre. Yet there was something Konohamaru had to do first before that.
"Could you raise your waist a little? It's hard to see," he requested in a hoarse whisper, his eyes fixed on the shadowed cleft and the promise in the depths of its darkness.
"Couldn't you spare my pride by making it seem like I eventually failed to defend myself against your wishes, instead of having me freely offering it to you?" Udon countered with an impish grin, though the faint quiver in his voice conveyed more honest sentiments.
Konohamaru cast a half-startled, half-apologetic look at the acolyte, before swallowing heavily and allowing his gaze to stray back to the cleft.
"Is it okay if- if I . . . touch?" he whispered uncertainly.
Udon covered his eyes with the back of his hand and gave a helpless chuckle. "Idiot . . . I'm more anxious than you are. Don't force me to say things that will make me cry from embarrassment," he scolded gently.
"D- don't cry!" Konohamaru hastily urged and slipped his fingers into the cleft. Warmth cushioned his fingers even as the slick digits of his middle and fore fingers caressed the concealed bud within that instinctively flinched.
"Ah! I'm not crying- idiot!" Udon suddenly gasped, flinging his arm away and revealing tearing, soft eyes beneath covetously sloped brows.
"But you are!" Konohamaru pointed out accusingly, though his fingers slid against the inner bud unrepentantly. A jolt shook the acolyte's body as his eyes narrowed in an expression of helpless pleasure, his chest heaving long after Konohamaru had finished the gentle stroke.
"I told you . . ." Udon began with some difficulty, "that you can't be cruel. Some- somehow . . . this is different from . . . you- you haven't done anything . . . but you . . . it's you . . . so maybe I'm more- more excited."
The unconvincing fierce glare that the acolyte struggled to maintain, only heightened the agonizing rush that made Konohamaru wish he could at least touch himself to relieve some of the frustration. Instead, he jerked Udon's manhood in one hard stroke, earning himself a sharp pleading gasp. Staring plaintively at the anguished expression below him, he rapped back with his own complaint.
"How can you say that when I'm going crazy myself, only to touch and not to hold!"
Udon wasn't given the chance to reply as Konohamaru slid his fingers up the pulsing bud and followed down in a swift stroke, quickly repeating the motions in three more sets before relenting as Udon rushed a reply mid-stroke.
"Ngh! Kono- ha- uh! . . . maru . . . don't be angry . . . if you can't hold me yet . . . allow me to hold you . . . inside." Shivering as he implored, the acolyte raised moist lashes in a beseeching look.
A surge of tenderness caught Konohamaru's breath, and he lovingly stroked the burning shaft in his grasp, forcing Udon to wrench his gaze away in ecstasy.
"I'll go crazy Udon, I'll go crazy- you can't be too nice to me or I'll go crazy," Konohamaru murmured in a low, rasping voice as the acolyte's twitches and shudders grew into a slow writhing.
"Ah! Nn- idi- ngah! Idiot! You'll be ju- ugh- st as bad if I te- uh- ease you," Udon countered within tortured breaths.
Konohamaru only quickened the pace of his strokes, crushing any further interest in rebuttals in his friend. Yet every escaped cry, every strangled moan, as that helpless expression shuddered with traces of tears shining within long lashes, only increased the torment on his own tightly awaiting manhood.
"Am I using too much force?" he asked, unable to fend off the pangs of guilt and concern that momentarily rode over his heavy need.
Udon only spared him a brief, moist glance. "The . . . hah . . . front is- nnngh . . . amazing . . . the back . . . hah . . . needs- mmn! More force- quickly . . . hah . . . Konohamaru . . . hah . . . won't wait for you- nn . . . otherwise . . ."
Konohamaru was too fevered to fully appreciate Udon's warning, but he knew enough to know what the acolyte needed and was uninhibited enough to respond to it. Before Udon's warmth robbed his fingers of all its slick lubrication, he pressed the back of his forefinger against the pursed entrance, allowing it to slide a little until his fingertip rested against the heaving mouth, then gently pushed his finger in.
Heat suffused him. Though it had only been the mere tip of his finger that had ventured into the acolyte, the sensation held him in thrall. Only the flash of concern over the muted gasp from Udon distracted him, drawing his gaze away from the tight ring that resisted against his intrusion, to that of the moist gaze of the acolyte that invited him still deeper. Almost as if that look had hypnotized him, he fought his way further in, forcing Udon to squeeze his eyes shut and gasp more earnestly. Compelled by a giddy charge from the enticement of the forbidden discovery, he dug deeper along the inner walls that Udon held within him. Writhing and gripping with such incredible softness, yet possessing such tenacious heat, Konohamaru was held in rapture as securely as his finger was trapped in Udon's inner flesh.
Udon could feel the invasion burning with such defiant presence. As unnatural as this presence was to his body, each protested advance awoke the sensual memory of a similar touch, and of what impossible pleasures had been granted within those tight walls. Relaxing as he had been taught to, he moaned in welcome pain and pleasure as he felt his friend brazenly violating him with a sudden, quick circular motion.
"Ah! Kono-! Ngah!"
His breath could not bear any more words as it was crushed in his chest and burst out of him in gasping pants. Still it wasn't enough, it wasn't what he remembered, and as ashamed as he was to admit it, he worried that he would never reach that exhilarating height Neji had brought him to. Despite his sincere belief that their dizzying engagement would be a special moment shared between them that no other memory would ever be able to banish from his heart or his mind, he still needed Konohamaru to burn it into his very body, to brand him with a pleasure so intense that any other touch would only flow off its indelible groove.
"Konohamaru, more . . . haaah . . . I want to feel more . . ."
"Ennn," Konohamaru answered simply, his voice high and shuddering even as he made the simple sound. Sweat glistened on his forehead as he searched for the spot that would deliver what Udon wanted, or so the book had promised. Levering the angle of his finger a little lower, he drew back a little to locate a small ridge. Emboldened by the small success, and his heart racing away with his anticipation, he glided his finger up the ridge until it brushed against something- and stopped. The gratifying moans, the restless tension from Udon had stopped in a sudden flinch and inner lurch. Wide-eyed surprise was frozen on that fair face, glistening with sweat like the misted jadeite grass the acolyte lay upon. Then those eyes lowered, the shock in them melting into glowing pleasure that sent the beads of sweat rushing down the side of his face that flushed with the colour of ephemeral cherry blossoms, shivering in a late spring shower.
"Did I get it?" Konohamaru asked mouth dry and breaths shallow, half afraid he would crush the fragile beauty of the moment with his clumsy questions.
"Konohamaru . . ." Udon moaned, savouring the effortless desire that came with it as his body flooded with a heavenly warmth that soothed every fibre of his body, but drained away with such devilish fickleness as Konohamaru retracted the pressure in his momentary daze. "Konohamaru, Konohamaru . . . mnnn . . . touch me . . . don't stop touching me there. . ."
Konohamaru managed a curt nod before jerking his finger forward and crooking it back against the tiny knob of flesh he had discovered earlier, and then repeated the motion again, then once more . . .
"Haaaaaaah! Haaaaah! Hnngh!"
It was unbearable; this warmth, this heat, coming alive and stroking him in wave after wave of merciless ecstasy. This intensity that no one could bring to themselves, but that could only be received after total submission. His body curled in on itself with pleasure, his inner walls clasping Konohamaru's fingers more heatedly as if to feel him better while it continued to stroke his weakness.
"That's . . . that's a lot of p- pre- erm- you're really soaked . . ." Konohamaru stuttered, nodding towards the clear, overflowing viscous appreciation Udon's manhood and Konohamaru's gripping hand were coated in. The shameless squelching that sounded with each pump, sharpened the tension between the two youths.
"Hngh! More, Konohamaru, please, more . . . haaah . . . much more." Udon was fighting for his breath, but that didn't seem to matter so much at the moment and for every moment after. The only thing he feared was if Konohamaru demurred from this strange and desperate side of himself, if Konohamaru shied away from the needy greed of his lips. Udon was terrified of the sudden change in himself, of how vulnerable and defenceless he had fallen.
When Neji and Shikamaru had held him, he had known that they would protect him, that they would let no harm come to him, the bulwarks that would shelter him in the instant he felt he would fall apart. It wasn't that he didn't trust Konohamaru, but he couldn't help remembering the feeling those earnest hazel eyes gave him, as if they stripped him of every protection he could call on, that they would rob him of everything he had been lucky enough to lay his hands on. It was as if he would always lose to them.
He was afraid, but yet he couldn't help himself. Just as he had been unable to help himself on that damp, brooding day in a late spring out on the porch, the warm hand that he had somehow clasped in his own, feeling Konohamaru's tears sealed between their palms. The thought that someone could need him, as Kabuto did, had filled him with a warm pleasure . . . but Konohamau was no Kabuto. If Kabuto had been the lost ship that had needed a captain to guide it along the river, and he had filled that role through some serendipitous turning of fate, then Konohamaru had been his first mate, his partner in crime, the accompanying mischief on their short journey. But perhaps the reality had been that Konohamaru had only truly seen himself as a passenger, that their parting had been foreseen from the onset of his boarding. Had Kabuto not left them so tragically, perhaps the youth would have eventually moved on.
In that instant, compromising position notwithstanding, violation notwithstanding, in that instant he understood what it was that he was so afraid of.
"I'll . . . a- another finger, alright?" Konohamaru's worried voice intruded upon his thoughts. "Udon, are you okay?" the youth asked, concern deepening as he noticed the anguished set of his friend's eyes. "Does it hurt?"
Moaning as the sensation of Konohamaru hastily tugging his finger made his insides flare with rough loss, Udon shook his head as his friend freed his other hand to touch the acolyte's cheek. Though it was slightly moist with his own effusions, and burned with Konohamaru's heat, its tremors were the beats of the boy's pure heart, fearful that he had somehow done the worst.
"I'm fine," Udon reassured, holding Konohamaru's hesitant, disbelieving watchfulness with a grateful grin, "because we can't stay like this forever, and I understand that now."
"Udon, don't say that," Konohamaru quickly hushed him, confused by how suddenly and how much those words tore at his heart.
Udon nodded obediently, but the stoic acceptance in his eyes had not diminished in the slightest. "Konohamaru, don't hold back. I would like to have you properly inside of me."
"Eh? But we're barely done with the preparations, if we do it right away it'll hurt," Konohamaru objected, brows raised in disapproval, ignoring the instinctive twitch from his lower half.
"Even if it hurts, I still want to go through with this," Udon stubbornly insisted, "I'm not afraid, because I don't believe what we're doing is wrong. No, even if it is, it's still what I want to choose. Even if it's just this once, can you grant this willful request of mine?"
"I don't understand what you're saying," Konohamaru complained, trying to keep his voice from shaking with the ominous feeling swelling inside of him.
"I want you Konohamaru," Udon explained simply, raising his thigh to stroke its inner side against the curve of Konohamaru's waist. "That's all."
"I want you too," the kneeling youth breathed in return, his passions smouldering back to life in his smoky brown eyes, "but promise to tell me to wait if it hurts."
"Mn, I promise," Udon replied agreeably as he raised his thighs a little higher. Konohamaru helped him with the shift, pushing them a little closer to the acolyte's slender frame so that Udon could wrap his own arms around them, locking them in their elevated position. His hips now free from the ground, trembled slightly like a fair peach proffered towards Konohamaru, the darker hued slit inviting the youth's trembling manhood for the first strike that would part its sweet flesh.
"I won't ever forgive you, if you break your promise," Konohamaru swore as he stroked one hand upwards along Udon's thigh, his other hand gripping his own shaft as he raised himself on his knees, and milked it downwards. Lifting his eyes to capture Udon's determined gaze, he took a deep breath and held it for a moment before releasing it in a soft sigh. "We're beginning now."
Slick with his own dripping anticipation, Konohamaru slid his manhood down the narrow fold of Udon's peach, forcing the acolyte to lose the breath that he had been holding. Still unsatisfied, Konohamaru ran it up the groove and slowly dragged it down again, this time falling at a rest at the twice-missed entrance that quivered expectantly. Sucking in another heavy breath, he leaned inwards, one hand supporting his body against Udon's thigh and inched his waist inwards. The swollen arrow-head of his manhood slipped a little, but his firm grip held it in place while his steady advance pushed against the tight entrance with a seemingly inexorable force.
Gritting his teeth as he pushed onward, it seemed as if the faint sting of resistance against him would not relent until, almost unexpectedly, the barring doorway caved and Konohamaru was carried by his own momentum to drive in the head of his member, squeezing against Udon's inner walls.
"Ngah! Gaargh- keh!"
Their shocked cries were delivered at the same instant, but where Konohamaru had been surprised by the intense charge of pleasure that shot through him in the burning, vice-like grip around the head of his manhood, Udon reeled in the torture of the enforced widening of his narrow opening.
Blinking away the slight moisture that had welled up in his eyes, Konohamaru tried to focus on the feebly supine acolyte whose face was a strained white, tear tracks damp against the side of his eyes. "Udon? Is this too much?" he asked, amazed at how badly he wanted to sheathe himself more completely in the inviting heat. "Udon, please say something," he pleaded after the acolyte remained motionless, except for his laboured panting.
"A- a little un- hnn- expected," the acolyte whispered at last, the narrow gleam of his half-veiled eyes wavering in unshed tears, "haaaah . . . but . . . don't stop . . ."
"But, maybe I'll wait . . . a moment longer," Konohamaru forced himself to say, "at least until it becomes more bearable."
"Konohamaru . . ." Udon murmured, letting his eyes run over the beads of perspiration glinting against the restrained ferocity that was the youth's primal passion tamed by the purity of his innocence. Perhaps he had been too quick earlier, in judging that innocence as redundant guilt. The thought eased some of the throbbing ache. "You've grown up into quite a man."
"Idiot," Konohamaru mumbled, unable to help the blush that crept over his already flushed face, or the jolt of arousal that stirred in his lower half, the latter of which Udon felt with a small gasp, his abdomen drawing taut. Konohamaru winced as Udon tightened around him, the crushing instant of pleasure quickly followed by a strong urge to follow the sensation further along those restless walls. "Udon," he called out huskily, unable to stop himself.
"Don't hold back; I want you too," Udon replied softly, his words sending a thrill down Konohamaru's back, "just for now, belong completely to me, lose any other thought and prove how deeply you want to possess me."
"Udon- I'll make sure this will feel good right away, I definitely will, believe me, definitely," Konohamaru promised over and over as his self-control crumbled and his waist pushed forward, forcing his length into Konohamaru's seemingly endless heat.
"Haaangggh! Ngh! Kono-hamaru! Nghaaaah!"
"Sorry . . . but I promise- I promise, I promise," Konohamaru chanted soothingly, while the indescribable softness wrapped him in a warmth that dissolved his awareness of anything other than Udon's covetous caresses . . . and yet there was still further to go.
"Kono- haaah! Nggghaa . . . haaaa . . ."
Udon was certain that his own haste was going to be his undoing. He could feel the limits of his flesh thrust further than it could contain; would he be rent apart? No, not with the gentleness in that voice that had not rested in assuring him that he would be brought out of this misery.
"Just a little, I promise, Udon, don't cry, please," Konohamaru persisted, sending in the last lengths with a wince at how tight it was, but in a moment the rising triumph swelling within him overtook his insincere complaints. "It's all in! Udon? Are you alright?"
Udon tried to nod, but his neck and shoulders were too tensed from the burden of his suffering. "Ngh . . . just . . . wait a . . . bit."
Dashing away the tears that had gathered along the acolyte's tightly pressed lashes, Konohamaru tried to ignore the furnace that he was submerged within, and stroked the damp cheek comfortingly. "I went too far," he apologized, "it's my fault for rushing you." With his other hand, he picked up Udon's softened member in a careful grasp, gently squeezing it, his index finger and thumb massaging its head. Slowly, Udon's breaths slowed and flowed more freely. A gradual surge of life grew more solidly in Konohamaru's grasp, allowing him to deepen his strokes along the lengthening shaft. When Udon began to moan softly into his own shoulder, Konohamaru was strongly reminded of his own predicament that throbbed more urgently within the acolyte.
"I . . . can feel you . . . pulsing . . . inside," Udon murmured suddenly, taking the words right out of Konohamaru's mind, "because it's so hard-"
"I can't enter you otherwise," Konohamaru interrupted defensively, "but . . . I'm sorry it hurts so much."
"I meant to say, that because it's so hard to just keep it there, you can . . . move if you want to," Neji explained patiently as Konohamaru's eyes first widened, then hid away from the acolyte's faintly bemused scrutiny in embarrassment.
"We can stay like this for a while," Konohamaru mumbled, keeping his eyes averted though he maintained his strokes on Udon's manhood, varying their strength in a rhythm that came naturally to him. Udon shivered with the pleasant sensations that coursed from the smooth, fluid motion.
"That's good," Udon admitted in an almost dreamy tone, "but I want to finish this together."
Konohamaru gave a nervous laugh. "It doesn't hurt any more?" he wanted to know.
"All I feel now is you, solidly keeping me open inside," Neji replied with the tiniest hint of a grin. He did not expect the entranced anxiety that returned in response.
"I want to melt inside of you, it feels like I have to before my sanity drains completely away," Konohamaru confessed, "I'm not sure if I can really take this slowly any longer."
Udon felt all likely responses escape his mind, but his body tutored his lips to move the way they wished. "I'm not afraid of any pain, if you're holding me while I fall apart," he replied, surprising himself.
"Then let's fall apart against each other," Konohamaru agreed, as intoxicated with the acolyte's body as he was with his words. Giving Udon's manhood one last firm squeeze and sending dark eyes rolling back in overwhelmed protest, Konohamaru sucked in a sharp breath as he lifted his waist back, dragging out the length of his shaft a few inches. Soft walls clutched at his retreating member in dismay, but Konohamaru cruelly left them writhing restlessly with his loss. Then as if he had capriciously changed his mind, the youth ran his shaft back in, his hardened abdomen slamming into Udon's buttocks with a firm, fleshy smack.
Their voices cried out in unison, mingled pain and pleasure wound so tightly against each other, they were merely shades of the same hue. Konohamaru knew it wasn't the right colour, wasn't the right note. He knew it still lacked something. He felt its beginnings in the fervour of their touch, the echoes of his heart resounding in his ears, the seamless fit of their bodies- but he wasn't quite there yet, and wouldn't be able to unlock this mysterious threshold until Udon could feel the whispers too. Remembering the path he had taken earlier, he raised his waist as he drew out again, and lanced back in.
"Mngh!" Udon gritted his teeth as his eyes fought to keep the vision of the strong set of Konohamaru's jaw, to watch the heavy but measured breaths. The thrusts that conquered him from within rewarded his willing surrender with the raw awakening of the depths of his hidden sensuality, blurring his view; but Udon knew that Konohamaru was still searching-
Shifting his position by subtle degrees to either side of himself in turn, Konohamaru drove himself in again and again, the lewd sound of each smack chasing each other in a quickening pace.
"Hnngh! Haaah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Hnngh! NGAAH!"
As if he had been struck within by a bolt of pure energy, Udon felt his body breaking apart in a wave of insurmountable provocation and destruction.
"Haaah, no . . . haaah . . . don't," the words tumbled out of him feverishly.
"Is it here?" Konohamaru asked, his own heart pounding painfully in his chest as he extended himself in the same stroke once again.
"Hnnngh! Nghaaaah! Haaaah! Can't . . . haaaah!" Udon thrashed for release as every nerve in his body flooded his body in a heat that dissolved his senses into a seething, undulating, churning, beckoning, chaos that was too large for his mere mortal frame to contain.
"Can you . . . ngh! Can you . . . feel it Udon?" Konohamaru asked, voice hitched as Udon's agitated walls bound him in insatiable wantonness, the fierce fires between them stoked to an all-consuming white heat. "I can't . . . take it too . . . let's reach it together."
Udon barely registered the sense of the words as the sounds of Konohamaru slamming into him smashed into his corroding reason, and shattered it into a shower of shooting stars, like the cool sweat shaken off his inflamed flesh, they could not hold on to any part of him. In the prison of their flesh, he felt the beats of wings lifting him to face a distant, pure light above the blaze of their bodies-
-the light of transcendence. Konohamaru's eyes narrowed as he rose towards its untainted brilliance, the feel of his abdomen pummelling into Udon expanding beyond its intensity into a surprisingly gentle current, propelling him faster than the flames ever could.
"Udon- haaah . . . can you see it?" he gasped in wonderment as the beginnings of a crescendo rang in his ears, reverberating throughout his consciousness as it climbed with impossible power.
"Nggggh! Kono- hnngggggh! Can't take- nghaaaaah! Please . . . haaaaah- hngh!" This light was so much more real than the petty existence of his own thoughts, his own mind. He disintegrated in its dense incandescence, extinguished by a reality that exceeded his own by unfathomable depths, incomprehensible heights. Even the single surviving shred of his consciousness, that sought only the enlightenment of what this vanquisher was, fell into dust in insignificant vanity.
As the volume of the crescendo rang through his body beyond the capacity of mere flesh, Konohamaru arched back, deepening his thrusts as his breath roared with what little of that deafening thunder he could vent. His manhood, his senses expanding in a final attempt to hold on to the integrity of his existence, and-
"GnnnngaaaAAAAAAH! UNGH! HAAAAH! HNGGG!"
No more to lift, no where to rise, no form to brace- release, releasing the meaninglessness of sense, allowing the incompleteness to complete him in an echoing cry of anguished freedom.
"NGGGGGH! AAAAAAAH! AAAAAAAANGGGGH!"
Udon's senses collapsed as his battered body was consumed by the throes of their combined rapture. Losing, he was losing everything, his own frame clenching in a grip that could have belonged to Death come at long last, spilling the sum of his spirit beyond Udon's ability to resist or deny. As he fell, strong arms wrapped themselves around the fading sense of his legs, and a voice ran its tender exhaustion across his name. Then as the light dwindled along with his consciousness, he heard his own voice carrying a reply on a spent sigh that rode above the buzz of onrushing insensibility.
"Kono . . . hamaru . . ."
The pale moonlight against the dark shadows of a room Shikamaru had only just spent the afternoon in barely more than a day ago, touched the familiar scene with a poetic quality that he hadn't truly noticed before, since he hadn't been trying to avoid a palpable tension between them.
The washbasin that rested by the intricate circular woodwork of carved summer blooms, glowed with the kiss of the moon at its barely perceptible mouth, while the lotus petals spread around it were jealous fingerprints greedily clasping in the monochrome shades of dusk. The immaculately painted screen that had been drawn before a lonely corner draped in a curtain of faded pink cloth, was now a panel portraying the tryst of two young falconers resting beneath a cascade of graceful willow catkins, the stylized fluidity of their shoulders more inviting than companionable as they had been in the bold light of day. Then there was the lingering scent of incense, long-gone in a curling wisp of clear smoke, but refusing to be banished in the ghostly fragrance that teased his twitching nose, urging him to relight their perfume.
How had he gotten himself into this situation? Ah yes, he had been as weak as a kitten after treating Konohamaru, and once he had confirmed that Udon was in no immediate danger, could not refuse Neji's offer to recuperate in the Divination Master's room. Besides there had been so many questions he had had to ask his partner, and with the fatigue becoming more apparent in the growing suggestion of weary lines around Neji's mouth, Shikamaru had been readily agreeable to the request that they kept the sanctity of the room's hushed tranquillity, by forgoing the usual comforts.
The night had worn on as Shikamaru explored the vision that Neji had been granted in the Chamber of Triumph. What had transpired in the garden had been fairly straightforward and needed no further discussion, but what the heavenly portents signified had been vague at best. Shikamaru had been wise enough not to press why the Hyuuga had chosen one interpretation over another. Neji would not have been able to explain it, and from his experience, the seers of the temple could get into enough trouble second-guessing themselves without needing any help. He accepted Shikamaru's view that the abacus constellation was a sign that accounts were being settled, and while the initial feel of it had been charged with fear and danger, the eternity knot that he had seen binding Udon's hair, just before the vision was lifted from his mind, had been a sign of perpetual union. Neji explained that in the brief moment he had been allowed to focus on it, he had been overcome with tender grace and- and then his partner had hesitated and deftly side-stepped around what he had just been about to say.
Shikamaru chose to accept it without comment. Even in the shadows, he could see how exhausted Neji was. He had suggested that they get some sleep, and that was when the mood changed with the subtlest shift of the Hyuuga's head that made the silken drape of dark hair cascade towards his right shoulder, baring the soft white of his neck while white-jade eyes studied his folded knees and the hands clasped in flawless elegance above them. The troubled frown arched fine brows in a deceptively innocent critical strike against Shikamaru's defences.
Realising there wasn't even the illusion of victory left to him, he had instead embraced the illusion of escape by allowing his eyes to roam the supposed tranquillity of the shadowed stillness around him. The very feel of his robes brushing against him thickened the lump in his throat.
"Shikamaru," Neji began quietly, "will you go for the surgery that Princess Tsunade offered?"
"What?" Shikamaru asked, uncertain if he had heard correctly. The unwelcome image of the coarse, alarmingly-breasted, misleadingly youthful descendant of the Senju Clan the Founding and Second Grand Deva had once been the heads of, barged rudely into his mind. Her royal title was an honour informally accorded to her amongst the clergy in respect of her lineage, and her devoted service as a peerless healer to the temple during the final, devastating years of the Great War that had still been raging on the continent barely three generations ago. She had been older than the Fourth Grand Deva, and while she was above meddling in politics, preferring the vices of gambling and drinking, her own meritorious service earned her much respect among the older generation Devas, while her temper coupled with her insane strength earned her sheer terror amongst his own. Professionally he was overwhelmed by her skill, and she had been the first and only person he had consulted over his condition.
Still, he had been so certain that Neji would have advanced a . . . a vastly different proposition.
Neji raised moon-bright eyes that reflected the Shadow Master's confusion. "I know you were afraid that this hope was no hope at all, and I know Princess Tsunade warned you that you only had an eighth of a chance of surviving, and a third of that to come out of it with your senses and your mind intact, and I respected your decision."
Shikamaru inclined his head and sucked in a sharp breath, then released it with a heavy sigh. "I let you down. I cannot believe how strong you've been for us these past months."
"Then you know that I'm not saying this lightly," Neji continued, shuffling closer to Shikamaru on his knees, and taking his partner's hand in his own. "I believe in this hope; now more than ever. After seeing what Udon and Konohamaru-kun have gone through, after learning about what you've been going through over Kabuto-san all these years, I want to believe in this chance we have."
Shikamaru didn't look up immediately, watching their clasped hands and letting a defeated smile spread slowly across his face. "I'll do it," he murmured, raising his eyes to meet Neji's searching gaze, "I can believe in this too." When Neji didn't respond, Shikamaru stroked his partner's cheek with the back of his free hand.
"What's wrong?" he asked gently, and Neji lowered his lids, brows knitted tightly together as he struggled with something.
"Is this because of what you said earlier? About not defying me over these matters?" Neji needed to know. "I'm not your benefactor, I did it for myself, I couldn't let you go-"
"I know, I know," Shikamaru stopped his partner and guided Neji to rest his head on his shoulder, "but that's what woke me from my self-centred romanticizing. I had been thinking all this time that my time was running out, and I was going to spend as much of it as I could on the ones I love. I thought it would be okay to be cowardly, to wait for death, if my reason for doing it was to secure one more moment, one more breath with my family here, and especially with you."
Neji ducked his head deeper along Shikamaru's shoulder to rest his face against the side of his partner's neck. Shikamaru was relieved that the Hyuuga wasn't silently crying.
"But I was wrong," he went on, "I was just scared, not brave enough to try and fight for more time, for the time we thought and we knew we should have. You showed me that tonight, as did Konohamaru and Udon. Loving someone shouldn't make you weaker, it makes you stronger. Because I'm not fighting for myself, I'm fighting for us, just like what you've been doing all this while, never giving up on us, taking all those risks- expending your chakra and life energy, forcing visions-" Shikamaru broke off when he felt the Divination Master stiffen in the hold of his arm. "What?" he asked suspiciously as Neji slowly raised his head from its perch, unable to meet Shikamaru's disbelieving gaze.
"You didn't . . . force another vision- Neji, you swore you wouldn't! Was it the one just now? Are you feeling alright?" Shikamaru demanded in a panic that drove him from frightened incredulity to a vulnerable tenderness. This wasn't a domain that he had much experience in, but he groped for the pulse against Neji's neck while cupping his partners face with his other hand. His hands shook as he recalled the unbidden and unwelcome image of Neji, lying unconscious for the second day in Iruka's personal chambers as healer priests, gifted in arts of mental healing, attempted to guide the Hyuuga out of his coma.
That had been a mere week after Princess Tsunade had shaken their world with the news of his condition. It hadn't taken any effort to make the connection, especially since Neji had been inconsolably moody since the day of Tsunade's diagnosis, when he confessed that he couldn't receive any visions on the outcome of the operation. Shikamaru and even their master, Iruka himself, had warned Neji to be patient and not to force one no matter what happened.
From the moment he was gifted with his first vision, a seer was reminded that this gift could only be freely given by the Eldest Tree and never insisted upon. There would be instances in their lives that the Tree would refuse to grant them insight, such as when the question pertained to the outcome of the Dark Vigil, but they should never attempt to force a vision. Neji had once explained to him that no human mind could hope to withstand the sheer immensity of the knowledge the Eldest Tree contained within it, and that through the Tree's own grace, seers were allowed to ask to glimpse visions of its vast wisdom that answered their queries. Forcing a vision was akin to diving into the fathomless depths of all that knowledge alone, and no matter how well you could swim, you would eventually be swallowed whole. Yet even though he had known, even though he understood that so well, the Divination Master had dived. Shikamaru had been so afraid he would end up leaving Neji while he languished in his mental prison. He didn't even try to hide his tears when Neji finally opened his eyes that evening, and had later extracted a solemn oath from the shaken Deva to never be so reckless again.
"I didn't force a vision," Neji quickly assured, but his eyes still evaded Shikamaru's, "but I couldn't help thinking about us- in the vision of Udon and Konohamaru-kun. That was the place where we began after all, the rock garden."
"The Tree relented?" Shikamaru asked as his concern was gradually soothed over, though his hands still trembled.
"It must have," Neji concurred nodding, "the eternity knot in the vision blurred for a moment when my thoughts turned to our fate. The eternity knot came back into focus, and for a moment I thought my lapse in concentration had broken the clarity of the vision, but as the image panned back, it was my hair that the knot rested on, just like how I used to wear it when we were priests."
"Udon and you used to look so adorable together," Shikamaru teased, and was rewarded with a crooked smile that cracked through the weariness.
"You were standing before me, lifting a lock of my hair to . . . your lips. We didn't say anything, but silver light cascaded all around us, and I looked up to see that the constellations that had soared above Udon and Konohamaru, shone for us as well," Neji finished pale eyes brimming with the memory of it.
Shikamaru took a deep breath and shook his head, uncertain of how to cope with this revelation. "What . . . what does it mean?"
Neji's smile shook the tears free. "That everything's going to be alright, that there's hope."
Shikamaru absently wiped his partner's tears away against his sleeve, and the Hyuuga held on to his wrist, kissing it through the damp fabric.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Shikamaru asked numb and perplexed.
"I wanted to, I wanted to so badly," Neji confessed in a crushed breath, "and I had even witnessed the miracle of Udon and Konohamaru finding their way to each other after all these years, but I- when it came to telling you- if I read it wrongly, if I had to lose you again, I-"
"Don't- no, don't," Shikamaru hushed, lifting Neji's chin and catching his partner's over-bright eyes with the fierce resolve in his own. "With or without any vision, I'll go through with this- for us. You showed me that I would never go through this alone, and it's been long overdue that I show you the same. You've got me, and you always will."
Neji managed a smile that even held when Shikamaru mopped the dampness off with the back of his sleeve a second time.
"So," Shikamaru began in a more light-hearted tone, "Konohamaru's paying his debts to Udon, huh? If I read the mood correctly, that's going to be one sweet debt to pay."
Undeceived by the contrived leer on Shikamaru's face, Neji nevertheless snorted and rolled his eyes. "You should be more concerned over what we're going to do with those two. I very much doubt Konohamaru is going to take the news that temple law forbids any union between commoners and clerics very well."
"I actually have a plan for that," Shikamaru confided with an obnoxious smirk that abruptly split into a wide yawn, "but I'll have to share it with you before the Council meeting tomorrow, it's been a really bothersome day."
Neji raised a fine brow. "Bothersome?"
"Tiring," Shikamaru amended without even blinking, "but worth every ounce of energy spent."
"You know," Neji began with a renewed vigour in his voice as he started on a new track, "the vision revealed that Konohamaru had to pay his dues, and by the same token, in that parallel vision of us, aren't you supposed to clear your debts too?"
"Huh?" Shikamaru blurted in confounded surprise.
"I seem to recall somebody keeping us awake all night in that rock garden," Neji sang in uncharacteristic pleasantness.
"That . . . that had been . . . you were still bound by the legacy of Hyuuga family politics . . . taking the Vigil would have been too great a risk," Shikamaru stammered warily.
"But you did keep me up all night," Neji insisted on clarifying with a satisfied smile.
"Neji, in my current condition, that's a bit-" Shikamaru argued nervously as his partner loosened the iridescent white band marked with the golden spiral leaf around his forehead, unveiling the cursed seal that outer members of the Hyuuga clan were graven with to bind them to the will of the inner circle members. The band slipped down the front of his robe in the barely audible whisper of silk.
"That's below the belt," Shikamaru whined but he couldn't continue as his breath caught when Neji combed his curtaining fringe back, fully displaying the accursed brand. To put it politely, it was Shikamaru's peculiar fetish, to call it as what it essentially was, it was perverse sadomasochism, but whatever description the Shadow Master tagged to it, he hadn't been able, late in the first year they had came into priesthood, to deny Neji the pleasure of discovering how powerfully arousing it was for Shikamaru to dominate or be dominated by a curse-marked noble-turned-slave . . . or so it ran in his mind.
"That's . . . unfair," he echoed distantly as he was spellbound by the unearthly mystique in the glowing lustre of Neji's moon-bright eyes.
"It's alright," Neji consoled in a low, resonating invitation, "I'll do my best to be gentle, Shikamaru-sama."
Shikamaru had a premonition that before dawn broke, he would be ready to cry.
Watching the celestial lights of the sublime heavens reflecting against the unconscious blush of Udon's fair face, Konohamaru realised that he would never have to raise his eyes very far to appreciate the wonder of the night's lonely beauty ever again. Having cleaned what he could off of their cooling bodies, he had fully calmed himself since Udon had suddenly fainted after their mutual climax. He hadn't really expected to take his Uncle's book literally, but comparing the notes with what they had just shared, some of it had even turned out to be an understatement. It probably helped that both of them had been so weak, both physically and emotionally. It left them more open and honest to their senses.
Udon's head of beautiful russet hair was propped against Konohamaru's rolled-up black kimono, the acolyte's own inner robe draped over their owner's nakedness. The thin, soft fabric provided a tantalizing white silhouette that seemed to flush with the colour of bare flesh, leaving little to the imagination and evoking fresh memories and fresher desires. Konohamaru didn't mind; he had nothing on save his boxers that still bore the shiny patch of his over-spilling enthusiasm for Udon's touch, and the vision before him kept some of the evening's chill at bay.
He was quite drowsy himself, and his body felt much too heavy to be sitting cross-legged beside Udon, admiring him- but he couldn't help it. The thought that morning would come and that he couldn't be sure if Udon would stay, or whether either of them would even be allowed to even if Udon was willing, made him wish that time could pause with him to take a moment and watch the unguarded peace on that incredibly delicate face. His eyes strayed to the garish wound that had been cleaned of the black blood, but was still an awful purplish-red that marred the smooth curve of his thin neck. If it hadn't happened, they might not have had the opportunity they had just taken. Nevertheless, it smarted that Udon had yet to recover from the price of this chance, that he himself had not a mark to show for. It felt as if the acolyte shielded him still, when it should be the other way around.
The other way around, that's the way it should be. The realization slid in place within his mental picture of them with such natural ease, that he half-suspected it had always been there.
"And it came back with the rest of my memories," Konohamaru mused aloud as he gave in to the burning desire for sleep in his eyes and leaned onto the grass, propping himself momentarily on his elbow to catch one last glance at that blissful ignorance to the sly thought that Konohamaru turned over his mind, his cheeks colouring as he whispered it shyly.
"Maybe I wanted to be more than just your friend even then." Chuckling at his wishful thinking, he dropped down beside Udon, draping his arm around the youth and pulling himself closer to the perfect warmth. "I wonder what you're dreaming about," he murmured distantly as his fatigue and the present comfort made a convincing argument about shutting his eyes for a little while. That way he could wake up before Udon, and watch him waking up . . .
. . .
Beneath the restless fluttering of Udon's lids, a childhood memory was being relived.
. . .
Out on the well-scrubbed porch in the afternoon of one late spring, Udon was beginning to feel embarrassed over how tightly Konohamaru was holding his hand, though the drying tear tracks on his new friend's face convinced him to give the boy a few more moments until he felt better.
"Udon?" Konohamaru called, his voice slightly raspy from all the crying.
"Yeah?" Udon answered, a worried gaze roaming about his friend's flushed face and bright brown eyes.
"Grandfather said if two people marry each other, they vow to never be apart and stay together forever."
"I guess," Udon answered noncommittally. Marriage was something that people blamed for their current misery in his world out on the streets. Except for the odd big sister who let him comb her hair sometimes when she was in her calmer, pleasant mood and she told everyone her boyfriend was going to marry her today. "It's not for everyone- but for some people it's good," he added conscientiously.
Konohamaru looked down at the floorboards for a moment, chewing his lower lip. When he glanced up again, a darker pink colour was creeping along his cheeks. "Would you marry me? Then we could always be like this, and I'd never be left alone again."
Udon's eyes widened in alarm, and he tried to snatch his hand back, but stopped when it looked as if Konohamaru's face was going to cloud up in tears again. "But I don't want to be separated from Nii-san," he struggled to reason.
"He'll be my brother-in-law, we can live together, right here," Konohamaru countered, peering anxiously into Udon's hesitant dark eyes. "So, please? Marry me?"
"But . . . but . . . you've got to love the person you marry, and you've got to be careful so that you don't regret being with that person and ever meeting them," Udon challenged, holding up valiantly before the drooping puppy-eyed look.
"I'll NEVER regret meeting you," Konohamaru persisted, "and you're the first person I think about when I wake up- except sometimes I think of grandfather too, but you're the first person in this world that I think about when I wake up."
Udon covered his face with his one free hand, confused as to why his face was burning up, and his chest was hurting so much. He could feel his heart thumping so rapidly within it.
"But we don't even know how to get married," he tried one final defence, as he imagined his ears glowing with the heat that radiated off of them.
"That's easy," Konohamaru replied in a voice easing with relief, "grandfather told me. You promise the gods that you'll stay together forever, and then you go into your nuptial chamber and seal it with a kiss."
"What's a nuptial chamber?" Udon wanted to know, so eager to discuss anything that took his mind off of Konohamaru's confession of who he thought of when he woke up, that he missed the opportunity to comment on the last bit of what Konohamaru had said.
"I think it's a place where married people sleep," Konohamaru explained a little uncertainly, but his frown didn't linger for long. "We sleep together all the time, so that isn't a problem. So will you marry me?"
Udon groaned into his palm, and peeking at the eager look on Konohamaru's face from between his fingers, he gave a resigned nod. "But let's do it quickly," he added as Konohamaru bounced closer to him, "I don't want Nii-san to see us doing this."
"Ok," Konohamaru agreed with a wide grin, "it'll be our secret for now." His smile broadened as he appreciated how cool that sounded to him.
Udon shook his head with a sigh and squeezed his partner's hand to get his attention. "So, I just make a promise now?" When Konohamaru nodded his head enthusiastically, Udon cleared his throat and shut his eyes as more embarrassing words tumbled out of his own lips.
"I promise that-"
"-to the gods," Konohamaru corrected.
"I promise to the gods," and here he squeezed Konohamaru's hand again, "that I'll stay with Konohamaru forever." He was getting a little dizzy from the haze of heat that was cloaking his head, and he didn't dare open his eyes while Konohamaru recited his own part.
"I promise to the gods, that I'll stay with Udon forever."
Konohamaru's pledge rang in his ears with such awful clarity and solemnity, that he was having trouble breathing from the weirdness of all of this. Then he sensed too late, something swooping up to his face and- a soft, warm, shock of pleasure and suddenly it drew away. Udon reopened his eyes and saw Konohamaru grinning foolishly as if he'd done something really terrific, and was going to brag about it all afternoon.
"I like getting married," he concluded with the silly grin still spread widely across his face.
"We have to love each other from now on," Udon warned, believing in his young heart that there should be some sobriety, if not solemnity, for the occasion, in spite of his earlier private objections.
"And lots more kissing," Konohamaru declared, immediately wincing as Udon crushed his fingers again in scarlet revenge.