Whiteness whirled around him. A snowstorm, he thought. The soft, thick snow blotted out everything: all he could see was white. But strangely, he didn't feel cold.
Something furry and black emerged from the whiteness. A smile touched Shikamaru's lips. It was Shadow, his dog. The big black Lab wagged his tail and panted, his breath steaming in the cold air.
But something was wrong. Shadow shouldn't be here right now. After a moment, it came to him. Shadow was dead. He'd been dead for years.
And it's my fault.
He recalled taking Shadow for a walk in a sunlit wooded area. There they were, painted in the muddy pastels of memory: a big, bounding dog who strained against his collar with all his might, panting after every squirrel and rabbit…and Shikamaru, a skinny twelve-year-old wearing some ironic t-shirt and old jeans, his teeth clenched, holding the leash with both hands as Shadow dragged him along. Troublesome, he muttered. Stop pulling so hard! But Shadow wouldn't stop, and finally, with a cry of exasperation, Shikamaru let him go—Fine, run if you want to run!
So Shadow ran far and fast through the woods. And Shadow got into a badger's den, and the badger bit him. And Shadow got rabies.
As he watched, the black, panting form dissolved into nothingness, dissolved into the white.
Snow fell thick and fast all around. It had been snowing that day, too: the day they buried Shadow's ashes in the yard. Shikamaru had stood over the little makeshift grave, choking back tears, trying to be a man and hating it.
He'd told his parents how it happened. Except he'd told them that Shadow yanked the leash out of his hand. He was too ashamed to admit that he'd let go on purpose.
The snow covered Shikamaru, blanketed and buried him. Fine, he thought. He would sink into the nothing. He would become a part of it. Being nothing was better than being a useless coward who let go of those he loved because holding on was too much work. Maybe he didn't deserve to be at all. He closed his eyes.
Then a thought came to him: Where is Gaara?
His eyes snapped open. Something was beeping.
He tried to lift his hand, to turn off the alarm clock, but his arm wouldn't obey him. He pried his eyes open a crack and found himself looking at his arm on white bed sheets. Then he realized the beeping wasn't his alarm clock. He wasn't in his apartment at all.
He tried to sit up, and pain flared through his leg. A choked, gasping cry escaped his throat.
"Easy." Hands pushed him back down to the bed.
Shikamaru blinked and looked up. "Dad?" Dazed, he looked around. He was in a small, white hospital room. Somewhere, something—a heart monitor, maybe—was beeping.
What…why… Then a rush of memories slammed into his brain. He sat up again, ignoring the pain. "Gaara, where is Gaara?"
"He's safe. He's being treated right now, but none of his injuries are serious. Just relax." His father lay one broad, rough palm against his forehead. The touch calmed him.
Shikamaru swallowed. His mouth and throat ached with thirst. His dad handed him a small plastic cup filled with water, and he drank. "What happened?" Shikamaru asked quietly. "I…I don't remember getting here. I was in that basement, and then…"
"Your friend called an ambulance, and they brought you here and stitched up your leg. You don't remember any of it because you were unconscious." He paused. "The police are going to be here in a few minutes. They'll want to ask you questions about those two men. Do you think you're up for it? If you're not, they can come back another time."
He looked up as his mother entered the room, eyes wide. She started to approach him, then stopped. She just stared at him, pale as a sheet, her lips trembling slightly.
"Hi, Mom," he said, and forced a tiny smile.
She took another step closer, then another. "Are you…"
"I'm okay. About as well as can be expected, anyway."
Two tears spilled down her cheeks. She bent and hugged him tight. "My baby," she whispered. "I was so afraid…when I heard, I…" She hugged him tighter for a moment, shaking. "I would die if I lost you. Do you know that?"
Warmth rose into his cheeks. He wrapped his arms around her and awkwardly hugged her back. After a moment, she pulled back, and her eyes anxiously searched his face. "How do you feel?"
"I'm fine, really. My leg doesn't even hurt that much. But then, they've probably got me pumped full of painkillers. Did the doctors say how bad it was?"
"You'll have to keep off it for awhile, obviously, and you'll need some physical therapy," his dad said. "But they think you'll make a full recovery…"
Just then, the door opened. Shikamaru looked up, and his heartbeat quickened. Gaara stood in the doorway, clad in white hospital clothes. A cut on his brow had been bandaged; more bandages dappled his arms, which were mottled with bruises. "Gaara," Shikamaru whispered.
Wide blue-green eyes gazed into his. "Shikamaru."
For a moment, they just looked at each other. Then Shikamaru sat up and said, "Mom, Dad, this is Gaara--my boyfriend." Amazing, how easily those words came from his mouth. Being kidnapped and tortured put things into perspective, he supposed.
His mom blinked, and her brow furrowed. "Your…" She looked from Gaara to Shikamaru and back again, her eyes clouded with puzzlement. "Your boyfriend?"
"Yes. We've been living together for awhile now." Shikamaru stretched out a hand. Gaara approached and took it, and Shikamaru squeezed his hand firmly.
His mother's eyes widened. She turned and stared at his dad, who gave her a smile and a small shrug. She took a deep, shaky breath. Then she extended a hand and said, "I'm Yoshino Nara, Shikamaru's mother. Pleased to meet you."
Gaara hesitated, then reached out and shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you."
Shortly after, a policewoman arrived in Shikamaru's hospital room and introduced herself as Officer Tsunade. "I just have a few questions to ask you about what happened," she said. Then—to the three other people in the room—"I'd prefer that he and I be alone for this, just to minimize distractions. You can wait just outside if you like."
Once she was alone with Shikamaru, Tsunade pulled up a chair and sat. "I know you're probably not in the mood to talk right now, and I don't want to cause you any unnecessary distress, but I'd prefer to ask you these questions while the events are still fresh in your memory. Do you think you're up to it?"
"Yeah," he said. Might as well get this over with. "Go ahead."
"The two men who kidnapped you were both wanted killers. Hitmen. You're aware of that?"
"Can you think of any reason why someone might have wanted you and your friend dead?"
Shikamaru hesitated. His chest tightened. He didn't want Gaara getting in trouble over this.
She must have seen the conflict on his face. "Believe me, this will be easier for everyone involved if you're honest with me. I don't believe that you or your friend have anything to worry about as far as legal repercussions. Those men who kidnapped you were responsible for over thirty known murders—including several police officers—and you and your friend both had marks of physical torture on your body when you were found. It's clear to me that you acted in self-defense. So please, just describe the events to me."
Shikamaru took a deep breath and nodded. He told her everything, starting with the three homophobes who'd attacked Gaara and him by the canal and the fight that followed. He told her how Gaara had disappeared, how Hidan and Kakuzu had found Shikamaru by the roadside and picked him up. Tsunade listened and took notes.
When he got to the part about how Hidan had shot the policewoman, a lump rose into his throat and he started to shake. It became harder and harder to keep his tone steady. At one point, he started to cry, and Tsunade waited quietly—respectfully—until he'd gotten a hold of himself again. He mopped his face with a handful of tissues and finished relating the events, ending with the moment he'd woken in the hospital. "And that's it, I guess."
Tsunade stood. "Thank you. Can I contact you if I have any more questions?"
"Yes." He gave her his number, then asked, "that guy, the one who hired Hidan and Kakuzu…where is he?"
"He fled the scene before the ambulance arrived. But we'll find him, I'm certain of that. We already have a few leads. Thank you for your time, Mr. Nara."
Shikamaru left the hospital later that day. His parents insisted that he spend the next few days with them. He would have preferred to go back to his apartment, where he could be alone with Gaara, but—not wanting to argue—he agreed…under the condition that Gaara be allowed to stay there with him. After nearly losing the love of his life, he was not inclined to let go of him again so easily.
His parents drove him back to their place, and he spent the next three days in his old room with the TV set up at the foot of his bed, being waited on hand and foot by his mother—who asked him in the softest, gentlest tones if there was anything special he wanted to eat, any movies he wanted to see, or if there was anything else she could do for him, anything at all. His father had always told him that she had a tender side, but he'd never quite believed it until now.
His friends all took turns visiting him. Ino (who was now on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant) sent him a bouquet of lilies and a get-well card. Chouji brought him a vintage NES system and a bunch of game cartridges to keep him occupied during his recovery...along with a stack of tapes he'd gotten off of E-Bay. "These are the worst movies I could find," he said. "Plan 9 From Outer Space, Deathstalker, the MST3K version of Manos, the Hands of Fate...that one is hilarious...oh, and in case you're in the mood for something that's actually good, I brought Inherit the Wind and Being John Malcovich too."
Shikamaru grinned. "Thanks, Chouji."
Naruto brought him a jumbo-sized box of ramen and a huge basket of candy.
All in all, Shikamaru thought it was entirely too much fuss over an injury that would probably heal completely within a few months. He might be limping about on crutches for awhile, but it wasn't like he was crippled for life or anything.
Gaara spent the entire time by his side, usually curled up in bed with him, his head on Shikamaru's shoulder. They watched TV together, but the images on the screen held no meaning for Shikamaru; his entire consciousness was focused on the warm, soft bundle of Gaara in his arms.
Late one night, as they lay dozing in each other's embrace, Shikamaru asked quietly, "What happened to Shukaku?"
"I absorbed him," Gaara said. "That's all."
A chill prickled up Shikamaru's spine. "Then he's a part of you now?"
"He was always a part of me. You're the one who taught me that. I just broke down the wall in my mind that separated him from the rest of me." He paused. "It hasn't been easy. There was so much anger behind that wall. So much hate. Letting all that flow into the rest of my mind was like swallowing a cup full of pus and sewer-water. But now that it's there, maybe I can deal with it. At any rate, I don't think the monster will come out anymore."
He pushed his fingers into Gaara's shaggy red hair and rubbed his scalp. "How do you feel?" he asked quietly. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know. That's a hard question to answer. I'm hurting and confused and tangled up in knots, but that's nothing new. And in spite of everything, I feel…relieved. Like I've been carrying a heavy weight for years and I finally put it down. I'll probably still have nightmares. I'll probably still have trouble sleeping, and cry out for you in the night when it becomes too much for me to bear on my own. But…for the first time, I feel like I can exist and live in spite of all that. I feel like living is worth the pain."
Shikamaru listened, and his father's voice echoed in his memory: Some injuries don't heal. They just become a part of you. Maybe true healing, he thought, was not an absence of pain, but the ability to accept and transcend it. His arms tightened around Gaara, and he kissed the corner of his mouth. "Thanksgiving is coming up pretty soon," he said quietly. "You still want to have dinner with us?"
"Yes." He gazed into Shikamaru's eyes and touched his cheek. "Are you all right, Shika? You endured worse than I did in that room."
He forced a smile. "I'll be okay."
Gaara frowned, his eyes filled with concern. He framed Shikamaru's face between his hands and—with a serious expression—leaned forward to kiss his brow, as if to kiss away the memory of that whole horrible night. Shikamaru's throat tightened and tears blurred his vision. He thought about the blood and brains spraying out the back of the policewoman's head as Hidan pulled the trigger.
He buried his face in the warm hollow between Gaara's neck and shoulder. His shoulders trembled, and his face contorted as he choked back tears.
Gaara stroked his hair. "Let it out," he whispered.
The dam inside him burst. Raw, animal sobs poured out of him. Gaara held him, rocked him and murmured words of comfort in his ear, but the tears kept coming. Shikamaru bawled like a child, in a way he hadn't allowed himself to do for a long time, and when the storm finally passed, he lay limp in Gaara's arms, feeling exhausted and heart-sore but strangely peaceful, strangely clean...as if all the gunk in his soul had been scraped out.
After awhile, he drifted off into a gentle, dreamless sleep.
After another few days at his parents' house, they returned to Shikamaru's apartment and more or less resumed their normal routine, except that Shikamaru still couldn't walk without a crutch. Gaara started seeing a psychologist—a soft-spoken, dark-haired woman named Dr. Kurenai—once a week. Chouji was still seeing Ino, who was still spending a lot of time in the hospital. In spite of that, she seemed to be in good spirits whenever Shikamaru saw her.
"I feel like I finally get it," she told him during one of these visits. "Like I've finally figured out what matters. I'm just sorry that it took me this long."
On Thanksgiving, all of them—Shikamaru, Gaara, Chouji and Ino—piled into the Volvo and drove to Shikamaru's parents' house for dinner. They had ham and sweet potato casserole with corn on the cob, and peach cobbler with ice cream for dessert.
Shikamaru watched as his mother set a pot of coffee on the table, along with two small dishes of cream and sugar. He still wasn't sure how she felt about his relationship with Gaara. Maybe she was saving that talk for after Shikamaru recovered from his injury—but for now, she seemed to be taking it in stride. Maybe having her only son kidnapped and hospitalized had put things into perspective for her, too; after something like that, making a fuss about his chosen mate would have seemed absurd. Or maybe he'd misread her all along and she had nothing against gay relationships. In any case, he was relieved.
Shikamaru held Gaara's hand under the table and stroked the palm with his thumb.
After pie and coffee, they all played Scrabble. It was almost 10:00 when the four of them finally left. They drove Ino back home, then returned to their own apartment. It had started to snow in soft, damp flakes—the first snow of the year.
Shikamaru and Gaara fell asleep cuddled up under the covers. Around 5:00 am, Shikamaru woke moaning, his leg throbbing. The pain felt like shards of hot glass embedded in his thigh muscles.
"Shikamaru?" Warm fingers stroked his cheek in the darkness.
"Just my leg acting up," he murmured. "Sorry to wake you."
"It's okay. I'll get your pain meds." Gaara climbed out of bed and returned a moment later with a full glass in one hand and two pills in the other. He placed the pills on Shikamaru's tongue, and Shikamaru downed them with a gulp of water.
"Thanks," he murmured and rubbed his thigh. "I don't know why it's hurting all of a sudden. Might be the weather." He lay in bed for a few minutes, Gaara's head resting on his shoulder. Soon the painkillers started to do their work, and the throbbing died down to a muffled ache. He gazed out the window and saw the trees blanketed with a paper-thin layer of snow. Dawn light spread across the sky, tinting the clouds pink and soft lavender. Shikamaru reached out and took Gaara's hand, and Gaara squeezed it tight.
"What do you see?" Shikamaru asked him, pointing out the window at the sky.
"I mean what do they look like to you?"
Gaara stared for almost a full minute. Then pointed and said, "That one looks like a tree. A little."
Shikamaru smiled. It was a start. He stared up at the clouds. "Hmm…that one looks like you."
"You see a lot of clouds that look like me."
"Yeah, I guess I do." He turned his head and saw Gaara gazing at him, his blue-green eyes soft and heavy-lidded. "Gaara…"
"I love you," he said.
Shikamaru pulled Gaara into his arms and held his head to his chest. He tried to speak, but a lump rose into his throat, cutting off his voice. His fingers wandered through Gaara's silky, sunset-red hair, smoothing errant strands into place. Gaara looked up at him, and Shikamaru brushed his thumb lightly against that smooth, pale cheek. Such soft skin. There were moments when this boy in his arms seemed too perfect to be real. Shikamaru's tear-ducts prickled, and liquid warmth welled up.
"Why are you crying?"
"Because you're so beautiful, sometimes it makes me ache just to look at you. And sometimes it feels like my heart is going to break because it's not big enough to hold all this love. I never realized it was possible to feel this much for someone. I never really believed in the idea of soulmates, but when I look at you, I can't imagine myself with anyone else. I can't imagine living without you now. I…I can't even put it into words, what you do to me. Sometimes it scares me, it's so strong. There are moments when I'm watching you sleep and I'm so overwhelmed with love, I start shaking and my heart starts pounding, and I just want to grab you and hold you tight and never let go. It's almost too much. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I don't want to go back to the way I was before I met you. I can't." Shikamaru paused and took a deep breath. "I guess that's a really long way of saying 'I love you, too.'"
Gaara looked at him with wonder. One finger touched a tear on Shikamaru's cheek. Then he framed Shikamaru's face between his hands and kissed him gently. Those warm hands wandered over his body, caressing him, pulling him closer.
They could not make love in the usual way, not with Shikamaru's leg still healing, but they found a quiet bliss under the blankets; hands, mouths, and the friction of soft skin against hard flesh was—in its way—as sweet, intense and intimate as penetration. Afterward, they lay panting softly together, feeling each other's heartbeats gradually slow as their sweat cooled in the early morning air.
After a long silence (during which he slipped in and out of a light doze), Shikamaru said, "I'm getting hungry. You want breakfast soon?"
"Can we have pancakes?"
Gaara paused, looking into his eyes. "I'm happy. I mean…really, truly. For the first time in my life. I'm happy."
Shikamaru hugged him close. "I'm glad," he whispered. "You deserve to be happy."
"Before I met you, the world was dark and cold. Now it's filled with light. How did you do that?"
"I don't know." He held Gaara a moment longer, resting his chin on that warm, sweet-smelling hair. "I don't really know anything about anything. Sometimes I'm still not sure who I am or why I exist. But maybe that's okay. Maybe it's enough just to be here. To be with you."
Gaara smiled, his green eyes half-lidded and filled with drowsy bliss. "I know who you are. You're Shikamaru Nara. You're kind and clever and brave and wonderful. And you're mine, and I love you, and I always, always will."
Shikamaru hugged him tighter. Morning sunlight crept in through the window and across the room, bathing Gaara's face, transforming him into an angel. Motes glimmered like fairy-dust in the air, and Shikamaru knew without a doubt that this image--this moment--would be imprinted in his memory until the day he died. In that moment he did understand: life, the universe, free will and destiny, time and eternity, God, love and all the rest. It was all there, in Gaara's eyes.