French
Vanilla

Shikamaru:

Temari obviously doesn't know how to answer a goddamn cell phone. I've tried about fifty times between last night and this morning to call and/or text her, and she doesn't reply to anything. Actually, her cell phone is off. She may be trying to avoid me.

Who the hell am I kidding? She is trying to avoid me.

"Shikamaru, it's Sunday! Stop sitting in your room like some emo brat and come downstairs!"

"Oh shut up, Chouji!" Why is he over here anyways?! He makes a habit of slipping into my house and making himself at home, although I'm starting to suspect a bit of an evil intention, judging by the way he always runs immediately to the kitchen and lets my otherwise terrifying mother stuff him with sweets.

"But I have good news!" he sings, attempting temptation, from outside of my door.

"Unless it's something that can put my life back together, I don't-!"

"Shikamaru Nara, stop yelling in my house!"

Snapping my mouth shut, I slam my head into my crossed arms on my desk in front of me. Of course, she doesn't snap at Chouji, just me. And wasn't she just yelling herself? She should sort out her strategies.

You know what, I blame Temari. She is making my life hell. I mean, she's the most beautiful girl I've ever met, she can make me laugh like no one else, and her smile is absolutely gorgeous. But it's like she's going out of her way to drive me crazy.

"And she doesn't know how to answer a goddamn cell phone!"

"Shikamaru, what did I just say?!"

"Oh come on, that wasn't even that loud!"

Part Four –
Chimney Stack

Hey, let's make a deal, okay?

I can't stop thinking about her.

Tomorrow, to make up for bothering me, you have to give me something.

I hear her voice in my head. And she didn't even say that out loud!

Because I feel like getting you something yourself, and that is whatever you ask me for.

Damn it! It was all going so smoothly and then I had to go and…god, I'm such an idiot.

"I don't care what you say about me. But don't embarrass TenTen."

My eyes widen. I stare at my desk beneath me and bite my cheek. Chouji's long gone by now. I know it. So why do I still have that familiar…warm feeling? That feeling…I know it. It's the feeling that…someone understands me. Someone knows me…

"I always thought you were…you know, the perfect guy with the perfect life. You're young, but you're in my grade and you're almost better than me. You get great grades without effort at all, as if you don't even have to study. You're really popular and you have a ton of friends. I always see you laughing with them like there's nothing on your chest at all."

What was Neji thinking when he said that? Me? Happy? Popular? I wish.

"You're not like me. I get so much pressure from my uncle to be perfect. I only have two friends, and the one girl that I've finally fallen in love with…she doesn't even want to talk to me."

Stupid idiot. He doesn't know what he has, TenTen is smitten with him!

"But I guess no one's perfect. Not really."

…I guess not.

I feel myself stand up without really any will to.

I think I know what that feeling is. The warm feeling, the warm satisfied feeling of knowing that you are understood. Yeah, sure, you feel good when you know there's at least one person that gets you.

But you're really lucky when you have more than one. And that is the warm feeling I can recognize anywhere.

Neji:

"So remind me why you're here," I say as politely as I can across the little table in my living room to Shikamaru.

"It's kind of hard to say," he says slowly with a sheepish laugh. I watch him, and try not to act as bitterly towards him as I feel.

It's…really hard, actually…

He seems to notice how much I really don't want to see his fat ugly face, and he coughs. "Um…Listen, I know you probably don't need my company right now."

"Need or want," I reply slowly. I sigh. "But I'll listen…This gives me an excuse to take a break from Trigonometry."

"…Yeah." Shikamaru folds his arms on the table and closes his eyes. "I…don't really know where to begin…"

Suddenly the door opens, and we both turn to see Hinata coming in. There's a gigantic box of cereal tucked under her left arm, and a tray of four whole coffees balancing in her right hand. She struggles to close the door with her left hand and her foot, and notices us staring at her.

"Oh, hello," she says, giving us a blushing, flustered smile, some hair splayed across her face. "Would you two like a coffee, by any chance? I got three extras. Apparently I stop by the corner store so many times a day they've decided to buy me a couple free things."

"That explains the three extra cereal boxes you had this morning," I say comfortably as Shikamaru stares at the girl with confusion. "I'll have a coffee. Shikamaru?"

"…Uh, sure, I could use one…" he says slowly.

Hinata lilts over, and slides the coffees off the tray with skill. She breaths out deeply, shaking some stray snowflakes from her shoulders. We stare at her, she stares at us.

"Well. Enjoy them," she excuses herself, and in a flash she's up the stairs.

"So…that's your sister?"

"No, my cousin. I live here with my uncle."

"…Oh! Really? Huh…"

"Yeah."

"…Your cousin seems…nice."

"…She's sweet, but I have my beliefs that she's slightly challenged."

"Ah."

"Yep."

"…So…"

"Well…it's French Vanilla."

"Huh."

"And…"

"And…?"

"You were at 'the beginning'."

"…Right."

Shikamaru:

Neji's proven to be better company that I thought he would. At least, taking a sip of this delicious coffee is helping me to find my words.

He watches me expectantly, and I take the cup from my lips, and hold it between my bandaged hand and my normal one. I look down at the rim of it, seeing some of the sweet beverage drifting around it nonchalantly. How I wish I could be that calm, that mellow.

I decide to say that out loud. Neji looks up at me. "You wish that?"

"Yeah. I hate it when troublesome crap comes into my life, like Temari, and like the zipper, and…" I sigh in frustration, letting my weight drop on the tiny little table and my arm spread out along it. "It's just, the things that I seem to care about the most in life come to me in the ways that I hate, but…at least, that's how I used to feel."

Neji fingers his untouched coffee in disinterest. "As in you no longer feel that way?"

"Yeah!" I prop my chin on my arm. "And you're the one I have to come to, because you understand as well, right?"

Neji slowly looks up at me. "So you come to my house on a Sunday night, when it's snowing and I'm in the middle of Trigonometry homework I don't think I'll ever complete correctly to tell me you believe I understand you?"

"…Damn straight."

He heaves a long, suppressed sigh, and lifts the coffee to his lips. He looks back at me, swallows, and says, "Well, you're right." I blink in surprise and lift my chin off my arm. "I do understand." He sets the coffee back down on the table, but does not let go of it. "Go on," he orders morosely.

I sit up straight again. "Well…" I search my mind for something to continue. "I think…What I really came over for was to tell you that I'm not going to hide from my problems anymore. Because they just come to me anyway. And I'm sorry for what I said to you, because we both kind of got ourselves into our own messes." I cross my arms on the table and look determinedly at him. "No one's perfect. Especially not us. But together…we give each other what we're missing, and I think that's what…makes me feel better about myself."

Neji stares at me, and takes another long drink of his coffee. I watch him, waiting for a response. He smiles suddenly, and looks at me again. "I think that's why I can love TenTen. You know?"

I grin. "Yup. I know what you mean."

"It's…perfect, for once."

I pick up my coffee with a shake of my head. "No, not perfect. There's always a piece missing, right?"

He taps a finger against the rim of his. "True."

We examine each other for a while, then both smirk, take a long drink of our French Vanilla coffees, and set them down with a splash on the table.

We both have a path to go down, and we might as well hurry up on it.

Laugh to Live

I am so pathetic. I'm walking through a crowded hallway, and I can't even make my way through it.

"Dude, Shikamaru, watch yourself."

I wince; shit. I just ran into Chouji. The can be one hell of a depressing experience, seriously. He has a painful tendency of stepping on your feet. "Sorry, man," I mumble, patting his chest slightly with my good hand. "I'm…tired. Had a hard time driving here, you know…"

"Uh huh." He turns so he's walking the same way I am. "I'm unconvinced. You wouldn't even come out from your room yesterday. Were you tired then too?"

"…Eh."

"…That's all you have to say. 'Eh'? Seriously?"

"…Yes."

"Man, you're so stupid sometimes." He grabs me by the arm and yanks me to the side of the hallway, out of the traffic. "Listen, we have two minutes before school starts, so let's make this short and brief but just as memorable. I have some good news that unfortunately you wouldn't even listen to yesterday."

I look at Chouji, but then I see Temari over his shoulder. She's talking to this really skinny girl from her grade, and looks kinda bored. Wow, she looks good. Her hair's up in these low pigtail…things. It's cute, it's really funny. Why do I think cute things are funny? I'm messed up, I know. I'm obsessed with her. But who can blame me? I mean, that body is amazing. I love the fact that she's not too skinny. Like the girl she's talking to. She has this weird frizzy brown hair, and she's like a fucking stick. Temari has…curves. Like the curves that make you wake up in the middle of the night after a you-know-what kind of dream, and say 'Holy damn'. And she has these thighs. They're not skinny, but they're not fat, they're just…thick, like her calves. Ah, thick calves are so hott when it comes to Temari, especially when she wears shorts…Oh my god, I hate it when she wears those jean shorts, though, I can never look away, it's just…It's like, hypnotizing, I want to fucking drool, that or grab her and pull her into a secluded room and-

"Shikamaru."

I blink and turn to Chouji. "Yes?"

He frowns at me disapprovingly. "You know, I hate it when people don't listen to me." He's suddenly whining. "Shikamaru, this is really good news! News you can appreciate!"

"Um…" I clear my throat. "What was it again?"

"You weren't listening."

"I…forgot."

Chouji sighs. "Fine, I guess you don't care about me and Ino."

"Chouji, you know I…what?!"

Woops. A little too loud. The entire hallway turns to stare, which is an annoying habit kids in High School seem to have. Temari stares as well, and there's a terribly heartbreaking moment in which we share a glance, which is broken when I realize why I let out that stupid little outburst in the first place.

"You're going out with her?! Seriously?!" I switch back to Chouji, and suddenly all sullen thoughts of Temari are swept away. That's an amazing thing about friends, you can forget about romance for a couple hours or days or so and be happy for them.

"Yeah, I asked her out and she accepted, I suppose," Chouji says with a shrug and a grin. "So you do care!"

Ignoring the awkwardness of that statement, I grab Chouji's arm, grinning. "Dude, that's awesome! Nice job, man!"

He laughs, and I try not to glance at Temari too often. She's just…staring at me, not even listening to what the girl talking to her is saying. No, no. It's Chouji's moment, right?!

I mean…everyone's getting lucky but me…So I should be happy for them, right? You know, Chouji and Ino, those two kids making out in a corner, Neji and TenTen over there by the doors…

What?!

"Oh, hey, I see her now. Later, man." Chouji pats me on the shoulder and walks away. My eyes are stuck on the two.

Neji has just pulled TenTen by the hand, yanked her over to the side of the hallway, and now she's looking like Jesus just landed in her front yard.

What. The. Fuck?

Why is everyone getting lucky but me?!

Neji:

Okay. This is it. This is totally it. I'm telling her now, and there's nothing anyone or anything can do about it. Okay, maybe that book she just dropped will. No! I will pick it up!

Shit. She's staring. Staring at me as I lean over awkwardly and grab her book. I quickly look down at the stupid thing as I get back up and hand it to her. "Sorry," I say under my breath, handing it to her. "It's probably my fault, I was…er, violent."

"It's…not your fault. My hands are kinda sweaty, haha." She laughs sheepishly and wipes one of her hands on her skirt…

Skirt?

My eyes stray slowly down to the little brown thing. It's made of some sort of fluffy corduroy…stuff, and it looks pretty fashionable, along with these knit brown Uggs and mittens and a hat…

Oh fuck it all, she's adorable. Why does she do this to me? Every day since I realized how much I loved the stupid girl, she's been dressing up! Or maybe I've only just started realizing it. I mean, I've been her friend all her life, and she's been mine, and suddenly…this, and…she suddenly looks so…

"Pretty…"

She blushes automatically, and I realize what I just said. Aloud. To her. I cough, and try to cover myself up. "U-Um…yeah, you look…pretty…" I say meekly.

"…Thank you!" she's barely able to squeak.

"…Yeah…"

"…"

"…"

"…"

"…"

"…So…what…what is it you needed to talk to me about…?"

"What…? Oh!" I resist the urge to hit myself. How the hell could I forget? Well…it…it started out like…this last time…Taking her hands in mine, without really realizing it.

"I can't…really find the words…but…just deal with me, please…"

I'm not going to let it pass me by again. It's like a candle that I can't let die.

"I just…can't hold it in any more, and it's like…I know I've been your best friend for…ever, and I know it's weird, and I know you always feel awkward around me, because…I feel awkward around you. But that…that's just one of the reasons I'm sure of it!"

"…Neji…"

I shake my head. "No, just…listen, I'm not going to end up like Shikamaru, and he's not going to end up like me. We're not the same, I don't even like the stupid kid. And I'm not going to end up as someone I don't like." I stare into her eyes as earnestly as I can, I can feel her hands sweating in mind and I don't care. "I don't want to hate myself anymore," I say softly. "And…you…"

…What…?

Wait, what's going on?

I…I don't…get it…

When did I kiss her?!

She parts from me, though, as soon as I realize she kissed me, and, with this sugary-sweet, magical, heart-wrenching smile she says, "I love you too, Neji."

I stare at her, wide-eyed.

"…Oh." She laughs a little, eyes darting towards mine and away constantly. "That's…that's good…"

She laughs again, and lets me kiss her back. Which is absolutely fantastic. I mean, love isn't as complicated as it seems, is it?

It's…simple, really…

Shikamaru:

"Hey!"

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

I turn to Temari, who's pushing past a few people trying to get into the classroom.

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

She gives this smile that makes me want to stab my eyes out.

Oh shit, oh shit.

It's so painful. Is that smile for me? Do I seriously deserve it?

"Listen," she starts almost eagerly, but I give her one nervous, breathless look, and speed-walk into the classroom.

Oh shit.

I can see from the corner of my eye her exasperated, disappointed look, but Asuma says, "Alright, kids, a test is today, so hurry up and get in your seats, and shut up if you want a good grade!"

Good. She slips next to me and leans over, however, and starts to whisper, "Okay, about yesterday-"

"Temari, Shikamaru! Flirt after class, for the last time!"

Temari groans under her breath and glares at me like it's my fault. Personally, I'm very satisfied. No problems from here on out, right? I smile smugly and discreetly as I take one of the tests that's being passed out.

This thing looks like it's going to take the entire hour.

Perfect.

…Huh. It seems I am a cowardly bitch. Wow, I should…I should really join a group or something…

The test isn't as hard as I thought it would be, and I fly through it quickly. But I make a point to double-check it, and when the hour's finally over, and my test is finally completed, I jump to my feet. I swear, I am getting out of this school as soon as I can, it's like some sort of prison.

I make my way through the hall, but unfortunately Temari's smarter than I thought. Hell, she's brilliant. Okay, maybe not as smart as I am…

…Huh. It seems I am full of myself as well. I think there's some sort of club that meets in the school's boiler room every Friday morning called TLCL. Teenagers Living Challenged Lives. Yeah…

Caught up in my idiotic thoughts, I'm pulled by Temari to the side of the hallway, and she grabs my arm, kisses me and…

Holy shit…

I think I'm dead. No, seriously. Is this what being dead feels like? Because it's amazing. This could never happen in real life. I'm making out with Temari Subaku. Yeah. I'm dead. I am so dead. Or dreaming. Yes, dreaming. This is another one of those dreams, just not as hard core or sexy or…

Well…it is just as…fucking amazing

When we part after a while, I stare at her in bewilderment, and she smiles. "I owed you that, didn't I?" she says breathlessly. "By the way, sure, I'll go out with you."

My eyes widen. She…got my note?

…Oh. I get it. Some kid must have given it to her in the assembly or something. Hah. I can see her now, reading the thing in the middle of some speech about why fifty percent of our school's senior class is currently contemplating suicide and what they can do about it, and she's grinning away thinking about what an idiot she was…

I am on a goddamn roll! Sweet!

"Um…I'm pretty sure I said two kisses…" I mumble almost hopefully.

She laughs aloud, and kisses me again, and holy shit it's awesome. I can't believe it. I've never been happier. There it is, as I pull her closer and caress her gently, that same old feeling. Warm and familiar. Like sipping a hot cup of French Vanilla coffee, like that one armed hug Chouji gives me whenever he's really happy, like shaking Neji's hand…

"...I think you said three kisses…"

"No, I said twenty seven."

"…Yeah, that sounds about right."

Neji:

I never thought a day could be better. A day filled with holding hands with TenTen, sharing smiles with TenTen, and Lee running around screaming about the powers of love. I don't really know what the hell that was about, but you know. I'm used to it. Hinata and her cereal, Hanabi and her tutu, my uncle and his…maliciousness…

You know, I figure once you can survive my family, you can weather anything, eventually.

But now, the day is over, and I have only to go home, do my homework, go to sleep, and wait for another one. And another. And another. And then a thousand more, forever, with TenTen, and Lee, and my freaky family…

So now, I just have to walk home and I figure I'll wait it out till then.

I open the doors of the school, and blink. God damn it, when will this snow melt already? I have to walk in this?

"Oi, Hyuuga!"

I blink and turn around. Was that Kiba? Sometimes he feels the need to say hello to me out his car window, and every time I wonder why the hell he even bothers, because I barely ever talk to the kid anyways, and…

…What the hell…?

Shikamaru grins out his open car window. "Hey! Want a ride?"

…Ah, whatever. The sun is shining, the snow is glittering, the kids in the parking lot are running around yelling to each other, and I have a ride with heat. Spring will be well worth the wait, but the wait is kind of nice too, isn't it?

"…Yeah, sure!"

Life is weird, and I'm used to it.

"Get your ass in here, it's fucking cold!"

I mean, I can't expect it to be perfect, right?

End Part Four

FIN