Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement intended.
Title: BREAK TO BREATHE
Rating: M / R
Summary: Neji has always been in control. There's just one problem. It's killing him. But sometimes being pulled back from the edge is just as dangerous as being pushed there. Shikamaru/Neji
Timeline: Shippuden. Neji and Shikamaru aged 17-18
BREAK TO BREATHE
by Okami Rayne
What the hell was I thinking?
Shikamaru snorted his annoyance and raised a hand, feeling the damp slap of leaves drag across his forearm. Rain weighed heavy on his lashes and he blinked against the downpour slashing through the canopy.
What a drag…
A drag that not only required him to pit stealth against the Byakugan, but strategy against an equally calculating mind. A tiresome chase with no promise of capture – just a big fat delay Shikamaru couldn't afford.
We don't have time for this…
The shadowed figure ahead of him jerked left.
Shikamaru skidded along a branch, the slick bark offering little friction. He caught himself with a curse. Gritting his teeth, his dark eyes narrowed in on the receding flutter of white and black robes.
Not the first time the Hyūga had veered unexpectedly, throwing the streamline pursuit into more of a labyrinth run-around. Shikamaru paused to gauge his position, his mind already ten steps ahead of this chaotic little cat and mouse game Neji was playing.
He's not playing. He's pissed. And a pain in the ass.
With a humourless quirk at his lip, Shikamaru launched into a spring, swinging his way along the higher levels of the canopies. He directed his path in a neat pincer movement, adjacent to the route Naruto had sent shadow-clones.
If he can be herded back to base then I've got a shot at using my shadow possession before the sun sets…
Shikamaru cast a grim glance at the darkening skies, already blanketed by turbulent clouds. Just his luck.
If this rain keeps up, I'm screwed…
He needed more light to establish shadow range and probably a miracle to pin the other ninja. If that succeeded, at least he could get Neji standing still long enough to…
Shikamaru cringed inwardly. For all his strategy, he hadn't considered what the hell he was going to say to Neji if or when he finally caught up with the bastard. He didn't even know what the hell had trigged this entire situation. Neji had flipped so damned fast that Shikamaru hadn't had time to process what had happened before the Hyūga was up and running. The moment Lee had made to intercept Neji had set him on his green-clad ass without a backward glance.
Neji hadn't pulled that punch.
And Naruto had followed suit by failing to control his outrage. The knucklehead had catapulted into a bundle of hot-headed fury, reacting instead of responding.
Maybe seeing Neji lash out at a comrade had reminded him of Sasuke – who knew? But the last thing anyone needed was Naruto projecting his pain and his codes of friendship onto an unstable teammate in an unpredictable mindset.
Not like Neji to be unhinged. He's the most controlled guy I know.
Shikamaru shook his head, flicking rain from his lashes. He suddenly wished he hadn't sent Naruto in the wrong direction. But it was safer and saner that way. The Uzumaki was a tool to divert Neji's path. Shikamaru had no intention of allowing that well-intentioned but badly-timed loudmouth to confront the angry Hyūga.
Oil on fire.
There were too many unknown variables in the situation and while Naruto's heart was in the right place, his reaction often bypassed his brain straight to his mouth; heated words would make the situation worse.
Play it safe. Stop Neji first. That's the priority.
Shikamaru jolted to a crouch on the next bough, chakra flooding to his feet to balance him. Squinting through the downpour, he caught sight of Neji dropping to ground level a few metres away.
At least he's stopped.
Shikamaru inched closer, taking a circular route. Not that it would do much to disguise his approach from the Byakugan.
Well, he's not bolting.
Neji remained crouched in the clearing as if winded, his thick mane falling over one shoulder, slick and heavy from the rain. Thin rivulets chased along the plastered contours of the robes he wore, giving definition to muscles bunched and quivering dangerously. From his elevated vantage point, Shikamaru estimated the distance and made his move, sliding down to ground level without a sound, still entertaining the idea that he was keeping out of sight.
Yeah right. He'll clock my move before I've got a chance in hell.
As if that wasn't troublesome enough, the rain showed no sign of passing, which left him with one workable option.
Dammit. Didn't wanna have to use this…
Shikamaru's mouth thinned into a tight line, his expression grim. He slid his hand into his ninja bag, extracting a small terracotta orb Naruto had given him. All the while he kept his eyes on the target. If Neji sensed him, he wasn't about to react. Strange. The crumpled posture seemed so alien to the Hyūga's normal bearing; cool, composed…
Shikamaru blinked slowly, calculating range before he let the orb fly. It struck the ground a short distance from Neji, shattering its oily contents and catching alight.
The Hyūga jerked his head up, lunar eyes narrowing.
Shikamaru's hands formed a sign. The conflagration roared, casting a black swathe of shadows around the clearing.
Neji didn't move.
If that wasn't enough cause for concern, Shikamaru was almost knocked for a six when he felt the taut tug of his shadow possession jutsu, indicating that he'd caught the other ninja almost instantly.
What the hell? He's way off his game!
Straightening up, he watched Neji mimic his motions. The fire continued to rage, unaffected by the rain as Shikamaru began to close the distance between them, feeling the ground squelch beneath his sandaled feet. The Hyūga met him halfway, but the pale-eyed ninja's face was obscured by the long veil of his bangs, strands of mocha sticking to the hollows of his cheeks, those elegantly crafted features cast in shadow and firelight.
"Release me, Nara." It wasn't a request.
Great. Now what?
Shikamaru cocked his hip and squinted through the rain. "No need for me to be subtle about this. I'm not letting you go until you tell me what the hell you were thinking laying Lee flat out like that."
"Let me go." The low, deadly drop in Neji's voice added unnecessary chill to the rain pelting their skin to numbness. "Now."
"Not gonna happen. Sorry." Shikamaru watched Neji's gaze cut toward the spitting flames. The Nara's lips curved lazily."Gotta love toad oil, right? Even more effective than napalm. This will burn for a while yet."
"You really don't want to test me, Nara."
"Really not looking to," Shikamaru drawled, affecting nonchalance. "Hell, I'm really not looking for a confrontation of any kind. If you haven't already noticed, I'm not all that into swinging my fists at my comrades. Not really my idea of resolving anything."
"Lee has taken worse hits. Now release me."
"Kinda underestimating your not so 'Gentle Fist', Hyūga."
Shikamaru watched something etch into the grit of Neji's teeth, a tightness that stretched not just along his jaw, but all the way along the chords in his pale throat. The tendons flexed and locked as if choking back a scream.
Shit. What the hell is going on with him?
"I just wanna talk, Neji."
"Let me go, Nara, or I will make you."
Shikamaru let a dark brow sketch upward and made a show of stretching his arms out before jamming his hands at his hips, watching as Neji was forced to mirror his motions.
"Not in the position to be making empty threats, Neji – even if I did think you had a chance against me right now."
"Say that without your shadows saving you," the Hyūga hissed and his ghostly eyes flared murderously, dark lashes unblinking against the rain.
Shikamaru resisted the urge to smile.
Guess his pride's still good to go. No bad thing…could use it to my advantage.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, playing on the Hyūga's predictable ego. "You're way off your game. Even if you did land a hit on Lee, it was only because he let his guard down, not having expected his friend to attack him."
"He got in my way."
Shikamaru's eyes narrowed a fraction. "Yeah, you're starting to sound like a certain someone. Wanna play three guesses?"
"Don't mock me, Nara. Much less insult me by painting me with the same brush as Uchiha." Neji's low, almost hypnotic tones turned sour, deeper. "Our minds are entirely different."
"So prove me wrong – 'cause right now, you're acting like a Class-A asshole."
Shikamaru blinked. Those words, coming from Neji, just sounded so wrong. Totally incongruous. Almost too crude for someone as eloquently spoken as the Hyūga. But the insult coloured the air a darker shade between them, hanging unpleasantly.
Think quick, dammit - can't hold him like this forever.
"So what was it, Neji? One minute we're on the trail of an Akatsuki impersonator and the next you're bipolar. Wanna fill me in?"
Neji's jaw flexed. He offered nothing else.
Shikamaru adjusted his posture, forcing Neji to straighten up and face him more directly. Shit lot of good that did. The Hyūga showed no sign of dropping the massive stonewall he'd pulled up. Shikamaru heaved a sigh. This really was a drag, but more than that, it was starting to grate on his preserved grain of patience.
"So it's like that, huh?"Shikamaru frowned and tried to ignore the uncomfortable chill of the rain – or maybe it was a chill inspired by those cold eyes. "Guess this means you're gonna make me pull this puzzle apart right? What a damned drag."
He should have guessed as much.
"Okay then…" He closed his eyes, running back along the timeline. "So I'm thinking it was something Naruto said. You broke team back when the idiot gave his routine morale booster." Shikamaru cracked an eye open, immediately gauging Neji's expression. No shift in the angry set of the other ninja's face.
Damn. Keep digging.
"It wasn't anything that noticeable, but our group formation wavered a little. I knew because I was about to suggest we change it – but funny enough you were a few steps behind rather than ahead. Not like you."
Nothing. Neji continued to glare.
Shikamaru re-considered the events, searching for the catalyst of Neji's fury and the following need to flee. When it came to fight or flight, fear was often the determining factor.
Weighing up his next words, Shikamaru studied Neji for a moment. "Not like you to run away either."
Neji's nostrils flared. "I'm not running away from anything."
"Could've fooled me. I'm almost flattered, considering it was me who was chasing you."
"Tch! Don't get ahead of yourself, Nara."
No kidding. I'm not getting 'anywhere' by the looks of it.
Shikamaru smirked, shifting mental gears. "Maybe I've got it wrong. Maybe it wasn't Naruto. I mean, it was Lee that you took a swing at." He paused, pretending to consider what he'd already prepared. He played the pride card. "But then he only got in front of you to stop you from running away when you got all spooked and freaked out."
Neji bared his teeth. "I was not running away. And I did not freak out."
Shikamaru read the reaction and rolled with it before Neji could recover. "So what was it? Seems pretty pointless to run from your friends, which makes me wonder whether you were running from yourself."
Neji's top lip curled back again, a veritable snarl. "Shut your mouth and stop interfering!"
Shikamaru shifted forward, forcing Neji to do the same, closing a little more distance between them. Each step drew more tension into Neji's expression, as if he were being pulled onto territory he didn't want to confront.
"You break team like that and you're bound to land us in shit. And I'm not gonna risk anyone getting hurt because you can't keep it together." Shikamaru paused here, frowning as he looked Neji over. "And what's even more crazy about all this is that you're not the kind of guy to cut and run, let alone freak out."
"I did not "freak out". Don't speak to me like you know me."
"I know you don't often lose control of yourself like that."
Neji's eyes narrowed. "As if you'd have any idea as to what I'm thinking!"
Shikamaru felt the faintest twinge in his gut. A warning tug in his chakra alerting him to the weakening of his shadow possession. Out the corner of his eye the firelight began to sputter a little. It forced him to refocus his efforts with a quiet growl. But Neji was fighting him now; he could feel the strain of the Hyūga's opposing energy.
Neji smirked, glancing between the shadow-nin and the flames. "You're losing your foothold and your firelight, Nara. You can't hold me for long."
"Lucky you. What are you so afraid of?"
Neji scoffed, but the sound caught in his throat, almost sounding choked. "I don't think about fear, much less entertain it."
Shikamaru frowned slightly, his mind quickly assessing the other ninja's expressions, trying to read what was playing behind them. Not an easy thing to do with someone as guarded as Neji – though the Hyūga's words told Shikamaru what the ninja's face wouldn't.
"Fear's not always something you 'think'. It's an emotion. And it's basic to any human. Everyone feels fear, Neji."
"It doesn't enter my mind. And I'm not everyone."
"Yeah well, last time I checked you were still human."
What? Shikamaru blinked, thrown by the words. His momentary hesitation cost him, granting Neji a toehold in the same instant it took for Shikamaru's chakra to waver. The Nara's shadow snapped back. The second it did Neji came at him, but not with the grace of the Gentle Fist. No – this was a straight-faced punch without calculation or consideration for technique.
It was desperate…almost sloppy.
So not Neji.
Shikamaru felt the graze of knuckles across his cheekbone, a near-miss that gave him time to regain his footing. They turned simultaneously, both delayed by the heavy grip of the mud. Shikamaru played on Neji's uncharacteristic lack of focus, preparing to launch a counter-attack, his mind leaping ahead.
He paused mid-strategy and fell back a step.
Not worth it.
To raise the bar in this fight would only encourage Neji to readjust his approach and up his game. That was the last thing Shikamaru needed – so he dropped his plan, precision and his pride. He twisted, braced and launched, tackling Neji around the waist in a tussle that would have been embarrassing had any other ninja been watching them.
There goes my reputation…
Good thing he didn't give a shit.
Neji, not having expected the direct approach, went down with a startled grunt, landing with a wet splat against the earth. The thick pulp of earth and leaves seeped between his fingers as they clenched in the soil, forming a fist that he swung toward Shikamaru's jaw.
"Get off me!"
Shikamaru caught the punch, much to the Hyūga's surprise. But then, what the hell were they doing? Tussling like untrained kids in the mud? It was ridiculous and beyond embarrassing! Neji growled, attempting to lodge his heels into the ground, but it gave way with a squelch and slide. Shikamaru had the advantage, his thighs bracketing the pale-eyed ninja as he rammed his arm across Neji's throat, smacking the Hyūga's head back.
"Quit acting like an idiot!" Shikamaru snapped, irritated now, because what was a troublesome drag was now starting to really piss him off. They didn't have time for this. They were supposed to be on a mission.
Neji snarled, his eyes flaring, but his Byakugan remained oddly dormant. "Call yourself a ninja? Your moves are pathetic."
Why is he holding back? He could easily dislodge me.
Shikamaru only slanted his arm more aggressively, pressing harder as he glared down, the rainwater dripping from his nose and chin, splashing against Neji's headband. He switched tactic again, his voice edging off aggression.
"Quit the bullshit and talk to me, dammit. We're on the same side aren't we? Hell, I could push it and call us friends."
"We're not friends."
"But we're comrades! Tell me what's wrong!"
"No!" Neji bucked his hips, raising a hand to latch at Shikamaru's throat.
"Shit!" Shikamaru craned his neck back, attempting to retain his position. "What did you mean you didn't think you were human? What the hell's wrong with you, Hyūga!"
"Get off me!" The Byakugan flared to life, pinching the skin around Neji's eyes with a ferocity that knocked Shikamaru before the hit connected.
The shadow-nin sprawled back with a grunt, blinking rain from his eyes. When his vision cleared, he found himself staring up into a portrait of fury, the ends of Neji's hair tickling his face.
Neji's hand fisted in his flak jacket, jerking him upright so their noses almost touched. Angry breath fired across Shikamaru's face, causing him to squint as he glared back.
"You think you can get condescending with your logic, Shikamaru?" he hissed, jerking Shikamaru onto the balls of his feet. "You cannot hope to understand me. Don't insult me with your attempts to even try. You don't know me! You have no idea what is in my mind!"
Shikamaru ground his teeth, anger threatening to eclipse his confusion, though his mind retained its sharp edge, looking for cracks in Neji's rage. The breaks were there, he could sense them. Hairline fractures beneath the angry mask. There had to be a trigger to all this.
Think, dammit! Was it Naruto? Lee? Something set him off. Was it the sappy crap they were blabbering on about?
Shikamaru's eyes rounded.
Neji frowned, deciphering the expression on his face with a scowl.
"Don't look at me like that!" Neji snarled. "Defend yourself!"
Shikamaru shook his head, gripping Neji's wrist to take the pressure off – but he didn't try to pull away. "Wouldn't think something like that would affect you like this."
Neji's eyes widened. A brief betrayal of emotion that soon had his white orbs narrowing into silver slits, he spun violently, dragging Shikamaru with him.
"I see you've formed some pathetic theory!" The Hyūga spat, slamming Shikamaru into the nearest tree, hearing the solid smack of skull on bark. "Well save it. I've heard it all before. People trying to decipher what I'm thinking, trying to work me out. Pitting two good minds against each other – is that your game? Enjoy losing, Nara. My head does not need to be fixed."
"You've got it all wrong…" Shikamaru coughed, shaking his head to knock the momentary fuzz from his brain. "You idiot."
Neji blinked, taken aback. "What?"
Shikamaru rested his head back against the rough chafe of the bark, his expression oddly calm. "You're wasting energy defending your head – but that's not the problem…is it?"
Neji's angry mask fractured slightly. "What are you talking about?" he hissed.
Shikamaru's lip twisted in a bleak smile and Neji tensed at the sight of it. His grip tightened around Shikamaru's throat, but he didn't exert enough pressure to cause any real damage, just enough to restrict movement.
Shikamaru was unfazed. "Think I'm tryin' to get inside your head? Why bother trying to work out what's on your mind when it's not about what you're thinking. My guess? It's about what you're feeling…"
Neji's panting breaths halted abruptly. He glared into the calm, unwavering gaze of the other ninja. "Don't be ridiculous…"
"You can lie to yourself, but I can see through it…"
"There's nothing to see through."
"Yeah, there is. Just now, every time I asked you what you were feeling, every time I mentioned fear or something emotional you immediately turned it into something logical." He searched Neji's ghostly pale face, noting the tightening expression. "You immediately told me I couldn't understand what you were thinking, what was in your head, on your mind. You're way too defensive, ergo, the truth is that it's not about that at all."
"It's not me, Lee or Naruto that's the problem. So what is it? Some emotion nerve got rubbed up the wrong way?"
Shikamaru felt the fingers at his throat twitch, then slacken their grip. "I'd advise you to shut up while you're still breathing, Nara."
Shikamaru didn't flinch, his gaze trailing Neji's face slowly. "You're the calmest guy on our team –"
"Shut up, Nara."
"—Always keeping your cool. Up at dawn and meditating…always centred in your head…but totally shut down emotionally…"
Shikamaru's eyes softened slightly, his voice falling to a murmur. "You're right, Neji. Your mind is fine. You're totally together in your head, but your emotions are so outta whack you don't know what to do with them…right?"
The white eyes grew wide and fierce, but not with anger. The Byakugan was gone. Shikamaru shook his head, a hint of regret tugging at the corner of his eyes. He worked his words out around the shaking grip at his throat.
"So what is it? Being surrounded by people as emotional as Naruto and Lee? In the past it was easier for you right? You could hide your feelings behind this destiny shit and that logical anger against the division in your clan. Kinda like Sasuke…"
Neji's fingers almost cut off his air supply. "Don't you dare compare me to that—"
"It's true," Shikamaru wheezed, craning his neck back enough to speak. "Like him, you also had a grudge and a justified reason to act like an asshole…but now, instead of that grudge you've got a damn decent team willing to lay their lives on the line for you. And you're willing to do the same, aren't you? Like you did back with Kidōmaru when we went after Sasuke three years ago…"
Neji's eyes flickered, but his grip at Shikamaru's throat began to lax again, a shake chasing along his left arm as he desperately tried to keep it steeled and steady.
"Sasuke was a mission. It was our duty."
"Yeah, I know you don't believe that."
Neji's arm snapped taut again. "Don't tell me what I believe, you bastard!"
Shikamaru sucked a sharp breath through his nose in preparation for a throttle, but when Neji didn't follow through his expression relaxed into something just shy of a smile. "Gotta admit that we just act on instinct sometimes. But a different kind of instinct. One that doesn't come from using our heads."
"I wouldn't know," Neji snarled, but it sounded clipped – forced.
"Yeah, not really buying that either…" Shikamaru hummed, testing the waters with his next words. "I'm guessing that place scares the shit out of you."
Neji cracked his fist across Shikamaru's face. But there was no satisfaction in seeing Shikamaru's head whip to the side…because it didn't stop him from speaking. It didn't make the words any less horrifying to hear.
"So…" Shikamaru worked his jaw and spat blood to the side. "It's not about you hating people trying to anticipate your thinking or trying to work out your mind. It's about people digging a little deeper than that, right?"
"Speak again and I'll make it so you can't." That might have sounded convincing, if Neji's voice hadn't shook.
Shikamaru ran his tongue along his teeth, tasting copper. He turned his eyes back to Neji, straightening up against the tree again. "Why? Does it piss you off so bad to hear people being emotional because you're so damned repressed?"
An animal sound of impotent frustration caught in Neji's throat. Incredulous, he ripped his hands back, stepping away as if Shikamaru were radiating something toxic. These barbed, confusing words touched parts of him he didn't want to even think about.
"Shinobi must be beyond their emotions." Neji scowled, hesitating for a moment before continuing on. "It clouds our judgment. It makes us careless…"
Shikamaru remained still against the tree, frowning. "It doesn't make us careless. It makes us care…and it can make us strong. It makes the crap we do bearable…"
Shikamaru dragged the back of his wrist across his mouth to wipe away the blood and rain, his eyes narrowing. "And you'd wanna throw that away cause you're too damned scared to admit that you're afraid of something. Hell. You're afraid of your own fear. That's just stupid."
Neji's fist knocked Shikamaru's head into the tree – again.
"I am NOT afraid, you bastard!"
"Then why are you running!" Shikamaru yelled, dark eyes cutting sharper as he snapped out a kick that forced Neji to hop back. "Naruto might act like a loudmouth idiot, but there's truth in all that shit he says! We're people! Feelings tend to come with the package of being human. And it makes us strong!"
Neji's lips twisted into a snarl, his voice raw and shaking. "You're wrong!"
Shikamaru returned the snarl, staring through the downpour, his voice rising in tandem with his anger. "Damn you're dense! Did Sasuke inspire you or is this bullshit just innate stupidity?"
"Fool! Sasuke was the epitome of why emotion makes you weak!" Neji roared, slashing his hand through the air to emphasise the conviction in his words.
Shikamaru frowned, confusion breaking up his glare "What the hell are you talking about?"
Neji choked out a bitter laugh limed with frost. "Don't you get it, Nara? Sasuke thought he was in control. But when pushed to his limit, he truly had no control. He was so consumed by his emotions that they corrupted him. If he had used his head, he would never have left."
Shikamaru frowned. "So what – you think his logic would have saved him in that state? It doesn't work that way."
"Of course it does. If Sasuke had not felt as he did…he would never have turned to the darkness…he would never have allowed those emotions to twist him into a monster…"
"It was because he felt so much, that he was driven to find a way to eradicate the source of his pain!" Neji stopped there and huffed out a bitter, breathy chuckle. "Even if logic couldn't have saved him, it wasn't logic that destroyed him…it wasn't his mind…it was what was in his heart. It was what he felt."
Shikamaru paused, his eyes losing focus and his breaths sloughing roughly as he considered these words. Suddenly, the world turned on its axis.
The Nara's gaze dropped down. Sasuke may have shared Neji's once arrogant sense of superiority, but what Neji was saying was true – Sasuke had been emotional – no matter how much he'd tried to remain aloof and untouchable. It was all a ruse. All a lie.
Shikamaru lifted his gaze back to the opal-eyed ninja, realising that despite Neji's anger towards his own clan, the Hyūga had remained irrefutably controlled, only letting loose when given the opportunity and permission by others. Even when he'd lost that control to anger, making a move to kill Hinata, it was still within the bondage of an opportunity that had been given to him. The examination. The rule of no rules applying. But Sasuke…Sasuke had made opportunities; control be damned. The Uchiha had actively sought opportunity out, going against regulation, logic and destiny – even his friends and teachers. His entire village.
Shikamaru studied the Jōnin, his eyes losing their anger, clouding with a kind of sad confusion. Neji was so controlled he wouldn't even step beyond the fixed borders of his own rules, let alone the rules of anyone else. He wasn't even like Sai. Sai didn't know any better – he lacked a frame of reference and understanding. But not Neji…Neji knew it and could even understand it logically; he knew what it was like to feel emotion…but he would notallow himself to express it. He kept it so tightly bound up.
It was crazy…how could he live like that?
He can't…Hinata was right those years ago…he's suffering…but the moment he acknowledges it…he risks losing control completely…hell, when Hinata told him the truth to his face he almost killed her…
Shikamaru swallowed. His eyes traced over Neji slowly, coasting along the elegant yet tragic features as if seeing him for the first time. Neji was oblivious to the observation – the Hyūga was staring at his hands in consternation, as if he could will them to stop trembling.
He can't…this isn't about mental will-power anymore…he's at a different kind of limit…he's reached his breaking point…shit…
Shikamaru found himself taking a step forward, not really knowing what the hell his body was doing when his mind was still too busy processing the magnitude of the situation.
Shit, just that sappy talk was enough to trigger this? Well what a drag…they always say its something small that finally does it…
Shikamaru found that despite his mind urging him to take a moment to rethink this potentially disastrous situation – which involved taking a big step back – his feet kept moving forward, slowly closing distance. Neji didn't even seem to notice, he was still too busy glaring at his hands, offended by the betrayal in his body. But there was something else playing behind his eyes. Fear. Blind fear. The kind that made people do reckless, crazy shit. Shikamaru resisted the urge to sigh. This was not going to be easy. Not only that, he found that he was drawn to offer some kind of consolation he wasn't even sure he was equipped to give.
"Get away from me…"
"Not gonna happen, Neji. Sorry."
"Don't…" Neji began to shift back, his foot sliding automatically as his palm raised upwards, assuming a stance that indicated he was ready to attack if pushed.
Shikamaru didn't stop. He continued to approach, albeit slowly and against his better judgement. For some reason, he just couldn't turn away from this.
Neji's voice was hard, but his eyes gave him away. "Back off."
"I said back off…" Neji warned.
Shikamaru shook his head. "I can't. You're my comrade. In this case, I'm responsible for you."
"You have it backward, Nara. You're not the Jōnin…" Neji hissed, his eyes locked onto the back of his hand. It shook violently. He clenched his fist. "Damn it…"
"You see what you're doing to yourself? Jōnin or not, it wouldn't matter if you were the damn Hokage. Your body can't even contain it. Stop fighting it."
"If I can't fight it, then I shall fight you…"
Neji sprung, the edge of his hand slicing through the air in a knife-palm that caught and slid along Shikamaru's forearm.
"Stop it!" Shikamaru ducked another strike. "I'm not gonna fight you, you idiot!"
"I've removed your say in the matter."
"Dammit," Shikamaru hissed, twisting sharply to brace in a cross-hit with the Hyūga. Their eyes met across the lock of their arms. "So that's your plan? To keep avoiding it? Worked wonders for you so far, right?"
The threat in Neji's eyes didn't translate into his actions. The Byakugan remained inactive and his hands carried no lethal chakra. He tried to dislodge his arm, snapping his elbow toward the hinge of Shikamaru's jaw. His strike was blocked, tangling them closer.
"Whatever it is, it's only gonna get worse, the more you deny it!"
Neji roared, the rain splashing off his hitai-ate and washing down his faintly tortured expression. "Shut up!"
"You're supposed to be a genius, Neji, but you're acting like a complete moron!"
"Fuck you! Don't think you know me!"
"Back to the head shit? Aaw man, you're really starting to piss me off!" Shikamaru had no idea where it came from, but a surge of utter fury exploded from his gut, pushing adrenalin into his body that fuelled into his fist.
The hit would never have connected had the Byakugan been active. But Neji was holding back and it cost him. Shikamaru watched the other ninja crash against a tree. A choked cough spluttered from Neji's lips, but before he could recover, the whistle of shuriken sounded – the glint of wires flashing as they roped around him, securing him to the solid trunk. A series of kunai lodged into his robes, missing flesh but adding security to the effective pin.
Neji's eyes flared, his body drawing deadly still. "Bastard…"
"Now settle down, dammit!" Shikamaru stormed over to grip Neji's jaw, pushing his head back. "You really believe this is gonna solve anything?"
"You gutless coward. Fight me!"
"You really think that laying into me is gonna make you feel any better!"
Neji panted a curse, drawing Shikamaru's attention to the bloodied lips. "I'd rather fight you than listen to another word of your pathetic drivel."
"Why, too close to the truth for you?"
"You're the one who's running, Hyūga!" Shikamaru's fingers tightened at Neji's jaw, digging into the hinge as he leaned closer. "We playin' role reversal here or what? It's not like you to run away."
"But it's every bit your nature, Nara," Neji snarled, half-panting.
Shikamaru smirked, his own breath shattering out. "As natural as breathing, but you're still the one running here."
Tension crackled between them, sparks of latent violence and something else igniting at the proximity. They clawed their gazes over each other, intense and primal with an almost carnal aggression.
"I'm going to kill you for this," Neji hissed, his breath flooding out against Shikamaru's mouth.
The second it did, Shikamaru felt an unexplainable static blistering along his synapses, short-circuiting something vital in his brain. Sending a signal to his body so impulsive it took a hold of him before he could process it.
"What the hell a—!" Neji was silenced – but not by a fist or sharp word, but by Shikamaru's hot, angry mouth crashing above his.
A/N: Well here it is! My first chapter for my first story. I would really, really appreciate any feedback or thoughts, especially if you enjoyed it. Us writers thrive on the reception of our work! Thanks so much for reading!