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 (pre-Hidan and Kakuzu arc)
BREAK TO BREATHE
by Okami Rayne
[Dedicated to Bre]
The clouds were holding the moon.
Gossamer, wispy streaks that created a vision of ghost-like arms embracing the glowing sphere. Watching the moon now, reminded Neji of the talismans he'd touched back in the cabin at Hanegakure.
The moon hung as smooth and round as polished silver, fixed on a cloak of midnight.
Brightness burning cold.
Neji wished he could reach up and take it between his fingers, flip it, brush his thumb over it and feel the imprint of a different destiny, a less futile fortune.
The stars shivered.
Neji tilted his brow up, his temple brushing Shikamaru's gently. The shadow-nin's leg tensed, stretched out, then knocked back against his again. They sat with their backs to the tree, cradled in tree roots and slanted against each other, shoulder to shoulder, knee-to-knee.
Neji watched a wisp of Shikamaru's breath float away on the cold air, drawing his gaze across to the heavy-lidded eyes settled on the lake rather than the sky. In the moonlight, those sharp, silver-lined features took on a hazy glow. Like powered light had settled on Shikamaru and if he moved, it would slip off him like stardust.
Neji couldn't help but see the poignancy in it.
If cosmic forces had created this unnamed thing between them, then to feel this stolen time slipping through his fingers like dust rather than sand seemed fitting somehow.
"You used to give me shit for staring," Shikamaru murmured quietly.
"I'm not staring at you. I'm watching you."
Shikamaru's lips quirked weakly. "Pedantic, much? And yeah, you used to give me shit for that too."
Neji hummed quietly, letting his gaze stray towards the lake. "Well, you always saw too much, didn't you?"
He didn't get an immediate response to that. In fact, Shikamaru remained quiet for long enough that Neji suspected no answer would come. When it did, it misted away on a breath that puffed out soft and tired.
"Not always," Shikamaru sighed.
Neji curled his fingers into a loose fist to keep from reaching across. "Where do you go from here, Nara?"
Shikamaru shrugged, the movement rubbing their shoulders in a nudge. "In whichever direction the Godaime kicks me. I'm not exactly into final goals."
Neji pondered that, hedging his next words carefully. "And is that why you joined the Nijū Shōtai?"
Shikamaru stiffened beside him. "Hn. Sneaky."
"Somewhat," Neji replied, deliberately vague, although a case of eavesdropping was more to credit than any espionage work on his part. "I'm curious as to your motives."
"Kotetsu running his mouth off, huh?" Shikamaru muttered.
The speed at which the shadow-nin put that one together had Neji's lips curving.
"I don't suppose his words to Ino and Chōji were intended to carry beyond earshot."
"You stooped to the mere-mortal level of eavesdropping, Hyūga?" Shikamaru smirked at the thought, shaking off his irritation. "Damn. How the mighty fall."
Neji scowled, tucking his chin back as he looked across. "I was attempting to locate you. I have no interest in idle gossip."
"Yeah? Well rumour has it you don't need that to 'locate' someone."
Neji hesitated, glancing away. That was true enough. While he'd located Shikamaru using his dōjutsu, he'd only eavesdropped to glean information off Chōji and Ino regarding the shadow-nin's current disposition. He'd filtered out and discarded any useless chatter, which had narrowed facts down to exactly what Neji had suspected. Shikamaru's chameleon act remained intact, no matter what was broken beneath the surface.
On that thought, Neji glanced across again. "Byakugan or not, just like you, I don't always see as much as people assume I do."
"The head-butt tally seriously backs that up."
Opal eyes flickered with amusement. "Well if rumour is correct about the size of my ego, it would insist that I make a lasting impression, however barbaric."
Shikamaru caught and held his gaze for a fleeting, intense moment, then slanted his jaw away with a throaty chuckle. "Yeah, thanks to you I'm gonna have a 'lasting impression' of the Leaf symbol stamped into my head."
Neji pinched his lips to keep from smiling.
I will miss this…
The lightness flitting in and out of the stolen moments was like a firefly of humour hovering between them, welcome and warm, but struggling against the encroaching black. Neji felt the stillness fall in around them again, heavier with each second slipping by.
In the beginning, it had irked him beyond measure to be drawn into these bantering exchanges with Shikamaru. Mostly because they had caught him, confused him, challenged him and pushed him to laugh, smile and otherwise set down his mask.
And given the literal mask he needed to take up, these were dangerous slips.
Slips I cannot afford…
Because for everything that had changed, his desire for freedom remained steady and unyielding. The stolen freedom and rest he'd found with Shikamaru could not save him from the cage of his clan's traditions.
I cannot live that way…
Shikamaru had saved him from himself, but now he needed to protect and strengthen what was left before the pieces became too scattered apart to ever be put back together again.
And then there was the question of Shikamaru's pieces.
"You didn't answer me, Shikamaru, regarding your motives for the Nijū Shōtai."
Shikamaru stared quietly at the lake and then unexpectedly he leaned away, straightening up against the tree. The loss of warmth was instant, the cold creeping in to fill the small space between them.
"That wasn't exactly phrased as a question."
"Now who's being pedantic?" Neji angled for a better position, twisting a little so he could settle his gaze on Shikamaru's face. "Why won't you answer?"
Shikamaru dismissed the question with an idle wave of his hand. "I thought you didn't care about my intentions, Hyūga. I'm just doing what I have to do. You should get that."
"Just one more direct order, Nara?" Neji said without thinking and regretted it instantly.
Shikamaru's expression caught between a frown and a flinch, but the hurt look shifted quickly as the shadow-nin fell back on his chameleon act, adjusting his face into unreadable flatness.
"Sure." Shikamaru shrugged again, his arm shifting over his torso as he cupped his side hard. "I might even get a promotion out of it that I actually deserve."
Neji didn't buy it for a second and made no attempt to humour him, arching a dark brow to illustrate the same bluntness as his voice. "You've never cared about that."
Shikamaru snorted, the sound as black as the shadows he slouched further into, watching Neji through his lashes. "You don't care what I care about, remember?"
A cheap shot.
And it struck hard.
It hit Neji square in the sternum, forcing him to suck in a breath as he drew his chin up a notch, his eyes narrowing. "Believe that if it makes it easier for you."
"Easier?" Shikamaru practically choked on the word, spitting it out with a snarl. "You think this is fucking easy?"
Their gazes locked in an unstable hold, a sensation of mental and emotional gears grinding stubbornly and hopelessly against each other, catching a spark, threatening a burn.
Neji tensed as an ache rolled through him.
It touched on his expression like ripples on the lake.
Shikamaru watched closely, the barest flit of the Nara's eyes indicating that he was trying to read those ripples, chasing them across Neji's face with his gaze until they broke on the stony mask the Jōnin tried to pull up. Shikamaru released a shaky sigh and closed his eyes, raising a hand to rub at his temples slowly.
"Shit…" he whispered.
Neji's mask dropped in an instant.
He leaned forward and tugged Shikamaru's hand away to brush the Nara's temples with his thumbs, cupping the shadow-nin's head gently. He traced out the tender areas, raising his touch to knead the balls of his thumbs around Shikamaru's brow bones, stroking a callused pad across the Nara's forehead.
He tapped the fading bruise.
"The mark will fade."
"Then you did a crappy job, didn't you?"
Neji arched a brow. "What?"
"Your lasting impression," Shikamaru joked weakly, gesturing vaguely towards his forehead. "More like a parting gift at this point."
Neji stilled sharply. "Shikamaru…"
"Give me a break, Hyūga…" Shikamaru knocked off the Jōnin's hands, rubbing his own palms across his face, breathing hard. "Shit."
Neji swallowed uncomfortably, feeling like his heart was pounding at the base of his throat and impaling itself on his ribs all at the same time. He held his breath for a moment, hands hovering at a mid-way point as he fought the rise of feelings.
"Shut up, Neji."
A muscle in Neji's jaw ticked, but he watched in silence.
He searched Shikamaru's face through the slots of those long fingers as the shadow-nin sat forward, propping his elbows on his knees. He passed his hands across his face as if trying to wipe clean his expression, muttering several blue streaks that involved an underscore of "troublesome". Then he gave up and dropped his brow into the cradle of one hand, shaking his head.
It was torture, but Neji couldn't pull away.
Dawn would pull him away soon enough.
He would find the strength to walk away, as promised, but right now he wasn't sure he had the strength to even stand.
The Nara dropped his hand with a rough sigh, the whites of his eyes red and tired, his face creased with exhaustion as he shook his head at the futility of it all, staring out across the lake as if searching for something on the surface. Neji watched him with an intensity that had Shikamaru leaning away just to snatch a breath.
The shadow-nin worked his throat for a moment, then croaked out his words. "So where do you go from here, Hyūga?"
Neji held off answering right away.
For all that Shikamaru had shattered inside of him, some things had become clearer. Neji had been forced to face the darkest facets of himself in those broken pieces. The ugly parts he'd been holding in with everything else.
I have too much rage inside me.
That rage would need to be addressed. Hanegakure was his duty call, but not his destination. He hadn't quite planned it that way.
Where do I go from here…
"Wherever I have to, Shikamaru…" The answer was quiet, resigned, not burning with the conviction he knew he'd need to find again. "To attain what I want."
Shikamaru's eyes drifted shut half-way. "Don't forget what I told you."
"What you told me…?" Neji cocked his head, trying to urge Shikamaru's gaze toward him.
"About being human."
Neji's head came up sharply, but his eyes softened. "How could I forget?"
"Pretty easily in that zone," Shikamaru returned smoothly, flicking Neji a glance from under the hood of his lashes. "Don't forget."
Neji looked away.
That zone was his way out of one cage into another. But then, freedom might as well be the right to choose, if nothing else. ANBU was a means to a painful end, but a painful end was better than the endless pain that came with living in the 'in-between' state of Branch Pet and Hyūga Prodigy.
If ANBU was just another cage, at least it was a bigger one.
And he'd take it. Following his father's path was not an option.
But neither was walking another fine edge.
"I will not forget," Neji said a breath later, his eyes clearing from their glazed stare to settle on Shikamaru's face.
Shikamaru frowned, lifting a hand to drag his fingers in a rough sweep through Neji's bangs, raking them away from the Hyūga's face to cup the back of his head. The sudden, almost aggressive movement surprised Neji, but he managed to control the urge to frown, gazing back steadily.
The look Shikamaru fixed him with turned sharper. "I mean it, Neji."
Neji's jaw came up a stubborn inch, but his voice remained calm and melodic in its deep tenor, smoothing over the tension. "I know. I cannot move backwards, Shikamaru, only forwards."
Those dark eyes studied him fiercely, flicking over the contours of his face, searching, scrutinising, then little by little the chiselled flint in Shikamaru's expression began to soften, his fingers easing their grip to rub at Neji's scalp.
"In leaps and bounds." Neji inclined his head into the touch, fighting off the nerve-rattling reaction inside him as his skin tightened and tingled in response to the simple caress. "It's what I do."
Shikamaru's hand slid down to cup his jaw, a thumb tracing out the faint curve of his lips with a frown. "Yeah. Just don't leap and bound into a deep end. It'll be a pain in the ass finding someone to pull you out."
The muttered irritation in those words was ruined by the crumple at Shikamaru's forehead, tugging the sardonic arch of his brows into a tight knit. This time when the pain squeezed at Neji's heart, it was affection that pushed through into his eyes, not the ache he fought back.
His mouth shaped a sad smile. "I will not forget, Shikamaru."
The undercurrents in his words didn't go undetected.
"I wish I could…" the Nara murmured so softly the words almost escaped unheard.
Neji felt Shikamaru's thumb graze the corner of his mouth, pressing just hard enough for him to part his lips. The second he did, that thumb slid down to hook his chin and tilt his face up.
Their mouths brushed gently, a tentative nudge.
Shikamaru took his time, as if trying to slow the moment, hold it and stretch it out into a smoulder. Neji felt the swell of his bottom lip teased with the barest scrape of teeth, then the wet glide of tongue, which traced his mouth in a moist flicker, shivering breath over his tingling lips.
Like a tongue of flame.
It singed over Neji's top lip, drew across the smooth enamel of his teeth and slid between the barrier with devastating intimacy, stroking his slick muscle into a blood-stirring response. Their tongues caressed in a slow, sultry roll, mouths opening together, lips rubbing as heads slanted to deepen the kiss.
A rough, breathy sound rattled deep in Shikamaru's throat.
The husky purr kissed down Neji's spine in a shiver.
Then Shikamaru's fingers drew up along his back like a rasping stone against his nerve endings. The sparks that flew and fired off inside him fluttered like embers low in his stomach, sucking the air from his lungs, spinning his blood into a wildfire stream.
"Neji. Breathe." Shikamaru pulled back a fraction and tilted his head to settle their mouths close. "Breathe…"
Dazed and dizzy from the sensation, Neji shuddered once. "You're not making this easy…"
"I know…" Shikamaru cupped his head gently, slanted their mouths and fed a soft, smoky breath between Neji's lips. "Breathe."
That dangerous tongue almost dipped in to follow that soft word, but then the shadow-nin stopped, swallowed hard and changed direction. He kissed Neji at the corner of his mouth – a lingering, hesitant press. Neji blinked in surprise, but said nothing as he caught his breath.
There was something distinctly endearing and gentle about the press of lips.
Strange, almost like a first kiss.
That's how Neji knew that this one was the last.
Dawn came in a steady blush, almost guiltily.
It graced the skies in soft, rose hues, blooming gently beneath the wings of broad, wind-stroked clouds. They spread out across Konoha's sky like a white flock. The lake reflected the vision back in ripples and reeds swayed gently in the cool breeze that ruffled at Shikamaru's ponytail.
Then a warmer breeze teased across his face.
His lashes flicked open a little, heavy, drowsy lids shielding his eyes. "Mn?"
"You missed it," Neji murmured against his brow. "I didn't want to wake you."
Shikamaru tried to shrug, but didn't have the energy.
"Early…" he croaked, his voice hoarser than the roots and bark biting into the small of his back.
"Go back to sleep, Shikamaru," Neji's advised in that deep, smooth voice which stroked over Shikamaru's brow again, then under his skin in a shiver.
Shikamaru craned his neck a little, trying to fight the tempting heaviness that pulled through him, dragging him back into black. He felt completely drained, like something had sucked out his chakra as well as his energy.
What the hell?
He frowned groggily. "Neji…"
He felt Neji's lips curve gently against his temple and a tickle of soft strands that must have been the Hyūga's bangs swished either side of his face. Neji's shadow fell across him, cool fingers tracing his temples, soothing the ache.
"Don't fight, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru's eyes flared open a little wider, but not much, just about enough to discern a silhouette above him, cast against a backdrop of soft, peach-hued sky. When the hell had he ended up flat on the ground?
"Knocking me out again, Hyūga?"
He tried to move, dragging his heel up a little. He felt Neji's hand knead his calf lightly, easing his leg back down. "I didn't want to wake you. But I had to move."
Funny enough, this alarmed Shikamaru more than the realisation that Neji had helped his head along into the realms of sleep.
Fuck…how much time did I lose just falling asleep? Why the hell did he let me?
Panic crawled through him, a horrible sense of loss stealing cold across his chest, reaching the chords in his throat and wringing them mercilessly.
Neji's fingers traced his cheekbone. "It's the only way I can do this, Shikamaru."
Warm lips settled against his to silence him, a fleeting sweep that couldn't be called a kiss; maybe a ghost of a kiss. Or maybe just the memory of one.
Neji's words feathered across his mouth. "Fate has always ripped people away from me before I've ever been forced to walk away from them. But you seem to be the exception to every rule I have ever lived by and understood."
Shikamaru drew a deep, shaky breath, pulling in the scent of Neji's skin and the lingering hint of sandalwood that clung to the pale robes. It was mixed with that sharp metallic trace from the hitai-ate and the barest whisper of something like rain hanging in the mocha strands fluttering against his jaw.
"I've known no greater freedom than the one which came from letting go of who I had to be…just long enough to be who I was when I was with you…" Neji admitted in deep, hushed tones, his touch just as reverent as it skimmed Shikamaru's mouth. "Gods, you make me want to stop fighting…"
The words knifed a sharp pang in Shikamaru's chest, cutting off his air and strangling his voice into a tight whisper. "I know…"
And he did know.
He knew it on the most basic and complex of levels.
Levels that had absolutely nothing to do with everything he understood. Knowing didn't necessarily mean understanding. He'd come to hold this knowing in places he'd never even known existed inside of him. There were never any guidelines about this, no maps of the mental or emotional territory, no sure-fire way to walk it blind and not end up torn while trying to tame it into something that made sense.
In the end, they'd been as lost as each other.
Their only navigation had been their need.
And their needs had crashed them together.
They'd crashed, burned, gone up in flames and when the heat had eased they'd found an incredible peace in a warmth that should have turned cold. It hadn't. Even with the dust still up in the air, neither were blind to that.
"You make me crave a rest I cannot allow myself to need, Shikamaru."
"Yeah…" Shikamaru blinked slowly, feeling that horrible pain tightening his throat and pushing a sting into the backs of his eyes. "And I'm not sorry."
He felt Neji smile, then squinted through his exhaustion to just about discern the Hyūga's eyes through the screen of his lashes. Those pale, moonstone orbs were luminous and translucent, a moist sheen rippling across them like water over quartz.
"I know," Neji echoed his words back to him softly.
Then a knuckle grazed between his brows, coaxing his eyes shut. There was no spoken goodbye, but Shikamaru tasted it in the hint of salt when Neji's mouth traced his face, swept across his lashes then brushed in another ghosting kiss across his lips.
"Every time, Shikamaru," Neji murmured.
The words made no sense to the shadow-nin.
And they didn't need to.
There was only one need, burning strong even when the warmth of Neji's breath grew cold against his lips. He knew it was the breeze long before he found the strength to open his eyes.
Neji was gone.
The Shogi house was empty.
Shikamaru hadn't intended to come here. He'd marked no destination on the map of his mind, which seemed to have wiped itself clean of any direction. It had become a cool slate of numbing calm without a scratch of a thought to give him something to focus on.
He'd just got up and started walking, needing to move.
He'd walked wherever the wind pulled him, buffeting him like a leaf up along one sidewalk then down along another at an idle pace. He was oblivious to anyone and everyone, whether on the same stretch of pavement or across the street, whether he knew them or not, whether he should or shouldn't have pretended to.
He just kept walking.
The world passed by him and it felt abstract and out of place. Or maybe that was just him. The only thought that made a dent in his brain was the fleeting consideration that he might actually be dreaming.
He knew he wasn't.
He must have walked for a good few hours before he'd ended up here at the Shogi house.
Back to the start…
He traced his eyes over the script of a Shogi competition leaflet nailed into the door and didn't take in a word of it. The symbols just felt comforting somehow because even though he wasn't reading the script, it possessed a design that he could follow if he wanted to.
He'd never felt more lost.
The door to the Shogi house opened.
The old lady who'd labelled Neji as a prize catch for her granddaughter popped her head out, squinting through the thick lenses of the glasses perched on the edge of her nose.
"We're not open."
Shikamaru blinked slowly. "I know."
Her squint turned speculative and she raised a thin hand to tap at the air between them as if she were trying to put her finger on something. He knew it was his name. Which there was no way in hell she'd remember no matter how often he'd—
"Nara," she said. "That's right. I remember you and your friend."
Shikamaru might have looked impressed if his face wasn't feeling about as numb as his brain. Commanding a facial expression would take about the same effort to verbally respond.
He nodded instead.
The old lady adjusted her glasses on her nose and looked him up and down. "You look all done in, dear."
The words knocked the blank look off his face, pulling his mouth into a frown as he darted a glance at the windows, catching a hint of his reflection.
He looked like shit.
"Come in for a pot of tea?" She stepped back a little, opening the door.
Shikamaru declined politely, wondering at her pleasantness given her dismissal of him the last time. She didn't ask again, but she did hand him a leaflet before shuffling back indoors.
He looked down at the yellow sheet for long moment, staring at the illustration of two players sketched hastily, almost childishly, into the corner.
One had long hair and robes.
Engrossed in his study of the picture, he didn't notice the presence behind him until a scuff of feet deliberately announced the company. Shikamaru flicked his gaze up to the glass just as a thin plume of smoke skated over his shoulder, hitting the window and rolling across the pane.
"It's way too early for you to be up and way too soon for me to quit smoking again."
Shikamaru snorted and waved a hand to hold the leaflet up for Asuma to inspect over his head. "Relax. I'm taking the initiative."
He felt the sheet plucked from his fingers and slotted his hands into his pockets as he turned around. Asuma studied the details on the leaflet with a wry smirk, shaking his head.
"Public Shogi match? Gai will appreciate this." The Jōnin tipped his bearded jaw toward the sheet. "He's been bugging me about what to challenge Kakashi with. Shogi game should settle it."
It occurred to Shikamaru that a game of Shogi might actually settle something inside of him. He tried to keep his expression flat and neutral, but the hope for a distraction piqued inside him – the urge for something ordinary to focus on that wasn't likely to hit any raw spots. He couldn't take going home to an earful from his mother; she was going to have his ass for staying out given the recent events that had set her on edge.
Shikamaru stared quietly at the leaflet his sensei was still glancing over. "You up for a game?"
"Not sure public humiliation will do me any good."Asuma's brows shot up and he shook his head, a gruff laugh fluttering smoke across the sheet. "Especially if you get a cash prize out of it. That just adds insult to injury."
Shikamaru slouched against the glass, outwardly casual.
Inside, he deflated.
"You're supposed to encourage me," he drawled.
"I'm not going to encourage you to make me look like an idiot," the Jōnin chuckled, tipping his wrist to flip the sheet over his knuckles as he made to hand it back, waving it once. "I'm still working on the cool adult image."
Shikamaru made no move to take the leaflet, which Asuma folded and slipped into his flak jacket. Shikamaru watched the movements with apparent disinterest, until Asuma took a long drag on his cigarette and held the smoke in that deep, contemplative way that had the shadow-nin preparing himself for whatever was coming next.
"Did you know Ebisu's Team was selected for the Hanegakure emissary mission?" Asuma looked across, letting the smoke roll with his words. "Hyūga was heading it."
Shikamaru stared unseeingly at his sensei's cigarette, taking a second longer than intended to respond to that. "Yeah."
"Was that part of your game plan?" Asuma brushed a thumb along his beard thoughtfully. "Having a team sent back?"
Shikamaru smirked weakly, knocking his head back against the glass. "Not exactly, but I'm getting used to troublesome surprises."
Nothing had gone as planned, after all. But then, that seemed to suit the plotline of the past few weeks. The unpredictability and utter lack of control over it had been frustrating as hell.
Apart from when it had come to the lack of control he'd felt with Neji.
That had felt—
"Good," Asuma said suddenly, breaking into Shikamaru's thoughts with a gruff chuckle, not noticing the embarrassed and awkward shift of his student's eyes. "Because surprises are around the corner." The Sarutobi paused for effect. "Just like your birthday."
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, straightening away from the glass. "Great."
"Ah, so enthusiastic." Asuma smacked the back of his hand lightly across Shikamaru's forehead. "Now there's the student I know and take crap from."
Shikamaru scowled, but there was no menace in it. "Ino tackled me into a god-damned bush – in broad daylight – for 'birthday surprise' purposes in two weeks time. Not exactly feeling optimistic about this one."
"Give her a break. She took a knock after that Team switch," Asuma held up a hand quickly, "which I know wasn't your fault, but that doesn't mean you can't compromise and give a little here."
Shikamaru fought the urge to close his eyes. He was pretty sure that he had nothing left to give. He knew logically the empty feeling wouldn't last, but right now he didn't want to have to think about how long it would take to go away either.
If it ever does…
Shikamaru's scowl fell with his shoulders. "Such a drag…"
Asuma dropped his chin, pinning Shikamaru with a hooded look that immediately hit his evasive sense of guilt. It struck it dead-on-centre with that horrible bull's-eye effortlessness that only his sensei could pull off.
Shikamaru frowned, looking away.
"She's putting a lot of effort into this," Asuma added, driving the guilt home.
"Which means I'm gonna have to put in twice as much effort to get through it," Shikamaru muttered, heaving a final sigh of defeat. "Right. Whatever."
"It'll be good for you, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru arched a brow, picking up on a grave edge just beneath the humour. Asuma glossed it over with a grin, crushed his cigarette out against the door to the Shogi house, earned himself a dirty look from the old lady inside and backed away from the window with a hand held up in apology.
Shikamaru smirked. "Such a cool adult."
Asuma snorted, his bronze eyes bright with amusement as he plucked out another cigarette to perch at the corner of his mouth. "And just for that, I might crash the party and get in on the food I won't be paying for."
Shikamaru shrugged, watching a spark catch on Asuma's lighter in a gentle dance and sway. The end of the cigarette flared brightly, like the embers of need he'd felt in the pit of his stomach hours ago; they were still burning, rising higher up into his chest to sear in a tight ball behind his ribs.
Asuma's lighter lid cut out the flame in a sharp snap.
Shikamaru's lashes clamped shut over his eyes. "Sensei…"
"Mn?" Asuma mumbled around his smoke, slotting the lighter away.
"If you quit smoking, what would you take up instead?"
Asuma laughed, expelling a spiral of tobacco in rich swirls. "Never happen."
"What if you had to?"
The silence that followed that question hung heavier than the pall of smoke. Shikamaru slipped his eyes open, settling them on the molten end of the cigarette, steadily gathering ash at it burned. Asuma was watching the soft flakes falling from the end, frowning as he considered the question.
"I don't know. Smoking's more than a habit. It's kind of a need. If I had to give it up, I'd take up something better or something worse I guess." Asuma rolled the cigarette between his fingers, knocking the ash off completely as he looked up. "But replacing a need doesn't always get rid of it."
Shikamaru watched the breeze carry the cinders away, his lips pursed, his eyes intense as he tried to stomach his sensei's words and the deep ache they left him with. He shook his head against the feeling, dropping his gaze.
"Then how do you get rid of it?"
"Well, that depends on the need." Asuma shrugged idly, but his eyes held fast and steady on his student's face. "I guess you find a way to let it go."
Shikamaru frowned, staring through glazed eyes at a crack in the sidewalk. He swallowed down his immediate reply but it rose back up his throat, lodging like a rock in his windpipe. He locked his jaw, but couldn't hold it in.
"And if you can't let it go?" he whispered hoarsely.
Asuma pressed his lips around his smoke with a deep hum, whistling a thin stream through his nose. "If you can't let it go…" He plucked the cigarette free, pinching it between finger and thumb in a slow roll. "Then you do the only thing you can with a need like that."
"Which is what?"
Asuma smiled sadly. "You live with it, Shikamaru."
A blanket of ash stretched out before Neji.
Grey and lifeless.
But it turned into flame as he deactivated his Byakugan, the ashen hues of his dōjutsu fading as colour bled back into the world.
He stood at the highest aerial point, perched on the crest of a tree, looking out across the mantle of autumn fire that scorched the forest for miles ahead. The sun played off the crimson and yellow leaves, hints of orange and russet fanning along in ripples as the wind sailed over treetops, swaying the lighter boughs.
He felt that same wind at his cheek, carding unseen fingers through his hair.
Neji closed his eyes slowly, tilting his head into a phantom touch he could still feel from hours before.
The voice startled him.
Neji channelled a surge of chakra to his feet to keep his balance, tipping his jaw to glance down through the tangle of boughs at the Genin trio waving wildly below. A blue scarf whipped on the wind like a streamer.
"Can we eat now! We did our time!" Konohamaru shouted, cupping his hands over his mouth so his voice shot up along the trunk, startling birds. "I'm really sorry!"
Neji inclined his head and touched two straight fingers to his lips, activating his dōjutsu. He scanned the campsite Konohamaru and his teammates had set up.
It was flawlessly done.
Moegi had even set a flower and note of apology outside his tent.
This placating gesture and excellent job wouldn't save them from having to undo all their efforts when he announced the fact that they wouldn't be staying here.
He had a destination in mind more important to him than Hanegakure.
There was a reason he'd chosen two weeks for this mission.
"Please, Neji-senpai!" the trio chorused together.
Blinking from his digression, Neji slid his gaze across to the large bundle of ration packs he'd confiscated from the Genin team after Konohamaru had decided it would be a brilliant idea to ruffle Neji's 'Hyūga composure' with Naruto's hand-me-down Perverted Jutsu technique.
The jutsu's redundancy had been announced by Neji's complete lack of reaction.
Konohamaru, not possessing the sense to stop, had been frankly offended at the thought that his improvements to the jutsu were anything short of original. He'd gone on to demonstrate with several boy-on-boy and girl-on-girl techniques that had resulted in a long, severe silence from Neji before he'd proceeded to punish the entire Team for the idiocy. Guilty by association, the young Sarutobi's teammates had given their friend an earful that saved Neji from giving a lecture.
This method was twice as effective.
"We pitched the tents and laid out traps and everything!" Konohamaru whined, cocking his head with what he hoped was a winning smile from down below. "C'mon, Neji-taicho!"
Neji snorted at the attempt at respect, not impressed, but not as irritated as he possibly should have been. He reached into his ninja bag to flip out a kunai and turned it over his knuckles in a sharp twirl.
With a snap of his wrist he let it fly.
It struck the confiscated bundle of food far below and pierced an exploding tag secured to it. The bomb didn't go off, despite his pokerfaced warning to the Genin team that if one of them so much as attempted to approach the food, this imbecile would garner themselves a cremation, never mind a grave.
"Oh man, no way!" Konohamaru pointed to the bundle. "It wasn't even rigged!"
Neji crouched on the branch, eyes scanning the periphery as the 'brat pack' rushed for the food they'd been denied. Ensuring their immediate zone was clear, he straightened up again. The Byakugan veins loosened around his eyes and he cast his gaze across the undulating sea of coloured leaves, scaling his focus higher until it hit on the sky.
His expression softened.
The breeze was blowing back in the direction of Konoha.
And so were the clouds.
The bird was off the ground.
Shikamaru hadn't believed it at first, assuming that his brain had finally packed up shop and left him to hallucinate the entire thing. But sure enough, the falcon had swooped down upon his entry to steal the last strip of meat between its talons, taking itself to the highest point of the pen with its prize.
Progress in leaps and bounds…
Shikamaru shook his head at the thought, a faint smile hooking one corner of his mouth as he went about filling empty food containers. "Good. Won't have to get Chōji to hand-feed you."
The falcon hovered in the makeshift rafters above his head, running a bird-talk commentary in sharp, loud "kee" calls.
Shikamaru glanced up, draping his forearms over his knees as he sat on the edge of a hay bale. "Chatty too, now? How troublesome."
The bird cocked its head left and right, bobbing its neck as it observed him with interest rather than its previous state of aggression and fear. Shikamaru wasn't sure how to feel about that. While he was used to building bonds with the deer, he'd never really felt the inclination to bother with other animals, for all the trouble they usually brought him.
Besides, if it hates me it will fly away faster…
Not liking where that thought was about to take him, he switched his focus onto his task and finished laying out the meat as the falcon preened. Its feathers were growing back and it moved with a surety that made it hard to believe that it had ever been in such a sorry, broken state.
Healed or not, I still held it down and pissed it off.
Trust wasn't in the cards.
Or at least he assumed as much until the bird surprised him again.
He didn't get the chance to fully stand before the falcon dived down beside him and began to tuck into the fresh meat. Shikamaru froze mid-way into rising from his hay bale perch, not wanting to startle it.
It ignored him for the most part.
He watched it with a fascination he would never admit to showing a bird that had caused him so much damned trouble.
Good thing I didn't name it.
Food goal accomplished, the falcon moved onto its next task; which involved flexing its wings and setting off on a migration mission around the pen. Shikamaru watched it with veiled amusement. Judging by the easy swoops it took from one perch to another, it would soon be well enough to take flight outside of the pen.
Well enough to find its way in bigger skies.
Well enough to fly free.
The ache came hard in his chest, prompting him to tuck his arm around his torso, as if supporting his ribs had anything to do with it.
"You live with it, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru let the ache roll through him, not fighting it as he watched the falcon swoop past, preparing itself for imminent freedom.
Shikamaru's lips twitched in a shadow of a smile.
Guess I can live with this…knowing you'll find that…
He closed his eyes, breathing deep as the bird swooped idly around him.
He didn't leave for a long time.
And when he finally did, he found a little slice of peace amongst his pieces.
"Neji-senpai, where are we going?"
Neji said nothing, moving smoothly along the forest trail, preferring to feel the earth beneath his feet rather than the sway of branches. The sensation of solid ground brought a steady calm to his mind. He'd been unsteady for a long time, hanging off an edge he didn't realise he'd barely been holding onto.
If you had not pulled me back…
It was a dark and disturbing thought that he hadn't wanted to face.
But then, that's why he was here.
"A guesthouse! Nice!" Konohamaru gave a hoot and with a wobble of heavy camping gear he hopped forward and staggered sideways, thumbs up. "I like this upgrade! I take back thinking that Kiba-kun was totally right when he said you had a massive stick up yo— "
Neji shot the youngster a warning glare that wordlessly spelled out how just how vital it was to the Genin's health that he didn't finish that sentence.
Konohamaru coughed, tucked his chin nervously into his scarf and laughed a little, jogging on a head. "I'll just check if the coast's clear!"
Udon hurried after him. "Hey! Konohamaru, wait up!"
"Well that's rather silly," Moegi sighed, assessing Neji's reaction as she looked up questioningly. "It's a shukubo. Right, senpai? A Temple retreat?"
Neji inclined his head, offering a short, deep hum as his only response. The sound of chanting confirmed Moegi's question for her as they approached the Temple lodging. To Neji's suspicious surprise, Konohamaru was hovering in an abiding silence.
"This reminds me of Asuma-ojisan," the young Sarutobi said, his ear cocked in the direction the Temple chanting was drifting from.
Neji might have questioned just what Konohamaru meant by that, but the moment passed when they were greeted by two elderly monks. The men were swathed in saffron and the heavy scent of incense, an aura of warmth settled across their serene faces.
From that word on, Neji's attention became quickly divided between settling the Genin team, making arrangements to send a message on ahead to Hanegakure and another letter back to Konoha to confirm mission progress.
Then there was the matter of his less patriotic motives.
The sun had begun to slip into the molasses folds of sunset by the time he returned from the Temple's pigeon post. Once he'd sorted appropriate lodging and warned the team in no uncertain terms about the ramifications of any disrespect shown to the monks or the environment, he quickly swept out and away from the accommodation in steady, driven steps.
He cut a smooth path through the quiet grounds.
His pace only slowed as he neared the immaculate gardens used for meditation purposes. His shadow stretched on ahead of him, leading the way. He followed the same sandy path that he'd taken days before, only he walked it now as a different shinobi.
A different man.
He eventually reached the spot where he had practiced his kata, close to a clear opal pool. In the last few yards his senses heightened, bringing him an awareness of his immediate surroundings that he had lacked the first time he had been here.
This time, he sensed the hit long before it had a chance to catch him off guard.
He moved in a smooth response, rather than a sharp reflex.
The cane swooped through the air harmlessly, then swung back to settle in a gentle tap on the ground. The old monk hunched over the wood, his deeply lined-scarred face turning towards Neji, blind eyes adjusting their scan until they settled just to the side of the Jōnin's head.
"I thought it would take you longer," the old man croaked.
Neji bowed, lower than he ever had to any Hyūga elder. "I almost wished it had."
The old man's eyes crinkled a little, his raspy hum like the crackle of leaves.
"And now you wish to understand."
He shuffled over to the clear pool, dipping the end of his cane into the still waters to break a ripple across the surface.
"You found what you were looking for."
Neji shook his head, watching the shadows chase across the water.
"He found me."
The days found a steady, monotonous rhythm as they trickled by.
The normalcy Shikamaru had needed returned to him in pieces, slotting back into the holes in his life he didn't realise were there. The cracks were still present, but they were steadily sealing up.
Degrees of light helped him to start dragging certain things back into the shadows.
They found him in his dreams, every damn time.
And he'd watch the sunrise through his window every morning.
Because every morning 4AM pulled him from those dreams of eyes like moons and hands that made him see stars the second they were on his skin. He'd wake up in a fever and be left feeling cold. He always counted on the next day being the one where he'd get past the stupid O'clock mark.
Tomorrow, he'd tell himself.
And every time tomorrow came, so did 4AM, winking tauntingly at him in the dark of his room. And like the days before, he got up and got on.
He'd begun tackling that troublesome white booklet, studying Akatsuki enemies he'd never come up against and probably never would. He napped as often as he could, avoided Kotetsu unless forced to train with him and passed away lunches with his teammates and friends, always careful to avoid Hinata's eyes if ever she joined them.
The first time she'd flushed under his stare had been the last.
The early evenings were the easiest; he played Shogi with Asuma.
Stupid O'clock was time spent with the bird.
And standing where he was right now, watching the falcon follow the trail of meat he'd laid out from the pen to the clearing, Shikamaru wondered what the hell he'd do with the spare hours once it took flight.
The falcon hopped right up to his feet where the final piece of meat rested.
It let out a triumphant screech.
Shikamaru took a broad step back as the bird tore up the meat and swallowed it down, scouting around the immediate area for more.
"That's it," Shikamaru said flatly.
The falcon flexed its wings, jerked its head back and looked up at him expectantly.
"No more food." Shikamaru cocked a hip, his hands jammed impatiently at the waist of his Chūnin pants. "You're on your own now."
The falcon gave a soft screech, spread its wings wide as if to fly – then folded them again.
Shikamaru arched a brow. "You're free." He jerked his chin toward the sky. "Go on."
Shikamaru waved a hand. "Go away."
The bird shimmied back a little at the gesture, but made no move to take flight.
"Troublesome." Shikamaru open and closed his palm. "Look, I don't have any more food. You have to go." He raised his arm in an embarrassing imitation of a wing, scowling at the stupid mime before slashing his hand toward the sky. "Tch. Go away, dammit! Go home."
The falcon turned a pointless little circle on the ground, searching for morsels that weren't there.
"Stupid bird," Shikamaru growled, shaking his head. "I've got nothing left, you need to go."
The stupid simple solution to this problem would be for him to go. To just turn around and walk away and leave the bird to its own devices. Even if its intelligence was in question, its instinct wouldn't be. It would eventually take to the trees, progress to the skies and then find its way to wherever the hell it was supposed to be.
"Right. I'm leaving," Shikamaru announced, loathed to admit to himself just how idiotic he felt talking to it like it would understand.
He turned on his heel and began to walk.
The soft beat of wings sounded behind him, signalling the bird's departure.
For some inane reason, his chest began to tighten.
Get a fucking grip. It's a bird.
The air held heavy in his lungs - only to be knocked out of him in a rather embarrassing yelp when the falcon swooped down out of nowhere and nicked his ponytail with its talons.
"What the hell!" Shikamaru waved a hand over his head with a growl, spinning around to watch the bird orbit him in a swift rotation. "Troublesome bird! Go away!"
It circled him in a fashion that proved to be more playful than pissed. Against instinct and intelligence, it seemed determined to harass him into a bothersome game.
"I don't have time for this crap."
Which was an utter lie given how early it was.
Time was actually the one thing he had in abundance at this stupid hour. The trouble was filling up that time until the rest of the day found him and slipped him back into the comfortable shoes of a routine that was steadily making each day easier to get through.
Apparently the bird was happy to oblige him up until then.
But it continued to happen even as he upped his pace to walk away from it. The bird kept on at him in playful loops, never soaring beyond his scope of vision and always grazing his ponytail with every circuit.
Shikamaru attempted to duck and dart away from it and eventually just ran.
It didn't give up the game.
It followed him around the forest relentlessly, chasing him down.
Shikamaru began to curse…
Then at some point he began to chuckle…
And then for the first time in days, he began to laugh.
The cane shattered.
With barely a touch, it tapped the side of Neji's palm and it broke.
Neji's eyes widened, but instead of sucking in a sharp breath of surprise, he controlled his reaction and focused on exhaling in a slow, steady stream, letting the air flow as if trying to blow out a candle at a great distance.
The old monk blinked, examined the snapped off end of his cane with the tips of his fingers and nodded sharply. "Are you angry?"
Neji shook his head. "No, Hayabusa-sama. I feel no rage."
"Good. Now you understand the true power of breath. It is as vital as water." The monk dipped the splintered end of his cane into the clear pool, chasing ripples across the surface again. "Breath is life. Rage extinguishes breath; like fear and hate. It closes the chest. Closes the heart."
The monk swung the broken cane up again. When it struck Neji's brow it was whole once again, the shattered end smooth and blunt against his hitai-ate. Having come to expect the unexpected with this strange sage of a man, Neji didn't question the mystery of how the cane had been restored.
"Intention and action cannot be separate." The monk tipped his head to the flawless cane. "But a break between them is needed sometimes, to bring this understanding together again. Stronger than it was before."
Neji studied the weathered face, wondering how many breaks this monk had taken to come to this understanding.
Apparently it had only cost this man his eyes to attain it.
In Neji's case, the cost had almost been his life.
"You called him your greatest weakness," the old monk said. "But he has brought you to your greatest strength. Do not forget it."
Hayabusa left him alone with those words.
He would have meditated on them - but they physically moved him.
And as he walked, those words coursed through his veins as thick and strong as the ghost of Shikamaru he still carried under his skin and in his blood. He might as well have carved the Nara's name into his bones.
I don't think I'll ever get you out…
And Neji felt that need carry breath back into parts of himself he didn't think had survived the bitter suffocation of his denial. He felt those parts awakening now like the stirrings of tender roots; roots that had the potential to grow into something unshakeably strong.
Neji reached for his hitai-ate, removing it.
He set it down atop his black-and-tan bag and stepped over to the shadows of a tree that looked like a giant bonsai, hanging precariously off the edge of an outcrop. The ridge hung over an incline that dipped down into the forests, where the monks were burning dead foliage and clearing leaf litter.
Neji perched on the ridge, finding footholds in the tree roots.
He tipped his head back into the cleansing caress of a smoky wind. And it was the hint of smoke that caused his eyes to flicker open, look past the boughs above him and settle on the clouds rather than the birds finding their freedom.
"The strength you need will not come from holding on."
He understood it now.
And the wisdom had come only after he'd walked away.
The knowing had settled inside him quietly, then it had begun running through every fibre of him like chakra. He'd once believed that letting go of his control would break him apart completely and cast him off the edge he'd been holding onto…even as other parts of him were slipping away.
He'd been right about the breaking, but wrong about that edge.
Because when he'd let go, Shikamaru had held on.
"I'm with you…let go..."
Neji spread his arms, unfurled his fingers and let the chakra build and flood over him and through him with a power and warmth it had never possessed before. He felt it rush through the breaks he'd once tried so hard to block before Shikamaru had broken through them.
"You called him your greatest weakness. But he has brought you to your greatest strength. Do not forget it."
He couldn't forget it.
Because he felt it; an ache and an answer deep in his chest.
I will never forget.
Neji smiled slightly, finding a poignant sense of peace past the pain of having felt more deeply than he ever thought he could. What Shikamaru had given him was in every vein, every fibre, every sinew and heartstring, coursing in his blood and burning in places kept cold too long.
It hurt and it healed and it held him together the second he let go.
He let go to the memory of that voice in a heartbeat.
And all he did was breathe…
- END -
TBC. see A/N (3)
A/N (1): At this stage, I have no idea what to say other than a massive I HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED THIS CRAZY RIDE, THANK YOU, PLEASE COME AGAIN. ^_^ Not sure how well this ending will be received, but I couldn't write this any other way than how it wanted to be written. As always, I greatly welcome reviews and appreciate any thoughts. (Please forgive typos = up at stupid o'clock editing this lol)
A/N (2): Yes, this story is open-ended, with some questions left unanswered and some avenues unexplored. This is for one-shot/possible sequel purposes…and pretty much a hat-tip to real life, I guess.
A/N (3):An aside piece to Break to Breathe is going to be coming up. It's not a sequel, more like something that can be tagged onto this, featuring around Shikamaru/Ino's birthday. Watch this space lol.
A/N (4): Updates/Replies: updates on any other fics will be on my profile page and on my dArt account (where I'll reply should there be any questions from anon reviewers seeing as this is the last chappy!).
TO ALL REVIEWERS: No words can adequately express the increasing levels of appreciation that I felt for your support as the chapters came along. Knowing that I had the amazing support of you people behind me, showing this fic so much love, interest and enthusiasm enabled me to complete it. You guys kept on raising the bar on the love and it's made all the difference in the world. THANK YOU. It has been an absolutely insane ride writing this, but one that has altered me as a writer (and person) irreversibly. Writing had always been a dream in the distance. By writing this it put the dream in my hands and the amazing response has made it more of a reality than I ever allowed myself to believe it could be. Thank You so much for that, all of you who have taken the time out to share your thoughts with me.
And to those in the shadows who have read from the sidelines, thank you for your interest and I hope you have enjoyed this fic. ^_^