Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement intended.

Title: ON THE CUSP

Pairings: Shikamaru/Neji/Shikamaru, Shikamaru/Temari, Asuma/Kurenai, Sakura/?

Rating: M / R (language etc.)

Genre: General/humour

Summary: Corralled into troublesome celebrations, Shikamaru learns that Birthdays can do more than bring people together or bring people away. Sometimes they can bring people back. (Accompanying fic for Break To Breathe)

Timeline: Shippuden. Neji and Shikamaru aged 17-18 (pre-Hidan and Kakuzu arc) Two weeks after the events in Break to Breathe.


ON THE CUSP

by Okami Rayne

Chapter One

[Dedicated to Adel Mortescryche]

Red clouds swamped around him, thick as a blood mist.

Weird…

Shikamaru waved a hand in front of his face, watching the scarlet vapour stream through his fingers like shredded smoke. Then he realised it was smoke. And it was coming from Asuma's cigarette.

"Asuma-sensei, what the hell are you smoking?"

"They say this stuff will kill me," the Jōnin chuckled, holding up the cigarette and turning it over in his fingers, the ember-end playing dangerously across his skin without burning him. "What do you think?"

Shikamaru squinted through the breaks in the smoke. "I think this is a dream."

"You know what they say about red clouds?"

"No." Shikamaru frowned, waving his hand through the gory mist.

"Red clouds at night are a shepherd's delight." Asuma tipped his head back, exhaling a long, red plume above his head. "But red clouds at morning are a shepherd's warning."

"Red clouds? You're speaking in cheesy riddles?" Shikamaru smirked. "Troublesome."

Asuma looked across at him.

The smirk dropped off Shikamaru's face; along with all colour.

His sensei's eyes were as red and bloody as the mist. Two gruesome, cracked rubies set in the place of warm, brandy eyes.

"Sensei…"

Asuma smiled grimly. "Can't stop the clock."


"Can't stop the clock."

Shikamaru's eyes snapped open, his body tightening in a sharp start as the dream burst like a black bubble in the back of his mind. Cold washed over him, his pulse hammering at the base of his throat.

Dream…

Disoriented, he blinked hard, wide eyes falling back to a heavy shutter as he rolled over onto his back, squinting at the clock.

4:00

Shikamaru sighed. "Shit."

Not even a minute off the mark. It was ridiculous, in a subconsciously sadistic way. His sleeping patterns should have adjusted by now.

It's been two weeks…

Fourteen 'tomorrows' and none of them a minute either side of 4 AM. Shikamaru scowled at the treacherous numbers. Now he could add one more 'tomorrow' to the list and watch another dawn spill around the cracks in the curtains.

Great.

Shikamaru blinked hard, wincing at the stab of pain in his head. Crappy sleeping patterns hadn't done his headaches any favours. Untangling his arm from the sheets, he pinched the bridge of his nose until the ache behind his eyes began to ease.

And what the hell was that dream about?

He shook off the chills it had left him with, scowling at the stupidity of it. Dreams weren't premonitions. As far as his logic was concerned, they were just mindless regurgitations, removals of excess thought, psychological consolidations and attempts to deal with detached and repressed thoughts.

Why the hell am I even thinking about this?

And given the level of text-book detail with which he was thinking about it, it suggested that bothersome psychedelic dreams were becoming something of a habit. Like the stupid 4 AM internal alarm.

Stop thinking…

Shikamaru screwed his eyes shut with a growl and rolled onto his stomach, pulling the sheets up over his head to drape over his ponytail like a makeshift tent. It would be a pathetic barrier against the brightening room and the annoying day that would follow it.

Birthdays are such a drag...

Groaning, he buried his face into the crook of his arm and hooked his hand up under his pillow, wedging himself into place. He had a few hours left before he was literally dragged into humouring Ino with the celebrations.

Shit.

It was going to take more than a little effort to contend with whatever the hell she'd been plotting for the past two weeks. With this in mind, Shikamaru felt himself spacing in and out of awareness as he began to drift off again, his breathing evening out.

His mind slipped steadily into the encroaching black…

And then into a dream of opal eyes that had him burning…washing over the dream of red eyes that had left him cold.


"Shikamaru!"

The muffled shout of his name bypassed his bedroom door, broke through the nest of his blankets and blew apart the thick fog of a dream he didn't want to release.

No…

A dull thud against his door and the dream shattered and fell away.

"Shikamaru! Time to get up!"

No way…

His bedroom door flew open, cracking against the wall. The sound punched his brain like a fist and he jolted with a growl, scowling beneath the sheets.

Shit…

Silence painted a picture that Shikamaru didn't have to see to know exactly what it looked like. His mother, standing in the doorway, hands on hips, her sharp eyes taking in the state of utter decimation that was his room.

To be fair, it wasn't entirely his fault.

Stupid bird…

The stomp of feet and the yelp of Yoshino tripping over something ended with the scrape of curtain rings as the drapes were ripped back. Shikamaru wedged his face into the crook of his arm, not willing to suffer the sunlight for anyone's sake.

"No…"

"Up, young man!"

The young Nara groaned, groping blindly with a long arm to tug the blankets higher up over his head. The sunlight leaked in around all the gaps, finding every break in the sheets, the stupid, sadistic, solar star.

"Honestly, Shikamaru," Yoshino scolded, her voice rising and falling in a way that suggested she was ducking down at intervals to pick up items off the floor. "They're going to be here soon and you still need to shower, eat, open your cards and—you still haven't returned this book on avian medicine and bird behaviour!"

Shikamaru sighed.

There was no winning this one.

Sleep was a no-go the second his mother had exploded into the room. He lifted his head and cracked his eyes open, drowsy brown orbs squinting through a bright slot in the rumple of bed sheets. His mother was thumbing through the pages of the book, then flipping open the cover to check the stamp dates.

"That's another library fine coming out of your pocket," she muttered, dropping the book lightly onto his back. "Get up!" she ordered, hooking his clothes over her arm as she scavenged through the mess. "What on earth happened in here?"

Stupid. Bird.

A strong aroma of coffee wafted into the room.

It was followed by the sound of a hoarse, ragged yawn muffled into ceramic.

Shikamaru frowned, squinting across the sun-drenched room towards his door, shifting his arm enough to spy his father through the gap in the covers. Shikaku stood out of the sunlight's reach, lingering like a shadow at the threshold, dark hair raked up into a messy semblance of its jagged ponytail.

He looked about as enthusiastic to be awake as his son.

"Get up, kid," he drawled, voice rusty and thick with sleep.

"Traitor," Shikamaru snorted, pressing himself deeper into the mattress.

Shikaku slanted against the doorframe, his sharp, wiry form wrapped in a black kimono, a swathe of steam wafting across his scarred face as he sipped his coffee, hooded eyes watching quietly.

Shikamaru shook his head, sensing the stare. "I'm not moving."

"Oh you'll be moving alright," Shikaku warned.

"Yeah, moving to lock my goddamned door…"

"Shikamaru!" Yoshino snapped, her head popping up like a gopher from the end of his bed as she snatched up his Chūnin vest. "Watch your language!"

Shikaku smirked from the doorway. "Yeah and move your ass."

"Shikaku, you too!"

Without a hint of remorse, Shikaku's smirk turned lazy and soft as he looked over to his wife. "He needs to get up so we can go back to bed."

Shikamaru arched a brow, his ponytail poking through as he began to worm his way out from under the sheets. "You got woken up for this too, huh?"

"No." Shikaku took a sip of his coffee. "I got interrupted for it."

"Yeah?" Shikamaru flopped onto his back, draping his arm across his eyes. "What the hell were you doing up?"

"Commemorating your conception."

Shikamaru bolted upright, swinging his arm out. "What the hell!"

Yoshino flushed several shades of red in quick procession before settling on the tint of outrage. "Nara Shikaku!"

Shikaku shrugged, his dark, heavy-lidded eyes locked on his wife as he blew a smoky breath across his coffee, scattering steam with a smirk. "The kid asked."

"Lie next time!" Shikamaru shook his head in sharp denial, shuddering as he pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "I don't need to know that…ever…"

"Shikamaru!" Yoshino snapped, reflexively slamming her embarrassed indignation onto him. "Up, now. Don't you want to celebrate your birthday?"

Shikamaru slumped back against the headboard, rubbing his eyes. "I was celebrating. In bed."

"So were we," Shikaku lamented into his mug.

Shikamaru shot his father a pained look. "Would you stop?"

"We did."

"Shikaku," Yoshino warned through her teeth, then blinked and turned sharply toward her son. "Wait, what do you mean celebrating in bed? Do you have someone in here with you!"

"What?" Shikamaru's eyes widened, a score of heat flushing his lean cheeks as his father smirked. "No! I meant sleeping in."

Yoshino deflated with an audible whoosh of air, but her eyes scanned the room in a cursory glance for unfamiliar garments, just to make sure. "Good. Now get up before Ino and Chōji get here."

"Troublesome…"

Yoshino's brows drew together and she lodged the bundle of clothes under one arm, stalking over. Shikamaru cringed, waiting for an earful. Instead, his mother leaned down to brush a kiss across the crown of his head.

Shikamaru blinked in surprise, almost nervous.

"Happy Birthday," Yoshino murmured against his hairline, drawing back to smooth her fingers a little awkwardly across the ends of his ponytail, frowning as she looked him over.

She brushed her thumb across the fading scar on his right cheekbone – like it was a smudge of dirt she wanted off his face.

Shikamaru squirmed uncomfortably under the attention, batting her hand away with a frown. "What?"

"Nothing…" Yoshino's voice gentled, at odds with her tight expression. "Try to enjoy yourself this time, Shikamaru."

Shikamaru looked away and shrugged, never sure how to respond to this softer and less predictable side of his mother. "Yeah."

Shikaku watched from the doorway, his sharp eyes taking in everything over the rim of his mug. Shikamaru didn't notice, his attention sliding to the clock as his mother swayed around the bed, weaving her way to the door with his laundry. Shikaku cocked a hip to nudge her as she passed and received a clip upside the back of the head that had his teeth clacking against his mug.

Shikamaru glanced over, unimpressed. "There should be rules against this stuff around your kids."

Shikaku sucked his teeth and shot his son a wry look over the mug, amusement sharp in it. "God help the woman who has to break you in."

"Tch, whatever." Shikamaru made a face, rolled over and jerked the sheets back up over his head, considering the somewhat disturbing number of violent women in his life.

He didn't have time to let his mind start weighing that troublesome figure up against other statistics. Something wrapped around his ankle and dragged him out the bed with a yelp and tangle of sheets. His attempt to hold on only resulted in him being sandwiched between the floor and the mattress when it folded on top of him.

"Oi!" he snarled, elbowing and kicking his way to freedom, yanking his foot from the shadow-hand locked around it.

Shikaku looked on with veiled amusement, not having moved from his tilt against the doorframe. With a raise of his chin, the shadow-hand shrank into a tendril and snaked back to its master like a charmed cobra.

"That was low!" Shikamaru snapped.

"And that was a great imitation of your kicking and screaming birth," Shikaku drawled, a throaty chuckle spilling around his mug. "You sure took your time with that too."

Propped up on his elbows, Shikamaru glared through the fall of few sharp strands that had escaped his ponytail, bistre eyes narrowed irritably. "I really don't wanna hear about this."

He heard about it pretty much every year.

His mother had no qualms reminding him how all the kicking and screaming in the world paled in comparison to how much of a kicking she'd wanted to give his father for trying to calm her down during a 39 hour labour.

She'd settled with breaking five bones in Shikaku's hand.

Shikaku claimed the doctors had had a tougher time removing Yoshino from him than Shikamaru from his mother.

"But at least you put in the effort when it counted most," Shikaku mused dryly, tapping his thumb against his mug. "Doesn't explain why you hate eggs so much though. You're still a good swimmer, right?"

"I still really don't wanna hear about this," Shikamaru muttered, a little embarrassed as he shoved his mattress back onto the bed, kneeling to wrestle it into position. "Birthdays are supposed to be about getting older, not talking about conception and baby days. There's nothing interesting about babies."

"Yeah." Shikaku shrugged, draining his coffee. "The interesting part is making them."

Shikamaru stopped mid-war with the mattress and smacked his head into it with an exasperated groan. "Seriously, why?"

Shikaku laughed. "Happy Birthday."


The plan hadn't changed.

As predictable as ever.

Sweets and coffee at Konoha's most underappreciated kissaten.

A tradition.

Every year on Shikamaru's birthday, Ino upheld it religiously. Protesting was futile, but protesting was also part of the tradition. So it was with annual predictability that Shikamaru's scowl slipped into place without effort or effect.

"No."

"Yes."

Ino grinned widely, looping arms with her teammates, assuming an air of command that Shikamaru and Chōji never gave her, but one that neither male had the courage to wrestle away from her.

Too much hassle.

Ino marched them down the sidewalk like a matron. "Wonder if it's changed."

"You say that every year," Shikamaru muttered, slanting away from her as much as he could as he was dragged along. "And it never changes."

Ino tugged on his arm, jerking him back. "Well it's good that some things stay the same."

"This always stays the same."

"You like it," Ino stated with complete confidence.

Shikamaru frowned, wrestling his arm free to shove his hands into the pockets of his black slacks. He wore an equally dark, long-sleeve, crew-neck t-shirt. Not a lick of colour or effort. The thick shards of his hair scraped up into the usual spiky ponytail.

"You could've made a tiny bit of effort you know," Ino chided, shooting a stern glance at him. "You'd think someone had died. Chōji looks more like a birthday boy than you!"

Granted, Chōji sported a brighter look and happier expression.

The Akimichi was clad in red and forest brown – autumn personified – his auburn hair dishevelled in a manner that suggested finger-combing. Ino, however, had taken the necessary measures to ensure she was a walking picture.

Shikamaru shot her a subtle glance.

Blonde hair perfectly coiffed, her long bangs fell to frame the slender slant of her jaw-line and throat. The pale golden ends tickled a sharp collarbone revealed by a cowl-necked lilac top slanting off one shoulder; a strategic slip to draw the eye. A black skirt completed the look, mid-thigh and tight enough that Shikamaru knew she'd be making a fuss about tugging it down when they were seated.

Troublesome girl…

Last year she'd worn tights at least. Every year a little more flesh was exposed. Shikamaru wasn't sure what to make of that, merely for the fact that he never stopped to really think about it. He knew it bugged Chōji and that Asuma was always quieter and more observant of male Chūnin and Jōnin around her when she did it.

She's not a kid. She can take care of herself…

"I'm taking you shopping and we're going to do something about your total lack of style," Ino commented airily, looking across to see if she could get a playful rise out of him. "No girl is going to give you a sniff when you look all moody and detached."

"Funny, it worked for Sasuke."

Chōji's chuckle broke off in a yelp as Ino jabbed him in the gut with her elbow.

"That's not funny, Shikamaru," she growled.

"Good, wouldn't wanna ruin my moody and detached image."

Ino shot him sharp look. "What's up with you?" Her eyes narrowed a little as she looked him over. "You still not sleeping?"

Shikamaru's jaw tightened. "Who told you I wasn't sleeping?"

"Duh, you're way crabbier than usual and you've got those zombie dark rings." Ino tapped under her eye, her concern brightening with a solution he knew he didn't want to hear.

"No," he said automatically.

"Dark rings," Ino muttered to herself, shrugging the strap of her shoulder-bag into the crook of her arm. "Hey, I've got something that'll fix that right up!"

"Don't even think about it." Shikamaru shook his head, taking a measured step to avoid being pulled across the street or emasculated by girly products. "Considering where you're dragging us, I'd like to come out of this with my masculinity intact…"

Chōji chuckled, offering no resistance to Ino's manhandling as they crossed over towards the familiar rainbow-coloured coffee place.

Ugh, why…

Despite the reflex cringe the colours provoked, it was amusing to see such an artsy splash of paint along a row of bland, understated shops and restaurants. This kissaten sat at the very end of the sidewalk, somewhat ostracised from the rest of the street. The building's rainbow colours had faded with time, the bright shades dulled to pastel imitations that made it less embarrassing than its original garish look.

But the old coffee place was proud of its namesake.

Shikamaru flicked his gaze up to the wooden sign nailed above the entrance.

"NIJI"

The word for 'rainbow' was hand-lettered in a fashion that looked like a chunky, artsy doodle. The bold text, now chipped and worn, still provoked that faint quirk at the corner of Shikamaru's mouth.

And then it struck him how close 'Niji' was to a name he didn't want to think about.

Shit.

He clenched his eyes shut, taking a moment to push back the thought.

"Hey!" Ino called, craning her neck back. "Hurry it up, slacker!"

"Yeah, settle down…" Shikamaru swung his step up onto the sidewalk, falling into pace with Chōji as Ino led the way inside.

The first thing that hit Shikamaru was the strong, heady aroma of the coffee. Just the rich quality of the smell seemed to slide down his throat as if he'd sampled the brew. He inhaled deep, memories stirring from the whiff of a brand he only had once a year.

No place made coffee like Niji.

The owners had a crazy laboratory-looking setup in the back. It was a family run business. They worked like a clan of alchemists seeking the elixir of life in the deep, dark depths of the coffee bean.

Shikamaru wasn't easily impressed, but damn, Niji's brew was second to none.

Ino planted her hands on her hips, scenting the air with a relishing hum as she looked around. "Oh wow."

"You hate coffee," Shikamaru pointed out, smirking as he stepped up beside her, surveying the familiar interior.

"But you like it," Ino returned, not waiting for his reply as she promenaded down the aisle of tables, hips swaying lazily and eyes scanning, drawing the gaze of every male in the place.

Chōji frowned. "Why does she do that?"

Shikamaru sighed, shaking his head. "Not now."

Not ever.

Confronting Ino about that was likely to result in ballistic head injury. The last time he'd mentioned it, she'd hurled a water pitcher at him. The only time to safely tread that ground was when Asuma was nearby; strictly for human-shield and collateral damage purposes.

Time for that coffee…

Shikamaru followed after Chōji, his gaze tracing the walls of the coffee shop. While most kissaten were credited on originality, Niji didn't just take pride in their coffee, but also their creativity. Fusuma panels served as walls, the paintings illustrating a vast expanse of sky that wrapped around the entire establishment – these panels changed throughout the day in accordance to the time. By late afternoon, it was all sunset hues and flame-painted clouds.

It was the sense of being in a grounded slice of sky that had drawn Shikamaru's eye to Niji in the first place. They'd been Genin at the time and just this little display of interest on his part had been enough for Ino to cement it into her mind.

She'd insisted they make it their haunt.

Both of her teammates had flat-out refused.

Any place decorated on the exterior in rainbow colours just wasn't an option.

Shikamaru knew Asuma would have laughed at the time, if he hadn't walked away very fast in the other direction. Fast enough that Gai had joined him in the 'Youthful power walk'.

Ino hadn't given up.

It had taken a good two weeks of nagging before she'd manipulated Shikamaru and Chōji into the place, despite both males being hell-bent on avoiding the humiliation.

Her last resort had scored her a victory.

She'd turned on the waterworks in the middle of the street. And Chōji, the big, gullible softie, had buckled like a cheap belt, dragging Shikamaru along with him into the guilt trip that had taken them through Niji's door.

Ino compromised by insisting they only did it once a year.

Chōji had joked about Shikamaru's birthday.

That had sealed the deal.

Shikamaru hadn't agreed, but he hadn't argued either. And it had absolutely everything to do with the fact that Niji served the best damned coffee in Konoha.

"Perfect!" Ino announced, smoothing a hand over the four-sided table they always took, petting it in ritual greeting. "We should carve our names into it."

Shikamaru arched a brow. "You're not carving my name into anything."

"You're no fun."

"Have fun getting thrown out," he grumbled, taking the opposite side to Chōji and sliding down into the same low, worn chair he occupied every time. The comfortable, broken-in leather of the seat moulded around him like a big tan-coloured cloud.

"I bet they'd let us." Ino took her perch on an equally comfy chair, tugging at her skirt as it rode up a little. "Besides, I think their son is a softie. I could butter him up."

Shikamaru's lips turned down in a frown, but he didn't comment. He watched Chōji reach across for one of the cloud-shaped menus as Ino did a quick reconnaissance of the customers.

"Yep. Same old, same old," she commented, brushing her bangs back from her face.

"Told you," Shikamaru muttered, propping an elbow onto the low table, giving the place a lazy scan, taking in the complete lack of change.

It was still a freeze frame of the first time they'd been here. Like time had breezed into the coffee place for a break years ago and had never checked out. It held in a comfortable pattern that would forever belong to the past.

Begrudgingly, Shikamaru realised that Ino was right, though he'd never admit it.

Some things stayed the same.

And it was good.


Asuma woke with a start, knocked from sleep by a smack against his jaw. A groggy second later he realised it was Kurenai's elbow.

Instinctively, his arm tightened around her. "Kurenai?"

The kunoichi pushed away from him, a shockingly strong shove that almost rolled him out the bed as she ripped the sheets back and darted for the bathroom in a swirl of silk and dark hair, slamming the door shut.

Shit. Not again.

Asuma frowned, on his feet in an instant and rounding the bed in a jog, avoiding a spatter of petals, stems and flower-heads blanketing the floor.

He speared one hand back through his hair, alert and concerned. "Kurenai?"

The blast of the shower sounded from inside the bathroom, not quite loud enough to disguise the choked sound of vomiting. Asuma's eyes rounded, darted to the clock, then swung back to the door.

"Kurenai, open the door."

Nothing.

Asuma tried the doorknob but to no avail. "Kurenai!"

No response.

He glanced down at the handle and got a solid grip, dropping his shoulder in preparation to ram. Then the shower switched off, the tap turned on and the twist of the knob being tried from the other side had him backing up.

The door eased open.

Kurenai peered up at him, her dark mane crumpled around her in a wild, tousled cloud of black. A toothbrush was stuck in her mouth, drawing Asuma's eyes to her lips. They pursed softly and she hummed in query.

Asuma arched a brow, setting his hands at his hips to keep from reaching for her automatically. "Again?"

Kurenai shrugged, one arm banded defensively around her waist as she turned towards the mirror, scraping the toothbrush vigorously around her mouth. She offered nothing else.

"This is the fourth morning this week," Asuma hedged gently, moving to brace a shoulder at the doorframe, not sure how to proceed.

Not sure he wanted to.

Coward.

He frowned, not liking how much that sounded like his father's voice in the back of his mind. He shifted his weight to lean into the doorframe a little more, trying to pull off a relaxed slant.

His fingers flexed, a clear sign he was itching for a cigarette.

He wasn't stupid. Or well, at least he wasn't stupid on a good day. Yesterday had been a bad day. A bad day that Kakashi had decided to make a little more complicated by helping his brain do the very simple, Genin-level math.

"Every morning? Have you considered the thought that it's not a stomach bug?"

"What else would it be?"

"Asuma, when a man and woman—"

"I'm not hopping on that train of thought, Kakashi."

"Well, I think you're past the 'all aboard' and 'through the tunnel' stage."

"You need to stop reading those books. Those sexual euphemisms are terrible."

"Follow the train a little further, Asuma."

"Or how about you stop being cryptic and—Oh shit…"

"And there we have it. You've arrived."

"Shit."

"A word of advice? Don't say that to her."

"Shit."

"Right."

Asuma watched Kurenai cup water to her mouth, sloshing away the grainy mint as she dropped her toothbrush next to his in a monkey-faced cup set by the sink.

"It's just a tummy bug," she dismissed. "It will pass in a few days."

Asuma studied her from beneath heavy lids, assessing her by way of the mirror. "Maybe you should get it checked out."

"It's nothing."

It was one hell of a something.

He'd learned to read her about as well as she read him. And judging by the way her hands lighted in brief flicks on items that didn't need straightening or cleaning, he could tell she was just as tense as he was.

More so than he was.

Kurenai took her time setting everything straight, wiping down the sink and turning the taps firmly even after the water had shut off. With nothing left to fuss over, she scooped a few dark strands behind her ear and turned back to face him, one arm still banded loosely around her waist.

Asuma raised his eyes to settle their gazes.

She quickly glanced at the door.

"You were going to do the easy thing and break it, weren't you?" she teased. Her low, rich contralto tickled Asuma's instincts in a subtly seductive but powerfully distracting way.

He managed a strained smile, scratching guiltily at the back of his head. He wasn't thinking about the door though. In fact, what her words may have alluded to had his eyes straying away from her completely.

Kurenai's smile wavered.

She tightened the sash of her robe, inching around him like a cat scenting her way around an unpredictable wolf. Asuma frowned at her reluctance and his stupidity in exacerbating it. She tried to slip past him.

"Hey…" His arm hooked around her, tugging her gently against his side.

She went rigid in his arms.

Asuma sucked in a breath at the horrible feeling this left him with.

It was like delayed pain from a hard kick in the gut.

After a tense beat she relaxed, tucked her head beneath his chin and twined pale arms like vines around his waist, absorbing the warmth as he fitted her strong curves against him.

"You alright?" A stupid question, but the first thing out his mouth.

She hummed.

Not liking the noncommittal response, he stroked his fingers through the wilderness of her dark mane. She didn't lean back or nuzzle into the touch like she normally did.

Okay. Play this smart.

Kurenai held him loosely, occasionally tightening her embrace then quickly slackening it again. "Say Happy Birthday to them for me."

Asuma smiled, brushing a kiss across her hair. "Will do."

"No you won't." Kurenai rested her head against his shoulder. "They'll tease you too much."

"I'll mentally project the thought. Ino might pick up on it."

"They're perceptive enough, aren't they?"

"I swear I can't relax for a second," Asuma grumbled, shaking his head. "They're onto me and it freaks me out how they know so much. I told you, they're like a corroborative stalking unit without actually stalking me. It's making me paranoid."

"Says the man who stalks his students when something's wrong."

"But nothing's wrong, they just like to see me squirm. And I don't stalk. I stealthily observe from an elevated vantage point."

Kurenai tipped her head back, smiling. "You call in ninken and prowl rooftops."

Asuma's lips twisted in a wry little smile. "You know me too well."

Kurenai went quiet at those words. She held herself as if a chill had gone through her. Asuma's fingers traced her spine.

"Kurenai—"

"Maybe you shouldn't stay here while I've got this bug," she cut in.

His hand stilled at the small of her back.

He didn't reply straight away, weighing up his response against the weight in his chest. He opted for a neutral approach and let the words rumble out quietly, hoping to dislodge the discomfort taking up residence inside a part of him that had always been happy to detach and drift away from anything that tied him down.

"You want me to go?"

Kurenai shrugged. "You don't have to stay."

He frowned at that. He knew he didn't have to stay. At the start he never had. The fact that she'd come to accept this about him was the reason he'd begun to.

Well, not the only reason.

It's not so simple anymore.

It hadn't been that simple for months.

But Kurenai was doing now what she'd always done; opening the door, giving him an exit which his restless, unattached nature would have taken in a heartbeat several months ago.

Commitment had never been high on his list of wants or needs – or virtues.

He thought this lack of attachment was just in his nature. Hell, he'd left his village hadn't he? The most vital thing he should have felt some obligation towards. He'd sought those proverbial greener pastures beyond what Konoha had offered. And then the only solid commitment he'd ever made had blown up in his face. He'd dedicated himself to an elite group that had cost him more than he'd bargained for.

Stupid, naïve kid.

He'd come back to Konoha tired and soul-sick and scarred. The prodigal son of a Hokage father he'd never really understood. He'd slipped back into his old blasé skin after the vicious dissimilation of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. But this skin had never fitted him quite the way it used to.

He'd ignored the discomfort.

He'd smoked it away.

With that buffer in place, he'd signed up for a Genin team and had wasted away his personal life subtly flirting around the ranks of kunoichi. He'd entered into numerous affairs that couldn't really be called relationships – maybe "arrangements" were closer to the mark.

That had suited him just fine.

Until he'd met Kurenai.

The chemistry was electric, the conversation easy and the connection instant. And an unplanned night of wild, reckless post-mission passion between them had hit him hard, blowing all his previous arrangements out of the water.

She'd gripped him in a way he couldn't shake.

She'd caught him by holding on like she'd never let him go when he took her and by letting him go and asking him to leave the second it was over. It was complicated and strange and not the kind of arrangement he'd wanted to get tangled up in.

But soon she had become the only arrangement he wanted.

At the start, he'd always leave in the night.

But he'd never stay away longer than a couple of days.

He'd seek her out every time.

He only knew he was in way too deep when he'd begun to wait for her on the days or nights or weeks that he couldn't find her. He'd never gone elsewhere, leaving him with the thought that she might. A thought which had driven him to pace the floors in his apartment like a vicious, lost animal.

"Lust-sick puppy" Genma had joked, quickly amended by Gai to its correct cliché, only to be completely obliterated by the subtle glare Asuma had sent both Jōnin.

Kakashi had been smart enough not to say a word.

Not that he'd had to, the cocky, underhanded bastard. His eye had curved in that masked smile that said more than Asuma wanted to hear, unspoken or otherwise.

He'd gone home and smoked himself into a restless sleep.

When Kurenai had finally come back from that four week mission, he'd hunted her down in the most primal way a man could seek a woman. He'd taken her where he'd found her, in a bed of leaves, shedding lust and turning sex into something infinitely deeper and more complicated.

The emotion had lain between them as naked as their bodies in the afterglow.

Just the thought of it now provoked a fierce throb in his chest.

Asuma leaned back, crooked a knuckle under her chin and tipped her head up. "Do you want me to go, Kurenai?"

Kurenai angled her chin a tad higher, her heart in her eyes. "Do I ever ask you to leave?"

A grim smile flicked up the corners of his mouth. "You never ask me to stay."

Kurenai stiffened and dropped her arms away from him. "That's not fair, Asuma."

"Do you want me to stay?" Asuma pressed, searching her eyes, seeing the answer in them.

Kurenai said nothing, staring up at him with a look that cut him deep, it was torn and hurt and brimming with too much emotion to hold. She looked pale and scared, her eyes as red and raw as two open wounds as she searched his face.

"You can be a real bastard sometimes, Sarutobi," she whispered, her voice as rough as a wildcat's growl. "How dare you ask me that."

Asuma pursed his lips, drawing his head back as if she'd slapped him.

She probably should have. But it wouldn't have stopped him.

His brows drew together, a deep line digging into his forehead. "Ask me why I stopped leaving."

Kurenai squeezed her eyes shut, holding up a palm as she pulled in a shaky breath to still the tremble in her voice. "You're going to be late."

Asuma cupped her shoulders, tightening his grip as she tried to shrug him off, leaning down to murmur against her ear. "Then ask me why I stay."

He heard her sniff sharply, could have sworn he heard her heart thundering. Or maybe that was his. He might have leaned in closer if she hadn't pressed her hands to his chest, threatening a shove.

"Let go of me, Asuma."

He did, but he kept his lips by her ear. "Why can't you ask me?"

She banded her arms defensively across her stomach, but didn't move away. "When have I ever asked anything of you?"

"Never." Asuma hummed, cupping her chin to tip her face up. "That's why I'm telling you to ask me now."

Kurenai slipped her lashes open to pin him with a fierce, almost frightened look, searching his eyes. Asuma took a deep breath, arching his brows in a silent challenge. Kurenai wasn't one to be cowed. The only time she shied away from him – oddly – was when they were doing something domestic together. Their most intimate and playful moments never fazed her, but the mundane and homely rituals always did.

He was still trying to figure that one out.

Maybe I should grill Kakashi…

Kurenai continued to scan his face, crimson eyes narrowed, the smudge of masacara making them seem softer than the look she tried to sharpen on him.

"Why now?" she whispered.

He shrugged. "Why not?"

Kurenai closed her eyes. "You're going to be late, Asuma."

It didn't take this completely unrelated statement for him to know the unstable area had become too threatening for her. All things considered, it should have been threatening for him too. He was pushing her to go where he'd once told himself he never would. Not only because of the commitment, but because he never thought he'd survive long enough to get there even if he'd wanted to.

And that's just it…

He wanted to.

He shot a look at the monkey-faced mug on the sink, their toothbrushes resting neck to neck. He'd settled into the unstable area months ago; traces of him were all over her home even when he wasn't in it. It was a foundation for something stronger.

He glanced down at her.

"Well I'm usually late when it comes to the important things," Asuma returned quietly, his eyes as soft and heavy as his voice. "But I get there in the end."

"Yes…" Kurenai blinked slowly and cupped his jaw, following the coarse bracket of his beard to his hair, smoothing it back with a tender brush of her fingers. "But maybe that's because you feel obligated to get there."

Asuma forced a smile to cover the pinch of confusion on his face. "You know me better than that. I don't do obligation."

"I know you don't…" Kurenai whispered, shaking her head as she stepped away. "And I would never ask you to."

Asuma caught her nimbly around the waist, pulling her back like a man trying to hold onto a wave in the ocean, not liking how far this tide was likely to pull them apart if he let it slide like he had for the past four days.

"You think I stay with you because I feel obligated to?"

"I don't know why you stay," Kurenai snapped, smacking her hands to his chest and squaring her shoulders to shove him. "But now you need to leave."

Her push forced him back a step into the bedroom, breaking his grip on her. She slipped around him in a whip of dark hair, the silk of her robe lashing her legs as she approached the bed, leaning across to tug on the sheets and straighten them out in sharp, jerky movements.

Asuma watched her quietly.

He waited for her to finish tucking in the sheets, then came up behind her without a word. Kurenai ignored him, slicing her palm roughly over the crimson coverlet to smooth out the creases. Asuma's hands settled at the soft flare of her hips and slid around to her stomach before she could push him away.

His palms rested flat against her belly.

Kurenai froze.

Asuma settled his chin on her shoulder. "You know why I stay. Why I'll keep staying. And it's got nothing to do with obligation."

She stiffened in his arms, so rigid she almost shook. And for a horrible, heart-stopping moment he could envision himself losing the best thing that had happened to him other than the Team he'd trained and still mentored.

Chalk it up to karma, Sarutobi. You never deserved her…

And then he felt the soft splash of her tears on the back of his hand. They burned his heart like acid; until the warm lace of her fingers slotted between his, squeezing softly. A swell of relief filled his chest, breaking a smile across his face.

Kurenai turned her head a little.

"Smile for me," he whispered against a tear-stained cheek.

She did, tremulous but true. He kissed her jaw, rocking her to music neither could hear as he eased her into a slow dance around the room, moving backwards.

"Asuma," Kurenai warned, but he could detect a hiccup of amusement in her voice. "You're going to injure yourself."

"I'm a shinobi," he countered with a rogue grin. "I can scent danger."

"Even when it smells like roses?"

On cue, Asuma's foot came down on a rose stem.

The thorns drove right through his heel.

"Shit!" he yelped, skipping along on one foot that turned their dance into a game of hopscotch in which Kurenai burst into giggles.

He waved his foot around. "This is the last time I try to do something romantic."

"You're supposed to take the petals off the stems, you caveman." Kurenai laughed, trying to turn around in his arms only to have him scoop her up bridal style. "Asuma!"

"A caveman would sling you over his shoulder," Asuma pointed out, hopping towards the bed with a grimace, attempting to avoid more treacherous stems. "Right, next time I'll kill a mammoth and bring it home so you can cook it."

Kurenai draped her arm across his back, her laughter sobering. "Home?"

"Yeah, home." Asuma wobbled on the spot like he was on a tightrope, holding her securely. "Like they say, it's where the heart is, right?"

"They say…" Kurenai cupped his jaw and turned his face towards her. "But is it?"

Asuma gazed back quietly for a long moment, setting his foot down until he stood solid and sure. "When I'm with you, I'm home."

Kurenai's eyes widened, a flood of emotion rushing forth in a flurry of fear, hope and tenderness, the rich mix warming and swelling in those wine-red eyes Asuma had been intoxicated by the first time their gazes had hit.

"Even if home comes with thorns and elbows in the morning?" Kurenai teased, but he could sense the double-meaning in her words.

"They also say love hurts."

"What do you say?"

Asuma grinned, ducking his head to touch their noses. "It hurts so good."

She smiled through her tears, gripping his heart with her gaze all over again.

He was definitely going to be late.


"Do you think it's too late to take it back?"

Shikamaru sighed, propping his chin on the heel of his hand. "I told you not to order that."

The coffee was darker than the look Ino was giving it. She dropped a fourth sugar cube into the steaming brew, watching it bob with a scowl.

"Eww. Maybe I could dilute it or something."

"Uh," Chōji made a face. "Just give it to Shikamaru."

"I'm not drinking that."

"Why?" Ino huffed. "It looks the same as yours."

"Only twice the size," Chōji chuckled. "With a load of sugar."

"I'm not drinking that," Shikamaru echoed.

"This is kind of gross." Ino sniffed her cup and reached for some milk. "How do you stomach this stuff, Shikamaru? It's like mud."

Shikamaru shook his head, watching the vigorous spin of the stirrer as Ino attempted to dilute said 'mud'. The brew was as rich as it was expensive and there was just no watering it down no matter how much milk she splashed into it.

"Why the hell did you order it?"

"It's good for me," Ino said, scraping dark droplets off the stirrer.

"But you hate it."

"So? It's a small sacrifice."

Not following the logic, Shikamaru glanced at Chōji; the Akimichi usually had a better grasp on these things, given how much Ino used to nag and lecture him about anything food or drink related.

Chōji hummed, munching on rice crackers as he consulted a mental bank no doubt stashed with Ino's fun food facts. "Uh, apparently it's good for your metabolism."

"Exactly!" Ino chirped, pleased he'd remembered. "Maybe even better than green tea."

Shikamaru lidded his eyes to keep from rolling them. "Are you serious?"

Ino stopped stirring.

Chōji looked over, a kind of warning plea in his eyes. Shikamaru shrugged, his tiredness combining with his headache to make him borderline irritable and just a tad mean. He made no show of hiding his sour expression.

"Troublesome…"

"Don't I know it," Ino sighed, dismissing him with a wave. "It's hard work for a girl to keep herself in shape."

She set a critical glare on the caffeine hit that would apparently negate all the calories she'd ordered on the menu. Not having the energy to keep up with the complicated and nonsensical patterns of her dieting habits, Shikamaru reached for his own thimble-sized cup.

"Whatever," he muttered, taking a sip of the dark liquid, the texture as rich as velvet on his tongue. "You worry way too much about that crap."

Chōji winced as Ino's spine went rigid, her glare fierce enough to curdle the milk in her coffee.

"You're not a girl so you wouldn't know. Which includes the hard work part," she shot back waspishly. "It's none of your business anyway."

Shikamaru snorted. "I still have to hear about it."

Ino pinched her lips hard, something odd flickering in her eyes before she blinked and flashed a bright, brittle smile, fluttering her hands. "Anyway, are you prepared for later?"

Shikamaru arched a brow, his thumb circling the small cup as he looked across at her suspiciously. The mood swing worked in his favour, so he went with the momentum.

"Prepared…?"

Ino snapped a rice cracker in half and popped both pieces into her mouth, rolling her eyes. "Oh come on, Shikamaru, I'll give that big brain of yours its credit. You're not exactly easy to surprise."

"You tackled me into a bush two weeks ago."

"You know what I mean," Ino chided, taking up her coffee cup. "Anyway, all you need to do is show up."

"Show up where?"

"Chōji will bring you, or drag you, or whatever."

That was in no way comforting.

Shikamaru looked across at his friend. Chōji smiled, which only added to the grim possibilities that Shikamaru's brain had begun to churn out. He'd been avoiding the various scenarios, not wanting to put Ino's celebratory conspiracy into something concrete.

"Ino, if this is anything like the last time…"

"Oh relax! It won't be like last year." Ino turned her coffee mug around in her hands, warming her palms. "That was way too noisy." She paused, narrowing her eyes. "Not that you heard anything after you went all comatose."

Shikamaru tapped his cup down twice, frowning. "I wasn't hearing anything before. I had a conversation in mime with three people I didn't know and didn't want to."

"You're such a social retard, Shikamaru."

His face fell flatter than his voice. "Because lip-reading with idiots is my idea of a good time."

"Like you'd know what a good time was," Ino muttered, more sarcastic than spiteful as she nibbled another cracker. "Anyway, how do you know they were idiots if you weren't properly talking to them?"

"One of the girls kept calling him 'Shika'," Chōji snickered.

"It's not funny. And that wasn't a girl."

Chōji exploded into hysterics. Several other customers glanced their way.

"Chōji…" Ino hissed.

Chōji only laughed harder, rocking back in his chair. "That's the best thing ever!"

Pokerfaced, Shikamaru debated whether to kick him under the table or throw something heavy – then estimated the likelihood of missing and the effort it would take to aim.

He let it slide.

Ino rolled her eyes. "Well there were interesting people there too. You were just too lazy to shout."

"Yeah right." Shikamaru glanced between them. "You and Chōji couldn't talk the next day."

"Or hear," Chōji pointed out, struggling to breathe through his laughter, earning himself a narrow look from Ino. "Jeez, Ino. It's true."

Ino huffed, choosing not to concede the point by completely ignoring it. "Anyway, this year will be good, okay? I planned it better. No random Chūnin or civilian crashers." She watched Shikamaru out the corner of her eye, assessing his reaction. "Besides, you need some birthday spoiling and so do I."

A quick-fire stream of retorts lined up along Shikamaru's tongue, but he swallowed them back by draining his coffee, the echo of Asuma's words kicking his conscience into a gutter of guilt.

"Give her a break. She took a knock after that Team switch…which I know wasn't your fault, but that doesn't mean you can't compromise and give a little here. She's putting a lot of effort into this."

Stupid guilt.

Dammit.

Shikamaru sighed and pushed back from the table. "I'm not singing."

Ino choked on the first sip of her coffee, blue eyes rounding in shock. "What? Are you serious? You're not gonna bail on me?"

"Technically I didn't leave the last time."

"Lame," Chōji chuckled around a rice cracker, choking on it when Ino clapped a hand over his mouth to shush him.

"Seriously, Shikamaru! You mean it?" Her eyes lit up like a child's, brightening with giddy expectancy which would have made Shikamaru feel like the worst kind of bastard to crush her hope.

Dammit…

If only she knew how much more effective this tactic was than the other means she employed; but maybe that was because this wasn't a tactic.

Figures.

Turning Ino down was never an option anyway, even if Asuma hadn't thrown guilt into the mix. Given the sheer amount of energy she'd put into the whole troublesome event, Shikamaru sensed it all tied into that complicated Rubik's Cube of her self-esteem.

What the hell is up with that?

He had vague theories he didn't want to think about. Either way, he probably owed her compensation he wasn't aware of. She had a habit of mentally collecting things he and Chōji did, a tally of crimes committed against her, keeping count of which teammate was scoring higher in the game of "You Owe Me".

Shikamaru was pretty sure he was in the lead.

Shit. Hanegakure, Kotetsu, falling asleep last year…

Yes. He owed her.

"I'm not singing," Shikamaru reiterated, which was as close to verbally accepting his fate as he was going to get. "I'm not dancing either."

Chōji laughed. "Aw, be a man and show us your moves, Shika."

"Shut up."

"Awesome!" Ino beamed, not paying attention to either of them as she clanked her coffee cup down with a feline grin. "I won't have to mind-move you now. I really wouldn't wanna get lost in your brain."

Shikamaru scowled. "Like you'd do that."

"I totally would." Ino set an elbow on the table and propped her chin on her fist, levelling him with a deep, serious look. "I'd even make you stand up and sing something several octaves higher than you can go."

If it wasn't for the fact that Ino might possibly have been serious, Shikamaru might have snapped something back. As it was, a woman scorned still rated as S-Rank as far as disastrous opponents were concerned.

He squinted at her hesitantly, searching for intent.

Ino smirked, leaning in slowly. "I'd make you sing for me and dance for Chōji…" She paused before adding. "At the same time." Then, in a whisper. "Like a girl."

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed sharply, mouth turned down in annoyance.

Chōji sucked in his cheeks to keep from laughing, shoulders shaking as he held in the extreme amusement already lighting his eyes.

Ino nodded slowly, mouthing fatalistically. "Shika."

Shikamaru growled and waved her back. "Lay off, already."

"Ha! You're freaked out now."

"Not even close."

"Hey, come to think of it Shikamaru, I've never heard you sing or seen you dance," Chōji added unhelpfully.

Shikamaru shot his friend a pointed glare. "And you never will."

"You're such an old man," Ino needled, sticking her tongue out playfully.

"So don't invite me."

"Dancing is good for you. Live a little."

"I'll drop dead first," Shikamaru snorted, leaning back as a waitress laid out three plates of sweets on the table.

The woman paused and looked questioningly at Ino, who waved vaguely at Shikamaru, much to the Nara's suspicion. Smiling, the waitress set down a small uriō rice cake in the shape of a cloud, a slim candle set in its centre.

Shikamaru's eyes went wide in a quick flash of surprise.

This wasn't part of the tradition.

Even Chōji looked confused.

The waitress smiled. "Happy Birthday. I'll bring some more coffee."

As the woman moved away to retrieve the drinks, Shikamaru stared at the cake, looking for an explanation to cover his embarrassment. Ino was pretty particular about ritualised celebrations. There was no reason this year should have been any different.

He looked up at his teammates.

Ino ignored him completely, her attention riveted on the sweets laid out. She prodded Chōji with her chopsticks and quizzed him on the various confectionaries, using him as a food taster and snatching up anything he deemed worthy of her selective sweet tooth.

Shikamaru watched them for a long moment, his lip cutting upward at one corner.

"Troublesome girl," he muttered quietly.

Ino smiled without looking across. "You're welcome."


Trouble.

That was the first thought that struck Asuma as he watched his young nephew and fellow Genin team come flying through Konoha's gates on a violent gust of wind. The gravity defying way they sailed through the air, arms and legs flailing to break their fall, might have been amusing if it wasn't a cause for concern.

Asuma upped his jog, reaching for his trench knives. "Shit."

But then Konohamaru sang out midflight. "Asssuuuuma-ojisaaaan!"

The boy's grin had Asuma hesitating.

The young Sarutobi attempted to wave, but hit the ground in a tumble of camping gear, cushioning the fall for his teammates. Their crash-landing kicked up a mushroom cloud of dust. From the registry post, Kotetsu yawned, waved away the grit and flipped another page of the book he was reading, not bothering to look up.

Izumo, however, had his hands planted to the desk, chair knocked back as he rose abruptly. "What the hell?"

Good question.

Asuma's hand redirected from a trench knife, reached into his pocket and flicked out his lighter instead, bringing it to his cigarette as he strolled over. He scanned for the Jōnin who had been in charge of the team, recalling the day the group had headed out.

Ah, that's right. Hyūga.

That might explain the mid-air stunt. Asuma had seen the Air Palm in combat; an impressive way to launch people into flight.

"Konohamaru," Asuma called sternly.

The young Sarutobi scrambled his way out from beneath his teammates, scowling and grunting something about scary women. Asuma's shadow fell across the trio of Genin as they untangled themselves from the knot of their landing.

"Oooww."

Asuma arched a brow, smoking curling from his lip as he mumbled. "One way to make an entrance. What did you do?"

Konohamaru wobbled onto his feet, stabbing a finger back towards the gate. "She's one scary lady! Neji-senpai did it on purpose! I don't ever wanna take the Chūnin exams if she's a proctor!"

She?

A heavy thud drew Asuma's gaze up sharply.

A puff of dust coughed up around the solid, polished steel of a giant fan, the end lodged firmly into the ground. A curvy hip cocked against the folded weapon, the cold steel burnished to the same gleam as the Suna headband.

"Be careful what you whisper, or the winds will change," purred a rich contralto as low and sultry as Kurenai's, only drier. "And next time I'll make sure they do more than blow you away, brat."

Asuma's lips framed an amused smile not seen or returned by the pair of fierce teal eyes that locked warningly on Konohamaru.

Asuma couldn't help but chuckle.

Ah, Shikamaru. You're in for one hell of a surprise.


"I hate surprises."

"I know." Chōji forked up a chunk of savoury pancake and chewed thoughtfully. "But I'm still sworn to secrecy."

"I've known you longer."

"Yeah but Ino has the energy to hold a grudge waaaay longer than you ever could."

Shikamaru's eye twitched. "Don't bet on it."

"Aw c'mon." Chōji waved his fork around emphatically like an amateur hypnotist trying to influence Shikamaru's mood and then gave up and pierced another soggy cube of pancake. "But I can tell you that you're gonna like the food."

Shikamaru set his features into a blank stare. "That doesn't make me feel any better about this. And the way she just jumped up and ran off with that scheming look in her eye isn't helping."

Chōji chuckled, slicing through layers of fluffy batter and sauce. "Well at least it got you outta clothes shopping."

"Yeah and where's it gonna get me next?"

"Can't tell you. But I'll drag you."

Shikamaru sighed in defeat.

Funny how one of the many things the shadow-nin admired about Chōji proved to be the current source of trouble for him. Loyalty. The unwavering way Chōji upheld his promises. Too bad Ino always got to the Akimichi first. She never hesitated in securing his allegiance in her war against Shikamaru's attempts to escape the slow death of her social schemings.

Dammit.

Shikamaru held up a palm in surrender, shrugging. "Alright, whatever. I've got crap I need to do before then."

"Not work, right?" Chōji asked, looking up quizically from his meal. "Asuma took over your duties this morning and divvied up the rest. What's happening?"

Shikamaru sighed, brushing his thumb unconsciously across the faded scar on his cheekbone. "The bird."

"Eh?" It only took a second for Chōji's frown to morph into a knowing grin. "Oh."

"It needs to go." Shikamaru stared blankly at the window for a long moment, shaking his head. "It flew into my room yesterday."

Chōji choked on a lump of pancake, attempting to stifle a laugh. "Oh man, and we teased Naruto about birds. Just wait 'til Kiba hears about this. You can get his net."

Shikamaru didn't share his amusement. "It trashed the place."

Chōji nodded in a sage, understanding kind of way, humming around his fork as he ruminated on the problem. He looked at Shikamaru seriously, dropping his voice a notch. "So…did it crap everywhere?"

Shikamaru stared for a long moment, not a muscle twitching in his face.

"You're such a good friend, Chōji," he deadpanned. "Always helping me out."

"You should look at the funny side!" Chōji encouraged with gusto, spreading his arms to embrace the concept he was promoting. "Laugh about it!"

"It ate one of my Shogi pieces."

Chōji laughed hard, rocking the table. "Man, just the way you say it. Like it's not funny."

"It's not," Shikamaru growled, but the hard line of his mouth almost curved a little. "You know it's gonna crap that piece out somewhere and I'll get my best friend who's always not helping me out to help me look for it."

"And I totally would." Chōji wiped his eyes. "I love that bird. What have you called it?"

"Stupid bird," Shikamaru replied with complete seriousness. "And by the bird-book definition, that bird is not right in the head. It's gonna drive me crazy."

Chōji's face brightened suddenly, amusement switching to awareness. "Oh hey! That reminds me, I bought your present for Ino, that'll make you feel better."

Shikamaru shot him a dry look. "Yeah, sure." He folded an arm atop the table and drummed his fingers in a conclusive rap. "Right. How much do I owe you?"

"These pancakes?" Chōji chuckled, spearing another spongy square.

Shikamaru's eyes rounded in surprise, narrowing a second later. "What? That's it?"

"That's it."

That didn't make sense.

Shikamaru had a reserved spot in his pocket for Ino's picky, pricey, present tendencies. Not that she didn't reciprocate – she did, in spades – but there were only so many shiny, expensive things outside of weaponry that were of any use or interest to the shadow-nin. Half his wardrobe was purchased by the Yamanaka and sometimes there was no occasion to mark the gift-giving. She gave Chōji the same generous treatment.

Weird.

He glanced toward the window, frowning as he polished off another cup of coffee – which tasted like rainwater in comparison to Niji's. He swallowed it down without savouring it, watching shadows fall across the sidewalk as Chōji went on.

"And guess what, it's not even shiny."

"Yeah?" Shikamaru asked distractedly. "What is it?"

"A book."

"A book…" Shikamaru blinked as the word suddenly registered in his drifting thoughts, yanking his attention back. "A book? Are you serious?"

"Yeah. She really wanted it. " Chōji kicked a bag across from under the table, the brown paper crackling noisily in the quiet restaurant. "Check it out."

Shikamaru pushed back from his slouch and leaned to retrieve the bag, dropping it beside him on the bench warily. He shot Chōji a lazy glance as he reached into the bag with one hand.

"So, what did you get her?"

Chōji grinned. "Something shiny."

Shikamaru smiled at that. He curled his fingers around a thick spine and hefted out a sea-green book from the paper bag, dipping his wrist to set it on the table. The cover sported a large Zodiac wheel with a bold question mark in the centre.

Shikamaru tilted his head and flipped open the cover to read the title.

SIGN LANGUAGE: READ WHAT'S WRITTEN IN YOUR STARS.

Shikamaru hiked a brow. "You got her a book on Astrology?"

"No. You got her a book on Astrology," Chōji corrected, shrugging as he gulped down a glass of water. "She wanted it."

Shikamaru pursed his lips, darting a glance at the back of the book, making a face at the cursive, curly script. "Are you the Sum of your Sign? This is such crap."

"I'm a bull apparently."

Shikamaru smirked, shaking his head. "You actually read it."

"Well I flipped through it to get ideas for Ino. Her sign is scales or something like that." Chōji squinted at the book, bringing his memory back into focus. "Oh hey, you're kind of special…uh…in the middle or stuck between something."

Reluctantly intrigued, Shikamaru tapped the book down, absolutely refusing to open it. He didn't notice someone backtracking as they passed by the window.

Shikamaru arched a brow, a cue for elaboration. "Stuck between something?"

"Yeah." Chōji held his hands apart. "You're stuck between…uh something…" He waved a hand, trying to remember the zodiac names before vaguely shaking the other hand. "And…something else."

Shikamaru pressed his lips to keep from laughing. "Like I said. Crap."

A palm smacked into the window beside Shikamaru's head.

Both Chūnin jolted in their seats, simultaneously jerking away from the window where Kotetsu's fingertip stabbed into the glass as if it could go through it. He pointed at Shikamaru, grinning with a demented, unholy kind of glee as he mouthed "Boo".

Idiot.

"Yeah, I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place," Shikamaru muttered beneath his breath, frowning at Kotetsu.

Unfazed, the older Chūnin bobbed his eyebrows and mimed the "I'm watching you" sign, obviously delighted that he'd managed to get the drop on the Nara genius. Shikamaru could only count the fact that Kotetsu didn't know it was his birthday as a small blessing; considering the massive curse that was the other ninja's tendency to harass him.

He watched Kotetsu saunter off and turned his attention back to Chōji.

"You beat them again, right?" Chōji guessed.

Shikamaru nodded, slipping the book back into the bag. "Such a drag."

Their Nijū Shōtai training had already begun and Shikamaru tactically outsmarted Kotetsu and Izumo every time he was pit against them in enemy scenarios. Kotetsu had decided to reward the shadow-nin by publically harassing him every chance he got.

Shikamaru swayed onto his feet with a groan, rolling a shoulder to work the cramp out of the lean muscles knotted there. "Ugh. You're lucky you and Ino got two Jōnin."

"Yeah, but you got Asuma-sensei."

Shikamaru smirked, tugging out the money to cover Chōji's meal and his two crappy coffee hits. "Yeah and he has us training at six thirty in the morning."

Chōji winced. "That's why you're so tired lately, huh?"

Shikamaru smiled grimly, not bothering to flesh out the details on that one. He tucked the bag under his arm and slid out the booth, moving to roll his step into a lazy stroll towards the exit.

"Yeah, I could kill for a lie in."

Chōji chuckled, finishing off his mutilated pancake. "Sucks, right? Can't stop the clock."

Shikamaru jerked as if stabbed.

Can't stop the clock.

He froze, heart thudding hard against his sternum as those words struck him square in the gut, punching out a short breath that he snatched back a little too sharply.

Chōji looked up curiously. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Shikamaru held up a hand in a lazy, backward wave. "Thanks for the book."

He left the restaurant at an easy pace, trying to shake off the stupidity of his reaction by getting a grip on the stupid simple logic.

It was just a dream.

It took a brisk walk to fight off the autumn cold; too bad the chill went deeper than his skin.


TBC.

A/N: And here we go on another ride. A long chapter for you lovelies who have so wonderfully supported me through my last writing endeavour with BtB. As promised, here is the aside piece. I had hoped to work it in time for Shikamaru and Ino's official birthdays – just to be sentimental. ^_^ Expect this fic to be character-centred and broadening to explore some of the other Naruto characters as well. Not sure how many chapters it will stretch into but god knows it won't be sodding 50! ^_^ Neji will definitely be making an appearance for those wondering where our Hyūga is. Hope you enjoyed this start! As always, I deeply appreciate feedback and always welcome thoughts.

A/N (2): I will try to keep updates as regular as I can. Fresh work has got me inundated lately, so there may be occasions of delay. Simply for the reason that I have far less time than I did while writing BtB, I won't be able to do the same level of individual review replies – please understand that this is purely because of a lack of time. I am always deeply grateful to those who take that time out to review the chapters – please see my updates as my way of thanking and acknowledging you. The more time I dedicate to the writing, the faster I can get those updates up. That said, I will always respond to questions in reviews. So if you don't hear from me as you did while I was writing BtB, please know that doesn't mean I haven't acknowledged you or that your reviews don't mean as much to me – that's never the case. Thank You, always.