Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. Original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement intended.
Title: ON THE CUSP
Rating: M / R
Summary: Corralled into troublesome celebrations, Shikamaru learns that Birthdays can do more than bring people together or push people away. Sometimes they can bring people back - pulling the Past with them. (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
"Red clouds at night are a shepherd's delight. But red clouds at morning are a shepherd's warning."
The rhyme was a joke Chiriku-sama had shared with Sarutobi Asuma. It had something to do with their time as protectors to the Feudal Lord.
Yuji remembered the words well.
He remembered the way his Master had tried to contain his amusement to a smile, while Asuma's laugh had rolled warm and loud across the high walls of the Fire Temple.
Oh Gods the Temple…
Yuji's legs wobbled beneath him. He sobbed, staggered, then stumbled on.
The Temple was gone. Gone like his brothers. Gone like Chiriku-sama.
I'm so sorry!
Yuji blinked the tears from his eyes, tried to choke down the next sob that threatened. The vision of red clouds had come weeks ago. A foreboding premonition, a God-sent warning of the shadow of death approaching the Temple.
He'd thought nothing of it.
Even on patrol, he'd dawdled in the hills and returned too late.
"Red clouds at night are a shepherd's delight. But red clouds at morning are a shepherd's warning."
The wolves had come. The sheep were slaughtered and the shepherd slain. Those clouds had swept in with the morning…red as the mists of hell…painted on the black cloaks of the Akatsuki demons.
Yuji felt the grief and terror clog in his throat.
They'd snuffed out every life, sent every one of his brothers' souls into Kwan Yin's arms long before their time. Ruthless. Merciless. Pursuing bloodshed with the same sick indifference as death pursues life.
Yuji's heart lurched at the memory of violet eyes and skeletal skin…of a nauseating triangle of blood…of that huge, vile scythe cutting through flesh and bone and brick…of the other monster's puppet-like limbs and soulless green orbs…
His time was not done.
His mission was to warn the Hokage.
And the urge to reach Konoha before those filthy animals could reach the black market station drove him on…as did the vision of his dead Master. A vision of sage, serious eyes that wordlessly spurred him to keep running…when all he wanted to do was drop to his knees and cry.
I'm sorry! I'm so sorry…
His lungs burned, limbs seeming to drag, heavy as leaden clubs.
Hours. He'd been running for hours.
DO NOT STOP!
He flew down the steady grade of the rock, tripping, stumbling, but not falling. He couldn't fall. Sobs of frustration and fear caught in his throat, but he kept going, knowing what it would mean if he stopped.
I will not fail you, Chiriku-sama!
The vow pushed him forward…loyalty to dead men and mentors pushing him further and faster…onwards until the endless stretch of rock gave way to an endless stretch of trees…trees that loomed over him, the red canopies like red clouds…
Yuji choked out a cry.
I WILL NOT FAIL.
The world bled away, bled into a blur, bled into a stream of brown and red and black…streaking past his blurry vision in blotches…bloody stains…in a distorted hell…
And then hell's long road gave way to something in the distance…
The huge gates of the village stood open, like arms beckoning him forward.
Yuji cried out and flailed his arms like a man struggling against a current, waving wildly, garbled words rising up his throat. He didn't have the breath to shout.
He didn't need to.
At the gatepost, two shinobi spotted him, drawing up in confusion before starting forward.
Yuji's heart soared ahead of his feet.
Relief crashed through him and his legs gave way.
The running Chūnin reached him just as he collapsed.
"Whoa! Easy, take it easy…" a voice soothed. "What happened?"
Yuji blinked away the tears blurring his vision, bringing into focus a face bisected by a strip of white that ran across the bridge of the shinobi's nose. Yuji curled his fists into the Chūnin's grey uniform, pulling him close to stare into wide dark eyes, as if his own look of terror could translate his message.
"They came…they killed…everyone…everyone…"
Kotetsu's brows shot up then pulled together sharply. He took hold of the monk's shoulders, steadying the shaking man. "Who?"
Izumo came to his side, face pale and lips drawn tight. "Akatsuki?"
Yuji turned tear-glazed eyes up towards the young ninja, mouthing his next words on a watery breath. "It's…begun…"
Shikamaru arched a brow and cocked his head towards the board.
Asuma leaned down and studied the formation of the pieces with a scowl. It took about two seconds of outright denial before his mouth dropped open, cigarette falling into his lap to burn a few holes in his slacks.
Chōji laughed, watching from over the edge of the hammock he'd settled in, playing spectator to Shikamaru and Asuma's game. "Dinner is on you tonight, sensei."
Asuma pinched his smouldering cigarette between his fingers, his scowl divided three-ways between his slacks, his wallet and his shame. "How did that happen? I swear to god I had you that time."
Shikamaru smirked, flicking his eyes up from the board. "You fail at Shogi, sensei…"
"You fail at life, Shikamaru," Ino defended, perched beside Asuma at the edge of the Nara's porch, painting her toenails. "I can't believe you didn't dance with Temari. Not even once. I mean, at least Asuma-sensei has a love life. He's a full Libra, which means he's romantic."
Choking on his attempt to inhale smoke, Asuma's eyes did a flashbulb imitation and a violent blush crested the collar of his turtleneck. He hacked out a rattling cough, but his fight to breathe didn't warrant any sympathy, only snickers.
Shikamaru set his chin in his palm and tapped his lips, smiling behind his fingers. "Oh yeah? Got any pointers, sensei? Maybe the best way to land when falling head-over-heels outta a window?"
Asuma shot him a black look that screamed 'you traitorous little shit'. Shikamaru gazed back with a lazy smirk.
"Or falling head-over-heels into loooove," Ino crooned, pretending to swoon. "Not that Shikamaru knows anything about that."
Shikamaru shook his head at her theatrics, amusement tugging hard at the corners of his mouth. "I'm way too smart to do something that stupid."
"Pfft." She waved him off. "Asuma totally needs to educate you."
"Can we not bring me into this?" Asuma muttered, pressing his cigarette back between his lips, hunching over the board with a grumble.
"Oh hey! Speaking of education, Asuma-sensei, weren't you supposed to give us the birds and bees talk?" Chōji chirped, adding to Asuma's humiliation with an indulgent grin. "Iruka-sensei never did."
The colour Asuma had gained abruptly dropped off his face. "What?" he croaked.
"All-rounded education is important," Chōji went on, grinning.
Ino bit her tongue, trying hard not to laugh. "Yeah, isn't that part of your job, sensei? I mean, Shikamaru could realllly use that talk."
Shikamaru levelled Ino with a deadpan look and without even bothering to lift his chin from his palm he curled his fingers down until his middle digit remained.
Ino stuck her tongue out with a shrill 'hee'. "Don't be crabby. I was just playing."
Shikamaru smoothed his fingers out, turning his palm sideways to prop his jaw again. If only she knew how far from crabby he felt right now. For the first time in weeks, he felt like something had shifted. Neji had rocked the ground beneath his feet and Asuma had reached out to turn the ugly underworld of Shikamaru's fear on its axis.
And while he still felt shaky, for the first time in a long time, Shikamaru felt…safe…
I'm not alone…
The reality of that truth had finally penetrated the defences he'd built up, coaxing him to bring them down one brick at a time – and more than one wall had crumbled in the process. The aftershocks of what had happened earlier in Mangetsu with Asuma still rattled through him, sending tremors through his smiles and laughs. But unlike all the times before, he made no attempt to hide this from his sensei…or from his friends.
Going against every instinctive grain of fear, he'd let it show.
And rather than the twenty-question drill from Ino and the alarmed stares he'd been expecting from Chōji, his team-mates had responded in a way Shikamaru hadn't dared to hope for. They'd responded to his uncharacteristic flashes of vulnerability with an intuitive and intrinsic sense of understanding.
In their words, gestures and in the safety of an easy silence.
They'd held the fort for him by simply staying strong every time he felt a brick of resistance come crumbling down. With Asuma guiding them, Chōji and Ino had followed their sensei's lead to keep Shikamaru steady. They'd kept him grounded…kept him here, in the reality, not in the ruins of fears he didn't have to face alone anymore.
"Trust those around you to support you…"
He finally understood the faith Asuma had put in Team 10…and felt ashamed that he hadn't shared it. Regretted that he'd doubted it even for a second – although, maybe it was more that he'd doubted himself. In the blackness of forgotten memories and the ones that remained to haunt him, doubt about his own nature had festered with the poison.
You guys never doubt me…
Before, the faith Ino and Chōji put in him had felt like pressure and expectancy.
But now…it felt like acceptance…safety…trust…
Shikamaru watched Ino quietly for a moment, not hearing a word as she yammered on about something that seemed to be upping Asuma's blood pressure one shade of red at a time. She needled and nagged him like hell, but she knew him better than he'd ever given her credit for.
Shikamaru smiled a little.
You and Chōji…you've always been there…
Without turning his head, the shadow-nin transferred his gaze to his best friend. Chōji swung lazily in the hammock, laughing loudly and scratching at a spot of barbecue sauce on his red sweater. The kindest person Shikamaru knew and the most unconditionally supportive.
You guys have always had my back…even when I turned mine on both of you...and ran…
Shikamaru blinked slowly, then looked across at his sensei.
And even when I ran…you've always been there…
Shikamaru watched Asuma fumble awkwardly. The Jōnin looked like he was close to a stroke, the heat in his cheeks flaring brighter than was probably healthy. He rubbed at the back of his head until the strands stood even more on end, looking electric, which only encouraged Ino and Chōji to needle him further about grooming tips and the attractiveness of facial hair.
Shikamaru smiled, watching his teacher through calm, clear eyes.
You've always chased me down…always pulled me through without even realising it…you've taught me so much…but I've still got so much to learn from you…
Because as elusive a teacher as Asuma was, his lessons – once learned – were never forgotten. He didn't drop pearls of wisdom with witty or wise speeches or teach principles through standard procedure and practice. Occasionally, he'd play the sensei-game by the rules, but more often than not, he imparted knowledge in conversations more casual than 'classroom' and in interactions more open than orchestrated.
For Shikamaru, Asuma taught the most crucial lessons and imparted the most important knowledge without even knowing he was doing it.
Crazy…how you're totally selfish and totally selfless all at the same time…
Because these crucial lessons were demonstrated in the way that Asuma led his life…in the way he'd lived rather than the rules he'd learned…in the way he walked rather than the way he talked. And in the way he inspired Shikamaru to want to aspire to something…when all his life the shadow-nin had just wanted to drift on by without direction or drama.
You hate drama too, but you'd risk it…you'd make those exceptions…
Shikamaru glanced down at the Shogi board, studying the moves Asuma had made. Bold, brash moves that had gained him some ground even though they'd cost him the game. But they'd made for an interesting and engaging match.
You're not keen on trouble…but you're not afraid of it either…that's what you told me when I was a kid. Everything's always been too troublesome for me…but maybe that's because I just haven't had the guts to do what you did…to risk facing myself…
Shikamaru glanced up again and watched Asuma fish around for a cigarette to distract from his embarrassment while Ino propped her Zodiac book on her lap and listed off his romantic Libran qualities.
Shikamaru's smile softened.
I promise you…someday soon I'll be strong enough to stand still and hold my ground…to be strong like you…to face myself…
He watched the flame dance on Asuma's lighter, burning with that Will of Fire he had yet to fully understand and fully inherit.
I'll find that fire…but if it's okay with you…just for a while…I'll stay in your shadow rather than get lost in my own…just until I'm strong enough…
Shikamaru blinked, looking up sharply. "Hn?"
"All okay?" Asuma asked around a smile, brows raised, concern playing just beneath the surface of his eyes.
Shikamaru nodded and reached across to set Asuma's King on the board, lips curling in a teasing smile. "Rematch? I'll go easy on you."
Asuma barked a laugh and snapped his lighter shut, exhaling a lungful of smoke. "What is this? Torture your sensei day?"
"Treat your students day!" Ino wobbled onto her feet, keeping her toes splayed as she padded off the porch and flopped onto the hammock beside Chōji, almost capsizing them. "More Nijū Shōtai training starts in an hour so we're taking advantage while we can."
"Yeah, maybe we should bet breakfast on this round." Chōji kicked the hammock into a swing, holding up a hand. "If you win, sensei, I'll pay for everything!"
Asuma looked askance at Shikamaru, eyes narrowing in playful menace. "Today's the day I beat you."
Shikamaru sucked his teeth to keep from smiling and forced his mouth into a downward turn, shaking his head with a grunt. "Then it'll be a fun day for Tonton."
Shikamaru shrugged. "She'll be flying."
Silence – thick and trembling with withheld laughter.
It was broken first by Asuma's crappy comeback of "smartass" before the team dissolved into laughter. Laughter that tumbled through Shikamaru in a warm and husky roll, shaking off the grip of ghosts and the weight of memory...leaving only one voice to haunt him now...
"I'll keep our pieces, Shikamaru. You can let them go."
Shikamaru leaned back onto his palms while Asuma calculated his first move and turned his gaze towards the clouds.
Can't play without the pieces, Hyūga…wouldn't mind a rematch…
Little did he know that fate was playing ten steps head, already moving their pieces, right on the cusp of a greater game. But it wasn't the business of mortals to deal in destiny. They could only play with the cards of choice and chance that she handed out.
"Next time around, Nara?"
Shikamaru smiled faintly, breathing deep until he felt the sadness give way to the peace he'd found in the memory of those words and all the moments that had come before them.
Next time around…Neji…
- END -
To Be Continued in REQUIEM
A/N: And we come to the end of On the Cusp. It's been another fun/raw ride and I hope that you've enjoyed it. Yes, some questions and threads have been left hanging. This is intentional as there are two more fics I aim to write to finish off the BtB series and tie it all up into a neat bow of completion. Information about those fics and future BtB developments can be found on my profile here on ffnet and in more detail on the dArt BtB homepage.
HIATUS: However, it's with equal parts sadness and surety that I say I will be taking a 'break' to 'breathe' myself. I'll be putting down the fanfiction pen for a while. It's finally hit me that BtB has been an epic investment of emotional, mental and physical energy (me swinging myself around the place to see if certain moves are credible in combat reserves me a hot spot in a padded room ^_^)…and as such, this fanfiction has always meant more to me than mere fanfiction while writing it. It's been a labour of love, an adventure, a life-changing project. It's been a JOY to share that with reviewers and readers who've given me a wonderful payback on that investment by sharing your thoughts and letting me know it had entertained you, touched you or reached you in some way. THANK YOU so much for that. That feedback has been my fuel, my fire, that voice shouting "FORWARD!" and 'encore'. It's for this reason that I DO intend to return to finish this series at some point in the future (the last two fics are already plotted out). But for now, I will be working on writing/publishing my Original novels and stories. If you've enjoyed how I tackle character/slash/angst/humour/etc!, then maybe you'll give my original ninja guys and gals a shot. More information about that on my profile.
REVIEWERS: Short, sincere but straight from the depths of my humble and happy heart: THANK YOU FOR HEARING ME. Given the context of those words, you'll know that says more than I can ever adequately express. The incredible support you reviewers and artists and AMV-makers have shown BtB has been MONUMENTAL and it has moved all kinds of mountains inside of me. I will treasure every word and every dedication. My deepest thanks to EACH one of you.
Now it's time for me to bow out of Kishimoto's backyard for a while…I'll catch you guys next time around with a big Hyūga headbutt and a fresh ride of ShikaNejiShika 'running right back again' into the BtB world.
Until then, keep it raw and keep it real – and where necessary, keep it stupid simple.
With love, tea and deepest thanks,