Checkmate

Asuma was playing shogi with a promising young pupil one night, when he first started to suspect something strange was going on.

They sat in complete silence, both surveying the board between them intently. That wasn't unusual. After all, they'd both had long, tiresome days and were winding down with a friendly game. There was no need to talk; they knew each other's strategies so well that simply playing was almost like carrying on a conversation.

The unusual aspect of their game was that Asuma was actually winning.

And not just winning, but winning. He'd managed to capture a substantial number of his opponent's pieces and had started using them for his own gain. He spearheaded a brutal attack with a few of his new pawns and had broken through the enemy's front line, when he finally took a serious look at the boy in front of him.

"Shikamaru, what's going on?" Asuma sighed, removing yet another of his opponent's white pieces and placing it on his own side of the board. "I wish I could say I was beating you fair and square, but we both know that's just not true."

Shikamaru sighed as well, a despondent, empty sound, and looked up at his sensei, "I guess I'm not really in the shogi mood tonight."

Asuma surveyed his student's expression carefully. It was all well and fine for Shikamaru to pretend nothing was wrong. Asuma wouldn't have expected anything less from such a cautious, secretive boy. But there was something that didn't add up in this equation. Shikamaru sounded tired, disinterested really, and his words indicated the same. So why was there a light flush on his cheeks? Why did his young, lithe body seem full of nervous energy as his eyes darted between the board and his teacher's face?

"Did something happen?" Asuma asked, coming at the problem from another direction.

"No," Shikamaru said firmly, moving one of his remaining pawns into a completely exposed position. Asuma watched him do so in disbelief, finally shaking his head and leaning back in his chair thoughtfully. Clearly, Shikamaru had no interest in the game whatsoever. Asuma had never seen the kid so hopelessly distracted before.

Without a thought, Asuma reached into his pocket and pulled out a nearly full pack of cigarettes. He tapped one into his hand, wondering what approach to try next. When he heard the familiar click of a lighter, his head snapped up. Bemusedly, he leaned forward and ignited the tip of his cigarette in the flame Shikamaru offered.

"Thanks," he said with a light chuckle, as the boy in front of him awkwardly clicked the lighter shut and made to put it back in his pocket. "Hey, let me see that."

Shikamaru raised his eyebrows, but handed the lighter over. Smiling, Asuma took it in his much larger palm and ran his thumb over the shiny metal surface. It was, upon observation, almost like a tinier model of his own lighter. It had the same clean, functional appearance and even hinged open in the exact same way.

"So what's with the lighter?" Asuma asked, handing it back. Shikamaru took it from his teacher's hand and their fingers grazed against each other for the briefest of seconds. "You aren't going to start smoking like your old teacher, are you?"

"You're not old," Shikamaru answered at once, ignoring the rest of the question. Asuma chuckled again and watched with interest as the redness in the boy's cheeks deepened slightly. It was almost imperceptible, but Asuma knew he was getting closer to the truth if he was causing such strong reactions. He planned to keep pressing Shikamaru for information until the boy broke down and told him everything, or until he got kicked out, whichever came first.

"Looks an awful lot like mine," Asuma said casually, pulling his own lighter out of his vest pocket. When Shikamaru said nothing, opting instead to look at the small device in his own hand, Asuma sighed again. "I thought you didn't like it when I smoke. I seem to remember you saying something about it getting in your eyes."

Asuma took a leisurely drag from his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke into the air above their heads as Shikamaru watched him.

"It's not so bad," Shikamaru said after a minute, "once you get used to it."

Asuma frowned. That was one thing he was sure would get a rise out of his student. Shikamaru wasn't exactly known to stay quiet on the subject of his smoking. Saying nothing when Asuma had given him the perfect opening was beyond weird.

"Forget the game," he said impatiently, when Shikamaru pushed his knight forward one square.

"Why?"

"For one thing, it's my turn," Asuma answered, nudging his student's hand aside and moving the knight back to it's original position. "But more importantly, your head's not in it. You're about to lose to me for the first time ever and you don't even care, do you?"

"I care," said Shikamaru automatically, his hand still hovering over his side of the shogi board. Asuma gave him a dubious look and he withdrew it finally, placing it on his knee as if not sure what he should do with his own hand. "I'm just tired."

"Of course you are," Asuma said, not unkindly, "It takes a lot of work to keep everything bottled up like you do. Maybe if you just told me –"

"There's nothing to tell!"

Asuma couldn't help but notice how Shikamaru's eyes widened ever so slightly, or how his voice had taken on a higher pitch, when he answered. These were all indications that the boy was keeping something from him. Something big, by the looks of it.

"Shikamaru," Asuma said, folding his arms and exhaling more smoke at the ceiling, "I don't know what's been going on with you lately, but it seems like it's getting worse, so I'm going to give you some advice. If you don't like it, fine. You're old enough to make your own decisions about these things."

"You need to loosen up a little bit," Asuma continued when his student only stared at him, "Stop keeping everything locked up inside, you know? Your friends are here, and I am here, to help you. It wouldn't hurt to start trusting us a little more."

"I trust you!" Shikamaru said quickly, "It's nothing! This is so ridiculous."

"Still my turn," Asuma muttered as Shikamaru tried to move one of his castles. The boy threw up his hands and then folded them in a perfect imitation of his sensei's posture. It would have been laughable behavior from someone who's usually the picture of relaxation, but Asuma was too concerned to find it amusing.

"You know you're going to give yourself a heart attack, right?"

"Sorry," Shikamaru said sarcastically, "Would you prefer I give myself lung cancer?"

"Watch it," growled Asuma, "And don't try to change the subject. I can see something's bothering you and I'm going to find out what it is."

"Is that a threat?" the boy-genius eyed him beadily.

"Yeah," said Asuma plainly. They glowered at each other. It seemed to Asuma that instead of ending, their game of shogi had transformed into a battle of words and wits. In other words, it was just another game he couldn't hope to win under normal circumstances. But with Shikamaru all hot and bothered, thinking of some mysterious problem of his own, Asuma figured he stood a chance.

"I can't tell you," Shikamaru said after a few minutes, breaking eye contact. As he looked down at the shogi board, his cheeks took on the hue of a lovely, ripe tomato.

"Can't or won't?" Asuma baited him, releasing more smoke from the corner of his mouth.

"Can't," insisted Shikamaru, "I can't tell anyone. Especially not you."

"Especially not me?" echoed Asuma, feeling more than a little hurt. "That's kind of cold, kid."

"I told you not to call me a kid!" Shikamaru shot back, "Would you please just drop it?"

Asuma didn't answer; he figured the question was more rhetorical than anything else, since they both knew he was way too stubborn to let this go. So instead of wasting his breath, he leaned all the way back in his chair and turned his attention to deciphering what he'd heard so far.

Obviously, there was something wrong with his student, something secret. But had he said anything that could be used to find out what that something was? Words that hit the hardest often provoke the strongest reactions. If he believed that, and Asuma thought he did, then all he had to do was ask himself which of his comments Shikamaru had responded most strongly to.

"Hey kid, tell your old sensei what's bugging you," he said calmly. The response was immediate.

"I told you I'm not a kid!" Shikamaru said angrily, "I'm sixteen."

"Okay, you're not a kid," Asuma agreed, wondering what his student's new attitude regarding his age had to do with anything.

"And you're not…that old," Shikamaru said after a moment. His voice had an off-hand quality to it which was clearly fake. "How old are you anyway? Thirty?"

"Twenty-six," Asuma told him gruffly, distracted from his attempts to read Shikamaru's behavior, "Why?"

"Ten years," Shikamaru murmured, looking down at his folded arms. "Ten years isn't that much."

"Isn't it?" Asuma asked him seriously, "When you're my age, you might feel differently about it."

"That's wrong though, isn't it?" Shikamaru said, finally looking up at his teacher, "I'm never going to be your age. I'm always going to be ten years younger."

"You know what I mean."

"It isn't fair," Shikamaru said softly. Asuma looked at him questioningly. It seemed they had finally arrived at the subject that was vexing Shikamaru and he was still no closer to finding out what it was.

"You'll be older than you like before you know it, believe me," Asuma told him. He took one last drag from his cigarette and threw the butt into his barely-touched cup of tea. Meanwhile, he watched as Shikamaru clicked his lighter open and shut restlessly.

"Can I have a cigarette?" Shikamaru asked after a minute.

"No," Asuma told him sternly, "Why would you even want one? You're way too young for that."

"Too young," repeated Shikamaru sarcastically, "Too young." He looked like the words caused him actual, physical discomfort.

"I get it, okay?" Asuma frowned at him, "You're a smart k-… well, a smart guy. It's normal that your brain's going to get ahead of the rest of you from time to time. You just need to be patient."

"I'm tired of being patient. I'm ready now," he retorted, brown eyes flashing with determination. "I just want to see what it's like."

Ready for what? See what what's like?

"We aren't still talking about smoking, are we?" Asuma asked, watching Shikamaru for a reaction. The boy said nothing, but his demeanor had changed completely. Instead of leaning back in his chair, looking bored, Shikamaru was now upright and as tense as a live wire. The hands resting on his knees were digging into the material of his pants. His face alone was impassive, bearing no signs of inner turmoil.

Not knowing what else to say, Asuma took another cigarette from the pack in his pocket. As before, Shikamaru was ready with his lighter, and Asuma leaned toward him to light this cigarette in the same way. But the boy was unsteady this time and Asuma found himself chasing the flame as his hand shook slightly, the lighter along with it. Automatically, Asuma wrapped his own hand around the boy's smaller one, and held the lighter still.

As he exhaled yet another gust of smoke, Asuma was still aware of Shikamaru's sharp intake of breath. He drew back when his cigarette was lit, but the boy continued to hold the lighter aloft. Asuma observed the flame dance back and forth, as his student watched him attentively. Neither one of them spoke a word until the lighter grew too hot from the constant flame and Shikamaru dropped it at once with a hiss of pain.

"Are you okay?" Asuma asked as his student examined his burnt finger indifferently.

"Yeah, fine,"

"Let me see," said Asuma indulgently, "I've healed my share of burns over the years."

Shikamaru offered his hand and Asuma held it in his own, examining the small burn on the side of his pointer finger. "It's not bad," he told the boy, "Here."

A green light spread and disappeared into the skin there, taking all traces of the burn with it.

"Good as new," Asuma said proudly, running one finger along the new skin that had formed. "Not bad for a… hmm?"

Asuma looked down at the hand which had latched onto his own. "Much better," the boy told him softly, lacing their fingers together.

"Shikamaru, what are you…?" Asuma froze as Shikamaru leaned forward in his chair and plucked the cigarette from between his lips without any kind of warning. With his free hand, Shikamaru brought the cigarette up to his own mouth and took a tentative drag. As a result, he began coughing harshly and Asuma yanked the cigarette back from him, disposing of it as he'd done the first. "What the hell is going on with you?"

"Nothing," Shikamaru snapped, letting go of his sensei's hand.

Before Asuma could react at all, Shikamaru got up, reached under his bed, and pulled out a small white bottle, which he uncorked and drank from deeply.

"You're drinking now?" Asuma cried, lunging forward. After a brief struggle, he was able to grab the bottle of sake in one hand and the back of Shikamaru's shirt with the other. "Where are your parents?"

"Out," Shikamaru told him unhelpfully, "Stop treating me like a little kid, sensei."

"How much of this did you drink?" Asuma asked, swirling the bottle around. At least half of its contents were gone, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. However… Asuma looked down at his student, carefully taking in the unfocused gaze and the flush that still lingered on his cheeks.

"I don't know," Shikamaru blinked owlishly up at him, "How much did you drink?"

"God help me," Asuma muttered darkly, throwing back the bottle and drinking the rest of the contents in one gulp. "Well I sure as hell can't leave you alone. I'm going to have to wait until your parents get back."

"Wait. Are you mad at me?" Shikamaru whined, leaning closer to examine his teacher's face.

"Am I mad that my underage student has been drinking sake in his room at night?" Asuma said slowly, "Yeah, I'm mad. I'm telling your dad too."

"No!' Shikamaru lost his footing and slid to his knees, "Come on, sensei. Please don't tell my dad. Not him."

"Who else?" Asuma asked blankly, "He's your dad. It's kind of his job to discipline you. Anyway, I'm assuming this was his sake."

"No," Shikamaru shook his head, looking slightly dazed.

"No, it's not his job or no, it's not his sake?"

"I don't want him to discipline me," said Shikamaru defiantly, craning his neck back to make eye contact with his sensei, "I want you to discipline me."

"Don't ever drink again," Asuma told him, pulling him to his feet by the back of his shirt, "Ever. Come on, let's get you sobered up."

"Sensei," Shikamaru griped as Asuma led him to the bathroom and turned on the shower, "You're not listening to me. You never listen."

"I'm listening," Asuma replied patiently, testing the water temperature with one hand.

I want you," Shikamaru began in a tone of voice one would usually reserve for a toddler or small animal, "to discipline me." He leaned in as he spoke and Asuma winced as a wave of alcohol-infused breath hit his face.

"Get in the shower," Asuma replied in a similar tone, but with much less slurring.

"What?" Shikamaru looked around the bathroom as if only just realizing where they were, "Oh I get it. In the shower."

"Don't ever wink at me again," Asuma told him, stopping him just before he could climb into the shower completely dressed. "And you're going to have to take off your clothes first."

"I know that," Shikamaru reeled around and almost lost his footing completely.

"Maybe a bath would be better," Asuma said, eying his student as he struggled with the shower curtain. He made a few adjustments and the bath begin to slowly fill up with water.

"Come on," he said impatiently when the boy made no move to get undressed. "Shoes first."

Asuma kneeled down and untied, then removed, each of his student's shoes. His socks soon followed, along with a bout of mad giggling as his sensei helped him balance, first on one foot and then the other.

"Jacket," Asuma told him, straightening up again and indicating that Shikamaru should turn around. "Okay, I think I can leave the rest to you."

"No," Shikamaru said quickly, turning back to face his teacher. Asuma sighed, wondering why he felt so compelled to help Shikamaru take off his shirt, when he was probably perfectly capable of doing so himself. With quick, impersonal movements, Asuma tugged the boy's shirt out of his waistband and over his head.

He dropped it and they both watched stupidly as the shirt fell to the ground between them.

Only then, in such close proximity, did Asuma start to notice what was wrong with Shikamaru and the situation they were in. The boy was staring at him openly, cheeks flushed and eyes half-lidded. As Asuma stood frozen, Shikamaru abruptly grabbed one of his hands and guided it back to his jeans hopefully.

"Shikamaru?"

"Please, sensei," Shikamaru breathed, pushing his hand against the sizable bulge in his pants.

"No!" Asuma jumped backward, breaking contact with his student and staring at him in horror. "Shikamaru, just what in the hell are you thinking?"

As Shikamaru walked unsteadily over and knelt once more at his feet, wrapping his arms around his teacher's legs, Asuma wondered why he didn't, why he couldn't move. He watched in a stupor as Shikamaru looked up at him with big, inviting eyes.

The boy opened his mouth to speak but, before he could say a word, the entire scene dissolved into nothingness.

And Asuma Sarutobi woke up.