Some days seemed to go on forever, Shikamaru thought, and in his experience these were always days burdened with pain, sadness or grief. Happy days, on the other hand, always seemed shorter by comparison.

I wonder if it has anything to do with relativity. Einstein probably would have something to say about the matter.

After the funeral one of her mother's friends invited the inner circle of colleagues and close acquintances for a drink. Shikamaru declined the invitation. He was a minor, he hardly ever drank alcohol and most of all, he wanted to be alone.

The flat was more or less empty now. They had rented it furnished, he and his mother, and the ugly, pseudo-modernist furniture looked strangely sombre and dark without the usual clutter around – coloured scarves, tubes of paint, a cup of cold coffee. There was usually a forgotten cup of coffee somewhere, Shikamaru thought.

Now there were only the paintings to remind him of all that was gone and lost, but even these were either covered or in crates, waiting for the expert help provided by the storage facility to move them. Kankuro offered his spare bedroom to Shikamaru but neither of them mentioned the paintings. Shikamaru would trust the Sand siblings with his life, but not with his mother's paintings. Kankuro loved noisy parties and Shikamaru did not particularly wish to see any of his possessions destroyed by a drunken crowd.

He sighed. Yoshino would be livid, seeing the apartment like this, but she would be absolutely furious seeing him in this state. He could almost hear her shouting from the big bedroom that she had used as a studio – 'Don't be such an asshole, Shikamaru! Burn the damn pics, they're not important! These are just objects, for God's sake! They aren't alive!'

"But they are all that's left of you, Yosh," he said aloud. "I'll keep them. Always. As long as I live. "

He still felt too dazed for tears. He had not cried for years, not since Asuma died. That was the last time that life could play this dirty trick on him, getting him unaware. After that he was sure that what Asuma used to say was true – 'if you think life is fair, find the guy who told you so and kick his ass in my name!'

He didn't cry when Yoshino started to lose weight and felt constantly tired. He didn't cry when he practically had to kidnap her to take her to the hospital for tests. He didn't cry when the doctor looked at him and said 'well, I'm afraid…' and told him the diagnosis.

He didn't cry when she died or when he packed her things or when he arranged the funeral. At the grave he never shed a tear.

If I start bawling now, that would be because I'm sorry for myself. That would never do.

He wondered what he would do now. The funeral was the turning point, the date in time by which time could be measured at all. After the funeral I'll think about it. After the funeral I will settle it all. But now it was over and done with and nothing was solved or gained, there was only emptiness.

Shikamaru was always close to his mother – one could say too close. He told himself it was only right, he was an only child and his mother raised him alone after his father died, but even he knew that was far from an explanation. He knew dozens of guys who were raised by a single mother and never gave a damn about her. But he and Yoshino were a team, together against the world. He could do anything out there, it didn't matter. The really important things happened here, in his mother's den where she drew and painted and made hundreds of sketches while she listened to him, looking up time and again and giving him a quick smile before she turned back to her work, pencil or brush in hand.

In the last few years it was not like living with a parent, more like with a benevolent older friend or a very tolerant and generous landlady. At first she always asked him where he'd been, insisted on being on time for meals, even if they consisted only of deep-frozen fish fingers and fries, and made a fuss if he didn't sleep at home, but after a time, as he took great care to always tell her in advance whatever he thought she needed to know, things were running more and more smoothly. She was a bit of a tyrant, yes, but still they got on well. It was impossible to doubt that he was the most important person in his mother's life, it was impossible to doubt her love or her strength or the will to protect him.

Shikamaru knew a lot of people, and was clever enough to see how some parents said big words about love and loyalty and honesty but pursued their own passion nevertheless, blind and deaf to their children's needs. Yoshino was blunt and stern, not very diplomatic in expressing her feelings, but she would have walked through fire for him.

In the past two years Shikamaru gradually freed Yoshino of some of the burdens. Ever since he remembered Yoshino always trusted him to help her – buying groceries when he came home from school, checking the bills, making his own appointment with the dentist. He didn't mind, on the contrary – it gave him control over his own life. He still grumbled sometimes to keep up appearances, of which Yoshino simply didn't take notice, and thus kept up the status quo. But when he started to contribute to the rent and the bills, their relationship suddenly got a new boost. They were almost partners by then, on an equal footing, and while Yoshino still nagged him and reproached him and gave unwanted advice till his ears bled, there was mutual respect and trust to strenghten their bond.

He didn't want to think of it. He didn't want to think at all. He would finish packing whatever was left, wait for the special delivery truck to take his treasures to storage, then he would take the keys to the landlord and go to Kankuro's flat, and then, opinions and habits aside, he might let himself get pissing drunk, just this once.

The ring of the bell took Shikamaru by surprise. Surely nobody would come here after the funeral just to tell him again what a wonderful woman and damned fine artist his mother had been? That would really be exceptionally tactless and troublesome.

When he opened the door, he knew at once that he had never seen this man before in his life. Shikamaru was used to judging people correctly in a blink and remembering them years later, but he was sure that this guy would be impossible to forget, no matter what.

He was tall, immaculately dressed in a light grey suit that was almost, but not quite the same shade as his hair that shone silver in the afternoon light. I wonder where his hairdresser buys this shade, Shikamaru thought. His hair is really silver, not grey, not white.

The man's eyes were even stranger; one of them was dark charcoal grey, the other mahagony.

Man… mom will have a field day. This guy must be painted. I wonder if she'll do it in oil or acrylics…

When all the memories caught up with him, the pain was unexpectedly brutal. There would be no more paintings. Mom would never invite this stranger in, asking him to sit down, just for a minute, just a sketch, won't take a second…

The stranger was watching him patiently.

"Yes?" Shikamaru asked curtly.

"Could I please talk to Ms. Yoshino Nara?" the man asked politely.

Shikamaru felt a stupid urge to laugh.

"You're late," he said. "She died ten days ago. The funeral was today."

He turned to go back inside.

"Could I talk to you, then? I must admit this takes me somewhat by surprise. My name is Kakashi Hatake. I'm a lawyer."

Shikamaru was getting impatient.

"Look, if this is about the rent, I already talked to the landlord. I have his permission to be here today. Anyway, the rent was paid in advance. So if you would kindly…"

The man with the unmatching eyes scratched his neck absentmindedly.

"It has nothing to do with the rent or this flat. Would you let me in, Shikamaru? It's pretty hot here and it would be easier to explain things inside."

Shikamaru numbly stood aside. It took a few seconds to register that the lawyer knew his name.

"How do you know who I am?" he asked.

"You're the spitting image of your father," the man said. "Believe me, it would be impossible not to spot the likeness."

Shikamaru shook his head and shut the door behind them.

The light had already turned burnt amber and was fast fading into red before disappearing completely from the sky.

The man, Hatake, had already left.

Shikamaru's mobile started to ring. He waited a little, then, without even looking at the screen to see the caller's name, he picked up the phone and said in a bored voice, "Nara".

"Are you all right, sweetie? Was everything ok? How are you?"

It was Shin's voice. They broke up more than a year ago, way before Shikamaru got together with Temari, but she still called, she still cared, even though after the breakup she moved from Chicago to Tampa and married someone else a few months later. Well, he still cared, too. In a way.

"Everything's as expected", Shikamaru answered drily. She didn't get up and walk away. She didn't rise from the dead. And I'm still alive. I didn't commit suicide.

He took his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, lit one, inhaled the smoke and continued. "No one jumped into the grave and nobody shot any of the art critics dead at the funeral. Not that some of the artists didn't think of it, of course."

Shin only said, "I'm so, so sorry. My heart goes out to you, Shika. You know that."

"Because of the critics? Don't worry, someone may catch a few of them yet."

Shin didn't laugh. Shikamaru didn't want her to laugh. He just couldn't acknowledge the pain that welled up in him, a tsunami with waves a hundred meters high, ready to sweep away all that he was.

He looked around wearily and sat down on the sofa. "Actually, something strange and unexpected did happen."

"What?" Shin asked softly. Shikamaru imagined her, her silky blonde locks, her round, full breasts, her arms, always open, always ready to hold him, and his heart contracted painfully. Said the raven, nevermore.

"You remember I told you once that my father died when I was a baby? Well, it seems that in some cases either there is life after death or some people have a return pass from hell, because today his lawyer appeared on my doorstep and delivered a letter from him."

"How is that even possible?" Shin asked, interested.

"Obviously when my mother said he was dead, it wasn't actual dead, it was figuratively speaking dead. Or I have no idea. Anyway, now he wants something from me."

"What? What does he want?"

"I don't know. The lawyer said he'd be in touch."

"Be careful, Shikamaru."

"I'm always careful. You know that. I never cheat on a girl with her sister, when I rob a bank, I always wipe my fingerprints off the gun, I don't ask tax collectors if they know that the world would be a better place without them, that sort of thing."

While Shikamaru listened to Shin voicing her opinion about people who think they have a sense of humour when, in fact, this faculty had been surgically removed from them around the time of their birth, he kept thinking of his father, his dead mother and Hatake and tried to fight the nagging feeling of foreboding that his life was about to change, and it wasn't in his power to tell whether it would be for better or for worse.