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.
Pairings: ShikaNeji, Asuma/Kurenai, Shikaku/Yoshino
Rating: M / R (language etc.)
Summary: Death is a fate we all share, but grief can leave us divided. In the shadow of Asuma's death the shinobi of Konoha learn that grief, unlike death, isn't just a thief in the night – but a night in itself. (BtB series)
Timeline: Shippuden. Neji and Shikamaru aged 17-18 (post-Hidan and Kakuzu arc, pre-Invasion of Pain arc). Approx. 2 days after Hidan's burial.
by Okami Rayne
"You never ask me to stay."
The ghost of those words drifted in and out…like the breeze. She'd kept the curtains closed but the tingling of gooseflesh along her arms signalled that the windows were still open – had been for days.
He's not coming back.
Kurenai stiffened on the couch, felt the cool voice of reason bite deeper than the cold ever could and shivered, her breath stirring the frayed edge of the blanket pulled up to the bridge of her nose. She stared blankly at the window, watched the curtain flap.
"If I fall to my death, tell them I did it with style. I'll be home later."
A knifing pain, cutting upwards until the back of her throat ached with the strain of a single word unspoken. What good was it now? She hadn't said it then, couldn't bring herself to speak it now for all the good it would do.
"You never ask me to stay."
The curtains flapped again. The weak whistle of birdsong and the smell of damp soil from the flowerpots. No smoke, no heavy tread. She blinked, damp mascara lashes sticking in a mesh, blurring her vision enough to perceive a figure hunkered down in the opposite couch, broad and powerful, limned in moonlight…sometimes she swore she heard the metallic snap of a lighter, spied the brief ember burn and a blue ribbon of smoke trailing upwards. This always brought her gaze down to the edge of the couch where she'd encounter the three dark dots burned into the fabric. Three perfect little circles, tantamount to fingerprints. Evidence of life. Evidence of a presence now extinguished, now expired.
She sucked in a breath, caught herself on the edge of another fruitless search. This forensic study of his presence wasn't healthy. And every unwanted discovery felt like a felonious act; as if her mind was working subconsciously to punish small but unforgiveable crimes of the heart. That one word.
"You never ask me to stay."
Kurenai squeezed her eyes shut. She swung her legs off the couch and rose in the same movement, letting the threadbare blanket crumple at her feet. She didn't step over it, felt the catch and drag of the fabric. Why make a bed she hadn't chosen to lie in? Yet every night she found herself exiled from the bedroom, wrapped up in blankets and bitterness. Her arms went around her stomach, resisted the urge to cling, squeeze, suffocate a life, smother a future she couldn't see herself living now that the light had been stolen from it.
"Ask me why I stay."
A scratch at the door.
She froze, let her gaze stray in a neglectful drift towards the threshold. A familiar snuffle sounded; a kind of animal sneeze before the canine sniff and low whine. Akamaru, perhaps.
"Ninja hounds. Not a bad idea really."
Kurenai's eyes darted away. Spine rigid, face stony, she traversed the cold familiar path that took her through the bedroom straight into the ensuite bathroom. She switched on the lights, avoided the stranger in the mirror and went down methodically – one knee at a time – into the habitual kneel, one hand snagging back a nest of tangled black strands, the other hand lifting the toilet seat. She bowed forward a fraction, braced for the painful lurch, the breathless strain of a dry heave.
A choked sound, but nothing followed it.
No shadow fell across her back, no awkward presence lingered in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other with helpless uncertainty, no strong fingers combed through her hair or stroked down her sides.
Just the absence…just the ache…
The sharp echo of a droplet struck water. Kurenai watched with detached intrigue as the black tear dissolved and another plummeted, spiralling and diluting into…
She felt a pull more violent than nausea. She knew what came next. As familiar to her as the morning sickness, only it couldn't be forestalled, flushed away, forgotten…
"Why can't you ask me?"
Crumbling forwards, Kurenai lowered the seat lid, reached up a pale arm and groped blindly for the sink, her chipped nails sliding across the ceramic. Dragging herself up, she rose one shaking leg at a time, eyes wide and searching…scanning the pale expanse of the bowl before her gaze slipped off the safe white path and hit on the monkey-faced mug sitting at the side of the sink…where two toothbrushes sat, resting neck-to-neck, fuzzy bristles, minty grains…
"Ask me why I stopped leaving."
She felt the howl rising up. Kurenai pressed trembling fingers to her mouth until her teeth ached from the pressure. Her vision swam, a watery mess that washed the monkey-mug into a distorted grimace as ugly as the pain tearing into her expression.
"You want me to go?"
She saw stars fizz and spiral, felt the wet sting slipping down her cheeks and the rapid-fire rush of breath, in and out, in and out.
"Do you want me to go, Kurenai?"
She lashed out, the back of her hand striking the mug with such unplanned violence that her entire body followed the movement. She felt herself go down as if in a dream, as if through water, slow but sure, until her palms struck the cold tile and the shatter of ceramic punctuated the single, heaving sob that ached out of her throat, strangling the one word she'd never spoken and still couldn't bring herself to say.
"Stay," Kakashi murmured.
The word, whisper-soft, seemed loud in the quiet hallway. He felt the ninken at his feet twitch and skimmed his palm over the sharp tips of his dog's ears. "You know when to leave, Ūhei."
So did he. Now. Quickly. And before he could consider the train of thought that had led him to skip a few black and white tracks and end up here, outside Kurenai's door. Ah, just how many rules had he broken?
"Rule books, school books, Hatake."
Kakashi took a half-step back, glanced over his shoulder as if to address a ghost – or look for his former self, which he'd have invited back into his body in an instant if he thought it'd change his choices. He shouldn't have come here. Hadn't really stopped to consider why he'd abandoned reason and broken the rules.
I'm playing truant…
He glanced skyward, his grey eye pinched, struggling between two expressions.
Aren't you proud?
Ūhei cocked his head up to follow his master's gaze, muzzle quivering with the beginnings of a whine. At the first hint of a whimper Kakashi's eye drifted shut – an unspoken plea. Immediately, Ūhei's whine pulled into a yawning huff of air and the dog lay at the foot of Kurenai's door, sniffing the gap that had produced no light from the other side ever since—
The image of a headstone. Rain washing over the granite.
Kakashi reached up and cupped his left eye, wincing. The vision struck him sharper than the script of the name etched into the cold stone, emblazoned in Kakashi's mind with the chilling clarity of instant recall; courtesy of the Sharingan.
"Sarutobi Asuma…has fallen…"
The shatter of ceramic. An accompanying wail from within Kurenai's apartment.
Ūhei's head jerked up, soulful eyes staring from beneath expressive brows.
Kakashi stiffened, held temporarily suspended until the wail wrangled into a sob…and then he turned on his heel, retraced his silent steps back down the hallway and breathed against the tightness in his chest. Considering his heartstrings had almost been yanked out of his chest by Kakuzu barely four days ago, it was easy to convince himself the pain came from injury…the other explanation he couldn't bring himself to face.
His heartstrings felt like shoddy wires. A mess of thick, scarred cables tangled up in his chest, emotionally short-circuiting until the buzz of numb static forced him to question his own ability to feel.
Have I lost the ability to grieve?
He couldn't escape the question even as he worked to avoid it at every twist and mental turn. It had led to the robotic state of calm and control he'd fallen into since Kakuzu and Hidan's extermination…since Asuma's…
Kakashi reached up, rubbed at the knot in his sternum and huffed. Not quite short-circuiting after all. The stages of grief playing out in staggered patterns all around him urged him to consider his own pattern. But he knew better than to examine that now. If he let himself decipher it, it would not fit its usual design. And that would raise more questions, more complications he'd rather not subscribe to until he was certain he could afford to let himself wander off the beaten path and risk getting lost for a while.
No time for soul searching.
There was too much left to do, too much left to consider…
Too much you've left undone.
Kakashi almost stopped walking, his brows going up as his brain staggered over the unbidden thought. Wait. What? Asuma's unfinished business wasn't his problem. He knew this on levels more familiar and fundamental to him than all the stages of grief combined.
He paused, hands slotted into his pockets, a lone figure on the side-walk slick with rain, slippery with memory and swathed in shadow. All of this registered in the same moment it receded. The damp air clinging to his mask, making breathing heavy. An aura of misty drizzle spattering off the concrete, casting a fuzzy halo around silver strands and the sharp angles of his shoulders.
And then he caught the same movement that had stilled him on the spot.
A flicker out the corner of his eye.
Kakashi turned his head a fraction, squinting through the haze, lashes thick with rain. He glanced sidelong towards the shadows of Kurenai's apartment building and caught a glint of metal.
A brief wink in the darkness before it was gone.
"If Kakashi hadn't gone with them…do you think about that? I think about that. I replay it. Stops and starts like a damn film reel."
Shikaku hummed in accord and reached for the cup of saké without looking, knocking it back with a sharp tip of his head. The burn gave way to familiar numbness. Unfortunately, it didn't dull his senses enough to take the edge off Inoichi's words.
"And then I think about what she must be replaying in her head with Asuma. She has nightmares about it. I'm tempted to go in there and fix it." Inoichi held up his hands, warding off Chōza's narrow look. "Tempted. I wouldn't do it...but I'd be lying if I said I haven't thought about it. Just change it enough to take away the pain."
Only there was no taking away the pain. It was about as fruitless as their current attempt at 'medicinal drinking' to stave off the infection taking hold.
Contagious as ever.
Shikaku sighed. Slowly, his lashes drifted open and his surroundings came back into focus one milky shade of grey at a time; a line of fusuma panels washed in moonlight, a stack of plates and saké cups and the comforting berth of Chōza's shadow falling across the worn length of the table to eclipse both Shikaku's sharp wiry outline and Inoichi's long, lean silhouette.
He watched the Yamanaka's jaw tense as Inoichi rubbed at his lips, almost as if he wanted to recant his next words. "Selfish as it sounds," he muttered. "I think I envied him sometimes. Worried he was closer to my kid than I was. That's a different kind of bond."
Shikaku hummed again and lowered his shoulders, letting his chin drop to his chest to stretch out the tension cramping up the back of his neck. He said nothing.
"What if I can't provide that?" the Yamanaka pressed, spreading his palms as if laying down cards, frowning at his hand. "I don't think I can."
Chōza glanced between them, his heavy silence adding to the weight steadily building within the comfort of their familiar circle. The kind of weight that found pockets in Shikaku's posture, tightening muscles beneath the lax façade. His fingers found a knot, a tight squeeze later and he dropped his hand back to his lap, lidded gaze fixed on the centre of the table. Given the no-go state he'd locked his mind into he had nothing to add or subtract from Inoichi's mood and Chōza's mutual silence didn't help divide the thickening tension.
Inoichi sniffed, his voice light, dangerously so. "Am I the only one struggling with this?"
Chōza shifted. Shikaku heard the low creak of the tatami and he felt the Akimichi's gaze seconds before he glanced up to return it, shaking his head once. The exchange didn't go unnoticed.
"What?" Inoichi bit out, his voice rough and low, on par with his Torture and Interrogation persona. Not even saké could dull those instincts. "If you don't agree then damn well say so. This isn't a fucking soliloquy."
Shikaku sighed through his nose, long and low. He'd suspected as much from Inoichi tonight. Rare as these emotional outbursts were, Shikaku could often detect them brewing on Inoichi's normally steady horizon long before they hit. This particular storm had been building upon every question and comment the man had fired out as he'd rehashed their children's latest mission and the failure which had led them to execute it. Shikaku knew these details were vital to the Yamanaka. But once inebriated, Inoichi's meticulous attention to detail lost focus and said details required constant reiteration. But there were only so many ways and so many times Shikaku could go over the details until the dead ends of all the possibilities became as unproductive and pointless as wanting to rewind and rewrite the past.
So why go over it?
To keep from answering that question he reminded himself why he'd allowed the Yamanaka to brainstorm it repeatedly. He'd known that a headache lay in lieu of heartache, but he'd come anyway. Come with Chōza to close ranks on the mutinous stir of doubt and uncertainty that'd taken root in all three of them. But pillars of support didn't always stand steady and right now the weight of expectancy and frustration in Inoichi's glare had Shikaku subconsciously tilting away.
"Doesn't it cut you up to see them li—"
"She's not a little girl anymore," Shikaku said, simple and blunt, to keep from a more complicated response. He couldn't go there. Not tonight. Not any night. Not even in the cold light of day.
Inoichi cocked his head as if he'd misheard, his brows drawing together. "What?"
Shikaku paused, his head tipped in consideration that went about as deep as the shallow smile he dredged up. "But then, I don't know much about daughters. Women aren't as predictable. I imagine it's different."
Inoichi stared for an incredulous second before shaking his head. "I imagined you'd be different."
"I think we all imagined a different night to the one we're having now," Chōza said. "It's been a troubling past few days."
Shikaku pursed his lips and raised his cup. "I'll drink to that."
"You always do."
"Inoichi," Chōza warned, placing a broad palm to the table, as if to steady the turbulence. "It's late. We've all had too much to drink."
"You're right." Inoichi intercepted Shikaku's saké with a backhander that sent the drink toppling across the tatami. "Why don't we all retire to sobriety with a 'cool head and agile mind'. That's what we came here for, no?"
The Nara froze with his hand half-way to his mouth, a dark brow etching upward. "That was childish."
"So is the Hyūga stiff upper lip."
"That might be a compliment in some circles."
Inoichi's mouth curved sourly, but the play of pain behind his eyes was unmistakeable. "Over thirty-three years of friendship and you think you can pull this shit with me? Now, of all times?"
"Timing is everything."
"Are you trying to insult me or piss me off?"
Chōza frowned. "Inoichi."
Shikaku stared at the centre of the table for a long minute then reached out to take the saké flask in both hands, palms facing down – his movements ceremonial and pointedly formal as he filled his friends' cups, not bothering to retrieve his own. "It's not personal."
"That's my point, Shikaku. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"No wind, no waves, old friend."
Inoichi threw up a hand, barking an incredulous laugh. "Did that little pearl come to you while lying prone on the couch or has your shrink prescribed fortune cookies instead of pills this time?"
"Inoichi!" Chōza hissed.
Shikaku stopped pouring, his entire body going still. Maybe the saké dulled his reaction time, or maybe time came to the same stop as his heart. He felt his brain staggering to a halt close behind. Peripherally, he heard Inoichi's sharp intake of breath. He became aware seconds later that Chōza had stopped breathing altogether.
The silence buzzed.
Shikaku sat back a little and took a moment to reassess exactly how the hell he'd allowed that comment to blindside him. Inoichi wasn't cruel by nature, far from it. But he was calculated. And he was drunk. A hazardous combination. Add the Yamanaka's talent with mind-control to Shikaku's penchant for mind games and they were a dangerous duo, especially when their wits and wiles were pit against each other – sober or not. Impersonal…or not.
Shikaku set the flask down, the soft clink of the ceramic as abrasive as a shatter.
Inoichi blinked wide, as if only just registering what he'd said. "Shit," he breathed the word through his fingers, carding the same hand back through his hair, shaking his head. "That was out of line."
Shikaku had almost forgotten a line existed. He'd gotten so good at creating boxes out of the intersecting lines of his life that everything always felt compartmentalised and cordoned off. Until a coffin or a cutting remark reminded him just how fragile these false frontiers could be…and just how fiercely he needed to reinforce them.
Chōza watched him from beneath heavy brows, voice soft, wary. "Shikaku."
Shikaku placed his palms to his knees, gave a single grave nod and unfolded his legs, rising in a languid sway, his body at total odds with the fixed lines of his expression.
Inoichi made to rise but Shikaku grasped his shoulder, fingers digging in almost brutally before softening into a reassuring squeeze. "Checkmate," the Nara husked.
He felt Inoichi's muscles roil, a brief moment of resistance that gave way to what Shikaku knew would be a lasting regret. The Yamanaka's expression pinched. "I cheated," he murmured.
Shikaku gave a rusty hum, patting the back of his friend's head with affection before turning towards the shadows, feeling them stroke across his feet and up along his calves as he raised his fingers to his lips, forming the Ram seal. "Sometimes we need to."
"We never need to, Shikaku."
Shikaku paused as if to respond...then whispered 'kage-shunshin' and was gone.
A/N: Surprise! Yes. I snuck it in there, all ninja like. This brief lift on my HIATUS to post up REQUIEM is in large part a massive THANK YOU to all of those faithful BtB readers who have given me such awesome support and encouragement with my writing even during my hiatus. I've returned to your reviews countless times to give me that much-needed boost. Your added support regarding my original works means more to me than I could think to communicate in a blog post, so I figured a BtB instalment would be a better way to express my thanks. My deepest appreciation for all your kind words, amazing feedback and continued support. Love you guys for it.