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: REQUIEM

Pairings: ShikaNeji, Asuma/Kurenai, Shikaku/Yoshino

Rating: M / R (language etc.)

Genre: Angst/General

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.


REQUIEM

by Okami Rayne

EPILOGUE

Wheels within wheels. Walls within walls. He stood unmoved and steeled, in the centre of the wasteland. Nothing existed here. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose. No face, no soul, no name.

The Sovereign's voice was at his ear; "Kaika? That's not your real name is it? Your real name is on this list of proctors…but the question is, which Konoha dog are you?"

Silence.

The Sovereign clucked his tongue. "Don't think you can deceive me. It's not about strategy in here. That comes later, with the board. It's like I told the kid. First, we need the beast. First we need the animal. Do you understand?"

Kaika kept his gaze turned inwards, focused on the wheels, the walls, the wasteland of feeling…felt nothing, said nothing, betrayed nothing.

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The Sovereign stroked a hand across Kaika's bare stomach, circled his navel with a clawed finger until blood began to bead and drip. "No. You don't understand it. All you dogs know is what you're told. But my little shadow-nin, he knows something you don't. He knows you're out of options. You're out of luck. You're out of touch."

"And you're out of your fucking mind."

"Ha! It sure feels that way, doesn't it? Being cooped up for 21 years is enough to make even the sanest man feel crazy. But crazy isn't what I'm feeling right now. What about you? Let's play therapist. How does this make you feel?"

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

A curdling growl from somewhere behind, deep in the throat, as if choked with disease, not quite human, not quite animal. Not quite anything Kaika had ever been prepared for.

It didn't matter.

Nothing mattered but his silence.

He let his 'feelings' roll away with the wheels, go bouncing off the walls. Wheels within wheels, walls within walls – focused entirely on his breathing, on the wasteland in his mind.

The Sovereign laughed. "Ah, conditioned not to show your fear? So we've got another ANBU operative in the mix. How interesting. Danzō just loves sending you little ROOT bitches into my cage to sniff around my shit."

That brought Kaika's gaze up a fraction. His eyes narrowed.

The Sovereign smirked. "That's right, pet. I get the distinct feeling that Konoha has once again reneged on their promise to Kusagakure. Fuck that. Their promise to me."

"You reneged on that promise the second you made a move to take that kid you sick sonofabitch."

"Ah but you see, I have a longstanding partnership with Sarutobi Hiruzen – quiet as he is these days – and I've got some heavy unfinished business with the Nara." A thick clawed finger waved in warning. "I don't appreciate being forgotten by kindred spirits. And the Nara and I…" The Sovereign's words wafted away on a sigh, melancholy but for the menace burning in those black eyes. "Ah, the Hokage is a cruel, cruel bastard for sending another shadow-nin my way. You'd think he'd have learned the first time around."

Clearly The Sovereign didn't know the Sandaime was dead. An opportunity.

Kaika frowned, swallowed blood and croaked. "The first time?"

"Father and son. It's almost poetic. I hate poetry, but I love irony."

Father and son? Nara Shikaku. Kaika's mind reeled at the implication.

The Sovereign waved a hand. "Tch. You're too young to know about that. No matter. You won't interfere. But you will tell me your name and you will tell me where you hid my little strategist."

"Go fuck yourself."

"Ah, but I can think of someone else I'd rather fuck right now. I have a delicious feeling that you might be acquainted with him." The Sovereign turned, squatted beside a steel cage, picked up a chain that snaked between the bars and dragged a bloody figure out from the darkness; an abandoned seraph ripped from hell and thrust into the light.

"Wake up, pet." The Sovereign's hand snarled in long ash-blond hair, yanked hard, jerked up a face lined in blood and stubborn defiance. Dark lashes flickered open and violet eyes blazed.

God, those eyes…

Kaika's heart constricted. A painful stab of fear as the wheels spun away, the walls collapsed, the wasteland trembled…

And all the hard-drilled training fled his mind.

Fury crashed through him.

He slammed against his restraints. "You sonofaBITCH!"

"Oh ho!" The Sovereign laughed, delighted. "What's this? Such sudden emotionalism from an ANBU operative! And all over this sorry piece of shit" The hand gnarled tighter, yanked the blond head back further, exposing a collared neck chafed raw by chains. "I call him Koinu. He's still in the puppy-training stages of the Shinjū Trials, you see. I just love how the term 'pet project' has a whole new ring to it."

"Bastard…" Kaika hissed, body racked with fury, shaking hard.

"Ah, now," The Sovereign purred. "There it is. Tell me. What is this thing you're feeling? It's animalistic isn't it? Name it. Better yet, give me your real name."

Snarling, Kaika held his tongue, curled it hard against his teeth.

The Sovereign sighed, looked down at Koinu. "Ah, dog. It's time to speak."

Silence.

"Come on now, pet. Tell me this interfering bastard's name. I already know the kid. I'd like to know his keeper." A vicious yank of hair and chain. "SPEAK!"

Violet eyes flared, the bruised jaw like iron, pale lips moving. "I don't know him."

A useless lie. They'd have known each other anywhere…at any time…in any life…

A thin serrated blade, rusty with old blood, came to rest against the right corner of Koinu's mouth, the tip digging in. "21 years of being locked in this shithole have lent me a lot of virtues. Patience, I'm afraid, isn't one of them. Now, ANBU operative Kaika with the balls of steel, you'd better give me your real name or I'll remove this bitch's ability to ever shape a name or make a sound again."

Kaika bit his tongue, tasted blood…

The Sovereign cocked his head, twisted the blade, split skin and sent a thin stream of red dribbling down Koinu's chin, down along his collared throat. "Tell me your name, ninja."

It was at the back of Kaika's mouth…consonants and vowels…bitter, betraying…

Violet eyes flashed in warning, ordered him to hold his tongue.

Kaika grit his teeth, his tortured gaze fixed on those fierce purple-blue eyes…expression twisting, airway closing, his breath a ball of fire in his throat…

He wanted to scream…spoke with his eyes…'don't make me do this…'

Violet orbs, hard and cold as amethyst, softened ever so slightly before they drifted shut, bloody lips turning up in a rueful smile. "I don't know hi—"

Blood flew from the blade, sliced straight through flesh and face and Kaika's breaking heart.

He screamed his name. "GENMA!"

Kakashi jack-knifed awake at the strangled scream.

A dozing cat sprang off the nest of makeshift sheets, crouched down in the far corner of the tatami room and hissed, tail thrashing, ears pinned, grey fur electric with fear.

Fear.

Kakashi's senses came alive with it; sour on the air, salty on the tongue, cold and damp in the sheets and shaking in-and-out of the heaving body stretched beside him.

Genma.

Kakashi's mind sharpened like a blade, body going still. Well acquainted with nightmares, he made no move to touch the other man. He'd lost enough blood tonight.

Night? No...

A faint powdery light slanted through the scaffolding outside, streaking the dark room with the chalky beams of dawn. His eyes widened. God, he'd stayed the night. How had he let that happen?

Genma shuddered beside him. "Stop…"

Kakashi turned his head, twisted around slowly, quietly, untangling his arms from the tattered noren sheets Genma had ripped off the curtain rail.

He spoke softly into the thick and trembling air. "Genma."

Sprawled on his back, Genma's lashes flickered and his head rolled, spine arched, muscles tensing and shifting with every shuddering breath. Under any other circumstances, Kakashi might've felt privy to some intense and erotic dream, but there was nothing sensual about the way Genma's fingers gnarled against the straw mats, wrists twisting as if caught in phantom chains, lips moving without words until he breathed a ragged "Please…"

Kakashi's eyes widened at the choked plea, more for the fact that he'd never heard Genma beg for anything; not in pleasure and not in pain. Not even at the height of passion that Genma seemed to find in the two extremes. To hear such a powerless word shaking from the Shiranui's lips…spoken like some tattered prayer cast up, betraying his defences, leaving him vulnerable and raw and…

Human.

A long-forgotten, seldom seen gentleness came to Kakashi's eyes. He twisted round a little more. "Genma."

"Please…" the Shiranui rasped again, jaw clenched, lips pulled back, hissing curses between his teeth. "Shit…get up…get up…"

Kakashi leaned across on his elbow. "Genma," louder this time. "You're dreaming."

Thrashing now, head tossed back, the words lost on panting breaths.

"Genma," louder still. "Genma you—!"

A strangled roar and Genma's eyes shot open, the whites visible all around, bronze irises swirling with hate, with horror, with—

Hurt…

Stunned cold, Kakashi froze.

Gripped by the night terror, Genma came up off the floor with such explosive speed that the copy-nin had no time to avoid, only block. As Genma's hand shot towards his throat, Kakashi threw his left arm up between them. The Shiranui's fingers closed around his forearm like the iron teeth of a hunter's trap. It was a move designed to crush and rip out an opponent's windpipe.

No attempt to disable – just straight for the kill.

But it left Genma open.

Quick as a heartbeat, Kakashi cracked his right elbow into the crook of Genma's outstretched arm then snapped it up into the underside of the Shiranui's jaw. The Tokujō's head whipped back, shattering the attack and the dream.

"Genma!"

Genma jolted awake, disoriented and in shock.

Kakashi took advantage.

He slammed a reverse-blade hand strike into the side of Genma's neck and followed the attack down with his body, pinning the other ninja to the tatami with his forearm barred across the Shiranui's neck.

He brought his lips to the Tokujō's ear, spoke sharply. "Shiranui, you're safe."

Genma went abruptly still before his breath gushed out, adrenalin breaking into the shakes, washing his skin in a cold sweat.

Feeling the tension bleeding out, Kakashi eased off his arm onto his palms, drawing up enough to hover. A segment of warm grainy light stroked above his unmasked face, casting his features in shadow, save for the shock of wild silver strands limned gold in the breaking light.

"You're safe," Kakashi repeated, softer.

Bronze orbs flashed up, burning with such startling brightness and naked emotion it knocked Kakashi into a stricken stare. It took him a moment longer to register the wet gleam streaking across the Shiranui's eyes.

Silver brows tugged together softly. "Genma."

Wrong move.

The light in those eyes cut out in a flicker.

Genma snarled, rolled out from under the scrutiny of the mismatched gaze and put his back to Kakashi like a shield, a wall, an impenetrable defence. Leaning on his elbow, the Tokujō pushed shaking fingers through his hair, ribs heaving.

"The fuck are you still doing here?" he growled.

Excellent question.

With no answer; thus, the query went in one ear and straight out the other.

Kakashi leaned away, kept his gaze trained on Genma's back; a canvas crisscrossed with scars and spattered with bruises, skin glistening with sweat that beaded and rolled in tiny opals down the angular valleys of shoulders and spine.

"Genma…"

Muscles contracted, breathing tightened, a battle fought on the inside as Genma held himself rigid against…

Against what?

"Please…"

The broken word rattled in Kakashi's brain, threatened to run riot with all the other lose marbles rolling around in his skull. Ah but surely there'd been some madness in the moon last night.

Not just madness…

Belatedly, Kakashi's attention flicked from Genma's body back to his own. In an instant, his mind disengaged from the immediate danger and latched onto the dawning realisation that he'd been…

Patched up…?

Well, provisionally at least. Strips of ratty gauze had been plastered in haphazard array over the worst of his wounds, the medical tape old and peeling but sufficient enough to hold the compresses in place. Frowning, Kakashi splayed his fingers over the discoloured skin across his stomach and realised upon closer inspection that what he thought was infection or bruises was in fact the yellow stain of iodine.

And he didn't even wake me whilst doing it…

That shouldn't have been so surprising. Genma had never woken him in the past.

This isn't the past.

No. This was the present blown straight to hell. Time crawled through Kakashi in slow motion, every second magnifying the horror of this terrible mistake. In fact, when the hell had Genma had the time to tend to him? Or the co-ordination? The Shiranui had been stoned out of his head and screwed into the floor, barely conscious by the end of it.

Guilt flayed across Kakashi's conscience and he winced.

God…what have I done?

What hadn't he done? What hadn't he stopped?

Genma sat up.

The sudden movement spooked the forgotten cat into a shivering ball of pre-emptive hissing. Genma turned his head and a touch of sunlight caught like a glowing crescent at the edge of his iris, firing it like an ember. He bared his teeth and hissed back at the feline.

The grey tabby quietened, eyes narrowed into two lime slits.

Kakashi watched the animal interplay, silent, wary…curious.

Genma turned his head a little more, studied Kakashi out the corner of his eye for a long morbid minute as if trying to decipher the other man's mind – or his motives. He hadn't answered Genma's question. He'd left it strewn rhetorically between them…along with all the unearthed tensions.

A tiny smirk twisted at the corner of Genma's mouth. "Still here? Did you forget the rules of food, fight, fuck?"

Spat like senbon laced with venom.

Kakashi kept his face in shadow, Sharingan eye closed. He shook his head. "I don't play by those rules anymore."

Genma laughed without amusement, the cold sound cracked by the barest shiver of his breath. "Yeah, 'cause you're reformed." He rocked to his feet, nude and unabashed, staring down at the copy-nin through drowsy lids. "Took a tumble off that wagon last night though, didn't you?"

The hairs at the base of Kakashi's neck stirred, but he kept his silence.

Genma tilted his head, dangerously slow. "Quite the relapse," he taunted, stroking his eyes over the drift of material tangled around Kakashi's hips, letting his gaze track upward over the long lean contours of the chiselled body in a heated, licentious crawl, clucking his tongue. "Guess that makes you one of the formerly reformed."

Shame scraped beneath Kakashi's skin like a burning scalpel, but his grey eye sharpened to the likeness of flint. "So says the authority on addiction."

The barb hit dead centre. Genma eyes slashed up, the lascivious flame extinguished. He worked his jaw from side to side, teeth set on edge – no senbon to manipulate, no cruel words to spit…just the bitter truth between them, naked and raw as their bodies.

Grunting, the Shiranui turned and exited the room via a smashed-in fusuma panel.

The cat streaked after him.

Quiet followed, broken up by the clack of ceramic and the plaintive mewing of a disgruntled feline. Water running, the scrape of glass...

Somewhere in the building a baby began to wail.

Listening out, Kakashi sat up slowly, narrowed his eyes against the beams of light slanting in through the glass doors. Blinking hard, he stared at the ruptured wall of fusuma panels. The jagged hole gaped wide and ominous, like the mouth to a predator's cave. A fitting comparison, considering they'd crashed through those panels in a wild frenzy, slamming each other down to rut like beasts, all but passing out on the blood-streaked floor, smelling of death and sex and animal tragedy.

Kakashi sighed, grey eye drifting shut in a kind of agony.

No denying that he'd come here with the beast in his blood, trying to avoid a rampage by seeking rapture, looking for a light on in a lonely window, for an old flame in dead eyes, for—

A man I used to know…

Used to know, used to use, used to mutually damage; and always during nights like last night…when he was nothing more than a wolf in man's clothing, lost and howling under a cold blue moon.

Some kind of animal…coming here…taking what I want…knowing exactly how to get it…

And then curling up in the carnage, not even having the decency to bury the bones of the past he'd carved up between them. He'd been as reckless with Genma as he'd been during his earlier rampage in the woods.

Sex and death…I don't mix those monsters anymore…

Yet here he was, years down the line, veering off course, falling into the gutter of an old sin – dragging Genma with him. And what an alarmingly short fall, given all the years he'd put between them.

"I'd almost forgotten that face."

Kakashi's head came up. He found Genma leaning against the broken threshold, a pair of black pants riding low on his bruised hips. He held a shōchū bottle between his split knuckles and a steel needle between his lips, his eyes as unreadable as his expression.

He studied Kakashi for a long, penetrative moment. "You're still one good-looking bastard, I'll give you that."

An age-old sense of reserve came over Kakashi like a rash, followed closely by another hot dose of shame. God, he hadn't done it by halves tonight, had he?

Hn. In for a penny, in for a pound…

A pound of flesh, feeling, foolishness…

Flinching away from the light, he cast his face back into shadow and brushed his fingers across the tense slant of his jaw, scanning around for his mask. He spied it rumpled at the threshold along with his sleeveless turtleneck and standard-issue slacks.

Of course.

Tattered, bloody and out of reach – not unlike his sanity, at this point.

"If you'd be so kind," the copy-nin crooned in his mellifluous lilt, rusty around the edges but convincing enough – he hoped.

Genma considered the request, senbon ticking back and forth. After an inordinate pause – during which Kakashi felt more exposed and raw than a fetid wound – the Tokujō crouched down and hooked the mask with a finger. Straightening up, he tapped the end of the bottle against a sharp hipbone and swivelled the shōchū to display the label.

Kakashi recognised the brand, shook his head.

Genma smirked, a sardonic edge cutting into his words. "You'll fight and you'll fuck, but you'll turn down my food?"

"That doesn't qualify as food."

"It's one of my staples," the Tokujō defended, tossing Kakashi's mask over. "Even Asuma appreciated that."

Kakashi caught the mask one-handed, brows pinched. That ornament of grief, delicate as fine-blown glass, inched a little close to the edge of the high shelf he'd placed it on.

"He did," Kakashi husked, pulling on his mask.

But then, Asuma had never judged people by their bad habits – that would've made him a hypocrite. And for all the Sarutobi's self-perceived flaws, he'd never lived by double-standards. He'd lived his life by a set of strange and often contradictory codes, albeit ones far more honourable than those Kakashi and Genma had scrawled across their consciences. Indelible as ANBU ink, a scar on the soul…

"You know what your problem is, Shiranui? You and Kakashi...you guys don't believe in second chances..."

Kakashi pressed his eyes shut, rubbed at the crease between his brows. "Genma, what happened last ni—"

"Sh."

He looked up at the abrupt dismissal, watched Genma move towards him, not with the usual cat-like grace; the flow of the Shiranui's steps was too staggered and deliberate for any kind of stealth – which hinted at a sore body and a still not-quite-sober mind.

"No words," the Shiranui muttered, slumping back down beside Kakashi, holding up the bottle in benediction. "A libation."

Kakashi smiled faintly, though the mask disguised it. "A libation," he echoed.

Genma shrugged, twisted the cap off with a quick jerk of his wrist. "Best I can do before I kick you out. You fucking bled all over my floor."

Hard to imagine how that in any way bothered a man living in a place blotched with all manner of noxious stains and discolouration, redolent with mildew and plaster dust, wreathed with cobwebs and cracks.

"And here I was wondering what inspired you to play doctor," Kakashi said, taking the bottle from Genma's grip, surprised when the long fingers barely even twitched in resistance. "Although iodine into open wounds? That's a little primitive."

"It fit the mood."

Chastened, Kakashi tipped his head and conceded the point – felt it bury itself like a barbed arrow between his ribs. "Touché."

A soft mewl from the doorway.

Both ninja looked over, watched the grey tabby sniff around Kakashi's clothes, crooked tail twitching, pawing at the rumpled heap. That didn't bode well.

Genma hissed, flicked the senbon up and down.

The cat looked up, mesmerised by the wink of light.

Kakashi watched the interaction. "I didn't realise you had a pet."

The senbon froze as Genma went rigid at the word 'pet'. Then quick as it had come, the tension bled out and he lounged back on his elbows, watching the feline through his lashes. "And I didn't realise you still howled at the moon." He gestured at Kakashi's patched up wounds. "Looks like you raised more than your own demons."

Humming, Kakashi stared down the neck of the bottle, swirled the contents with a lazy spin of his wrist. "The interesting part will be laying those demons to rest…" he paused, not appreciating the ambiguity of his words and the far more personal things they could've alluded to. He shook his head, searched for a way to clarify. "The Chūnin exams are dangerous enough without a monstrous dose of overkill."

Genma frowned slightly, his eyes on the cat. "Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?"

Surprised, Kakashi looked across. "The chimaera hybrids." When this elicited nothing but a blank stare, Kakashi gave the Tokujō a sceptical look. "Well, you certainly ought to know about this. You were an invigilator. Unless the Goei Shotai has taken precedence?"

"Chimaera hybrids," Genma redirected, his blunt tone edged with a hint of impatience…or was there something else in that voice?

Kakashi contemplated the other ninja for a brief moment. "The new battle stock from Kusagakure," he explained. "They arrived this week. Although it seems they've traded in the usual larger than life monsters for these chakra-enhanced crossbreeds."

And they hadn't come from the usual supplier; there was no official seal from Kusagakure's daimyō. Isolated as Kusagakure had kept itself over the years – ever since the warring period – it still honoured a long-standing contract and collaborative business with Konoha regarding research into chakra-enhancement and experimentation. They also provided vital ingredients for the Akimichi soldier pills and Nara medical research facility. But their most prized commodity was undoubtedly the giant beasts, such as those teeming in the Forest of Death.

Kakashi frowned, his thoughts returning to the strange silence that'd gripped the air. Genma seemed very still beside him, absorbing what was being said without comment, his eyes hooded, the faintest of lines drawn between his brows.

Kakashi cocked his head, framed his next words carefully. "Not like you to be out of the loop."

No response. At least not immediately. The senbon ticked side-to-side. "Kusagakure aren't permitted to engage in interspecies experimentation," Genma eventually said, sounding as if he were thinking out loud. "Not at that level."

"Well, that's what the rule book says," Kakashi agreed.

And kami knew how many rules Konoha had put in place. The Sandaime had been adamant. Thus, despite the ugly origins of this animal-experimentation practice – instigated by Orochimaru – its development had been monitored over the years to ensure experimentations didn't breach any ethical agreements between the villages.

Yes. There are always rules.

"But not everyone plays by the rules," Kakashi pointed out. "The question is whether or not Kusagakure's daimyō and council have anything to do with this, because if they do, then that turns a simple breach of terms into a whole different ballgame."

"It's not simple. What's the Godaime's stance on this situation?"

Kakashi stopped swirling the shōchū. How could Genma not know about this? He answered to keep from drawing attention to his suspicion, "She's exercising caution. It just so happens that Kusagakure have extended an invitation to our shinobi to investigate their village under the pretext of a mission."

Genma looked askance. "Pretext?"

"Well, I'm assuming worst case scenario, how—"

"Never assume."

Kakashi arched a brow at the blunt interjection but went on smoothly. "However, it could be a legitimate mission. They're offering a substantial reward to resolve the matter."

"Legitimate mission based on what?"

Kakashi had to smile. Genma didn't miss a beat, which suggested his brain was revving back into gear. "The daimyō's claim is that this illegal experimentation and trafficking is the work of an underground faction."

"Underground faction…"

"So he says. He denies his involvement, but we need to know for sure."

Because the last thing we need is another war…

Especially with Kusagakure.

Memories bobbed at the surface of Kakashi's mind, rotten and bloated…like the horrors buried beneath Kannabi Bridge. His Sharingan eye gave a warning twinge.

Don't think about that now…

Besides, there were far more pressing things to consider – like the look on Genma's face. Drained of colour, expression frozen, the Shiranui looked as pale and drawn as a bleached statue, his glazed eyes fixed and staring at a point far beyond the ruptured walls.

Kakashi frowned, set the bottle down. "Are you alright?"

Genma recovered so quickly Kakashi had to wonder whether he'd imagined the stricken look. The Shiranui sat up, slid the senbon to the side of his mouth and snagged the bottle from the copy-nin's fingers. He took a quick swig, eyes fixed ahead.

"You know a lot about this," he murmured.

"I was originally ordered to head the mission."

"Who's heading it now?"

"Hyūga Neji. I also believe Team 10 have been assigned."

Genma's stomach tightened, the sudden ripple of muscle drawing Kakashi's eye.

"Team 10?" the Tokujō said. "You sure?"

"Yeah." Kakashi paused, decided it was time to start trading answers for an explanation or two. He looked across, eyes slit with suspicion. "How is it possible that you don't know any of this? You should've been informed."

Genma stared ahead for a long moment, eyes narrowed, senbon angled down. He shrugged and took another swig of the shōchū. "If I don't know, then I don't need to."

Kakashi frowned, watching the cords in Genma's throat pull and loosen as he swallowed, washing down all the words he wouldn't say. It reminded Kakashi of all the words that he'd had to swallow earlier. He'd agreed to sever his line of questioning, give up on all the conspiracy theories that seemed to be hanging around Genma like a toxic pall.

And it's taking its toll…

Evident in the way that the Shiranui lived his double life – terminally, dangerously, constantly on the edge of one drug or the other. It didn't stop him functioning, which led Kakashi to wonder what it stopped him feeling.

He squinted at Genma as if looking through smoke. "Does it help?"

The question could've referred to any number of poisons; the lies, the drugs, the drink, the dilapidated state of living. Genma sighed, draped his arms across his raised knees and tilted his head back, staring up through shuttered lids at the cross-grid of powdery light filtering through the windows. It fell across him like the pattern of a net – or a cage.

"Doesn't matter," he murmured, that faraway light flickering behind his eyes. "I'm still here."

Kakashi watched him for a long moment, sadness stealing across his face and into his voice. "Yeah," he whispered hoarsely. "You never left."

Genma grated his teeth across the senbon, knuckles tightening around the bottle's slender neck. "Doesn't matter," he said again. "What matters is that I get up and I get on." He sniffed, took a long swallow of the shōchū, dragged the back of his wrist across his mouth, voice as brittle as rust. "And now you need to get out."

Even if Kakashi had found the words to respond, Genma didn't wait to hear them. The Shiranui rocked to his feet, cold and remote. Kakashi could see the man's defences settling into place, shielding him against all the harsh complications and unassailable brutalities of the human condition.

What a judgement call…

Especially when he'd come here howling down his own humanity…

And now the hour of madness had passed – leaving what behind? More damage? New direction? A sense of understanding about this man he thought he used to know?

A man I left behind…

A comrade in the trenches, slowly bleeding out…

"…those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash! If I'm going to be called trash either way, I'd rather break the rules!"

The weight of those words sat heavy in Kakashi's heart, accumulating mass with every death…reminding him of a debt to be paid forward, not passed back. What good did it do to honour the dead and forget the living? Watching Genma drift away, Kakashi felt a sense of lost perspective drifting back.

Yes, time to get up and get on…

Which would mean going back one last time, for the long lost friend he'd left behind.


Behind. Above. Below. All around. He could sense their chakra signatures, faint as shadow play behind the walls. They weren't even trying to mask their presence from him. That, if nothing else, spoke volumes about Shimura Danzō's arrogance.

Inoichi's lip curled in distaste.

"The ghosts are gathering. You understand."

Ghosts. What a fitting euphemism for all the unknown agents involved. Inoichi had sacrificed enough to feel like he'd lost chunks of his damn soul in the process; ghost? Sure. That word fit like a well-worn glove. Shame it hadn't kept the blood from his hands.

And who else's hands?

Who were the other 'ghosts' the Third had entrusted with this matter? Who else had Danzō manipulated into honouring the Sandaime's wishes whilst pushing his own agenda? How many others had the Council agreed to bring into the circle?

21 years of silence…and now…?

And now Kusagakure's latest activity had kicked up the past like a hornets nest. Those damned chimaera hybrids. Inoichi paused, turned and began pacing the other way to keep from over-analysing and assuming. He had no facts, no figures, no fucking clue; just a cold hard rock lodged in his gut, heavy as the flat rectangular table he'd been circling for the past thirty minutes. He'd been kept waiting, without water or a word, in the stark anteroom for almost two hours.

Like a criminal about to be grilled.

There was irony in that, considering he'd left Shikaku and Chōza behind under the pretext of a summons to the Torture and Interrogation division.

Not a complete lie and not a whole truth.

Truth…

The word echoed off the walls in his mind, in tandem with the sound of his footfalls echoing off the cold concrete floor. Truth buried in deception, the sweet flower within the bitter seed.

"The flower of tomorrow is the seed of today."

Yes, he knew all about reaping what one sowed. He felt the ghosts of those regrets as surely as he sensed the ROOT operatives shadowing him from all sides, like rats crawling in the vents, creeping through the sewers.

Kami, what a way to live.

What a way to die...

The thought soured his mood, curdled his memories until they thickened like clots in his blood, blocking up veins and arteries, racking his heart with spams of unresolved grief…and unassailable guilt…

"ROOT? ROOT!?" He surged to his feet, sent the chair crashing back and skewered the young man with an accusatory glare. "Are you out of your god damned mind!"

Violet eyes lowered just to the side. "I will answer as I must, Inoichi-san."

"You will answer exactly what I ask."

"I will answer as I must."

"If that's the only thing coming out of your mouth then I will rip the answers straight out of your mind."

A weak smile. Sad. Regretful. "I don't think so, ojisan. You taught me too well for that."

"My gods, boy. What the hell have you done!"

"What I had to."

"After everything I taught you? After everything you were told by the Third? After EVERYTHING you learned from me?" he had to stop, had to suck air against the winded feeling. "My god, after everything…your loyalty lies with DANZŌ?"

Not even a tic in the firm jaw. The bold angles of the face set as hard and proud as Inoichi's own features; the strong raw-boned Yamanaka gene. Gone was the softness of youth, no longer a boy, no longer a child…no longer the young man taken under the guiding wing…

Inoichi shook his head. "Why…?"

"I didn't do this to betray you."

"Yet you have. Kami…you have…"

"That wasn't my intention."

"Intention?" Inoichi barked a laugh. "Kiss that word goodbye, son. You've just given up your intentions! Given up your life! Your family! Your very identity! You've made yourself an instrument of a ruthless extremist!"

"That's not what I—"

Inoichi's palm slammed down, a judge's gavel. "I forbid you to do this."

"Forbid me?" Now those violet eyes flicked up. "You're many things to me. But you're not my father."

"No." Inoichi pounded a fist above his heart. "But I'm your blood. And I was your sensei. And I couldn't love you more if you were my own son. But if you do this then you break those ties. Do you understand?" He left enough pause for an answer, but when none was forthcoming he added with cool finality, "If you do this then you are dead to me."

Hesitation, a hint of fading light in the closed-off eyes. "Then as a dead man I have nothing to bequeath my family but this one gift." He reached into the pack slung obliquely across his chest, pulled out a scroll and laid it on the table. "I made it for Ino. Please give it to her. That's all I ask."

Inoichi glared at it as if it were poison. "What? You expect me to hang that on my wall like some homage to your memory? No. You don't get a place in our memories. Not if you choose this path."

"This is my duty."

"Bullshit! This is you signing your life away into the hands of a radicalised crusader. When you chose ANBU I supported you. I wanted to protect you from that path but I never stopped you from pursuing it. God, I was even proud that you stuck to your convictions. ANBU I could stomach. ANBU I could understand. But ROOT?!"

"That's right. You don't understand. And if I could make you un—"

"I don't want to hear it. I don't want any part of Danzō's schemes. Not now. Not ever. I won't have that kind of blood on my hands again. You choose Danzō or you choose us. There's no middle ground."

"I can't back down on this."

"Why?!"

The barest movement of the throat, a twinge of cords before the lips tightened and the once melodious voice rang out cold, strung with steel. "Because we can't all cut and run."

"Oh you've cut and run alright. You've cut your ties to this clan and gone running off with a god damned cult."

"That is my path."

"Then you are dead to me."

Nothing. No expression, no response. He might've been dead already for all the reaction he gave. "Then tell Ino I died doing my duty, ojisan…"

"Damn you boy, don't you dare call me that! And don't you dare speak my daughter's name. As of now you're as dead to her as you are to me." He shook his head, sea-green eyes aflame with fury. "You want to erase everything you are for the sake of that militant bastard then do it. But your wasted life won't be buried anywhere near my family. Not in their hearts and not in their heads."

A sudden fracture of emotion, a crack in the iced-over expression…and the boy Inoichi used to know broke through, his face pinching as if to staunch the flow of emotions leaking out, gathering in violet eyes. "You'd do that…?" he rasped. "Erase me from their memories?"

Inoichi hardened his heart, closed his mind. "In a heartbeat."

"A heartbeat? Did it take you that long to decide when you erased Shikak—"

"Shut your mouth!" Inoichi exploded, lunging round the table, every muscle strung with leashed violence, eyes blazing, nostrils flaring. "God help me, I'll kill you."

"You see?" A laugh that held no humour, choked and throaty. "Love or broken ties. Loyalty or betrayal. Right or wrong. Good or evil. So cut and dried with you. So black and white. I've always loved you for your values but god how I hate you now for your myopic view of the world!"

"Hate me? Surely you must hate me a great deal to do this. To come here and throw back in my face everything I ever taught you!"

"It's NOT that black and white! It's not that simple!"

"Oh, you've made it that simple. You've dug your grave with Danzō and now you can rot in it. GET OUT! And don't you ever return."

He never had…

Inoichi stopped walking, knocked back a step by the force of his memories and the remorse that accompanied them. He braced a hand against the table as if battling dizziness. Up above, the ventilation whirred and the vermin scuttled, their masked signatures pulsing in and out of his mind before vanishing.

His head came up in surprise.

Looks like the rats are abandoning the ship…

No sooner had he thought this than the thick sliding door slotted open and four ROOT operatives swept in. Without a word, they moved to occupy the four corners of the room, stationed like sentinels.

Inoichi's eyes narrowed.

What the hell?

Another chakra signature flickered in his mind.

He turned his head just as a rail-thin man scuttled through the open door, his arms wrapped around a colour-coded stack of fluttering papers and several folders.

"Inoichi-san," the man said, taking a seat.

Inoichi did a quick head to toe assessment, taking in the reedy tuft of white hair, the broad shiny forehead, the dark beady eyes set far apart in a flat insect-like face. A pair of rimless glasses magnified the quick, darting gaze as it flitted between the ROOT agents and Inoichi, recording, re-evaluating.

Shikaku's shrink…

Inoichi recognised him for the mantis-like features, if nothing else. Shikaku never spoke about it. Inoichi never asked. He knew only one fact. A name.

Dr Mushi.

Finally, a man he wasn't surprised to see.

But the predictability of the doctor's presence didn't do anything to take the edge off Inoichi's growing unease. He watched the psychiatrist flick through papers with a sharp, calculated snap of his index finger, sifting through all the footnotes, facts and figures that Inoichi didn't have.

This can't be about Shikaku…he's been stable for 21 years…

21 years. It'd passed like sand through a very small hourglass. One day at a time, that's how he'd tried to live his life. Because there were no guarantees and nothing was a given.

Yet somehow…I always knew this day would come…

It had haunted him for years, a shadow on his soul. Inoichi frowned, shifted his weight between each foot as if he could dislodge the heavy feeling taking hold.

"Are you alright, Inoichi-san?" Dr Mushi inquired from across the table, looking over the rims of his spectacles. "I imagine this must be very difficult for you."

Inoichi barely stifled his snort. What a statement. What a way to twist the knife. He gave the doctor a tight-lipped smile, his attention centred on the doorway at the sound of a cane striking concrete in the hallway; the steady, tap-tap-tap. It sounded out like an infuriating drip of water. Droplets before the downpour.

Inoichi pulled in a breath, watched the silhouette take form.

Danzō emerged in the dark mouth of the doorway, his gaze sweeping over the room like a chill wind. He led with his cane, steps stiff. He was accompanied by his steadfast flankers; Fū and his ROOT partner, a man dressed in the heavily clad raiment of an Aburame shinobi.

Inoichi paid them no heed, kept his gaze trained on Danzō.

The Shimura leaned heavily on his cane, his steps so stilted and his approach so gradual that he might've been in pain. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inoichi had no intention of falling for the infirm ploy. He tracked Danzō's slow orbit around the table, watched how the Shimura moved like a bird of prey circling the kill site. At length, he took his seat directly opposite the door.

After long pause, Danzō spoke. "Sit down, Inoichi."

Inoichi said nothing, just stood there regarding him levelly.

Danzō raised his scarred chin. That signalled the slow slide of the door, terminating the outside world, leaving only the cold cavity of the room and the sickly ochre glow of the dim bulbs overhead.

What? That's it?

Inoichi scanned the table, his brow furrowed.

"What is it?" Dr Mushi asked, drawing a sharp look from the Yamanaka. "Were you expecting someone else?"

Thinking an offhand statement was the best way to play it, Inoichi gave another thin smile, his voice rolling out on a dry note, "Not quite the turnout I had in mind."

Danzō's downturned mouth twisted in what might've been a smile. "Only fools put all their eggs in one basket, Inoichi-san."

Inwardly surprised, Inoichi kept a neutral expression. He hadn't intended to win any information with his play at impertinence. Talk about potluck. Now he knew for sure there was at least one other person – if not more – who should've been privy to this meeting.

Staring into the Shimura's one visible eye, Inoichi pretended to cede the point with a tip of his head. "I assume we're here to talk about Nara Shikaku."

"Sit down." Danzō said.

Inoichi's spine tightened. He made no move to comply.

Mushi's bright eyes regarded him, a twinkle of intrigue behind the round lenses, as if trying to identify what deep-rooted psychological issue was causing this rebelliousness.

God, I hate shrinks…

Danzō spoke again, his voice a blunt verbal fist. "Sit down, Inoichi."

Inoichi might've tried for another moment of defiance but the cold dread in his gut outweighed everything, even his resolve to remain standing. He pulled up a chair, sat heavily.

There was a brief, almost curious silence from the opposite end of the table, Danzō's cold calculating eye trained on Inoichi like a dart. "Such unwarranted suspicion, Inoichi."

"On who's part?" Inoichi challenged, immediately on the defensive. "You summon me here and keep me waiting for two hours, knowing full well that the reason you've called me is to discuss a matter that's bound to have set me on edge."

"On edge?" Danzō echoed, with all the innocence of a scheming child. "Why? Is there cause to be?"

Inoichi's eyes narrowed at the baiting tone. "Shikaku has been stable for 21 years."

"Indeed," Dr Mushi spoke up, fluffing up like a professor eager to share his findings with a science committee. "In fact, his biochemistry stabilized completely after the birth of his son. He's made remarkable progress since then." As if to empirically support his statements, Mushi thumbed through a few pages of notes, plucking a sheet free. "I was just informed about his engagement with the Kusagakure chimaera and I must say it's promising to see that all psychological triggers remain dormant. No symptoms of avoidance or hyperarousal. Very promising indeed."

"I believe you've belaboured your point, doctor," Danzō said.

Inoichi saw the opening, swept in fast. "Which brings into question the point of you summoning me here. Shikaku hasn't slipped. Not once. I wouldn't allow that to happen." He speared Danzō with a heated look. "You swore before the Sandaime that you'd keep ROOT away from him. Anything at this end regarding Kusagakure's surface activity was left in my hands."

Danzō had the gall to look amused. "Territorial as ever, Yamanaka. But as the past dictates, we can't always control the people or the plans we want to protect."

Sonofabitch.

Inoichi dug his fingers into the arm of the chair to keep from coming up out of his seat. He could feel Dr Mushi's cold insect eyes flitting over him with the morbid fascination of a scientist observing a human experiment.

"You're worried for your friend," the doctor said.

Inoichi glared. "You have a real grasp of the obvious, doctor."

"Then set aside your concerns," Danzō said. "We're not here to discuss Nara Shikaku."

Inoichi's eyes sharpened warily, flicked to Fū. "And the point of your little misdirection in the clearing?"

Danzō smirked. "The point was to get your attention, Yamanaka."

The smack of manipulation hit Inoichi dead on centre, threatening to crack the cool crust of logic he kept layered over his volcanic temper. Danzō had known exactly how to play him. There was only one thing that had ever successfully been used against him. His family. And he considered the Nara and the Akimichi an intricate part of that circle.

"Shikaku's stability is not my concern," Danzō clarified, an echo of the words he'd spoken years ago. "It never was in relation to this matter. My only concern with Kusagakure is maintaining a toehold in their underground politics."

"Exactly," Inoichi argued. "Their underground politics, not what goes on above the surface." But even as he said it, he sensed the cracks in his conviction. He kept the doubt from his face, kept it close to his chest. It wouldn't do to have Danzō think he was in anyway willing to entertain this meeting.

"What lurks below doesn't always stay buried beneath the surface," Danzō uttered. He waved a hand at the doctor. "Tell him."

Frowning at the demeaning flick of Danzō's wrist, Mushi nonetheless obeyed and gathered his notes to him. "One month ago I was called to examine a shinobi caught sneaking into the village via a subterranean system known only to ANBU. We assumed a spy."

Inoichi's turned his gaze squarely on the doctor. "Why wasn't he brought to Ibiki for questioning?"

Mushi shook his head. "There was no need. It turns out he was one of ours."

"One of mine," Danzō corrected.

Inoichi set his jaw at the comment. "ROOT."

Mushi nodded. "An undercover agent in a rather severe state. He was a mess." He consulted his notes, flipped through medical reports. "Brutalised, emaciated, malnourished, suffering from the onset of septicaemia and irregular chakra rhythms. The thing that baffled me was how lucid he seemed, at least initially. He kept asking for medical attention before being allowed to report to the Hokage."

Inoichi's brows went up, along with a few red flags. Why would a ROOT operative ask for the Hokage? They were answerable only to Danzō. It was also unheard of for an agent to demand medical attention when they were lucid enough to report in. All ANBU operatives – ROOT or otherwise – were required to report immediately to their superiors, irrespective of what state they were in. They could be coughing up their lungs or spilling out their guts onto the floor while relaying whatever information they'd gathered, but the cold fact remained that the information was always more valuable and important than the life of the operative.

Mushi smiled grimly at Inoichi's puzzled frown. "I know. Very unusual. But he was absolutely adamant. Naturally, this break with ROOT protocol alarmed me." A hint of regret pinched the flesh between the doctor's thinning brows. "Cruel as the tactic was, I told him I'd only get him a doctor if he gave me some answers."

Snorting, Inoichi's brow crept up archly. "Clearly you had the torture and interrogation part under control." He ignored the doctor's wounded look. "Well? Did he talk?"

Sighing, Dr Mushi tapped a finger to the bridge of his glasses. The lenses flashed white, obscuring his lowered eyes. "No, he went into septic shock part-way through his interrogation and was sectioned in ANBU's private ICU for two weeks before I was called in to reassess him." He flicked through his notes, framed one of his lenses between his fingers like a monocle. "However, the second he stabilised medically he refused to cooperate. I couldn't get anything from him. He insisted on seeing the Sandaime—"

"The Sandaime?" Inoichi echoed, incredulous.

Mushi nodded gravely. "He didn't realise that Hiruzen-sama had passed away two years prior. Let me assure you, this was no case of amnesia. He was shocked, I daresay saddened. Oddly emotional for a ROOT operative."

Strange.

And frustrating. But he couldn't ask about that with Danzō sat across the damned table. Sighing, Inoichi rubbed at his jaw, let out a breath between his fingers. "He must've been pretty deep undercover not to know that the Hokage was dead."

"Yes. The agent had been a resident spy in Kusagakure for over ten years," Mushi explained, looking to Danzō for confirmation. "His mission was to keep an eye on their underground operation, yes?"

Inoichi arched a brow. "Underground operation?"

"Underground project," Danzō corrected, his next words ringing out like the toll of a death knell. "Project Shinjū. I trust you remember."

In the silence that followed those words, the blood drained out of Inoichi's face faster than the breath out of his lungs.

Remember?

Kami, he'd spent 21 years remembering. He had to set his hand against the edge of the table to brace himself against the barrage of memories.

"Oh god no. Shikaku…what…what have you done?"

"This is my nature."

Inoichi turned his head aside as if he'd been struck, eyes pressed shut before his gaze swung even with Danzō's, his voice a dangerous rumble. "Project Shinjū was terminated 21 years ago."

"Not so, Yamanaka."

Ashen-faced and on the verge of nausea, Inoichi tightened his grip on the table. "What the hell are you talking about? That was ROOT's mission."

Impervious to the accusatory glare, Danzō's tilted his head, his sole eye dark and dead as stone. "No, Inoichi. Terminating Project Shinjū was your mission. Yours, Chōza's and Shikaku's. And what a mess you made of it. You ought to be grateful Hiruzen passed it off into my hands in attempt to salvage something from the disaster."

Danzō couldn't have struck harder or dirtier with those words if he'd shoved a rusty blade straight into Inoichi's sternum.

"Salvage?" Inoichi breathed, incredulous. "Just what the hell could've been salvaged from that facility other than the victims of its experiments? And even then, they weren't even human by the end of their tortures. What would you want with…" he trailed off, eyes going wide.

Danzō said nothing.

Taken aback, the Yamanaka shook his head in amazement. "My gods, you're no better than Orochimaru."

"Inoichi," Mushi cautioned.

"It's alright, doctor," Danzō said. "I'm used to being put on trial for issuing difficult directives that only my people have the fortitude to carry out. Even if those difficult directives are for the sake of the village."

"For the sake of the village?" Inoichi snarled, his voice rising with the fire in his belly, stealing over the cold shock. "For the sake of the village it was your duty to shut that operation down. If you gave a damn about this village you'd have sealed off every square inch of that facility and you'd have burned and buried it."

"You're assuming that Hiruzen wanted it buried."

Inoichi's breath cut off. He tugged his head back, his mind paralysed by the outrageous claim. "What?" he choked on the word, coughed it back up on a rough laugh, shaking his head. "I don't believe you."

"No. That would compromise your moral high ground. And how high and mighty those above the surface are, condemning those who work below." Danzō shook his head. "It's no wonder Hiruzen's precious Ino-Shika-Cho had their greatest failure struck off the records. Gods forbid you should be hailed as anything other than heroes."

Acid into old wounds and Inoichi's eyes glowed like oxidised copper. "Are you telling me that Project Shinjū was never shut down?" At Danzō's silence, Inoichi felt the chill of a skeletal hand raking down his spine. "My gods…is that where the chimaera came from? Is that the underground activity you've been monitoring all these years?"

Danzō's eye remained dark and fathomless, not even a hint of emotion or a glint of intent. "ROOT's unique position requires it to liaise with every level of the underworld, Inoichi. Only like-minded individuals with the strength to do what is necessary for the sake of this village could understand the kind of sacrifice it takes to infiltrate these lower levels. Sending you and your team in was a mistake. One that Hiruzen rectified by surrendering this matter into my hands."

"What? So that you could send in agents to spectate on human experimentation like some kind of sick sport?" Inoichi bit out, a violent pressure building in his chest, lungs working like a bellows, fanning the rage even as he fought to contain it. "The Sandaime would never have condoned it! He'd never have supported a project engineered by a psychopath, a project that almost cost Nara Shikaku his—!"

"Inoichi-san, please," Dr Mushi interjected softly, folding his fingers atop his files. "This situation is far too personal for you to appreciate the complicated politics involved. Project Shinjū may've been the brainchild of a psychopath, but the innovative advances that Shuken made in chakra development – both in the physiological and psychological fields – allowed us to expand and develop our own research into—"

"Research?" Inoichi hissed, his voice seething out between his teeth like steam. "Is that what Nara Shikaku is to you? Fucking research?"

The ROOT shinobi stationed around the room stirred at the mounting tension, fingers twitching, ready to reach for blades. Danzō turned his head a fraction and they stilled at his nonverbal command.

Inoichi ignored them, his fury directed solely at the white-faced therapist. "You're supposed to be his doctor!" The Yamanaka snarled, gripping the edge of the table now, torso canted forwards like a rocket about to launch. "Kami, have you done anything for Shikaku in the past 21 years other than build a fucking case study around his trauma!?"

Dr Mushi jolted back in his seat, recoiling as if he'd been physically assaulted. "While I can understand you harbouring such a delusion, Yamanaka-san, let me assure you that I'd never compromise or capitalised on the mental health of my client for—"

Inoichi slammed a hand down and sliced it across the table in a violent swing, leaning forward across the intervening space, halfway out of his chair. "Spare me your sanctimonious reassurances you obnoxious little shit! Do you have any idea what was done to Shikaku under the hands of that monster? Do you have any idea what Shuken did? Do you have any fucking CLUE as to what went on in those—"

"Sacrifice," Danzō broke in, his voice booming over Inoichi's. "That is what went on. That is what goes on every day and every night for shinobi who work from the shadows. Only for some of us there'll be no return from that darkness. No repressed memories. No reintegration into society. No Hokage to bail us out and no doctored reports to fall behind."

Stunned, Inoichi thudded back in his seat, amazed, appalled. "How dare you use what happened to Shikaku to justify your actions," he grated, his protectiveness for his friend rising up inside him like a vengeful ghost, emerging from the darkest and most haunted corners of his heart. "No. ROOT doesn't need doctored reports because they're not held accountable for their actions, they don't have to answer to anyone or protect anything other than you."

Danzō's eye narrowed darkly. "Everything I do, I do for the village," he uttered. "Remind me again, Inoichi, what your motives were at the time? Protecting our village from a monster like Shuken? Or stopping Nara Shikaku from becoming one?"

Inoichi exploded to his feet. "You BASTARD!"

Out of all six ROOT operatives, only one moved.

Fū's attack was a blur, his tantō a white streak.

"STOP!" Danzō barked.

The hit never connected.

Inoichi jerked his head back. The blade shivered a breath away from his face. He glared across into the amber eyes, his voice a reverberating growl. "You better get that blade out of my face, boy, before I give you a headache that'll make you wish you'd never drawn it."

Fū's grip tightened around the hilt of the weapon until Danzō raised a hand and swirled his fingers in a recalling gesture. Fū disengaged and stepped back behind his master's chair, obedient as a well-trained attack dog.

Silence settled over the air with a stillness both cold and sobering in light of the sudden violence. The rage bubbled inside of Inoichi, volcanic in its heat, a smoking crater in his soul, clouding his mind, clouding his judgement…

"Keep a cool head and agile mind, old friend."

Shikaku's words drifted through him, whisked away the smoke, left behind ash and cinders. Inoichi's eyes smouldered with conflict, his face lined with repressed fury.

Danzō gazed back, his expression unreadable until the groves either side of his mouth deepened with the beginnings of a sneer. "Tch. Such emotionalism. You disappoint me, Yamanaka."

Dr Mushi, having remained a silent spectator for the duration of their exchange, took it upon himself to intervene. "Inoichi-san, while your fears and your pain surrounding both the Shinjū Project and ROOT's involvement in it are understandable, not everything is as black and white as you'd have it."

"So black and white. I've always loved you for your values but god how I hate you now for your myopic view of the world!"

Torn by the scar those words had left across his heart, Inoichi clenched his eyes shut, felt his pulse beating heavy at the base of his throat. God, 21 years down the long and winding road to recovery and the fear, the pain, the concern, was as raw as ever.

It has to be…so we can remember.

Remember. Remember what had happened, so that Shikaku could forget.

"And if he asks me to remind him?"

"You can't."

"But I…"

"Yoshino. We must remember for him, so that he can forget."

Yes. They had to remember. Always. Because what happened to Nara Shikaku could never be allowed to happen to anyone else ever again.

Never again.

Banishing the ghosts back into the depths of his heart, Inoichi forced himself to get grip. After a long indrawn breath, he sat down, letting the lava coursing in his veins cool to a thin magma crust.

When he opened his eyes, they were calm, clear. "Just tell me why the hell I'm here and what the hell you want."

"Information," Danzō enlightened coolly. "Information about Kusagakure that belongs to me yet has been kept from me. Information that you are going to help me to obtain."

Inoichi cocked his brows, a half-stifled snort catching in his throat. "Excuse me?"

Danzō jerked his chin at Dr Mushi. "Explain."

Mushi sighed. "As I mentioned earlier, Inoichi-san, this ROOT operative refused to cooperate or report back his findings so we were forced to…" Here Mushi paused, put his head down, apparently unable to continue on.

A curt gesture from Danzō and Fū stepped forward, picking up the doctor's abandoned sentence in a voice as neutral and blank as his expression. "I invaded his mind to extract the information."

Inoichi stiffened in his seat, felt the sourness of regret like an ulcer in his gut. He'd taught Fū that ninjutsu technique.

Hn. And the chickens come home to roost.

He allowed the past its bitter due, forced himself to ask. "And was it successful?"

Danzō made a sound in the back of his throat. "Hardly."

Inoichi blinked, not sure whether to be surprised by Fū's failure or impressed by the mystery agent's fortitude. "He resisted?"

"He became utterly useless to me."

Mushi scowled at the crude assessment. "He experienced a psychotic break."

Shit. What was in his mind that would've caused that?

It almost pleased Inoichi to think that Danzō might be losing sleep over the same damned question. He sat back a bit, digested the information with a frown. "I take it that this episode passed?"

Mushi shook his head. "Normally that would be the case. Psychotic breaks tend to only last for a day minimum, maximum a month. Unfortunately the operative's condition went into a tailspin. He was catatonic within the week and three days ago he deteriorated into what could only be described as a persistent vegetative state."

Inoichi's brows shot up then pulled together in a bewildered frown, his mind spinning over the irregular data. Slipping from catatonia into PVS? That was one hell of a medical leap – an impossible one at that.

At a loss, Inoichi shook his head. "Did he suffer a head injury when he was brutalised? You said he was suffering from septicaemia? Perhaps the blood poisoning precipitated some kind of inflammation in the brain?"

Mushi responded negatively on both accounts. "No. That's what was so bizarre. There was no sign of damage to the cortex and no suggestion of brain disease. No toxins, no tumours, no trauma, nothing. Not even a hint of a neurological disorder. No medical explanation at all for this sudden disorder of consciousness. We've decided to label his condition as a state of 'stasis'."

Danzō looked bored. "Cut to the chase, doctor."

Frowning, Mushi scanned a block of illegible scrawl and quickly paraphrased in a single sentence. "It's my firm belief that his stasis was entirely self-induced."

"What?" Inoichi sat forwards, brought his clasped hands onto the table. "Self-induced? But that could only mean…" he trailed off abruptly, a sinking feeling taking hold.

Oh god no…

"Yes," Fū said. "He used the Yamanaka clan's secret kinjutsu to shut down his mind. The kinjutsu that you created, Inoichi-san."

Not proud of the revelation, or appreciative of the fascinated and appraising look the doctor was giving him, Inoichi drew back in his seat, rubbed his palms together, appalled to find that they were sweating. He felt ice-cold. Numb. Sick to the core.

No. No. It can't be...

"Now you understand just what you owe me," Danzō said, his voice so soft it was chilling. "This agent has 10 years' worth of vital information about the Shinjū Project buried in his mind. Information that belongs to me."

Numb with shock, Inoichi stared blankly at the centre of the table. Nothing seemed to be registering other than the dread snaking its tendrils around his heart.

Operative…spy…agent…

Not once had Danzō mentioned a name.

God no…it can't be…

He felt his heart in his throat…or was that the name he hadn't spoken in over ten years…banished to the back of his mind because…

"You're dead to me."

Inoichi swallowed thickly, barely even recognised the sound of his voice as it croaked out into the silence. "The operative…who is he?"

"Who he is doesn't matter. What matters is that he thought he could betray me by slipping away into the darkness." Danzō leaned forward by degrees, his dark eye a burning ember in his skull. "What matters, Inoichi, is that you're going to wake him from that darkness and uncover all the secrets that you taught him how to hide."


Hide and fucking seek…

Only this time it wasn't the Hokage Tower the councillors had chosen to hide in. No, this time they'd closeted themselves away behind the high-walled compound of a luxury ryokan, Hotaru; an establishment that took the lion's share of profit among the spattering of inns nestled close to the hot springs.

Genma hadn't come with a plan – he was too far gone to orchestrate one.

But he'd come with a purpose – he was just too far gone to name it.

He'd aimed to storm the castle and had decided – in a blinding moment he couldn't actually recall – that infiltrating via the water gardens would be an excellent idea. Apparently he'd moved with deadly confidence, misjudging the effect that three bottles of shōchū and three little pink pills would have on his chakra control and general state of spatial awareness.

One massive leap and a lily pond later…?

He'd been waist-high in water and knee-deep in shit.

A startled gardener had taken it upon herself to alert security. Security taking the form of an ox-faced behemoth with a name tag that read Oushi and a fist that screamed business. They'd had what Asuma would've called a 'nonverbal conversation'. Only Oushi had done all the talking, because the second Genma had thought about Asuma, he'd had nothing to say.

Nothing…

The fight had gone out of him in an instant.

He hadn't even tried to defend himself. He'd taken the beating without blocking a single blow; letting the fists and kicks rain down a kind of sick redemption until the ox man had backed off in confusion.

That'd been two hours ago.

Now, painted black-and-blue, an icepack pressed to his jaw, Genma sat with one foot pulled up against a metal bench, staring at the cinderblock walls of his holding cell. The senbon ticked like a metronome between each corner of his bruised mouth, a weak attempt to channel the adrenaline still jittering through his veins, causing the corded muscles in his thighs to jump. Stomach quivering, arms trembling, fingers twitching.

Was that adrenaline – or was it withdrawal?

Fuck.

He'd have chalked it up to anger, but that would've meant...

Feeling…

Sneering, he angled his head up and glared at the thin barred window at the top of the adjacent wall. A slice of electric blue sky cut the darkness of the cell and Genma had to squint against the glare of sunlight streaking in through the bars.

The grand indifference of nature, getting up and getting on…

While I'm getting older by the minute…

Hell, maybe he'd been in here longer than an hour – or was that two hours? He'd lost time and probably a large portion of his mind, considering where he was and where he should've been.

Sweeping up the breadcrumbs…

Instead, by some insane design he didn't really remember making, he was stuck nursing a split lip, a busted jaw and a nasty inch-long gash above a bloodshot eye. Bruised, beaten and bloody. But not one of these pains burned him as bad or pissed him off as much as sitting on his ass. Courtesy of one Hatake Kakashi.

Bastard.

God, Genma hadn't been screwed like that in – what? Five years?

Ten.

A sobering thought, about as unpleasant as the ache. He'd made it a rule to be the one doing the taking, the using; whether it was a substance or a person, a drug or a drink. He'd had every intention of beating the shit out of Kakashi for what he'd allowed to let happen. Fortunately for them both, by the time Genma had returned with hell in his hands and murder in his eyes the other ninja was already gone.

Cut and run...

Sensible move. Smart move. A sane and self-preserving move. Nothing like the moves they'd made last night; although, Genma had the excuse of having been north of stoned and south of sober.

What the hell is your tragedy, Hatake? I didn't sit back and watch you crawl outta the trenches all those years ago just to watch you come crawling back.

Anger, it cranked up the pressure pounding in his skull.

Stupid kid.

Granted, he was only three months older than Kakashi...but Genma was pretty sure he'd been born old. Felt it. Tired. Worn. Used up and wasted. Wait – was that self-pity getting a toehold? He gave a self-derisive snort and cut the pain off at the knees.

Don't be so fucking pathetic.

The heavy thud of boots drew him away from self-flagellation. He redirected his focus onto the cold steel door and cocked his head, listening out, pulse banging in his head like a trip-hammer with every approaching step.

Maybe Oushi had come back for round two.

Genma hollowed his cheeks and loaded his lungs with air, senbon set to fire.

A brief rattle of keys.

The door swung back on its hinges.

A large trench-coated figure moved to fill the doorway, the cold force of his aura sweeping in ahead of him, sucking the air out of the room and taking up more space than the powerful body that followed.

Genma certainly felt ploughed over, by shock if by nothing else.

Ibiki folded his arms, braced a shoulder against the doorjamb and shook his head. "Tch. They called me in for this?"

Senbon ticking side-to-side, Genma covered his surprise and measured up the other man with a bored drift of his gaze. "Morino," he acknowledged. "Long time no torture."

Ibiki snorted and his broad shoulders rolled in a lazy shrug. "I sure hope you're not in here for an inquisition." He bared his teeth in a savage smile. "If memory serves, you'd probably enjoy it."

Genma didn't so much as blink. "You and me both."

Ibiki chuckled darky, tapped his temple. "I remember." He tilted his head, gave Genma the once-over. "Quite the sight for sore eyes, Shiranui."

"You should see the other guy."

"I did. Ugly bastard but he sure rearranged your pretty face." He backed out of the room, indicated for Genma to follow. "Come."

Curious enough to excuse being treated like a dog, Genma dropped the icepack, rocked to his feet and followed close behind, wondering whether he was still knee-deep in shit or sinking further with every step.

You deserve it.

And yet he blamed Kakashi. There was no other reason why he'd have done something so insubordinate and so stupid. He wasn't insubordinate. He wasn't stupid. So it had to be Kakashi. The bastard was coursing like a drug in Genma's veins. Sure, he'd flush Kakashi out with the rest of the toxins, had even intended to spar with Raidō later on and just sweat the copy-nin out of his system. Bitch of it was, if Genma had actually given a rat's ass about his own life, he might've been sweating pretty hard right about now.

Ibiki led him into a conference room. Basic, stark, no torture implements or one-way mirrors. In fact, it was almost pleasant.

Genma shot Ibiki a sideways look. "What? No toys?"

Ibiki smirked, approached the round conference table, sank down and steepled his long gloved fingers against his scarred lips. He set his gaze on Genma, steady and unblinking.

Shiranui mourned the loss of ox-man.

He'd sooner be hit with a fist than with that look.

Moving out of direct range of Ibiki's laser eyes, Genma circled around to the window, cocked his hip against the sill and pretended to look out across the village, observing Ibiki by way of the glass.

There was silence for a time. And then Ibiki spoke. "You still using?"

Direct as a fist. No pulling punches. Genma sucked the senbon, dragged his tongue across the slender tip until he tasted blood. "Raidō," he guessed.

"People care, even if you don't." Ibiki cocked his head, as if trying to study the Shiranui from a different angle. "You let Oushi beat the shit out of you. You get off on that?"

Genma set his jaw until the pain flared, gave a scoffing snort.

You'd think.

Ibiki watched him for another tense moment, their gazes holding in the glass. "You fuck up like this again and it won't be the bug-eyed shrink staring at you from across the table," he paused, voice dropping low. "It'll be me."

Genma turned his head at the threat.

Ibiki flashed a razor smile, his eyes reflecting no humour whatsoever. "Think about it."

Genma had no time to. The doors eased open and Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura stepped through, the soft swish of robes offset by the scuff of sandals on concrete. Genma had a vision of reluctant children dragging their feet. It was obliterated by the stern matriarchal eye Koharu turned on him. She gave a quick sniff of disdain, jerked her chin towards the table.

"Sit," she ordered.

Genma grit his teeth, moved to obey, waiting until both councillors were seated before planting himself directly opposite them, right beside Ibiki.

He waited for the other Tokujō to leave.

He didn't.

Genma glanced across, could read nothing off the other man. Hard to tell what he was thinking, never mind how much he'd been told.

Whatever he knows, it's enough to be sitting here…

Which could only mean he was one of the unsung ghosts in this requiem of dead truths and living lies. It wasn't so surprising. Not to him anyway. Unbidden, a vision of Asuma's face drifted into his mind, haunting him, hating him…

"Whatever it was, whatever happened between you…it didn't matter in the end."

It had to have mattered…

Else what the hell am I doing here?

The question struck like a senbon between the eyes. Genma's head knocked up a fraction, the shock registering like a splinter in his skull. His senbon stopped ticking. Yes, just what the hell was he doing? Questioning orders. Going off on his own agenda. Behaving like—

Kakashi…

His spine went rigid. Oh god help that silver-haired, silver-tongued sonofabitch. He'd rubbed off on Genma like a fucking bloodstain. To think, he'd lain with Kakashi and had gotten up covered in the sticky, messy, complicated blood of the other man's conscience…because surely it wasn't his blood…his

Feelings

He ruthlessly slaughtered the thought before it could take root. That's all it was, a fleeting thought. Not a feeling. Feeling was impossible because…

I'm not feeling anything.

And again the question taunted him; then why the hell was he here?

Apparently, he wasn't the only one wondering that.

Ibiki kicked him under the table, a not-so-subtle crack against his shinbone that brought Genma jolting back. He hadn't realised he'd even zoned out. Blinking, he refocused on the councillors glaring at him across the short distance, their stern patrician features tight with displeasure.

"Well? You wanted our attention," Koharu said. "You have it. Appalling as your conduct was in obtaining it. You will not be forgiven for that twice. Now. Speak."

"Ah, dog. It's time to speak. SPEAK!"

Genma stiffened against the memory. He forced his mouth to move, modulated his voice into a neutral drone. "The Godaime has approved a mission in Kusagakure. I understand that Nara Shikamaru has been assigned."

Homura's brows rose from their perpetual frown. "How did you know about that?"

Genma said nothing, waited for an answer.

Koharu pursed her lips. "You didn't need to know. In fact, you have your own marks to mind, Genma. For instance, Dr Mushi. It's our understanding that he cancelled his morning sessions. Do you know why?"

Shit.

Genma lowered his eyes, duly chastened. He'd missed his session with Mushi, failed to obtain the information that would've led him to wherever the insect had scuttled off to. God, one fuck up with Asuma and the domino-effect was spiralling, reminding him again of the weakness of getting personal.

They know you're slipping, his mind taunted. You'd better get a grip before they toss you to the wolves.

And that wasn't even including the one sat next to him. Honestly, Genma wouldn't have put it past the Council to have him sectioned and detained. They'd have him drugged up to his eyeballs and locked in a stupor in order to shut him up and shut him down until the mess had blown over.

It wouldn't be the first time.

And while Homura and Koharu hadn't had a direct hand in the matter, Danzō had been more than willing to stick a needle in his jugular. To think, the bastard had then had the nerve to try and recruit him.

The Sandaime had saved him the first time around. But Tsunade would have no reason whatsoever to bail him out. Especially if she learned that he'd lied to her, withholding vital information. It wouldn't matter to her that he'd done it under orders of a former Hokage. It wouldn't matter that in going against the council and Danzō he'd have put the village at risk. It wouldn't matter that he'd wanted to protect Shikamaru. It wouldn't even matter that he'd cut his own throat by swearing himself to silence. It just wouldn't matter. None of it. Not one damn bit because Genma was still Goei Shotai. Answerable to Tsunade, not to the past and all its promises…and yet, there was no turning back, no coming clean because—

"The Sandaime entrusted us with this matter. And now you have been entrusted. That is your burden. But that is your duty. And a shinobi must do whatever is necessary to carry out his duty."

And yet every time he thought about going against that duty, letting go of that burden, leaving that hell, it wasn't the glowering faces or the stern words of the Council that stopped him…it wasn't even the threat of punishment, of death or dishonour…

It was violet eyes and a broken voice…

"…you know the score. We can't all cut and run…you gotta remember your promise to me…and my promise to the Sandaime…now swear it…"

He'd sworn it. And that's all there was to it. Nothing more and nothing less.

Nothing…

"Genma," Homura called, jerking him back like a dog on a chain. "You will find out where Dr Mushi has been and you will report back to us immediately. Do you understand?"

"I understand." Automatic. Empty.

Nothing.

"Good," Homura grunted, some of the tension falling away from his face. "While we appreciate your concern for Nara Shikamaru, we cannot extract him from the mission without the risk of compromising its success or of alerting Tsunade-sama. In this instance we must allow this mission to proceed as planned."

"Our decision regarding this matter is final," Koharu compounded, her crisp tone brooking no argument. "And to avoid Danzō's interference, we'll be sending in our own ANBU agent to watch over and monitor Nara Shikamaru."

Genma frowned, glancing up sharply. "Won't Tsunade-sama need to approve the assignment of an ANBU operative?"

Homura tipped his brow towards Ibiki. "In this case, all it will require is Ibiki's approval. Under his recommendation we've selected an ANBU candidate to watch over Nara Shikamaru for the duration of their mission."

"A candidate?" Great. An amateur. Genma shook his head.

Ibiki smiled a little, as if he'd expected this response. "He's more than capable, Shiranui. In fact, this mission coincides perfectly with his first practical assessment. Once I've briefed him on his objective regarding Nara Shikamaru he'll be sure to carry out every instruction right down to the last bloody letter."

"Why?"

"Because I'll fail him if he doesn't."

Genma smirked at the blunt response. "You'd be doing him a favour."

"Genma," Homura growled, grey brows set in their penal 'v'.

Ibiki only chuckled, a deep rumble at the back of his throat. "Not this one. He wants it bad. If he screws up here, it'll be more than the mission at stake. He'll forfeit ever finding a position in the black ops." He paused here, looked over. "As you know, ANBU doesn't give second chances."

"And neither do we," Koharu reminded, her gaze sharp on Genma. After some deliberation she continued, "Now. Tsunade-sama will suspect nothing as this ANBU candidate is already participating in the mission."

Homura nodded. "No one will be aware of the candidate's hidden agenda. Once the team have entered Kusagakure he'll be under covert orders to recall Shikamaru from the mission should any complications present themselves."

"Complications…" Genma muttered beneath his breath, glancing between the two councillors. "And if this candidate can't handle the…" he left the appropriate pause to illustrate the disdain so evident in his voice. "Complications."

"In that case, we will require ROOT's assistance to detain Shikamaru," Homura explained, frowning at the likelihood. "Of course, that will be a contingency plan. One that I doubt we'll need to fall back on where Shikamaru is concerned."

"Unlike the last time," Koharu said, her eyes slicing across to Genma, the unspoken accusation ringing loud in the silence that followed.

Ibiki frowned and pinched his lips between his steepled fingers, dark eyes slanting across to measure the Shiranui's reaction.

Nothing.

Pokerfaced, Genma stared straight back at the councillor. Eviscerated by the words, he gave no reaction at all to the acute sense of shame slicing like a tantō across his gut, a metaphorical hara-kiri playing out in body, soul, mind. But not heart. They'd ripped that out of him two years ago.

Koharu seemed pleased. "That's better," she said.

"We'll adjourn here," Homura concluded, leaning back and closing his eyes as if he could finally rest easy. "All that's left is for our candidate to be briefed. Ibiki has already assigned him a codename."

On cue, Ibiki plucked out a slim manila folder from his coat, slapped it onto the desk and spun it round to display the operative's name: SHIRATAKA.

White Hawk.

Genma looked askance, a dark brow drawing up.

Ibiki sat back. Gone was the sharp ruthless smile, replaced instead by a grim expression of blunt finality. "Hyūga Neji."


He traced the scars…

First the top one, then the bottom, skimming callused fingers along rugged scar tissue, following the path Yoshino's lips had taken.

"Remind me…"

Shikaku stared into his mug and swirled the coffee until it spiralled into a vortex as dark as the shadows in his mind. He could sense the chakra churning, the mass so thick, so opaque, so concentrated, that no light, no sentience, no memory could penetrate it. No sense of depth or dimension in this darkness. It remained as fathomless as the unseen matter of the universe…working its unseen laws, an ever-present gravity pulling at his soul.

"Remind me…"

She hadn't. She'd helped him to forget, leading him back from any lanes that led to memory, away from dead-end roads and paths of no return…

A flutter of wings outside the window. The shrill kee of Shikamaru's resident stalker.

And then something else.

Shikaku stopped stirring his coffee, dark eyes drifting up at the sound of phantom noise down the hallway. Faint and barely detectable. But Shikaku's ears were well-trained and long accustomed to the language of the house; from the groan of timbers to the whisper of shoji, from the creak of boards tp the hiss of ductworks…right down to the barest sigh of a window slipping shut.

There you are.

The kid had seen the break, made the entry.

Shikaku knew because he'd planned it that way.

Having let Yoshino do her usual lockdown of the house, the elder Nara had decided to cut his son some slack and leave a window open, thus saving Shikamaru from having to knock, saving himself from having to answer and saving them both from a fuming Yoshino.

He waited thirty minutes before approaching Shikamaru's room.

Standing in the doorway, arms loosely folded, Shikaku leaned into the frame, his dark gaze roaming the room in a cursory scan before his attention swung back to the figure sprawled across the bed.

The gravity in his soul pulled hard on his heart.

Shikamaru had collapsed atop the bed, still fully dressed – bar his sandals. Shikaku's lips twitched weakly, his sharply chiselled features softening a little. He slipped into the room, a shadow against the wall, keeping distance as he moved, orbiting the most precious thing at the centre of his world…his world...a private world…one that existed parallel to the world that all shinobi were forced to walk in, live in…die in.

We do what we have to until the end.

He needed to believe that.

He paused beside Shikamaru's bed, studied his son's sleeping face, searched for the lost traces of a child hidden in the sharp grooves and strong angles. He found only shadows, sunk deep in hollow cheeks and narrow lines. Maturity, age, strain. How long had that child been gone? How long had he closed his eyes to the change? How long had he ignored the inevitability, the cruel thief of time?

"Tell me you never see him this way."

"No. I don't."

"You don't…"

"I can't."

Closing his eyes, Shikaku pulled a long breath through his nose, held it hard in the back of his throat. He turned his head aside, eyes slipping open to settle on a picture frame that occupied the low bedside table.

Team 10.

Team Asuma.

Shikaku's breath left him in a rustle. Darting a quick glance at Shikamaru, listening to the deep and even breathing, the elder Nara waited a few beats before moving to lift the picture frame. Asuma, hunched over the genin trio, demonstrating patience for the camera with a half-smile canting his lips, a hint of teeth that might've been grit around the cigarette attached to his mouth.

Shikaku tilted his head, his brow scrunched slightly, warring between sadness and a smile.

"I think I envied him sometimes. Worried he was closer to my kid than I was. That's a different kind of bond."

Yes, it was. But Inoichi's fear of being usurped as a father had never really entered Shikaku's mind. Granted, Asuma's closeness to the kids had meant he'd assumed a position that might've challenged the parental relationships. Only that hadn't happened. Not once. He couldn't say why. Mutual respect for boundaries and the bonds that marked them? Shikaku hadn't thought to question it. Was glad he never had. Trusted in its ability to work. Had trusted it implicitly. Had trusted Asuma implicitly. Knew in his gut that it'd been the right call.

Thank you…

Grazing his thumb along the glass, he cast his gaze from sensei to students before his attention fixed solely on the image of his son – frozen at twelve, happy, smiling, maybe with a hint of looking a little harassed…on the verge of entering a world where casting shadows would become far more than puppet-play on the walls.

An acute sense of sadness seized Shikaku's chest, followed by the image of a toddler with soft sleepy eyes, an 8-year-old kid reluctant to hold his hand and a young man struggling through the vicissitudes and never-ending violence of shinobi life…

"Dammit! I don't need you to step in. Don't treat me like a kid!"

"You are a kid. You're my kid."

He recalled the shocked and almost stricken look on his son's face, mirroring the confusion and the hurt he'd seen shining in Yoshino's eyes…

"Remind me what you saw when he came back from that mission…because I saw this child…"

Shikaku's brow creased softly, fingers tightening on the frame.

"My child! Your SON, Shikaku! Out there I can't protect him! Out there I force myself to remember he's a shinobi but HERE he is my SON! OUR son!"

Cutting the memory off with a tight snag of breath, Shikaku leaned down and set the picture frame back in its spot, his hand resting heavy on the frame. His touch lingered, long seconds passing until his fingers drifted down – stopped again – and hovered above the table…

He looked down at his son…

A heart-breaking hesitation…

And then Shikaku reached across, brushed a tender stroke across Shikamaru's gently furrowed brow, smoothing his thumb over the line, trying to ease away the worry like he'd done when Shikamaru had been a child.

Seems the most I can ever do for you, son, is play Shogi…

Shikamaru's nose crinkled a little at the touch, relaxed a heartbeat later, his expression smoothing out, easing into something close to peaceful. Shikaku let out the breath he'd been holding, tapped his brow to the pillow close to Shikamaru's head before drawing away.

Turning to leave, he cast one last look at the picture frame, lips crooked in the fainted of smiles. "Hear you me, Asuma," Shikaku whispered, his hoarse tones gentled by the warmth that came shining through the shadows in his eyes. "Watch over my boy, until I find a way."

A way to teach his son how to walk through the shadows, without leaving him scarred.

- END -


To Be Continued in UNDER THESE SCARS

Glossary;
Shinjūdepending on the kanji used it has two meanings; 1) divine beast 2) double suicide (often committed by lovers who cannot be together). Both meanings will be relevant in UtS.
Kaika – fire of mysterious or suspicious origin (similar meaning to Shiranui)
Shuken – means sovereign (yes, cookies for those who make the connection), dominion, supremacy
Kinjutsu – forbidden jutsu

A/N: And thus, the curtain closes. My dear Readers, I hope you've enjoyed the show. I appreciate any and all thoughts that you wish to share. I will comb this through again for typos during the week, just wanted to get it up and posted for you guys. As with OtC, I try to use the epilogues to tie up threads whilst also leaving some hanging for future instalments. So yes, more questions raised but hopefully some answers given too with this splurge of plot. Any questions etc. you can reach me here on ffnet or over on tumblr or dArt.

Reviewers, I thank you for having given me the motivation to direct this story and for having welcomed me back to the fanfiction forum! Your words will remain with me, many of them kept close to my heart. I thank each of you.

UtS: As for when the future instalment Under These Scars will appear, I would be a fool to set a date. I honestly do not know. Sadly but rightly so, it doesn't pay to write fanfiction and unfortunately, given the crazy stupid amount of time, blood, sweat and loss of sleep that I invest in writing BtB fics, I cannot afford to launch into another instalment any time soon. As always, any and all information about future fics will be posted on my profile here and in more detail on my dArt BtB homepage. I can only say it will be at some point in the future – when, depends on how well I progress and how successfully I launch my own works, which brings me onto…

HIATUS: It is with a gush of withheld breath and excitement that I return now to my original works. I will never have words enough to thank those of you who are supporting me here. I appreciate you so much. My heart runneth over! I can't wait to bring you stories and worlds and wild rides to boot.

Catch you the next time around, my dears…

Until then, keep it Raw and keep it Real – with that healthy dollop of stupid simple.

~ Rayne