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: UNDER THESE SCARS
Pairings: ShikaNeji/NejiShika, Shikaku/Yoshino, Kakashi/Genma
Rating: M / R (language, themes, violence etc.)
Summary: Fate's changed the game but it's not over between the players. With Kusagakure's mission as the final round, Neji's agenda is finding his freedom. Shikamaru's agenda is forgetting his fear. But when an old and unfinished game threatens to pull Shikamaru back into the shadows of his past, Neji must make an impossible choice; his own destiny or Shikamaru's darkness. NejiShika, ShikaNeji [SEQUEL to Break to Breathe]
Timeline: Shippuden. Neji and Shikamaru aged 17-18 (post-Hidan and Kakuzu arc and pre-Invasion of Pain arc) One week after the events in REQUIEM.
UNDER THESE SCARS
by Okami Rayne
What the hell was I thinking?
Not the first time Shikamaru had asked himself that question. And not the first time it had gone unanswered. No doubt about it though; it wasn't thinking that'd led him repeatedly into the forests this past week. It wasn't thinking that'd redirected him from friends and family…bringing him to stand at a grave belonging to a monster, rather than the grave belonging to his sensei.
I can't come to you with this, Asuma…
Not then, when it mattered, and sure as hell not now, when it was much too late. Shikamaru knew what that made him, both then and now…but he'd rather risk being a coward than risk being crazy.
Or risk being something worse than both…and if that makes me a gutless bastard, then I'm okay with that. I have to be.
Sure. He just couldn't admit that standing over Asuma's headstone.
Sighing, Shikamaru reached into his pocket. A metallic chink of a spring toggle, a brief lick of heat. Smoke puffed up and a snapping lid killed the flame. Shikamaru stroked his thumb over a small groove denting his sensei's lighter. A comforting and familiar weight…that'd never felt heavier in his hand.
"I'm counting on you, Shikamaru…"
"I know…" he murmured, smoke rolling on the words.
But Asuma wasn't the only ghost passing through the corridors in his mind. In the resounding emptiness of the moment, filled only by the soft morning twitter of birdsong and the routine snuffle of deer sifting through the loam, a woman's voice echoed up from Shikamaru's memories; her words far more haunting than at the time he'd first heard them.
"I've learned that we can stand in the light as much as we want…hoping that it will purify and burn away the mistakes we've made…But the truth is, it's only when we stand in the light that we cast our darkest shadow. We are forced to face it…and that darkness is as inescapable as the truth of who and what we are."
Tsubasa Kitori. Hanegakure. Neji. The priorities and people that'd dragged him ten steps back when he'd only ever been one step ahead in a never-ending race to forget.
Forget what I can't even remember…
Irony. Bitter as ever and souring fast in Shikamaru's gut.
"If it's over and done with then why are you still so scared?"
Shikamaru stiffened, heard Asuma's deep tones falling beneath the rising female whisper.
"Our fate is as fixed as our shadow. It cannot be removed from us, no matter what shade of light we place ourselves under. The shadow remains."
Shikamaru pocketed the lighter, pressed his chapped lips around the end of the cigarette slotted between his fingers and took a slow pull, shuttering his eyes. To think, he'd dismissed Kitori's words as fatalistic babble – the nattering of a victim too weak to work for a future not dictated by the past.
I won't live that way. I made that choice two years ago, didn't I?
More silence in place of an answer. Shikamaru felt that sharp hitch in his sternum, a nauseating question-mark hooked on his ribs. It almost reeled him in, but he was quick to catch it this time. Felt stronger for that sad little victory. He let out a breath, watched the smoke spiral over Hidan's grave like smoke from a joss stick. The thought of remembrance and prayer left him cold.
Hn. Not a chance in hell…
Hell. The place Hidan would burn one day, when his slowly dying body finally gave out. One day. But not today. Or any small number of tomorrows. Shikamaru hadn't planned it that way. This Akatsuki monster didn't get to check out fast. He didn't get the swift pardon of leaving this world. He got the punishment of lasting in it. Let the bastard learn to hate his devil-given immortality. Let him rot in an agonising and interminable end, knowing that all he could hope for was a drawn-out death and incremental decay…
You'll go slow…suffering…silently screaming…
A warm tickle at the revengeful thought, followed by a cold skitter of conscience. Shikamaru's shoulders stiffened against the chill, eyes narrowing.
No. I'm not sorry.
Never sorry. There was no room for shame here. What the hell kind of purpose would that serve? None whatsoever. Funny how that logic left him feeling even colder.
"Shit," Shikamaru growled.
He shifted his weight between his feet, flicked the mostly ash-eaten cigarette onto the grave, grey flakes and dying embers peppering the rubble. He hadn't come here to think about Hidan's fate. He'd come here to dig up those parts of himself he'd used to destroy the bastard…and to bury those parts of himself that Neji had moved around just days before.
And AGAIN…what the hell was I thinking?
Shikamaru pressed his eyes shut.
Crazy, how Neji could still rearrange him that way. God-damned cruel, how the Hyūga could still get so deep under his skin, strip-mining his senses, excavating feelings better best forgotten and better left buried…lest he get possessed by a dangerous and reckless passion that left him unguarded, powerless and prey to fuck knows what if he ever let Neji…
Let Neji what?
Shikamaru's eyes snapped open as his mind snapped shut on the thought.
Crazier still, how those lethal Hyūga eyes had become so good at penetrating scar tissue and shadow, boring right down into the raw bloody magma of everything Shikamaru needed to keep buried beneath stone-cold logic and reinforced layers of better judgement.
Oh yeah? Where was better judgement the other night?
Hands down, he'd started it the last time. Let the landslide of lust and longing take him before his brain and better judgement could get a toehold. As for Neji? He'd had no traction whatsoever. Drugged and probably thinking he was dreaming, he'd gone down under that landslide because he hadn't known up from down at the time.
Dropping his brow, Shikamaru dug the heels of his hands into his eye-sockets, pressed hard until colours fizzed and folded into black. He shook his head, choked out a bitter laugh. Shit, what a mess. A massive mess he'd aimed to sweep under a massive rug of denial. It might've worked, if Neji's words about his father didn't keep pulling said rug out from under his feet.
"What I did to you."
Dread slithered through Shikamaru. He gripped it before it could worm any further, felt it wreathing in his mental fingers. He wrestled with the stupid emotion and beat it back with logic; Neji's words were just illogical ramblings brought on by opium-induced paranoia. Shikamaru's father had never said anything or done anything to suggest that he knew what'd happened that night. And theoretically, even if his old man did know – which he didn't – better that he thought his son and Hyūga Neji had seriously fought and hated each other for a while rather than…
Than what? Than know about this…this THING between us…that I just can't…
Can't what? Run away from? Walk away from? Stay away from?
Shikamaru raked his fingers over his scalp, eyes squeezed shut.
Just one fucking kiss…and you decimate me, Hyūga…
Neither of them could win this game. And if they kept on playing it didn't take two alleged geniuses to guess the stupid simple outcome. Shikamaru knew it as surely as he'd always known it…right from the first kiss…and ever since the last…
They were both destined to lose to each other.
God but I know it. I know it in my gut…
Which made Hyūga Neji more dangerous to Shikamaru's world than the denial he'd used to build it.
And knowing that about you…about what you do to me…still tears me up…
"Then our scores are even, Shikamaru. Because feeling as I do about you still breaks me apart."
Breath snagging hard, Shikamaru's legs folded beneath the weight of those words and he sank into a crouch to keep from going to his knees. Good. Let his weakness bring him closer to his strength. Let his fall with Neji bring him closer to the ground, closer to the grave he needed to bury everything in and closer to a game he at least had a hope in hell of winning…not for his sake, but for the sake of promises and people too precious to lose.
"I'm counting on you…Shikamaru…"
"I know…" he breathed again. "I know…"
Yes. He did know. He knew how to do this. Knew he could find the calm and calculated pieces he'd arranged inside himself when he'd set out with Kakashi and his Team to play the game and win it – despite the grief, despite the guilt, despite the godforsaken sense of having lost what mattered most.
Shikamaru's eyes hardened, heartbeat heavy in his throat.
I may be a coward and I may have come close to crazy…but I will protect my comrades…and the children of this village…whatever the cost…
Strength came. Shikamaru felt it. It filled him from the feet up, as if the blood of his sensei's killer was water in his roots, as if his revenge, his cold rational revenge, had created some reservoir of power to draw on.
This clarity, this fresh perspective…was what he'd come for.
Breathing deep and slow, Shikamaru stood with an ease that defied the effort it had taken not to crumble just moments before. There was a stillness about him as he lit up another cigarette, taking his time to watch the flame dance before he killed it, letting the smoke curl high before he pulled on it, the cigarette's ember glow burning deep in his eyes.
I won't fail anyone else the way I failed you. I promise.
No more second-guessing strategy. No more trusting impulse and instinct. He'd tried to do that a week ago by charging headlong into a critical situation with those crazy-dangerous chimaeras.
For more reasons than the glaringly obvious, at least where Neji was concerned. Funny how Shikamaru felt all the more foolish now, knowing that he hadn't had to search that far or dig that deep to find the reassurance he'd been looking for. This grave, this unholy ground beneath his feet, was all the validation and all the vindication he'd ever need to know that he could do what needed to be done. It was just like Neji had said, stupid simple and subtle as a knife.
"…for the sake of the mission, I trust you'll do whatever's necessary."
Shikamaru's jaw ticked, a jet of smoke streaming from his nose. "It's never just about the mission."
He had a deeper incentive. A motive more pressing than orders and obligations. He had an oath. He'd sworn a promise…and losing Asuma had sealed it forever in his heart.
And I'll bury anything that gets in the way of that promise.
Including the past and all its unnamed phantoms. Phantoms like the one he'd killed two years ago, a faded face in the back of his mind, buried six feet deeper than the dying and the dead.
"Is it dead?"
"Smells dead. Looks dead."
"Well its head ain't attached to its body. But then I kinda wonder that about you sometimes, lovebird."
"Kiba," Neji cautioned through the headset, his deep voice cutting short the beginnings of a verbal sparring. "Sitrep. Now."
Kiba smirked at Naruto's gesticulated insult and smoothed a palm over his bloody jacket, pausing at his shoulder. He gripped the joint, rotating with a crunch of muscle. "Got that weird-smellin' root that Ino wanted. The dino-birds are down. Decapitation works just fine on them. But uh…" He paused and looked across at the huge insect head that Naruto was kicking between each foot, its massive compact eyes glistening like obsidian discs in the sunlight. Kiba's nose crinkled in disgust as the giant mandibles wiggled and clicked. "Dunno where the cockroach-thing scuttled off to. But he left his big ugly head behind."
"Shino and Sai are on it," Neji dismissed. "Your shoulder?"
Kiba arched a brow and glanced sidelong at his right ear as if the radio signal had got garbled. "You worried about me, Highness? Gee, I feel all warm inside."
An icy silence down the line.
Naruto stopped playing ball with the bug-head and looked up, scratching at the blood crusted at his jaw. "Neji, where's Sakura? Is she ok?"
"Better than," Sakura's voice chirped in their ears. "Tenten tested out Shikamaru's theory. He was right. The stinger-cat poison is thick enough to coat weapons. And Ino's antivenin works perfectly."
"Like a charm," Tenten said. "I'm going to check in with Chōji this afternoon. See if his clan worked out how to graft that scorpion carapace into armour."
Kiba whistled. "Neat stuff. Team 10 are makin' us look bad."
"Then get ready to step up, Inuzuka," came Neji's curt response. "All units exit the Training Grounds and ensure you check in with Shino, even if you feel fine. The last thing we need is an infestation."
"Ugh." Naruto grumbled, scratching at his throat in reflex paranoia. "Vampire fleas…that's so messed up…"
"Do not underestimate the brilliance of these insects," Shino's voice skittered over the line, carrying an irritated buzz at such blatant disrespect. "Take for instance the cockroach hybrid you and Kiba thoughtlessly decapitated. It will survive for over a week, even without its head."
"Thoughtlessly decapitated?" Kiba scoffed, letting the information roll over him – but not the insult. "Man, we put some serious strategy into that. Shikamaru woulda been proud."
"Shikamaru…" Shino uttered the name. Just as selectively as his dog-nin teammate, the bug-user made a beeline for any perceived offense. "Shikamaru should have come to me to remove the tics. Why? Because the sterilised samples collected at the hospital died soon after they were extracted. Once again, I was overlooked."
"A mistake rectified by your assignment to this mission, Shino," Neji said, dissolving the argument in an instant. "Now, everyone regroup as planned. Except for you, Kiba."
The dog-nin paused in a patch of speckled sunshine, feeling like he'd just stepped on a landmine. A harassed sigh whistled through his nose, but he tried for a joke. "What? I get a timeout in the naughty corner?"
"Ino," Neji said.
"What about her?"
"Deliver that root to her immediately and bring her up to speed on the effectiveness of the antivenin."
Kiba's amusement guttered out on a growl. "I ain't your lapdog, Neji."
A mock-thoughtful hum rumbled in Kiba's ear before Neji's voice took on a tone of subtle innocence that was way too condescending to be believed. "I'd send someone else to sniff her out, but as I recall, you have an excellent grasp on her scent."
Kiba went rigid. His gaze cut across to Naruto. The Uzumaki appeared oblivious, his attention back on the twitching bug-head. Apparently Neji had adjusted the radio feed to tap Kiba's mic alone.
A tiny bead of sweat trickled down Kiba's temple. He recovered on a snort, rolling his shoulder a couple of times. "You know I got a real good grasp of your scent too, Highness. Ranks in the sour department."
"And ask her to take a look at your shoulder," Neji went on, his voice gliding back into its neutral no-nonsense manner. "You haven't been wearing that shoulder-support and you refused the aftercare appointments."
"The fuck? You been stalkin' me or—?"
"Get it fixed, Kiba. And do it fast."
Teeth bared, Kiba sniffed the air and scanned the tree-line, not appreciating that he'd fallen prey to the Byakugan outside the battlefield. It rubbed hard against his predator/prey paradigm and the role he occupied in it. "Tch. Spare me the false concern. It's not like it stopped you from signing me up for these little test-runs at the crack-of-fucking-dawn, did it?"
"You aren't my concern, Inuzuka. The mission is. By default, that includes your ability to function at optimum level."
"Tell it to the two dead dino-birds and the headless bedbug. Oh yeah, and that big pansy plant. I tore this shit up. And I didn't end up high on flower-juice with my doped-up ass bouncing off the hospital walls."
No response but for the crackle of static, a sound as tension filled as ice beginning to crack. Kiba smirked, tried to picture the look on Neji's face and decided he needed a bit more feedback to get imaginative. The dog-nin took a breath, ready to throw a little oil on the fire. Neji beat him to it – with a wet blanket of indifference.
"Don't get cocky," Neji cautioned, sounding so far from slighted that Kiba's mouth dropped down a little in disappointment. "Our intel on these creatures is vague and insufficient. Don't take this training session as an indication of what we might come up against."
"Whoa. That's real encouragin', Neji. You and Shikamaru could write a book on motivational speeches and how not to do them."
Neji's displeasure whispered down the line like a chill breeze, but again, the anticipated conflict didn't come. "I understand that Akamaru's been vetted and cleared from quarantine. Is this correct?"
While any other evasion might've had Kiba's teeth gnashing, the mention of Akamaru picked up his spirits and pulled out a smile. "Yeah. Due to pick him up later today. You put Akamaru back in the game and you'll get your optimum level performance."
"I'd expect nothing less."
So far as expectation went, Kiba sure as hell hadn't expected that. Angling his gaze as if he could pin the tiny earpiece with a suspicious squint, the dog-nin scouted around Neji's words for buried sarcasm. He couldn't detect any. Wasn't sure what he felt about that – only knew that it wasn't warm or tingly. Ever since the Hyūga had gone all 360 on him, Kiba's gut had been in a tug of war fight between irritation and uncertainty.
I hate that…
Hated it more for the fact that Neji's leaf-turning experience wasn't something he could be justifiably pissed about. Anyone else would've seen it as progress. A good thing. Maybe even a great thing. Anyone else would've welcomed it. But this strange ground that Neji's recent behaviour had knocked them onto felt uncomfortable. Wrong. Phony. Not good. Not great. And not in any way welcome.
Smells bad to me…
And screw what anyone else thought. Kiba hadn't done anything or said anything that suggested he was ready or willing to give up their longstanding animosity towards each other. And even if he had foreseen a ceasefire at some point in the future, he hadn't counted on that ceasefire happening without his participation – or permission. And he sure as shit hadn't expected it to happen overnight.
That night. Shikamaru's birthday…
That's when the rug of conflict stretched between Kiba and Neji had been ripped out from under the dog-nin's feet. And hell, he'd liked that rug. That rug had held familiar designs of aggression and patterns of defensiveness that made a mockery of Neji's satin-smooth and strait-laced image.
You ain't all that together, Hyūga. No one is.
Neji could hide all he wanted but Kiba knew there was an animal in there, lurking behind the cool wall of civility. He'd seen it attack Hinata. Seen it attack Shikamaru. Didn't trust it. Wouldn't trust it until he'd cornered it and confronted it. They'd come close in Hanegakure, but not close enough. And Neji's bullshit attempt to be the 'better man' wasn't fooling the dog-nin. Not for a second. That itchy suspicion was under his skin and had been for a while. But Neji kept declawing him every time he attempted to scratch at it and get to the source.
Tch. I ain't that easy to shake.
Apparently, neither was Neji.
Kiba's frown deepened, lips tight and jaw tense, tattoo-slashes hollowing and hardening his features into a rare expression of brooding.
"Kiba?" Naruto called, brow crinkled. "You okay?"
Kiba's head came up. He'd have shrugged, if it didn't hurt like a bitch. He cracked his neck instead, found a little relief and snorted. "Yeah, waiting for a round of applause I ain't gonna get."
Naruto patted his belly. "Hey, dinner is on Neji, remember? That's thanks enough."
"Yeah, gonna order the priciest steak I can get. Burn a hole in Hyūga's wallet."
If Neji was listening he offered no response.
Aware that he was being watched, Kiba flicked a glance at the treeline from beneath his lashes then trailed after Naruto. Restlessness followed a step behind.
Growling, he shucked his blood-spattered jacket, trying to ignore the itch beneath his skin. He knew it wasn't dino-bird's vampire fleas…even those creepy little bugs didn't burrow that deep. Or itch this bad.
Guess it's just a feelin'…
And he never questioned those. Just didn't have any useful answers – which was about as annoying as playing messenger boy. At the thought of his next destination his steps began to drag. He searched for a distraction, failed to find anything entertaining enough to hold his attention and blurted the next thing that came to mind. "Hey, Neji. You and Shikamaru gonna be joining us on this little dinner-date or what?"
Neji was silent a moment. "No."
"Look at that. It took you a whole three seconds to bail on your underlings."
"I can't speak for Shikamaru."
Kiba's eyes narrowed a little. "You ain't speaking for yourself either, but hey, guess you never do."
"Rank is a wonderful thing, Inuzuka."
"Yeah, a chain around my neck. Bet you like that chain though. Can't imagine you cutting loose."
"I'm cutting this line, Kiba."
Kiba wheeled around in mock horror, walking backwards to keep pace behind Naruto, his eyes on the treeline. He shook his head. "Only thing you cut are corners. Every chance you get. You'll show when it suits, play the 'proper' social part and then piss off outta the blue."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Even at Shikamaru and Ino's birthday party. And now this little thing you got lined up. Paying for shit ain't the same as being present, Neji."
"I'd have thought you'd be happy at my absence, Inuzuka."
"That's not the point."
"You have a point?"
"Bite me. You just don't get it."
"And neither do you. My time is not my own right now."
"What? You sign your social life away when you became a Jōnin?"
"Hn. I wonder."
Maybe it was the tight way that Neji said it, or maybe it was just another feeling, but Kiba didn't push it any further. Wanted to. But didn't. "Yeah?" the dog-nin huffed, turning his back on the white eyes. "Well aren't you all cloak-and-dagger?"
"When necessary," Neji said, cutting the line.
"Yeah," Kiba muttered into the static, yanking the bud out of his ear. "I'm getting that."
The bright topographic map spread atop Tsunade's desk brought to mind another map; larger, yellowed with age and peeling off the walls, its crinkled body hanging on by threads of grimy tape – and the razor steel of a senbon.
Kakashi sighed mentally.
Let it go.
He had. Well, if letting it go meant letting it lie.
Like a sleeping dog…
Wasn't that how Asuma had phrased it? And wasn't the sudden ache in his chest warning enough not to start thinking along those lines, let alone start walking them? Kakashi's right hand slid into his pocket, fingers stroking across the senbon slotted there until he felt the sharp tip slice into the whorls of his thumb. A cold sting and warm trickle.
Tsunade's voice brought him back. "Tell me again, Kakashi. Why Hyūga Neji?"
Kakashi's grey eye drifted up, along with his shoulders. "I can't think of anyone better suited to take my place on this mission."
The noncommittal shrug – and words – had Tsunade's gaze swinging up. And that gaze packed one hell of a punch. While being hit with the Hokage's scrutiny was preferable to being hit with her fist, Kakashi felt a little winded all the same. What made it all the more moronic was that he knew how to roll with these punches – better yet, he knew how to avoid getting hit altogether.
But lately there was a strange and unseen fist pounding at his chest, beating the air from his lungs. Couple that fist with Tsunade's ferocity and it was like playing dodge-ball with Rasengans. To his credit and hard-earned experience, Kakashi held steady under her scrutiny until he sensed suspicion slipping into a deep and considering silence. It weighed down on the lightness of his answer. Was she waiting for a better one?
Kakashi tucked his chin back, brows arched in innocent query. "You disagree, Hokage-sama?"
A faint smile tucked up one corner of Tsunade's mouth, but those amber eyes remained grave. "I don't disagree. And I don't doubt Hyūga Neji's ability insofar as this mission is concerned."
"Insofar as this mission…" Kakashi echoed, drawing out the 'this'. He wasn't psychic, but neither was he stupid – just unlucky. There was only one other avenue Tsunade could've been alluding to that had any connection or relevance to Kakashi and his reluctant involvement in Hyūga Neji's business. "You still have your doubts about his enrolment in ANBU?" he supplied, knowing that's what she wanted from him.
Brows furrowed, Tsunade folded her fingers together, elbows pinned atop the map. "I haven't spoken with Ibiki or Shikaku yet." Her gaze strayed over the room, out the window and across the village's sun-washed rooftops. "Hyūga politics is a messy business. When the Sandaime made ANBU a means of escape for the Branch family it didn't clean anything up…just swept it under the rug…"
Kakashi reserved comment, opting for the wiser tactic of watching, waiting…and peripherally wondering whether he'd cut a little too deep with the senbon. He tucked his thumb against his palm, blood slick between his fingers.
Tsunade sighed, steepled her index fingers and tapped them to her lips. "Neji sure is champing at the bit. Even all the A-Ranks he's been accumulating haven't taken the edge off his…" she searched for the word, "…enthusiasm."
Kakashi's brow sketched upward at the understatement. "And you're reluctant to address this 'enthusiasm'," he said, stating the obvious to speed things along.
Tsunade hesitated, searching for answers in his masked face. "Well?" she pushed. "All things considered, what do you think?"
"All things considered, I think it's none of my business."
Tsunade's brows flew up then crashed down over flashing amber eyes. She came forward on one elbow. "I made it your business when I brought you into my confidence regarding what I ordered Shikamaru to do in Hanegakure. I made it your business when I asked you to keep an eye on Neji. And I'm making it your business now to tell me whether you think he is irrefutably fit for ANBU or whether I should tell Shikaku to terminate his enrolment altogether."
Silence fell hard, left a dent in the room large enough to swallow the air.
Kakashi looked up at his fuming superior from beneath his tilted brow, the silver motes in his grey eye glinting like tiny needles. His voice came out cool and wooden as his expression. "I think that Hyūga Neji would make a fine ANBU operative, Tsunade-sama."
The flat delivery had Tsunade's face tightening with displeasure, leaving Kakashi to wonder just what the hell she wanted from him with regards to this Hyūga kid. God. The thought chilled him a little.
I'm still the wrong man to ask…
Maybe even the worst man where ANBU was concerned. He'd checked out of that circle of hell a long time ago. As Genma had so aptly put it, he'd cut and run. And somehow Hyūga Neji didn't strike him as the kind to bow out.
Or crawl out…
As Kakashi had done, dragging himself through trenches of red-tape and regret…
Yeah…leaving Genma behind.
He twisted the senbon in his pocket, dragged another stinging wet line across his skin.
"You say you think he's ready," Tsunade said, "And yet you've encouraged him at every turn to take assignments outside of this village rather than wait for Ibiki or Shikaku to make a move."
Taking a gamble and playing the dumb card, Kakashi blinked at her, demonstrating artless confusion. "As I mentioned at the time, he was collecting his credits. I saw no reason not to encourage him. ANBU have a quota in the A and S-Rank departments. Opportunities became available. Pointing him towards them seemed the expedient thing to do."
"Hn. Funny you should say that, considering I told him it was an opportunity I was putting in his path rather than obstacle. The truth is I wouldn't even have thought to assign him if you hadn't suggested it…" her sentence trickled off then gained new direction. "It makes me wonder…"
"I asked you to watch him, not encourage him. If that's even what you're doing."
"What else would I be doing, Hokage-sama?"
Tsunade sniffed, drew back in her seat to critically assess him – as if distance would grant her a clearer perspective. "Distracting him? Delaying him? Maybe you're even trying to redirect him."
Kakashi studied her for a long moment. "Do you want me to?"
Tsunade's expression pinched, as if she'd been caught out. Not giving Kakashi time to analyse her reaction she sliced her palm across the maps on her desk, snorting. "To think you've even gone so far this time as to assign him your place in Kusagakure's mission."
At the mention of his withdrawal from the mission, that invisible fist struck a vicious uppercut, halving the air in Kakashi's lungs. And out of nowhere – at least nowhere he cared to mentally venture – an inescapable need to justify himself sprang up.
Kakashi's shoulders tightened, his voice a little rough. "You know why I can't go..." Tsunade's eyes softened at those hoarse words and the rest of Kakashi's sentence lodged at the back of his throat. He couldn't cough it up, or swallow it down. Great. He shook his head and looked away, disgusted at his brain's sudden failure to continue a week's worth of exhausted acting.
Across the room, Tsunade's chair creaked. "Kakashi," she breathed his name on a sigh, her tone so close to soothing that Kakashi inwardly stiffened against the threat of its comfort. "I understand why you requested to be removed from the mission." A guilty pause. "Upon reflection I realise it was thoughtless of me to assign you. Not to mention politically foolish…" And then, so soft it almost went unheard, "And far too personal."
Kakashi kept his focus on the window, gazing at his reflection. He blinked slowly and pretended not to hear.
Tsunade turned her head to follow his gaze, blonde strands swishing. "Perhaps I made the same mistake when I involved you in this ANBU business with Neji."
And how revealing that was…both about the man he'd become and the man he used to be. Gazing at the silver-haired shinobi staring back at him in the glass, he wondered if perhaps those two facets – those two faces – of himself weren't so far removed from each other as he'd have liked them to be…despite the years, the distance…
It took a frightening amount of effort to keep his expression empty of the tension welling up inside. Kami, but it had been coming in waves lately. Ever since Asuma's funeral. Ever since that reckless night with Genma. Ever since Kakashi realised there was nothing he could do to put a dampener on it.
Nothing, hmn? Nothing left to lose. Nothing left to surrender…
Ah, but wasn't that the crux? Wasn't that the very reason he'd cut and run from ANBU all those years ago? He'd never been able to live by those rules – shame that it always took a friend's death or a comrade's darkness to remind him why.
"You're relieved of the order to keep an eye on Hyūga Neji," Tsunade informed, pulling his gaze away from the window. "Although I still suspect you had ulterior motives, putting him forward to head this mission."
Recovering all the tools of his bullshitting trade, Kakashi tipped his head to a sheepish angle and manufactured a smile that barely crinkled the corner of his visible eye. "Best to let him test the frying pan before leaping into the fire, hmn?"
Tsunade pursed her lips, clicked crimson-manicured nails against her teacup in a meditative jingle. "Well, something's definitely cooking in Kusagakure. And it doesn't smell right. Not by a long shot." She frowned at a hairline fracture in her teacup and glanced up sharply. "Have the chimaeras in the 44th Training Grounds been contained?"
Kakashi nodded an affirmative. "Nara Shikaku ordered several to be quarantined for research purposes. Same goes for the hybrid plants. While I haven't spoken directly to Inoichi, I've heard the Yamanaka are handling the botanical part of this mess. Any remaining chimaeras were either destroyed or detained for Neji's training sessions."
"Good. The sooner we wrap this up with Kusagakure the sooner we can concentrate our efforts on eliminating the Akatsuki and restoring the Fire Temple." Tsunade slotted the maps into their respective carrier-cases and scowled at the growing stack of papers piled like a haphazard Jenga tower by the side of her desk. "That'll be all, Kakashi."
Feeling more exonerated than excused, Kakashi bowed his head, body twisting in the same motion to exit the office. The door clicked shut behind him, the latch's soft 'click' as hair-raising as the trigger of a landmine. He didn't hang around for the imagined detonation and hastened his steps along the broad curve of the corridor, glancing down at the small bloodstain blotting his pocket. Silver brows pulled together.
And you put these in your mouth, Shiranui?
Well, it's not as if Genma's masochistic tendencies had ever surprised him. Once upon a long lost time ago, he'd sought the Shiranui out specifically for his strange and unhealthy attachments.
Driven by the thought, Kakashi took the emergency exit along the hallway and hopped up onto the railing that snaked along the narrow stairwell. A quick glance skyward and he back-flipped several feet into the air, alighting in a neat crouch atop the large open roof of the Hokage Mansion, startling a flock of pigeons into flight.
Feathers sailed on the breeze, silver-gold in the sunlight.
Surveying the open area to assure he was alone, Kakashi leapt back a pace, pulled his bloody hand from his pocket, made five quick seals and smacked his palm to the warm concrete. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
A spiral of black script.
A puff of chakra.
Pakkun snorted and frowned up at Kakashi from beneath several rolls of furry wrinkles. When this elicited nothing but an arched brow from the copy-nin, Pakkun huffed, promptly sat – and licked his balls.
Kakashi sighed. "Lovely."
"That's all the love you'll get for summoning me on my day off."
"Why keep a dog and bark yourself?" Kakashi quipped, tilting his head in mock speculation.
"Why so much blood?"
Kakashi blinked. "What?"
The dog stood up, studied the bloody handprint he'd been sitting on and cocked his head up at Kakashi, employing that adorable head-tilt that'd melted mankind's heart since the dawn of domestication. At least, it would've been adorable, had the accompanying frown not rolled down over the pug's twitching nose like a thunderhead.
"Kakashi…" Pakkun grumbled, concern rolling somewhere beneath the growl.
Kakashi stiffened against the sound. It brought to mind the rumbling whines and whimpers that'd surrounded him the night he'd howled down the moon, lashing out at his ninken with all the ferocity of a feral wolf.
They'd been wary around him ever since.
Frowning softly, Kakashi reached out with his unbloodied hand and scratched Pakkun behind the ear with such unguarded affection it startled the dog into a little backward jiggle. Realising his slip, Kakashi pulled his hand back and yanked his defences up, sitting back on his haunches.
Pakkun made to come forward, but Kakashi's cool gaze stayed him.
The moment had passed.
The dog sat, head ducked, waiting with sudden obedience.
Kakashi reached into his flak jacket, plucked out a small fuchsia pill and placed it a twitch away from Pakkun's paws. Curious, the pug sniffed at it, tiny pink tongue darting out in a tentative lick – a second later the small head tucked back, dark eyes grave beneath the puckered frown.
"This is heavy stuff, Kakashi."
The copy-nin nodded slowly. "Find me the dealer."
"You will find out where Dr Mushi has been and you will report back to us immediately. Do you understand?"
You say jump…I say…
Nothing. He certainly never had to ask how high. He knew the sky was the limit. One of the many reasons he didn't like flying too close to the ground. Come to think of it, he could've done with a sweet chemical rush right about now. Grunting, Genma thumbed the small fuchsia pill in his pocket, spent another moment grinding steel and tasting metal.
Get up and get on.
He got to it, pushing away from the window and the jarring crack of the panel-track blinds. They swayed stiffly in the breeze, bars of sunlight cutting through the pale slats like torch beams, penetrating a large room cloaked in soft purple shadows.
Dr. Mushi's office.
Genma surveyed the familiar layout, moving at a half-crouch around the large oak table, his gloved fingers stroking over ornate corners before sliding beneath grooves in the wood, rooting out old electronic recording devices and planting new ones.
An honest day's work.
What a fucking joke.
As his hands worked, his gaze took a different route, scanning the office in its shadowy repose. A dark lattice coffee-table occupied the central space, its oval face boxed in by two broad horseshoe armchairs. Genma always took the seat facing the door, figured it was best to be predictable. Also, he knew better than to select the low coffee-coloured couch. Genma's shoulders tightened on reflex, remembering the first time he'd sank down into that ugly overstuffed monstrosity, its plush cushy wadding closing in around him with all the reassurance of a straitjacket – or four-padded walls. When asked if he was comfortable he'd wanted to scream until all the fibres in his body came apart. Obviously hadn't done that because…
"I've got nothing I want to say."
"And that, Genma, still says something."
Immediately, he became aware of the anticipatory silence of the room, like there was a recorder still ticking away somewhere – other than the ones he'd planted, of course. Just old suspicions dying hard, even if he wasn't sat in the chair. Genma knew Mushi recorded their sessions, also knew the shrink kept those tapes stashed behind one of the three woodblock prints dominating the left side of the office.
Not where I need to be.
He looked right. This side of the office, recently installed, housed a set of warm elm sliding panels, their smooth lacquered surfaces interlocked to disguise rows of filing cabinets built into the walls.
The elegant keyholes winked tauntingly at him.
Genma looked at the antique clock mounted on the wall, rolled his senbon to the far corner of his mouth and estimated how many locks he could pick in the next five minutes. A second glance at the new fancy panels and he factored in the time it would take to work around any potential chakra seals.
That's a bit much. Not everyone's as paranoid as you.
Ah. Paranoid. He remembered that word – or more accurately its clinical abbreviation – penned in capital letters and diagnostic code on his report.
SHIRANUI GENMA: Axis II: 301.0 PPD. Paranoid personality disorder.
A textbook case given that he continued to display 'a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others, such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent.'
Dr. Mushi called it being paranoid.
Genma called it being a ninja.
But then, the good doctor also believed Genma had a schizoid personality disorder. Comforting to know you're a certifiable head-case when your body's being cannibalised by an overstuffed couch and your brain is breakfast on a shiny surgical plate.
Genma grit his teeth.
Quit wasting time.
He attached the last electronic bug, straightened up and made to round the desk. Something he'd long avoided looking at caught his attention, a glimmer of light out the corner of his eye. He paused, went rigid against the impulse, but turned back to look at it. The Laughing Buddha ornament, a permanent fixture to the left of Mushi's desk, smiled up at him, a golden ray bouncing off its shiny bronze belly. The reflected light struck Genma's eyes, chased a strobe flicker of memory across his mind.
"Laughing Buddha, huh? The fuck's he so happy about?"
"Rub his belly."
"Pretty sure that counts as desecrating a statue, Asuma."
"Depends what you're rubbing it with."
"And you call yourself a Buddhist."
"On occasion. And that's Budai, not Buddha."
"Whatever you say."
"I say rub the belly. Kakashi did it."
"Did he use his hands?"
"You're passing up on good luck, Shiranui."
"Yeah? Pretty sure you said luck was a lady."
"On occasion. And sometimes she's a big bald guy with a shit-eating grin."
A sobering sting as the senbon sliced into his gums; but the wound wasn't where he hurt. Wasn't where he bled.
Snarling, Genma slammed the painful memory back into its grave...all rusty nails and splintered wood. But burying the pain didn't stop him from seeking out more. As if of its own sadistic volition, his body moved. He reached across the desk, touched two fingers to the Laughing Buddha's big shiny belly. Felt nothing through the cold leather glove. No magical spark, no tiny zap of static. No sense at all of having connected to anything bigger…or anyone beyond.
Pathetic. And you're still wasting time.
Sneering, he shoved his fingers off the statue, jolting it hard. Something rattled in the Buddha's broad hollow belly. Genma froze, prodded again. Another rattle. He picked up the statue and cocked his head to gaze up the big bronze ass.
Interesting choice of hidey-hole.
Didn't disturb him as much as the thought of shoving two fingers up there, which he proceeded to do after removing his glove. In one of the many masochistic corners of his mind he wondered how much cosmic luck this violation was going to cost him – didn't care too much for the odds weighing in his favour.
Think you deserve any better?
There it was, the crawling voice of shame; one of the indestructible cockroaches still skulking around in his dilapidated conscience. Genma crushed it like a bug and went back to business. Angling his wrist, he fished around the curve of the Budai's belly until his fingers swiped two jagged teeth dangling from a chain. A set of keys. He got an awkward grip, felt the faint resistance of the chain when he pulled.
Magnetised on the inside, hn? The chain too. Clever.
But not much of a challenge.
He tugged the keys free and set the statue back in its place. Examining the two silver teeth, Genma considered the desk drawers. Figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. He spun the key-ring around his finger and tried the first key that smacked into his palm. The drawer's lock clicked; a clucking tongue in the silence.
He darted a glance at the door, listened out.
Futile effort really, given that the thick wooden door was preceded by another just like it. Soundproofing for privacy, Mushi had said. Genma hadn't commented, hadn't cared. Had only considered how it would work against him when he was planting bugs. Sure enough, he couldn't hear a damn thing this side of the door unless it was through the open window.
He pulled the drawer open, surprised by its weight and depth. He didn't have to rummage. Dr Mushi's appointment book sat dead centre, its black leather cover polished by the thin stream of sunlight pouring over Genma's shoulder. He pulled his glove back on and took up the appointment book, wrist dipping at the weight. He thumbed aside the tab closure, flipped the cover open and stroked his fingers down the cobalt-blue suede lining. Expensive.
Ibiki was in the wrong line of work.
Genma's lip twitched. He cradled the book's spine in his palm, used his other hand to skim chunks of week-to-view pages. Paper fluttered against his thumb until his gaze hit on the latest calendar; Mushi's morning appointments had been scratched off the previous and upcoming weeks. He hadn't filled in the slots with any other personal or professional activities. Just a series of blank spaces Genma was supposed to fill in for The Council.
"You will find out where Dr Mushi has been and you will report back to us immediately. Do you understand?"
Genma ticked the senbon from side-to-side, bronze eyes flickering. Only sure way to track Mushi was to tail him or tag him. The latter was preferable, which meant getting close enough to plant a bug. Genma checked for his next appointment with the doctor; found it penned in for a late afternoon session in two days' time.
Damn, week's gone fast.
Too fast. Shit. Two days? He should've remembered that. Probably had it scrawled on one of the many little appointment cards scattered about his apartment. The secretary kept handing him new ones, stroking her fingers over his in a soft flutter every time he checked out.
Time to do that now.
He glanced at the clock, frowned as he saw time racing towards the 8 o'clock mark. The secretary would be in soon and Genma still had breadcrumbs to sweep up in the subbasements. Amazing, how destroying all the paper trails was more of a mission than the original cover-up.
"And just how many stories were there, Genma?" Kakashi's voice crept in, burrowing into Genma's brain. "Yours? Shikamaru's?...Naoki's?"
Disgusted, Genma jerked his head and dropped the book back in the drawer with a thunk that coughed up musty air and an old yellowed sticky note – more yellow than sticky. It sailed across the desk.
"Shit." Genma caught it, reached over to tuck it back – stopped halfway into the action, immobilised by the name scrawled across the small yellow square.
NARA SHIKAMARU: Diagnostic Report.
For blank second, it didn't register.
And then shock froze the breath in Genma's lungs.
He braced one hand against the desk and held the little yellow note in the other, the soft tick-tick-tick of the antique clock drowned out by the thud-thud-thud in his chest.
NARA SHIKAMARU: Diagnostic Report.
Time snapped back.
Jolting hard, Genma smacked the notelet down, thrust his hands in the drawer and clawed through empty manila files and crisp blank sheets, his lips tight around the senbon, breath firing in a syncopated pant through his nose – in-out, in-out.
Nothing. Nothing. NOTHING.
He slammed the drawer and shoved away from the desk, passing his hands over his clothed brow to lace his fingers behind his head, narrow eyes pressed shut. Confusion swarmed his brain, an aggravated hive.
Stop. You're assuming. Don't assume. Never assume.
A slow indrawn breath and his eyes opened. He came forward again, gripped the sides of the desk, one hand at a time, leather gloves squeaking. He stared down at the note, stared so damned hard his vision doubled on the words diagnostic report.
This can't be accurate.
There was no way Shikamaru was one of Mushi's patients. The Council – under the Sandaime's orders – had prohibited the psychiatrist from treating any Nara patients other than Shikaku. Wasn't that the very reason Genma had been planted as a spy two years ago? To make sure. To make certain.
I have. I've had this bastard pinned.
That included Mushi's clients. Genma had reels of names and hundreds of recordings; hundreds and hundreds of recordings…recordings that ran like a constant radio-feed in his apartment, droning on deep into the long and lonely hours where insomnia became a kind of wired insanity. Two years. Two years sitting with his heels kicked up on the rubble of his crumbling life, a bottle in one hand and a little pink pill in the other, tapping people's lives like some code operator in a number station – because that's all Mushi's patients were to Genma, numbers and codes and pieces of paper.
It's not personal.
Only way he could do it, sitting there by the flicking lights of bulbs too burned out to function, reading names, writing numbers, listening to lines and lines of dialogue until he became numb to anything but the keywords…and not once had he detected them. No mention of Shikamaru or anything that went down in Kusagakure two years ago. Which made total sense…because Shikamaru had never received or required treatment after that incident. He hadn't needed it because…
"He won't remember it all. Don't ask him about it...ever...and if he starts to remember..."
"You'll be there to fix it, now get up."
"Listen to me, Genma. You go to the people I told you to. He can't be allowed to remember. But you will. You have to. 'Cause you gotta remember your promise to me...and my promise to the Sandaime. Now swear it."
Genma blinked back from the memory of those words, trying to forget the face of the man who'd spoken them and focus instead on the warning he'd failed to take to heart.
His heart…that'd been the problem at the time, hadn't it? And two years on his head wasn't doing any better at keeping up with the lies, the loose ends…the twisted logistics that kept it all together.
When did it come apart?
Genma pinched the bridge of his nose until the pain pulsed behind his brow.
What did I miss? And how the hell did I miss it?
Well, between the drinking and the drugs, it wasn't hard to imagine that he'd fucked up at some point. Some vital point. Or maybe he'd become so blind to the truth that he'd failed to detect it altogether.
So open your eyes and figure this out.
Cold numb detachment was what he needed. He was excellent at that. That was his forte. At least it was when he wasn't trying to get his next fix…just how many little pink pills did he have left, anyway?
His expression hardened, eyes sharpening on the yellow note. Discovering where Dr Mushi had been spending his mornings was secondary now to finding out whatever this insect did or didn't know about Nara Shikamaru. And even more pressing than that, was finding out what Shikamaru did or didn't know about his own past.
Time to find out…
Genma raised his head and looked across at the panelled cabinets where Mushi kept his patients' records under lock and Buddha-Belly Key. Where the crackling audio recordings had failed, the hardcopy reports might offer some insight. Or at least offer some direction with regards to how fast Genma needed to run to get ahead of the potential landslide.
Time, as ever, moved faster.
Genma didn't have time to close distance.
Sure as clockwork, he heard the rap-rap-rap of heels outside, followed by a melody of chirpy female tones twittering through the open window as Mushi's secretary went about the lengthy purse-rummaging ritual of letting herself into the building.
The clock struck 8, its antique chime ringing like a miniature prayer gong.
Genma hissed, eyes flitting between the office door and the cabinets.
No time. You can't afford to screw this up.
He'd have to come back.
Rearranging the drawer back into its former order, he locked it up and returned the keys to the Laughing Buddha's belly. A quick circle of the room, a last glance in the direction of the cabinets – and he was out the window and across the street before the secretary was through the door.
Like a freakin' rabbit warren in here…
Kiba scowled at the "YOU ARE HERE" sign plastered next to the fire escape. No clearer the second time around. He'd come a complete circle. Sighing, he gave up on instructions and followed his instincts. A quick sniff and he recaptured Ino's scent, faint and floral beneath the pervading stink of chemicals, plants, medicines and something toxic enough to make his head spin and his stomach roll.
What the hell are they cooking in this place?
He winced at the olfactory overload; felt it burn like hell had crawled up his nostrils, searching for a nosebleed. A kick in the balls might've been kinder.
Re-orienting himself, Kiba loped along the dove grey corridors of the botanical research facility, eyes on the pale vinyl flooring that streaked out ahead of him in a long worn strip. A couple of turns and a quick stop later, he came to a set of double doors crowned with the words BOTANICAL LABORATORY and a smaller plaque reading: A WING: Department of Bryological and Lichenological Studies.
Kiba grunted and shouldered through the swinging doors, wincing at the pain. A small reception area greeted him. But nobody was home. The main desk stood vacant, the adjacent space occupied by long shelves and racks of botanical magazines.
No wonder the receptionist had bailed. Kiba looked right and then left along the two branching corridors, nostrils flaring, millions of scent receptors firing off, sending out signals that he interpreted in a heartbeat. He spun right, moving off along the hallway towards the laboratory door at the far end, following perfume swirls of hyacinth and lilies, humming a tune….
There was a man who had a dog…
He poked his head around the corner.
And his name was…?
"Bingo," Kiba breathed on a grin, bracing his shoulder against the doorjamb.
Oblivious to his presence, Ino stood leaning over one of the work benches, attention riveted on some bizarre contraption that looked about as user-friendly as one of Kankurō's puppets. Ino didn't seem deterred by the mechanics. In fact, she looked the professional part, kitted out in a stained lab-coat, complete with gloves and goggles. She'd even pulled her hair out of her face and secured it like some weird flower arrangement at the top of her head, wisps of flaxen hair shimmering as she moved, reminding Kiba of the pale silky thread grass he used to get lost in as a kid.
Yeah, I got lost alright.
"Go hide, Kiba-kun. I'll count to one hundred and then I'll come find you."
Lying sonofabitch never had.
Kiba's jaw tightened on a snarl. He brushed off the memory like dirt, focused on Ino's gloved hands whisking across the work surface, handling apparatus with an ease and efficiency that both surprised and intimidated Kiba out of his initial plan to burst in and tease her.
He was working on Plan B when it happened…
Ino began to sing.
Shocked stupid, Kiba hung back, thumbs hooked into the waist of his slacks, his jaw hanging open a little. He didn't know the song. Something girly and silly, but Ino was swinging her hips and swaying her body with gusto, promenading up and down the work aisle with the uncoordinated but somehow sensual uninhibitedness of a woman dancing when she thought no one was watching – using a scalpel as a microphone.
Oh man, where's that camera?
It was a fleeting thought, gone before it could germinate. Nothing mocking or cruel took root in Kiba's brain...in fact, there was an utter lack of scheming altogether as he watched Ino perform to the empty room, tugging on the lapel of her lab coat with theatrical passion as she bowed backwards and belted out an intelligible line into a glass beaker, giggling at the impromptu acoustics.
Kiba didn't blink, didn't breathe, a baffled smile canting his lips.
To think, none of her moves were calculated to impress, seduce or draw attention, yet Kiba was more riveted than he'd been at Shikamaru's birthday party – and at that point Ino was using him as the dance floor. But there was something – some feelin' - about the unguardedness of this moment that captivated him in a way her drunken flirting hadn't.
Ino wasn't posing, preening or being a spiteful little princess.
She was just playing…
Absorbed, Kiba leaned into the door, brows flying upward in amusement when Ino lifted a tray above her head and did a dainty little pirouette towards the opposite bench, still singing, only softer now, her voice as sweet as a dream.
But every spell must break.
Setting down the tray and reaching for a stack of empty vials, she caught Kiba's lounging figure out the corner of her eye and let out a startled yelp, one hand grasping the counter and the other pressed against her thundering heart.
Kiba mentally fist-pumped, delighted at her horror.
"Oh my god…" Ino whispered, letting out a breath.
Kiba bobbed his brows, grinning. "Weak at the knees already, huh?"
Recovering fast, Ino straightened up and gathered her indignation into a vaporising glare that might've been scary were it not for the goggles.
Cute? Kiba gagged on the thought and made a face, tapping his temple to indicate the safety glasses. "Shino's shades are hotter. And that's sayin' a lot."
A mortified pause and Ino exploded. "Kiba, you jerk!" She snarled, ripping off the goggles so viciously her hair came down on one side in a tumble of blonde strands. She thrust a gloved finger at him. "What the hell are you doing lurking in the shadows like that?"
Now, faced with a stupid question like that, which left Ino wide open for a heavy-fire commentary on her little dance performance, Kiba was armed to the teeth and ready to let loose. Only he didn't. The comments stuck like cannonballs in the back of his throat, locked and loaded but unable to launch.
It was the perfect opportunity. Man, it had been handed to him on a rare silver platter like a prime cut of kobe beef steak. He could decimate her with this shit. Hell, he might never get a chance like this again.
"Well?" Ino demanded, blue eyes ferocious, blonde hair a wild briar-patch tangle to the side of her head. But even rattled and dethroned, she thrust her chin up to a queenly angle as if daring him to bring it on. All tough cookie in the face of her imminent humiliation.
Kiba saw her clenched fist quivering at her side.
And just like that, he let it slide, one part of his psyche howling at him in outrage while the other just rolled over and played dead, not wanting to examine why he'd given up on this golden, golden chance to forever reign supreme over the Yamanaka princess.
Ino watched him, anticipating his attack at any second.
Animal-eyes flickered with amusement. "Got a sample of that root you wanted."
Ino gave a little jolt at the unexpected diversion, like he'd reached across and shoved her. She teetered, a bird on a very thin tripwire. When Kiba offered nothing else, she puffed up on the spot, all hot air and rising steam with absolutely no outlet.
Ha. Guess that counts for something.
"Did ya hear me, twinkle toes?" Kiba said, unable to resist.
The playful jab slid like a needle into a balloon. Colour popped hot and pink across Ino's cheeks, a stream of pent-up air hissing through her nose. She scowled, snapping, "Well show it to me then."
Smiling, Kiba reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a large sandwich bag, displaying said root; a long ruddy worm-like thing with odd spindly shoots. It brought to mind a bloated centipede. "Can't believe I had to make nice with a flesh-eating plant. That thing smelled like ass."
"You would know," Ino shot back. "Isn't that how dogs make friends?"
Kiba flung the bag at her.
Ino caught it one-handed and mid-turn, balancing the tray of vials on her hip. She stuck her tongue out at Kiba's mocking whistle and examined the specimen, tossing her hair out of her face with a huff. "I'm surprised you even knew what to look for."
"Neji pulled the stick outta his ass and drew me a picture in the dirt."
Ino gave him the stink-eye.
Kiba tilted his head against the door and gave her a devastating grin.
The effects of said grin weren't quite what he was expecting. Rather than yell or roll her eyes, an odd tightness gripped Ino's expression and her body stiffened; she held herself like someone teetering at the edge of a natural reaction and a controlled response.
Kiba's irritation was instant.
His grin pulled into a teeth-grinding sneer. He'd had enough of this controlled bullshit from Neji earlier. If there was anyone he could count on – besides Naruto – for a good verbal rough and tumble, it was Ino. But before Kiba could knock her off kilter and back into the insults, her words shot out cool and clipped.
"I'm busy, Kiba."
The effectiveness of that statement didn't even penetrate, like tapping a bloodhound with a fly swatter. Kiba didn't budge. Ino didn't seem to breathe. She just stared quietly at him, her eyes cool. No hint of the blue fire he'd seen seconds before.
Uncomfortable, but damned if he'd show it, Kiba raised his brows and chuckled humourlessly, a quiet rumble in his throat. "What? No hiss and spit today?"
Ino raised her chin. "You're just not worth it, Kiba."
Ow. Now that hit. That hit hard. That hit dead-on-fucking-centre. Anger burned beneath the playful sparkle in Kiba's eyes, his drawl coming out hard and low, despite the intended lightness of his words. "Yeah. Not when you're sober anyway."
Heat flooded Ino's face, redder and brighter than the tattoo slashes on the Inuzuka's lean cheeks. But it knocked the ice from her eyes, blue flames rising up. He didn't get to enjoy the reaction. Bristling, Ino turned and set down the tray with enough force to rattle the vials.
She said nothing.
And the quiet ticking of a clock called out the long awkward seconds.
What a backfire. Kiba knew enough about women's silences to know that he should've stopped when he was all playful bark and no bite. He'd bit too deep with those words. Maybe drawn a bit of blood in the process.
He stroked his tongue across his teeth, caught the bitter aftertaste of his words and smacked his lips, passing a hand across his mouth.
I ain't apologising.
No way. Choosing to bound over the tension rather than wrestle with it, Kiba shoved off the door and strolled into the laboratory with all the swaggering confidence of a wolf on his own turf. Couldn't have been further from the truth. Controlled environments like laboratories and classrooms were the worst kind of cages. Funny. That might've explained a lot about his truant behaviour at the Academy – what was it Iruka-sensei had said? Something about Kiba being a kinaesthetic learner? Better with the hands-on stuff? His mother had taken the advice to heart and beat the shit out of him from then on out. Yeah, that was some hands-on learning, Inuzuka style. He stopped skipping classes. Well…stopped getting caught anyway.
A loud pop drew his attention.
Ino had begun yanking stoppers off the vials in sharp successive tugs.
Not fancying an elbow to the face, Kiba gave her a wide berth and sniffed at a shelf lined with plant specimens, jerking his head back at the poisonous scent of nightshade. "Your anti-venom worked, by the way."
Ino didn't look up.
Crouching down, Kiba shot her a quick sideways look from beneath his brows, pretending to examine the lower shelves. "Pretty cool stuff you cooked up. You do that in here?"
Ino said nothing.
Damn, she was really gonna make him work for it. Grunting, the dog-nin slapped his thighs and straightened up, hands sliding into his pockets. He examined the laboratory's layout and meandered his way along the rows of lab benches, taking the long winding route, letting the tension crank a few notches until he ended up on the opposite side of Ino's workspace.
She ignored him.
Smirking, Kiba pulled up a stool, let the legs drag in an obnoxious screech, all nails and chalkboard.
Ino grit her teeth.
Ah, instantaneous and gratifying. Just that small reaction was encouragement enough. The dog-nin plonked himself down on the stool, took up a vial and popped the stopper with his thumb, catching it in his palm before it could go bouncing off down the bench.
Ino glared at his hands, brow furrowed.
Raising his palms in surrender, Kiba set the vial down with exaggerated care before taking up another one just to repeat the process: Pop, catch. Pop, catch. Pop, catch.
Huffing, Ino rolled her eyes.
Kiba smiled and chalked himself up a point on the mental score board.
Satisfied that he wasn't going to smash anything, Ino left him to it and went about examining the root sample under a long-necked magnifying glass that looked more like one of those goose-necked lamps than a lens.
The silence lost some of its chill.
Kiba absorbed himself in the vial-popping task for the mindless distraction it provided. Not like he had anything more entertaining to do. It was all about passing the time until he could bail Akamaru out of quarantine and burn a hole in Neji's wallet. Oh, and maybe get his shoulder looked at. He cocked his head at Ino, bouncing a rubber stopper in his palm. Too bad that asking her for help meant admitting that he was wrong and she was right about the stupid shoulder-harness thing. Was a fixed shoulder worth an earful of 'I told you so'?
Finished with the vials, Kiba propped his elbows on the workbench and dangled a glass tube from his fingers, swinging it idly. "Your dad teach you this stuff?"
"Most of it," Ino said without looking up. She reached across for a set of pins and secured the root to a slide. "I taught myself a lot too."
Curious but not wanting to appear too interested, Kiba rocked the stool onto its back legs and peered down the glass tube at Ino, twirling the distorted image. He waited a beat before asking, "So why didn't you go into nerdy stuff instead?"
"And what?" Ino made a small precise incision in the root. "Give up on being a ninja?"
"Well yeah, if you wanted."
"I'd never want that. I'd go stir-crazy in a lab anyway."
"Hn. You seemed pretty happy."
"Happy?" Ino frowned in concentration, bending over to adjust the overhead lens and light. She took a swab of the dark sticky fluid that leaked from the bleeding root and set the sample in a small petri dish. "Happy," she repeated, sounding thoughtful.
"Yeah." Kiba angled his makeshift telescope at her butt. "Waggin' your tail kinda happy."
Straightening up, Ino scowled and swatted at him. She missed, but was satisfied to watch him wobble for balance. It failed to throw him off; he continued to gaze at her through the tube and said, "Admit it. You enjoy this science geek stuff."
Ino arched a delicate brow, fixing him with a look. "Like you'd survive in the field without it."
Kiba ducked his head and ceded the point. "Got no argument there."
That seemed to please her. Smiling, Ino propped a hip against the bench and snapped her gloves off, looking thoughtful. "I guess I enjoy it. I mean, I'm good at this stuff, right?"
To Kiba's ears, that sounded completely rhetorical, but the expectant sideways look that Ino shot him suggested otherwise. He did a double-take of her expression and hesitated. Was she being subtle? He didn't do subtle. Not well, anyway. Also, when the hell did Ino give a damn about his opinions anyway? Was she actually asking for his opinion?
Lifting a brow, he lowered the tube a scant inch, met her gaze over the top of it. "You askin' me or tellin' me?"
"Well what do you think, idiot?"
He laughed. "See? That's a more direct way to ask."
Ino rolled her eyes, but her lips twitched in a begrudging smile. "Well whatever. So long as the anti-venom and poisons work. I was worried. The chimaeras are scary but these plants are all…" she wiggled her fingers mystically over the pinned root, which Kiba assumed was meant to illustrate the freak factor.
"Yeah," he grunted, rocking the stool back onto its three legs. "Kinda figured that out when it tried to chow down on my face all Venus flytrap."
"Obviously," Ino said, rolling up the sleeves of her lab-coat. "The hybrids are all derivatives of carnivorous plants, like the Dionaea Muscipula you mentioned." At his blank look she added, "A.k.a. the Venus flytrap."
"Huh." Disgruntled at the total dismissal of his near-death experience and Ino's sudden shift into geek-speak, Kiba propped his chin in his hand, scowling at the rows of vials. "Great. You sound like Shino with his insects." And then Kiba's eyes sparkled, a grin picking up the corner of his mouth. "Ha. Neji's gonna have a blast keepin' him from getting all depressed over the whole carnivorous-plant thing."
Ino winced in sympathy, sealing up the root sample and folding away the lens. "Poor Shino."
"Poor, Shino?" Kiba crabbed a hand over his face and twitched his fingers in imitation of creepy mandibles. "Did I mention that my face was two chomps away from being dinner? Shino's insects won't even classify as snacks for these things."
Instead of sympathy, Ino slid a large beaker towards him. Bright orange fluid, thick as churned honey, rolled around the glass in a sluggish wave. And then the scent struck Kiba's nose, burning like wasabi along his sinuses. Gagging, he sneezed violently into the crook of his arm and squinted at Ino through watery eyes.
"The hell is that?"
Ino smiled sweetly at him. "Pour it into the vials?"
"I'm not touchin' that."
"You will if you want to avoid being eaten alive by vampire fleas. You dilute it and—"
"I ain't drinking it either."
"Well you wouldn't anyway, idiot. It's topical."
Kiba grinned as if to say 'yeah, nice one'. He stopped smiling pretty fast when Ino returned his look with a frank stare. He stared back, shook his head. "I ain't putting this on my skin."
"It works like citronella on mosquitos."
"I don't care."
"And it plugs the pores so they don't—"
Kiba held up a hand to cut her off. "Shino is gonna tell me all about it in graphic detail. And I still won't care. I ain't using this."
Ino frowned at him. "You'll need it, Kiba."
"I'll take my chances with the bedbugs."
"Whatever. Just put it in the vials, will you?"
Grumbling, the dog-nin tipped the stool onto its back legs and stretched out his arms, maintaining a calculated distance between his nose and the contents of the beaker. Ino smirked, watching him work like a puppet on strings, all stiff-limbed and wooden expression.
Man this reeks…
Yeah, he was totally holding his breath. Pretty sure he was crying. This stuff was giving off vapours like a fucking onion. No way was it going on his skin.
He didn't notice Ino watching him until she stopped packing things away, turned towards him and finally deigned to ask, "Is it really that bad?"
Kiba narrowed his streaming eyes at her, about as much as he could manage without scrunching his nose and triggering a sneeze that'd dent the back of his head. "Like I told Neji a while back, the nose upgrade is gonna take some getting used to."
He hadn't said it to impress or interest her, but for some reason Ino abandoned all the botanical paraphernalia and hopped up onto a stool opposite him. He heard her feet tapping the bench on the other side, legs swinging like a kid. She propped her chin in her palm and eyed him dubiously for a moment, then began to smile.
Kiba frowned at the scheming look, twisting a stopper into place. "What?"
"Ever think about using your nose for non-ninja purposes?"
"There ain't nothing else worth my time."
"But there are lots of things worth your talent," Ino pointed out, that too-sweet smile blossoming across her face.
Kiba's eyebrow twitched. A phony compliment? Dead giveaway even if her smile was too sweet to be anything but suspicious. He decided to play along, just for the sake of catching her out.
"Okay," he challenged. "Name one."
Ino waved a hand as if summoning ideas out of the ether. "Oh, I don't know." She pretended to hunt around and then snapped her fingers. "Perfumery!"
Kiba stared blankly. Then realised she was serious. Laughter erupted from the back of his throat, followed by an explosive sneeze. "Ugh…"
When his vision cleared and his nose stopped stinging, he discovered Ino glaring at him. And then, quick as it took him to blink, her petulant expression transitioned from pissed off princess into indifferent ice queen.
Kiba stiffened against the look.
It was the same controlled and superior manner she'd taken with him about twenty minutes back. He couldn't remember what'd triggered it then, only remembered the feeling it'd left him with.
He frowned uncertainly at her. "What?" he coughed out, setting down the beaker he'd almost dropped. "You actually serious?"
"Forget it," Ino said coolly, her voice gaining a frost that didn't match the emotion flickering in her crystal blue eyes. "Dismiss a perfectly brilliant idea," she snatched the beaker from him and filled the remaining vials in seconds, making an unspoken mockery of his attempts to help her out. "I don't even know why I bothered to suggest it. It's not as if I'd want someone like you working for me anyway."
It wasn't even the words that did it. It was the way she looked at him when she said it; like he was shit on her shoe. And suddenly Kiba was a five-year-old kid lost in a maze of silky thread grass…and the anger pounced, a crouching wolf inside him.
"Working for you?" Kiba snarled, coming up off his stool so suddenly it toppled with a deafening clatter that had Ino stiffening in her seat. Kiba leaned across the workbench, teeth lengthening subconsciously, animal-irises glowing gold. "Working with you is painful enough. Hell, I'd feel sorry for Shikamaru and Chōji if I didn't think they got a good laugh out of how desperate you are to be noticed."
She slapped him.
The force of her smack turned his head aside, burned like a blow from the flat end of a red hot skillet. Ears ringing and cheek aflame, Kiba's fingers tightened on the countertop, elongated claws carving grooves into the pale grey Formica.
He turned his head to face her.
The feral snarl caught behind his teeth.
Ino's eyes were wide and shining. The ice had thawed, silver tears glistening along her lash-lines. Cheeks flushed and throat mottled, she heaved a shaking breath but didn't back down, her body still half-turned from the momentum of her swing. She'd thrown more than her weight behind that blow. Kiba felt it in the sting and tingle across his face. Some fire, some fight…
His eyes dropped to her wet shivering lips.
Hunger sprung up, swallowing the anger. Kiba took the beast by the throat and leaned back by degrees, eyes still on her mouth. He reached up, rubbed sharp-nailed fingers over his burning cheek, voice rough as an animal's growl, almost unrecognisable in his semi-feral state. "Next time put your claws into it."
Ino swallowed hard and forced a bitter smile, voice shivering out. "Like I'd break a nail over you."
Kiba smirked at her cattish hiss and worked his jaw from side to side, fingers still gliding over his cheek. The animal glow dimmed to a simmer in his eyes; claws retracting, fangs receding. But the anger was still there, a hot ball in his gut. He backed off, hands raised in a parody of surrender, a tiny bead of blood shining on his bottom lip where lengthened fangs had split flesh.
"Always a pleasure, Princess," he drawled, turning his back on those flashing blue eyes and the wild and uncomfortable feelings they stirred up inside him.
He licked the blood from his lip, his empty laugh echoing down the empty hallway.
This is turning into one BITCH of a day…
"Sonofabitch…" Shikamaru hissed, his fingers locked tight and blanched white as he held the shadow possession steady. Sweat slicked his brow, trickled down his temple. "Shit. I won't be able to hold this guy for long, Chōji!" he shouted above the cacophony of caged monsters. "Get ready!"
Blowing out his cheeks, Shikamaru nodded to his teammate and began dragging his feet back one torturous step at a time, hauling the huge deer-headed chimaera forward and closer to the edge of the segmented enclosure. The perimeter fence loomed over them and all around them, its strong grey rails and reinforced steel mesh casting a network of shadows over the scene. In the other pens, chimaeras of grotesque design bayed and squawked, howled and whinnied, roared and screeched.
Fear pebbled Shikamaru's skin…instinctive and inescapable…
I've got this. It's okay.
His breathing came heavier, eyes narrowed in focus. He pulled the deer-headed beast another three steps, then flicked his fingers so fast the shadow possession was still holding by the time the shadow stitching jutsu took over, thick black tendrils roping the animal's legs and prying apart its jaws. A series of bone-like spikes shot out from its spine and neck, a useless attempt at defence. It bellowed, the stench of an ammonia-like odour reeking from its salivary glands.
Chōji moved on command, one super-sized hand getting a solid grip on the beast's bottom jaw. His other hand, gloved and unchanged, moved to gather the thick spittle and froth foaming at the chimaera's mouth. He scooped the mess into a container, sealed it, dropped it and nudged it with his foot into the waiting shadow-hand that snaked across the straw and sawdust.
"Eyes!" Shikamaru called, sinking to one knee, teeth grit as he manipulated both the shadows restraining the chimaera and the shadows operating like a surgical team around Chōji, handing him equipment in a coordinated effort.
Quite an operation they had going on here. They'd been at it for most of the day. This was the fifteenth beast they'd taken gland extracts and excretions from.
Should've used Ino to do some of the immobilising…
He'd sure as hell need one of her chakra pills after this. He could feel the chakra drain pulling at him, dulling his reflexes, weakening his limbs. All this accompanied by a dizzying bout of double-vision threatening to confuse his senses, making him see shadows and shapes where there were none. He could've sworn there was a constant presence hovering in his periphery, creeping closer, growing larger. Maybe it was unconsciousness.
Shit. This'll be the last one…I'm running on empty…
He blinked hard, tightened his grip as Chōji took swabs from the chimaera's preorbital glands, trying to avoid stabbing the beast in its rolling yellow eyes. Shikamaru did a quick count of the areas they'd already hit; tarsal glands, interdigital glands and forehead glands. A done deal. His old man had taught him well.
We're done here.
"Let's wrap this up!" Shikamaru called out, jerking his head towards the exit gate.
Chōji gathered up the samples, stashed them in the sterile medical bag and jogged towards the gate, yanking it open. He turned back, held it open and waited for Shikamaru.
Locked in a stare-down with the beast, Shikamaru prepared for the 'run-screaming-for-the-hills' manoeuvre that'd always served him well. Bar the screaming part. He didn't think he had enough air to manage that. Breathless pants wheezed out of him and the shadows trembled, began to loosen.
He never made it to three.
The shadows snapped and the beast charged. Shikamaru sprang like a startled buck, muscles moving in burning concert as he zigzagged across the straw, throwing the beast's charge into a confused head-tossing weave, the scything antlers slicing up hay kicked up by Shikamaru's heels.
The shadow-nin felt the wind of a passing blow, the sudden catch and snag of horns tearing into his long-sleeved charcoal-grey crewneck. Cursing, he pitched forward into a roll, heard the rip of fabric followed by a hot sting across his skin – like carpet burn.
There goes my top…
Ino was going to kill him. Well, if the big foaming-at-the-mouth beastie didn't trample his skull. Driving forwards, he continued into the roll, diving clean out of the pen just as Chōji swung the gate shut. The beast crashed into the perimeter fencing, the ugly spikes along its spine quivering and bristling.
Shikamaru scrambled back crab-like, panting hard.
Chōji crouched beside him, touched him on his bare shoulderblade and checked his back, found no injury but asked anyway, "You okay?"
Nodding wordlessly, Shikamaru eyed the ragged strips of his twice-worn top dangling from the chimaera's antlers like some skinned animal. Rheumy eyes rolling in its huge head, the cervid stomped its hooves and began galloping horse-like around the perimeter fencing, displaying its shredded prize to the rest of the monsters pacing in their cages.
Man, these things have got some crazy stamina…
He was about ready to pass out.
He jumped when Chōji pressed a large red chakra pill into his shaking hand, adrenalin wearing off, leaving him shaky. "Thanks," he rasped.
Chōji plonked down beside him, opened a packet of potato chips.
They sat in silence, refuelling.
Dropping back onto an elbow, Shikamaru's breathing eased, his pulse a soft throb. As his brain took immediate inventory of what they'd gathered, he didn't notice that his shaking had stopped even before he bit into the food pill. He'd barely finished chewing his second bite before strength came in a pins-and-needles rush, tingling warmly in his tenketsu, raising the gooseflesh on his arms. He shivered, frowned at the food pill; figured Ino must've upgraded them. At the thought of Ino his appetite halved and the rest of the pill went down as smooth as a chunk of rock. He swallowed audibly.
"What's up?" Chōji asked without looking.
Shikamaru sat up, grunted and reached a hand back over his shoulder, grazing long fingers over the shredded fabric haloing his nape like a collar. "Shit."
Chōji kept his eyes on the prancing chimaera and nodded sagely. "Ino's gonna kill you."
"Like, painfully slow. I'm gonna need popcorn."
Shikamaru jabbed the grinning Akimichi with his elbow and rocked onto his feet, dusting himself off. Futile effort, what with the back ripped off his top and the front hanging forwards like some weird cowl. He fingered the soft fabric. Hadn't realised or appreciated until this moment just how comfortable it felt against his skin. He might actually have grown attached to it, if half of it wasn't already attached to the foaming-at-the-mouth beast. The shadow-nin stared through the fence, looking a little forlorn.
"You could've been so happy together," Chōji sighed wistfully.
Shikamaru looked down at him. "That could've been the skin off my back."
"Nah, you're saving that for Ino." Chōji raked his fingers like a cat paw but spared Shikamaru the imitation of a hiss. "Guess we'll see if Kiba's right about her having claws."
A breathy chuckle and Shikamaru reached for the medical backpack. He checked and secured the contents, shrugging the straps on. The rough canvas scratched at his back but he figured it beat walking around topless. Leaving Chōji to eat in the small annexe, the shadow-nin did a quick perimeter check, brisk-walking the circumference of the large enclosure to double-check the gates, moving routinely until a warbled yelp stopped him.
He paused at the closest pen, watched a strange dog-type creature circling in its cage. It had the compact build and sloping back of a hyena coupled with the glossy black mane and the black striations of a zebra. But it was the huge front forelegs that drew Shikamaru's eye. Powerful, meaty limbs that resembled the arms of a sloth, the giant curved claws hooked like deadly meat hooks, forcing it to walk on its knuckles, almost ape-like. A horror nature never intended.
Equal parts fascinated and disgusted, Shikamaru moved closer.
The creature stopped pacing, sniffed along the fencing, hooked those enormous claws into the steel mesh and attempted to climb, its short hind legs scrambling in confusion, unable to support its deformed body, mixed genetics screaming out commands from three different species.
Damn…what kind of sick mind created these things?
And why had that same sick mind – or minds – smuggled these things into Konoha? For what purpose? It's not like they'd have gotten the chance to do any serious damage. All fresh battle stock and soldier pills were vetted by Jōnin, which meant this hadn't been an attempt by their unknown enemy to wipe out unsuspecting Genin during the next Chūnin exam. Also, the chimaeras had been heavily secured in their crates – and would've stayed that way if the idiots who mixed up the pills hadn't assumed it was the usual batch of standard-issue beasties.
Unless they were in on the job…
They weren't. Ibiki had interrogated those responsible for screening the beasts and divvying up the soldier pills; turned out to be a genuine error on account of laziness and complacency. Also turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
If those pills hadn't got mixed up, we'd never have known the damage they could do.
A vision of a crazed Akamaru and a pissed off Inuzuka Kiba came to mind. Shikamaru frowned and leaned into the fence, watching the chimaera struggle. With this kind of warped display of power and scientific genius, Shikamaru had a gut-feeling it was all about ego. Showing who had the bigger and better toys. Even the method of delivery smacked of arrogance, hijacking cargo from right under two villages' noses, raising suspicion at both ends. Clever, mockingly so. One could even guess that the chimaeras had been sent in parody of a gift. Wrapped, ready and full of surprises.
Hn. But you didn't leave a card, did you?
Not even a fingerprint. Sure, the shock factor of these things was enough to set the higher-ups on edge, but why make such a statement without taking credit? It didn't make sense. And that missing piece of the puzzle threatened Shikamaru's theory about someone's ego being the driving factor.
Kusagakure have gotta know more about this than they're letting on.
Guess he'd find out soon enough.
Across the short distance, the chimaera stopped attempting to climb. Having sensed his stare, it turned towards him, its massive jaws pulled into an ugly smile, razor fangs chattering excitedly before it burst into a garbled animal laugh that sounded half hyena-giggle and half growl.
Shikamaru checked the padlock on the gate.
Safe and secure. Well, about as safe and secure as could be on short notice and limited options. These enclosures weren't built to accommodate these kinds of chakra-enhanced specimens, but they'd held up pretty good so far.
Yeah, until they REALLY start trying to break out.
Shikamaru guessed that the only reason the chimaeras hadn't tried harder for freedom was because they were accustomed to cages; although some of them, namely the dino-birds, seemed to be missing the liberty they'd tasted in the Forest of Death.
Good thing they won't be around long enough to cause trouble.
The dino-birds had already started to look for ways out, consistently checking for weaknesses in the fencing and gaps in the mesh. Smart bastards. And damn if that wasn't scary. Seeing that glimmer of intelligence in those cold beady eyes disturbed Shikamaru far worse than the amalgamated mess of scales, feathers, fangs and claws.
He backed away from the cackling hyena-thing and set about completing his circuit, double bolting the pens with the dino-birds, just to be sure.
"All secure," he called out, coming full circle and jogging the final few yards like he actually had somewhere to be. He didn't. Unlike Chōji.
He'd all but forgotten that he'd 'borrowed' Chōji for this little side-op. Harassed by the thought of landing his friend in shit, Shikamaru moved with uncharacteristic urgency to pack up the rest of their supplies, crossing back and forth in quick darts.
Chōji didn't seem all that concerned, just sat there watching him.
"Clock's ticking, buddy," Shikamaru called, shoving samples into another canvas backpack, balancing it on his knee. "What time you meeting Tenten?"
Chōji didn't move. "Four."
More like four thirty at this rate. Maybe even five if Chōji didn't start hauling ass. Shikamaru gave up trying to use his thigh as a table and crouched to zip up the backpack. "You're gonna be late," he reiterated, giving the door a pointed look. "If you run you might make it there before Tenten. I'll get this stuff to the labs."
No reply. He stopped fiddling with the bag, felt Chōji's eyes on him and met the Akimichi's baffled look with an arched brow. "You hear me?" he pressed. "You're gonna be—"
"You okay?" Chōji asked.
Shikamaru cocked his head, nonplussed. "Hah?"
Chōji observed him for a few quiet seconds. "You were totally wiped. You usually need like a half hour after a chakra pill before you get going again. I'm surprised you're even up and moving."
Struck by the accuracy of that statement, Shikamaru went instantly still. He recovered in the same heartbeat, offering a crooked smile to keep from frowning. "Yeah well, at least one of us is up and moving, right? Let's go."
He pushed to his feet, yanking his awareness out of his brain and onto his body, checking himself ruthlessly. No dizziness, no tiredness, no aches or pains. Nothing to suggest he'd just spent four hours expending energy and mass amounts of chakra.
That's crazy…I was about ready to pass out just ten minutes ago. Wasn't I?
Wasn't he? He remembered feeling exhausted. Remembered eating the pill…had he been feeling re-energised before or after he'd finished it? He couldn't remember. Didn't think it really mattered. Did it?
Chōji called his name softly.
With no explanation to offer, Shikamaru traded in confusion for avoidance. He shot Chōji another wan smile. "Either Ino upgraded those pills or I must wanna get outta here faster than I thought."
"Really, you should be the one running," Shikamaru went on, his voice carrying over his shoulder as he moved on ahead. "Not sure whether Tenten has Ino-claws or not, but you're sure gonna find out if you don't get moving."
That seemed to do the trick.
Chōji jumped up, sent the crisp packet sailing.
They exited the compound, bestial roars and screams receding like rumbles of distant thunder. Shikamaru kept his eyes on the path ahead to keep from casting glances back at the freak show they'd left behind. He couldn't help but feel like he'd just closed the curtain on the chimaeras' fate. The next step after collecting samples was extermination.
Straight out slaughter.
Pity pulled at him, a small childish hand. He shook it off, irritated. He wasn't a kid anymore. He knew how dangerous pity could be. Pitying those chimaeras didn't make them any less likely to want to rip his throat out or trample his skull into the dirt.
But nothing, idiot. Wanna go another round and see how far pity gets you?
Frowning, Shikamaru lengthened his strides, turned his face up into the late afternoon sunshine and let the warmth melt the tension from his brow. He heard Chōji keeping pace beside him, rustling around for another packet.
Shikamaru smiled, shaking his head. "Still here? Brave or stupid."
"Hungry," Chōji corrected, chowing down on a protein bar. "You want one?"
Shikamaru looked across out the corner of his eye, thought it best to give his buddy a little more incentive to get moving. "You're not gonna make it back for that dinner, you know."
Spurred, Chōji's nostrils flared and his heels kicked off the dirt with a speed and strength that propelled him halfway down the path. Shikamaru stopped walking, if only to watch the spectacle. A backward wave and three giant leaps later, Chōji was beyond the treeline and out of sight.
Shikamaru stared after him, his smile slipping away.
He waited a good few seconds before he rolled his shoulders against the weight of the canvas backpack, testing more for sore muscles than sore skin.
Normally, after consecutive use of the shadow possession jutsu, he'd be sore in the shoulders and arms, stiff in his back and weak in his thighs – especially when dragging enemies around the way he'd been dragging those chimaeras. The jutsu's intermittent strain of holding and releasing, manipulating and immobilising created all kinds of muscular tensions.
Ino must have upgraded those pills…
He tossed the other backpack he was carrying between each hand, gripping the strap and dangling it from his fingers. Not even a twinge of discomfort. Even after all those hand signs.
No other explanation…unless I'm actually catching up to Chōji and Naruto on the chakra front.
He snorted at the likelihood of that ever happening. He was brain, not brawn. He didn't have the physical capacity to store chakra the way Naruto did or the innate ability to metabolise it the way Chōji could.
Maybe I'm just having a good day…
Following that thought, a loud obnoxious squawk.
Sighing, Shikamaru slanted his head to keep from turning around, gazing up at the canopy out the corner of his eye. "Don't you migrate for the winter?"
From somewhere above the peregrine falcon let out a soft kee.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, but his smile was soft. "Stupid bird."
The resident Nara pest flapped with delight and dipped into a high speed dive, raking its talons through Shikamaru's spiky ponytail in ritual abuse. Shikamaru didn't even attempt to swat at it. Knew he'd miss. He was fast, but the bird was faster. He watched the peregrine sail down the path ahead, attempting to initiate a long-standing game of 'run and get dive-bombed'.
"Not today," Shikamaru called after it, fanning his fingers through his abused hair.
He still had topographical maps, lab results and intelligence reports to go through.
All in the next three hours…
That is, if he wanted to make this dinner on time – which meant he might actually have to start running.
What a damn drag.
On the brighter and more tactical side, he'd have a legitimate excuse to avoid eating at home and not some lame cop-out story that would've fooled anyone else – just not his father.
I can't keep avoiding him.
That, if nothing else, would start raising red flags faster than Nara eyebrows. A good thing this past week had seen his old man holed up in the Nara labs from dusk until dawn. By the time Shikaku rolled in the door, Shikamaru had rolled out the window, spirited away by duty calls and pig summons.
Pure coincide their paths hadn't crossed.
Yeah, cause I don't believe in luck.
Shikamaru stood for a little while longer, not wanting to move out of the dappled patch of sunlight. Trees and bushes shivered around him, the late autumn breeze rolling red and yellow leaves across his path. Shadows danced to every rustle and whisper, a moving carpet that stretched as delicate as black lace beneath his feet. It brought to mind the jutsu his father used to trap and draw enemies simultaneously.
The Black Spider Lily shadow technique. He sure could've used that today. He'd tried perfecting the technique on his own but always ended up expending too much chakra. Either he was screwing up the seals or he still hadn't built up the stamina to alter his chakra density and manipulate the shadows fast enough.
Shikaku had watched him fail again and again. He'd said nothing, offered nothing.
Don't ask. Don't get.
Shikamaru snorted at the 'parent-child' tactic. Totally effortless on Shikaku's part. And wasn't that just like his dad? Making a move without lifting a finger. Now they were stuck in a stalemate that only Shikamaru could break. Too bad Shikaku had the patience to wait him out. Always all those steps ahead of his son. Maybe that was why…
You've never chased me down…you've never…
The shadows at his feet shivered, but the leaves were still.
There was no wind.
Stillness and silence all around, until a shrill 'kee' broke the spell.
Shikamaru jolted, yanked back from his mental detour. He blinked up into the orange-gold sky, watched the falcon's silhouette circling overhead and became aware of the subtle change in light, the lengthening shadows. How long had he been standing there?
Discarding whatever thoughts had distracted him – he couldn't actually remember what he'd been brooding about.
Ah yeah, dinner…
And all the paper pushing he needed to get done before that. He sighed, picked up his feet and followed the bird down the path, his brain racing ahead as usual, prioritising the most important tasks.
Work. Eat. Sleep. Wake. Mission.
He didn't need to set the alarm; hadn't needed to set it at all this past week.
Great. Here we go again, Hyūga…and I thought I was through with this shit…
Apparently this shit wasn't through with him. No doubt about it though. He'd be up long before dawn, operating like clockwork on someone else's time.
"You didn't have to walk me, you know."
"Far be it from me to impugn on your ability to defend yourself, Tenten."
"Aw. And here I hoped we'd get a chance to settle our dispute over the superiority of your empty-handed techniques versus my armed-and-dangerous style."
Neji glanced sidelong at his old teammate. "Agree to disagree, as always."
Tenten laughed, arms hooked over the bō-staff she carried lengthwise across her shoulders. Shooting Neji a playful look, she twirled into her next step, a nimble double spin that forced Neji to angle his jaw away from the protruding ends of the bō and jump high to avoid being cracked across the back of his knees as she crouched low, rising up again like a dancer to glide back into an easy stroll beside him.
A brief silence, amusement rich in it.
Tenten tittered softly. "I loved doing that when I had you guys on either side of me. It was like a coordinated dance. Gai-sensei thought we planned it."
Reserving comment and a smile, Neji reached up a little stiffly to adjust the pack slung across his shoulder. He bit back a wince at the pain that flared in his back and shook his head at Tenten's antics. He'd forgotten this side of her, had taken it for granted in the past. He'd always been so serious, so withdrawn.
She'd emulated his remoteness when they were younger, thinking it cool and mature rather than controlled and arrogant. Fortunately, Lee and Gai-sensei, for all their non-infectious enthusiasm, had exhausted her into surrendering the act. Good. In giving up on Neji's approach, she'd gained so much more. She'd developed friendships with Sakura, Ino and Hinata, gaining a vital support network of young women who understood her in ways that Neji and Lee never would. She'd also become a far more spirited fighter.
She's come far. We all have.
Only his teammates' paths had guided them closer to the other Chūnin while Neji's long and lonely road threatened to take him far beyond those circles of friendship.
Those circles of feeling…
"It hasn't been the same without you, Neji."
Such a soft admission, yet Neji's heart hardened. He kept his gaze fixed ahead. "Of course. Your coordinated dance moves require two educated victims."
Tenten didn't laugh, but she rewarded his rare show of humour with a smile. "I'm serious. After you made Jōnin—"
"There," Neji interrupted, thrusting his chin towards the complex that came into view beyond the trees. "We made good time."
The Akimichi Armoury, a squat and solid-looking depot, its concrete roof flat as a smashed helmet, corrugated walls washed red by rust and rain. In the sunset's dying glow, it brought to mind a vision of blood on steel.
"Perfect," Tenten whispered, sounding reverent. "I've always wanted to see this place."
Neji said nothing, moved on ahead.
They approached the giant iron doors. Dark stripes of corrosion dribbled blood-like down the tarnished metal. Neji exchanged a glance with Tenten and nodded. They moved in unison to draw back the heavy slabs. Stubborn hinges groaned and orange flakes of oxidised metal peppered down. Neji gritted his teeth, felt the pain in his arms and thighs ache and burn like a fever buried in his body. Gods, but ANBU training had completely redefined the meaning of 'no pain, no gain' – and for someone who'd had Gai-sensei as their mentor, that was saying a hell of a lot.
Neji dug in his heels and pulled harder.
The doors gave another inhuman groan.
Somewhere above, a couple of pigeons hooted from an upper storey window.
Tenten frowned, glancing up. "Pigeons roosting in an armoury? Either this place hasn't seen action in a while or we're years too early."
Not one for the time-warp theory, Neji sighed and followed her gaze. No good judging the activity within by the presence of birds too bold to be spooked or too stupid to know any better. Neji listened out, wasn't really sure what he expected to hear; the thunder of a smithy's hammer? The roar of furnace fire and the clang of metal?
"Maybe we should wait," Tenten advised, still hanging onto the door.
Neji glanced skyward, watched the orange underbellies of the clouds burn dark and sooty. He turned back to the doors, got a solid grip and braced his feet. "They're unlocked. Let's consider that an invitation," he urged, redoubling his efforts.
Bemused, Tenten shook her head at his insistence but followed suit, clucking her tongue in mock admonishment. "Breaking and entering? Not like you."
I beg to differ…
Neji's lips twisted in a wry smile at the memory of crashing through two panes of reinforced glass – and a very expensive brand of hand-painted agarwood – the night of Shikamaru's birthday. Ah yes. Now that was a Breaking and Entering act worthy of repute. Conducted in a state of irrefutable stupidity and executed under the influence of a brain-numbing impulse – and occasional tactic – that Shikamaru had come to call Neji's 'leap and bound' manoeuvre.
"Looking before you leap takes the fun out of it. Am I right?"
Neji squeezed his eyes shut, crushing the sound of Shikamaru's voice and all the thoughts and feelings he still hadn't confronted since the last time he'd seen the shadow-nin.
His chest tightened, an old familiar pain twinging behind his ribs. Snarling, he focused on the pain radiating through the rest of his body – physical, tangible, somehow more controllable – and channelled his frustration into his fingers, gnarling them tighter around the door.
With a final heave, the doors yawned wide.
Tenten staggered back a pace, dusting off her palms. "Could've used Chōji for that. Think he's inside already?"
Neji squeezed a throbbing arm and hummed distractedly, his gaze cutting across to the perimeter fencing at the other end of the compound where the gabled roof of another building poked out above the treeline. He assumed that was where the Akimichi soldier pills were manufactured and stored. Attached to that thought was the memory of a familiar white ninken turned rust-red and feral.
Hopefully the Nara will have analysed the properties of those faulty pills…
While Akamaru had recovered from the effects of those pills, Neji knew that Kiba hadn't. The dog-nin's anger burned like a fever behind his animal-eyes; an anger that only close-quarter combat could cure.
All the more reason to make sure we're armoured, if needs be.
Hence the Akimichi Armoury.
Neji turned to address Tenten only to discover she'd ventured on ahead into the building. Following behind, he hauled one of the doors shut, left the other open, casting a segment of dying light across the concrete floor. Temptation called, all but invited him to sit down in that puddle of light and let it melt away the pain.
Neji stepped deeper into the gloom, body limned in an orange glow, his silhouette sharp and intrusive. The creak and drip of the old building echoed hollowly and the scent of weapon oil, steel and musty leather hung heavy as the shadows, blankets of darkness covering the far corners of the armoury like black canvases across unfinished works of art.
A startled gasp.
Neji whipped around. "Tenten?"
His voice boomed, sonorous and low, a deep rumble in the belly of the building. He cursed the acoustics and moved away from the doors, eyes adjusting fast. Clusters of low-hanging bulbs concentrated their flickering lights on several workbenches and armour racks, most occupying stark and sectioned areas, all divided by sliding panels. It allowed for convenient rearrangement and quick division of space – similar to fusuma panels in the home.
Another hitched breath, a hushed cry. "Neji!"
Gauging the direction of her voice, Neji closed distance in one leonine bound, planting a palm on a workbench to glide over two hazardous surfaces without touching down. He landed in a rising crouch, coming up sharply around a corner.
What he found halted him in his tracks.
He jerked to a stop, but momentum swung his hair across his shoulder along with the full weight of his knapsack. It slammed into his bruised chest, knocked a startled oomph out of him and dropped unceremoniously into the crook of his arm, jerking him forwards and down. He hung awkwardly for a moment, wincing.
Not his most graceful entrance.
Tenten didn't laugh. That might've been kinder than an awkward silence. Straightening up by degrees, Neji chanced a look from beneath his bangs and felt some of the tension – and humiliation – go out of his body.
Tenten hadn't even noticed him.
Oblivious to his presence, she knelt on a low bench, her fingers drifting in a mesmerised stroke across an array of melee weaponry laid out across the work surface. With infinite care, she caressed a bludgeoning-type instrument shaped like a scorpion-tail, stroking the huge tear-shaped telson and the lethal stinger with the tip of her index finger.
"They fashioned the stinger-cat's tail into a battle mace…" she whispered, soft as a prayer. "That's…brilliant."
Neji watched her for baffled moment, felt like he'd just walked in on something inappropriate. She was eyeing that thing the way Lee eyed Gai-sensei's gym equipment.
He cleared his throat.
Startled, Tenten looked up, cheeks flushed and eyes twinkling like a besotted child. "Can I have one?"
Neji's eyebrow ticked. He shrugged the knapsack back into place. Before he could suggest they look for Chōji, Tenten had moved on to the next contraption on display, patting her hands and bouncing on the balls of her feet like a child spoiled for choice.
Neji allowed a small smile to slip through. He couldn't begrudge her this small indulgence. This perusal of all things lethal classified as window shopping for the weapons specialist, which was probably about as girly as she allowed herself to get. And even then – a weapons store?
A sibilant hiss split the silence.
Neji stiffened at the sound, felt it slither across his nerves, dangerous and chilling. He met Tenten's gaze across the weapon's table. They waited, both alert, staring sightlessly at each other, ears straining.
Again it came, rising and falling like a serpent's breath.
Tenten's hand strayed to the weapons pouch strapped at her hip. Neji raised a palm. She paused, kept her gaze on him, waited for instruction. Neji closed his eyes, touched two fingers to his lips, miming silence and forming a seal in the same gesture.
Chakra flared at the base of his skull, flooded the occipital region and pooled behind his eyes, tightening the veins and arteries at his temples.
His eyes flickered open, opal spheres marked by the barest trace of a pupil.
Submerged in the monochrome hues of his dōjutsu, Neji expanded his awareness to encompass the lower storey, listening out until the wet hiss fell beneath the dry scrape of scales on metal.
White-eyes rolled in their sockets, locating a large restricted section at the back of the armoury. Neji zoomed closer; brought into focus an inverted image of steel mesh fencing, the diamond-shaped apertures revealing the striated body of a lizard-like chimaera pacing up and down in its makeshift prison.
A live one? In the armoury?
Neji frowned, deactivated his dōjutsu. Tenten read his expression, reached for her bō-staff only to pause and redirect. She picked up the scorpion-tailed mace, smiling.
Neji stared back at her, pokerfaced. "No," he mouthed.
Undeterred, Tenten squared her stance, braced the club across her shoulder and planted her free hand at her hip, brows arched in challenge. She made no move to put the weapon down, looked ready to swing at him if he suggested that she part with it.
Neji shook his head but backed off, retracing his steps to move out into the aisle that ran between the separate work stations. He took point and Tenten shadowed him, silently switching her newfound toy between each hand, testing weight and calculating momentum.
Another wet hiss sounded.
Neji paused, lifted a hand and curved his fingers outward to direct Tenten's attention, changing their path to approach the caged area from a peripheral angle, rather than advance dead centre.
Gods, it was a hideous thing.
Neji placed its height at around 7 feet. The long serpentine neck weaved in a cobra-like dance and a large ruff of skin, frilly and speckled with iridescent spots, flapped like a lace collar about its head and throat. Bipedal, the creature appeared to be a cross between a snake, lizard and a bird. While it lacked the feathered appendages and crocodile-snout of the lizard-bird chimaera that'd attacked Shikamaru a week ago, it presented similar reptilian and avian mannerisms, all quick-fire jerks and twitches – save the neck, which swayed with a grace and sinuousness that matched the long rattling tail.
Neji backed away. "Strange," he whispered, eyeing the worn scales. They didn't seem as impenetrable as the carapaces of the other chimaeras. Upon closer inspection it appeared that this creature had flaked off a lot of its protective skin by rubbing up against the steel mesh.
Tenten peered over his shoulder. "I don't remember seeing that one in the clearing."
"No," Neji agreed. "Perhaps they only had one to spare for research purposes."
"In an armoury?"
Neji hummed, frowning. He glanced at her. "Do you see anything useful insofar as weaponry?"
"First thing I looked for." Tenten tipped her chin towards the creature's muscular torso where the reptilian forearms were tucked close to the body, its small claws dangling limply. "I mean, it's scary looking, but check out the claws. They're nowhere near as long or powerful as some of the other chimaeras. The tail and neck are too mobile to be of any real use. That cartilage will crack easy as a twig."
Then why is it in here? And where is Chōji?
A rapid sniffing and the huge flat head swerved towards them, that pronounced hiss accompanied by the feathering of a serpent tongue. It poked through the holes in the mesh, tickling the air in front of Neji's face.
A sickly sweet breath, souring fast, rancid as vomit.
Neji jerked back, stepped away from the fencing. The chimaera's bright yellow eyes followed his movements, head snaking back and forth. The tail rattled softly, but it made no attack, body slithering up against the mesh fence, shaking the steel.
The padlock glinted.
Neji relaxed his guard, shoulders drawing down.
Following his lead, Tenten gave the fencing a wide berth and scrunched her nose as she passed the hissing beast. "He needs a bath. Or a breath mint."
"Both," a male voice agreed from somewhere above, the warmth in his deep voice rolling down the creaking staircase, stealing over the initial chill that'd gripped the younger ninja.
Recognising the tone, Neji's expression thawed and he turned in the direction of the stairway, gaze drifting up at the sound of the descending tread; weighted and steady, amplified by the clunk and grind of metal plates. As the unseen figure neared the foot of the stars, he flipped a switch, causing the bulbs clustered at the trellis to buzz and flicker to life; their dim glow arced off a broad dome of polished armour, strapped to an ample belly and ringed with a corded belt of thick twisted rope. The diffused light cast the man's plump features in stark relief; a crest of fiery hair, a broad flat nose, round jovial cheeks marked by purple stripes and dimpled in a smile that radiated the same warmth and amusement as his small squinting eyes.
Neji brought his hands to his sides, dipped his head and inclined his torso to the appropriate level of respect, not a degree above or below what was expected. "Senpai."
Stumbling into the formality, Tenten blinked wide, attempted to hide the scorpion-club behind her back and paused half-way into the appropriate bow, her eyes fixing on the iridescent armoured plates draped over Chōza's arm. "No way," she whispered. "You turned the carapaces into lamellar-style armour?"
Chōza looked to her appraisingly and patted the laced rows of plating. "Lamellar, scale and laminar," he said, striding over to lay the impressive cuirass on an unoccupied workbench. "I was going to test this out with Chōji, but seeing as you're here first." He beckoned her with a wave.
Tenten beamed and all but bounded over, thrusting the scorpion-club into Neji's unsuspecting chest. He staggered back, one arm wrapped around the weapon, frowning at her. "Tenten."
"What brings you here, young Hyūga?" Chōza interrupted affably, walking over to a large rack draped with various pieces of armour. He selected a slim plated bodice fashioned from the same obsidian scales, handing it to Tenten.
"I came to take inventory of our stock," Neji answered, setting the stinger-tail down and out of sight. "Needed an update on the armour situation."
Smiling, Chōza spread his hands, a gesture that encompassed several mannequins and wooden body forms all kitted out in various styles of armour. "Prototypes," he said. "But you'll have your update by the end of the day."
"No doubt," Neji said, watching Tenten tug on the cuirass and lace up the sides with quick tugs and twists, marvelling at the glistening lamellae, a set of scales that'd once belonged to a beast as gruesome and unnerving as the yellow-eyed reptile observing them from behind the steel mesh.
Chōza was talking, his back turned.
Neji didn't hear, continued to watch the chimaera, holding its stare. The beast crouched lower, began to weave its slender neck in a slow hypnotic dance, yellow eyes emitting a peculiar glow that held the Hyūga spellbound.
Neji cocked his head, inched closer to the cage, fascinated, appalled, but certain there was something there; some communication, some language, some meaning, some message in the movements, in the primal twist and turn.
The beast hissed, willed him closer to share its secrets.
Its tail rattled softly…softly…
Chōza stepped between them, broke the spell. "He's a charmer, that one."
Neji blinked fast, felt like he'd been caressed by a genjutsu. "What?"
"Don't get too close," Chōza advised, moving back over to Tenten. "One of our people learned the hard way."
Avoiding those yellow eyes, Neji observed the reptile's stippled underbelly, orange freckles and specks of red. "If it's so dangerous then why are you keeping it here and not at the Nara facility?"
Neji pressed his lips at the evasive response but didn't push further, letting his gaze drift across the caged area and beyond the chimaera's body to settle on a splattering of large and frothy pockmarks oozing down the steel walls.
What the hell?
Frowning, he tilted his head, pale eyes narrowing in on the wet fizz and pop of bubbles blistering the metal, eating into it like acid.
Kami…what is –?
Movement out the corner of his eye – something silent and slithering low to the ground, thin, black and quick as a viper. Neji whipped his head around, saw grey concrete and empty space.
And then he heard the padlock click.
He looked up into burning yellow eyes – could've sworn they smiled.
The gate exploded outwards.
"Neji!" Tenten screamed.
Neji flung himself back, heard a shattering hiss and building rattle, like rain off an old tin roof. Saw delicate frills of lacy flesh fan out across the beast's throat in a shivering crest and watched the long emerald neck pull back into a poised 's', jaws unhinging, fangs unfolding, black foam dripping.
Neji's eyes widened in comprehension.
And then that crested neck snapped forward, jaws wide, black foam spraying.
Blue-white chakra ripped the air with the force of a cyclone, ballooning outwards, washing the armoury in blinding light. Neji heard the wet smack of spit, the fizzle and pop of saliva spinning off his chakra shield, backfiring on the beast and spattering the concrete, the walls, the…
The chimaera screeched its pain.
Closing the kaiten's devastating spin, Neji guided the final revolution into a round-house kick, snapping the beast's jaws shut with a solid crack to the scaled chin. The chimaera reeled, massive tail whipping back and forth to catch its balance.
Neji almost lost his balance completely, a ragged gasp catching behind his teeth.
Damn. I need to replenish my chakra.
A good thing he hadn't expended himself completely last night during training. The ANBU drill had been relentless. They'd all but pushed him to his limit.
But not quite.
The kaiten had bought him precious seconds.
Seconds that he threw away the moment he looked over his shoulder, searched for Tenten…saw her safe and unharmed, crouched behind Chōza's supersized and heavily armoured forearm. Globs of spittle fizzed and popped, eating into the metal. Chōza cursed, ripped off the armguard before the acid could eat through clothing and into skin.
Neji's eyes rounded.
What the hell is in that venom?
He whipped back and froze, breath caught in his throat.
Time was up.
The reptilian face hovered inches from his own. Pungent breath fired out, fluttering his bangs, hot and tingling against his skin. But it wasn't the lengthening fangs or ropes of poisonous spit that held him paralysed. It was those scintillating yellow irises, the thin crescent pupil, the fused lids and the clear shining membrane that blinked horizontally across the glowing eyes.
Neji blinked slowly, heavily…
He didn't. Couldn't remember why he should. Saw no need. Saw only two yellow orbs as bright as sunlight, warm with promise, seeking rest in his cloud-like eyes.
Rest…it doesn't come like this…
But it had. Ugly and unexpected.
Neji stared death square in the face and felt no fear…felt no sadness…felt only bereft…empty of something vital…hollowed out by the realisation that…
"I'm not afraid. Not of death…"
"Yeah. And knowing that about you still scares the hell out of me, Neji."
Memories of a voice like smoke, a tongue like fire and a kiss that scorched his senses, burning straight through paralysed brain and clouded mind.
White eyes flashed wide, breaking the spell.
The chimaera moved faster.
Its neck snapped back and whipped forwards, throat contracting, venom glistening. And just as it prepared to spit, a black rope looped around its neck, tightened like a lasso and jerked hard, whipping the beast's head away, re-directing the boiling glob of spit onto an armoured mannequin with a wet crack.
Neji stared in shock, not comprehending.
And then he saw the rope move – no, slither – silent and snake-like, up along the creature's neck, crushing its leathery crest and muzzling the snapping jaws in a black shadow-hand.
"Getting sloppy, Chōza," came a low husky voice, raw as rust yet smooth as smoke and oh so dangerously soft.
Neji went rigid.
Chōza chuckled, a deep belly rumble. "Getting slow, Shikaku."
"Timing is everything."
And gods but the Nara had cut it close. Right down to the last hair-raising second.
And no doubt for my benefit…Neji thought derisively, backing away from the thrashing chimaera as the Nara commandeered the darkness, dragged the monster to its knees and back into its cage. Once he'd wrestled the beast into submission, a thin tendril split from the shadow hand, wormed it merry way along the steel mesh to slide the bolt and secure the padlock.
Neji kept his back to the stairway, breathing slow, breathing deep.
Tenten came to his side. She didn't touch him. Smart move. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," he said, clipped and quiet.
Neji didn't hear Shikaku descend the steps, but he felt the Nara's chakra withdrawing, watched it flood back across the floor in a black whisper, caressing his ankles in a chilling drift, mockingly soft. A parody of reassurance. As if he hadn't been watching the entire time. As if he hadn't waited until the last second. As if he hadn't unleashed that bloodthirsty monster in the first place!
Neji's breath seethed between his teeth, one silent hiss to expel the rage. And in one breath it was gone, extinguished. No burn, just the bitterness of ash…and the embers of emotions Ibiki kept warning him to crush and Shikaku kept baiting him to unleash.
They're playing me like a damned yo-yo…
Did he really expect or deserve any less?
A prickling sensation raised the hairs at his nape.
Neji turned his head, spied the elder Nara's sharp wiry outline braced against the stairwell, arms folded and ankles crossed, sooty lashes cast low over smouldering eyes.
But it wasn't amusement burning there.
No condescending smirk, no superior tilt to head or jaw. Not even the trademark Nara eyebrow. To Neji's shock, Shikaku's face remained disturbingly blank and empty of expression…but for the strange and unreadable look in his eyes.
Startled, Neji lowered his gaze to cover his unease and dipped into a quick and stilted bow, speaking quietly. "Thank you, Senpai."
Shikaku said nothing, but his eyes narrowed fractionally.
A wall of tension towered between them, cemented by Shikaku's silence, climbing higher with every passing second until Tenten's excited gasp punched straight through it, shattering the awkwardness and redirecting attention onto the toppled mannequin.
"The armour," she whispered, helping Chōza to straighten the fallen cuirass. "It's—"
"Completely unscathed," Chōza announced. He clapped the mannequin's gleaming shoulder guard as one would a trusted comrade, rattling the armoured scales. "Just as you suspected, Shikaku."
Tenten blinked, looked to Shikaku. "Suspected?"
The elder Nara kept his gaze on Neji for another weighted pause, blinked a slow lazy blink and finally looked over at the armour, directing his words to Tenten. "Some of the chimaeras possess chakra-infused carapaces. These shells or scales are invulnerable to the chakra-infused spit of their aggressors. The acid eats through almost anything else."
"Almost…" Neji echoed, watching globs of spit glide harmlessly off the fused scales. His jaw tightened. "How did you know I could repel it?"
"I didn't," the Nara drawled.
Neji cut him a sharp look, blunted by rules of respect and rank and a hundred other reasons that failed to explain or excuse just what the hell Shikaku was trying to do. Hurt him? Humble him? Humiliate him? Hate him? All of the above? And just what the hell was standing in those shadowed eyes?
Neji couldn't hold the stare, transferred his gaze back onto the cuirass. "You didn't know I could deflect it. But you suspected," the Hyūga reasoned, trying to rationalise what Shikaku refused to justify.
"Yes," Chōza spoke up, having remained silent throughout their exchange, watching Shikaku from beneath heavy brows. When he turned to Neji, the heaviness lifted and his eyes were warm and smiling. "Chakra-infused venom requires condensed chakra to repel it. Other than having infused armour, you'd need a sustainable shield of concentrated chakra in constant flow. No breaks in the defence. Such as—"
"The kaiten," Neji supplied, unable to dull the edge in his voice. His next question cut out sharp as a blade, his gaze back on Shikaku. "And if I hadn't used it?"
Shikaku gave no answer, but one corner of his lip curved in the barest trace of a smile.
It chilled Neji to the bone.
"Interesting turnout," Shikamaru drawled, eyeing the circle of empty cushions. Well, all empty save for one.
Naruto scowled, slid his finger over the final folds of his origami airplane and sent the Yakiniku Q takeaway menu sailing towards Shikamaru's head. The shadow-nin ducked, felt the paper skitter over the spiky strands of his ponytail and crash land onto someone's plate in the booth behind.
"Hey!" A customer thrust her head around the wall and peered over Shikamaru's shoulder, glaring at the pale-faced Uzumaki. "You almost poked my mother's eye out, you moron!"
Naruto cringed, laughed nervously. "Sorry."
"You will be," the woman growled, moving to round the shadow-nin.
Sighing, Shikamaru reached into his pocket with two slender fingers, plucked out four Yakiniku Q discount vouchers and held them over his shoulder right under the woman's nose. "Recompense for my idiot friend."
Snorting, the woman eyed the vouchers, weighing up the offer. Shikamaru estimated three more seconds. It only took two. She snatched the vouchers and returned to her meal.
Naruto didn't seem all that impressed at the negotiation, turning wounded eyes up towards the shadow-nin. "Buy one get one free?" He croaked, sounding pained. "Seriously?"
Shikamaru arched a brow. "That's what you get."
"I didn't get anything!"
"Exactly. You remember the last thing you aimed at my head? No?" Shikamaru balled a fist to illustrate, snorting at Naruto's wide-eyed look. "Yeah. And you missed. Hit Hibari instead. Remember how well that turned out for you?"
Naruto huffed, drew back with his arms folded. "You always duck."
"I'm smart like that."
Blue eyes sparkled but the high-beam grin dimmed to a weak twitch of lips. Naruto sighed, stared miserably at the cold brazier in the centre of the low table and spread his arms to indicate the vacant seats. "This is lame."
Shikamaru shrugged, leaning into the fusuma wall that divided the booths. "Maybe we got the wrong place."
Naruto shook his head, paused, then looked sideways at Shikamaru like there was some conspiracy in the works. "Where're Chōji and Ino?"
Good question, at least where Ino was concerned.
The shadow-nin opened his mouth to answer, but shouting drew his attention to the entrance of the restaurant. A trio of genin stumbled in through the flapping noren curtains, one boy bouncing ahead of the others, black curls falling into his bright green eyes. Their sensei, a tall bearded man with a ruby winking in his earlobe, followed close behind. As the noise-level piqued, he dropped a hand on Curly-Kid's head, said something that made the boy flush and quieten down, eyes on his shoes. An abashed silence – until the Jōnin's hand squeezed gently, ruffling the dark curls. Laughter followed, fond and forgiving.
Shikamaru's throat tightened and he glanced away, his voice hoarse. "If I had to guess, I'd say Chōji ended up doing overtime at the armoury with Tenten. As for Ino…" He lifted a shoulder, couldn't say for sure where Ino might've been. She hadn't been in the labs when he'd stopped by, which could've placed her anywhere. "What about Sakura and the others?"
Naruto harrumphed and slouched back, eyes following the meat-laden trays being carried back and forth across the restaurant. "Neji bailed. Sakura said she needed to re-stock the med-kits. Kiba was actin' all psycho over something quarantine did to Akamaru and Sai got called away by some creepy crawly ANBU-looking dude who made Shino go off all depressed and moody. Funny, cause they kinda looked the same too, you know?"
Only one word of that update registered as important enough and interesting enough to address – and even then, Shikamaru fought to keep the sneer from his lips and the scorn from his voice.
"ANBU, huh?" he muttered, not willing to hand over his brain to that troublesome puzzle without certifiable proof that it was worth his time. He shot Naruto a sceptical look out the corner of his eye. "You sure about that?"
Naruto wasn't listening, seemed more intent on concentrating the full force of his kicked-puppy look onto the adjacent side of the restaurant where the genin team and their sensei sat huddled around their sizzling table, the air about them redolent with the thick greasy smell of roasted beef tongue and crackling pork belly.
The waitress brought another tray.
Devastated, Naruto whined a high note. "Dammit. I'd thought at least some of the gang would'a put aside their crap and showed up."
Looking around drily, Shikamaru raised a hand to volunteer his presence.
That sarcastic and solitary gesture only served to deflate the Uzumaki further. Clutching his arms around his grumbling stomach, Naruto wilted like a starved sunflower, yellow spikes flopping forward as he dropped his head with an audible 'thud' atop the cold and barren table-top, rattling the lonely tongs and untouched chopsticks.
Man, what a kid…
Shikamaru might've been annoyed or maybe even amused, if he didn't instinctively know that Naruto's disappointment had less to do with his empty stomach and more to do with the empty seats.
Sighing, Shikamaru reached into his back pocket. A soft 'tap' and he slid two vouchers across the table, drumming his fingers to get Naruto's attention. The spiky head remained slumped.
Frowning, he jabbed Naruto's head with two stiff fingers, prodding a muted 'ow' out of the sulking Jinchūriki before Naruto turned a whiskered cheek against the table-top and spied the coupons. Blue eyes pinched in momentary confusion before flying wide. In the same breath it took for Shikamaru to shoot back from the table, Naruto sprang up with an audible pop of knees and crack of muscle, fist-pumping the air in triumph.
"YES!" he roared.
A startled hush descended on the restaurant.
Without a word, Shikamaru turned on his heel, head ducked under the staring eyes of the disgruntled owner and the baffled customers. He was already halfway out the door by the time Naruto caught up, slinging one arm around the shadow-nin's neck and raising the other with a delighted hoot, Ichiraku Ramen vouchers gripped tight in his hand, flapping gold and red in the cool evening breeze.
"Kami. What the hell were you thinking, pulling a stunt like that?" Chōza asked.
Standing by the upper storey window, hip propped against the sill, Shikaku glided the back of his crooked knuckle along the carrier-pigeon's chest, smoothing out the old ruffled feathers. The pigeons hadn't spooked. But then, Shikaku hadn't suspected they would. They'd grown accustomed to the noise in the armoury, grown accustomed to the habits and demands of the ninja that they lived to serve.
Or serve…just to live…
Shikaku frowned. He'd forgotten to replenish the bird feed today. No matter. This bird wouldn't need it anymore.
Shikaku felt Chōza's gaze urging him to respond, but rather than rush his business or turn to reply, he continued on at the same casual pace, taking his time to secure a miniature scroll to the bird's leg. The pigeon cooed at the gentleness of his touch, at total ease with these hands that could kill as fast as they could caress.
"One more time, old friend," Shikaku murmured. He turned at the waist, leaned sideways out the window and held his arm aloft, his voice low and soothing. "One more time. Then you're free."
A soft hoot and the bird lifted off into the dark velvet skies, sending up a handful of twirling plumes in its race to obey. Shikaku watched the feathers drift, a see-sawing descent that drew his gaze down to the young white-robed shinobi exiting the armoury.
"I had my back turned and my armour unstrapped when you made that move," Chōza said. "Neji could've been blinded. Disfigured. Worse."
"Much worse," Shikaku agreed, watching Neji move with the stubborn confident strides of a man in total control of himself despite his pain.
So like Hizashi…
Yes. So very in control of himself, but not in control of his direction, his destiny. A destiny not yet determined, simply hanging by threads. Threads which made Neji nothing more than a marionette doll in the hands of superiors that knew how to pull his strings and make him dance.
"Why did you do it, Shikaku?"
Shikaku dropped his shoulder against the window frame, let out a long breath through his nose. "Do you think Hizashi would've reconsidered, if given the chance that his son has now?"
"Shikaku," The gravity of Chōza's voice settled with the gentle pressure of the Akimichi's hand upon Shikaku's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "What you did? That Hyūga boy could've been seriously hurt."
"You underestimate this one," Shikaku said, turning to dislodge the touch, but smiling to show he appreciated the sentiment. And then the light left his eyes. "And he's not a boy. None of them are. They're not children anymore. They stopped being children a long time ago."
Chōza drew his head back, searched Shikaku's face in dim glow. "You said the same thing to Inoichi when they came back from that mission."
That mission. The one that'd sent two Akatsuki monsters to their graves. Over and done so fast, with Asuma barely two days dead in the ground.
So fast…always, so fast…
Shikaku's lidded gaze strayed over Chōza's shoulder then drifted back. "You're right. I said it then. And I say the same thing now. They're not kids anymore."
Chōza frowned. "Has something happened between you and Shikamaru?"
Shikaku's expression arched, a look of amused curiosity to disguise the emotion that threatened to bleed into his eyes – an ugly extension of the scars that streaked across his face. "Between me and my son? No. But between you and Inoichi, I'm starting to wonder how I got saddled with the shrink."
While Chōza normally appreciated the wisdom of a bad joke saving him from a dangerous moment, the Akimichi gave no sign of appreciating it now. He gazed with affection at Shikaku. And then his words, so soft, hit like a fist. "You're my brother, Shikaku. My family. You and Inoichi, both." And then even softer, "Shikamaru and Ino, both. Did you forget that?"
And for all his bitter experience and for all his many, many years of playing the game, Shikaku could make no move and manufacture no expression to conceal the pain that phased behind his eyes, rolling deep in the shadows that lived there.
"Forget?" he uttered, too calm, too quiet.
Face pinched, Chōza stepped forward.
Shikaku stepped back, angled his head in warning. But while his body sought shadow, his scars caught the light, glinting silver in the dying gloom, speaking of terrors his tongue had long forgotten how to tell.
"Remind me," Shikaku husked, lost in a game no longer familiar, using the only two words he remembered how to play. "Remind me."
A soft intake of breath as sadness glittered in Chōza's eyes. "We wouldn't let you forget, Shikaku. We..." he trailed off, brows pincing tight before he shook his head, adding softly, "We wouldn't let you forget that."
No. Not that...
The thickness of Shikaku's silence was consumed by the shadows that moved to engulf him, swallowing up the emptiness of the space he'd abandoned and the words he'd left behind. "Never that."
There was blood on the moon, its yellowed surface tinctured red.
A Hunter's Moon.
Neji walked another staggering pace, paused and looked up into the pockmarked face; saw the incandescent light, the craters and the shadows. His breath rattled out, mist and vapour through his lips. He swayed, paused at one of the ancient sugi trees close to the Hyūga compound, crouched low beneath its giant shadow and spat blood onto the roots rising up from the soil.
But he'd held it together long enough to walk away, straight-faced and steady on his feet. And now he could barely stand. Ibiki was driving him into the unforgiving ground – and he hadn't even hinted at Neji moving beyond the preliminary stages yet. All this training could come to nothing. Well, nothing more than a honing exercise, equipping him with skills, strength and stamina he'd never get to use – at least not in the way he wanted, needed…which amounted to wasted time and crushed dreams.
It was the not knowing that bothered Neji more than the brutality of the training. He'd expected this much. Felt a kind of masochistic thrill at pushing past his limits.
But it was the waiting…the wondering…
He coughed and red spit flecked the tree.
To hell with it. Let them run me into the ground. But I'll be damned if they bury me before I'm free…
Conviction lent him strength. Bracing his shoulder against the trunk, he gazed up at that ruined moon and swallowed thickly, the taste of iron rich in his mouth.
He sipped at the sweet cedar air, let the tension leave him in long smoky wreathes, calm and easy, steady and slow, on and on until the pain receded to a dull throb.
Easier said. No chance of using the Byakugan to scout out a safe route to his room. He didn't have the chakra to spare. Safest plan was to circumvent the verandas and inner courtyards, which left the roof as the only viable option.
Wonderful…infiltrating my own home…
At least that wouldn't be classed as breaking and entering.
Or would it?
He smirked drily at the thought, dragged his lean blood-smeared cheek against the coarse ruddy bark and panted hard. Chakra pills. He needed them fast.
Glancing around, Neji tucked himself deeper into the shadows and reached up to dip his fingers into the low neck of his stained and muddied robe, following the seam down to the fastener. He popped the button, stroked callused fingers across his torso, along the unseen tenketsu lines, pausing at a thin ridge of scar tissue, pale and almost faded. Another two stripes lashed across his chest. He had no idea where or how he had gotten the injury. Knew only that he'd discovered the wounds the morning he'd woken up alone in that that inn…that bed…
Such a confused jumble of memories and imaginings, faces and rooms, words and actions. Some of it real, some of it hallucination, but all of it chaos and a mess in his head but for one moment of blinding clarity.
Heat prowled through him, primal and dark, wild beneath a Hunter's bloody moon.
Snarling, Neji cracked his skull back against the tree, focused on the pain and yanked his thoughts back to the present. He bypassed those mysterious scars, let his fingers drag back onto the leylines of his chakra, following them across until he located the appropriate point.
Just the one. He knew better than to cluster them. Had learned the hard way.
Do it now.
One deep breath, a tiny spark of blue-white light – and he burst the chakra block, teeth grit hard and eyes squeezed shut.
Kami! I'd forgotten the pain…
To think that once he'd lived with such blocks long enough to create embolisms in his lungs. Long enough to lose a control he'd never really had to begin with.
I won't make that mistake again.
A dizzying and nauseating heaviness pulled through him, followed by a roaring in his ears as his blood pressure raised then regulated. He mentally checked himself, braced his palms against the tree and rose carefully, uncoiling his spine one vertebrae at a time, lifting his head last.
The world stopped spinning, the air no longer burned his lungs.
He felt the trickle of reserved chakra run like lifeblood through his veins, rejuvenating muscles and restoring strength. Enough strength at least to carry him across the compound, silent and unseen, bare feet finding traction on the smoky grey roof tiles, his path lit below by the diffused lantern light; strings of dull orbs burning in the courtyards and along the roofed corridors branching out between the various quarters.
Neji found the aperture to his room, swung in through the open window.
He landed in a crouch, one knee touching down. Remained unmoving for uncounted seconds, listening out for any disturbance.
He let out the breath he'd been holding.
Rising to his feet, he staggered sideways, caught himself one-handed against the fusuma wall, groping along for the handle that slid the panel aside. He reached into the compartment, pulled out a black-lacquered box, popped the lid and thumbed three concentrated chakra pills from the stash. He knocked them back without chewing, swallowed dry and winced, turning to search for water.
He froze mid-step, very muscle coiled.
Stillness gripped him, the dangerous kind. Not borne of fear, but borne of fury. It settled across his body, cold as frost, leaving his face as pale and hard as the bird-faced ANBU mask nestled on his futon.
Chilling, to know they'd been here. Not just here in the domain of the all-seeing eyes but here specifically. In this pathetic spit of space he'd tried to make his haven. A home. A place to heal after nights of torture drills, mind trials and…
A note rested beside the mask.
The ice in Neji's eyes, the cold fury of indignation, cracked. Confusion pulled his brows together and he moved over to the bed. He transferred his stare onto the mask; whole and unworn, a far cry from the broken mask that Shikaku had taunted him with months ago in the Hyūga dōjō. He glanced at the note.
A crisp white sheet, folded in half. One word penned across the front.
Neji stared at it, eyes wide and brow furrowed, heart beating hard.
He'd been summoned.
Time slipped past unnoticed, the little white square begging to be opened, like a window to another world. The world he'd fought tooth and nail to gain entry to. A world where freedom took the form of wheels within wheels and walls within walls – only never stable, always in motion, serving as illusions of boundaries because there were no boundaries. Just belief systems. Just circles of conscience that ANBU worked within and without.
Neji reached up with aching arms, untied his hitai-ate, pulled it free from his scarred brow, felt the phantom pains of the curse mark still fresh in his mind from Hyūga Hitaro's intermittent tortures.
He felt a fierce beating in his chest, like that of trapped wings.
He took up the ANBU mask, crabbed his pale fingers around the smooth ceramic and fit its perfect mould against his face; felt a lightness in his chest, a tingling in his hands, a breathless sense of surrender and an overwhelming sense of gain.
The note lay waiting against the sheets, undisturbed and briefly forgotten.
The keys to his cage.
Indeed, a little white window...opening out into a world where all doors to the heart were closed.
A/N: Seasons Greetings, faithful readers and kind reviewers! It is with much sadistic surprise and masochistic madness that I return this Christmas and New Year to bring you the final instalment of the BtB series. I hope that this crazy long first chapter has given you enough plot meat and character drama to chew on as I get the next one written and ready. There's a lot happening here, so prepare yourselves. Hmn. Anyone wanting to brain themselves yet? Or is that just me? As always, I wouldn't be doing this if not for the incredible support and love that you people have shown both this series and my 'currently-in-progress' original works. I will be posting up a journal entry over at my dArt page more worthy of your time and interest than this A/N note. Please know that I appreciate you so much and I'm ever warmed and touched and delighted by your encouragement, commens and thoughts. Your reviews and feedback are my chakra soldier pills! And now, please buckle up. The ride is about to begin.
A/N 2: Will return to this chapter later to scout for missed typos (the buggers!) As always, check dArt for any news/updates etc.