Disclaimer: NARUTO and its characters were created and are owned by Masashi Kishimoto. Original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement intended.


Pairings: ShikaNeji/NejiShika, Kiba/Ino, Kakashi/Genma

Rating: M / R (language, themes, violence etc.)

Genre: Drama/Angst/General

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.


by Okami Rayne

Chapter Thirty


The clouds were holding the sun.

A gold-white star.


Neji tilted his face up into its light, felt the warmth melt across his bare brow, stroking over the curse mark like hot lips, crooked and smiling. He breathed deep, could've sworn he smelled smoke on the breeze.

It's time.

He stepped down, felt cool polished wood beneath his feet. A rustle of cloth, smooth cotton across his skin as his arms stroked through the sleeves of his robes. He fastened the button. Secured his hitai-ate. Affixed the band at the end of his hair.

Ritual, calm.

The wintry sun burned on, the shadows at rest beneath it.


Stepping into his sandals, Neji walked the length of the veranda enclosing the Hyūga Compound's main courtyard. A long and steady stride, unbroken by the turn of dark heads as clan elders and Main House members passed him by beneath the grey curling eaves, his figure cast half in shadow, half in light.

They stopped, they stared.

Neji's step did not falter.

In the courtyard, Hyūga Hijikata looked up from Hinata and Hanabi's spar.

Neji bowed his head, but not his body. Respect, not ritual. Honour, not humility. He bowed not because he felt compelled by their division, but because he felt compelled by their unity. He was Hyūga. He'd made that choice. And while he did not wear the ANBU mask, every Hyūga wore a face. And given the tremendous loss of face Hiashi's actions had caused this old man, honour was better regained now than left to rot and fester.

Hyūga Hijikata was still Neji's grandfather.

And he still lived under this roof.

All of this, was no longer a matter of blood or birth. Neji had made it a matter of choice. He'd chosen this. It had not been thrust upon him. So, with a grace and understanding far beyond the years of an eighteen year old man who'd suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of this clan, he wore his Hyūga mask and bent his head – and in doing so, restored his grandfather's honour.

Surprised, Hijikata's wizened face arched slightly, but he nodded.

The ripples were immediate.

Neji felt the united response as one senses the elemental charge before the monsoon rains. But the sun shone on, even as all those cold white eyes watched him pass, wary and uncertain. He was more than a bird out of its cage. He was a paper tiger given life, his gait sleek and strong and purposeful. No more rings of fire, no more circus tricks, no more masters.


Ah, but karma could not resist. Up ahead, Hitaro stood by the tearoom, eyes cold but lips cinched tight, expecting a scene.

Neji simply passed him by.

Did not have to roar his freedom. Let them think he'd never found it. There was more than power in that. There was pride. And grace. And a peace which came from knowing he finally knew how to slip between the bars of his gilded prison.

Let them own his cage.

He owned the key.

Passing towards the gateway, a shadow fell across his path. He turned his head and saw his uncle approaching. Only Hiashi walked alone. Not with his usual Branch House entourage when leaving for his early morning walks.

Uncle and nephew paused together at the threshold.

Neji bowed, deeper than he had to his grandfather. Hiashi waited for him to rise again, pale eyes speculative beneath the smooth ledge of his brow. There was a brief silence between them. But it held less distance, less remoteness, than all the silences that'd ever come before.

At length, Hiashi spoke. "You made your choice."

"I did."

More silence, the speculation in Hiashi's eyes scintillating like light against steel. Something warring within him. "Nara," was all he said.

Neji blinked slowly. Did not deny the claim but neither did he confess to it. There was only one altar he confessed at. One place, one person, he took his soul to in order to shake it into pieces and put it back together again; stronger, steadier, without sin, service, shame or any of the 'should do' shackles attached to Hyūga, ninja, senpai, Jōnin and all those other masks he wore.

One place, where he was human.

One place, where he was home.

The Hyūga Household could never be that place, but that didn't mean he failed to recognise Hiashi's attempts to make it so. To make it a place where the souls of all those sacrificed didn't haunt its halls. Where siblings and cousins weren't branded like livestock and pit against each other. Where the high tides of tradition weren't constantly dashing dreams of freedom against the rocks.


That great but broken ship Neji had once thought lay at the bottom of all that Hyūga water that would never be blood. But when the tempest hit, Hiashi hadn't weighed anchor or returned to safe harbour. And he hadn't gone down with a sinking ship. He'd changed course, driven headlong into the storm, into the waves.

Hiashi too, had chosen between two destines.

And he'd made the choice Neji never believed he would.

Lowering his eyes respectfully, Neji tipped his head, spoke softly. "I know my choice must seem unusual to you," he said at length. "Hiashi-sama, you once granted me the freedom to go my own way. When I made the decision to pursue ANBU, you did not stop me."

"Nor did I support you," Hiashi pointed out, well aware they weren't talking about ANBU. "Do not ask me to support you with this new path you've chosen. I will not."

Smiling slightly, Neji lifted his gaze. "I ask for nothing you have not already granted me."

"And what is it you think I've granted you?"

"The right to choose my own path. Grant me that freedom once again and I will not waste my time trading cages. I will stay here and I will protect my cousins. Watch over them. Guard them with my life."

"The way you guarded Nara Shikamaru?" Hiashi charged, white eyes sharpening. "Indeed…the way he guarded you?"

Neji's expression closed, his jaw drawing up a notch. Again, he did not deny. But neither did he defend his actions. He sure as hell wasn't going to explain them. Hiashi must've known this, must've read it in his eyes, because the elder did not press for an answer.

Neji waited for the anger.

To his shock, it did not come.

Rather than the cold iron cast of disapproval, Hiashi's face retained its calm but speculative mien. No contempt in his eyes. Just a hint of that lifelong conflict Neji had always detected just beneath the cool veneer.

"There are cages, Neji. And then there are chains."

Ah, but wasn't that the irony of it? For his heart to be free, even when it's strings were tethered to another ninja's? Neji smiled faintly, his gaze going briefly to the solid bars of sunlight streaking through the trees…and then to the shadow chained to his side, where the silhouette of his robe moved freely in the breeze, the long sleeves fluttering like wings.

"So long as there's a choice, Hiashi-sama. That's all the freedom I'll ever need. From cages. From chains."

Hiashi studied him, expression inscrutable, eyes searching. "That is what Nara Shikaku told your father. And Hizashi died in his chains all the same."

Cruel words, but Neji detected Hiashi's firm hand attempting to guide him here, not knock him down. He held his uncle's gaze. "My father made a choice. While you believe he died in his chains, in the end, he believed he was free."

"Death is never freedom."

"That is why I chose to live."

"And here I thought you always believed ANBU would have given you a greater freedom to live."

"I did believe that. Up until I realised ANBU would've been my grave."

Hiashi's brows twitched upwards a scant inch before his expression ironed out. "Again, that is what Shikaku told your father. And again, Hizashi died all the same. I have seen too many sons inherit the fates of their fathers, Neji."

Neji frowned, eyes narrowing before understanding caused his expression to soften. "You believe Shikaku's words swayed my father away from ANBU's safety and sealed his fate." He tilted his head, reading the pain in Hiashi's silence. "Is that what you believe Nara Shikamaru has done with me? That he's ensured my father's fate is my destiny?"

Ah, that word. Even Hiashi knew its significance. It's power. It's curse. He drew his chin back, fingers tightening over the end of the bokken he always carried. "I believe our courses are determined by more than our own choices, Neji."

True enough. And thank god for that. For all the curveballs and the unseen events which had shaken Neji's conviction and thrown countless hurdles and constant obstacles across his path to ANBU. Without those miracles in disguise, he'd have chosen a living death behind that mask.

Neji spread his hands, sleeves rippling, the shadow of wings stretching. "I can no more control that fact than my father could control the timing of his birth, Hiashi-sama. But not having control over the choices of others is no excuse not to choose my own path. Not to make my own choices."

Hiashi's lip quirked in a mirthless smile. "Sometimes, there is no choice."

"If you believed that, you'd never have trained with me. If you believed that, you'd never have protected me from Hitaro three weeks ago or gone against my grandfather's wishes." Neji paused, his hands coming back to his sides slowly. "If you truly believed that, ojisan…we wouldn't be having this conversation."

Caught out, Hiashi had grace enough and control enough not to react. He held his adamantine poise as a veteran warrior holds a dented shield to his chest, protecting the most vital organ. "Hn. Change is infectious, it would seem."

Uncertain how to take that, Neji's expression remained guarded.

Hiashi watched him, perhaps waiting out his silence, or wondering at it. After a tense beat, the elder blinked slowly, a gap between the defences, white eyes exposing a glimmer of emotion before it vanished; lost to shields and masks and age old defences. He turned slightly, as if to walk away. "Do not misunderstand my actions. I do not support the choice you have made. But I support your right to have a choice. To have that freedom."

And that, right there, was all the blessing Neji needed. Staring at his uncle's profile, he managed a fractional smile. "You did not support my choice for ANBU. And now you do not support my choice to abandon it. It seems I am destined to disappoint you, Hiashi-sama."

Hiashi scoffed, pride rearing in the slow lift of his head. "It is not your choice I take exception to. Only your reason."

"I have many reasons," Neji countered. "And I find more every day."

That he could speak those words and mean them, feel them, left him standing all the stronger. But there was no face off. No sign of his uncle looking to herd him back towards the Hyūga flock. For a long contemplative moment, Hiashi pursed his lips, his gaze fixed on the compound, tracing the cracks in the white-washed walls. What did he see? A castle? A cage? A chrysalis which promised change?

"You have never disappointed me, Neji."

The soft words struck hard.

It took Neji a moment to register they'd even been spoken, much less directed at him. He blinked, drawing up a notch. Hiashi's expression, ever guarded, betrayed no outward sentiment. But his words? They came from that place of conflict which would sometimes rage behind the ice in his eyes. A place where chains and cages held all the choices he'd never dared to make...until recently.

Neji swallowed. "And your reasons, Hiashi-sama?"

"I have many reasons," Hiashi echoed back before adding quietly. "All, I might kill for. But only three, would I die for." He turned his head, met Neji's gaze. "Die for by choice, not command."

This, Neji understood. And perhaps it was this understanding alone that bridged the divide. Hiashi did not have to agree, but he acknowledged. No matter his personal opinion on the matter, he would protect the one thing all Hyūga ninja looked for and so few ever found: the freedom to choose. The freedom to go, if only for a while, their own way.

"I understand," Neji said.

"I know you do. Does he? Does he understand your sacrifice?"

"Saving him as he saved me was never a sacrifice."

An eloquent snort. "What was it then? An evening of scores?"

An immediate exit. An excellent excuse. Would it help for Hiashi to think of it that way? As a game his nephew was playing and nothing more? How easy it would've been, to say yes. How easy it would've been to tell the same lie Shikamaru had told all those months ago; that they were friends. Comrades. Nothing more than echoes of their fathers' temporary stories.

Temporary fates.

A Nara and a Hyūga crossing complicated paths.

Giving Hiashi this lie would've spared them both…but it would not have been the truth. And for all the lies Neji had lived, for all the masks he was forced to wear, what was the point when Hiashi already knew the truth…already knew the reason?

"You know what it was, Hiashi-sama," Neji replied, his soft voice strung with steel. Unwavering as his gaze. "What it is."

Hiashi was quiet for a time. Statue still. Stone. "You do not fear Nara Shikaku's wrath, should he discover your involvement with his son?"

Delicately put. While Neji appreciated his uncle's subtly, he was thrown by Hiashi's state of calm. He seemed remarkably unperturbed. "I suspect Nara Shikaku already knows," Neji admitted, wary, uncertain. "If that's the case, is his wrath the only punishment I have to suffer?"

As that question sank, Neji tried to search for undercurrents beneath the surface of his uncle's level voice and too-still face.


Hiashi was masterful at this ice-masked game…and yet, there was no suggestion of coldness in his face, or in his voice when he finally spoke again. "You've suffered enough…as has he."

Stunned, Neji could only stare, counting the beats between all the breaths he wasn't taking as he absorbed those words into blood that was once water. It took him a double count to respond, his voice hoarse. "Your leniency is—"

"It has never been leniency," Hiashi cut him off, a rough note abrading his otherwise calm steady tones. "Though you will call it that…as I will call this involvement you have with Nara Shikamaru nothing more than a comrade's bond. And we shall never speak of it again. Do you understand?"

Better than I ever thought I would…than I ever thought 'you' would.

Whatever he'd expected, it certainly hadn't been this. Bowing his head, Neji nodded, his smile unseen as he answered as Hiashi needed him to. "I understand, Hiashi-sama."

Understood, at last, what he'd overlooked time and again the past when it came to his uncle. Understood, at last, that with Hyūga Hiashi, in all his cold and unpractised ways…leniency was love.

The Memorial Stone.

It gleamed silver-gold in the sunshine, its diamond tip aimed heavenward. An arrow pointing out the way. Souls didn't stop here, they went up. Up where stars and suns and all those celestial lights burned on, outstripping human life.

Human life…

Such a small fragile spark.

So easily stamped out.

And yet, the Will of Fire which burned in every Konoha shinobi's heart seemed somehow inextinguishable. In some cases, some ninjas' Will of Fire had burned so enduringly, so faithfully, so indomitably bright, that it'd emblazoned their names not only into the headstone at the heart of this quiet clearing, but into the heart of every ninja who came here.

To honour.

To remember.

To look forward as well as back.

This was a place filled less with mourning and more with memory. And sometimes, memory was a song.

"Tsubomi, sweet girl
Say a little prayer
Tsubomi, sweet girl
With the flowers in your hair."

Standing out of sight, Kakashi listened and watched from the shadows of the treeline as Ino knelt beside the Memorial Stone, Kiba standing at her side.

"Tsubomi, sweet girl,
Find the straight and lonely tree
Tsubomi, sweet girl,
Lay your violets there for me."

The young Yamanaka girl had a beautiful voice, clear and sweet and it took Kakashi back to a time he could not name. His father had once told him that Kakashi's mother would sing to him in the womb during her pregnancy. Was there some deep prenatal memory strumming through his heartstrings? Some dusty jar on his wonky shelves tucked too far back to fully retrieve?

I wonder…

Leaning into one of the old oaks, he braced his left arm above his head and cocked his hip against the gnarled trunk, watching as Ino bent to lay a simple bouquet of violets on the plinth. She kissed her fingertips and stroked them over the newly chiselled name.

Yōkai Naoki.

Kakashi had been surprised by the engraving. By the use of the Team name rather than the clan name. But then, from what little he knew about Naoki, the man's past with his two clans had been dark and troubled. And while forgiveness had been given and found at the end, Naoki had been at his happiest, his most whole, when he was with his ANBU Team.

With Genma.

Kakashi smiled sadly behind his mask, grey eye softening on the scene. Ino kept her hands pressed in prayer for a long moment, her body tilted against Kiba's leg. The dog-nin was unusually still and patient, his fingers idly stroking through Ino's unbound hair.

Well look at that…

Kakashi arched a silver brow and wondered, with some amusement, what Asuma would have thought, or done, if he'd been standing here.

Oh dear.

Well, Kurenai might've stayed the Sarutobi's hand before it got to Kiba's unsuspecting throat, but all the same, it entertained the copy-nin to imagine what might've unfolded.

What might've been.

Ah, but wasn't that just one of the many, many ghosts which haunted this place? Lost comrades, lost chances, lost could've beens and should've beens. So much loss. Yet so much to be found in remembering why it was important to never take those things for granted…or throw them away, should one be lucky enough to find them again.

Or, should they find you.

Sure enough, Kakashi sensed the man behind him seconds before Genma's lips and nose pressed against the corner of his masked jaw. "Here for Obito?"

Humming, Kakashi turned his head, looked sidelong out the corner of his smoky grey eye at Genma's shadowed profile. "And you? Naoki?"

Genma shook his head, draped his right arm over the copy-nin's raised shoulder in a casual manner which failed to disguise the warmth the embrace inspired.

Not used to public displays of anything much less affection, Kakashi stiffened as he always did, but Genma – as he always did – kindly pretended not to notice.

"He's not there," Genma said. "None of them are."

Kakashi considered this for a moment, his eyes on the Chūnin. "It helps, Genma."

"Yeah. They say that. I'm sure it does for some people."

"But not for you."

A soft snort and Genma's lip kicked upward in a rueful smile. "Not for me."

Sorrowful as those words were, there was no resignation to them. Curious, Kakashi turned slightly, his forearm sliding a little higher along the tree, his neck resting in the crook of Genma's arm. He traced his gaze over the Shiranui's profile.

"Then where do you go to remember, Genma?"

The question hung.

Hung the way Genma hung off the copy-nin's tilted shoulder.

In silence.

In stillness.

That long, lean, sun-bronzed arm dangling lazily over the left side of Kakashi's chest. And then, just when Kakashi suspected he wouldn't get an answer, Genma's palm tapped down. A solid thump above Kakashi's heart.

"Here," Genma said.

Action, as always. And the firm clap of his hand above Kakashi's tender heart had more impact than anything the Shiranui might've added in words. Kakashi's gaze gentled with affection.

Sensing the look, Genma drummed his fingers over Kakashi's chest, then rubbed his knuckles lightly over the tenderly beating spot. "Yeah," Genma murmured, a playful quirk to his lips. "That's getting me laid tonight."

Kakashi laughed. The first time he'd ever laughed in the presence of the Memorial Stone and all the ghosts that haunted it. But contrary to all his superstitions, the heavens didn't open. The earth didn't crack beneath his feet. No demons came with hungry hands, no avenging angels screamed at him to suffer, to repent, to put away his smile and cough up all his sins.

There was only sunlight…

And warmth…

Rays of long forgotten life spilling bright and golden into the dusty cabinet of his chest…burnishing the wonky shelves and striking off the fragile glass ornaments which hung from his ribs…crystal prisms twirling gently in the breeze of laughter…catching the sunlight…reflecting it back…a hundred tiny flames…a hundred Wills of Fire.

Konoha's Kings, the Children of the Leaf, played through the shadow and the sunlight. Smiling, Shikamaru watched them dash and skip around the headstones, slacking off cemetery maintenance duty to squeeze in some fun; ninja missions, hide and seek, catch and chase.

Same games, different boards.

Innocence was the Game Master here, orchestrating the play. Shikamaru liked the rules. No child was a pawn to be captured or sacrificed. Winners weren't warlords and the only price to pay for losing was a round of dangos at Amaguriama's. Threats weren't unpredictable and came in only two forms; overbearing mothers and tyrant teachers. Anyone could be a hero and the monsters they fought were the ones they made up. One round never risked an endgame. There was always another turn and time to play. Always a tomorrow. A tomorrow where the worst of their wounds and the deepest of their scars came from scraped knees, accidental falls and roughhousing mischief.

It was a beautiful game.

Maybe it was a beautiful lie.

Whatever it was, whatever it wasn't, Shikamaru wanted to preserve it for these kids. For these unbreakable Kings building their castles in the sky. Sure, one day that sky might fall. But Shikamaru figured: to hell with it. Just for a while, let them run, let them play, let them get lost between the shadow and the light before they learned – too soon – what it meant to go to war with those conflicting forces inside themselves and their comrades and the world at large.

Give them memories to hold onto, not memorial stones…

There would always be monsters, always be Game Masters looking to spin the board and change the rules while the players struggled to sacrifice, swap and save their pieces, their pawns, or their precious people.

Let them stay Kings for as long as they can…

Better to see these kids playing than to see them drifting like ghosts between the aisles of these graves, silent and mournful, laying down flowers or polishing headstones for loved ones taken from them long before their time.

"I'm counting on you, Shikamaru."

I know. And you've been waiting on me too.

Slotting his hands into his pockets, Shikamaru took a vertical route through the cemetery and passed a little girl crouched by a gravestone. She had her hands over her eyes, mouthing her countdown to 100. Shikamaru's brow ticked up, lips curved in a wry smile. At that age, he'd have taken the opportunity to nap while everyone went to hide. Or…he'd have been distracted by the clouds drifting overhead.

Cumulus clouds…

His favourite kind, with the sun firing their pale fluffy tufts a blinding white. He'd been higher than all those clouds last night. Had burned hotter than their gold-struck edges. Knew he'd floated back down to earth at some point but couldn't recall…only knew that when he'd come down, he'd fallen.


The way he'd once believed he was way too smart to ever fall.

Just goes to show, never was a thinking thing.

Pulling his hands from his pockets, Shikamaru acknowledged the flighty sensation turning giddy circles in his gut. Not the skittish fear he'd lived with for so long. No. Not even close. This was an anticipatory quiver, the urge to run towards, not away from.

Damn, Hyūga…you've done a serious number on me…

A serious number which went way beyond all possibilities and predictions. It was the kind of math that defied Shikamaru's brain and divided him up into multiple stolen moments and pieces waiting to come together again. And he would. They would. One touch. One look. One damn moment in time that stopped all time…the way time had stopped last night…the way time was stopping now, the more Shikamaru thought about it. Felt about it.

There I go again…

Shaking his head, Shikamaru apologised to his sensei but sensed that somehow, Asuma would forgive him the fall from his head into his heart. Yanking his brain out of its stall, he moved to stroll beneath the clouds' bulbous shadows, his gaze scouting ahead towards the huge vermillion sculpture which crowned the cemetery.

A giant flame.

The Will of Fire.

Shikamaru recalled how Asuma would stand there for hours, smoking, ruminating. Probably thinking about his old man, about the choices and the moves the Sandaime had made in order to protect what pieces he could in the on-going and dirty political game all Kage were forced to play.

He did his best…just like you.

A gentle breeze at his back. Cool but soothing across the back of his neck – soft as a breath, or the briefest touch of a ghostly hand. Shikamaru didn't realised he'd stopped walking, his focus having strayed up from the Will of Fire monument to the clouds again.

Watched a bird sail under the sun.


Taking a breath, Shikamaru rolled his steps onwards and turned at the next row, walked a few headstones down, his focus now fixed on the destination he'd avoided for nearly a month now.

I wasn't ready.

No. He'd been too busy running, too busy believing he'd lost the only person who'd ever been able to chase him down and bring him home, bring him back.

"That's all I'll ever care about. Bringing you back."

Now, Asuma didn't have to worry and Shikamaru didn't have to wonder. He had white wings and white eyes above him, watching over him, leading him back. Smiling, Shikamaru slowed his steps…then stopped at the next headstone.

"Hey," he murmured. "Sorry I'm late." He pulled out a cigarette packet, then Asuma's lighter from his pocket. A quick brush of his thumb over the tarnished steel and he flicked the lid.

A soft chink of the spring toggle.

An orange lick of flame.

"I got lost there for a while…" Shikamaru explained, lighting up a cigarette. "But hey…it's not like you don't already know that." Crouching beside the headstone, he set the smoking stick down on the busy stone plinth. "Guess Ino and Chōji beat me to it again, huh?"

Sure enough, a basket of fresh Akimichi mochi sat to one side, the rice cakes decorated with the Ino-Shika-Cho clan crests, respectively. To the other side of the headstone was an ikebana arrangement. A striking piece, with long looped lines of steel grass and some purple and yellow flowers Shikamaru couldn't have named but was pretty sure Asuma would've appreciated, given how much research he did trying to find the right flowers for Kurenai.

"She's doing good, by the way," Shikamaru said, transitioning from thoughts to talk, clasping his hands loosely between his knees. "Between Team 10 and Team 8, you can rest easy, knowing she's in good hands."

A peel of laughter drew Shikamaru's gaze up to where the little girl had finally finished her countdown and was now hunting down her playmates, chasing another child in circles around a headstone.

Shikamaru watched for a moment, his focus soft. "I haven't forgotten my promise to you. About your King. Though Kurenai's convinced it's gonna be a Queen. A girl." He crinkled his nose. "You know…woman's intuition or something. If that's true, I think you both planned it that way just to be troublesome."

Because yeah, Lady Luck had humour. Smirking, Shikamaru reached for the cigarette, tapped off the ash and set it down again.

He was quiet for a while.

A long while.

The game went out in the background, distant now as the kids moved towards the other end of the cemetery, chased by Iruka-sensei. Laughter, the innocent kind. Shikamaru listened to it. Let it sink it and rest among his reasons. The reasons all ninja needed to in order to do what was necessary.

The silence stretched…

The distant voices grew fainter…

And then, slowly, tentatively, Shikamaru began to talk; out loud, in his head. Went between the two places as if pacing, a steady back and forth, talking as if his sensei were sitting right beside him. He talked for a long time; about Ino and Chōji; about his parents; about the mission; about his past; about the future.

Talked about everything and anything that came into his head...

Staying away from his heart for as long as possible…

Until he'd talked himself full circle.

It was only when he moved onto the second cigarette packet and his thighs began to twinge that he realised how long he'd been crouching there, talking and talking, yet not saying a word about the only thing Asuma would've wanted to hear him say.

Shit, even now…I can't run from you, can I?

Sniffing, Shikamaru swiped at his eyes - they'd grown damp at some point – and took a breath, letting it out slow and steady through his nose. "How troublesome."

Yeah, when it came to Asuma, he'd always been a shitty liar. Or maybe Asuma had just known him too well. Well enough to know about Neji…or at least, that's what Shikamaru's dream, or vision, or near-death experience had suggested. When Asuma's ghost, or spirit, or memory had reiterated that the only thing he ever cared about was bringing Shikamaru back.

"I'm not here to do it this time. But he is."

And he had.

Brought him home, brought him back.

Brought me something I never knew I was missing…

Again, that anticipatory flutter in his gut, even as his heartbeat steadied to a solid, knowing beat. All part of the Stupid Simple crazy. How Neji got him still and started without ever stopping.

Did Kurenai drive you this crazy?

Hesitating, Shikamaru touched down a knee and flopped onto his haunch, one leg drawn up. Bowing his head, he took up the cigarette, snatched a quick drag to steady his nerves and set it down again, a white ring of smoke hovering at his open lips before he expelled the breath skyward, tipping his head back to catch the sunlight on his face.

Hyūga Neji…

The warmth melted over his expression and Shikamaru gave a soft husky chuckle. "Yeah, I know. What the hell was I thinking, huh?"

He hadn't been. And that was the point, wasn't it? The point that Asuma had tried to drive home for years, telling Shikamaru about the head and the heart and the complicated, unpredictable but wholly human paths that often ran between them.

"Paths I'd get lost on as a kid," Shikamaru murmured, eyes drifting shut. "Paths I learned not to trust because two years ago they led me so damned astray I almost didn't make it back."

"But you did."

Shikamaru could've sworn Asuma's voice came from over his shoulder. Or maybe it rumbled overhead in the clouds without a trace of thunder. He didn't open his eyes to see. Knew that seeing wasn't believing when it came to those impulses and insights his head couldn't process. His head wasn't where Asuma lived, anyway. His head wasn't what brought him back.

"I made it back," he murmured aloud. "Thanks to you and Neji…now I know that I can do it. I can walk those paths. I can get lost in my shadows for a while without losing my way. No matter where I need to go to stand still for a while…I get to come back." His lashes flickered open, damp but smiling, the ember glow of the cigarette burning deep and strong within the shadows of his eyes. "So don't you worry about me going AWOL again. On you. On Ino and Chōji. On Kurenai and the kids of his village. I've got too many reasons to stick around...and if ever I lose my way again and go a little too far, I've got someone here, chasing me down."

To the edge and back.

Sky high and down low.

And that went both ways, which Shikamaru added with an incredulous shake of his head. "Besides, I'd sooner chase him the way I did all those months ago than run away. Never thought I'd say that out loud." Pausing here, Shikamaru passed a hand across his mouth, smoothing out his smile with a quiet chuckle. "Just so happens he's got one hell of a grip on me. And you know me, I don't do this kind of troublesome crap…but I'd follow this bastard anywhere…every damn time."

"Nara Shikamaru. So eloquent. So seductive."

Jolting, Shikamaru turned his head to find Neji standing not five feet away. The wind teased the ends of his hair and his expression was both as striking and relaxed as Shikamaru had ever seen it outside of their stolen moments. Pale nacre eyes glinted silver-white beneath those wryly arched brows, head tilted a little to one side, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing at the corners of that smooth sensual mouth.


Staring, Shikamaru's heart throbbed at the base of his throat, warmth spreading through him in a rush which stole his breath and broke a smile across his lips. "Well..." he drawled, trying for nonchalance. "Considering how much sleep I didn't get last night, you know I'm off my game, Hyūga."

Neji chuckled quietly, a dark silky purr. Approaching, he moved to stand behind Shikamaru, gazing down through his lashes, casting the younger ninja in the safety of his shadow. "You're never off your game, Nara."

Fighting another broad smile, Shikamaru tipped his head back against Neji's thighs and looked up into those cloud-like eyes, one brow scaling upward. "Yeah? Well too bad this was never a game."

As for what it was? Shikamaru still couldn't sum it up in a single word. There was just too much. Too many pieces involved. Because as surely as they'd lost themselves last night, they'd found each other too.

Each other…

…and parts of themselves which only ever fit when they were together. That was one hell of a puzzle. And it felt good, not to have to solve it. To trust it to fall into place – as it always had, even after all the times it'd fallen apart.

"I detect too much thinking, Nara."

"Maybe I'm thinking of moves to make. Screw that…maybe I'm just making it up as I go along."

"Ah, spontaneity."

Shikamaru scoffed a laugh. "Something like that. Changes up the gameplay."

"For a game that's not a game?" Neji sighed with mock exasperation, leaning down by degrees to set his hands on Shikamaru's shoulders. "Is that what we're calling it now?"

Smirking, Shikamaru shrugged, enjoying the weight of those hands, the grip and knead of those powerful fingers. "I was thinking Stupid Simple Crazy beats your lame copout of 'distraction'…but nah…that's just way too long."

"Ah. Lazy as ever."

"You know me."

"Yes. I do."

"How troublesome," Shikamaru groused, but his eyes shone. "Guess you gotta ask yourself, what the hell were you thinking chasing me down?"

"I don't think, remember? I do. Thinking is your area." Cocking his head, Neji's eyes glinted, lips curving. "So you tell me, Nara, what the hell were you thinking chasing me down all those months ago?"

"Good question. But then, I asked it first."

"Indeed. You started it first. So tell me. What's the answer?"

Smiling softly, breathing slow, Shikamaru lifted into the touch of Neji's hands on his face, tilting his head back when Neji bent to steal a moment, to steal a kiss, his hair swinging forward to veil their faces. And just for a while, Shikamaru went cloud-gazing in those sky-white eyes; saw the castles he might've built there as a kid…then went wandering a little deeper and lost himself in the refuge of Neji's shadow…only to find himself again on the ledge of smiling lips, melting away into the Hyūga's next kiss.

What the hell was I thinking?

Smiling against Neji's lips, he shook his head and answered softly, "I don't ever wanna know."

Neji laughed, warm and deep.

And there was an answer in that laugh.

A knowing.

A knowing that lived under all their masks and second skins. A knowing that, under all their shadows and all their scars, there was something stronger that neither could rationalise and neither would name. A rhythm to get lost to in the stolen moments…and a rest to be found, every damn time, in the push and the pull, the freedom and the fall…

The Break and the Breathe.

- The End -

A/N: The End…my god. Months ago those words seemed such a long, long way away…and here we are at the end of this long, long, LOOONG series. And what a joy it has been, sweet readers. What a journey. Talk about a lesson in learning how to write, how to finish, how to come full circle. And none of that would've been possible without my dear and faithful Reviewers. Thank you so very much for staying the course, for helping ME to stay the course. For helping this crazy series find its completion with our two geniuses. You guys have helped me to grow into my own as a writer, to find my voice, to dig into those dark places, to really get my hands dirty.

It has been an experience.

One I'll always treasure.

Endings, as always, are tricky. There were countless ways I could've tied this up, but ultimately I find these things finish themselves the way they are meant to be, the way they want to be. Are there open-ends to this story? Of course. What story doesn't have open ends? In fact, what story truly ever ends? I hope this one will live on for you guys. That'll you'll return to it and enjoy it. It has been a pleasure hearing from you – here, on FB, on Tumblr and dArt. Thank you so much for taking that time out, always.

A/N (2): BREAK TO BREATHE PAY IT FORWARD: My dear readers and reviewers, if you have enjoyed this story/series and if it has in any way touched your heart or moved you, I ask that you please check out the website on my profile page entitled BREAK TO BREATHE PAY IT FORWARD. I will be posting links to this site on my Tumblr, dArt and FB page as well. I ask for a moment of your time to just hop on over and check it out…see if it speaks to you as I hope and pray it does. If not, that's okay, I thank you for at least taking the time to hear me speak about something very dear to me.

A/N (3) Original Works: Is this REALLY the end of BtB? Yes. I will now be returning to my Original Works of fiction and will begin to make the transition from Okami Rayne to T.A. Rayne, so don't be confused if you see those two names being used interchangeably, should you decide to follow me onto my original works. It will be my absolute joy to have you. News about my original works will be made available on my profile, dArt page, FB page and on Tumblr. Should you be interested in my originals, I welcome you into my worlds and look forward to having you there. Thank you for being such an awesome audience.

With much Love, Thanks, Appreciation, Laughter, Insanity, Tea and all that Good Stuff which got us this far! Thank you for reading my work. Hope to see you, always, next time around!

~ Rayne