They'd come to the shaman's hut simply because everyone else was doing it. The shaman, an elderly woman, was said to predict the future of your unborn child, had been doing it for decades, and was a wise-woman and healer. Of course she could be trusted, but it was also just a bit of fun.
The thick scent of myrrh hit the back of Shikaku's throat as Yoshino led him inside the hut, letting the beads over the door fall against the wooden frame with a clatter. The sound was mirrored a moment later by the shaman herself as she walked over to Yoshino, smoothing a gnarled hand over her belly as she shifted a staff in her other hand.
"You come here," she said, voice rasping and foreign to the village. "You want to know?"
Yoshino nodded her head and Shikaku shifted uncomfortably, the incense cloying at his throat, constricting his airway. He hadn't wanted to come, hadn't wanted to know the future of his son, but Yoshino had insisted – and who was he to deny his wife?
"Ahh," the shaman said, cackling in glee. "He is a boy," she announced, stepping away from Yoshino and muttering to herself again, moving to the back of the hut and her shelves, moving through the objects until she plucked one out.
"He's built of a good heart," she said, thumping her own chest. Dried seed pods and bones rattled on her staff as she moved forwards, a thick, curved shape in her hand.
"Now, now child," she crooned, smiling widely with blackened teeth to Yoshino. "You must not be afraid, no, no fear has no place here."
She looked at Shikaku then, still smiling, before pressing the object she'd been holding into Yoshino's hand.
"The antler, yes, the antler will save him," she mumbled, stepping back and running her eyes over the bulge. Her hands reached forwards, palpating the baby inside of Yoshino's womb, humming gently as she did so.
"You will see him before the full moon," she said lightly, pressing down at the juncture of her pubis. "His head is low, it's good."
She stepped away again, looking at Shikaku and narrowing her eyes. He took a moment to look at the object in Yoshino's hand, taking it himself and smoothing over the grooves in the antler. It was thick, looked as though it would belong to a fine twelve-pointer one day, though it only had two spines now. A fine antler, but unlike any he'd seen – and as master of the village deer, Shikaku had seen a lot of antlers.
"With twenty summers passing, you son will move to the call of the barasingha. His Dolhorina will call to him and he shall pass from us to them." The shaman raised a shaky hand to gesture at the antler. "That will save him, keep him safe, yes."
Yoshino sucked in a harsh breath, eyes darting to meet Shikaku's, and he knew why. The barasingha were the clan that inhabited the forests and swamps. From the few who had seen them, they were known to be a clan of deer and men, some even going so far to say deer-men, though the claims were wild and impossible. Such things couldn't exist; magic was dying in the land and modern technology ruled supreme. Half-men-half-deer creatures would not be able to live in such a climate and so peacefully as they did.
They were dangerous though, as creatures of magic often were. Many men had been lured into the woods and swamps by their calls, enchanted beyond all reasoning. Once you fell to the barasingha's call, there was nothing that could be done.
"No," Yoshino whispered, shaking her head. "No!"
The shaman looked at Yoshino sadly.
"Don't be sad," she said, shaking her head and chittering to herself. "He will be bestowed great honour."
The shaman had no words of comfort for them, nothing that would contradict her prediction, and so there was no reason for them to stay. While other parents left the hut with whispers of future jobs or spouse matches, they had been told a terrible thing.
"We can't let it happen," Yoshino said quietly when they arrived home, a compound on the outskirts of the town.
The Nara family had looked after the herds of deer that Konoha relied on vastly for decades. The deer were used for many things – meat, clothes, some even as pulling animals – and Shikaku was in charge of looking after the herds. This had afforded them a larger plot of land, slightly secluded from the rest of the village.
"No," Shikaku replied, holding her tightly. "He'll be safe from them. I promise."
They spent the night holding each other, thinking of the dreadful fate that had been predicted. Even if magic was dying, it concerned their son and Shikaku refused to let something terrible happen just because the shaman might be wrong.
The antler was tucked away, waiting until their son could understand its importance.
I count to no one, hold nobody's ear
The sun had reached its peak hours ago and Shikamaru sat watching the last of the full day, spotting clouds as the sun lowered itself in the sky. He was sprawled on the tussocks of a hill, arms wide and legs splayed, eyes half-closed as a gentle breeze passed over the fields.
Something spooked the nearby deer and Shikamaru watched as they hurtled off into a nearby copse before he noticed the reason. A woman stopped halfway up the hill, calling out.
"Oi, lazy-bones," she said, closing the last of the distance between them until she hovered directly over him. She blocked the sun, but Shikamaru just closed his eyes and shrugged, settling himself more comfortably into the grass.
"Cloud watching?" she questioned, though it was redundant. She knew what he was doing, had been here plenty of times before.
"You know," she continued, sitting down on the grass beside him. "I've always wanted to be a bird. Imagine all that power, to be able to fly anywhere you wanted with a simple flick of your wings."
Though he didn't bother opening his eyes, Shikamaru knew what the expression on her face would be. Full of wanderlust and wanting, for things that she couldn't have. He rolled onto his side slightly, cracking open an eye.
"Luck would have it that you end up one of the birds that have pathetic wings and doomed to fail. You wouldn't be flying, only able to watch as the rest around you do." His voice was bland, unsympathetic, but hit in all the right places.
"Luck?" she whispered furiously. Shikamaru opened both eyes then, taking in Temari's angered face, and not for the first time. "Luck has nothing to do with it, but that is so typically you, isn't it?"
He didn't reply. There was nothing that Shikamaru could say that would help; they'd had this argument too many times already and there would, doubtless, be many more.
"You're the one who could change everything. It kills me to say it, but a man's word here is worth far more than a woman's." Temari paused, sighing heavily. "I had plans. I wanted to see the world, see all the amazing things I've only ever been told about."
Her voice dipped sadly. "I wanted to fall in love at least once in my life. I wanted to find someone who I could love and would love me back… but that was destroyed when I was told that we're to be married."
The timeless argument, one that had almost certainly ruined the last dregs of their friendship. Shikamaru couldn't blame her, not really, because he had ruined her plans; her life. He didn't want to marry her, not really, but the alternative was to go against his parents' wishes, something he simply couldn't do. What would the point be? They'd just marry him to someone else, and even though Temari resented him now for it, they'd been life-long friends.
If he had to be trapped in a marriage, he'd rather it be her, and it also saved Temari from an alternative match, one of more political means. At least they were friends was what he kept telling her, but she hardly listened.
"You never do anything," Temari said, wholly defeated unlike Shikamaru had ever heard her. "I thought that maybe, just this once, you'd actually do something, but you never did."
She began to walk off, picking her way down the hill carefully. Shikamaru knew that he should follow her home – the sun was lowering faster and faster now and if he didn't then he'd most likely have to run – but he couldn't. Temari hated him and she needed her space. They'd be forced together soon enough.
"There's only a month left," she said sadly, voice drifting up on the wind. "I know you won't do anything now because it would be too much effort," she said, scorn dripping with each word.
She left and Shikamaru waited until the herd came back to graze, content then that she really was gone. The sun was pitching colours of orange and pink against the sky now and midnight blue had spread over the horizon, signalling that Shikamaru would be reprimanded when he arrived home.
He pushed up off of the ground with a sigh, shaking his head to clear his thoughts as he began the walk home.
He didn't want to marry Temari, but had been given little other option. His parents had dominated every aspect of his life before and it had been no surprise that his marriage was the same way. The only surprise had been the identity of his wife; the daughter of the village's chief official. A powerful contract would be forged in their marriage which was likely the main reason Temari had been chosen.
In all truth, Shikamaru didn't want to marry anyone. He was content to walk the fields and tend to the deer all day rather than tend to a family. He could happily live amongst the Nara herds, submerge himself in the nature of the land, but things were never so simple.
"It's almost night!" came a shrill voice as Shikamaru's mother ran to greet him. She'd clearly been waiting on the porch to spot him, and grabbed him by the arm, glancing over his shoulder and back into the woods he'd come from.
It was like this every night, ever since Shikamaru could remember. When night fell, he'd been trapped inside, locked in his room. He'd protested when he'd learnt from school that it wasn't natural, that he was the only one whose parents locked him up inside at night, but the fight had drained from him soon after. What was the point when they weren't going to change? You had to change your tactics rather than forcing others to change theirs.
Shikamaru ate dinner quickly, not surprised to see that his father wasn't home. Shikaku spent most of his time away from home now, either in official trade negotiations or out with the herds, in effort to get away from the arguments that seemed almost constant between him and Yoshino. They'd always argued, but ever since Shikamaru had started approaching his twentieth summer, the fights had become brutal and less forgiving, Shikaku spending as much time away as possible.
There was a click of his lock as Shikamaru entered his room, Yoshino locking the door behind him. His room was plain, hardly anything marking the shelves or walls. What little there was almost all revolved around deer; books that had been in the family for generations, little carvings or figurines, images of different species.
All of the artefacts and objects Shikamaru had accumulated over the years had once belonged to another member of the clan, to more than one in most cases. There was only one that had always been his, only been his, and that was kept on his belt at all times, even under his pillow when he slept.
It was an antler, something his parents had given to him the day he was born – though he hadn't actually held it until he was old enough to understand what being careful and looking after things was.
His father had never told him the deer it had come from and Shikamaru had been unable to locate any possibilities in the books he'd gathered. It had the makings of a large deer, one with an impressive amount of tines, perhaps hedging up to twenty even.
Shikamaru kept the antler attached to his belt at all times, save for when he was sleeping when it was placed under his pillow. He'd taken time to sharpen the tips of the small tines until they were dagger-sharp. He could slit a man's belly if he had to, if he needed to protect himself or someone as much.
He sat in his room, lounging on the bed and letting his dinner go down, until he heard the unmistakeable sounds of his mother getting ready for bed. He waited a further few moments before slipping off the bed and into his boots, grabbing a jacket from the wardrobe. It was his routine, when the lights were out around the house and his parents were none-the-wiser.
He wasn't permitted freedom, so Shikamaru had learnt to take it. He was smart, smarter than a lot of the village children, though no one knew exactly how smart. He didn't like to push himself – what was the point, for almost all cases? –and so had hidden his natural talents largely.
They came in handy now though, had done for years when Shikamaru had first thought of sneaking out in the dead of night.
It was easy to slip the lock on his window, popping it open after years of practice. He slipped out of the now wide open window, making sure to leave it slightly ajar so he could get back in quietly.
Though he had been doing this for years now, there was a magic to the forest that Shikamaru could never get used to. Every night, no matter if he'd spent the day in the very same forest or field, night brought a new quality to the land, something different and wild. This was the time that Shikamaru relished in, antler tied to his belt and free to the world.
He began the evening tracking one of the herds. They were getting close to rutting season and the herds were grouping together, stags buffing the last of the velvet from their antlers and preparing to fight for their right to mate.
Shikamaru had done what many others never would. In tracking herds, he'd often crossed into the dark forest set at the edge of the village land, a place where no others would for fear of magical beasts. It wasn't that Shikamaru didn't believe in them – he had seen some strange things during his walks – but he didn't believe that he should fear them.
The walk was calming, allowing Shikamaru to ease out the stresses that had been piled on him recently. He used to be able to confide in Temari, but she had finally given up on him, and before her there had been Chouji. Now, though, Chouji was miles away in another village, having been picked up for training, too far to visit. They wrote, but they were not substantial enough, petty letters detailing basic life, nothing of their actual lives.
Shikamaru sighed, entering into a clearing and sitting down on the ground. Pine needles had fallen early and the ground was blanketed in mulch, but it was dry and comfortable, allowing Shikamaru time to himself, free of marriage and expectations.
The calm didn't last long, and Shikamaru's brain was distracted from trying to solve the problem with Temari by a huge crash through the undergrowth. He stood up quickly, gripping his antler and pulling it free of the strings binding it.
Though it was dark, Shikamaru had keen eyes and could see a bulky form picking its way through the forest, throwing logs over and crashing through bushes. It was a boar, but one bigger than any he'd seen before, and his eyes widened, trying to calculate how he could escape it.
Climbing a tree would have been the ideal solution, but the trees were thin and branchless on their lower levels. Even if he could get up onto the higher branches, Shikamaru doubted they'd take his weight. That left hoping the boar wouldn't find him or fighting it head on, and fighting it head on was not something he'd be able to do unless there was no other choice.
Shikamaru was almost certain he'd gotten away without being noticed. The boar passed a few meters from him, but he held still and waited, the action paying off as the creature moved on, snuffling the ground. There was a strange noise a moment later, something of fleet-foot and fast, and the boar turned its head back, catching Shikamaru's form in the process.
It squealed, going for the charge at once, and there was little else he could do but run. Shikamaru didn't want to hurt the beast, but there was only one way to stop a boar on the charge that didn't result in your own death.
He tripped suddenly, all plans of finding a good place to ambush the pig falling from his mind. He scrabbled at the dirt for his antler, slashing out with the horn as best he could, swiping a trail of blood across the boar's neck.
That angered it even more, setting back on its powerful haunches before slashing ahead with its tusks. Those tusks could kill a man, would kill a man, and if Shikamaru was caught on them, it would be end game.
"GET DOWN!" someone roared from across the forest, and Shikamaru obliged, every sense in his body willing him to comply, even though he should be trying to run from the boar. There was a sound, like something speeding through the air at a fast pace, and then then another squeal from the boar.
Shikamaru watched as another volley of arrows was let loose on the boar and the creature finally sank to its knees, howling in pain as it passed over into death. He couldn't move, but wasn't sure that he wanted to considering the men around him had just taken down an angry, mature boar in a few seconds flat.
Someone laughed and the tension that had flooded the area dissolved. Still, Shikamaru kept his head down, wanting to monitor the situation first.
"That'll make a fine meal," someone said, calling for a few of the party to collect the boar.
Shikamaru scuttled back into the undergrowth as people came closer, tying up the boar and dragging it back. They had to be on horses as they were able to pull the beast along quickly, as judged from the sound they made moving through the forest.
"Hizashi-sama will be pleased," someone commented, before there were more, soft hoof beats. They sounded off to what a horse should sound like; maybe the forest people had smaller animals, fleeter of foot to dodge between the trees.
Shikamaru waited a little longer, until he was sure they had gone, before he climbed out of the bush, looking at the crushed undergrowth, marking the path the hunters had to have taken back. Oddly enough, it led further into the forest, away from any civilians. If these people were made enough to hunt here despite all the rumours and whispers, could they possibly be so unafraid as to camp here?
Another thought crossed Shikamaru's mind. What if they lived in these woods?
"I knew the boar wouldn't have taken off like that just because of us," a harsh voice cut into the silence of the wood, and Shikamaru froze, eyes darting through the shadows to try and find the source of the voice.
"People from the village never come here, but we picked up the tracks of someone the other night… I'm willing to bet that was you too?" Shikamaru had located the voice now, a man sat astride a horse. Or at least, that's what he'd thought, before the man steered his animal closer and Shikamaru realised there was no animal.
The man's taunt stomach merged with the russet chest of a deer – stag to be correct. From the strong chest, Shikamaru mapped the large haunches, powerful and deadly should they kick out, and down the thin legs, to cloven, strong hooves. It was one of the finest creatures he had ever seen and would have proclaimed it one of the strongest stags, had a human body not been attached onto it.
It was a man, around his age if the large antlers astride his head were anything to go by. They curved up and out in perfect symmetry, fourteen-pointers that would probably gain more with a few more years as he hit his very peak.
There was one thing that Shikamaru knew, and that was deer. This creature, though partially human, was also part deer, and a magnificent specimen at that. If he'd been a stag of the Nara herds, he would have raised plenty sons and daughters before being bartered forward for the king's hunt, the ultimate trophy prize.
But he couldn't deny the humanity in this creature. He had a human torso, muscular and define, broad shoulders and a human head. Aside from the antlers and elongated ears, he would have passed for a human easily if he'd been able to hide the deer-body.
His eyes were milky-grey, flashing silver under the moon, and Shikamaru kept eye contact as he moved forwards, hooves barely making a sound across the mulch.
"You do come from the village?" he questioned, brows furrowed. "Are you so desperate to get yourself killed you'll even go looking for trouble in the woods?"
Shikamaru ignored the question, and the creature – centaur, his mind supplied, the only appropriate word to give as a name – looked as though he was about to probe again when an odd noise floated through the forest. The centaur snorted and turned his body around in the direction the men (though they'd probably been centaurs too) carrying the boar had gone.
It was a song, Shikamaru realised, and he looked at the half-turned centaur with startling clarity. He had to be a barasingha, one of the creatures he'd been taught to fear his entire life. The beasts that would lure human men into their clutches and devour their souls.
"I pray to the ancient gods that my brother and sisters will be fleet of foot and fast of mind," the barasingha said, startling Shikamaru with the deep tone to his voice. "I promise to care for Her and protect Her, to nurture my brothers and sisters and to love my home."
He turned back to Shikamaru a moment later, frowning heavily.
"I'll need to make amends when I get back for missing Evensong," he said, more to himself than Shikamaru.
Shikamaru and he realised then that the song his village were so scared of was a sacred rite, a prayer to the gods they believed him and a way for the clan to come together. To miss it was a terrible thing, judging by the barasingha's reaction, and Shikamaru felt a pang of guilt for keeping this one behind.
"Look, whatever you're doing out here, I'd suggest you stop. You got lucky with the boar today, we were able to kill it before it killed you, but these woods are no place for a human." The barasingha took another step forwards, looking Shikamaru up and down. He seemed as though he was about to dismiss Shikamaru and turn away when he suddenly lunged forwards, reaching for Shikamaru.
The antler was snatched from Shikamaru's grasp and the barasingha moved back, Shikamaru following with an indignant cry. He couldn't lose that antler, not when it was the only thing he truly had.
"Where did you get this?" the barasingha asked sharply, voice angered as though Shikamaru had committed a grievous crime.
"I don't know," he brushed off instead, hoping that all interest would be lost if the barasingha thought it meant nothing. "I've always had it and sharpened it. It helped me against the boar," he offered, reaching for it again.
The barasingha pulled back again, raising one of his legs in warning.
"Do you know what this is?" he questioned, raising the antler. It was streaked with the boar's blood and Shikamaru frowned, not deigning to answer.
"It's an antler of a barasingha buck, their first antler to be more precise." His nostrils flared as he stomped his hooves, and Shikamaru looked at the antler in amazement. All this time he'd been carrying a barasingha antler, something that should only belong to myth and legend.
"Where did you get it from?" the barasingha demanded again, but Shikamaru could do nothing but shake his head.
"It's always been there," he said blandly. "My parents said it was a gift from a shaman."
The barasingha let his foot fall back onto the ground as he deflated, holding the antler to his chest. Whatever had just occurred, it was important to the creature and there was nothing Shikamaru could say. That didn't stop him, however.
"Does it mean something?" he asked curiously, searching the barasingha's face for any emotion. His lips had drawn tightly together, but that was all Shikamaru could see as an outward reaction.
"The first antlers of any barasingha goinjak, be they branderi or ranjitsinhi, are taken and given to their soul mate." His voice was empty, and though Shikamaru was unfamiliar with most of the terms, he understood that the antlers were important.
Was he the soul mate to a barasingha then? If he'd had the antler of one, the very first antler of a Barasingha stag, did that mean he was supposed to join them?
And then what? Did he become one of them? Shikamaru couldn't imagine being with a creature like Neji, not when it was half-deer and half-human. Plus there were the other issues to consider, the more practical issues. Just because he didn't wave it about didn't mean that Shikamaru didn't have urges, and he doubted the barasingha were celibate beings. The logistics didn't make any sense.
"Then it's a mistake. The shaman must have given it to me by accident," Shikamaru said lazily, wanting the antler back even though he now knew it didn't technically belong to him.
Funny, he suddenly thought. All fear of the barasingha had gone, instead leaving an itch to claim back his antler. Shikamaru wasn't afraid of the creature, even though it dwarfed him in size and could easily slot one of the arrows from the quiver on his back through Shikamaru's chest. All it would take was a carefully nurtured swing of the arm and pull of the bow and that would be it. Shikamaru would be dead.
But his people were already so wrong about the barasingha. They'd always had it wrong, cultivated fear out of misinterpreted information. Simply because they were a magical tribe, the villagers had feared them, not bothering to learn the truth.
"There are no mistakes," the barasingha said sharply, rising back on his hind legs and stomping his forefeet on the ground in anger. "The shaman used the power of the earth, and the earth has never failed us before."
His ears flicked back, like a stag listening for predators. He seemed to be considering something before he looked at the antler in his hand.
"This is too big for just us," he said in defeat, the words sparking something inside of Shikamaru, though he didn't know why. "We have to ask the clan elders."
Shikamaru raised his eyebrows. "We?" he parroted, unimpressed. He hadn't signed up to meet a whole clan of barasingha, no matter how misconceived his perceptions of them were. He was good not meeting them in fact, would rather go home now and stick to less inhabited forests in future.
The only thing stopping him was the fact that his antler was clasped tightly in the barasingha's hand and there was no way he'd be able to prise it free. If Shikamaru wanted to keep the antler, then he'd have to follow the barasingha back to his clan and pray that the rest of the tales about them were untrue.
They began walking, the barasingha's hooves falling gently on the ground, a stark comparison to Shikamaru's scuffed steps. He could tell the noise irritated the creature, but he was the same creature that had stolen his antler, so Shikamaru wasn't so inclined to be forgiving.
All of a sudden, the barasingha's body tensed and he sighed, letting the tension flow from him like ripples of water.
"I suppose it can't do any more harm," he said to himself, looking down at the antler before halting, turning to Shikamaru.
"We'd go faster if you sat on my back," the barasingha said, and Shikamaru looked at him in disbelief, not quite believing what he'd heard.
"You want me to ride on your back?" he repeated dumbly, looking over the thick haunches and narrow back, leading to the waist of half-man half-deer. It was far from grotesque, but Shikamaru knew somehow that this wasn't something to be dealt with lightly. You didn't just ride a barasingha.
The cloven hooves shifted in the mulch, impatient, and Shikamaru realised that there was no way he could get out of this now. He'd have to sit astride the creature whether he liked it or not.
Climbing onto his back was easier than Shikamaru had first thought. For one, the barasingha was surprisingly flexible and his strong forearms helped haul Shikamaru up, but he was sturdier under Shikamaru's weight than he'd anticipated. The barasingha allowed him to get comfortable before he set off, trotting away and causing Shikamaru to grip tightly around his waist.
They eventually settled to a rhythm, negotiating seating positions and pace, and the wildlife around Shikamaru changed. Trees stripped away to more hostile marshlands and there were signs of human handicraft. Perhaps the barasingha weren't' so different after all.
At least that was what Shikamaru thought as they moved into the main camp, pressed against the barasingha's bare skin and taking in the sights. There weren't many around, but the creatures gathered were an odd mix. A few large deer pricked their heads up at their arrival, somewhat interested before dropping their heads and moving off.
Though there were one or two barasingha, the main focus of the camp was, surprisingly, human. It was strange to see deer, humans and a creature that was a combination of both all in one place, and a horrible notion formed in Shikamaru's mind. He dismissed it straight away, for it was impossible even for magic users to mate with animals and produce offspring, but there was little other explanation.
"Neji?" a voice called out and Shikamaru felt the barasingha he was astride tense and turn his upper body, revealing the speaker to be a young woman. Neji, Shikamaru realised, had to be the barasingha's name, and whoever this woman was, she had to be related somehow. They had the same eyes, yet he still couldn't work out the connection between them all.
"Are you determined to bring disgrace on your family now?" the woman asked, shooting a pointed look at Shikamaru.
"Dolhorina," was all Neji said, waving he antler in the woman's direction. Her mouth fell open and she shot another look at Shikamaru, incredulous this time.
"I need to speak to Hiashi-sama. Please, Hanabi," he added, addressing the woman. She didn't even hesitate, nodding and turning to run.
A strange thing happened as she turned though. Instead of simply running on, a shimmer coated her body and Hanabi grew, legs elongating and neck stretching, until a doe bounded off in her place. Shikamaru watched in amazement as he realised these people were shape-shifters, or at least the humans and the deer. It didn't explain how Neji fitted in, but he was closer now.
Neji helped him to get down, one handed as the other held the antler tightly, and Shikamaru had the chance to look around, despite the gawping bystanders. The camp consisted of dome-shaped structures, covered in moss and blending perfectly into the surroundings. Some were slightly raised and Shikamaru wondered if the swamps in this area flooded their camps in the monsoon season and if they spent more time in their deer forms at that time.
His thoughts of the camp were cut short as two deer came sprinting back, the slender doe Shikamaru recognised as Hanabi and a thicker, fourteen-pointer stag. He was barrel chested and taller than the counterparts around, strong with bright eyes. If anyone was the head stag of this herd – could it be called a herd? – then it would be him, Shikamaru was sure of that.
The transformation was smooth and Shikamaru couldn't tell when the deer changed to human until a man stood before him. He was tall, long haired like Neji and dressed in formal robe attire. He looked serious, eyes only brushing over Shikamaru once before he turned to Neji.
"Perhaps this is a private conversation," he said, looking pointedly at Neji. Shikamaru felt him shift, hooves scuffing the ground, as a hand passed the antler to the leader.
Shikamaru didn't know what he'd expected. Part of him hadn't believed that Neji was capable of shifting, what with being a half-human half-deer hybrid of sorts, but the fact that he could wasn't a surprise. As Neji took his place beside him, Shikamaru looked over, seeing the familiar face and bare torso of the barasingha, but a trousered pair of legs and antler-less head added to them, making the man seem a far cry from the creature he'd been before.
Though he hadn't seen it when he was in his barasingha form, Shikamaru realised that Neji was extremely attractive. His parents had kept him fairly sheltered so Shikamaru had never really had a proper chance to meet people of his own age, so he'd come to appreciate others from afar. None of them, however, had elicited the same feelings that Neji had, and Shikamaru was somehow frightened by the depth of what he felt.
The small group, Hanabi included, walked through the camp. Neji was a warm and welcome presence by his side, not that he'd admit as such, and though Shikamaru didn't understand why, he knew that he wanted Neji to stay with him.
As they neared one of the igloo-shaped huts, Shikamaru could see that it was covered in moss. Their homes were part of the earth itself and as they stepped inside, the earthy scent of mud overtook Shikamaru's senses.
"Sit," Hiashi commended, looking at Shikamaru's antler as he took his place on the ground, a fire stoked up in the middle between them. Neji sat down beside Shikamaru, surprising considering the reaction Shikamaru had received from him before.
"Excuse the delay, but what is your name?" Hiashi asked of Shikamaru. "And perhaps you could enlighten me as to what you were doing in our forest?
His voice was calm and commanding, not harsh or swaying as Shikamaru had feared. He wasn't angry for the trespass, instead gently asking for information behind the scenario. Respect for Hiashi grew in Shikamaru's eyes.
"Shikamaru of the Nara family," he said, drawing himself up a little. Though his family may have locked him up and bartered him off like a common goat for slaughter, he was still proud to be a Nara and did love his parents.
"I was walking," he continued, "when a boar went for the charge. If not for Neji, I'd likely be dead. I owe him my life." Shikamaru was amazed that he didn't stutter over Neji's name and had kept his composure. It wasn't easy to admit having a life-debt, but for some reason he felt safe in Neji's hands.
"Neji?" Hiashi asked, turning to the other man. "Did you explain to him what this antler means?"
Though he didn't say anything, Neji squared his shoulders and Shikamaru knew that was all the answer he'd give. It was enough for Hiashi to draw his own conclusion, and his mouth narrowed, lips thinning as a frown crossed his brow.
"I'll start from the beginning then," Hiashi said, shifting into a more comfortable position. This hut was oddly bare, the fire pit and a curved table on one edge the only things of real interest, but the ground was soft, moss covering it and providing a cushion.
"The land used to be full of myth and wonder, yet it has been dying for decades now. We, the barasingha, are one of the last earth species, one of the last species to have been born from the magic of the land." Hiashi looked saddened and tired at the thought and Shikamaru looked down. He couldn't imagine what it felt like to know your kind had been dying for years now.
"There are two clans in the barasingha. There is the main family, the ranjitsinhi, and the branch family, the branderi. The branderi are sworn to protect the ranjitsinhi, and this is where the difference in transformations comes in." Hiashi shot a look at Neji.
"My brother was made a branderi and I doing so, he lost his ability to fully transform. Neji was born into the family and carries the same gift. I believe you'd refer to the branderi clan as centaurs, though they are still very much our family." Hiashi smiled at Neji, tightly as if it was slightly forced. There was history between them, of that Shikamaru was sure, but they looked to be moving past that now.
But he'd been able to see the link now. Neji was the same as Hiashi and the others, but he was charged to protect the camp and its people. The branderi clan were given a half-transformation to serve the needs of the barasingha, but that didn't explain why Neji had taken the antler.
"There is a term we use between males, goinjak, and females, gaoni, to describe their destined. We are a monogamous species, unlike our non-magical cousins, and our mates are often decided for us by the fates the moment we are born." Hiashi looked at the antler in his hand, considering it with care.
"The term is Dolhorina," he said, the word softly spoken. It was a sacred term, Shikamaru could tell, and he nodded eagerly, needing to know more. "There are any combinations of Dolhorina, goinjak paired together, gaoni together – though they are rare and more difficult to predict without the use of antlers – and even some barasingha Dolhorina to humans."
The stare that Hiashi fixed Shikamaru with was warm, accepting. Shikamaru felt his stomach plummet; surely Hiashi wasn't meaning him? He couldn't be destined to one of the barasingha, it was absurd.
"A shaman visits us to collect our antlers. She will then divine who belongs together and pass the antlers out. Each set of antlers is split, one staying with its owner and the other to their intended." Hiashi smoothed his hand over the antler, standing a moment later and offering it back to Shikamaru.
"Neji shed his velvet and dropped sooner than most. Until the shaman arrived, we all thought it was bad luck, instead the shaman told us his intended, his Dolhorina, would be crowning the world by the end of the moon's phase and that his parents were seeking her guidance. Neji has always been your Dolhorina, your fate, just as much as you have always been his." Hiashi bowed his head slightly, stepping back until he could leave the tent, dropping the bombshell and retreating tactfully.
Shikamaru sat staring at the coals on the fire. He could feel Neji beside him, but he didn't turn to him. The antler – Neji's antler – was warm in his hands, but he gripped it loosely. It wasn't his antler anymore, not something that had been his at all.
He should feel more outraged at that, Shikamaru knew, but all he wanted to do was turn to Neji and look at him, see if he felt the odd connection between them. Perhaps they were destined, though Shikamaru had been sceptical before of that term. It couldn't be true and yet… and yet it was.
"So you're…" Shikamaru began, drifting off when he didn't know what to say. It was too hot in the tent and he was uncomfortable with the revelations, but what could he do? He was thrust into a fate foretold before he was even born. You couldn't mess with powers as strong as that, no matter what Shikamaru wanted.
And what exactly did he want? The prospect of spending the rest of his life was strangely natural. Fear didn't claw at his belly and up his throat, as it had when his parents had announced his betrothal to Temari, and though Neji had yet to speak a word to him in human form, he already felt so differently towards him.
If Shikamaru believed in the fairy tale tellings of love, then perhaps he'd think that was the cause. But he didn't believe in them, couldn't for they were a child's myth and nothing more. True love, in the blink of an eye, didn't exist. Even the barasingha with their Dolhorina matches were simply a bit of magic mixed with the belief of fate.
"You're not what I expected," Neji said, casting a glance in Shikamaru's direction. The firelight caught the silver sliver of Neji's eye, and something struck deep inside of Shikamaru. It was, perhaps, the moment he realised that he'd never be able to let Neji go, no matter if he rejected him or cast him aside. It was the magic of the Dolhorina pairing, he was sure, though he was unsure if he wanted to be ensnared in such a way.
"Do you feel it?" Shikamaru asked softly, half-scared to hear the answer. In all his life he'd never felt like this and he wasn't sure he could bear to hear Neji cast him aside so easily.
"You cared for my antler," came the reply instead, quiet and almost unwilling. "I can tell, it looks as new as if it's shed its velvet."
Shikamaru looked down at the ground, letting his fingers splay out beside him, moss blanketing skin.
"Yeah," he muttered, "It was the only thing that belonged to me. It was special… and it still is." He looked at Neji again before making his mind up." Look if you don't want me here, I'll just leave. I'll find another forest to walk in and-"
His words were cut off though as Neji, fast as the deer he could shift half-into, reached a hand out, thumb stroking Shikamaru's lower lip tenderly.
"No," he whispered, so different to the stoic image he'd been before. "I feel it. I mean I've always felt it, but now it's whole and amazing."
Neji licked his lips, locking eyes with Shikamaru.
"I've always felt the connection to my antler. Only the strongest of Dolhorina bonds can do that." Neji's hand grazed Shikamaru's cheek and he leant closer, closing his eyes and brushing his nose against Shikamaru' sneck.
"You cared for it, kept it with you all the time. It was more than an antler to you, wasn't it?" Neji was far too close, but Shikamaru found he didn't mind, instead pulling him closer, wrapping himself against Neji and drawing them even closer.
They moved even closer now, lips a bare centimetre apart, when the door flap to the hut opened and Hiashi strode in. he wasn't angered to see them so close, in fact he looked somewhat pleased, but there was another look in his eyes, one of urgency.
"Dawn will be approaching soon," he said, nodding respectfully to Shikamaru. "It would be in all our best interests if your Dolhorina was protected and suspicion kept low of his actions. You know how the villagers think of us."
Neji pulled back with closed eyes and a sigh.
"I'll escort him," he said, not an offer and Hiashi smiled at the response.
"Of course," he replied before stepping from the tent once more.
Neji rose smoothly, offering a hand to Shikamaru and hauling him up too.
"I'll shift," he said, leading Shikamaru from the hut and back out to the forest entrance.
The transformation Neji made was smooth and untraceable with the eye. No one else was around at this time, so when Neji offered to pull Shikamaru up onto his back, there was no hesitation. He wrapped his arms around Neji tightly, breathing in his scent and essence as they took off, strong legs bounding through the forest as the sun began to shape the land.
"This is as far as I can risk," Neji said, sounding pained at the thought of leaving Shikamaru so soon. Shikamaru dismounted and Neji shifted again, so that they were standing nose-to-nose.
"I'll come back tomorrow," Shikamaru said lightly, words curling over Neji. He reached out a hand to pull Neji closer, hesitating at the last minute.
"You never need to ask," Neji said, closing the distance and kissing Shikamaru, warm and loving. "And I will always be waiting," he said after pulling back.
This time it was Shikamaru who instigated the kiss, moving forwards and kissing with ambition. He didn't want to leave Neji and though the spiral of their relationship was sudden and complex, he needed Neji more than he'd needed anyone else.
But as with all kisses, this one had to end and Shikamaru pulled back with regret, looking at the sun with a frown. He'd be lucky to make it home in time, but he still couldn't tear himself away.
"Go," urged Neji, letting his arms drop from Shikamaru. "You have to go."
With a last, burning look, Shikamaru prised himself away and started off at a run, crossing the fields between the forest and his home, slipping through his open window as dawn brought the choir of birds and the caw of a rooster upon his heels.
He changed hurriedly, slipping into night clothes and throwing the dirtied ones in his wardrobe. His shoes were thrown under the bed and he managed to lie back on the pillow with eyes closed as he heard the lock on his door sliding free. A moment later his mother poked her head in, making sure he was where he should be as he always did.
She left and Shikamaru smiled. Neji's antler was clasped tightly in his hand, hidden by the covers, and he wouldn't be expected to rise for hours yet. Tonight he'd return to Neji's side, spend the night with his fated Dolhorina, and there was nothing that could stop him.
I long to become you and know what it is that you feel
His parents were both at home the following night so Shikamaru took extra caution when leaving. He padded his bed, kept his shoes off until he was outside of the house and ran like a creature possessed as soon as he was free. No more aimless wandering for Shikamaru; he had a purpose now.
Neji was waiting for him, antlers glinting in the moonlight as he turned his head to Shikamaru's approach. His smile was wide as he shifted, moving forward to clutch Shikamaru's hands.
"I missed you," were the first words from Neji's mouth. In any other circumstance they would have been too much and too soon, but this was Neji. This was their fate and there was nothing that could stop it.
"Why is it so strong?" he had to ask though, peering into Neji's eyes for the truth as they walked to the barasingha camp, hands clasped tightly.
For a moment, Neji was silent. Then, he began explaining.
"For a human and a barasingha to be fated, there has to be an incredibly strong connection. We are… incompatible otherwise. The magic that surrounds the barasingha, in our clan home and in our bodies, would possess your mind and drive you to insanity." Neji's voice sounded sad, and there was suddenly a reason for all the hatred and the fear that the village had cultivated over the years.
"Our bond is only one of a handful and it is powerful. It overcomes any of the magic the camp holds and is instantly stronger than any other bond in terms of what we feel." Neji stroked a thumb over the back of Shikamaru's hand, smiling at him.
"And?" Shikamaru prompted, drawling the words almost lazily.
"Our bond wants us to prove to each other we mean everything. It wants us to consummate our feelings and prove our love. Though you cannot carry my child, or I yours, the act itself is proof enough." Neji looked away, as if the words had embarrassed him slightly.
Sex wasn't just sex for the barasingha. It was an emotional connection between Dolhorina partners and would prove their bond and love to the world. Their bond was much stronger and so the intensity of their feelings hit harder than most.
But Shikamaru was still a human and he wanted to know Neji more. He'd been sheltered his entire life and was unsure about the smallest of relationship bonds, let alone sex. Even though Neji wouldn't have been intimate with anyone, Shikamaru was willing to bet he knew more on the subject.
They continued on through the forest, sides brushing together, speaking in quiet whispers. Their life stories came out – Shikamaru as someone who'd been hidden away from fear and Neji as, initially, a cast-aside child, until he'd proved himself to be a strong branderi, not worthless to his uncle after all. The connection between them was astounding, and Shikamaru knew he could never give it up.
Dawn approached faster than either wanted and they parted at the edge of the forest, with a gentle kiss. Shikamaru ran back to his home and snuck in once again, sleeping by the time he was checked upon.
They continued in this fashion for a week, two even, until Shikamaru could no longer deny the intensity of his feelings and it began interfering with his village life. Wedding preparations were being made, but Shikamaru paid no heed to them, turning a blind eye and letting Temari take the work.
She'd expressed concern, taking him aside and asking what was wrong, but Shikamaru simply shook his head, looking to the forest instead. Temari's mouth had thinned, but she'd shrugged her shoulders and walked off, the lingering sadness in her eyes becoming more pronounced by the hour.
Shikamaru didn't know how he was going to break the wedding off, but he knew he had to now. Not only for Temari's sake – he was foolish for thinking she couldn't just take herself off and care for herself – but for his and Neji's. Marrying Temari could literally kill him and, besides, Shikamaru wanted Neji.
I stand on the mountains and call people to hear
"The wedding is in a week's time," Shikamaru said softly, lying next to Neji in his hut.
Rains had begun falling that eve and the woodland around was wet, so Neji had suggested they go back to the barasingha camp. Shikamaru had been warmly welcomed by all and in turn gifted the clan with supplies from the village. They liked to collect certain things from time to time, but it was risky for a barasingha, even in human form, to enter the village.
They'd gone to Neji's hut, lying comfortably with one another and picking at a selection of fruits Neji had laid out. It was warm in the hut and anticipation was high in the air.
"You need to tell her," Neji replied softly, arms strong around Shikamaru's waist. He was so patient and understanding of the situation that it constantly baffled Shikamaru how alright he was even though Shikamaru was set to marry.
"How do I explain it? She has the same prejudices as the rest of the village-"
Neji silenced him with a kiss, smoothing loose hairs from his ponytail away.
"She is your friend and you know she doesn't want this marriage. She's been waiting for you to say it, to do something, because she's a gaoni. Your village has no respect for a gaoni." Neji sounded disapproving, yet another thing Shikamaru agreed with him on.
"I'll speak to her," he promised, twisting on the rug set down until he was on his side. Now was the moment, Shikamaru could feel it, and he smiled to Neji's confused expression as he pushed Neji back, until his hips were facing Shikamaru.
"Trust me," he said, pushing down the soft breeches Neji wore, exposing his muscled thighs and cock. It was flaccid, but as Neji realised what they were about to do, it began to harden, darkening in arousal and curving upwards.
Shikamaru licked his lips, swallowing thickly. Even without the Dolhorina bond screaming at him to taste Neji, the sight before him would have been too much to resist.
With care and a gentle touch, Shikamaru lowered himself onto one elbow, reaching lazily for the base of Neji's cock and testing the reaction. The prick jerked to his touch and Neji sucked in a breath, cocking his hips for more.
Even though he wanted nothing more than to sink down on Neji and let him take him, Shikamaru was curious. He'd always been the type to plot his course before he moved, and this was no different. He wanted to know every inch of Neji, tease him beyond imagining, before he took his prize.
A hand brushed against Shikamaru's waist and he stiffened as Neji hauled his upper body up, tugging at Shikamaru's garments with fire in his eyes. Shikamaru shifted his weight, letting the trousers slip from his legs, cock already hardened and waiting. He jerked under Neji's hand as fingers pulled foreskin back, thumb slipping through precum and down the shaft, curling around balls and pressing ever so lightly against his perineum, spiking the tender, sweet spot inside of him.
Shikamaru wouldn't let him win this game though. He leant forwards, licking the underside of Neji's prick with the flat of his tongue and smiling as Neji's hand stilled. He then worked his way around the length, moistening the entire cock before he finally slipped the head into his mouth, wincing just slightly at the bitter precum and moving down the shaft once again.
Not all could fit in his mouth and Shikamaru pulled back and away as an incredible heat engulfed his own cock head. Neji's head bobbed up and down, tongue swirling as he moved. Shikamaru let his head fall back onto his arm, legs pushing forward of their own accord until Neji had to pull away, stop him with a glare and hands to his thighs.
"Not yet," he whispered, voice husky and full of need.
There was nothing that could stop him now, Shikamaru knew, and he returned to Neji in fervour, licking and letting the cock fall into his mouth, brush his cheeks. He could worship it, easily, not too thick, not too long, but perfect for Shikamaru. The tip poked out from the foreskin and Shikamaru ran his tongue over the ridge and against the top of the head, causing Neji to finally abandon his own mission and fall back in need.
Shikamaru smirked to himself as he pulled back, Neji gasping, his cock bobbing hot, wet and wanting. He lowered his mouth again, lapping gently over the head and sinking down, allowing Neji to roll his hips as he clutched at Shikamaru's thigh.
He was so needy and wanting of Shikamaru, undone by his mouth that it made Shikamaru wonder what else he could do, how else he could make Neji fall apart under his direction. He was smart, had been told that so many times, and so let Neji do the work, fucking into his mouth with ever-growing ferocity, pulling back as he came and coating Shikamaru's cheek, neck and collar.
It was a few seconds before Neji let go of his grip on Shikamaru's thigh and sat partially up, eyes blown dark and lower lip caught between his teeth.
"Come here," he commanded, and Shikamaru obeyed, taking off his top as he crawled on his knees, either side of Neji's thighs. As he reached his lap, Shikamaru felt Neji's arousal press against the back of his thigh, and he smiled, leaning in and licking Neji's lips until he opened them with a hiss.
Cum still marred Shikamaru's cheek, but Neji turned his cheek gently, taking his chin in his hands and turning so that he could lap at the skin, cleaning it until the slight stubble showing on Shikamaru's jaw was clean and his breath was a little more needy.
It had to be now, Shikamaru knew. He wanted to throw away all inhibition and let Neji claim him, but their bond worked both ways. He was going to claim Neji as much as Neji claimed him, and the thought thrilled him greatly.
With a quick of the eyebrows, Shikamaru twisted in his seat until he could grip Neji's thighs before him and all Neji could see was his back. Though he was less muscular than Neji, Shikamaru knew that he was toned of sorts and that Neji appreciated the smooth curve of his back.
Neji traced the curve of his arse with gentle, wet fingers, smoothing over the puckered skin between the cleft and Shikamaru's cock bobbed in expectation. He was already close, but he wanted to feel Neji inside of him before he came, needed their bodies to connect.
Fingers worked him gently, uncomfortable and able to flag off the stem of orgasm. Shikamaru let the desire temper just slightly, afraid that it would be far too soon when he came, wanting to feel Neji like this for as long as he could.
He had to move eventually though, sucking in a deep breath as he pushed back. Neji's hands were there to steady his cock and guide it inside of Shikamaru, grunting as he filled Shikamaru and loosening his grip to smooth over spine and shoulder blades, lovingly tracing the skin.
Shikamaru shifted his hips, balls slapping against Neji and cock throbbing with need. He wanted to touch himself, but should he then it would all be over. He moved more then, up ever so slightly and then back down, easing his body open and drawing pleasured moans from Neji.
Shikamaru didn't know how long he lasted, but he could feel the coil of pressure building in his stomach and his cock felt thick and heavy, pressing against his belly with each thrust. Neji was warm and whole underneath him and Shikamaru palmed his cock, grunting for more pleasure.
Neji took the cue, changing their position so that Shikamaru lay on the edge of the bed and he could push into him, gently, ever so gently, and gaining momentum. Shikamaru reached behind his back, gripping Neji's arms as the head of Neji's prick brushed his prostate, and he moaned as Neji came, squeezing down slightly and milking his orgasm for all that it was worth.
Cum dribbled down his inner thigh and Shikamaru smiled in satisfaction with what he had done. It was a fleeting thought though, for Neji was kissing his neck, wrapping his own hand – so different and yet similar to Shikamaru's own – around his erection and jerking his fist, the pleasure spiralling until Shikamaru couldn't stop it. He came with Neji's lips on his neck and his hand clutching Neji's hair, mouth open and eyes screwed tightly.
It was perfect.
After, Neji cleaned Shikamaru quietly, pausing every now and again to kiss him tenderly. They wrapped themselves in blankets and Shikamaru promised they'd only sleep for a short while, not willing to give up the warmth in his chest or the man in his arms.
It's a tempting communion it's a fate foretold
Shikamaru was woken by a woman dragging him from the bed, her staff raking through the moss and cleaving paths through it on the ground.
"You foolish child!" she shrieked, drawing Neji's attention and waking him. He didn't even hesitate, shifting into his centaur form in a split second, rearing on his hind legs to push the woman with his hooves.
"Calm down," she hissed at Neji and he startled, ducking his head and twisting his body to the side. His hooves hit the soft moss with just a bare sound, but he shifted his weight next to Shikamaru, glaring at the woman.
"What do you want, shaman?" he said with little love, but the woman seemed unconcerned, instead focusing on tugging Shikamaru from the hut.
"The sun has risen," she cried, shaking her head and her staff. "You have ruined everything!"
Shikamaru tumbled from the hut and into the sun. Though it was still low in the sky and clearly dawning, it would be too late. His mother would know he was gone and that would be it.
Panic rose in his chest as he saw Hiashi and Hanabi, standing off to the side with some other members of the clan. They were all worried, and Shikamaru darted back inside to dress.
"I'll take you back," Neji whispered and Shikamaru paused to kiss him, wanting nothing more than to stay in their hut and never have to leave. But he had things to do, a wedding to cancel, and had to explain his absence to his parents.
Neji was sleek and swift through the wood, but even he couldn't risk the open field, not even in daylight. They parted regretfully, Shikamaru still wanting to slip into the mist of the morning, through the forest and never look back at the village. Except he couldn't; his parents had been told that Neji would join the barasingha and they would provoke a hunt for the clan, stopping at nothing to destroy them until Shikamaru was found.
He couldn't do that to them, to his people and his family.
"I'll return as soon as I can," Shikamaru promised between desperate kisses, drinking Neji in and trying to soak him into his skin. They would have to part for a day, perhaps more, if Shikamaru couldn't calm his parents.
A deer bayed mournfully across the field and the thick flap of wings echoed around them as a pheasant lifted its heavy body into the air. Their moment had been disturbed and now was the time to part, Neji walking back into the safety of the trees and Shikamaru slipping on dewy grass as he sprinted home.
As he'd predicted, his window was shut tightly and Shikamaru had no option but to use the front entrance. Fear curled in his stomach as he re-tied his hair, smoothing his clothes and hoping to high heaven Neji hadn't left any visible marks on his body.
His parents were waiting at the door, Yoshino white-faced and Shikaku stern, both with crossed arms and standing ram-rod straight. Shikamaru approached with caution and, when she saw him, Yoshino darted forwards, grabbing his arm painfully and dragging him into the house.
"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded furiously, depositing him in the kitchen and circling him. Shikaku entered cautiously and slowly, judging the situation before he entered.
"Do you know how worried we were?" she hissed, moving to the opposite side of the kitchen counter and slamming a hand down. "Where did you go? What did you do? Why?" she demanded, the questions getting louder and angrier with each second.
"Yoshino," Shikaku chided gently, looking suddenly weary and old. "Is it so hard to imagine the boy wants a bit of privacy?"
Yoshino's eyebrows rose. "Do you mean…?" she asked, but didn't finish the sentence, leaving apprehension and terror to grow in the pit of Shikamaru's stomach.
The nod Shikaku gave did nothing to calm Yoshino's temper and her face contorted angrily.
"You let him? Even though you know-" she cut her words off, turning to her son with fury in her eyes. "Was it a deal or something? Fool your mother into thinking you were doing what was right, what was good for you when all this time you were running to your father and letting him cover your secret?"
Shikamaru looked nervously to his father, unsure what she was talking about. Yoshino bit her lip, shaking her head at his silence, and Shikaku stepped in.
"I doubt he knows," he said, looking at Shikamaru and directing his next words at his son. "I've known for a long time that you've been sneaking out of the house," he admitted, and Shikamaru felt a cold, hard weight settle in his stomach. "I never said anything because you deserved that time. You had always come back before."
And just when Shikamaru had thought his father was on his side, he turned. Shikaku had been on his side, until last night – this morning – when he'd been late.
"I fell asleep," Shikamaru stated blankly, telling a half-truth. "I fell asleep in the fields with the deer."
The words, made to calm his mother from anything that could involve the barasingha, seemed to work. Yoshino relaxed a little, pausing in her tirade to look at Shikaku.
"The fields?" she questioned softly, not to Shikamaru though. At Shikaku's small nod, she relaxed even more and even smiled tightly, patting the table in front of her.
How stupid did they think he was not to notice that? Did they really believe he was the compliant son, who never minded his life being dictated by them, never minded being shut away and told what he had to do, rather than being given a choice? Shikamaru had had enough, and if not for the fact that he'd endanger the barasingha, he would have told them the full truth.
"And you," Yoshino began, flicking her glances between Shikamaru and her husband. "You were alone?"
Gritting his teeth, Shikamaru nodded. Yoshino nodded in relief, looking to Shikaku.
"Then… perhaps we shall skip the discussion, so long as you promise to stay inside." She smiled. "After all, you have a wedding in less than a week and after that you'll be expected to father children and take over the Nara business. It's the done thing nowadays, and I will not have a son of mine as a vagabond." Her voice was harsh, as it always had been, but Shikamaru swallowed down what he wanted to say with a bitter taste, nodding. He couldn't do anything for his freedom without speaking to Temari. He owed her hat much at least.
Shikamaru didn't say anything, but that was little consequence to Yoshino. She smiled again, moving around the kitchen counter and grasping Shikamaru's arm tightly. After, she led him to his room, shutting the door behind them.
"I'm not a cruel woman," she said, half-desperately. "Your father and I only want what's best for you, you do understand that, right?"
Oh how desperately they'd tried to keep Shikamaru from his fate. Ignorance mixed with fear was a deadly combination in any circumstance, but coupled with the fierce protectiveness, it was stifling. Shikamaru couldn't bear it anymore, didn't know how he'd managed to put up with it for so long.
"You need to stay," she implored, moving to the window and pulling a key from her pocket. She pulled the latch over the window clasp, locking it tightly before pocketing they key again.
Shikamaru darted over to the window, trying to wrench it open, but Yoshino slapped his hands away.
"It's for your own good," she said, repeating the words she must have told herself again and again until they lost meaning over the years. "You'll thank us after you're married."
With that, Yoshino left and Shikamaru fell onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He tried to ignore the raised voices of his parents and after a while managed to fall into a fitful and uncomfortable sleep, wishing he'd never left Neji and stayed with the barasingha instead.
I showed you my hand once and you hit me in fear
A dog barked out in the village, but Shikamaru simply rolled his eyes, looking back at the window. Though the lock was off now, there were bars strapped to the outside, iron ones at that. Any hope of escape was lost and it had been two days now. Only a few more until his wedding, and then it would be over. How could Shikamaru face up to Neji after that? Neji didn't deserve him, no matter what fate had foretold.
There was a knock outside, something clanging against the metal of the bars. Shikamaru paid it no mind, instead looking up at his ceiling, mapping the indentations and small marks that he already knew off by heart.
There was another clang and Shikamaru frowned, hoping for the best yet expecting the worst. He moved to the window slowly, opening the latch and opening the window as far as it would go. He couldn't push it far, but if someone was out there, if someone could talk… Shikamaru would be able to hear.
"What have they done to you?" a voice called and warmth flooded Shikamaru. He had realised exactly how painful it had been to be separated from Neji until his voice floated up from the night outside.
"Neji!" Shikamaru pressed himself to the cracked opening of the window. "What are you doing here? It's dangerous."
Neji laughed lightly. "I'm not leaving you here."
It took a moment for the words to process, and Shikamaru smiled when they did. Neji had come for him and together they'd escape. There was nothing but heartache left for Shikamaru in the village now and he needed to get away for a while before coming back. He didn't care what his parents wanted anymore, he needed Neji more than he needed them.
"We can get you back in the morning so they don't know anything," Neji was saying, and Shikamaru nodded, though he'd rather stay away forever.
"The door should be unlooked at the front," Shikamaru said. "And if it isn't, there's a pot beside the door. Underneath is a key."
It took a while, but after promises that he'd see him in a moment, Neji vanished from the back of the house to risk everything by invading the Nara home. Silence rang through the house – his father was out with the deer again and his mother was sleeping heavily in her room, on the opposite side of the house – until he heard the cautious shuffle of footsteps in the house. There was a tug on the bond between them and Shikamaru knew Neji was looking for his room, locating it with ease thanks to the magic bonding them.
Shikamaru's door posed the most problem, but he'd been working for weeks to try and unlock it from the inside. He'd found wire and made short work of the lock, opening the door quietly. Shikamaru pulled Neji into a kiss, just a small one of need, before he pulled Neji out of the house and they were running across the fields, laughing brightly, not caring that they might be heard.
They made it to a clearing at the edge of the wood before stopping, kissing properly for the first time since they'd had to part. It felt like nothing Shikamaru could remember and he sighed into it, wrapping his arms as tightly as he could around Neji, feeling Neji do exactly the same.
There was a crash in the wood and then everything went to hell in a split second. Dogs hurtled into the clearing, barking and snapping at Neji's heels as men tore them apart, throwing Neji to the ground and holding Shikamaru back.
Shikamaru turned haunted eyes to the scene, watching as men from the village tried to surround Neji. Neji had shifted, rearing up on his hind legs in effort to fight the others off, but it was in vain. There were too many men and Shikamaru couldn't bear it any longer.
"Run!" he shouted instead, waving his arms for Neji to leave. "Run!"
With one longing look, Neji accepted defeat and left. There had been anger in his eyes, but Shikamaru would rather that than have him killed. He could feel the desperation and hate in Neji through their bond, and urged him to go, knowing that if Neji was captured now, the fight would be forever lost.
"Get him!" a burly man said, and Shikamaru tensed as ropes were slung over his shoulders, tying him up tight.
"They boy's enchanted from that beast!" another called, horror lacing the words.
"No," Shikamaru began, but the words were lost as the group surrounding him began crowding around, hooting and howling for the blood of the Barasingha. They were angry, convinced he'd been ensnared, and dragged Shikamaru back to the village.
In all of this, as Shikamaru was strapped to a pole in the centre of the village square, left to fend off the elements for the night before they convened tomorrow to decide what to do (though it would likely be the executioner's block knowing the amount of fear that ran through the village), he didn't see Temari or his parents until it was too late. They were standing at the back of the mob, Temari horrified and his parents devastated, but none made a move to help him.
Yoshino was looking at him as if he were a monster and Shikaku turned his shoulder, trying not to look at all. Temari was there, but her father stood next to her, hand grasping her arm tightly and Shikamaru knew that she would have run, would have pushed past all the mob members until she was at Shikamaru's side.
The thought warmed him and he tried not to think of his parents. He shouldn't have expected more from them – a mother who was frightened beyond belief of losing her son and too convince in her right to see he'd already slipped away and a father who was too tired to stand up for it anymore. He shouldn't have expected more, but it was too late. He still loved them, but seeing them watch as he was trussed up and left, a piece of Shikamaru's heart hardened.
"No one is to talk to him!" someone cried, pointing fingers at Shikamaru as If he were some beast. "We shall purge him of the enchantment this night, and if that fails by morn, he shall face our judgement!"
A roar of approval sounded across the gathered group and Shikamaru slumped in his bindings. He felt sick and weak, wanting nothing more than to crawl out of the village and tuck himself behind Neji, but that was impossible now.
"We shall find the devils' home tomorrow and lay fire and metal to it," another voice called. "The barasingha will enchant no more of our sons and daughters. From tomorrow, we will be free of their plague!"
Shikamaru shut his eyes tightly, wanting to block the jeers and calls from his mind, but unable to. Instead he tried to remember the feel of Neji's arms holding him and how Neji felt in return, of the quiet glade full of moss, deer and people who would never stoop to this level.
It was then that Shikamaru realised he'd stopped thinking of the village as home a long, long time ago.
I don't stand for the devil I don't whisper to him
Shikamaru's chest was heaving from the effort of trying to break his ropes when he saw a shadow to the side of the village, over by the village shop row. The shadow darted and he realised someone was there.
"Come on then," he muttered, trying to break the ropes again. It was probably someone come to spit on him, again, or throw something at his feet. Rotten fruit marred the ground at his feet as well as a handful of stones, all things thrown by younger members of the crowd that had gathered earlier, intent on making the traitor pay.
Instead of a grubby teen or child that should have been in bed, a silvery doe stepped into the darkness. Shikamaru's eyes widened as he recognised the trademark stock of the barasingha, but she had a strange purple sheen, a silvery glimmer. Whoever she was, she was here for Shikamaru, though he didn't know whether she'd help or not considering what he'd done.
"They're going to kill you," he hissed into the darkness, trying to shoo her away. She looked skittish enough and it was ridiculous to think that they could get free in this way. Instead he could warn her and she could get the barasingha far away from the village when they attacked.
"You have to tell Hiashi. Tell Neji, Hanabi, anyone! They're going to kill you." The doe flicked her ears and took another step forwards, eyes wide and head constantly searching for anyone else.
She inched closer and closer until Shikamaru could feel her velvety muzzle on his hands. She nibbled the rope before shifting, hands coming to untie the knots instead.
Shikamaru craned his head to see his saviour and was rewarded with a long haired, beautiful woman around his age. She worked hard, making short work of the knots and let Shikamaru's hands free.
"Who are you?" he asked, staring into her eyes as she tried to tug him away.
"Hinata," she replied, "now come on. Already we've spent to long here."
Nodding, for there was little else he could do, Shikamaru let Hinata pull him from the village, slipping into the shadows and away from the pole he'd been tied to. It wouldn't be long before he was found missing, and he wanted to warn the barasingha as soon as he could. He wanted them safe, if nothing else.
They paused in the large shadow of an official's house and Hinata shifted again, looking at Neji pointedly and scuffing a hoof on the ground. He knew what she wanted, but she looked so fragile that he couldn't imagine settling on her back.
Just as he began to shake his head though, there was a cry from the village. Shikamaru's disappearance had been noted and, without hesitation, he swung a leg over Hinata's back and she took off, a wisp on the wind by the time others came looking for them.
They made it to the edge of the forest when Hinata paused, one leg raised and Shikamaru instantly jumped to attention, reaching for the antler that was supposed to be at his belt, but was instead in Neji's hut. There was a crash in the undergrowth – whoever it was didn't care about being stealthy at this point – and he picked up a stick from the ground. It was useless, but it felt better than nothing.
The figure who stumbled into the clearing was nothing that Shikamaru could have imagined. Temari was dressed in trousers and a thick jacket, panting as she reached them.
"It was you," she muttered in wonder, looking at Hinata from the corner of her eye and straightening up, catching on to what was happening. In a moment, she went from relief to anger, tilting her chin and narrowing her eyes.
"Fuck you Shikamaru," Temari spat, eyes welling with tears. Hinata shuffled nervously beside Shikamaru, clearly unsure whether to attack Temari or simply run away.
"You finally grow a pair and you're still so much of an idiot." She wiped at her eyes furiously before closing the distance between them, arms tightening their hold on her friend.
"I'll throw them off. Say I thaw you sneaking through the fields with the barasingha." She bit her lop. "Here, give me your jacket."
Shikamaru shrugged the material off with ease and Temari took it with shaking hands.
"I didn't want to marry you," she said softly, clutching the jacket to her chest. "But if it had to be anyone, I'm glad it was you."
He pulled her closer, tucking his nose into her neck. This would be the last time in a long while he saw Temari and he was going to make it worth it.
"Now you can find some poor soul to love," he said with a smile, nudging her gently. Temari nudged him back, turning to Hinata as she pulled back.
"Look after him?" she asked, giving a watery smile. "He's my best friend."
She stayed until they were gone, Shikamaru upon Hinata's back as she streaked through the forest. They were a silver blur through the night and Temari was a solitary shadow, growing smaller as their paths diverged.
She'd be okay though. Temari would get what she wanted and Shikamaru felt nothing but hope for her.
And it's knowing what it is that you're told
Hinata was sleek and fast, faster than Neji and certainly faster than Hanabi or Hiashi. From the conversations of Neji's family tree, he knew that she was Hiashi's daughter, heir to the clan yet underappreciated by most. Now, though, as they galloped through the forest, Hinata made fast work of dodging trees and leaping bushes. She was flying through the forest, like a white hart of myth.
The thought that Temari was willing to help them warmed Shikamaru, and he knew there was some hope yet for the village. If there were people like Temari in the world, a woman who was unafraid to stand up for herself anymore, then more surely would come. Perhaps a time would come when Shikamaru and Neji could return, and as more than a distant pair on the horizon.
Hinata slowed suddenly, coming to an abrupt halt a few paces more. Her ears twitched and her head turned to the east, eyes darting around for predators. Shikamaru knew that if there was any real threat she would shift – threat to a deer that is – and get high to safety, so there had to be another reason.
Mist flowed from her mouth and into the air as she bellowed, a sad cry that echoed the forest. There was a responding call and she shook her head, trotting forwards a beat and waiting for Shikamaru to hold on again before continuing their flight, haunches not once bucking under his weight.
They had turned away from the usual path Shikamaru had taken to the barasingha camp, and dread filled his stomach as Hinata looped round. She brushed through dense undergrowth, brambles snagging and breaking around her ankles, before coming to a halt once again, breathing heavily.
She halted completely, turning to look at Shikamaru. He understood and dismounted, catching Hinata as she shifted and fell, exhausted from their travel.
"I'm sorry," he apologised, not knowing what else to say. Hinata looked up from where they were crouched together on the ground, shaking her head.
"It's nothing. I care for Neji and I care for you, I'd do anything to protect my family." And so she had. She'd risked her life in approaching the village and calling for Shikamaru, taken an even bigger one by allowing him to flee on her back. It wouldn't be long before the village took action, bigger action that even Temari couldn't distract from, and Shikamaru told as much to Hinata.
She simply smiled. "We've been here too long now," she said softly, taking Shikamaru's hand and leading them through the woods. Her footfalls were as silent as her deer form's and they passed through the wood as if the light around them was daylight, Hinata an expert at navigating her home.
"The clan is moving on, that's why I came to get you." Shikamaru felt his heart sink into his stomach. She'd come to let him say goodbye.
"Father was going to leave it some time, but I said you wouldn't understand. You humans can't feel the same as barasingha do, no matter how strong the Dolhorina connection." Hinata turned to him with a small smile, clutching his hand tightly. "He wanted to come back for you, but I knew it had to be now."
Shikamaru's eyes widened. She couldn't possibly mean what he thought she did.
"You can decline, of course, but we want you to move with us. We'll be travelling the swamps a while before we can find a good home, but don't let that put you off. Neji would carry you for eternity if he could." She sounded wistful, a little sad, and Shikamaru wondered if she'd found her Dolhorina yet.
"Thank you," Shikamaru said honestly, voice open and raw with how much Hinata had done, even though he'd never even seen her before. "Why have you done so much for me?"
She squeezed his hand.
"My father cast Neji aside when we were younger. When he realised that his second born, Hanabi, was a better candidate for leadership than I… I grew up with Neji. He's a brother to me, no matter the fact he's branderi and I'm ranjitsinhi. You make him happy and all I want is for him to be happy." There was no more sadness in her eyes, just honesty and love. She loved Neji as a brother, Shikamaru realised in relief, for he didn't think he could bear breaking her heart.
"Come," she said. "Neji doesn't know about this."
They slipped into the barasingha land, huts looking lone and barren as people packed up belongings. Carts were strapped to some deer already – volunteers by the looks of things – and some of the branderi were fitting weapons on their backs, precautions if needed. Hinata strode through them all, heading with one destination in mind.
They paused outside of Neji's hut, Hinata finally letting go of his hands. Without them, though, Shikamaru felt strangely barren and alone, nervous beyond belief.
"Go on," Hinata said, and the thought of all she had done for him made Shikamaru enter the hut.
Neji was sitting on the bed, head in his hands and looking down at the ground. He looked a mess, hair and clothes rumpled, and Shikamaru was willing to bet there were dark circles under his eyes.
"I don't want to hear it again Hiashi," he growled and Shikamaru smiled, heart speeding up as he heard his voice. "I can't leave him! I don't care if you'll come back, I need him here, how do you expect me to just leave him, I-" Neji looked up and stopped, jaw slackening as he saw Shikamaru.
"You…" he began, but drifted off as he stood. "How can you be here?"
Shikamaru stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Neji. He was warm, real and what Neji needed after the horrible situation they'd faced.
"Hinata came for me," he whispered into Neji's hair, kissing his temple and forehead, smoothing over the slightly raised mark that signalled him as a branderi.
"Hinata?" Neji repeated, clinging tightly to Shikamaru. "She left to get you?"
"She's a good gaoni," replied Shikamaru, leaning in to kiss Neji.
The kiss was a welcome back, a promise for the future and a sign of their love. The Dolhorina bond between them echoed the promises, knitting them ever more tightly together, and Shikamaru could feel it pulse through his blood.
"We can't," Neji said, "not now."
Another small kiss and Shikamaru pulled back, nodding.
"Do you have everything?" he asked instead, looking to the large bag sitting at the foot of the bed. Their shared antler poked out of a smaller pocket, and Shikamaru smiled, knowing that even if Hinata hadn't come for him, Neji would have.
Neji slung the bag on his back, drawing a curious look from Shikamaru, until he threaded their hands together and led Shikamaru from the tent, joining the procession that were already leaving.
"It's been your home," Neji began and Shikamaru nodded.
"Perhaps, but it's also been yours too." He swallowed thickly as he looked back at the forest. He'd miss these trees, miss the deer he had loved and nurtured and miss his family despite the mistakes they'd made. They'd only been trying to protect him and when he could, Shikamaru would return, show to them that the barasingha weren't to fear and Neji was good.
At the moment, though, that wasn't an option.
"I love you," Shikamaru stated suddenly, the words hitting him with force. It was a human thing to utter those words, because Neji already knew he loved him, and Shikamaru knew that Neji loved him, but those words made it final, more than it had been before.
"I can feel it," Neji replied, smiling as the dawn hit the sky. "And I love you too."
Though there were many regrets and mistakes littering their path, one day they'd return. Shikamaru needed Neji though, just as much as Neji needed him. They needed to be together, no matter the cost.
The barasingha had already done so much for Shikamaru with hardly knowing him, and he swore to repay their kindness however he could.
For now, though, as the sun broke through the darkness of the night and they left their pasts behind, all that mattered was Neji's warm hand in his own, and the beat of their footsteps as they shed their old, lone lives. They were together now, their fate foretold so many years before.
Darling I loved you