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Gyokushō

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Shikamaru doesn't like thinking of himself as a genius. Sure, if there's a situation with more possible outcomes, chances are he'll already have computed all of those outcomes before they become relevant, but... It is an asset, for sure, but generally, it is all the more troublesome.

On the other hand, Shikamaru has yet to decide if he likes being unable to account for a variable. It is a puzzle, certainly, but he's spent far too long being absolutely sure of everything in his life.

It is Naruto, of course, Konoha's number one unpredictable ninja that has him scratching his head today. In his previous twenty years of life, he's had enough time to get accustomed to Naruto's unpredictability, he's had time to account for him in his plans, but the war has changed all of them.

Some more than most, and in Naruto's case, hardly at all, but it has.

So when Uzumaki Naruto hunts him down to teach him shōgi, Shikamaru very nearly turns on his heels and runs for the forest. Shōgi is predictable. Naruto isn't. The two shan't go together.

He says he'll think about it. Of course, Naruto's persistence wins out in the long run, but the better part of what has Shikamaru say yes is that the greenling chuunin at his desk are getting a lot more troublesome than explaining a few key rules of shōgi seems to be. In any case, the chuunin aren't going to complain about more responsibility, and Shikamaru takes a weekend off.

 

"So" Shikamaru tips his head back, blows the smoke up in the air. Honestly, somewhere down the line, he's grown to enjoy the sensation. "So, what made you want to learn?"

Not that Naruto is stupid, no. He's not even dull. And wonderfully able to think on his feet. But shōgi is not one of the things Shikamaru would've thought Naruto enjoyed.

Naruto just shrugs in response. "Baa-chan has me learning all kinds of stuff. She says I can only become Hokage if I learn all the theory" he scrunches up his face almost comically. "It makes sense, but I learn better by doing" he insists, looking straight into Shikamaru's eyes. "So Iruka-sensei suggested I try shōgi."

It's... a straightforward reasoning, and that shouldn't surprise Shikamaru as much as it does. He sighs, not even bothering to mutter under his breath as he hands Naruto a handful of pieces. "You set these up like so..."

 

 

Naruto gets absolutely trumped in shōgi. It's his first game, and he's learnt something new, so he's not particularly bummed out about it, but all that concentration has his head buzz, and all that immobility has his muscles ache. He stands to stretch, careful not to topple Shikamaru's board, and groans as some of the tension lets go.

Shikamaru coughs a bit, and Naruto looks back down at him, currently enveloped in a plume of white smoke. "You should quit that, huh?"

"Yeah" Shikamaru agrees, but suddenly it feels like he does just so he can have something to say. He turns his face away, a slight flush still colouring his cheeks from his earlier cough.

Naruto settles back down, dangling his feet off the side of the chair. They're on the tiny balcony of Shikamaru's flat, enjoying the afternoon sun (in Shikamaru's case, the shade). Naruto glances up at the sparkling sky then tilts his head at Shikamaru, grinning. "Thanks for teaching me" he chuckles. "I know I'm not the best student" he adds, but Shikamaru looks genuinely surprised at that, and before Naruto can add anything, he speaks up.

"Troublesome as this was, you got the hang of it pretty quick."

Naruto beams at him. "Yosh! Let's go get ramen!"

He knows Shikamaru is shaking his head behind him, but he finds it he doesn't care. Ramen isn't as much at the forefront of his diet as it used to be - eventually, even he had to realise it's not exactly the healthiest - but it's something he will occasionally indulge in, and Shikamaru surely can't fault him for that.

 

 

Shikamaru doesn't quite know what he's doing here. Yeah, he took the weekend off, so he can teach Naruto how to play shōgi, but more importantly, he took it so he can laze around his flat, maybe visit the deer, go cloud-watching, to catch up with Chōji and Ino. So, yeah, he doesn't know why he's ducking under the flaps at Ichiraku's, he doesn't know why he orders miso, and he doesn't know why he sticks around to hang with Naruto.

He doesn't like not knowing.

Naruto, for once, is completely silent as he practically inhales what must be his second gigantic helping of ramen, so Shikamaru is free to think it over.

It's... nice. It's staggering, but it's nice. He enjoys Naruto's company genuinely, because it's easy. Simple. There's no underhanded prodding at his love life, like his mother does (and bless Yoshino, he wants the best for him, truly, even if she's way too troublesome about it), and there's no outright sassing him, like Ino does. The closest thing he can compare this to is Chōji's company, and that is a surprise in itself. After all, he's known Chōji for their entire lives, and Naruto really only became a closer friend around when they were fifteen.

Shikamaru remembers their shared pain - and Shikamaru remembers Naruto's shock at Kurenai's pregnancy. He remembers how Naruto had immediately grasped that the kings of their future are the children, he remembers how it wasn't a question for him. Everyone is king who is deserving of protection - and in Naruto's eyes, everyone is, but especially the future is.

Logically, Shikamaru knows what he wants out of life. He could apply for a genin team if it wasn't such a damn drag, because he truly would want to leave something of his Will of Fire to future generations. However, he's found his calling, he's known it for quite a while now: he wants to see Naruto become Hokage, and he wants to be there at his side. Next to Naruto, nothing is impossible, and he wants to help create those possibilities.

His mind takes an entirely undignified and definitely unwanted turn as he looks over at Naruto, adam's apple bobbing as he slurps the last of the broth. He's... grown up. Filled out. Not tall and lean like Sasuke, not burly like Kiba, but somewhere in between, radiating strength just as he radiates warmth. He's grown into his face, too; the baby-fat is all gone now, the whisker-marks a comfortable presence. His eyes are the same twinkling blue as ever, so is the trademark chesire grin. But his jawline is chiseled, his cheekbones are high, and he's... he's attractive.

Shikamaru wisely decides to bury his face in the remainder of his own ramen before his face starts to mirror his thoughts. He's not really thought of Naruto in that way before, not that he remembers, but this afternoon, as the blond stood to stretch, something in Shikamaru uncoiled, and no matter how he tries to shove it back where it came from, he's had no success in that regard.

It's troublesome, but it's also liberating in a sense, and surprisingly, it didn't make hanging out with Naruto more complicated, so Shikamaru supposes he's fine in his company until he puzzles this one out.

He's not sure, once again, whether he likes not knowing things or not.

 

 

"He's just so stupid" Naruto sighs, falling back against the cushions of Sakura's couch, his tone fond.

Sakura only bothers to lift an eyebrow at him from where she's chopping vegetables. "He is?"

"Seriously, Sakura-chan, how can someone be a genius and a total idiot all at once?"

Sakura throws the vegetables in the pot, frowning slightly. Many people have been asking that question about Naruto lately, and she knows it's not without reason. The war has shown everyone that Naruto is far from the bumbling idiot they'd thought he was. It is, however, not a question people usually ask regarding Nara Shikamaru, resident genius, freshly appointed Jōnin Commander. "Why is he stupid again?" She asks, turning to lean against the counter, arms crossed.

"None of the things you and Ino suggested worked!" Wow. Sakura has to admit, the level of Shikamaru's intelligence has seemed somewhat daunting before, but it certainly doesn't now. She sighs.

"He really must be dense."

"I even played shōgi with him!"

Naruto, by default, is willing to go to unimaginable lengths to attain his goals, Sakura knows. Shōgi is beyond unimaginable.

Then again, she's a shinobi, and Naruto's a shinobi, and they both know that everything is a tool to reach an end goal, if one has enough creativity, and of that, Naruto certainly has a lot.

"Did you enjoy it?" She settles for asking, because even if that might not be one of the more important questions here, her interest is definitely piqued.

"Actually, yeah" Naruto grimaces. "After a while, it started to make sense. It's like battle, I suppose."

Sakura turns back to her stir-fry to hide a grin. She doesn't quite check the sky for winged pigs, but it's a very near thing.

As for what to do about Shikamaru's apparent obtuseness, they've pretty much exhausted all the options. Whenever Naruto would swing by Tsunade-sama's office, he'd stop by Shikamaru's desk, sometimes drop off lunch for him. When the Konoha 12 went for drinks, Naruto offered to pay for Shikamaru's beer. When they'd meet in the street, Naruto would engage in chat with him. Hell, the boy played shōgi with Shikamaru, invited him for ramen, even showed off his abs and they've got nothing to show for it.

On that thought...

"Naruto, have you sparred lately?"

Naruto levels her with a blank look. "Sakura-chan, we spar every morning."

"Not with me, baka, with Shikamaru!"

"Why would I spar with Shikamaru?"

Sakura reins in a put-upon sigh, because Naruto does have a point. "What about a joint Team 7 - Team 10 spar? It's been ages since we did anything together."

"Yeah" Naruto agrees, immediately perking up at the sound of a good, vigorous spar. Figures. "How is that important now?"

"Because" Sakura starts slowly, and from the slightly terrified expression on Naruto's face, she must be sporting a devious grin. "Because, Naruto, you can get so sweaty you'll have to remove your jacket, right? And the undershirt?" She sees Naruto grasp it.

"Training Ground 11 has that river running through it" he adds with a grin of his own, and Sakura beams.

"Let me ask Ino tomorrow" she says, turning off the stove and passing an ungodly amount of food to Naruto.

 

 

The spar, maybe predictably, gets really, really troublesome after maybe twenty minutes in. Of course, Sasuke, Naruto and Sakura are not quite using their full battle capacity, and so isn't the Ino-Shika-Cho trio - they're here to train, not to decimate the training field - but they've been doing enough damage that possibly over half of the training ground is on fire.

Sure, there's a river running through, but that also is on fire thanks to Naruto's toad oil and Sasuke's Grand Fireball jutsu.

None of them are quite proficient with drawing water out of thin air, so they settle for the next best thing, and have Sakura punch the ground hard enough so enough earth gets turned up to quench the fire - turns out that the Sannin no Deshi and the Ino-Shika-Cho trio are extremely compatible in such cases of emergency. Chōji, after a hearty Expansion Jutsu, is strong enough to lift the slabs of earth and rock and stack them neatly on top of their fire, and the training ground already looks a lot more agreeable.

Shikamaru only has to figure out how to put out the river. His shadows are useless at drawing the thin sheen of oil off the surface of the water, Chōji, Ino, Naruto and Sakura's specialties alike.

Shikamaru opens his eyes.

"Sasuke" he grunts, because (perhaps surprisingly) he never quite managed to be anything more than barely civil to the Uchiha.  It's not like he dislikes him, per se, but the opposite can't be said either. "Can you burn up the oil with your Flame Control?"

To Shikamaru's knowledge, Amaterasu only burns what is targeted, and only till the very thing is no more. This should work.

It does, and they all head home, filthy and smelling of smoke, Ino and Sakura commiserating on each other's shoulders, lamenting their failure.

 

Two days later, Naruto corners Shikamaru just as he's exiting the Administration Building.

"Shikamaru" he begins, and the last time Shikamaru has heard that particular tone was during the war - all too decisive, all to ready to step up, to be the hero, to face any adversity.

"Shikamaru, can I come watch the clouds with you?"

Well. He is... taken aback, in the very least, by Naruto's request. It's not like the blond to actively want to laze around and do nothing. Also, he half-expected to be proposed to then and there, just going by the tone of voice alone. Not that he's expecting it, really - marriage sounds too much of a drag, honestly. But to have Naruto think of him that way is appealing, certainly, and Shikamaru has decided he doesn't like his brain anymore. 

He's also decided to hang less with Naruto, because he seems to be overcome with a funny stomach condition every time they're together, one that he's pointedly going to ignore, so it's really none of his fault when he says yes without thinking and consequently ruins his relaxation time with those pesky butterflies.

Honestly, Shikaku is tearing up with laughter somewhere in the next plane, because yes, Shikamaru is a genius, but he is also so, so dumb sometimes.

To his genuine surprise though, when they get to his favourite hillside, Naruto silently drops down into a comfortable position to take in Konoha illuminated by the setting sun, beautiful as it stretches out in the sunset. Shikamaru is entirely pleased by this turn of events, but somehow he finds himself providing conversation.

"It's beautiful."

Naruto lazily turns towards him. "Yeah" is all he says, eyes half-lidded against the sun, his skin glowing and his hair flaring. He's beautiful, and Shikamaru can do no more hiding from his own thoughts. Naruto's beautiful, and while Shikamaru is not entirely sure what he wants, he knows it entails touching that golden skin, running his fingers through that shining hair.

He does the only logical thing: stammers out a sloppy excuse rivalling Kakashi's usual ones and hightails it so fast he could beat the Yellow Flash.

 

 

"Are you hiding?"

Shikamaru groans into his pillow. What is it with his sudden popularity amongst blonde Konoha-nin?

Ino shuts the door of his apartment behind her as she steps inside. When Shikamaru moved out of the Nara compound, he did so because he'd wanted a touch more privacy. Not that the Nara were generally a nosey bunch, but well. Living with family has its restrictions, and this way, he only disappoints himself with one too many instant ramen cups left on the counter.

This, this is not privacy. This is hell.

"Since when are you eating instant ramen? Shikamaru!" Ino's disapproving voice sounds from the kitchenette as she putters about, no doubt throwing the trash out that Shikamaru, the adult that he is, left all over the place.

Yeah, he's hiding, not that he'd be willing to admit that out loud, and especially not to Ino.

And the ramen's a new thing, really, and he wishes to spare no further thought for that, thank you very much.

"And your fridge! Don't worry, Chōji'll be here soon."

"Thought this was supposed to be my apartment" Shikamaru mutters as he disentangles himself from his sheets. Ino seems to have taken pity on him and pretends not to hear that, so at least there's no snarky reply.

Shikamaru yanks on a pair of sweatpants that leave his hipbones bare, and fishes out a loose tank top from the chair he's deposited his clean laundry onto. 

He steps into the living area with a pack of cigarettes in his hand and a lighter in the other, to the sight of Ino alternating between a fond and a slightly disturbed expression as she tidies his apartment. He sighs, and she knows she's won - he never has the heart to kick her out. Not that she doesn't take full advantage of that, but it's working out.

He sinks onto the couch with another resigned sigh, and lights up his cigarette. Ino doesn't even pull her nose up, so Shikamaru supposes he must look like he needs the extra care.

"You" she points a finger at him, "are definitely hiding." Her gaze is practically begging him to disagree.

For his part, Shikamaru has no idea how she knows he's hiding - he knows why he's hiding, but the only people present when this entire thing became a problem was him and Naruto, so...

Oh. Something clicks, and it's odd that he hasn't considered that before. Naruto's best friend is Sakura, and Sakura and Ino are the gossip-mongering queens of Konoha, so it's really not a surprise Ino's decided to invite herself over.

And oh - Naruto knows. Shikamaru fights the urge to faceplant into the couch.

Thanks to a stroke of luck, Chōji makes his entrance before Ino decides to grill him about this - if by a stroke of luck Shikamaru means the worst streak of misfortune he's had in a while.

Chōji knows. Not only does he know, he's enthusiastically voicing his support for Shikamaru finally realising his feelings from where he's preparing meat to cook.

Shikamaru needs better friends. (He doesn't stop to think about how the only other person this close to him is Naruto.)

"Really, Shika" Ino starts over when they sit to eat, "why don't you just tell him?"

Chōji agrees around a mouthful of food.

Shikamaru sighs, but gives in - logic and past experiences tell him that his chances of getting out of this intact are far better if he just humours Ino.

"Because he's Naruto" he says, tipping his head to look at the ceiling instead of his friends. From the silence that follows, he deduces that he's either said something brilliant, or something really stupid.

Ino says "So?" at the same time Chōji says "Because he belongs to all of the village?"

The truth is probably somewhere in between, not that Shikamaru cares to find out. He doesn't. He resists the urge to pout at himself, but only just.

"Because he's..." Bright, that's the only word that comes to Shikamaru's mind at the moment. He's not used to so much short-circuiting, and he's not exactly eager to repeat this entire experience any time soon.

"We know you must really like him, Shika" Ino supplies, but it doesn't have an edge this time. Chōji lets out a noise in agreement, and nods. It's nice of them to remind Shikamaru that he's in a safe space. 

Shikamaru levels both of them with a flat look. "Really?"

"You didn't call him troublesome. At all" Chōji says. "We're the only people who you don't call troublesome."

"Hey!" Ino shrieks. Ouch... "He calls me troublesome!"

Chōji offers Ino an apologetic smile, and Shikamaru's painful wince at the fury on her face is apparently enough to deter the blonde kunoichi for a moment. She settles back down with inhuman grace, and turns dangerously calm eyes on Shikamaru.

"Different topic. But don't think this is over" she warns him, and Shikamaru can only gulp.

"Tell him" she continues. "I'm serious."

Shikamaru nods, and clearly, the subject is closed. Chōji moves them onto another topic, and the rest of the meal is more or less peaceful, if you don't count the fact that all of it keeps fluttering in Shikamaru's stomach.

 

 

The next time Naruto seeks him out to play shōgi, he simply agrees. After all, Ino has been harping on him about being honest with Naruto, and while Shikamaru would never, ever (ever) have sought him out, he also isn't going to turn down the chance he's been given.

He's pathetic, isn't he?

They sit on the balcony like last time, Shikamaru sitting on the double seat in the shade like last time. Naruto sits down next to him, very close, and that's not at all like last time.

Shikamaru's heart stills, or possibly explodes - either way, he can't feel it in its usual place. It is in his stomach, it is in his throat, it is in his head as he looks at Naruto, uncharacteristically still against the backdrop of Konoha.

Naruto doesn't say anything, just smiles, confident and easy, one corner of his mouth crinkling more than the other. Shikamaru just looks at him, and keeps looking, because close friends as they are, Shikamaru has not yet had the chance to look at the blond this closely.

Naruto is beautiful. Light freckles dust the bridge of his nose, and there's sunspots in his blue, blue eyes. And just like that, Shikamaru knows what it is that he wants, almost laughs at himself for not realising it earlier, because he wants to kiss Naruto.

He feels himself lean forward, just the slightest bit, as if it wasn't him controlling his own body. There's a breathless sort of anticipation hanging in the air, and Shikamaru feels his own throat constrict in response. 

"Hey Shikamaru, how many deer do you have?" Naruto blurts suddenly, and Shikamaru jerks back in surprise. Naruto slowly turns beet red, and Shikamaru blinks.

"Well, uh" Shikamaru clears his throat, "they only ever congregate during the winter, so it's hard to know. Last we counted, there were around six hundred of them."

Naruto's eyes are glinting again. "That's so cool! Can I visit them?"

Shikamaru absently agrees to take Naruto there sometime, wondering at the lump in his throat.

"So are we playing shōgi?" Naruto asks, and he's back to his usual bubbly self, if not for the slight blush creeping up on his cheeks. Shikamaru misses the blush, but he doesn't miss the slight raspiness to Naruto's voice that hasn't been there before.

"Yeah" Shikamaru responds, breathing a sigh he's not sure is of relief or of despair. He sets out the pieces, Naruto takes the opposite seat, and that is that.

 

("Sakura-chan, I'm so" Naruto takes a breath for dramatic pause, "so stupid" he says, and sloshes some of his sake on the table. He's not drunk, Sakura knows, not with his constitution and with Kurama inside him, but he is in despair. 

"Why?" She tries to sound sympathetic, she does.

"Shikamaru almost kissed me" Naruto laments as he empties his cup. Sakura gapes.

"And? What happened?" She tries not to shriek, and mostly succeeds, because, what?

"I freaked. I asked him how many deer they had" Naruto faceplants onto the table and remains there. It's just as well, because Sakura has no words. She looks over to the opposite corner of the bar, where Ino appears to be consoling an equally distressed Shikamaru.

Sakura just catches Ino say "You are in love with an idiot, Shika.")

 

 

The days pass. Naruto is used to this lull between missions now, the few peaceful days or weeks that he used to hate as a genin. There is peace now; there's no need to boast how strong or how fearsome his village is, because the villages are stronger united, always.

He loves it, and these days of calm remind him of that. He can truly enjoy them, because the fierce, burning need to do and to feel and to live is almost completely gone now. Kurama is placated inside him, long since made a friend - Konoha is safe - Naruto is accepted. There's no more room for hatred, and he is content.

Not happy, maybe, but content.

His workload with Iruka-sensei is almost done with, now, and it is possible Naruto knows far too much about bureaucracy and diplomacy, but he isn't willing to take the easy road to Hokage, no matter how the village would have granted him the title on the spot.

He is a hero, but he is far more a regular person now than he's ever been. So he spends his rare days off with walking around Konoha, visiting Teuchi at Ichiraku's, and he does get some lazy katas in, but he's relaxing. He even went to the onsen.

So what is this nagging feeling that keeps gnawing at his insides? Something, something that's missing, and since Naruto was never the person to sit still for too long, on day three he ambles up to the Mission Assignment desk to ask about any available missions. He still hasn't been promoted to jōnin, but that's of little matter, because he takes the A-rank missions anyways. It helps to take the load off the actual jōnin, or so Tsunade-baa-chan says, but Naruto knows it goes deeper.

He takes the mission scroll the desk chuunin hands him, and he doesn't take extra care to avoid Shikamaru on his way out of the Administration building. He doesn't.

There is a grunt.

He's in his flat, packing up for the almost week-long mission - not the same flat he used to live in as a child, but a bigger, brighter studio apartment - and he knows he's alone. Which leaves...

"You're running away, brat" Kurama tells him.

"I'm not!" Naruto protests, and tries to fight the dread back down. He must have it bad for Kurama to start talking about emotions.

The fox opens one red eye just a sliver, and Naruto wonders if he could learn that devastating glance from him. It could level villages.

"Just talk to him!" Kurama says, and it has a distinctive, annoyed edge to it. It fills Naruto with unspeakable fondness, not that he'd ever tell that to the fox.

Before Naruto can so much as open his mouth to reply, Kurama swishes his tails to silence him.

"You humans are so tiny." Naruto tries to protest the blatant arrogance but Kurama amends. "Your lives are short, and outside of that, the universe is vast. It doesn't care about your problem with that kid. You might as well go for it."

Naruto's sure that if the fox was a cheekier person - well, fox - he'd be winking right now. As it is, Kurama's eye slides closed as he is apparently done with the conversation.

For the embodiment of hatred, the Kyuubi no Kitsune sure gives solid advice, Naruto chuckles as he shoulders his pack.

"All right, all right, you stupid fox, I'll tell him when I get back" Naruto says. All he gets in response is a lazy flick of one tail.

The mission is a boring one, but a welcome distraction nonetheless. It is a simple courier mission, with great focus on speed - probably why the chuunin at the desk handed it to him without so much as a second glance. Kurama isn't happy when Naruto wakes him up for it, but this is a mission and they're shinobi. Well, they're a shinobi and a fox.

It takes them a little under two days to reach the border of the Land of Fire, one day to hand over the intel to an awaiting Kumo squad and have a breather, and it shouldn't take them more than two days on the way back, carrying a different scroll for Tsunade-baa-chan. Easy-peasy.

Kurama makes a touch too many 'running away' jokes, but Naruto decides he can live with that.

He'll talk to Shikamaru when he gets back.

 

 

Shikamaru's hands are sunk so deep in his pockets he half-worries they'll not come out. He's petulantly slouching in front of Naruto's door, as it were. Not that he'd have used that word, but Ino had, and Shikamaru found it too much of a drag to argue with her.

Which is what leads him here, slouching petulantly in front of Naruto's door.

There was no answer to his knock, so he did try again - still nothing. Just as he lifts his hand with a resigned sigh (third time's the charm, Chōji's mom always says) he sees Sakura from the corner of his eye waving at him from the other end of the corridor.

"Hi, Shikamaru! Are you looking for Naruto?" She greets.

Shikamaru shrugs. "Yeah, but..." He gestures towards the door. 

"He's not here" Sakura informs him as she fishes out a key from a pocket Shikamaru didn't know existed. "He's on a mission. It shouldn't take more than a couple of days" she smiles, and Shikamaru briefly contemplates the sincerity of her expression.

She's reassuring him, and wow, that's a new one. Does he look that pathetic now?

"Well, come in, you can help me water his plants. That's why I'm here" Sakura clarifies as she leads the way into Naruto's apartment like it's completely normal that she just invited a random person into someone else's home.

Then again, Shikamaru is not exactly a random person, and this is Naruto's home, so it probably is okay. He's only been to Naruto's old apartment - he had to ask Ino for this address - so he's curious to see it. Naruto had mentioned a house-warming party that's never happened, so it's not like Shikamaru wasn't invited.

Yes, he knows his logic is faulty.

Sakura heads for the kitchen, grabbing a large, orange watering can and filling it at the sink, seemingly in need of no help from Shikamaru, so he looks around. Discretely.

There are ferns and cacti and all sorts of other plants Shikamaru has no name for all neatly sitting on windowsills, in the middle of tables or hanging from the ceiling. The space itself isn't as orange as he's expected it to be, but then again, Naruto's been wearing a lot less orange too.

The Uzumaki crest is painted above the couch on the left-hand wall, a large, swirling spiral in muted red. On the wall across it, there are a couple of shelves with a few picture frames between stacked books. Shikamaru can make out Naruto's genin team picture and one with Tsunade and Jiraiya on it, but the rest of the pictures are obscured by the sunlight that's reflecting off their glass.

It's... Tidy, and not that it surprises Shikamaru, it's just... Okay, tidier than what he'd expected. He runs a hand through his hair - with Naruto, he really should have learnt ages ago not to expect anything.

But even the bed is made, he can see through the bedroom door open just a crack.

They really have grown up, haven't they? All of them. And it's Naruto's empty apartment that makes him realise that.

"Come on" Sakura comes back, and smiles at him again. "Thanks for helping" she says, and oddly enough, there's no sarcastic overtone to it.

Shikamaru rubs at the back of his head awkwardly. "Did you want to get dango?" He asks Sakura, who pretends to think it over.

"Sure!" She smiles again, broader this time. She locks the apartment behind them, and together they step down the stairs and onto the street.

For his part, Shikamaru has no idea why he invited Sakura to get dango of all things, other than her apparent connection to Naruto. Ch.

They round the corner to the dango stand - and that's when the explosive tags go off.

Shikamaru doesn't see their enemies, and from the tense set of her shoulders, Sakura hasn't been able to pinpoint them either. Reinforcements will be here soon, that is for certain, so they're not worried, not yet.

And indeed, ANBU are flanking them a minute later, but Shikamaru registers that only vaguely, because there's a dull  buzzing in his ears as a second explosion goes off just next to him, and his knees give out.

The last thing he sees is the faint green glow of Sakura's hands as she yells his name.

 

 

Naruto comes home to a slightly smouldering Konoha, and he stops on the branch he's landed on to take it in.

There seems to be no major damage, although the scent of smoke lingers along with a few wisps of it in the air. There are double the amount of normal patrols on the walls, and at the gate, next to Izumo and Kotetsu there's also an ANBU pair, eyes turned on the road.

Naruto hops down onto the road, and rushes the last few meters to the gate as Kurama's chakra dissipates around him. The guards don't tense; they've probably sensed his chakra already, and they simply greet him as he skids to a halt next to them.

"What happened?" He asks.

"Some mercenaries banded together to take a shot at Konoha" Izumo answers him as he tips his head back towards the village proper.

Naruto just glares. If he hadn't taken that mission...

"Anyone hurt?" He asks, trying very hard not to let his anger show through. The people are always his first priority, and he can't protect them if he's not here...

"No casualties. A couple of ANBU and that Nara kid are in the hospital" Kotetsu shrugs. "According to Tsunade-sama, they all are gonna make it."

The Nara kid?

Naruto doesn't even bother to wave a goodbye at the guards as he hops on top of the nearest roof, headed towards Tsunade's office.

The Nara kid?

Suddenly, all that dithering seems pointless. Kurama was right; the universe wouldn't have cared either way, but Shikamaru at least would have known before he--

No. Kotetsu said there were no casualties. That there are going to be no casualties.

Naruto arrives to the Administration building, and at landing he slightly overbalances on the windowsill, almost toppling head-first into Tsunade's office.

"Naruto" she greets him with a flat look, but Naruto can hear the weariness in her voice. Naruto straightens, sliding off the sill and into the room to stand in front of her desk. He hands her the scroll from Kumo, and prepares to give his report so he can ask his questions all that faster, but Tsunade waves a tired hand.

"The report can wait." She says. "Go. Sakura's in the hospital, she'll tell you."

Naruto bows, hastily at best, but he does bow, because that's one of the bigger favours someone has done him lately. He's out the window in a flash.

 

Sakura fills him in on Shikamaru's condition, and on what happened. The mercenary shinobi that attacked were either killed or captured. They are now in T&I, being either tortured or interrogated. Yes, Shikamaru is in a coma, albeit chakra-induced. Yes, he is going to be okay. Yes, the burns on his side are bad, but most of them shouldn't even scar. Yes, Naruto, you can go visit him. He will be out of here in a week or so. Here you go, this is his room. Naruto enters.

"You know, it's so stupid." Naruto sighs as he takes a seat on the stool next to Shikamaru's bed. He looks at the brunet, so pale and unnaturally still against the sheets, and his brows knit together in frustration. The left side of Shikamaru's face is covered in gauze, so it's hard to make out, but Naruto suspects most of his skin and some of his hair was burnt. The gauze continues down the side of his neck, his shoulder, his arm, and under the blanket there is a suspicious lump that has Naruto wince, because most of Shikamaru's left leg must be bandaged as well.

"I was so afraid of ruining something that I ruined it by doing nothing" Naruto confesses, whispering. "That's not really how I usually think, anyway. I guess I thought this was too important..." He rubs a hand through his hair, messing it up in the process. He looks back at Shikamaru. "Get well soon" he says. "You still have to take me to visit the deer" Naruto chuckles.

Outside the room against the wall, Sakura triggers a shunshin as she hears the legs of the stool scrape against the linoleum. She didn't mean to eavesdrop; she just sort of remained there as Naruto took his seat and began talking. Her throat is dry, and there might be tears in her eyes, but she's full of an emotion she can't name, fierce and protective and loving, because Naruto, Naruto is going to be happy, even if she has to hogtie Shikamaru and leave him on his doorstep.

 

Four days later, Naruto gets a message in the form of one of Sai's ink birds. He lets it through the window and takes out a piece of paper, letting the bird set itself against it in neat, black script. It reads nothing but two words: he's awake.

He picks up the book he's discarded just a minute before, looks at the page number before he shuts it properly and sets it down. It's the Tales of A Gutsy Ninja, because that's still one of Naruto's favourites. Because he felt he needed the comfort of his shishō's words. With a last glance at the cover, he leaves it on the table and exits his apartment.

He's done enough running away, he chuckles to himself, and he feels rather than sees Kurama stir and chortle a little inside him. He ignores it with a roll of his eyes - the stupid fox hasn't even talked to him in a week now, he can very well remain silent.

 

 

Shikamaru struggles to sit up in bed, but he tries to sit anyway. He feels horribly stiff and grouchy, and that can't be helped by the fact that he's spent the last six days practically asleep. In fact, that only worsens it.

Chōji reaches to help him, and Shikamaru welcomes the sentiment - even if it hurts a lot more to be touched by a person than to be touched by soft linen. Since he was woken this morning with a jolt of chakra, the bandages have been removed to reveal new, pink skin underneath them. After the nurse left, Sakura and another iryo-nin took her place, smiling at him as he glared back.

"Naruto visited you" Sakura makes conversation as she runs her chakra-covered hands down the length of Shikamaru's arm. "The cream healed you nicely" she comments, a note of pride in her voice. The faint green of her hands intensifies as she finishes healing his fragile skin, down the side of is face, his shoulder, his hip, his thigh.

"He did?" Shikamaru rasps, and he hopes his voice isn't as hopeful as he feels. From the sympathetic look on Ino and Chōji's faces, he deduces he is quite unsuccessful. Sakura finishes her work, thanks the other iryo-nin that's been taking notes.

She turns back to Shikamaru. "Yes. You two should talk." And with that, she takes her leave.

What a drag... Ino said the same thing when she left just before noon. Ch. 

Speak of the devil, Shikamaru's inner voice sing-songs as a sandal scuffs against the threshold. Chōji makes some excuse or another to leave, with a promise he'll be back tomorrow.

"Hey" Naruto steps into the room after Chōji's left.

"Hey" Shikamaru greets back.

There's silence.

Resigning himself to the awkward conversation, Shikamaru draws in a breath. "I... Have something to tell you" he tells Naruto, who simply looks at him, oddly mature in this moment.

"Me too" Naruto says, and his voice is serious. Shikamaru's heart beats faster and faster with every step Naruto takes to reach the bed. Somewhere, his brain keeps a running count of his pulse, shoved somewhere far beyond his comprehension, because Naruto takes a seat on the very edge of Shikamaru's bed.

Shikamaru swallows. Surely not--

Naruto takes his hand carefully in his, lifts it just a little off the sheets. Shikamaru gapes.

Before that famous brain of his has the chance to catch up, Naruto leans in and leaves a single peck searing Shikamaru's lips. He bounces off the bed.

"Get well soon" Naruto tells Shikamaru, and leaves the room.

Shikamaru, for his part, is frozen for a good two minutes after that, contemplating the truth of the universe. It is possible, after all, that he is still spacing out on pain meds and this did not just happen.

There is a very distinctive, hoarse "yatta!" sailing upwards from the streets, and Shikamaru suppresses a small smile. He is in love with an idiot.

 

 

Tsunade promptly hands over the title of Hokage to Kakashi, much to everyone's surprise. Well, much to everyone's except Naruto's, who seems to be pleased by this turn of events. When asked, he will only say that he never wanted to be the Rokudaime anyways, that it's not like Kakashi will be the last Hokage. It is almost comical how much Kakashi himself doesn't want the title, but it can't be helped: Naruto is enjoying the thrill of his recent promotion to jōnin, and he enjoys his free time, mostly spent with Shikamaru these days. He says he'll wait a few years till he takes the hat and gives up on his social life - but that's okay, because Shikamaru will stand next to him no matter what the future holds.

 

Shikamaru doesn't like thinking of himself as a genius, though he does think his reasoning in this instance is flawless.

The king piece, gyokushō, represents the future of the Will of Fire, the children, and he'd give his life to protect that.

He is not abandoning that as he stands beside Naruto, the foremost protector of their peace, of their future, in whom the Will of Fire burns brightest.

The future is king, but Naruto, Naruto is the future.