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Shadows and Fangs

Chapter Text

Time's an abstract concept.

Shikamaru's always thought so. It dragged on forever when you were in a hurry, and then blinked away when you'd rather it didn't. The war had felt like a lifetime, but effectively had only lasted a few days. The days, weeks, and months that followed each felt like an eternity, yet here they were, almost a year later, and they'd learned to live on without the people they'd lost.

Time's a troublesome concept.


(No, really.)

In Shikamaru's opinion, the Sixth Hokage clearly hadn't grasped as much, because he was the undisputed Champion of Bad Timing. "The chuunin exams. Seriously," he deadpanned as he looked Kakashi in the eyes.

The Copy Nin merely smiled innocently – it was plain as day he was enjoying this, even behind his usual face-mask. "So skeptical, Shikamaru! Why ever?" he asked as he leaned back into his chair.

"Maybe because we're not really in any position to organize said exams right now?" the Nara asked back sarcastically. Oh, of all things, this was really not what he'd thought this summon was about. (Again.)

"And that's why Suna will be taking over as organizers," Shizune cut in, visibly not wanting their dear Sixth to further antagonize the room. She then looked down with a sigh, hands tightening over her clipboard. "Naturally, the war has…well, let's just say that not all previous candidates made it back safely. Many things will need to be revised, but still, as the proctor in charge of the previous exam, we'd like you to liaise with Suna to facilitate the handover," she finished calmly.

Which made perfect sense, he'd be willing to agree, if it weren't for the fact that they were just out of that freaking war. "Don't you think it's too soon? It hasn't even been a year since the war yet. Is now really the time to risk our genins' lives?" he asked them with a frown.

"Do you know what the trick to moving on is, Shikamaru?" Kakashi asked him more seriously as he crossed his hands and leaned his chin on them. "It's moving forward. Our genin are eager to prove their worth to help the village get back on its feet – a sentiment equally shared by their comrades in other villages."

Shikamaru sighed as he held his look. That may have been so, but he was still glad that he wasn't the one who had to make these decisions. "Fine. I'll play along. When do you want me in Suna?"

"Next week should do fine, finish pending assignments as you see necessary," Shizune replied, grabbing a file from the desk and walking over to hand it to him. "These documents detail the past organization, and there's also an updated list of Konoha's candidates. Please assist Suna in any way they deem necessary to ensure a smooth process. We're expecting you'll stay until all preparations are complete, but you'll be the judge of that. Temari will be your contact as before," she finished.

"I figured," Shikamaru replied absently as he frowned at the folder's weight – great, he'd be reading until late, it seemed.

"It goes without saying," Kakashi began once more as soon as he'd tucked the documents under his arm, "that if you can assist the Kazekage in any way during your stay, you are to do so, in honor of our bonds. Naturally, I'm still leaving it up to you – I'll trust your judgment."

"Of course," the shadow-nin replied with a nod – as if he needed to be told!

"Good. As you know, Kiba is over there right now for the exchange program," the Hokage continued. "Likewise, if you require his help and he's not busy, as a Konoha shinobi he's under your command. Sort of." Because even Hatake Kakashi knew that Kiba's temper sometimes got the best of him.

"Of course," Shikamaru repeated with a lazy grin. Well, at least he'd been given complete leeway to do as he saw fit, and he'd never complain about that! And to be honest…some time away from Konoha might not be so bad after all… "Anything else?" he asked for the principle.

"Nothing comes to mind right now," Kakashi replied with a shrug after a moment's thought.

"We'll be sure you to let you know without delay if there is," Shizune quickly added more tactfully, her look towards her superior promising him much pain to come for not taking things seriously, as usual – salted tea or stale biscuits, according to the rumors that floated about.

The Nara just nodded at them and turned to leave, already going over the necessary preparations in his mind. He let out a sigh as he walked out of the building and looked up into the sunny July sky. They just had to decide on the desert village of all places to hold an exam in the summer, didn't they? Sadistic bunch. He already dreaded the heat. This couldn't get more troublesome

"Shikamaru! Wait up!" Shizune's voice called from above.

Frowning, he looked up and saw her at a window, waving an arm. "What is it?" he called back.

"I actually forgot the applicants' files – I'd pulled them out to double-check them earlier!" she admitted sheepishly. "Catch!" she said as she dropped another folder on his head.

He caught it easily but complained for the principle, frowning at her. "You're a public danger!" he informed her.

"Have a nice trip!" Shizune called back cheerfully before slamming the window shut.

Shikamaru sighed as he looked at the new reading materials – the stack wasn't as thick as the previous one, but still of consequence. He was forced to correct himself.

It could always get more troublesome.

While he wouldn't exactly call himself an expert, Shikamaru had made the trip to Suna a few times already by that point, so he wasn't overly worried about the journey itself. After he'd left Konoha, he got to the Hidden Sand in the late morning of the fourth day – so he'd taken his time on the way, who was going to tell on him?

"You're late," Temari declared mercilessly as she greeted him at the gate, arms crossed over her chest. "We were expecting you yesterday."

"I had to slow down after I nearly twisted an ankle in my eagerness to get here quickly," he drawled sarcastically as he stopped in front of her, holding her look.

"What happened to your hair?" she asked instead of rising to the bait, cocking her head to the side as she took in the now short strands.

"Casualty of war," the Nara informed her with a pained sigh.

"You're a madman," Temari declared with much finality in her voice before turning and motioning for him to follow her. "But I guess it's good to see you again," she conceded easily.

"Thanks, I guess," Shikamaru replied lazily as he fell in steps with her. "How's the village?" he wondered as he looked around, nodding at a few shinobi he recognized from the war.

"Considering what we've been through, I think we can't complain," Temari replied honestly as she stretched her arms behind her back. "Besides, at least we don't have to worry about reconstruction," she added as she turned to him with a frown. "How's Konoha?"

"Growing faster than ever – practically rebuilt and even expanding," the Nara replied with a small smile. "The Sixth Hokage's very good at one thing, and that's pumping people up!" he grudgingly admitted. "Besides, Naruto's helping to keep our spirits up!"

"Oh, of that I have no doubt," the Suna kunoichi declared with a smirk. "I think this exam is a good thing too, though. Getting our lives back to how they were before the war is the best way to put it behind us," she added seriously as she looked back at him.

Shikamaru shrugged at this. "I wasn't too convinced at first, honestly," he admitted. "But Kakashi said something similar, and well…in the end I'm forced to agree with the two of you on that account."

Temari chuckled, gloating as she was so prone to when someone admitted she was right – which happened often, but still. "Well, let's get you settled, and then we can get right to it!"

"Any chance to grab something to eat somewhere along the way?" he wondered as he looked at the time – almost noon, time for lunch after all.

"You were late," she simply reminded him with a huff.

He played along and sighed at this, although he knew that she wouldn't let him starve to death – if only because it would reflect badly on the village, and that wouldn't do. "Where will I be staying?" he then asked half-curiously.

"In the guest quarters off the main street; it's really a stone's throw from the Kazekage's building," she replied matter-of-factly as they took a left turn onto said street. "I hope you don't mind, you'll be sharing with the mutt – well, just the kitchen and living-room area, really," she informed him.

Shikamaru frowned at this for a second before the information clicked. "I'm assuming you mean Kiba? How have things been with him?"

Temari rolled her eyes playfully and chuckled before shrugging helplessly. "He's a lost cause! It's not entirely his fault though, he just fell in with the wrong crowd," she informed him factually.

"'Wrong crowd'?" the Nara repeated with a raised eyebrow. "What – or should I say who – qualifies as the 'wrong crowd' in Suna?"

"Kankuro, who else?" Temari replied with a frown as though it were obvious.

Shikamaru had to chuckle at that. "Of course," he agreed mockingly. Not adding anything more, he followed her into a building and up two flights of stairs, then down a corridor to a sturdy-looking door. She reached for the handle but it swung open before she touched it, and there stood Kiba – and Akamaru – grinning at them. He was wearing the standard Shinobi Alliance uniform and flak jacket, and he was a bit more tanned than before but all in all he was the same as when he'd left Konoha. The most striking difference, really, was that his forehead protector had Suna's hourglass on it instead of Konoha's leaf – and for a second it was strangely disconcerting.

"I knew that smell was familiar!" the Inuzuka declared loudly as was his habit – Akamaru barking his agreement – and Temari sighed wearily, visibly having given up on him ever greeting people at a normal volume. "Hey Temari! How's it been going, Shikamaru?"

"Eh, same as usual, there isn't much to tell," the Nara replied with an easy shrug.

"I bet you're just too lazy to tell," Kiba said off-handedly, clearly knowing him too well. "Hey, what happened to your hair?" he then asked with a frown.

"Casualty of war," Temari deadpanned, much to her friend's amusement.

Kiba frowned at this, looking between them dubiously. "Okay, I get it – don't ask about the hair! Sheesh, talk about touchy!" he muttered to his nin-dog. "Anyway. They told me you'd be bunking around, so make yourself at home," he said as he waved his arm about, stepping aside to let them in.

Shikamaru's first impression was that the place seemed quite neat, for having such an inhabitant, but then he figured Temari's critical glance around the room had something to do with it.

Kiba became more serious however as he turned to the Suna shinobi. "Temari, have you heard whether Maki's on her way to the village yet? I was assigned to her unit and told to be on stand-by for deployment orders, but the last report I received yesterday stated that she was still at the north-eastern border," he said as he absently cracked his shoulder.

Temari frowned at this, looking up as she thought about it. "I haven't received any information on that today, but she was supposed to be back last night according to the roster. Did you check at the gate?" she asked him.

"First thing this morning," was his reply.

"And you're positive she's not in the village?"

"Yep," he confirmed as he tapped his nose.

She nodded back, by then trusting his skills on the matter. "Hopefully, she's just been delayed by sandstorms. I'll ask at the tower just in case," she said finally.

"Thanks!" Kiba replied brightly, pausing as he noticed Shikamaru watching their exchange with a strange expression on his face – was it amusement or surprise? (Both, maybe?) "What?" he asked defensively.

"Nothing," the Nara replied, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. It wasn't everyday he got to witness Kiba being all serious and deferential after all.

This mission possibly just got less troublesome.

"Just stay away from the second drawer in the fridge, those are Akamaru's bones, okay?" the Inuzuka informed him seriously as Akamaru barked happily.

Shikamaru didn't even bother arguing the uselessness of that warning.

Despite them effectively sharing quarters, Shikamaru didn't see Kiba for the next few days. Temari had informed him he'd been deployed to a border patrol, and inwardly he was relieved that the program was obviously a success since they trusted a Konoha shinobi with assisting them on something as important – visibly, that forehead protector wasn't all for show.

It was Gaara who had pitched the idea to the other Kage shortly after the end of the war, to build on the good rapport some shinobi had developed within their divisions. An exchange program for shinobi: the opportunity to learn from each other more openly, he called it. The suggestion was met with much doubt and even suspicion, as could be expected (particularly from Kumo), and the Kazekage had therefore offered to hold a six months trial in Suna to show his good faith.

Kakashi, backed by Tsunade, had readily agreed to the idea, seeing the potential to strengthen the ties between their villages and being keenly aware that of the alliance, only Konoha and Suna could really trust each other for such a program, at least yet. He'd called for volunteers, carefully reviewing each applicant, finally deciding on offering Suna the opportunity to work with something they didn't specialize in themselves: an olfactory-based tracker. They'd all been surprised that Kiba had volunteered in the first place, but he'd been really excited at the prospect and had visibly been able to convince both Konoha and Suna that he'd be up to the task. The sixth months mark had come quickly, and both sides had agreed to prolong it to a year, with Suna sending a chakra-thread specialist to Konoha to further develop the program and establish a complete procedure – and indeed, now that Shikamaru thought back on the few times he'd seen her from a distance, she'd been sporting the Leaf's symbol on her protector.

"Was it hard to get used to?" Shikamaru wondered interestedly as he looked at Kiba's discarded protector where it lay on the table, his eyes studying the hourglass shape. His fellow Konoha shinobi had returned from mission earlier that day, and so they'd finally managed to have dinner together.

Kiba frowned in confusion before following his look and shrugging. "Not really. When I first started I kept mine – at a point we even wondered if I should wear the 'shinobi' one from the war, but that was dropped. But then after a couple of months, Gaara called me to his office and just handed me this one, saying 'we've got you working like a shinobi of the Sand, the least we can do is acknowledge you as one'," he recalled with a pleased grin before chuckling. "I think Kankuro and Temari almost cried!"

"I have no doubts," the Nara drawled. "It's become standard procedure, I take it? I noticed your Suna counterpart in Konoha has our protector as well," he informed him.

"I'd heard – it is better like that. I mean, people only need to take a good look to realize I'm not really from here," the tracker tempered as he raised a hand distractedly. "But I really felt like I was sticking out before! And I can't deny it's flattering!" he added with a bright grin, Akamaru barking his agreement.

"It is," Shikamaru agreed as he chuckled at their antics, shaking his head as he thought about it. "Growing up, I'd have never thought that a program like this would be possible," he admitted after a short moment.

"Well, to be honest, it's still a work in progress," Kiba tempered as he leaned to the side to make sure Akamaru was enjoying his meal – Shikamaru was certain the dog was: Kiba put more care in preparing his partner's food than even an Akimichi! "It's going really well here because it's Suna, and Kakashi and I both know Gaara won't let anyone murder me in my sleep, and Gaara knows Kakashi will do the same," he stated as he returned to his own meal, satisfied.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this. "So the other villages…?" he questioned, trailing off.

Kiba hummed thoughtfully as he chewed on some cartilage – which made the Nara cringe, because how anyone enjoyed that crunchy-jerky feel under their teeth was a mystery to him. "Kiri's eager to prove they've changed – but let's face it, no one really trusts them yet. Even I'd think about it twice before volunteering. And seriously, Iwa's already proved in the past that they weren't above frying their allies even in times of peace, so sending them a giftwrapped bargaining chip is out of the question, at least for now – although from what I've heard, the Tsuchikage is quite fond of Gaara, so Iwa and Suna might be able to set it up sooner," he listed as he ticked off the villages on his fingers. "So out of the Alliance, that leaves Kumo, and despite our mixed history, I'd say they're our second best bet after Suna."

"Why do you figure?" Shikamaru asked him, smirking lazily as this was a side of Kiba he'd never really known – they hadn't worked together that often after all in the end.

"Naruto," Kiba replied pragmatically. "B won't go against Naruto, and that means that Kumo won't go against Konoha, at least as long as those two are alive. We just shouldn't send them a Hyuuga or they'll wet their pants!" he added with a huff, sharing a snicker with Akamaru.

His friend chuckled at this, having to concede the point. "You've really thought about it," he mused.

"Of course!" the Inuzuka said with a frown. "I didn't volunteer for this lightly, you know!" he argued with a huff. "As good as our relationship with Suna may be, it's still risky. It's obvious bloodline users shouldn't participate yet, but just because someone couldn't grab my nose from my corpse and have themselves an awesome tracker, it doesn't mean they wouldn't learn anything from picking me apart! It's a gamble either way!" Akamaru whined his dislike of this gloomy theory, and his master automatically reached a hand to scratch him behind his ear reassuringly.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this – he'd obviously really thought it through then. "Well, it's good to know you're doing well here, at any rate," he offered earnestly.

Kiba dismissed it with his usual wide grin, cocking his head to the side curiously. "So what'd I miss? Any juicy piece of gossip to share?" he wondered.

"I hate gossip," the Nara deadpanned with a frown.

"Too troublesome?" Kiba teased easily, chuckling at his friend's shrug. "Hinata and Shino wrote to me a few times so I know they're doing great. I even got a letter from Kurenai with a drawing from Mirai," he added happily as he pointed towards the drawing he'd pinned to the fridge.

Shikamaru followed his gaze and tilted his head sideways as he looked at it. "What is it?" he wondered despite himself.

Akamaru barked and Kiba looked at him as though he was seriously missing the point. "It's Akamaru, obviously," he replied.

"Ah, yes, now that you mention it, if I look at it upside down and close one eye, it does look like Akamaru," Shikamaru drawled, grinning at his friend's laugh.

"Still better than Sai's drawings," Kiba muttered as he took one last fond look at the colorful scribble.

"Oh!" Shikamaru realized as suddenly he knew what to tell Kiba to shock him. "Speaking of Sai – he and Ino are together now – I don't know that it qualifies as 'gossip', really, but it's notable enough…"

The Inuzuka's eyes widened comically and he nearly choked on his food. "Sai? And Ino? Oh I have got to see this!" he said in amusement as he grinned widely just thinking of the potential comical situations such a couple could spark. "Is it as much fun to watch as I think it is?"

"Painfully so," Shikamaru confirmed with a heavy sigh. "But they seem happy so far," he tempered.

"Well, that's all that matters then," Kiba readily agreed with a warm grin. He then smiled to himself as though thinking about something else – someone, maybe, Shikamaru wondered – and cocked his head to the side. "So what're your plans for tomorrow?" he asked curiously.

Shikamaru looked up as he thought about it. "Well, Temari has some business with the council, but I was going to head to up to the office anyway to speak with the other proctors. You?" he then asked, interested to know what they had him doing aside from border patrols.

"My schedule's been mostly cleared during your stay in case you need me for anything," Kiba replied with a shrug, echoing what Kakashi had said. "But every Friday afternoon Akamaru and I have a play-date at the academy if we're not on a mission, so you'll have to make do without us then!" he informed him with a toothy grin, the nin-dog wagging his tail happily at the prospect.

"Trying to recruit the Sand's youth into the Inuzuka clan?" the shadow-nin drawled teasingly.

"Shh, don't ruin my evil master-plan!" Kiba protested playfully.

The Nara just held his hands up in apology and they returned to their meals.

Yeah, perhaps being in Suna for some time really wouldn't be so troublesome after all.


Chapter Text

As it turned out, Shikamaru's work hit a roadblock at the end of the week – they had to wait for a reply from Konoha, so were effectively stuck until it came. Temari took it in stride and simply grabbed the opportunity to go and make sure Gaara remembered to eat, so Shikamaru found himself wondering what one did in Suna with free time. A quick look towards the sky had him sighing – clear blue, not a cloud in sight! But then he looked at the time and figured he might still catch Kiba at the academy. So he told one of the chuunin in charge of the second exam where he'd be in case they needed him and headed off.

In all fairness, even if he hadn't known the Inuzuka was there, the sound level that came out the academy's playground would have tipped him off. Rounding the corner, he chuckled to himself as he saw Akamaru had transformed into his master and the children were having a blast trying to figure out which one was the real one. One of the teachers walked to him to greet him and he nodded back at her.

"I haven't seen you here before. Here to pick up one of the kids?" she asked conversationally, an easy smile on her face but still being watchful as it was her duty to make sure strangers didn't walk off with her students after all.

Shikamaru smirked lazily as he turned so she'd see the Leaf protector on his arm and then gestured towards Kiba. "You could say that," he replied honestly.

She laughed openly, clearly agreeing with his assessment before turning back to look at the children who were heatedly debating which one was the dog. "We have many shinobi who take some time to play with the kids, and we're really thankful for that! They weren't on the frontlines, but they were still victims of that war – most of them don't really understand what it means, but they feel it," she commented.

"I can imagine," was his only reply. He knew that the children had a hard time coping – not to mention many of them had lost a parent, relative, or friend. "In Konoha, we're discussing the possibility of opening a section just for them at the hospital," he then added.

"Oh, yes, I've heard – it's such an excellent idea!" she replied as she crossed her arms behind her back. "We're following this project closely, in hopes of maybe having our own one day if it's conclusive," she informed him.

Shikamaru nodded absently, trusting Ino and Sakura to see the project through successfully – although up until now, he'd never really thought of how much it could benefit the other villages as well. He'd need to have a word with Ino on that, when he'd be back. He was jarred out of his thoughts when the children cheered happily, pointing at the Kiba who'd reached to pick up one of the students by the back of his shirt with his teeth.

"It's him! That's the dog!" one boy cheered, clearly part of the group who'd bet on it.

"No it's not!" another insisted.

"The real one wouldn't pick someone up with his mouth!" a girl argued as though the idea of it was stupid.

Shikamaru grinned to himself at that. Oh, they didn't know Kiba…

And indeed, Akamaru dispelled his jutsu, and the children either 'aww-ed' or 'yay-ed' as the real Kiba put the kid down and made a show of spitting out and cradling his jaw.

"Wow, you're not a lightweight!" he teased the kid, much to his classmates' amusement – although that child was a twig if he'd ever seen one.

"Eww Kiba, you grabbed him with your mouth!" a girl informed him with a frown – and a wide grin.

"I'll have you know these teeth of mine are weapons as much as anything that's made of metal!" Kiba replied seriously as he placed his hands on his hips and clicked his teeth together while leaning towards her until she giggled and swatted him away by flailing her arms. He then grinned as he leaned back against Akamaru – who was already carrying three students on his back. "But see? You all thought I wouldn't do something like that, and that's why you didn't find me out! A shinobi must always be ready to do anything necessary to the mission's success!" he declared brightly.

Shikamaru couldn't help but laugh at the children's raptured expressions and their eager nods at these words. His friend and his fan club turned to him at this, and he shrugged innocently. "Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to interrupt!"

"Kiba, who's he?" asked a few kids in 'whispers' as they pulled on the Inuzuka's sleeves.

"This is my friend Shikamaru – he's from Konoha like me," Kiba said easily as he walked over to sling an arm over his shoulder and pointed to the protector on his arm – with some children automatically stepping close to have a better look, sharing excited whispers as a few brave ones dared extend a finger to trace the pattern. "He's also my captain, so don't get me in trouble!" the tracker added in a stage whisper, winking exaggeratingly.

Shikamaru could only grin as the kids 'ooh-ed', nodded and winked back in what they thought was a discreet manner. "Has Kiba been behaving?" he asked them with a frown, playing along.

As many kids replied 'of course' as 'no', and Kiba instantly pretended to be offended as he chased those who'd ratted him out, ending up with a kid under each arm and two more clinging to his back.

"Can you also smell things like Kiba?" a child asked Shikamaru eagerly.

"He can probably do it better, since he outranks him!" another corrected her friend.

"Hey! Nobody smells things better than me!" Kiba protested with a pout as the Nara tried to resist the urge to tease him further.

"He can probably tell them apart though!" one of Kiba's captives exclaimed from his spot on the Inuzuka's back. "When Akamaru transforms!" he added excitedly.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at that and met Kiba's amused look. In the heat of battle, distinguishing them at a glance was near impossible, you had to wait until Kiba spoke – speech was the one thing Akamaru couldn't mimic. But here, just like this, with both purposefully staying silent? "I think that's a challenge," he drawled lazily.

Kiba's grin widened and he leaned close to Akamaru to whisper something to him before he playfully shook the kids off his back. Instructing the children to step back, he threw a small smoke bomb to the ground and they used the cover it afforded to partially transform as before.

Shikamaru grinned before he turned serious and pretended to really think about it, having a hard time resisting the urge to grin when the children held their breath every time he narrowed his eyes or 'hmm-ed'. Kiba had previously tricked the kids by having them think that the one who behaved the most doglike couldn't be the human, but he knew that kind of reverse thinking wouldn't work on him, so he wouldn't bother. In fact, neither Kiba moved much, they just stared him down – the children were close to having a shouting match to determine which was which. Both looked to be having too much fun, and were looking at the students fondly. But then Shikamaru noticed that one had a different expression when he looked at him, a softer grin. And he knew, particularly when that Kiba raised an eyebrow at him.

But before he could open his mouth, the other Kiba's head snapped to the side and he growled as a cat sauntered into the playground, tail swirling high before he stopped to hiss at the Inuzukas. Akamaru didn't need more insults to break his transformation and properly threaten the haughty feline, to the children's amusement and delight, some of them proudly exclaiming that they'd guessed right.

Shikamaru and Kiba only then looked away from each other with an amused smile and humored the children a bit more before they had to be heading home – with a few parents stopping by to chat with Kiba, Shikamaru noted interestedly. "So how did you end up having that playdate?" he asked his friend as they walked back towards the center.

"Oh, you know…one thing led to another," Kiba replied with a shrug as he crossed his arms behind his head. "One of the chuunin I've been working with has two kids at the academy, and she commented how it's been hard for them, and that a few shinobi had started showing up in the afternoons to cheer the students up. Then one day, I was there as a part of the program, to tell the kids about Konoha, and things just picked up from there…" he summarized as he turned to Akamaru with a fond look. "Besides, they really took to Akamaru!" he added proudly, the large dog barking happily at this.

Shikamaru smiled to himself as he thought they'd also visibly taken to Kiba as well.

"I even managed to drag Kankuro along once, but I guess they're just too young to grasp his humor!" the Inuzuka continued with a snort. "At least I'm sure they'll always remember the day they played tag with the Kazekage's brother's puppet!" he added with a snicker.

Shikamaru grimaced at that, because truly, being chased around by Karasu as a kid would have scarred him for life – and he really hoped it had been Karasu, the other puppets were even creepier! He then sighed as he thought about the students. Some would graduate soon, become genin, and then start going onto missions, exploring the world beyond their village. Some might fail, learn the hard way that they weren't cut out for a shinobi's life, even die, but others would thrive, rise through the ranks and strengthen Suna before eventually one day passing on their knowledge to a new generation. Being on the other side, the adult's side, was always such a strange feeling, one he wasn't fully used to yet, truth be told. "Growing up sure is troublesome, sometimes," he found himself saying. "Life was so much simpler back then!"

"Sure was!" Kiba readily agreed with a wide grin. "But finally understanding things as they really are and being in charge of yourself is nice, too," he then tempered, Akamaru yapping an agreement.

"Still, I could do with fewer responsibilities," the Nara huffed. "And less headaches," he muttered.

"Your fault for being so smart," was his friend's unsympathetic reply. "People wouldn't ask so much of you if you acted more like an idiot!" he added airily as he waved at a few shinobi they walked by.

"Oh, so that's your excuse, is it?" Shikamaru teased him lazily, the set-up being too perfect to pass.

"Hey! Play nice!" Kiba protested with a wide grin, lightly shoving his shoulder. "And here I was about to generously extend an invitation to you for food and drinks tonight!" he huffed nonchalantly.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at that. "I'm listening," he prompted.

Kiba's grin widened as he turned to him. "There's this specialty – this homemade liquor – absolutely repulsive – yet strangely addictive! You can't leave Suna without having lost your stomach to it at least once!" he assured him with a shudder. "Kankuro will be there and some others from my ex-division as well, maybe a few from yours, too!"

Shikamaru smirked at that. Probably the 'bad crowd' Temari had mentioned. He had to see this. "I'm in," he replied easily.

In retrospect, maybe he shouldn't have taken Kiba's warnings about the liquor so lightly, because honestly it was all he could do to keep it in.

"I'm impressed! You're still holding on!" Kankuro praised with a wide grin as he reached around Kiba to clap his back.

"Do that again and I won't," Shikamaru threatened darkly as he shot him a nasty look. "What is this thing?" he then wondered as he rubbed his eyes.

"Not knowing is part of its beauty," the puppeteer replied pragmatically as he finished his own cup, shuddering at the horrible taste. "Damn it that's bad!" he cursed as he set it down.

"At least you don't smell the thing like I do," Kiba reminded him with a shrug. "Smells even worse than it tastes!" he assured them all.

Kankuro grinned at him as he moved his hand to ruffle his hair. "You say that but you handle it like a true Sand shinobi!" he commended teasingly, trailing his fingers down to tap his knuckles on his Sand protector.

"It's all to impress you into praising me to your brother," Kiba deadpanned sweetly, sparking a round of laughter around the table and grin widening as his friend shoved him good-naturedly.

Akamaru barked and moved his head between them to ask for a treat, and Kankuro obliged by balancing a biscuit on his snout, grinning as the nin-dog waited for his signal before throwing it in the air and deftly catching it in his jaw. "Forget it Kiba, Akamaru's the one I'll tell Gaara about!" he declared as he moved to rub the dog's head. "Good boy, Akamaru!" he praised.

"You're both traitors," Kiba dismissed unemotionally as he returned to his drink. "You still alive in there?" he then asked Shikamaru as he'd remained silent for some time.

"I'll get back to you on that one," Shikamaru replied lazily, crossing his forearms on the table and resting his head on them. "We should've used that drink as a weapon during the war," he muttered tiredly.

"Too inhumane," Kiba dismissed easily. "We wouldn't have deserved to win!" he added with a fake frown before chuckling.

Shikamaru smirked slightly and didn't say more as he tried to let that liquor get through his system. From his position, he observed the people around the table and sighed contentedly at the good atmosphere – if someone had told him when he was a genin that one day he'd be in Suna trying the local firebrand with a group of Sand shinobi, he'd have been really unimpressed, and would have likely dismissed the entire idea as troublesome. How far from the truth he'd have been! Still, it was undeniable they'd come a long way – heck, the first time he'd really met shinobi from the Hidden Sand was during his chuunin exams, and they'd proceeded to invade Konoha! He liked it much better the way it was now, needless to say.

And well, correction: he was with a group of Sand shinobi and a fellow Leaf nin, he thought as his gaze stopped on Kiba – who, he had to admit, looked right at home and had visibly been able to seamlessly integrate with the locals. Not that it was surprising in itself. Shikamaru felt himself frown slightly as he watched him interact with Kankuro, surprised by their easy friendship and the puppeteer's familiarity with Akamaru. Now that he thought about it, he couldn't really remember anyone beside Kiba really playing with Akamaru like that, as if he were a normal dog – children excluded. Absently, he wondered if something in particular had happened that had gotten them close like that, because from the outside, apart from a certain level of cockiness and an unbreakable devotion to their siblings, they didn't really have much in common. Although to be honest, once you got past his loud demeanor, it was hard not to get along with Kiba; he was such a natural person that truly disliking him had to be a conscious effort. Maybe he'd ask Temari. Not that he really cared, but he was curious.

But that didn't happen because when he next saw her, she took one look at him and declared, "You've tried the liquor, haven't you?"

"Do I look that bad?" he asked back with a raised eyebrow. Admittedly, he did feel 'that bad'.

"Takes one to know one!" Temari replied with a wink, 'gently' patting his shoulder. "You're not a stranger in Suna anymore!" she then cooed teasingly with a wide grin.

"I'm thrilled the loss of my stomach amounted to something," Shikamaru deadpanned. But the corners of his lips were pulling up, and when she extended a hand to slap the back of his head he didn't bother avoiding it, knowing it wouldn't hurt (too much).

"You're having dinner at my house tonight," Temari informed him summarily a couple of days later as she practically dropped a precariously balanced stash of documents on his desk.

"I am?" Shikamaru asked back with a raised eyebrow before scowling at the added work and shooting her a dirty look. She was doing it on purpose, he just knew it. "You know, I'm here to assist with the handover, not organize the damn thing for you," he reminded her as he started going through the papers anyway.

"But I'm just a helpless woman," she insisted with a perfect whine and lost expression before ruining her own effect as she burst out laughing – yeah, right, as if! "Anyway. Dinner. Kankuro's cooking – not as dangerous as it sounds," she reassured him with a shrug at his dubious look. "Kiba'll be there too," she then threw over her shoulder before moving back to her own seat.

The shadow-nin nodded at her as he returned to work as well – besides, why would he ever turn down a dinner invitation? And a good call it was, because he'd even ended up learning a few things about the siblings he'd have never found out otherwise.

For starters, true to Temari's words, Kankuro was in fact a pretty decent cook. Then they'd also managed to pry Gaara from his work and Shikamaru discovered that the Kazekage actually smiled at his siblings – smiled, genuinely. He did feel envious watching them. Friendships were a complicated affair, and as close as you could get to someone, it was easy for the balance to change. But brothers and sisters, now there was a bond that was clearly defined – not so easily achieved, granted, as evidenced by his very hosts, but still, solid in itself.

Seeing the Kazekage and his most trusted bodyguards and assistants completely relaxed in the comfort of their own home was something not everyone was privy to, he realized that. Not many people – particularly if not from Suna – had been witness to Temari trying to bargain with Gaara to get him to eat more and work less, as Kankuro – without his face paint – grinned at them while trying to figure out new contraptions for his puppets, noncommittally grunting every time Temari dragged him into the conversation with a sweetly threatening, "Isn't that right, Kankuro?"

It almost felt like intruding, in a sense, and he was glad that Kiba was there as well.

Eventually Gaara could no longer be persuaded to be idle, so he moved to his room to continue working – with his siblings letting out a (fond) sigh at this. The four remaining shinobi ultimately ended up playing a game of cards to determine who would do the dishes – with Shikamaru and Temari winning hands-down, unsurprisingly, even though the other two had shamelessly cheated all along. The victors were happy to move to the outside garden to enjoy the cool air while Kankuro and Kiba (and Akamaru) created a battlefield out of the kitchen, with yells and barks filtering to the outside quite regularly.

"Oh, those two will pull me to an early grave – or make me get them there!" Temari muttered tiredly after a particularly loud sound echoed as she massaged her temples.

Shikamaru chuckled as he looked back towards the house, absently noting they seemed to have quieted down – in fact, there wasn't a sound coming from the kitchen anymore, so he figured they were done. "They're an odd bunch for sure," he agreed lazily.

"At least they're keeping their clothes on nowadays," the kunoichi stated matter-of-factly, ignoring the way her friend froze at her words. "Besides, while fame does have its perks, it hasn't made forming real friendships any easier!" she added with a casual grin.

Shikamaru only looked at her with a frown, as though trying to make sense of her words. "What…?"

"We're the previous Kazekage's kids," Temari needlessly reminded him. "Think we have a bunch of friends lining up? Admirers, followers, subordinates—sure, plenty! But friends? We first had to go look outside the village for those!" she added with a wink.

He wanted to reply something along the lines of 'of course we're friends', or 'I get what you're saying and I'm flattered', but all that came out was, "No, I was asking what did you mean by 'at least they're keeping their clothes on'?" he asked her seriously.

Temari's eyes narrowed knowingly as she leaned back on her hands, surveying him with her piercing gaze. "Kankuro and Kiba have this…arrangement," she eventually replied, purposefully staying ambiguous.

He knew she was doing it on purpose, but something inside of him didn't let him walk away. "What kind of arrangement?"

"Oh, you know…the kind where clothes aren't always necessary, if you catch my drift," Temari said with a shrug.

And catch her drift he did, frowning as he turned back to look in the duo's direction, although he couldn't see nor hear them. His frown deepened at that – were they…did they leave to do that? "Since when?" he heard himself ask. Inwardly, he realized that was probably why they were so comfortable around each other, and so familiar.

"A few months," was the casual reply before she stretched her arms with a sigh. "I don't know about Konoha, but here in Suna we're not so stuck up on gender," she then added seriously.

In Konoha, it wasn't really that it would be such a big issue, but it wasn't supposed to be something you talked about, or showed. Really, the only such couple he'd ever known about with certainty were Izumo and Kotetsu, but then again everyone even referred to them as 'Izumo and Kotetsu', they were such a fixture in the village that nobody blinked anymore – it was actually more troubling to see one without the other! Besides, the only indication they were more than friends (aside from the fact that they'd never denied it when asked directly) was the way they bickered like an old married couple – they'd never expressed any kind of physical affection that he'd seen.

"Why did you feel compelled to tell me that?" Shikamaru asked evenly as he raised an eyebrow at her.

Temari cocked her head to the side at this, pulling a knee close to her chest to rest her chin on it and look at him contemplatively from her perch on the edge of the terrace. "Because even if I'd been inclined to be with you that way, I doubt you'd have wanted to," she replied honestly. "I don't think I'm your type."

Shikamaru tensed at her words, but years of training allowed him to shrug it off nonchalantly. "You're reading too much into things," he countered with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm not," she replied pragmatically. "But I know when someone doesn't want to talk about something, so I'll drop it. For now," she added evenly.

"Drop it for good," Shikamaru muttered as he leaned back on the bench he was on, narrowing his eyes as he tried to make out the shape of some clouds amid the moonlight.

He hated it when she was right. (Particularly as it happened way too often to his liking.)

But not as much as he hated the relief than ran through him when Kiba and Akamaru loudly made their entrance on the roof as well, closely followed by Kankuro yelling at them to calm down as he carried a tray of tea and set it in front of his sister – who simply smiled and reached to punch his arm fondly.

"What?" Kiba asked Shikamaru with a raised eyebrow as he sat down next to him and leaned back against Akamaru.

"Nothing," he replied lazily, not realizing he'd been staring. Turning his gaze back to Temari, he frowned with a huff. This was all her fault.

Much as he disliked it, Shikamaru found that now he knew about Kiba and Kankuro's so-called 'arrangement', it was all he could see. He saw them laughing and imagined it was a private joke. He saw them touching, even innocuously, and imagined it had meaning. He saw them together around the village and assumed it was a…well, not a date, but a something. He heard one mentioning the other and could've sworn there was a fondness in their voices that hadn't been there before.

Most likely, he was reading too much into it, and he realized it. Yet he couldn't stop. He noticed things, he always had, and it wasn't like there was a switch he could turn off, even when he really wanted to. Besides, it wasn't as though he really minded, per se. He was mostly surprised, because admitting to yourself that you were attracted to people of the same gender was already something by itself, but actually following through with that attraction? Well…Shikamaru likened it to bravery. He himself knew he wasn't capable of that. Realizing it had been the easy part, because how can you ignore the obvious? Accepting had been harder, and while he eventually got there, he'd also made the decision to not act on it, because he figured it would be infinitely less troublesome that way. So that was it for him, as far as he felt personally concerned.

Maybe that was why watching those two became his favorite past-time, because who didn't like a good proxy? He wondered if there were feelings involved – Temari had used the word 'arrangement', not 'relationship', but were the two really mutually exclusive? Kiba and Kankuro got along spectacularly, it was obvious that they were close, and what was more, even Akamaru was clearly partial to the Sand nin, which was a non-negligible tell. He remembered having heard Aoba talk about how hard it had been to be accepted by Hana's triplets, so obviously getting their canine partner's approval was half of winning over an Inuzuka.

Eventually though, Shikamaru started feeling irritated. Every casual touch had his eyes narrowing, every instance of laughter had him rolling his eyes, and particularly, every time Kiba mentioned the puppeteer he found himself huffing in annoyance. What he didn't let himself dwell on truthfully was whether he was envious of their relationship in general, or of one of them in particular.

And apparently, he wasn't as discreet as he'd hoped, because it wasn't long until Temari clamped a hand down on his shoulder with a sigh over dinner one evening. "Now remember: he's a pain but he's my brother and so help me I love him; that means you can't kill him," she said half-jokingly.

"Why would I want to kill Kankuro?" Shikamaru protested as he shrugged her hand off. It wasn't even worth it to play stupid and ask 'which brother' – honestly, he believed that Gaara dating would be as painfully funny to watch as Sai, perhaps even more so as he'd have two overprotective and overbearing older siblings to contend with.

Temari leaned her head on her palm at this, absently picking a deep-fried vegetable stick from her plate to munch on it. "It's just an observation based on the way you're looking at Kiba," she replied quietly. "I almost feel bad that my brother's getting in the way," she then added somewhat apologetically. "Although if it makes you feel better, I reckon it's been quite some time since Kiba last spent the night!"

Shikamaru tensed at her words, fighting the urge to slink back into his seat. "And here I thought I'd asked you to drop it for good," he replied instead straightforwardly.

"I said I'd drop it 'for now'," she reminded him cheekily. "You know, I don't think either one of them is in love. Kankuro would've claimed it loud and clear otherwise," she mused with a fond smirk, clearly not caring to take a hint when he glared at her. "Hey, unless I got this all wrong and it's Kankuro you're actually after!" she then said with fake excitement, laughing loudly at his incredulous face.

"You're the worst, woman," he declared with a shake of his head. "The most troublesome person I've ever met," he added under his breath.

Temari visibly thought that was funny enough to grin even more widely, and batted her eyelashes at him. "Oh stop, you'll make me swoon!" she mocked before reaching for her tea, scowling as she realized she'd actually already finished it. "So…I take it you've never actually followed through with an attraction?" she asked part curiously in her usual matter-of-factly tone as she caught a waitress' attention and held her empty cup up with a polite smile.

"What's it to you?" Shikamaru asked back defensively with a raised eyebrow.

"It's called 'curiosity', and it's healthy," she deadpanned with a frown. "You're the troublesome one! Getting you talking qualifies as 'interrogation', not 'conversation'!" she muttered as she put her cup to the side of the table, where she knew within a minute it would be swapped with a brand new fully filled one.

"The answer to your question's 'no'," he replied eventually without expanding any more.

"Were you even ever attracted to someone in particular before?" Temari asked back, eyes widening slightly at his shrug. "Well, if you're as picky about that as you are about work, then fat chance of it happening often, eh?" she teased with an easy grin.

"And you're as tactful as ever," was his sarcastic counter. "How's your love-life going, by the way?"

Temari snorted at his words before smiling as the waitress replaced her tea. "Hey, let's face it – you're gonna have an easier time talking to me about men than to – say – Chouji!" she pointed out as she placed a hand around the mug, enjoying the warm feeling.

"You're assuming I want to talk about men," Shikamaru pointed out lazily.

The Sand kunoichi shrugged back as she moved her hand – the cup was a bit too warm, in the end. "No, I'm assuming you don't want to want to talk about men, but you really do – want to, I mean. Which is completely normal! Even Kankuro—"

"Please don't compare me to Kankuro," Shikamaru interrupted her with a tired frown.

A smirk pulled at her lips at this. "Why? Because it annoys you that he actually had to the guts to do something about his attraction? Because he got Kiba?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Because I really don't want to talk about this in the first place and repeatedly told you so," was his annoyed reply. And yeah, so maybe Kankuro wasn't his favorite person in the World right now, but like heck he'd admit it to his sister – particularly as his dislike was completely baseless.

Temari's eyes narrowed as she simply brought her tea to her lips. But that all-knowing glint in her look didn't diminish, even though she seemingly agreed to drop the subject. (Probably just 'for now' again, though…)

Shikamaru for his part felt he knew for sure how Gaara had learned to keep his absolute calm, because with siblings like his, impassibility had to be the only alternative to murder in the long run.


Chapter Text

"So when d'you cut your hair?" Kiba wondered curiously as he idly leafed through a stack of papers – the proposed plan for the terrain overview of the second portion of the exam, to be precise, so nothing really interesting. He didn't have any assignments that day so Shikamaru had asked him for additional input since he was more familiar than him with the area.

"Some time ago," Shikamaru replied as he didn't look up from his report on the security dispositions for the third round – the war was still too fresh in everyone's minds to allow their genin to kill each other in exhibition fights, so additional measures had to be taken. "Probably not long after you left, actually," he added before reaching for an additional scroll and tsk-ing as the information he was looking for was missing. Truthfully, he was surprised his friend had lasted this long before bringing that up again.

Kiba nodded before grimacing as he saw a spot circled on the map that was in the file – the cacti in that area reeked, and when an Inuzuka said that, people knew it to be true. "So what prompted it?" he continued, stacking a few pages over the offensive map and willing himself to stop remembering that smell.

"Do people need a reason to cut their hair?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"The Nara seem to," Kiba countered easily with a grin as he leaned his chin in his palm. "I'm not saying you look bad or anything like that – just curious," he said with a shrug. "Actually you look really good with short hair," he added off-handedly as his eyes trailed back to the papers on the desk.

Shikamaru opened his mouth to reply but the words got caught in his throat. Short hair – Kankuro had short hair – did Kiba prefer short hair, was that it? Resisting the urge to slap himself and mentally resolving to stop overthinking things, he shrugged. "I just wanted a change," he replied evenly.

"I can understand that," the Inuzuka said with a lazy grin. "The need for change is the reason I'm here in the first place after all!" he added, sending a quick glance towards Akamaru as he lay on his side peacefully by their feet, enjoying the cool stone floor.

"What did you want to change?" Shikamaru asked curiously as he finally looked up at him.

Kiba shrugged as he leaned back in his chair and moved his shoulder around with a popping sound. "The way people view me, I guess," he replied as he thought about how to best put it into words. "Back in Konoha, everyone thinks the same things about the Inuzuka: we're loud, obnoxious, and glued to our dogs – which, don't get me wrong, we are, all the way! But it's what a lot of people get stuck on, no matter what. People don't ask my mom for advice, because they'll figure she'll just say to charge in – never mind that it's often the right answer, honestly – and they used to think Hana only knew how to take care of dogs!" he explained as he rolled his eyes at the idiocy of it all. "And I'm the guy who failed his first chuunin exam because of a fart!" he added with a frown, still bitter about the whole thing – and seriously, how come Naruto got applauded for that? Huh? How was it praise-worthy?

Shikamaru winced sympathetically at this – they'd all shared Kiba's pain that day, truly, amid face-palms and horrified expressions.

The Inuzuka then shook his head as though to dissipate the bad memory, willing himself to get back on track. "Anyway. Here, those who know of the Inuzuka just know we're amazing trackers and very stubborn about giving up or dying – now those are preconceptions I'm okay with!" he finished brightly.

Shikamaru grinned back as he had to concede he had a point. People's expectations, good or bad, very quickly got overwhelming and could become really troublesome. "From what I've seen, I'd say you're definitely on the right track," he offered seriously.

"Yeah, I think so too!" Kiba replied happily, to which Akamaru yipped his agreement.

Shikamaru chuckled but then forced himself to snap back to work as he realized he was simply staring at him. "Can you give me the second geographical report?"

Kiba's smile widened slightly but he didn't say anything, just handed him the smelly-cacti scroll he'd previously buried.

Yep. Change was very good.

Except a few days later, things changed a bit too much.

Since coming to Suna, Shikamaru had only spoken with Gaara twice; on the first day, when he'd welcomed him, and then that evening he'd had dinner at the Sand siblings' house. Around that, he'd mainly dealt with Temari, or the other shinobi involved in the exam's organization. So he knew that when he got called to his office, it had to be serious. Kankuro was at his brother's side as usual, but what surprised Shikamaru was that Kiba was also in the room – inwardly and for a second, he feared the problem might concern Konoha.

"We are faced with a problem of a sensitive political nature," the Kazekage informed them, putting his fears to rest. "As you know, we've been trying to establish better ties with Kusa, and a small delegation has been here for negotiations the past week. One of the delegates has left rather abruptly, and while I'm not eager to jump to conclusions, I would be more reassured if we could ascertain there was no foul play in his early departure."

"He means he'd like you to help me track him down and capture him," Kankuro translated summarily.

"Because we're from Konoha," Shikamaru needlessly stated, as it made sense. Delegates had immunity, but only from the village they were visiting; if and when it came down to it, Gaara could deny having any authority over them as Leaf shinobi, or having given them any instructions.

"We would be very grateful for your assistance," Gaara confirmed pragmatically.

"We're not just dumping this on you though, I'm still coming along since I'm more familiar with the terrain," Kankuro added as he stepped forward.

Shikamaru nodded at them, knowing he would be fully supported by Konoha no matter the outcome as this was exactly the kind of situation Kakashi had had in mind when he'd told him to help the Kazekage if he asked. "Lead the way," he said to Kiba and Akamaru, the two immediately replying with a nod and a bark.

Tracking the runaway took slightly longer than originally planned, because the man was obviously not completely stupid and knew the Kazekage might ask the Konoha smell-tracker for assistance. Still, he hadn't wasted any time in showing his true colors as he attacked them on sight rather than to search for an excuse and try to negotiate once they finally caught up with him. Between the three of them (well, four, counting Akamaru), apprehending him wasn't really an issue, it was getting him alive that turned out to be the hard part. Or at the very least, it wouldn't have been this troublesome if Kiba had listened to him instead of following Kankuro's directives in the heat of battle!

The trip back to the village was quiet, and they handed their unconscious and worse for the wear but still alive prisoner over to an interrogation team before returning to their quarters. For the rest of the world, they'd never been involved in a mission for the Kazekage that night.

Still, to be honest, Shikamaru wasn't really surprised when Kiba closed the door and turned back to him with a frown.

"Want to tell me what your problem is?" the Inuzuka demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Shikamaru huffed as he momentarily ignored him in favor of removing his equipment.

Kiba growled under his breath as he followed him, obviously unwilling to let it go. "Are you seriously that peeved that I followed Kankuro's instructions over yours?" he asked with a frown, figuring he must've put his finger on it as the other man tensed for half a second. "It's nothing against you, he knows the terrain better, that's—"

"As a shinobi from the Leaf, you should still prioritize my orders," Shikamaru cut him calmly, doing his best to remain factual and distant. "If your relationship is going to affect your actions on the field—"

This time it was his turn to be interrupted as Kiba looked at him incredulously. "My relationship? And what the hell do you mean by that?" he demanded crossly.

It took all the Nara's willpower not to look away from him as he shrugged. "I know about you and Kankuro," he said simply, satisfied with the way his voice sounded suitably indifferent.

Kiba was momentarily taken aback and it showed, but he didn't back down, and held himself as he didn't look away either. "You don't know half as much as you seem to think you do," he said with a huff. "Our 'relationship' – if it could even be called that – was over months ago. He's only a friend – a very close one, but a friend," he informed him evenly.

That was officially the best news Shikamaru had received in a long, long time, and because of that, while his intention was to look rightly disinterested, he couldn't keep a sigh of relief from leaving him, and he flinched as he saw Kiba noticed it.

"Shikamaru…" the Inuzuka let out as his eyes widened in realization.

"Don't, Kiba," the Nara said warningly.

"Are you jealous?" Kiba pressed on regardless, because as always, being told not to do something only made him want to do it more.

"Don't be ridiculous," Shikamaru was able to deny – too quickly, too defensively though, and unfortunately for him Kiba was more observant than most gave him credit for. "What you do in private – and who you do it with – is none of my business," he dismissed.

"That much is true," Kiba readily agreed with a shrug. "But you seem to care anyway," he challenged as he stepped closer. "Why?"

"I really don't," Shikamaru insisted in his best bored tone as he walked by him towards his room, forcing himself not to tense up again as Kiba grabbed his elbow in passing. "Let go, Kiba," he said in a low voice.

"Make me," Kiba replied with his usual infuriating challenging tone. "What is it that really bothers you? What I do in private? Or who I used to do it with?" he wondered with a small frown.

The shadow-nin raised an eyebrow as he looked back at him. "If you're asking whether I'm bothered that you'd be with a man, the answer is no," he assured him evenly. That'd be hypocritical, but Kiba didn't need to know that much.

Kiba let out a small breath in relief at that. "And that it was with Kankuro?"

"That part only makes me wonder about your tastes," Shikamaru replied plainly, unable to hold back a small smile at Kiba's chuckle.

Kiba pretended to be offended for a second but then sighed. "It's not just about him, you know…I mean, I can find women good-looking, no problem, but I wouldn't want to be more with them," he admitted.

"I'm not bothered by that, it's up to you," Shikamaru replied evenly, surprised by his openness but then not so much – the cat (dog?) was already out of the bag, after all, and holding back wasn't the Inuzuka way.

"Would it bother you if I told you that part of me's always been attracted to you?" Kiba then asked him openly after a short instant of silence. From his corner, Akamaru raised his head to look at them, as though interested in their conversation for the first time.

"I'd take it as a compliment," Shikamaru replied as soon as he could find his voice again, managing to keep it steady through sheer force of will. "But I can't reciprocate, Kiba," he added truthfully. That much at the very least wasn't a lie. He couldn't.

Would he want to? Answering that question would mean entering uncharted territory that actually scared him, so he'd rather leave it at that.

"I figured," Kiba said with a defeated sigh as he pulled his hand back. "But you know me: keeping quiet's not in my nature," he continued with a shallow grin. "We're cool though, right?" he asked with a frown.

"Of course," Shikamaru replied as he mirrored him. His friend gave him the evening's first genuine grin and then turned to walk to his room while removing his equipment, Akamaru getting up and trotting after him. Shikamaru stood in the same spot longer than he cared to admit, the conversation having gone completely off track and having consequently left his brain scattered.

Well…at the very least, he figured he could stop giving Kankuro the stink-eye. Somewhat.

"Wow, don't you look pretty," Temari drawled with a raised eyebrow as she fell into steps with him outside of the main Suna shinobi office. "What got in the way of your beauty sleep?"

Shikamaru resisted the urge to groan as he'd long ago learned it amused her even more. "Nothing that the knowledge that you'll always be around with a kind word for me can't cure, Temari," he replied lazily.

The Sand shinobi laughed at this – or at him, he was never really too sure with her – and stretched her arms over her head. "Think Gaara's close to taking a break?" she wondered as she sent a look towards the highest window over her shoulder.

"I doubt it," Shikamaru noted with a shrug, feeling the corner of his lips pull up as despite her gruffness she did always worry about her brothers. "Hungry?" he then asked, because he was, so what the heck.

"Are you asking me on a date?" Temari teased as she lightly elbowed his side.

"You wish," he muttered as he resisted the urge to cradle his bruised ribs.

"Fine, you're paying," she dismissed happily.

The Leaf shinobi just sighed noncommittally. She always won anyway. Trying to go against her was more trouble than it was worth. Following her towards a small restaurant he knew the siblings favored, he almost stopped in his steps as he noticed Kankuro and Kiba – and Akamaru, of course – sitting at a large table outside with more shinobi, some of whom he recognized and nodded at.

"Always stirring trouble, those two," Temari noted neutrally, wincing as her brother laughed loudly. "Oi, Kankuro! Keep it down, would you? Not everyone wants to lose their hearing to your voice!" she bit at him although true to herself, she managed to make it sound almost fond. Almost. If you squinted. And tilted your head sideways.

Kankuro craned his head back to look up at her at this and grinned. "Hey, dear sister! Your timing's perfect – we were just discussing the many atrocities inflicted upon us by our older siblings! And wouldn't you know it, so far you're the champ!" he said with fake surprise.

Temari sighed as though the weight of the world were on her shoulders and kicked out a foot to break one leg off the sitting stool he was on, not even being phased as he'd anticipated it and hadn't, in fact, come crashing down on the ground as she'd hoped. "Put it on his tab," she told the waitress in a casual tone as she moved inside.

Shikamaru smirked as he followed her, shooting one last look at the lively group – who were all laughing with Kankuro. As his eyes met Kiba's, he responded to his grin with a nod by habit, but when his friend shrugged his head questioningly towards Temari, the Nara could only raise an eyebrow and send a look towards Kankuro. Kiba rolled his eyes at this and Shikamaru decided to leave it at that as he turned around – besides, it was dangerous to keep Temari waiting.

"You can see the exam's almost there – plenty of strangers around," Temari noted conversationally as she was already sipping on some tea – the staff obviously knew the Sand Siblings well.

Shikamaru nodded noncommittally as he kept himself from pointing out that her brothers were among the strangest residents of the city. "I just want it to be over! I really wish they'd stop putting me in charge of coordinating these exams, it has to be among the most troublesome things ever invented!" he complained as he leaned his head on his hand.

"Then stop doing such a good job of it every time," she replied pragmatically as she pulled out a small fan to lightly wind herself. "Oh, wait, wait! Let me guess: that would be even more troublesome, right?" she taunted with a smirk.

"Despite your complaining, you're worse than your brother when it comes to getting on someone's nerves," Shikamaru informed her plainly with a lazy grin.

"Runs in the family," Temari immediately dismissed. "At least I'm not petting Kiba in the middle of the restaurant," she then added as she looked over his shoulder with a frown.

Shikamaru's eyes widened as he snapped around despite himself only to see that while Kankuro had gotten himself a new chair and was petting Akamaru's head, Kiba was currently involved in an animated debate – if the flailing arms were any indication – with two kunoichi. Sighing in relief, he turned back to Temari in annoyance.

"Oh, it's only Akamaru – I really can't tell them apart from this distance," the infuriating woman drawled innocently.

"You're the devil," he informed her deadpan.

"Nice to meet you!" she replied with a wide happy grin. She dropped it and her eyes narrowed however as she looked over his shoulder again. "I doubt he'd be much opposed to you petting him, though," she commented seriously, but lightly, as was her habit.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this. "We're still talking about Akamaru, right?" he muttered.

Temari laughed and shrugged, looking up as their orders were brought – and it figured that she'd ordered for him too, just because he'd lagged behind for ten seconds. "Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night! Or keeps you up," she added shrewdly, reminding him that she'd noticed right away he hadn't gotten enough sleep.

"You're so troublesome," the shadow-nin couldn't help but point out as he resisted the urge to groan. "And you know me too well," he added, voice laced with resentment. Not for the first time in his life, he felt extremely sympathetic towards both Kankuro and Gaara while she had the indecency to look really pleased with herself.

The other group was gone by the time they left, and they split as Temari returned towards the main office with lunch for Gaara while he headed to the communications tower as it was time for his report to Konoha. Thankfully, it was only for the form, and he didn't have any setbacks to report on, nor any backups to request – to his greatest satisfaction. He didn't like all the administrative hassle linked to the chuunin qualification exams, but he'd much rather suffer it alone and do things his own way than have to contend with 'teamwork' on top of it – yeah, he'd made that one clear to Tsunade, and thankfully she'd passed the message on to Kakashi. The exam was in little over two weeks, so he'd be in Suna for another three days, maybe four if absolutely necessary, but then he'd go back to Konoha. The jounin who'd signed up their teams would take over from there; as Suna organized these exams there was no need for a Konoha shinobi like himself who didn't have any particular interest in any candidates to remain. In a sense, he was both looking forward to and dreading that.

He loved Konoha, sure, and yeah, it was always nice to go back home, but when he was away, he really felt more like himself, like his own person, as opposed to the 'genius spawn of the Nara clan' people back home viewed him as. That was the real reason he didn't deny the requests for him to travel to the other villages to assist with exam preparations or anything that needed inter-village collaboration, when if he really didn't want to, all he had to do was say so – not that he'd ever stop complaining though, that was a matter of principles, and he was a principled man after all.

Kiba wasn't there when he returned to the guest quarters, but he remembered he'd heard him mention he'd agreed to assist in a survival training class for genin – Team 8 had always excelled at that, so he wasn't surprised.

He spent the evening fighting the urge to go over at the Sand siblings' to check whether Kankuro was on that mission as well.

He blamed Temari.

On Shikamaru's last evening in Suna two days later, he walked into his quarters to find Kiba had returned. He complained about the desert's heat so much he almost whined, but it was obvious he'd enjoyed himself.

"Genin are so cute and helpless!" he cooed as he played a game of tug with Akamaru using what suspiciously looked like a towel. The air smelled faintly of wet dog, so he figured it was the aftermath of giving the nin-dog a bath.

"You're not that much older," Shikamaru reminded him with a raised eyebrow as he removed his vest and stretched his shoulders. Besides, if someone had called Kiba 'cute and helpless' as a genin, he would've ripped that person's throat out – with his bare teeth.

Kiba very maturely poked his tongue out at him as he yanked the towel towards himself, dragging the oversized dog along. "Okay, okay! I give!" he called out beneath heaps of fur. "It was really fun though! They had to find ways to sustain themselves within a certain zone, all the while trying to avoid us tracking them down too easily!" he explained as he moved his hands about as though to describe the exercise.

"How's Akamaru? The heat wasn't too bad, was it?" Shikamaru wondered as he cocked his head to the side, smiling lightly as the nin-dog in question stopped by him to nuzzle his hand as though to thank him for asking.

The Inuzuka grinned proudly at this. "Well, we've been here for over nine months now, we're both used to it," he said with a boastful shrug.

"Has it been that long already?" Shikamaru wondered out loud, not really expecting an answer, hand absently scratching Akamaru's ear. "I'm going back tomorrow, by the way," he informed him.

"So soon?" Kiba asked with a frown as his head snapped towards him.

"Well, the exam's coming up, so I need to go back to give the final green light," the shadow-nin replied with a shrug. "Do you know any of the candidates?" he then asked him curiously.

Kiba shrugged at that. "Not from Konoha, I don't think so. But a friend I've made over here is entering her team, so if they make it to the finals I'm hoping I'll be posted somewhere I can keep an eye out for them," he replied evenly. "What about you? You did all the hard work setting things up, and you won't even take the perks?" he asked back with a raised eyebrow.

Shikamaru huffed as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Coming back right after making the trip home? Way too troublesome. Besides, I don't personally know any candidates," he replied with a shrug.

Kiba nodded back as it made sense. He then frowned and his expression turned more serious as he looked up at him. "So…before you go then, can I ask you something?"

"Sure?" Shikamaru replied with a frown.

"You won't like it," Kiba warned him as he leaned back to sit on the couch's armrest.

The Nara's frown deepened and he forced himself not to tense too much, as he figured there weren't many subjects that would fit that description between them. Not being one to run though, he simply nodded once – besides, a part of him expected Kiba to go ahead anyway whether he agreed or not.

Kiba smiled quickly before his eyes darted to his hands and then back up to his friend. "So when I told you I was attracted to you, you said you can't reciprocate my feelings," he started, waiting for another nod before continuing. "You didn't say 'don't', or anything like that, you specifically said can't, and I know you, you don't use words at random, so I've been wondering…why 'can't'?" he finally asked shrewdly.

Well shit.

Of all the times to demonstrate a sharp mind, Kiba had to pick now, did he?

He could try to play it off, naturally. Say something like 'you're reading too much into it', but he'd see right through him. And he didn't really want to – lying was often much too troublesome, for all the extra energy it took. "Because it's accurate – I can't," he replied simply instead.

"Why?" the Inuzuka insisted as he looked truly puzzled.

"Do you really need me to spell it out for you?" Shikamaru wondered as he resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "We're both men. To add to the troublesomeness, I'm saddled with this somewhat famous reputation. So in what world does that work out? I can't," he repeated, miraculously managing to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"But you'd want to?" Kiba instantly asked in such a hopeful tone that it nearly dissolved all of the other man's resolve.

"Why are you insisting, Kiba?" Shikamaru asked with a sigh, feeling suddenly tired. "It doesn't matter."

Kiba obviously wasn't about to settle for dismissive answers. "It matters to me," he said seriously as he moved to stand in front of him. "I know what I want, and I have no reservations about making it known – you should try it, you might like it," he advised in a low voice.

"I know what I want," Shikamaru argued matter-of-factly. "I just have enough presence of mind to realize when it's not wise to go after it."

"Well it should be," the Inuzuka declared as he huffed in annoyance. "I want you – and without getting too much ahead of myself, I think I can take away from this conversation that you want me back. So what's stopping us? Except for your weird ideas, that is," he asked him point blank.

It wasn't every day that Kiba managed to strike Shikamaru speechless – by saying smart things, not senseless jokes, that one was a much more regular occurrence. The shadow-nin could only look at him with a frown, waiting for him to waver or brush it off with a grin, but when minutes passed and it became obvious neither of those was going to happen, he started thinking about what he'd said – really thinking. Did he want him? Yes, undoubtedly, no point in denying that any longer at this stage. Was that smart? No, most definitely not, and giving into it would easily number amongst the stupidest things he'd ever done. Would it be worth it?

Yeah…most likely. Certainly. Without a doubt.

Kiba seemed to notice he was slowly lowering his defenses, because he stepped even closer – too close – and grabbed his face between his hands. "Stop me anytime," he said before leaning in to press his lips to his.

But Shikamaru didn't stop him – how could he? Not then, not later when he felt hands at the hem of his shirt, and not even later when he was pushed back towards Kiba's bedroom.

Shikamaru Nara in Konoha might've stopped him, but Shikamaru as he was in Suna was free, even if it was only for one night.

And he'd been right. It was worth it.

He wasn't really surprised by Kiba's confidence, with the way he naturally put him at ease, kissing and grinning and never holding back. Shikamaru knew what he was supposed to do of course, but well…theoretical knowledge would always be second to the practical side of it, and Kiba annoyingly had him beat at that. He was comfortable guiding him along, never quite telling him what to do, but always being very expressive in letting him know how he felt. Kiba never pretended, never faked anything, he'd always been honest – bluntly so – and Shikamaru suddenly appreciated that trait of character as never before. Because they were already sharing something so intimate; Kiba replacing self-consciousness with openness made it so easy to lose himself in him—with him.

To his credit, the Inuzuka waited a good eight minutes after their breathing had calmed down before bringing reality crashing back in. "So…wanna talk about it?" he asked tentatively.

Shikamaru felt caught between chuckling and rolling his eyes, so he did both. "Now you want to talk?"

"Not so much, I just want to know where we stand," Kiba replied evenly as he turned to his side to face his profile, absently raising a finger to trail it over a faded scar on his friend's collarbone. "'Cause if you regret it to the point of never being able to look me in the eyes again I'd rather know right away," he continued seriously.

Shikamaru frowned as he turned his head to look at him at this, noting his hesitant grin and the small sigh he let out in relief as their eyes met. "Did you really think I'd do that?" he wondered, almost insulted at the thought.

"Well," Kiba drawled as he rested his chin on his shoulder. "Up until very recently I'd have never thought you'd actually sleep with me, so that shows how much I really know you in the end, right?" he trailed off rhetorically.

"That's because you suddenly started making sense – something I never thought I'd see you do outside of a mission!" Shikamaru badgered him back.

Of course Kiba would choose that moment to revert to his obnoxious self. "Oh, so it was my mouth that got you? Good to know!" he said happily.

"You're too troublesome!" Shikamaru muttered, although he was aware that a grin betrayed his true feelings on the matter. A wave of self-consciousness surged in him at that moment and he looked at his friend with another frown. "Are you…okay—I mean I hope I wasn't…" Huh. Well apparently sex stripped him of his ability to speak coherently – good to know!

Kiba for his part seemed to understand him anyway because his grin widened and he shook his head. "I'm okay and you were great!" he assured him easily.

Shikamaru nodded back, inwardly hating how pleased those words made him.

Kiba smiled back at him and for a moment he was scared that he'd given him the wrong impression – that this was anything beyond this one night – because it couldn't be. It could never leave Suna. But then the Inuzuka closed his eyes and settled more comfortably against his shoulder. Shikamaru blinked a few times and relaxed.

Yeah, sleep sounded good.

He hadn't slept that well since long before the war.

Chapter Text

When he woke up the next morning, Shikamaru allowed himself a moment to enjoy Kiba's body against his, although he resisted the urge to run his hand over the arm that was around his waist. Light was just filtering though the blinds, and the clock on the bedside table confirmed that it was likely barely dawn yet, but he wanted to make an early start, so he'd cover good distance before the night. In three days, he'd be back in Konoha, back to his friends and family, back to a quiet uneventful life without dangerous exceptions – without Kiba, at least until the other shinobi returned to the Leaf as well. He honestly wasn't sure how he felt about that – he wanted to tell himself it'd be good, safer at any rate, but the truth was part of him didn't want to feel safe. Sighing, he closed his eyes and mentally started a countdown from ten before he'd pull himself out of bed.

He'd reached six when Kiba snored quite monstrously and Shikamaru laughed out loud despite himself, wondering how in the blazes it was he actually found that endearing, of all things. His laughter and movement nudged Kiba awake though, and he nearly whined as he blinked an eye open.

"Why're you laughing?" he wondered sleepily.

"Trust me: you'd know if you ever heard yourself snoring," the Nara replied with a fond roll of his eyes as he sat up and stretched his arms, turning back to raise an eyebrow at him. "I can't believe you managed to make us believe it was Akamaru all those years!" he teased him, shaking his head in fake disappointment. However Kiba didn't react to his jibe and only looked at him with a bright warm smile. "What?" he asked defensively despite himself.

"Just happy that you're still looking me in the eyes this morning too," Kiba replied easily, much more awake.

"I told you I wouldn't do that," Shikamaru reminded him with a frown as he looked away, suddenly embarrassed.

The Inuzuka shrugged slightly, the motion awkward in his position, before he turned to lie on his back and absently scratch his stomach – and Shikamaru forced his eyes to stop trailing down his body only by sheer force of will. "I wasn't even sure I'd see you before you left. I thought perhaps you'd just sneak away," he admitted quietly.

"Well I didn't," Shikamaru replied simply, although if he had to be honest, he likely would've tried to. If Kiba hadn't woken up on his own, he really wasn't sure he would've done anything to change that. "But I have to get going – I want to make the most of the daylight," he added though he made no move to actually get out of bed yet.

Kiba nodded to show he heard him, although his eyes didn't trail back to him. "Hey, could you drop by the vet clinic and reassure my sister I'm still alive, when you have a moment?" he then asked him abruptly.

"Sure," the Nara replied easily, because that wasn't an unreasonable request and he'd always liked Hana – who was much, much calmer than most of her clan kinsmen.

"Thanks! Now try to get ready quietly, some of us have a few more hours of sleep before they need to get going and intend on enjoying them!" Kiba exaggeratedly shooed him away as he finally turned back to him with a grin.

Shikamaru found himself returning that grin and simultaneously fighting the sudden urge to kiss him. To stifle it, he reached for his pillow and dropped it on his friend's face, his smile widening as he heard him laugh and watched him half-heartedly try to swat the pillow away. They didn't say anything more, and he did his best to ignore the eyes he felt on his back as he got up and picked his clothes from the floor.

For some strange reason, the huff Akamaru directed his way after seeing him and sniffing the air once was much more unsettling.

Okay. So perhaps he'd wait a few days after being back in Konoha before visiting Hana, just on the off chance that she – or her dogs – could smell Kiba on him.

Some twisted part of him hoped she would. He shut it down quickly.

It would be a long trip home.

Shikamaru finally made it back to Konoha on the third day of travel, in the late afternoon, just as planned. The weather wasn't that cold in itself, but compared to Suna's desert clime it was almost chilly and he found himself shivering at times under the light breeze. He was tired from the journey and wanted nothing more than to shower and sleep the stiffness away, but it was early enough that he figured the Hokage was still in his office, and as he carried a message from the Kazekage, he knew he had to make a stop there first.

Shizune was quick in welcoming him back and practically pushed him towards Kakashi's office, where the Copy Nin himself greeted him happily and congratulated him on a job well done – as usual. He accepted the scroll from Gaara, and asked him for a summarized report before agreeing that a more formal and detailed meeting would be held in the morning as previously scheduled.

Ten minutes later, Shikamaru was barely out of the Hokage's building when his ears were assaulted by a loud-mouthed blond-haired energy ball. How troublesome was it that the years hadn't quieted Naruto down in the slightest? "Yes, Naruto, I heard you the first five times you called my name," he informed him with a raised eyebrow as he turned back to him.

Naruto grinned widely, not in the least bit remorseful as he clamped a hand over his shoulder. "So you just got back, right? How was your trip?" he asked conversationally.

"As you'd expect. Thankfully uneventful," Shikamaru replied. Well, they were just talking about the trip itself, right, not the stay? That wasn't a lie then! "Shizune just told me you and Sai would be Kakashi's guards during the exam?" he then asked to steer the conversation away from himself.

"Yup. Personally I recommended Ino, but Kakashi thought Sai's unpredictability would be a better asset – not to mention it's good for his social development to get out of Konoha from time to time," Naruto said with a grin, easily falling in steps with him.

"You recommended Ino? Not that I doubt her in the least, but I'm surprised," Shikamaru noted as he tilted his head on the side.

"Well, it's Kakashi we're talking about; bodyguards are more a question of tradition than necessity. But to complete his skillset, a sensor would be good, and my manpower negates her lower abilities in the fighting department," Naruto explained as he crossed his arms behind his head, frowning as he noticed his friend was looking at him with a strange expression. "What?" he asked defensively.

Shikamaru smirked as he held his hands up. "It's just always a bit surprising to hear you go all analytical out of nowhere – I still remember the class clown from our Academy days!"

Naruto pouted at this, although he could hardly deny it. "Yeah well, back then you couldn't be bothered to do anything but sleep!" he bit back good-naturedly. "Hey, did you see Kiba in Suna? How's he holding up?" he then asked excitedly.

"Kiba? Yeah…we actually shared the same quarters, as Leaf shinobi," Shikamaru replied as evenly as he could, a treacherous hand rising to scratch the back of his head. "He's doing great. You'll likely see him, he'll be affected to the Hokage's protection after all," he informed him.

"Awesome! Don't tell him I said so, but I actually miss him!" Naruto admitted with a wide grin. "I'll tell him you made it back safely!" he promised as he clapped his back with an open hand. "Gotta be off now, but I'll see you around, or maybe after I'm back?"

"Yeah, it's been some time since I've had ramen," Shikamaru offered easily.

"It's a date!" Naruto declared before offering him a playful salute and running off.

When Naruto would become Hokage – because there was no doubt in Shikamaru's mind that it was when, and not if – the village would sure become even livelier. (And ramen would probably become a local delicacy, but who was he to complain about that?)

"You haven't tanned a bit," his mother remarked as he walked in, and as usual, with her tone he never knew whether she approved or the opposite.

Shikamaru just smiled back lazily, knowing she would start an inquisition of her own over dinner. It was always good to be back home, even if deep down inside he wished he was still in Suna – but wouldn't let himself be honest as to why, really.

Shikamaru repeatedly told himself he wasn't stalling, but still, he did wait a few days before stopping by the veterinary clinic on his way to work. He saw one of Hana's triplets outside – at least he thought it was one of Hana's, but then again he was practically sure – so he figured she was in, and he had no excuse. He asked for her at the desk and was told he was free to go on further down the corridor where she was, and when he walked into the designated room, he found her tending to an injured cat. One of the Haimaru brothers was lying down by the door while the third one seemed to be holding a staring contest with the injured cat, as though to establish that the person tending to it was his human, so don't get used to it, feline. He surprised himself thinking that, and chuckled as he figured that was probably Kiba's bad influence.

Hana grinned slightly at this, raising an eyebrow as she turned to him for a second to acknowledge that she'd noticed his arrival. "Hello Shikamaru," she greeted easily. "Did you find a critter in need of care on your way to work?"

"Not really – though if you're wondering where the third one is, I'm pretty sure I saw him chasing butterflies outside," the Nara informed her as the corner of his lips pulled up.

The other two nin-dogs let out a soft whine at this, as though criticizing his behavior – or maybe they were envious, he wasn't sure, to be honest.

"How's Kiba?" Hana asked him as she finished wrapping the cat's hind leg in a bandage and carefully cradled him in her arms to bring him to a padded cage to rest. "I can smell both him and Akamaru on your vest," she replied to his unspoken question as she turned back to him and noticed his raised eyebrow.

Damned Inuzuka and their stupidly superior sense of smell. "He asked me to let you know he's still alive," he replied evenly.

She laughed at this, shaking her head fondly. "Oh, he better be!" She then moved to wash her hands and grabbed a towel to dry them, absently noting she'd need to restock the supply of disinfecting soap. "So it's going well? I don't think my telling you that he's not the writing type would come as a surprise," she added playfully.

"You don't say," he drawled back in amusement, smirk widening at her laughter. "It's going really well from what I could tell – even the Kazekage mentioned he's very happy with his involvement in the program, at any rate. Akamaru's doing great too – he's even gotten used to deployment in the desert."

Hana's expression turned to pure pride at this, for the both of them, and the two dogs yapped happily as if sensing it – or perhaps they just reacted to hearing their fellow dog-nin being praised. "I had no doubts," she replied earnestly. "Thank you for taking a moment to reassure me, I really appreciate it – and I'm sure our mother will be happy to use this as an excuse to celebrate!" she added with a sigh, as though already tired of Tsume's possible future antics.

Shikamaru chuckled at this and coughed to hide it. "Don't mention it," he replied honestly. "Well, I have to get going now, take care," he said as he pushed himself off the wall he was leaning against.

"You too – try not to overwork that brain of yours," Hana teased with a warm grin.

There was something about the free way the Inuzuka grinned that made you want to smile back, it was that unnervingly infectious. Seeing her made him want to see Kiba again however, and that was an extremely dangerous train of thoughts, so he forced himself to let it go.

He'd always been unnaturally good at that.

True to what he'd said, Shikamaru wasn't much interested in attending the chuunin selection exam – not since there wasn't anyone in particular for him to root for. Besides, the way Naruto gave him a play-per-play account after he returned, he almost felt like he'd actually been there – and apparently hadn't missed much, truth be told. He'd even managed not to look overly interested when Naruto mentioned Kiba, nor annoyed when Sai talked about Kankuro, as he'd kept a strong respect for his former squad captain from the war – and Shikamaru really had to pinch himself to stop being irritated by this, because Sai liking people was a good thing!

Eventually time went by, quickly as it always did, with work both in and outside of the village keeping him busy. He'd almost let himself forget what had happened in Suna when reality reminded itself to him, and he stopped in his steps as he saw Kiba a short distance away from him. And while he was certain that on the outside, he looked his same bored old self, on the inside he had to reign himself in pretty tightly not to let his heart's pace increase or his posture become too stiff.

He hadn't seen Kiba in two months. Two months. Why wasn't he over what had happened between them, after all this time? It was a one-time thing. Why couldn't he just ignore him and move on? He didn't regret it – not in the slightest bit, despite the inner shit-storm he felt going on inside of him at times, present moment included. But he wished he could move on – what was it Kakashi had said? The key to moving on is moving forward? How the heck was he supposed to do that and step away from Kiba when his body and a part of his mind wouldn't let him?

Kiba of course noticed him and offered him his trademark grin as he took the few steps that separated them, Akamaru barking his acknowledgement at this side as usual. "Hey, Shikamaru!" he greeted easily – but tentatively, he saw it in the way his grin wasn't quite as wide as usual and his leg remained pressed to his dog's side.

And suddenly Shikamaru knew why he wasn't able to either ignore him, or move on. It was so simple. Because how were things supposed to be the same as before when he now knew what Kiba's face looked like when he bit his lip in pleasure? Or how his own name sounded when Kiba whispered it over and over against his neck? Or how his skin felt under his fingers, or again how his lips tasted against his? How was he supposed to act normal and move on when he could clearly remember all these things about him? (And how was he supposed to resist wanting to kill Kankuro the next time he saw him because he knew those things too?) This was crazy—how did other people ever manage? "Kiba…I didn't know you were back," he said calmly instead of saying something else he'd definitely regret.

"Oh, it's not for good yet," Kiba quickly dismissed. "We're just here for a few days – you might've heard, but Hana and Aoba are finally getting married!" he informed him with a grin.

"Yeah, I think I've heard Izumo and Kotetsu mention it. Congratulations to them," Shikamaru offered earnestly.

"I'll tell them! Anyway, after that I have to go back to Suna, but just for a couple of weeks; in a month's time at the most I'll be posted in Konoha again," the Inuzuka continued easily – and Shikamaru really hoped he was just that good an actor, because if he truly didn't feel the same things as him seeing him again, then he didn't want to know.

"That's good," the Nara replied – because what else was he supposed to say?

Kiba seemed happy at his comment, if the way his grin widened and his eyes softened was any indication. "I hope so," he finally said evenly. "Well, unfortunately I gotta get running. Even though I'm only here for a short while, as you can imagine my sister has no problem with working me to the bone!" he complained half-heartedly.

Shikamaru grinned lazily at that, because yeah, that sounded like Hana alright. "I think I'll know your pain when Ino gets married," he admitted with a shrug. "I'm really not looking forward to that…"

"So are Ino and Sai still a thing?" the other man asked as he absently scratched the red mark on his left cheek. At his friend's nod, he shrugged. "Oh well – at least it's always bound to be entertaining with him around – in both a good and a bad way!" he reasoned.

"Still leaning more towards the bad," Shikamaru muttered anyway. He opened his mouth to say something else – something, anything that would keep Kiba there a moment longer – but was interrupted by another bark, and turned his head to see one of Hana's triplets looking disapprovingly at Kiba. "Inuzuka police?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You have no idea," Kiba replied with a frown as he held his hands up and followed his sister's canine companion. "See you around," he threw over his shoulder before leaving.

Shikamaru nodded but didn't say anything. He didn't really know what he'd been expecting, because of course, rationally, there was no way he could not be affected upon seeing the friend he'd ended up sleeping with, but still…he felt much more rattled than he cared to acknowledge.

He wasn't proud to admit he avoided Kiba for the rest of his stay to the very best of his abilities. Sometimes necessity gave you no choice.

It was Ino who told Shikamaru when Kiba was back in Konoha for good, and of all places, it had to be over dinner at his house. It figured.

"I saw Hana Inuzuka at the clinic yesterday – she and Aoba are expecting a child!" she first informed them happily – and innocuously.

"Good for them!" her mother commented while Shikamaru tried to unfreeze himself.

"A child is always good news," Yoshino noted with a warm grin. "Imagine though: Tsume a grandmother!" she added with a frown, shuddering at the thought.

Ino laughed at this, having to concede the point. "And Kiba an uncle!" she added before turning back to Shikamaru. "Did you hear by the way? He's back from Suna for real this time!" she said excitedly. "Oh, I'm really curious what it was like to live over there!"

Shikamaru tensed as he slowly looked up from his plate. No, he hadn't heard. And he wished it was still the case.

"He was there on that exchange program, wasn't he?" Ino's mother wondered.

Ino nodded at her as she swallowed what she'd previously been chewing. "I have to say I'm looking forward to reading the report. Both he and the village took a real chance on that program, but if it's conclusive, it could be of great importance to Konoha's future as well as that of our alliances," she commented seriously.

"Do you really think so?" Yoshino asked curiously as she poured her guests some more tea, a fond smile pulling at her lips as she remarked to herself that their children were all grown up. "I'll admit, I always thought this program was just a good front."

"Well, that's certainly a part of it, but such close cooperation is unheard of. I can attest that Kiba was given real missions in Suna, he wasn't just there for show," Shikamaru noted with a shrug, finding his voice back and feeling compelled to defend Kiba's work despite himself. "Besides, alliances between villages end up strengthening alliances between families, and while for sure no lineages with bloodline limits will be merging any time soon, for regular clans this is a golden opportunity to get new blood," he added factually as his friend nodded her agreement.

Yoshino however clearly focused on something else at his words. "My, I couldn't agree with you more, Shikamaru!" she said happily, grinning ominously and sharing a look with her friend. "So, how's Temari?" she asked with all the finesse of a charging bull – Ino, vile traitor that she was, only wiggled her eyebrows at him, hiding her smirk behind her cup.

"I'm sure we'd have heard if anything happened to the Kazekage's sister, so I'm assuming she's doing well," Shikamaru replied evenly, not rising to the bait. Luckily, she left it at that.

But still, he found himself no longer able to keep his thoughts away from Kiba anymore. Telling himself not to was well and easy when he was way off in Suna, but with him back in Konoha, that was an entirely different can of worms, and he found that his will wasn't strong enough.

Shikamaru knew he was smart. That much was pretty hard to deny. Still, it might surprise people to know that he called himself an idiot quite often. As in, 'on a daily basis' often. For the past week, it had even graduated to an almost-hourly basis.

I'm such an idiotic idiot.

Okay, multi-hourly basis by the point he was practically camped in front of the Inuzuka clan grounds, resolutely telling himself it wasn't because he wanted to see Kiba or find out whether he'd gotten back with Kankuro – even though he really wanted to know about that last part. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd resolved to turn around and leave, but in the end always elected to remain where he was, thinking 'just ten more minutes'. He didn't want to acknowledge how long ago those 'ten more minutes' had stretched into hours. It wasn't even any business of his what Kiba did and who he did it with…and it wasn't like he had clear course of action planned either way! On top of that, it was raining, and his 'hiding' spot only provided minimal shelter. He was honestly about to leave (it was the 22nd time he'd honestly told himself that) when he heard a bark and looked up to see Kiba playfully chasing after his dog as Akamaru made it a point to jump in each puddle along the way.

"Oh that's it! We're eating Akamaru stew tonight!" Kiba declared between bouts of laughter as he ran after him, completely drenched.

Shikamaru hoped to whatever was above that he wasn't grinning stupidly as he watched them. (But he knew it was probably too late.) Still, he figured he could finally leave – or talk to him as he wanted, or incidentally just leave. Leaving was easier. He heard another bark and when he looked back down Akamaru was wagging his tail as he looked at him and Kiba had paused at the entrance of the compound, nose twitching as he looked around with a frown until his eyes settled on him and he cocked his head to the side. Shikamaru knew he should've ignored him and left when he had the chance, but then his friend grinned and waved at him to come down and damn it but he did.

"What're you doing here?" Kiba asked before he seemed to change his mind as he turned to point to his apartment. "Never mind, it's freezing out here, come in!" he threw over his shoulder as he ran to the door, unlocked it and stepped in, unconvincingly reprimanding Akamaru as he dragged muddy rainwater in. "Dog stew's sounding better and better," he muttered under his breath as he walked to a big basket by the door and produced large towels from it, setting one over his own shoulders before chucking one at Shikamaru's head and using the third to cover his partner and start rubbing.

The shadow-nin thanked him automatically and chuckled despite himself as he watched him wrestle with the giant dog in his attempt to pat him somewhat dry.

"Whatever, you're the one who's gonna have to sleep on a bed that smells like wet dog! And that'll be yours, not mine!" Kiba huffed as he gave up – Akamaru clearly didn't care, and walked off with the towel trailing over his back like a cape. "So…not that I'm complaining, but what brings you around here?" he asked his friend as he turned back to him, absently taking off his jacket to wring out the water.

"I was in the neighborhood," Shikamaru replied as blandly as he could as he looked around. He'd heard that Kiba had moved since returning but hadn't seen where yet – after Hana's marriage, Tsume had insisted she and Aoba take the large family house, and so both she and Kiba had gotten their own apartments on the clan grounds. Everything wasn't unpacked yet, there were still boxes and things about, but it wasn't messy in itself, just like his quarters in Suna had been. "Nice place," he commented off-handedly.

"Can't complain," Kiba replied with a shrug, smiling easily. "It's not big, but it's enough for us, and after that year on our own in Suna, moving back in with mom and the other dogs would've been a bit overwhelming!" he added with a grin.

"So what've you been up to lately?" the shadow-nin asked nonchalantly as he ran the towel over his hair, absently thinking that indeed short hair was really more convenient in cases like this.

"Oh, ya know…the usual. Tea?" Kiba offered with a shrug as he walked to the kitchen to set the boiler on anyway.

The voice of reason within Shikamaru exhorted him to politely decline, offer an excuse, and get the hell out of here right this instant, but of course he ignored it. "Sure. Thanks." And then, because once you started ignoring your voice of reason you went all the way, he asked, "So, how were your last few weeks in Suna?" Inwardly he wondered: was there a subtle way of asking about Kankuro?

"About more stressful than the previous months, if you'll believe it!" Kiba replied distractedly as he rummaged through his cupboards for clean mugs and the 'damned disappearing tea leaves', as he called them under his breath.

"I can imagine," was the amused reply. "I'm sure it was hard to say goodbye to the people you've met over there as well," he added as casually as he could.

"Don't remind me! You'd think that the distance isn't so big, but we've all become so busy…I guess it might be years before I see some of them again!" Kiba said wistfully, by then pulling out the various boxes that had been stuffed in the cupboards.

The Nara nodded and then added, "At least you'll probably see Kankuro sooner than that – when Gaara visits, for instance."

Kiba paused in his search and frowned at him, the look in his eyes not so playful anymore as he figured him out. "Why, because we're good friends? Or because I used to sleep with him?" he challenged.

"I just meant that it was more likely you'll see him again," Shikamaru defended with a shrug as he carefully schooled his expression to remain neutral.

The Inuzuka snorted at that, crossing his arms over his chest. "How can you be so smart but be so off?" he wondered with a frown before he realized something and his head snapped to him. "Is that why you're really here? You were worried I'd been with him after you left?" he asked him, and the tentative grin on his face looked so damned hopeful that Shikamaru had to look away. "I really wouldn't have pegged you for the jealous type," he then goaded because he was insufferable like that.

Shikamaru frowned as he set the towel down on the back of a chair. "It's not jealousy so much as it's curiosity – if it can even be called that," he tempered coolly, but when he looked up Kiba was right in his space.

"I don't mind jealousy," Kiba informed him as his hands grabbed the sides of his jacket. "Or curiosity, or whatever you want to call it," he added with a smirk. "It's nice to feel wanted," he then admitted, and he sounded so earnest that Shikamaru couldn't look away anymore. "And there hasn't been anyone since you."

Really, the only reason he kissed Kiba at that point was to shut him up—nothing more. And when they relocated to his room, it was because it wouldn't do to continue in front of Akamaru—nothing more. And when hands started pulling at clothes, it was obviously because they were drenched and they shouldn't remain in wet clothes—nothing more. And it was amazing—nothing less.

Somehow, it was even better than the first time. All hesitation was gone, as they already knew what to do, knew what they both wanted, like it wasn't the second, but the thousandth time.

Kiba – all the while sporting a happy grin – moved to cling to him after Shikamaru rolled off of him, and the Nara kept telling himself he should go before he got himself into even more trouble (whatever that could be), but he couldn't, not with a disheveled Kiba looking at him like he was the only man worthy of notice in the World.

"Hey…you're the one I really wanted, you know…" he informed him quietly before nuzzling his neck contentedly.

Shikamaru hadn't known, as a matter of fact, but he didn't trust his voice yet so he only pressed a kiss to the top of his head in reply. Funny, how these seemingly innocent words had thrown him in for a loop even more than the sex. Closing his eyes, he allowed himself a moment to delve on the 'what if', the possibility that this could be more than just a momentary weakness. Kiba's notoriously awful snoring filled the room not much time later, and Shikamaru ignored the fond smile that pulled at his lips at that. Carefully pulling away from him and disentangling their legs, he panicked for a second when he felt fingers at his hand.

"Shika…" Kiba mumbled but otherwise gave no further indication that he was waking up – and even resumed his snoring.

Shikamaru sighed as he brought the hand to his lips, whispering against his skin. "Kiba—" please "—please don't fall in love with me."

Because if he did, the Nara didn't know how long he'd be able to deny that it was mutual.

And as he shrugged on his still-damp clothes, doing his best not to shiver at the sharp cold contrast when they touched his skin, he forced himself not to think as he left as quietly as he could, purposefully not sparing another glance towards the bed. If he'd had, he'd have seen that Kiba was watching him but elected to let him go without saying a word.

It was still raining when he stepped outside, but this time he let the shivers rack his body as he made his way back home.

Inside, Kiba sighed as he rolled to his side to gather his pillow in his arms, the other's scent still strong on it. "You're way too late…" he muttered to it.

Chapter Text

The Inuzuka clan's compound wasn't close to the Nara clan grounds, nor was it particularly close to the Hokage's building, so there was little chance of running into Kiba on his way to work and back, a fact Shikamaru found himself increasingly grateful for. They hadn't been assigned to work together either, although from what he gathered, Kiba was currently giving desert survival classes to genin and chuunin level shinobi, as well as keeping in contact with the Suna representatives in Konoha to further the collaboration and bond between the two villages. Not to mention, he was also heavily involved in the establishment of the exchange program with the other villages, having been its first test subject. So all in all, he was quite busy.

That was why Shikamaru absolutely wasn't expecting it when he walked into Kiba and Akamaru at the entrance of the Nara clan grounds. "Kiba…what…" Clearly, his oratory skills were really second to none where the Inuzuka was concerned!

Kiba smiled tentatively at him while Akamaru barked a greeting. "I'm here to meet with Captain Ensui, actually," he told him.

Shikamaru wished he had a perfect response to that, but he'd apparently lost his voice. He was briefly curious but then figured it probably had to do with Suna: having a shinobi spend nearly a year in another village in close collaboration with that village's forces was something new that up until a year ago had been completely unheard of, even unthinkable. It was to be expected that Kiba's experience now made him a prized asset in anything pertaining to the Sand. Shikamaru tried to squash the feeling, but it made him very proud.

Well, it could also be that he'd simply been assigned to Ensui's squad, naturally – a tracker was valued on any information gathering mission after all.

Still, he couldn't stop himself from sighing in relief when Kiba excused himself as it wouldn't do to be late, since he was "already getting enough strange looks as it is". Shikamaru nodded back coolly, but inwardly he pretended not to notice that it was a not-so thinly veiled attempt from Kiba to point out that Shikamaru himself visibly wasn't too keen on seeing him.

He really didn't like it when Kiba saw through him like that.

In all fairness, Shikamaru very well knew that he couldn't keep on avoiding Kiba forever. They lived in the same village, had the same friends and held the same rank: their paths were bound to cross at some point. Apparently, that point was the main street off the administrative building, where he and Naruto were walking together to go get that ramen – after the blond had ambushed him in the Hokage's office and dragged him out, no less.

"So then I told Iruka that didn't matter anymore, because I'm no longer a kid, you know? But I guess he'll always worry – which, don't get me wrong, I really appreciate!" Naruto insisted with a grin as he talked about his father-figure happily. He then perked up as he noticed a familiar pair up ahead. "Hey, Kiba, Omoi!" he called loudly as he waved his hands until he was next to them.

Shikamaru tensed, resisting the urge to escape, and followed him with a sigh. Once at their level he nodded at Omoi, but his eyes were more drawn towards Kiba, who was as usual exchanging verbal blows with the blond Hokage-in-training.

"Yo, still as lively, I see," Omoi greeted around his toothpick.

"Long time no see!" Naruto said brightly as he ignored his jibe. "Hey, did you guys eat yet? Shikamaru and I were just about to hit Ichiraku, you up for it?"

"Ichiraku?" the foreign man repeated curiously as he turned to Kiba.

"A ramen stand Naruto practically grew up in," his friend informed him with a grin.

Omoi looked up as he seemed to consider it, and finally nodded. "Sure, it's not like I had any plans."

"Great!" Naruto said happily as he turned to Shikamaru. "I hope you don't mind, our date just got more crowded!" he teased.

"I'm heartbroken," Shikamaru deadpanned although he followed him with a lazy smirk. Kiba raised an eyebrow at him, but he shrugged helplessly.

"With ramen, you have to be extra careful, because it's easy to get impatient, but broth cools down slowly and you could get burned, which could lead to your tongue and possibly even your throat swelling, therefore diminishing your ability to breathe freely – and then what?" Omoi muttered under his breath as they sat down.

"Always the optimist, Omoi," Kiba commented with an amused snort as he heard him despite his low volume.

"What brings you here anyway?" Naruto wondered conversationally.

"I came with Karui," the Kumo shinobi informed him. "She dumped us earlier, but she's going to be spending a few months here, for the exchange program."

Naruto felt torn at this – he still remembered Karui's beating when he'd refused to give her any information about Sasuke, but at the same time, he'd always liked the hands-on approach that she favored. "That's cool. Kiba just returned from Suna on that same program – oh, but I guess that's why you were with him, so you'd know about it," he mused as he jerked a thumb towards his friend. "Was it really cool?" he then wondered curiously.

"Yup!" the Inuzuka confirmed. "I spent a year there, but we're aiming for a six months period for the regular program. It was really great though. Completely different, but ultimately great. I'm sure Karui will blend in quickly with us!" he added with a smirk, knowing she had too much of a temper to, but that it would at the very least be entertaining.

"You were basically the test subject for this venture," Omoi commented with a raised eyebrow. "I'd imagined you'd boast about it more!" he added though not critically.

Kiba laughed at this and shrugged. "Hey, you want me to brag, I'll brag!" he assured him.

"Nah, I'm good."

"We all are," Naruto immediately added from his side.

Kiba elbowed his blond friend without turning to him and continued to speak with Omoi. "Anyway. A lot of kinks were worked out, and with the way it is now, Karui should find it fairly painless!" he assured him.

Omoi nodded back at him and then looked up as he thought about something. "I wanted to go to Suna for the chuunin exams, but I had too much to do back in Kumo," he remarked with a shrug. "That's too bad; I'd have really liked to see my old captain from the war again."

"You were in the ambush squad with Sai, right?" Naruto tried to recall, not noticing how the other two shared a tense look. "Then your captain was Kankuro."

Omoi nodded at that, taking a cautious sip from his tea. "Yeah. Cool guy. I wonder how he's doing."

"He's the Kazekage's brother, he's busy as heck!" Kiba replied with a shrug. "But he's doing great," he added with a fond grin.

Shikamaru was proud of himself that he didn't huff despite his urge to as he rested his chin on his palm. They were served their meals at this point, and while Naruto and Kiba dug in, he and Omoi tried to let it cool appropriately. They didn't linger for long once they were done though; they each had early mornings planned. He'd almost reached his clan's grounds when he saw Kiba – without Akamaru, surprisingly – waiting for him, and it was always strange how he inspired both alarm and anticipation in him. Still, he stopped by him, keeping his hands in his pockets and his general air of nonchalance.

"If it's going to make you jealous every time, I'll start making it a point to bring up Kankuro in every conversation," Kiba teased him with an easy grin.

Shikamaru did not resist his urge to roll his eyes at this. "Did you wait for me just to tell me that?" he asked with a scowl.

"Yes and no," the Inuzuka replied as he pushed himself off the tree he was leaning against. "I wanted to talk to you the other day when I came by, but well…I think your mother still hasn't forgotten that time when we were five and Akamaru peed inside. And I was really on a tight schedule that week!" he recalled with a shrug.

"Yeah, I heard you've been busy," was the easy reply as he forced himself not to chuckle at the reminder of the day that Yoshino Nara's intense dislike of the Inuzuka clan became set in stone.

"But I want to see you more often," Kiba said honestly, not being one to stay quiet, true to himself. "I mean…not just for the night – well, I wouldn't be against that but…I want to spend more time with you," he admitted as he raised a hand to scratch the back of his head nervously.

Shikamaru wondered if it was normal to feel the breath knocked out of him when he hadn't been touched. "What…are you saying, exactly?" he wondered with a frown.

"What we did, it wasn't just sex to me," Kiba said as he held his look. "And I know it wasn't to you either. So I guess what I'm saying is that I want a chance to explore what more we could be together, Shikamaru."

"More?" Shikamaru repeated, shaking his head. "You know we can't be more, Kiba – I told you that," he reminded him.

Kiba sighed at this, crossing his arms over his chest. "Yeah, well, you also told me not to fall in love with you, but it's not like I can help that," he admitted matter-of-factly – although the way his look trailed to the side for a second betrayed his self-consciousness at this admission.

"You…what?" He couldn't have heard him correctly, right?

"Yeah, took me by surprise, too," the other shinobi muttered. "You keep saying we can't, and that you have a duty to your clan, but don't you have a duty to yourself as well?" he wondered as he stepped closer to him.

"I'm not hiding behind excuses, Kiba," Shikamaru reminded him as he shook his head in annoyance. "Even if I'm not going to be the head of the Nara clan, I'm expected to produce an heir of my own one day, and that's something I wouldn't be able to achieve by being with a man, I'm sure I don't need to tell you that," he said tiredly.

"Yes, because the Nara clan is on the brink of extinction, and if you don't pitch in, your techniques will be lost forever!" Kiba noted sarcastically as he threw his hands up in the air. "Do you even want to be a father? Or is that only something you feel you owe your parents?" he asked shrewdly. The shadow-nin's lips formed a thin line at this, and the Inuzuka knew he'd hit the bull's-eye. "We've been risking our lives on the job every day since we turned twelve, and I'm not sure I could actually count the number of times I almost died if I wanted to – I doubt you'd be able to either, to be honest. We've already survived one Great War – and that one was a pure stroke of luck. We could die on any mission, don't you think that makes us entitled to live our lives for ourselves?" he asked him less belligerently as he looked him in the eyes.

Shikamaru sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. "That's easy for you to say, Kiba. You're the second child in a family belonging to a large clan. No one expects more from you than to just do your best and work hard for the village," he told him quietly, not aggressive despite his words.

"When did you start caring so much about what people expect from you?" Kiba wondered with a frown. "You used to care only about doing what you wanted!"

"We can't stay kids forever," Shikamaru replied in a low voice as he looked to the side towards his house in the distance.

"And here I always thought being an adult was about finally doing what you really wanted!" Kiba countered with a warm grin as he tentatively moved his hands to his face. "This is what I want, Shikamaru," he whispered confidently, allowing himself to hope as he wasn't pushed away. "And why did you come to me the other night if it's not what you want as well?"

Shikamaru chuckled despite himself, although it was out of pain, not amusement. "Why…?" he repeated in a distant voice as he squeezed his eyes shut and pushed him back. "Why won't you just forget about me and move on, Kiba?"

Kiba was taken aback at this, momentarily unable to reply.

"Why won't you give up on me?" Shikamaru demanded as he looked up at him once more, truly angry at him – and at himself, for getting so emotional about the entire deal in the first place. "Why do you keep insisting even when it's obvious it would make it so much easier for the both of us if you just let it go?" he demanded, barely able to keep his voice from raising in volume as he grabbed the other man's shoulders – painfully so, he knew, he hadn't failed to notice his wince.

"Because you love me!" Kiba replied as he grabbed his arms to make him lighten his hold, true to his nature being unwilling and unable to back down. "I can't give you up because you love me back!"

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed as Kiba's voice had broken his trance, making him realize he'd been acting completely beside himself. "I don't," he replied quickly with as much certainty as he could.

"You do," Kiba said matter-of-factly with his usual brash honesty as he held his look. "Otherwise this wouldn't bother you half as much as it does. And you wouldn't care so much about the way I feel," he listed methodically – so unlike him, yet so like him, not to run away from unpleasant facts.

"We're friends, regardless of what we might've been at some point," Shikamaru told him with a frown, pulling his arms back and shoving his hands in his pockets – anything so they wouldn't touch Kiba anymore. "Of course I care if you're hurt because of me." Yes. Friendship—safety. Playing it safe was good – a lie was always so much easier to spin when part of it was true.

The unimpressed expression bordering on annoyance that spread over Kiba's face was unusual to say the least, but the Inuzuka visibly wasn't planning on being baited into either letting go or agreeing they were only friends. "We are friends," he conceded with a huff as he crossed his arms over his chest. "And we're also lovers."

"We had sex a couple of times – that hardly qualifies," Shikamaru muttered, resolutely trying to avoid his eyes now.

"And you're suddenly an expert," Kiba retorted as he threw his hands up in the air in annoyance. "And I really wonder why I feel that way, but there's no answering that, I just do!"

"Well feel free to stop anytime," Shikamaru snapped back as he rubbed his eyes tiredly, reining himself in as he couldn't let his resolve crumble.

"Right back at you."

Shikamaru paused with a palm pressed to his left eye and slowly looked back at the other man with a deepening frown. That again?

"I'll stop when you'll stop," Kiba insisted, eyes and voice steady – and how could he be steady during such a conversation, saying such things? It wasn't normal – it wasn't fair!

"We're going in circles," the shadow-nin grumbled under his breath as he shook his head in helplessness. But when he looked back at him, Kiba was that much closer – too close, his instincts screamed at him, but pride made him refuse to show he was affected by stepping back.

"Say you don't love me," Kiba taunted as he held his eyes. "Tell me that, make me believe it, if that's what you really want." It was a challenge, but somehow it was also a plea. "Don't think I enjoy feeling that way – I don't. But I can't give up – because I don't understand why you feel like peoples' expectations are so important – I really don't," he snarled.

Shikamaru fought really hard the urge to gulp, and remained impassive even as he was forced to clench his hands into fists so he wouldn't pull Kiba closer and officially send his sanity down the drain. "I'm not in love with you," he replied in a surprisingly collected voice. "We got confused because the sex was good," he added, yet again lacing his lie with a truth.

Kiba's mouth formed a thin line for a second before he almost imperceptibly let out a small breath. "It was pretty good, wasn't it?" he then asked with his usual cocky grin, and Shikamaru resolutely did not pay attention to how off it was as he – finally – stepped away.

Yeah, right…'good'…more like messy and awkward and weird and mind-blowing and absolutely freaking amazing. But sure, 'good' was a decent, non-committal summary – just what they needed.

"I hope you'll be happy living your life keeping up with other people's expectations," Kiba said as he turned to leave, voice only slightly dripping with sarcasm – and that much more with resignation.

Shikamaru wished he had something to retort to that that wouldn't make him sound bitter or resentful, but even with all his brains he couldn't think of anything, so he let silence be his reply. Words were highly overrated after all.

The next time they saw each other, Kiba ignored him, and Shikamaru did a decent job convincing himself he didn't mind.

After Asuma's death, Shikamaru had felt a complete dullness spread inside of him, his own defense against the pain translating to apathy. Probably because he'd been right there, but he hadn't been able to do anything. When his father had died, he hadn't felt the same. There was no time to give in, and there was nothing he could've done. The pain was immense, but he knew he had to look forward – and he wondered, was that mindset the result of experience? He'd have rather never known, then.

Visiting Kurenai and Mirai as regularly as he could had initially started as self-imposed atonement, until Kurenai had told him he didn't need to feel compelled to do anything. After that he'd realized how much he enjoyed these moments; how much it was reassuring and even rewarding to watch his teacher's daughter grow up to look more like her father – and more like her own person – every day.

Teams 10 and 8 had taken turns in babysitting her when Kurenai was out on missions, and he even suspected that it was how Shino had discovered his calling of becoming a teacher – Mirai sure did love her uncle Shino, to most people's surprise! Actually, she loved them all – it could never be said that Mirai Sarutobi did not receive enough affection growing up or give it back tenfold.

And perhaps because of this, his devotion to taking care of Mirai and being a good role model for her, Kurenai had never treated him like a child, and that, he appreciated.

Up until the point she decided to get involved in his predicament. "Shikamaru, there's no nice or easy way to say this, so I'll be frank: you don't look good, and I'm worried about you."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at her but didn't rise to the bait. "I'm perfectly fine," he insisted evenly.

"There's no shame in speaking of affairs of the heart," Kurenai replied seriously with a sigh.

That time, Shikamaru did not resist the urge to slap a palm over his eyes. "What is it with everyone wanting to weigh in on this?" he muttered to himself tiredly.

"'Everyone', as you say, simply cares about you," she replied with a patient shrug. "Naturally, if you'd rather keep moping until your mother decides to take the matter in her own hands…" she trailed off innocently.

"What's my mother got to do with this?" he asked irritably.

"I walked into her at the market the other day. She's worried, too. She told me you've been off for some time, acting even more aloof than usual and spending more time than ever cooped up in your room – which is fine for a brooding teenager, but quickly gets worrying for a normally well-balanced young man," Kurenai noted as he looked at her daughter. "Her words, not mine," she added with a half-smile.

"Women and their gossiping," Shikamaru muttered as he followed her look to watch Mirai play with a children's wooden shinobi set, smiling slightly despite himself as always – currently, the Evil Crab plush was getting pelted with shuriken thrown by the Righteous Monkey plush. There was silence for a moment during which he hoped Kurenai would let it go, however futile that hope was. So eventually, he started looking for words that could make sense of his situation. "I know my responsibilities to the clan," he said eventually. "I won't shirk my duties," he added blandly, wishing he could care as much as he pretended to.

Kurenai surveyed him quietly for a moment, critically, trying to pick him apart and make sense of his mind. Duty? Was that what was eating away at him? "Asuma spent the better part of his life going against the expectations placed on him by his famous clan, mostly just for the principle," she informed him evenly. She felt more than saw his raised eyebrow as he turned to look at her. "He once told me that it was only when he stopped thinking about it so much that he realized he'd long ago exceeded those expectations and the only person pushing him was himself. I think we often have a tendency to set impossibly high goals for ourselves, because we're scared of not living up to our potential; so if they seem impossible to fulfill, then there's an easy excuse in case of failure," she remarked thoughtfully.

Shikamaru sighed as he turned back to meet her gaze, as always impressed by her strength of character. "It's kinda hard though…when the ones you want to make proud the most are gone," he admitted quietly.

"I didn't know your father personally, but still I believe I can speak for him and for Asuma when I say that you've long since surpassed their hopes for you," Kurenai replied seriously before looking down at her hands. "The dead are gone, Shikamaru. We must live for ourselves – and then for our loved ones," she added quietly as she briefly looked at her daughter before gazing back at him. "Good parents only ever want their children's happiness after all," she added with a smile.

The Nara smiled back lazily at this, unable to deny her words.

"And that's why you shouldn't worry about your mother, either," Kurenai continued. "She's strong – I doubt you need me to tell you that. You have to live your life for yourself. I'm not saying it will be easy, far from it – but then again, the good things are the ones worth fighting for, right?" she finished with a serene smile.

Shikamaru didn't have anything to say against that, so he remained silent.

"Did Mirai show you her new plush toy?" she then asked him in amusement.

"She introduced to me to it the moment I walked in," he replied with a fond grin – truth be told, he was still trying to figure out what kind of animal it was supposed to represent.

"Kiba brought it back from Suna for her," Kurenai continued lightly.

"So I gathered," Shikamaru said evenly. On the inside, he tensed, because he was certain she didn't just bring him up randomly. She knew.

Her gaze lowered down to his arm, where his Leaf protector was attached, and she smiled nostalgically. "As his former teacher, naturally it makes me extremely proud that he volunteered for the program, and I never doubted that his results would exceed expectations! Did you know that the Kazekage even extended an invitation for him to move to the Sand permanently?" she then asked him, looking back at his face and noticing how his eyes widened and his breath hitched, however imperceptibly – she was still an expert in reading others after all.

And how could he not react to such information? It was an exceptional offer. While it wasn't entirely unheard of for hidden villages to try and recruit talented shinobi from other villages, it was still uncommon enough that it was extremely notable. The jealous part of him wondered if maybe this was Kankuro's doing, but he shut himself up, because of course that wasn't it; Kiba deserved every bit of praise directed his way – so long as it wasn't to his face, because he still tended to gloat about it like an insufferable brat.

"He hasn't decided yet whether to accept or not," Kurenai continued, absently gathering her hair to one side and running her fingers through the lengths. "It's so very easy to recognize unique opportunities but let them go because of the fear of the unknown, after all," she finished, and the way she looked at him made him certain they weren't really talking about Kiba anymore.

Inwardly, he wondered whether her eyes had always been this piercing.


Chapter Text

As far as Shikamaru was concerned, he was a master in keeping his thoughts and feelings to himself. To the outside world, he was certain that he presented nothing but his usual image of calmness and boredom. (Inside, he was calling himself an idiot more than ever, but he was slowly learning to ignore that nagging voice at the back of his head.) There wasn't any change in his routine, nor the level of excellence usually associated with his work. So maybe he took his friends up on their offers for lunch or dinner less often and preferred to head back home to relax – sulk – in peace, but that in itself wasn't so crazy that it should raise some alarm bells. Most people wouldn't ever notice a thing.

He should've known Chouji and Ino definitely weren't 'most people', and would notice right away. He should've known they'd corner him at some point and make him spill his guts. Ino by threatening his actual guts, and Chouji with an overabundance of kindness – an odd mix for sure, but they worked well together, somehow.

"So," Ino started matter-of-factly as she sat next to him, close enough that he could neither ignore her nor leave as Chouji sat on his other side. "You're way down in the dumps – like, really waaay down. And it's painful to watch," she informed him straightforwardly.

"I'm okay," he argued for the principle, well aware it likely wouldn't work, but feeling compelled to try nonetheless.

Chouji sighed sadly as he placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Come on Shikamaru, it's us. We're a team! You can tell us anything," he (needlessly) reminded him.

"Yeah, tell us who broke your heart so we can go break her legs!" Ino added with a bright grin, her apparent cheerfulness yet again at odds with her words, particularly as he knew she wouldn't be above getting physical revenge on someone for hurting her loved ones – it was one of the reasons he liked her so much, to be honest.

"Who said anything about a broken heart?" he asked her with a raised eyebrow as he leaned his head on his hand. The way Ino scrunched her face at him clearly warned not to take her for an idiot, please. A quick glance towards Chouji informed him his friend shared her opinion, even though there was still nothing but a kind smile on his face. With a long-suffering sigh, he finally spoke. "Look, there's no need to go breaking legs; I'm the one who ended it, it's all on me." Yep. Just as he'd thought, saying it out loud didn't, in fact, make him feel better.

"Then why are you so down, if it was your decision?" Chouji asked him patiently and quickly, before Ino could do it herself with infinitely less sensitivity – a fact that did not escape her notice as she pouted at him.

"I didn't really have a choice," was all Shikamaru replied, hoping against hope they wouldn't make him go into the details – he should've known they would, though.

"You didn't have a choice? What the heck does that mean?" Ino demanded, leaning her own head in her palm. "What, is she taken or something? Because if that's the case, I'd say you're better off—"

"It was a man," he interrupted her plainly, clearly feeling like he would go mad if he had to listen to his friends trying to comfort him about a her.

"A man," Chouji repeated, eyes widening and narrowing in rapid succession.

"A man," Shikamaru confirmed.

"So with man parts and all?" Ino clarified as she held her hands up.

"Yes, Ino, he definitely had 'man parts and all'," Shikamaru assured her with a roll of his eyes. If he'd hoped to stun them into speechlessness, he was severely proven wrong.

"This is so out of nowhere! I had no idea!" the kunoichi said with a grin as she gently slapped his shoulder. "You could've told me years ago you were impervious to my charms!" she teased good-naturedly with a wink. "And to think my dad used to think I might end up with you!" she added with a fond roll of her eyes – she missed him, but she never let it get her down, focusing on the good and funny moments instead.

Chouji smiled at them as he shrugged. "I had my suspicions."

"You did?" the other two asked at the same time with the same surprised expression, following it, yet again together, by another question: "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I figured you'd talk to us when you felt ready," was Chouji's easy reply. "I noticed you never really looked at women the same way I did. There's obviously nothing wrong with that, but I didn't want to push you," he added with a serene smile.

"Chouji, I'm impressed," Ino said honestly.

Shikamaru nodded next to her, not exactly surprised, but still, feeling very grateful. He then tensed as he felt Ino lean against him, and indeed her grin was worrying.

"Sooo…this is nice and all but…don't we get a name?" she drawled as she poked his cheek in her best effort to annoy him into giving in.

"No," he declared with finality in his voice. "If I tell you, I know you – you'll go talk to him, and you'd do it to help, I know that, but I can't let you."

Ino stopped her poking and frowned slightly at his words, realizing something else. "You love him," she said softly. His flinch informed her she'd put her finger on it. "So why end it…? Is it just because you're both men?" she wondered sadly. He didn't say anything but his sigh spoke a thousand words anyway. "Shikamaru, that's so sad!"

"You're doing a horrible job cheering me up," he deadpanned with a raised eyebrow, smiling slightly as she immediately apologized guiltily.

Chouji was quiet for a moment as he looked at his friend critically, trying not to feel too sad for him – Shikamaru didn't need nor want them to feel sorry for him, he knew that. Actually, he knew just what he needed. "We should get drunk," he declared, like that was the normal thing to say or do.

"Excuse me?" Ino said with a frown, looking at him as if he were crazy.

Shikamaru visibly agreed with her as he looked up at him. "I must've heard you wrong, because I'd swear I heard you say we should get—"

"Drunk," Chouji confirmed with a nod. "I did say that. And I really think we should."

"Why?" the Nara wondered, trying to see the sense in this.

The larger man shrugged as he crossed his arms over his chest. "People do it all the time when they're heartbroken—"

"I'm not heartbroken," Shikamaru wearily protested, not bothering to acknowledge Ino's unwomanly snort.

"—so there must be a reason for that, right?" Chouji continued, completely ignoring his interruption. "It might turn out to be fun!"

"It might give us the worst headache of our lives," Shikamaru drawled sarcastically.

"Details," Ino dismissed, slamming her hands on the table as she stood up, mind made up. "That's it, let's do it! We can go to my house, I know where dad kept the good stuff!"

"I'm not getting drunk, you two!" the shadow-nin insisted.

Chouji turned back to him with a small frown, confused. "You won't be alone – at the very least I'll be there nursing that hangover with you! That's what friends are for, right?" he asked brightly as he slapped his hand on his shoulder, apologizing meekly at his wince – sometimes he really didn't know his own strength.

"And I'll make sure you're safe!" Ino solemnly vowed, her grin much too worrying and at odds with her words.

Shikamaru sighed heavily and shoved his hands in his pockets as he stood up. "I can't win this one, can I?" he asked for the sake of putting up some resistance.

"Nope!" Ino and Chouji replied happily as they led the way out.

"So troublesome," Shikamaru muttered but he followed them regardless, trying not to show how touched and amused he was. Chouji and Ino were truly amazing friends. He was however going to make sure they'd end up even more drunk than him to teach them a lesson in meddling. He smirked at the thought. The night might turn out to be fun after all.

The road was long and winding though.

"So did you guys actually have sex or did you split before you even got to that part?" Ino wondered curiously as she refilled their glasses, absently arranging her hair to keep it away from her face and shoulders – and out of her drink.

"What?" Shikamaru asked as his head snapped back from his distracted overlook of Ino's weapon arsenal – neatly arranged as they were on a proper stand on the wall. They'd only downed half a bottle so far between them, that wasn't enough to start the drunken rants!

…Was it?

"I don't think that's vital information," Chouji opinionated as he nevertheless dutifully hit his glass to hers when she held it up.

Ino frowned at him as though he was completely missing the point. "Chouji, I think we deserve to know if we're getting sloshed in the name of friendship to a teenager's first love or a man's first lover!" she said with as much conviction as she could. Silence met her words as her friends exchanged dubious glances. "Okay, fine, you're too shy to talk about it, I'll go first! Sai and I have sex – a lot!"

"And we really don't need to know that!" Chouji said with a pained frown while Shikamaru shook his head and drank some more, muttering about crazy women.

She ignored them both in favor of continuing. "At first I thought it would be so-so, because, you know – Sai – but wow! He read those books, and he does that thing with his fingers—"

"Okay, you win! I can't listen to this anymore!" Shikamaru immediately interrupted her as he held his hands up in defense. "Yes, we had sex. Twice."

The grin she sent him proved this was her plan all along. "I knew it!" she sing-sung.

Chouji sighed hopelessly as he looked at them, bringing his glass back to his lips and praying to every divinity who'd listen that Ino's mother wouldn't come to see what all the noise was about, because if there was one thing he feared in life, it was his best friends' mothers – and yes, that was plural.

"So how was it, sleeping with a man?" Ino asked with a raised eyebrow and the beginning of an impish grin. "I mean, I know what it's like to sleep with a man, but how was it, as another man?"

"It's not like I could compare it to sleeping with a woman, since I haven't," Shikamaru replied plainly with a frown.

"Makes sense," Ino admitted, sipping her drink as she mulled it over.

"But it must've been nice…" Chouji commented despite himself, waving his hands in front of him in embarrassment as they both turned to look at him in amusement. "I mean since you've done it more than once, so…that implies it was…nice…" he trailed off as he gave up trying to explain himself. "Fill it up, please," he asked pitifully as he held his glass towards Ino – who mercifully complied, despite it not being empty yet.

Shikamaru just cradled his own drink closer between his fingers. Yeah…it had been nice.

Ino noticed the wistful look on his face and frowned sadly, raising a hand to her earlobe, her finger trailing over the cool metal stud. "So…why'd you end it, really? Are you that worried about what people would say?" she asked with a concerned frown.

Shikamaru wished he could reply a clear 'no' to that question, but it wouldn't have been completely honest. "It's not like we could've had children," he replied instead, because that much was true.

"And that's such a big deal?" she wondered, puzzled.

"Even if I'm not the head of the clan and likely won't be, I'm still expected to have an heir, if only to pass on my father's training," the Nara replied a tad defensively with a shrug.

"But the Nara clan's thriving! One Nara more or less won't make a difference!" Chouji needlessly pointed out with a sigh. "No one will consider it a crime against the village if you don't reproduce!"

"I know that," Shikamaru replied with a long suffering sigh. "But I think it would've made my father happy regardless. And my mother as well…" Oh, yes, Yoshino was definitely not subtle in her hints that she wanted grandchildren – and there was no doubt in his mind that admitting to her that he was in love with a man would break her heart.

"But do you actually want to? It's horrible to have kids just for the sake of having them!" Ino noted with a frown, leaning forward on her forearms.

Shikamaru did his best but he couldn't help but physically wince at her words, as they reminded him of Kiba.

"Besides, I'm not entirely sure I'll want any myself!" she admitted with a shrug.

"Really?" Chouji asked as he cocked his head to the side. "I do."

"Well sure! It's easy for you men, your job is just to stick it in, but we women have to pop it out!" she unnecessarily reminded them with a huff and a sulk at the unfairness of it all. "I've got a pretty good tolerance to pain, but even I'm not sure I want to go through that! And that's without even mentioning the nine months of bloating, morning sickness and mood swings that come before!" she added sourly.

The two men exchanged glances and tilted their glasses back as they had to admit she had a point. They'd already been victim to some severe 'monthly' reactions from her, so nine uninterrupted months? They'd best steer clear – and buy the father good protective wear!

"Hey, if you want, I could accidentally castrate you during training," Ino then offered quietly, looking up at him with a frown. "Then reproducing wouldn't be an issue anymore and you could be with him, clan be damned!" she finished, blushing as Chouji smiled warmly at her while Shikamaru looked torn between being disturbed or fond.

"I appreciate the thought, and the offer," the Nara eventually told her honestly, figuring it was sweet, in its own drunken sick twisted way. "Stay away from my groin though, I mean it," he finished with absolute certainty.

Ino shrugged as she held her hands up innocently. "Just offering!" she assured him.

"Besides, even if you 'accidentally' castrated me," Shikamaru eventually added as he looked back up at her, "I doubt it would matter much. I'll be lucky if he ever agrees to even just talk to me again," he admitted.

"He loves you, right?" Ino asked him as though it was obvious. "I mean I really hope he does, and you're not wallowing over a jerk who hasn't been wallowing on his own side the whole time!" she added with a frown.

Shikamaru looked down at this. Did Kiba love him? "He did," he replied before taking another gulp. "I doubt he still does," he finished as he set the glass down. At least this alcohol tasted a lot better than the bowel-destroying Suna specialty – and thinking about that got him thinking about Kiba again, so he raised the glass back up.

Chouji shook his head as he rested a hand on his shoulder. "You know there's only one way to find out, right?" he gently encouraged. "Just talk to him, Shikamaru."

"I am so completely with you both all the way that our team spirit brings tears to my eyes," Ino informed them as she reached out to pat their heads affectionately. "Come on, this round's for Asuma! He'd want to be a part of this!" she said cheerfully as she refilled their glasses and held hers up.

Chouji immediately raised his as well, grinning. "To Asuma! I think he'd tell you something like 'get off your lazy bum and do something about it'!" he told Shikamaru happily.

"More crudely so, but still correct!" Ino agreed with a laugh.

Shikamaru chuckled despite himself as he looked at them, not for the first time – and certainly not for the last – feeling incredibly lucky to have such amazing friends. "To Asuma," he repeated as he raised his own glass and hit it to theirs.

"So seriously, Ino, since we're being honest and invasive, I have to ask," Chouji started as he looked at her with an expression of pure confusion. "Why Sai of all people? Honestly, that just baffles me!"

Shikamaru laughed at this, setting his drink down so as not to choke on it, quickly raising a warning hand to her. "I swear, if you say it's because of the thing he does with his fingers, I am never speaking to you again!" he warned her fairly with a wide smirk. "I mean it, Ino!"

"It's not!" she quickly replied hotly, poking his side like she was trying to insert a finger between his ribs. "I mean…that doesn't hurt his case but…he's just…" she trailed off at this, shrugging lightly while a soft smile spread on her lips. "He's very honest in what he wants, and he says things the way they are, so I know he's never deceiving me. It's true that he's so socially inept he'll make me cringe sometimes, but then I find him reading a book about little gestures of affection – or pleasing your partner – so it makes it okay, you know?" she finished rhetorically.

"Sounds nice, when you put it like that," Chouji admitted wistfully. He felt somewhat jealous of them. Ino was visibly very happy and in love, and even Shikamaru in his broken-hearted state had experienced that love.

"It's nice to feel wanted," Shikamaru murmured his agreement, remembering Kiba's words with a pinch. It figured that even mostly drunk his thoughts always returned to him. Wordlessly, he held his glass towards Ino and smiled gratefully when she didn't ask, just poured.

So maybe his plan to get them get more drunk than him had failed, but he wouldn't have changed a thing.

Chouji summed it up quite philosophically in the morning. "It hurts."

"What does?" Ino asked him quietly, voice barely above a whisper.

"Everything," was his reply, full of certainty – and pain.

Shikamaru still wouldn't have changed a thing. Even though he was forced to agree with him. And even after Ino forced the 'Yamanaka miracle hangover potion' down their throats and he felt his insides shrivel up and die.

Some things were just worth it.

"No one will consider it a crime against the village if you don't reproduce."

Kiba had told him something along those lines. And then so had Chouji, literally. Even Kurenai had encouraged him to think about himself first and foremost. Not to forget Ino who'd even offered to simplify the equation.

Why did he have to have four people spell out something he should've known for himself all along?

His father had said something to him, long ago, that he suddenly realized applied itself perfectly to his current situation.

"We often create our own barriers, Shikamaru."

Because really, when it all came down to it, that was that. People more often than not ended up creating their own problems over the misconception that others really cared about what they did with their lives beyond the original novelty born from any unconventional action. Letting strangers impact and even decide on his own happiness was a coward's behavior.

Talk about a genius…he'd be lucky if Kiba ever agreed to hear him out! And would it even work out? This wasn't one of Sai's romance books where confessing to a mistake led to immediate reconciliation, rainbows and happily-ever-afters. (The rainbows in particular seemed too gaudy for his tastes – and Kiba's as well, he was sure.) Kiba didn't hold grudges, he knew; he was too carefree for that, he refused to let the past burden him that way. That being said, Shikamaru wouldn't be too surprised if the other man had decided to make an exception in his case. He'd be surprised if he hadn't. And given the things he'd said to him, he honestly wouldn't blame him. Uncertainty didn't excuse everything, and being in love wasn't a miracle solution, he was well aware of both facts.

For a moment he contemplated the thought that he'd have to do something crazy like woo him (he'd spent way too much time with Sai lately, he belatedly realized) but then his mind reminded him that this was Kiba. He valued frankness above anything and the best way to gauge his willingness to forgive him would be to talk to him. To make matters worse, maybe he was even going against the clock, as Kiba could accept Gaara's offer at any time.

Turning Kiba down remained the hardest thing he'd ever had to do (barring from having to tell Kurenai that Asuma had died, naturally, but he reasoned death trumped everything) but somehow trying to make it up to him didn't come any more easily. Perhaps because he realized that Kiba had complete power over him and was the one who could make it final, and not knowing, however frustrating, was somehow easier on the nerves.

That still left the 'how'. Should he visit him? Ask him to meet him somewhere? And then, somewhere private? Or public? It was so easy to find arguments and then counter-arguments to every option he thought up, and stalling was so much safer. He hated himself for it.

His friends weren't much help. To be honest, he was jealous that Ino's couple had formed and endured without even half the hardships he'd had to go through – and that was without even getting to that point! She'd been all too happy to let Sai flounder as he tried to apply everything he'd read about courting and dating. (And he tried not to linger too much on the thought that Sai was better than him at this, because it stung.) She and Chouji had well-meaning words to offer him and cared, he knew that, but he couldn't bring himself to take them that much seriously, even when both, in a rare occurrence of complete agreement, repeated that he should "just talk to him, Shikamaru" – and with that same exasperated fondness, too, it had been the strangest thing he'd seen in a long time.

It would figure of course that they'd be right all along. Sort of.

Shikamaru wasn't too long in learning that a hangover and temporarily wrecked innards hadn't been the only after-effects of his drinking night with Ino and Chouji. His true moment of mortification came exactly four days later, while he was casually walking around with Chouji – who seemed to be uncharacteristically nervous. They then flinched as Ino called their names and Shikamaru frowned in confusion as she appeared to be dragging along a visibly perplexed but still laidback Omoi by his wrist. The way Chouji smiled slightly at the sight, as though in relief, was the second sign that the Nara ought to have worried more – the first was Ino's self-satisfied smirk. "What's she doing now?" he muttered to himself, wondering whether he should listen to his instincts to hightail it out of there as fast as he could. He was too tired though so he stayed put.

Ino and her victim finally reached them and she proudly displayed her catch as she moved Omoi to stand in front of Shikamaru.

"And…what's this about?" the shadow-nin asked his friend with a raised eyebrow – perhaps her alcohol-induced haze was a few days late?

"I'd like to know myself," Omoi replied with a shrug. "I was passing time, and there she comes and says you've been miserable since we parted, and won't I agree to see you? And I was pretty sure I didn't do anything to you, but then I figured you might've tripped and fallen down a set of stairs when leaving the office, maybe broken a bone or even had a concussion or something, but you seem okay," he finished, having spun a tale out of proportions as usual.

Shikamaru honestly had no idea what was going on. He turned to Chouji to ask him about it since he was visibly in on the whole thing, but his friend only moved to place a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Just talk to him, Shikamaru," he encouraged supportively, Ino giving them a thumbs-up.

"Wh…?" Shikamaru trailed off, his mind finally connecting the dots, and he groaned as he couldn't resist slapping a hand to his face. "Guys…it's not him!" he informed them tiredly, fighting the fond smile that wanted to take over his face because this was embarrassing, damn it!

"Shut up! It's so him!" Ino argued as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"And for some reason, I think I'd know," he replied as he rolled his eyes.

Chouji looked crestfallen. "But…you started feeling down after he got to the village…" he recalled as though that was indisputable logic.

"Coincidence!" the shadow-nin insisted.

"And you get along so well…"

"I get along with a lot of people!"

Omoi seemed content to remain quiet and study the strange exchange, as usual going with the flow – and inwardly, being very amused, although he wasn't sure he really grasped everything that was going on.

Ino's eyes narrowed dangerously as she leaned forward to search her friend's gaze, her face barely an inch from his. "So it's not Omoi," she stated quietly, still suspicious.

"It's not Omoi," Shikamaru confirmed as he held her look.

"Really not?" Chouji asked dejectedly.

"Really not," Shikamaru replied, finally letting out that smile as his friends both sighed, visibly disappointed. They then shared bashful grins before laughing at the silliness of the situation.

"So," Omoi started nonchalantly, "what is it that I didn't do?" he wondered curiously.

"You're not the guy I'm in love with," Shikamaru informed him with an easy grin. Because he figured if he really wanted to make it up to Kiba, he had to start getting used to having people know he was in a relationship with a man, after all.

The Kumo nin didn't even blink – more than usual, that is. "So who is it?" he then asked, cocking his head to the side and noting that Chouji and Ino perked up, visibly hoping that maybe they'd finally get their information straight now.

Shikamaru however elected to disappoint them all. "You'll know when I'll manage to fix it," he assured him with a lazy smirk – if he managed to fix it, he thought to himself more seriously. His friends huffed and almost pouted in disappointment at his lack of response, and that made him feel better. He didn't show it, but he was really touched that they'd planned to force a confrontation to help him – even though he'd suspected they would, and that was why he hadn't told them it was Kiba.

But really…Omoi? Oh, they would be telling that story for years to come!

"And cross-village romances are really famous right now, too! Just ask Sai – more than half his romance collection has that trope!" Chouji sighed dejectedly.

"Do I even want to know why you know the contents of Sai's romance collection?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"It's research," Chouji replied defensively. Hey, those books had helped Sai win over Ino, so he wouldn't discount them just yet on account of them being full of clichés!

"Think he'd be willing to share?" Omoi wondered curiously. "I'm partial to books set in distant lands, myself," he admitted with a small sigh.

"You?" Ino said as she didn't hide her surprise.

"Hey, if you're gonna read fiction, it might as well be completely different from your everyday life, right?" he argued with a shrug.

"Makes sense," she conceded. "Let's go ask him, I'm sure he'll be happy to!" she promised as she once more grabbed his arm to carry him off before pausing as she turned to Shikamaru. "That doesn't mean you're off the hook!" she warned him with a huff.

"And good luck with that talk," Omoi added casually as he allowed the kunoichi to pull him along.

Shikamaru and Chouji exchanged glances as they watched them go, before breaking into an easy laugh once they were gone.

"Omoi? Really?" Shikamaru asked with barely contained amusement.

Chouji just sighed as he tried to hide his embarrassment. "It seemed plausible at the time…"

"Thank you," the Nara replied earnestly, taking pity on him.

"So are you going to talk to him?" Chouji asked him seriously.

Shikamaru sighed as he looked down, pressing his lips together as his thoughts spun around in his head. "Yeah, I think I have to…" he admitted. His lips then stretched in a wide grin as he looked back up at him. "Sorry to disappoint though, it was never a cross-village romance," he drawled teasingly.

"You're a horrible best friend," the Akimichi informed him as he turned to walk back the way they came. The bright smile on his face visibly contradicted his words though.


Chapter Text

Despite his resolution though – and his will to prove that he wasn't pining over Omoi – Shikamaru couldn't bring himself to actively seek out Kiba. He just couldn't. And now that he'd been hoping to run into him, of course, he was nowhere to be found – while, of course, when he'd been hoping to avoid him, he'd seen him literally every other day! Maybe that was why his wits deserted him the day it finally happened, right outside of the Hokage's building on a chilly day. He almost let this chance go as well until Kiba had walked past him and he managed to snap himself awake and turn to him. "Kiba! We need to talk!" And damn it, but that was really the last thing he should've said because Kiba's shoulders tensed and he barely turned his head to him as he replied.

"Is this about work?" he asked, because they were shinobi, and Shikamaru was still a squad leader whose orders he would still follow – he'd never doubt that aspect of him.

The Nara was half tempted to say 'yes', but he'd promised himself to stop using excuses, so he didn't. "No."

"Then I'm not interested in talking," Kiba replied before resuming his walk with Shino, who managed to convey a warning to Shikamaru although his entire face was covered as usual. Oh. So visibly, Shino was in on their little secret.

Shikamaru sighed heavily as he looked up at the clouds as though hoping for a script – they were swirling murky grey, sure sign that a storm was coming, he noted – and when no help appeared he figured he should just talk, as his friends had ceaselessly exhorted him to. "I wanted to talk about how I'm in love with you," he found himself saying in a clear voice, not caring who heard. "And how I was hoping that you're still in love with me," he continued, surprised at how easy it was to keep talking now that he'd started. And he resisted the urge to huff, because by principle he hated it when Ino was right. Speaking of Ino, she was looking between the two of them with wide eyes and a growing gape as she figured out Kiba was his mystery lover. Oh, so Omoi was an obvious guess but Kiba was unbelievable? Next to her, Sai cocked his head to the side as he seemed to take great interest in how the situation would unfold – no doubt he was taking mental notes on how to grovel if he ever screwed up.

Kiba stopped in his steps but didn't turn back, and Shino was frowning at him – frowning so much he could actually see the frown behind the glasses, and of course it would figure that Shino would be the most expressive of them when he'd just confessed to Kiba! From his master's side, Akamaru only sniffed the air a few times before pressing his muzzle to his hand reassuringly.

"Do you think that's something you'd be willing to talk about after all?" Shikamaru asked him, shoving his hands in his pockets to calm himself, tuning out the shocked whispers all around them. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Ino and Sai glaring down a couple of gossiping genin and he had half-a-mind to smile at them gratefully.

Kiba turned his head to share a glance with Shino first – and Shikamaru was suddenly very peeved at the Aburame for the first time in his life – before eventually turning around to face him, expression unreadable, and his poker face never ceased to impress him when he was usually so exuberant. "The last time we talked about that, you reminded me of the importance of the expectations placed on you as a famous figure of the Nara clan – namely, how you should contribute to the next generation's numbers," he stated matter-of-factly. "Now I don't think I need to remind you that no matter how many times we try, we'll never get each other pregnant," he deadpanned, eyes darting to the side in annoyance at some snickers he heard – the ones responsible promptly shutting up and remembering they had to be elsewhere.

Ino snorted and Shikamaru wanted to scowl at her for being such a traitor but thought better of it and concentrated on the task at hand. "You're right, of course – and you were right back then, too. Other people's expectations shouldn't be more important than my own happiness, I realize that now," he said instead, holding Kiba's gaze.

"What, and you think we'd be happy together?" Kiba meant to come across as nonchalant, but his breath hitched when he said 'together' and it strengthened the shadow-nin.

"At the very least, I think being with the person I'm in love with is a good start, particularly if it's mutual," Shikamaru replied openly. "Which I'm really hoping it still is."

All eyes shifted to Kiba as they waited for his response with baited breath – almost as though it was their fate he was holding in his hands – and the unnatural silence was unnerving. Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime but had probably been only a few seconds, Shino relaxed and Akamaru wagged his tail and Shikamaru took that as a good sign as he allowed himself to breathe normally again – and he didn't even remember when he'd started holding his breath.

"Prove it," Kiba finally said, but his face was less guarded than before and that competitive cockiness was creeping back into his voice.

Shikamaru wasn't even surprised and resolutely didn't need to think about it as he closed the distance between them and grabbed Kiba's face between his hands before pressing his lips to his. Ino cheered so loudly he winced and pulled back to finally scowl at her, and he even heard some other clapping and cheering – and some less pleasant comments as he'd surmised, but he really couldn't have cared less because Kiba grabbed his vest and pulled him back against his mouth. And the grin he was treated to as they pulled back was 100% pure Kiba liveliness.

"I've missed that grin," he muttered to himself in realization.

Kiba half-snorted half-chuckled at that. "Then don't wipe it off my face again," he replied simply, the slightest bit warningly. Akamaru barked his agreement, tail wagging quickly.

"I won't," Shikamaru replied with such absolute certainty that it surprised even him. But then, not so much. He wouldn't screw up again. He just wouldn't. He moved to lean in again but someone cleared their throat to stop him.

"Perhaps you should continue this discussion somewhere more private," Shino informed them as his – creepily threatening – eyes didn't leave the Nara.

"Aww, Shino! It was just getting interesting!" Ino berated him as she slapped his shoulder.

"But he's got the correct idea – empirical evidence suggests that the most likely course of events now that they've reconciled is 'make-up sex'," Sai butted in with his legendary finesse. "They really shouldn't be in public for that," he added like it was something that needed to be said.

"Ino, I swear to you, one day I will sew his mouth shut with his own shadow," Shikamaru muttered tiredly as he fought the urge.

"No you won't," she replied matter-of-factly as she took her boyfriend's hand in hers and squeezed warningly – and it was always very satisfying to see him wince when she did that, even if he still didn't get why what he'd said was wrong, since it was the truth.

Kiba's grin widened at that as he grabbed Shikamaru's hand and cocked his head to the side. "I don't particularly have any objections to his suggestion, in theory, even if I guess we should talk about this some more…" he said lightly but seriously as he tugged on his hand to indicate he should follow him.

"We'll handle the report for you!" Ino called back cheerfully as she waved her arms at them, Sai docilely waving a hand by her side, and Shino just looking on impassively as he always did – but Shikamaru could swear he'd seen him sigh.

He felt himself smile as he looked at the mismatched trio and his eyes then trailed over the slowly disassembling mob who'd witnessed his impromptu confession – shinobi and civilians alike, some he knew but most he didn't. No matter; by this evening, or tomorrow at the latest, the entire village would know, and he was completely okay with that.

They didn't exchange any words on the way to Kiba's apartment in the Inuzuka compound, but their joined hands seemed to convey a message regardless, and they didn't pull back even as they encountered surprised looks and were subjected to not-so-discreet comments. Same-sex relationships weren't exactly rare in Konoha, but infinitely more so when openly displayed – so of course people would stare. Neither cared much at this time however. Kiba only let go of his hand to unlock his door, and Shikamaru tried not to think too much about the last time he was within these walls – they had to talk before going for a repeat.

"Make yourself at home – just give me a sec," Kiba said absently as he moved to remove his equipment and pour Akamaru a fresh bowl of water. As his dog lapped happily and noisily at it, he sighed and looked up at Shikamaru for the first time since the door had closed. "So what changed?" he asked softly, as though almost afraid of the answer.

"I kept waiting to feel better but it never happened. And then I realized it wouldn't," Shikamaru replied truthfully with a shrug as he moved to stand in the kitchen with him, leaning back against the counter. "You were right: with the lives we lead, it's really not worth it to settle for less than what we truly want, especially if we have a chance to have it," he developed honestly. "And…well, Ino and Chouji might've told me as much. Although until a moment ago, she didn't know it was you. I bet she's telling Chouji right now," he surmised with an easy grin, imagining his best friend's surprise. "Kurenai actually figured us out though!"

The Inuzuka rolled his eyes in amusement and then pulled out a chair to slouch in it. "So basically, other people told you what I've been saying since day one, and you listened to them," he summarized with a frown.

"It sounds really bad when you put it like that," Shikamaru conceded as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I screwed up, Kiba. I got scared, although it's no excuse. I know that, and I'm not sure what more you want me to say about it," he admitted quietly.

Kiba almost growled as he leaned back in the chair, raising a hand to remove his Leaf protector and muss his hair. "I guess I just…want to know that you're not going to end up changing your mind again…" he said with a frustrated sigh. "I mean I know that what'll come now isn't entirely up to you, it's up to me too; and maybe we'll find out that we don't work out that well in the end but…Augh…I don't even know what I'm saying anymore," he muttered as he looked up at Shikamaru, as though hoping he'd know anyway.

To his surprise, the shadow-nin seemed to know something. "We should stop thinking about the future; neither one of us can predict it. So let's just focus on what we do know, okay?" he offered, the corner of his lips pulling slightly at the other's nod. "I'm in love with you," he started.

"And I'm in love with you," Kiba wasted no time in replying as he stood up and made his way to him.

"Despite your brashness," Shikamaru continued, uncrossing his arms.

"And despite your laziness," Kiba countered as he reached for his hands.

"Despite your complete lack of self-control," Shikamaru noted as he let him guide his hands to his hips.

"And despite your overabundance of it sometimes," Kiba replied with a cocky grin.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this. "Despite the fact that your best friend's obviously thought up ways to kill me and has the means to dispose of my body."

Kiba smirked happily at that, setting his arms around the other man's neck. "And that yours could either flatten me or in the other's case make me jump off a cliff – and is dating the most socially inept person I have ever met," he added because some things deserved to be said out loud repeatedly and any self-respecting Inuzuka would never cease to advocate against poor social skills.

"Can't deny that," the Nara muttered. He pulled Kiba closer as he listed the next known fact. "We're pretty amazing together in bed."

Kiba's grin widened as their lips brushed together, but he sobered up slightly as he looked into his eyes before stating something else. "I can't give you children." And that was what had started their 'break-up' in the first place, wasn't it?

Shikamaru tensed slightly but then shook his head as he used both hands to grab Kiba's face. "I care about you more than that," he said very seriously as he held his gaze.

"Yeah?" Kiba asked with barely concealed fear and hope mingling together.

"Yeah," Shikamaru replied with what he hoped was complete confidence. He then huffed teasingly. "Despite your family who'll likely be way more socially inappropriate than Sai."

Kiba laughed but couldn't well deny that. "And despite your mother who'll probably try to have me killed even more than Chouji and Ino combined!" he countered.

"The secret is to never show how she affects you," Shikamaru assured him.

"Huh. The secret with my mother is to head-butt her as hard as she does you," Kiba replied with a shrug.

It was up to debate whether he meant that figuratively or literally – personally, Shikamaru was leaning more towards the latter. "I'll keep that in mind," was his response against his lips. He then pulled back as he thought about something else. "Were you…planning on accepting Gaara's offer? Kurenai told me about it," he added as he noticed his surprised expression.

The Inuzuka cocked his head the side as he wondered how to best word it. "I've been seriously considering it," he admitted. "And it wasn't because of you or anything. But…I guess I can put that decision on hold until we see where this is going," he finished with a tentative grin. "It's not like I've been given a definite deadline…"

"Sounds good to me," Shikamaru replied with a relieved sigh before leaning in once more. Kissing Kiba was way too easy and addictive; he realized then that he'd been feeling a withdrawal of some kind, but it was quickly turning into a distant unpleasant memory as the present moment replaced it. Kiba raised a hand to run it through his hair and Shikamaru didn't waste a second before snaking an arm around his waist to pull him closer. He snapped out of his daze however when he felt a hand trail over his stomach and stopped it before it could go lower. "Kiba, wait," he said regretfully as he pulled back and away from him.

"What? Why?" the Inuzuka almost whined.

"Believe me: there is nothing in the world I would rather do right now," Shikamaru promised him as he looked him in the eyes. "But I would really prefer it if my mother heard about us from me instead of the grapevine," he said seriously.

Kiba immediately stopped trying to grope him at this, understanding his reasons – and grinning despite himself at his use of the pronoun 'us'. "Of course, you're right. I hope the news didn't travel that fast yet," he added as he – regretfully – stepped back. "Do you…want me to come with you?" he then offered for the principle, unsure whether that would be helpful or not.

"Not right now, no. First I have to know that she won't try to kill you," the Nara replied not-so-jokingly as he ran a hand through his hair fondly. "But thank you," he then said with a small smile as he pulled him in for another kiss. He then frowned as he thought about the other man's family. "What about your family? How will they take it?"

Kiba shrugged off the question easily. "They'll probably roll their eyes, say 'finally' and bring out the inappropriate comments just like you said," he replied partly annoyed but mostly fond. "You'll be expected to learn all the dogs' names though," he then added seriously.

Shikamaru did raise an eyebrow at that. That was easier said than done. He'd known Hana for years, and he still couldn't tell her triplets apart most of the time, so figuring out all the dogs? His challenges were obviously only beginning. "I'll do it, if it'll make them see I'm serious," he assured him, humming in satisfaction as he was rewarded with another kiss. He didn't linger, much as he wanted to, since he really had no way of knowing whether his mother had heard yet and would much rather have it come from him. It wasn't a talk he was looking forward to, in fact it was quite the opposite – so very troublesome – but it had to be done, and his own words would be infinitely better than some bystander's eschewed perception. To his surprise, once he got closer to his house he noticed Sai and indeed the other man wasted no time in jumping down from a nearby roof to meet him. "What're you doing here?" he wondered with a frown.

Sai sighed as only he could – in the way Shikamaru had long since learned meant that Ino was behind whatever it was. "Ino wanted to make sure your mother would not be told by a third party." Ah, so that was a punishment for his misplaced comments earlier. Ino was truly a glorious best friend.

"Did people actually try to?"

"A few. No one I couldn't redirect," Sai replied with a shrug, looking at him hopefully.

Shikamaru took pity on him at that. "Thanks Sai, you can go now. Tell Ino I said 'thank you'."

"Good luck," Sai wished him before promptly vanishing.

Well. Now he had to decide on what to do. He had a brief mental image of his mother going on a rampage though and it made shivers run down his spine – it made him wish his father were here with the same intensity as when he'd been a toddler having a nightmare, and it was really unsettling. But at the same time he wanted this to be over, so he walked in, and instead of heading to his room as he usually would, he walked towards the dining room where she sat at the table. "Can I talk to you?" he asked her, with all the enthusiasm of a man walking to his demise. Strangely, it brought him back to his childhood, and to the times he'd had to confess to skipping class or getting into other kinds of trouble. Good old days…things were so much simpler back then, before feelings and hormones got involved and threw his world upside-down.

"Did you get in trouble or something?" Yoshino asked him with a raised eyebrow as she set down the kunai she was cleaning – a fact he was infinitely grateful for. She might no longer have been an active shinobi herself but her aim hadn't decreased at all – and for some reason, she'd always enjoyed cleaning their equipment, he couldn't even ever recall her flinching at crusted blood.

"The good kind," he assured her with a lazy grin as he sat down a little bit to her side – the right one, because she was left-handed and one was never too cautious. "Best set that down though," he added with a frown as she picked up a shuriken.

"For my safety or yours?" she asked back, mirroring him.

"Mine," Shikamaru replied without a second's hesitation, relaxing as she did so, visibly humoring him. "I'm seeing someone – well I have been for some time, but we decided we wanted it to be for good." That was some serious summarizing, but he couldn't really tell his mother they'd just had sex before admitting they were in love and deciding for more – and then, that it had happened in that order mostly because he'd been a chicken in the first place.

Yoshino's smirk as she rested her chin in her palm was a bright reminder that he mostly took after her, despite most people likening him to his father – cutting his hair had helped, though. "Well, I'll say: that's the good kind of trouble indeed!" she goaded before noting his still tense look and frowning instantly. "Okay, what else?" she asked shrewdly.

Oh he'd been right. Hearing it from him was much safer – not for himself, obviously, but for whoever would've been the news bearer. "Kiba. Inuzuka. That's who I'm seeing."

"Inuzuka?" she repeated – shrieked – with a frown before the rest computed – and it was almost funny how the clan was the first thing she'd noted. "Kiba? Tsume's brat? But he's a…well, a he!"

Oh yes, he was very much aware of that fact, but figured she wouldn't appreciate his humor at the moment. "Look, I didn't exactly plan on this," he started as he looked down with a sigh. "I never expected to fall in love with him but—"

"In love?" she repeated icily.

"That's what I just told you…"

"You just said you were 'with' him," his mother corrected sweetly.

"So troublesome – it's the same, no? I'm with him because I'm in love with him," Shikamaru replied with a shrug.

Yoshino sighed partly in frustration as she rested her forehead against her hand before sighing once more and looking back up at him. "Alright, I'll bite. What about the clan?" she asked calmly.

"What about it?" he asked back, playing dumb. He really didn't want her to throw back at him all the excuses he'd given Kiba, even though he figured he didn't really have a choice and had it coming. That didn't mean he couldn't stall, though.

"Don't stall, Shikamaru Nara," she read through him immediately. "While I don't doubt Kiba's…enthusiasm," and she frowned painfully at this – they both did, "staying with a man obviously means you won't be able to further the bloodline," she needlessly reminded him.

"I know that," Shikamaru replied with a sigh. "But look, I've got plenty of relatives who've done a whopping job of that already, it's not like my not pitching in is really going to make a difference in the end," he reasoned.

Yoshino shook her head as she picked up a shuriken and polished it to occupy herself. "As far as the clan's numbers are concerned, you're absolutely right: whether you have children or not isn't really important. But in terms of reputation, it's much more so. You're known, Shikamaru. Not only in Konoha, but also in other villages," she continued factually, tapping her index finger to the table. "Granted, you're not the greatest shinobi alive. Heck I remember how I had to practically pull you out of bed and drop you on the academy stairs when you were at an age where others such as Lord Kakashi were already jounin!"

Shikamaru winced as he remembered his academy days all too well. She really did pull and drop him, literally. Iruka had tried to get her to do it more gently, but eventually, even he'd had to give up on softening her 'tough love'.

"But the Kage themselves know you by name and value your council."

"So? I'll bite. What's that got to do with any of this?" he asked, using her words from before.

"I'm not an idiot, Shikamaru. I realize that two people of the same gender spending time together isn't as rare as some would like to believe," his mother noted as she rolled her eyes. "And what's done in private is people's own business. But as someone who's known, and as one of the public faces of the Nara clan, you've got different rules to follow," she laid out bluntly, fingers tapping the table.

Ah, there it was. "That's what I've kept telling myself, mom, and you have no idea of troublesome it is to feel so trapped when there's no real reason to!" he told her with a sigh as he ran a hand through his hair.

"Shikamaru!" Yoshino chided as she placed her hands on her hips – and how she managed to make it look threatening even as she was sitting on the ground, he'd never know.

"I want to make everyone proud – you, the clan, dad – but do I have to do that at the cost of my own happiness?" he asked her seriously as he looked back at her.

"Of course not," Yoshino replied crossly, certainly not willing to settle back and just watch as her son wallowed in misery for her, no matter how much she might disagree with his choices – and she did, in this particular case, very much so. "And if your father were still with us, he'd be telling you to do what feels right – heck he'd have probably figured you out before you did it yourself!" she huffed fondly as she still felt a pinch whenever she thought about Shikaku – always would, probably.

"Do you really think he would've been okay with this?" Shikamaru asked her seriously, allowing himself to feel hopeful.

"You were his world, Shikamaru," she noted calmly. "He never really wanted kids, but from the moment you were born, there was nothing he wouldn't have done for you – even go against the clan, if need be. That's what parents do…" she murmured as she closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh to rein her emotions in.

Shikamaru sighed in relief as he felt himself relax and looked up at her tentatively. "So…are you okay with this?"

Yoshino huffed as she opened her eyes and raised an eyebrow at him. "What's the alternative? Lose you?" she asked rhetorically before raising a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. "I just want you to be aware that life can feel quite accommodating when people only say good things about you. Don't imagine for a second that your decision won't lead to unpleasant confrontations," she forewarned with a frown. "And don't think you'll be able to remain entirely unaffected by it."

And suddenly he saw. It wasn't that she was disappointed, or inherently disapproved; she was just worried – and consequently annoyed. "Mom, I appreciate that you're trying to look out for me, I really do. But I've made up my mind; I will take a chance at whatever we can be despite what others will think or say," he assured her with determination.

Yoshino's eyes bore into his and he held her look until she relented with a sigh. "You're not a kid anymore, it's not like I can tell you what to do or who to be with. You're my son, and I'll always have your back, no matter what," she said seriously before frowning. "And since we're being honest and all – stop cutting your hair."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at that, wondering what that had to do with anything.

"I know you cut it because you figured that looking so much like your father would hurt me," she said evenly, eyes clouding the slightest bit. "But I'm not that fragile. And you actually look more like me anyway. So don't cut your hair anymore – unless you want to," she tempered. "I'm really not so old yet that I need my son to protect me!" she added with a huff.

Shikamaru chuckled and raised his hands up in defense. "Okay, duly noted. Sorry for being considerate, I'll try not to do it again," he replied easily.

Yoshino rolled her eyes, momentarily satisfied, before her mouth twisted in what almost looked like a pout. "But an Inuzuka? Really?" she muttered, looking towards the ceiling as though it was the lamp's fault that her son had such bad taste – clearly, he hadn't inherited that from her.

Shikamaru just chuckled and shrugged helplessly at that. "He grows on you," he offered.

"Whatever. Just…try to keep it to yourselves for some time, okay?" she said with a long-suffering sigh as she seemed to accept the inevitability of children giving you headaches no matter how old they were.

Shikamaru sighed as he looked at the lamp too. Muttering about how troublesome it was under his breath, he let out a deep breath before talking once more. "Yeah, about that…"

"I'm telling you, I'm not even sure my eardrums are still there," Shikamaru stated as Kiba grabbed his face between his hands to humor him.

"Well if they aren't, the removal was clean and precise!" the Inuzuka wisecracked as he pretended to have a look.

"I don't even know why I bother," Shikamaru muttered as he swatted his hands away, massaging his temples. "I'd forgotten how shrill her screams could sound."

"At least she's somewhat okay with us, right?" Kiba asked back with a grin as he wrapped his arms around his neck to pull him back against him, slumped as they were on his couch.

Shikamaru sighed as he leaned his head back on his shoulder. "Can you change clans and gender overnight? In that order, specifically," he asked sarcastically.

"Nope," Kiba replied cheerfully as he nuzzled his cheek.

"Good," the Nara was forced to concede as he closed his eyes contentedly. "Still, I'd avoid her for a while if I were you – give her some time to get used to the idea," he then told him, because that was best mentioned before she tried to kill him.

Kiba's snort at this wasn't nearly as off-putting as most would think – but rather endearing, really. "You don't have to tell me twice," he muttered.

Shikamaru grinned languidly as he tugged the arms surrounding him closer. "Ino and Chouji honestly thought it was Omoi," he then told him, because that was too funny not to mention. "They even dragged him along so I'd talk to him!"

Kiba chuckled in amusement, with even Akamaru chiming in. "He's not bad, I'll give him that. And he actually uses his head, like you. Plus he's someone you really get along well with, so I guess I can see why they might've thought that," he mused with a grin.

"Jealous?" Shikamaru asked with a lazy smile.

"Pah, not of Omoi!" was the matter-of-fact reply.

The shadow-nin opened one eye in interest at this. "Oh? Of who, then?"

"You know very well," Kiba muttered as he looked to the side.

Shikamaru's grin widened as absently ran a hand over his arm. "Mom actually tried that card, you know. 'What about Temari, Shikamaru? I though the two of you had a thing'," he quoted.

"A thing, huh?" the other man repeated darkly. "So what'd 'you say?"

"That as far as things are concerned I like yours better."

Kiba's eyes widened at this as he gaped openly. "You didn't!" he said as Shikamaru turned to face him, completely serious. "Shit, you actually did, didn't you?" he realized as he saw his expression didn't change.

"That's when I lost my eardrums," the Nara informed him plainly with a wince as he remembered. He knew he'd keep paying for that, but he hadn't been able to help it, riling his mother up was too easy, and the set-up had been too good to pass up on. "I blame you, by the way."

"Oh I'm absolutely okay with taking the blame on that one!" Kiba assured him happily as he pulled him against his lips before he was forced to break it off as he thought of something and laughed. "Hey, Shika?"

"What?" the other man asked with a frown, somehow dreading his coming words.

"I like your thing, too," the Inuzuka informed him with all the poise of a five-year-old before promptly laughing again.

Shikamaru groaned as he slumped back against him, smirking as he figured he'd brought it upon himself. "Prove it," he said instead as he raised his head to look at him, liking the spark of challenge he saw into the other's eyes.

Kiba obviously had no qualms taking him up on it, even if he did want to clear something else first. "Hey…this time, promise you'll spend the night?" he asked him seriously as he held his gaze.

Shikamaru didn't even need to think about it. "This time, I promise you'll actually have to kick me out of bed." And that seemed to be just what the other man wanted to hear, which was good, he figured. When Kiba later asked him how he felt, he just smiled lazily and said, "I'm okay and you were great." Those same words that Kiba had told him in Suna all those months back, those same words that had thrown him in for another spin.

Saying them back felt oddly fulfilling – seeing the recognition pass in Kiba's eyes was even better. And actually allowing himself to hold him as they fell asleep felt like coming home.


Chapter Text


The news had obviously spread to the entire village by the next day as he'd surmised, and when Shikamaru walked into the Hokage's building, even though he really didn't care much for the opinion of strangers, even he couldn't remain completely impervious to the amount of whispering and pointing going on. He managed to keep the annoyance from radiating off of him solely by thinking back on that morning, when Kiba had shown him that good things come to those who spend the night. (Very good things.) And true to his promise, the Inuzuka had had to kick him out of bed – again, very good things had just taken place there, Shikamaru really didn't feel the need to justify himself for not wanting to leave.

"I hear that talk went well," Omoi offered with a discreet grin as he fell in steps with him.

"Can't complain," the Nara replied evenly with a grin of his own.

"That was brave, what you did," the Kumo shinobi then commented earnestly. "Not everyone would've had the guts to go through with it."

Shikamaru nodded absently as he pondered it. Was it really bravery? He'd likened it more to desperation himself. "Thanks," he eventually replied.

"I mean, what if he'd said you were too late and actually turned you down? Then everyone would still know, but you wouldn't have the comfort of being together, so that would've made you feel a lot worse! Maybe even to the point that you wouldn't have dared to show your face in public anymore – and then what? Exile maybe? Well, I suppose a shinobi of your caliber could find work in other villages easily, but news travel fast after all, and there's always a risk that the situation would just repeat itself," Omoi continued, getting carried away again.

"Err…well…he didn't turn me down, so I guess things turned out fine…" Shikamaru noted evenly, eager to stop this gloomy possible foreshadowing of his future in an alternate reality.

Omoi nodded back and moved his toothpick around between his lips as they kept walking in silence. "Does Kiba know your friends thought it was me?" he then wondered, curious despite himself.

Shikamaru was about to reply when he heard his name being called loudly and he winced as he turned to Naruto. "Damn it Naruto, stop screaming into people's ears like that!" he admonished him for the principle.

"But is it true, what they're saying?" Naruto wondered as his arms flailed, narrowly missing Omoi's head. "About you and…and Kiba?" he clarified, as though there was more than one thing being said about him that morning – or at least Shikamaru hoped there was only one rumor currently flying about on him.

"Yeah, it's true," the Nara confirmed easily, wincing as another round of particularly high decibels assaulted his ears. "I'm going to become deaf, at this rate! So troublesome…" he muttered before steeling himself and asking him, "Does that bother you?" He'd managed to sound suitably neutral, but inwardly he felt really tense.

"What? Of course not!" Naruto quickly replied with a frown – and rapidly moving hands once more nearly cuffing Omoi. As his friend sighed in relief, he looked to the side self-consciously and scratched his cheek. "I mean…I do think it's weird – as in, really weird – the two of you liking guys – and each other on top of that," he admitted quietly.

"I guess that's how it's going to look to a lot of people," Shikamaru commented with a sigh. Still, that was an honest reaction, and he appreciated it.

"You'll just have to prove everyone wrong!" Naruto quickly said loudly, not wanting him to think he didn't support them. "As long as you're happy together that's what's important, right?" he declared confidently as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Shikamaru was momentarily stumped and felt himself smile. "Right," he agreed. Naruto was an expert in proving people wrong after all; he could trust that he knew what he was talking about.

"What about Temari though? I thought for sure you'd get together with her!" the blond shinobi then wondered with a frown.

"You know what Kiba looks like, right?" the shadow-nin asked him with a raised eyebrow, stifling a chuckle.

Naruto's frown deepened in confusion as he uncrossed his arms and rested his good hand on his hip. "Um, yeah, of course!"

"Then I think you can safely deduce that Temari's not my type," Shikamaru concluded flatly.

Omoi chuckled in amusement at this and Naruto shot him a dirty look.

This might be fun after all.

Or so he thought, until Kakashi himself just grinned slyly as he waved at him cheerfully. "Youngsters keep the village so lively!" he commented happily.

"Careful, Lord Hokage," Shikamaru warned between clenched teeth, harboring a perfectly faked smile, "that could be called harassment."

If Gai were there, he'd have definitely attributed this to the Springtime of Youth.

It figured that Lee took it upon himself to fill that role when he walked into him later.

Shikamaru just resisted the urge to sigh and longed for the day to be over soon so the novelty would wear off. He just hoped Kiba was having an easier time.

Over on his side, Kiba's trials and tribulations began right on his clan grounds, where every person he walked by (and their dog) grinned slyly and chuckled openly – either because they'd heard the rumors or could visibly smell the truth, but he didn't really care, it was only mildly annoying either way. He was too happy to let it bother him. He grinned at the congratulations, rolled his eyes at the jokes, and growled at the more pointy jibes out of habit, but he knew his clan wasn't going to care much what he did and who he did it with – it was no one's business what two consenting adults did behind closed doors after all, that was the Inuzuka mindset and he wasn't the only one to have been raised in it. It was in their nature to be loyal no matter what, and that was why he'd never tortured himself upon realizing his interest didn't lie in the female population – although he knew he would never escape obnoxious teasing, but that was a small price to pay, all things considered.

Shino was waiting for him when he reached the gates to the compound, and he grinned easily at the sight of his best friend. "Hey, Shino!" he greeted as Akamaru barked next to him, wagging his tail.

"Kiba, Akamaru," Shino replied evenly. "So, was it a genuine reconciliation?" he questioned with a frown.

"Oh yes, one-hundred percent genuine!" Kiba assured him happily. "Both times!" he then added boastfully because he was an Inuzuka and they were insufferable like that.

Shino didn't even sigh – he was used to his friend's antics by then, after all. "Good," he replied simply. "The information has quickly spread through the village," he then notified him as they started walking towards their teammate's house.

"I figured," Kiba reacted with a shrug, noticing some conversations seemed to slow and halt in favor of staring at him as he walked by.

"Has your mother returned from her mission yet?" his friend wondered.

"Nope. And she's gonna be so peeved she missed that! I can already hear her!" Kiba said with a wide grin. "'Seriously, Kiba, I leave for a few days, and you manage to find a way to get the whole village talking about you without giving me a chance to further embarrass you! Shame on you, ingrate son!'" he mocked as he imitated Tsume, sharing a good laugh with Akamaru.

Shino just hummed as he had to admit he'd pretty much nailed it. "At least Hana will have a normal reaction," he surmised.

"Oh, sure!" the tracker said sarcastically. "Something right along the lines of, 'my, you've set your sights real high to go for such a smart one, little brother!'"

Shino yet again hummed as Kiba was pretty gifted when it came to imitating people. (And he knew for a fact that he did a pretty convincing imitation of him as well.) "Naturally, I intend to have a talk with Shikamaru myself," the Aburame forewarned seriously. "It's because in the event that it turns out he's not able to handle the pressure and will have therefore given you false hope, I do not think it acceptable that he should not suffer the consequences," he stated matter-of-factly. Akamaru barked in approbation and he nodded at him. "Indeed, Akamaru," he agreed, although he just got the gist of it.

Kiba's grin widened even more as he slung an arm over his shoulder and laughed. "That's why you're my best human friend, Shino!"

"You are my best human friend as well, Kiba," Shino dutifully – but earnestly – replied.

Akamaru just barked happily as he trotted by them.

When they reached the Hyuuga domain, Shino resisted the urge to fidget – he always had the impression that someone was using their byakugan on him there, which really wasn't unlikely, no matter how many times Kurenai told him he was just being paranoid.

Kiba's nose twitched and he rolled his eyes. "Hello, Hanabi, is your sister ready?" he called loudly.

The Hyuuga heiress poked her head above the wall innocently and grinned at them cat-like. "She'll be there in a minute!" she replied before smiling smugly as she leaned forward on her elbows and rested her chin in her palms. "Soo, Kiba…there's a certain rumor floating around about you…" she started infuriatingly – and damn it, unlike all the other Hyuuga they knew, she really had the mindset of a complete teenager – somehow, she used to be more serious as a child!

"Yes, Shikamaru and I are together," he stated matter-of-factly before she could ask.

Hanabi grinned widely and then pouted. "Bah, big sister, you need to hurry! You know you're behind when even Kiba finds himself a man before you do!"

"Hanabi!" Hinata chided with a frown – and a bright blush. She then sighed as her sister only laughed and hurriedly ran away before she could properly scold her. "I'm sorry about that, Kiba. Good morning to you three!" she greeted as she walked to them.

"Good morning Hinata," Shino replied, voice warmer than usual – to those who knew him well at least, most of whom were currently present.

Akamaru barked happily and Kiba waved a hand about. "Don't worry about it, I know she's just teasing – and I've got tough skin!" he assured her with a wink.

Hinata smiled back and then looked to the side briefly before looking back at him. "Well, I'm happy for you – and Shikamaru," she offered earnestly though still blushing. "Hopefully you'll feel better now?" she asked with a warm smile.

"Already do!" the Inuzuka replied boastfully. "Let's get going – and let me warn you, I've been stared at a lot already this morning!"

"I'll stare back at them – because I've been told that it makes people uncomfortable," Shino commented pragmatically.

"Gee, I wonder why…" Kiba replied with a fond snort.

Hinata only smiled as she looked at them, one hand absently rubbing Akamaru's head as they walked. Kiba sure looked happy, she mused enviously. Hopefully one day, she'd get enough courage to get that same happiness too!

But…in all honesty, she'd be fine without Kakashi looking at her as he had Kiba before declaring it was 'nice to be young'. He wasn't even that old.

In the end, once people got over their initial curiosity, and realized that nothing special was going to happen if they stared at him long enough, they just moved back on with their lives and their work. Izumo had even taken a moment to tell him he and Kotetsu sympathized, and wished them luck; it made him feel supported, in a way – or at the very least, less alone. The hours passed by quickly, and before Shikamaru knew it, it was time for lunch, for which he was supposed to meet up with Chouji – who'd volunteered to show Karui around Konoha, much to his amusement. Omoi had told them he wouldn't stay much longer, and was taking this time to finalize the last few administrative details on her behalf – because Karui of the Hidden Cloud did not take well to paperwork. Still, he wasn't about to miss lunch, so they walked out together to meet their friends at the barbeque place – as they'd discovered early on that it was a pretty big favorite in Kumo as well.

Karui and Chouji had already gotten started by the time they arrived – of course, because those two were gluttons incapable of waiting five minutes – and she raised an eyebrow at the Nara. "Hey, Shikamaru! I guess I ought to thank you for providing the first truly entertaining scene I've witnessed in Konoha!" she said with a sly grin.

"Let me guess – you heard a rumor," the shadow-nin deadpanned as he slid into the booth opposite his best friend – smiling self-consciously at Chouji's wide grin.

"Better – I was there!" Karui declared with a chuckle before narrowing her eyes and pointing her chopsticks at him. "That took balls, what you did. You're visibly into some weird sexual shit for a guy and I think that's gross, but it can't be said you're a coward!" she praised straightforwardly, true to herself not mincing her words. Still, while she couldn't exactly be called supportive, she wasn't antagonistic either, and that was the important part.

Omoi sighed tiredly, visibly looking like he was glad to be rid of her for some time, while Shikamaru resisted the urge to react too much so as not to give her more reasons to be so crude. "Thanks," he replied summarily instead as he tried not to be disturbed by the way Chouji looked at her with an expression bordering adoration – now he was scared.

Thankfully, she'd said her piece so lunch continued in a much more civilized fashion. Once done, the two Kumo shinobi took off, or more accurately, Omoi dragged Karui by her vest as some of the paperwork, she had to fill and sign herself, "Or you're coming back with me and I'm telling the Raikage why, exactly."

Left outside the restaurant, Shikamaru looked up briefly at the clouds and then back at his friend. "Karui, huh?" he teased him easily.

Chouji raised an eyebrow at this. "Kiba, huh?"

"Touché," the Nara noted as he grinned in amusement. "He gets why you thought it was Omoi," he then informed him off-handedly as he walked off, nonchalantly shoving his hands in his pockets.

"You told him?" Chouji almost exclaimed in surprise. "He's never going to let me live it down!" he lamented as he quickly made to follow him. Looking at him out of the corner of his eyes, he felt himself smile as he saw his contented expression. "So…Kiba…" he repeated.

"Kiba," Shikamaru confirmed tranquilly.

"Have you…felt that way about him for a long time?" the Akimichi wondered, although he doubted it, he was practically certain he'd have noticed it, if that had been the case. Then again, Kiba had been gone for some time so he hadn't really had any opportunity to watch them…

"He's a hard person to dislike, and I could never deny that he's attractive," the shadow-nin started with a shrug. "But he…let's just say he got through my walls in Suna thanks to his stubbornness," he finally replied with a fond smirk.

Chouji nodded as it made sense – that Kiba was the one who initiated it. He then scratched the back of his head sheepishly as he wondered about something else. "So…was he…I mean…have you ever been with someone else before him?" he finally asked curiously.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, clearly entertained, and shrugged. "Nah. It's troublesome enough already with just him," he drawled.

Chouji laughed as that reply was really so much like his best friend. "Still…Omoi, I could wrap my head around somewhat easily, but Kiba…" he thought out loud, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Are Kiba and I harder to get used to than Ino and Sai?" the Nara wondered good-naturedly.

Chouji's pained frown informed him that he still believed he'd learned way more than he was comfortable knowing about Ino and Sai's couple's (ahem) inner workings. "No. And I'm happy for you – really. Kiba may be overly boisterous at times but he's a good person and loyal to a fault; that puts a best friend's mind at ease!" he replied with a warm smile. Sai – while a good person and loyal – did not put a best friend's mind at ease.

Shikamaru smiled back at him before looking up once more and sighing. "Yeah, I'm hoping to get my mother to see that too someday," he admitted.

"She wants to kill him, doesn't she?" Chouji asked rhetorically.

"We're at a sort of standstill," Shikamaru tempered with a huff. "The kind where she refuses to step foot out of the house until it's cooled over…"

"Ouch," his friend noted with a wince, reaching over to pat his shoulder sympathetically.

"Yeah…just in case, if you ever see her heading for Kiba and I'm not around, please step in?" the shadow-nin asked him mostly serious.

"Of course!" the Akimichi vowed. Yoshino Nara scared him as well, but for his best friend, he'd brave that fear!


"So…um…well, since we're on the subject of…I mean…Karui's something, isn't she?" Chouji then started with a blush, trying to brighten up the conversation.

Shikamaru turned to him and raised an eyebrow at this. "Oh, is she?" he asked innocently.

"Yes, well…she's…obviously not your type but…she's…something!" Chouji continued eloquently with a dreamy expression.

Shikamaru grinned to himself at that. Karui took some serious getting used to, and she could cause a pretty strong headache, but yeah, she was something alright. "Don't say that to Ino yet, or she'll tell Sai to give you advice," he recommended half-jokingly.

Chouji paled and almost stopped in his steps, horrified at the thought. (Mostly because he had to admit that Sai's tactics had worked, damn it, and it confounded him.) On the outside however, he just nodded back. "But…do you think I'd actually have a chance with her?" he then wondered meekly.

The Nara craned his head back to look at him, raising an eyebrow. "Just talk to her, Chouji," he said teasingly.

"Aw come on, Shikamaru!" the other man protested – although he had to admit Shikamaru was well within his rights to get back at them for their meddling.

Shikamaru chuckled and stopped in his steps to look at him. "I was actually being serious. Karui is a no-nonsense, zero tolerance for indecision kind of person. If you're interested in being with her, don't beat around the bush – tell her so," he replied seriously, smiling encouragingly.

Chouji had to admit he was right, but it sounded much easier said than done – suddenly, he really appreciated his best friend's former plight. "Yeah but…d'you think she'd like me when I'm…" he trailed off, gesturing to himself vaguely.

"What? Kind, honest, and brutal on the battlefield to boot?" Shikamaru filled in with a raised eyebrow. "Besides, you're about the only person I've met to consider her a woman, I'm sure that'll be an extra point in your favor!" he added with a lazy grin.

"You're actually not bad at this," Chouji accused as he slowly realized the truth, smiling widely at his friend's embarrassed expression. "I think you and Kiba will be just fine!" he told him earnestly.

Shikamaru smiled back slightly – he sure hoped so. Otherwise it would be really troublesome.

All his life, Kiba had known without a doubt that he'd always have his family's support no matter what – and by family, he meant his mother, his sister, and the dogs; well, he figured Aoba could also be included now. They'd always been there for him with a reassuring pat, a comforting grin, always ready to cheer him up, rile him up, strengthen him, and, of course, make fun of him.

"A lazy genius, that's who you fell for?" Hana teased him as he'd brought Akamaru to the clinic for a routine check-up. "Hear that, you three?" she asked her dogs.

The Haimaru brothers had in fact heard, and barked playfully, only being marginally more discreet in their mocking when Kiba glared at them.

"I'm allowed to have standards," Kiba argued as he resisted the urge to pout. Only Akamaru was loyally remaining impassive and refused to join in on the tormenting. Kiba made mental not to give him an extra well-deserved treat later.

Hana's grin widened – if possible – as she wiggled her eyebrows at him. "I'd ask if he could be bothered enough to get active, but I think the answer to that's easy to smell!"

Kiba scowled at her, inwardly wondering if being subjected to this was his punishment for being the younger of the two. He'd never teased her like that about Aoba – heck that was something he'd never even wanted to tease her about! "For the record, he's great in bed!" he declared anyway, figuring since he couldn't avoid it, he might as well fight back.

"Oh, I don't doubt it – it is always the ones you least expect after all!" Hana sing-sung, pulling back from Akamaru with a satisfied expression. "You're all set – the picture of health as usual, Akamaru!" she praised happily.

The dog barked and Kiba sighed in relief at that, grinning as his companion nuzzled his hand. "Good boy, Akamaru."

The older Inuzuka smiled at them and absently rubbed the heads of her own nin-dogs before setting her hands over her stomach. "Seriously though, I'm glad I won't need to worry about you anymore – for now," she added with a wink.

Kiba blushed self-consciously as he looked to the side, before his eyes were drawn back to her hands. "Well…I can't be a mopey uncle, can I?" he asked warmly.

"Nope!" Hana agreed enthusiastically before raising a hand to stroke her chin. "Hey, mom's coming back tomorrow, normally," she reminded him.

"Think she'll be pissed?" he wondered with a sigh.

"That she missed this? Oh, absolutely!" the medic-nin replied with a huff. "She'll think she's cursed, because when Aoba and I got together she was also away!" she then mused. "Maybe she'll end up being scared to leave the village again!"

Kiba rolled his eyes playfully at this, leaning back against Akamaru. "Right, I'll be sure to tell her it's got nothing to do with her!" he assured her.

"Good. Go on now, I've got another appointment and I'm sure you've got places to be and people to annoy!" his sister dismissed playfully as she reached to ruffle his hair.

Kiba half-heartedly swatted her hand away and then gave her a quick hug before making his way out of the clinic. He wasn't overly nervous about his mother finding out about him and Shikamaru. Well, he was in a sense, but only because he wasn't sure how much she'd tease him – them. Besides, the news of Hana's pregnancy had put her into such an unbelievable good mood he doubted anything could dampen it! He could understand it though – it did feel strange at times to think he'd be an uncle in a few months. He felt nervous just at the thought, yet at the same time, so happy for his sister – and for Aoba too, naturally, because he was a good man, and he very visibly made her happy.

Akamaru barked happily in warning and he grinned at him, looking up as indeed there was Shikamaru, walking with his teammates. "Hey guys!" he called cheerfully as Akamaru stopped by them and he jumped down from his back, grin softening at his lover's smile.

"Hey Kiba, what's up?" Chouji asked conversationally.

Akamaru barked his reply and Kiba dutifully translated. "Akamaru just had his check-up and he's in perfect health!"

The other three seemed amused and Shikamaru reached to pat his head. "Good news."

Ino nodded her agreement – but didn't step closer because he tended to get white fur all over her clothes – before smirking playfully. "Got any plans, Kiba? We were just going to have lunch – why don't you join us?" she offered innocuously.

Shikamaru frowned as he was half-worried she'd turn lunch into an interrogation, but the look on her face was genuine, so he only smiled slightly – besides, he was completely okay with Kiba joining them, naturally.

"Sure, why not? Thanks!" Kiba replied casually with a shrug as they resumed their walk. His grin then turned mischievous as something occurred to him. "I mean, as long as you weren't planning on setting Shikamaru up with Omoi again!" he added off-handedly.

Chouji and Ino's heads snapped to Shikamaru reproachfully, but in all honesty he couldn't find it in himself to feel bad for telling on them, this was payback. They did however share looks before bursting out laughing when Omoi turned out to be at the restaurant when they got there – with Karui. The timing couldn't have been more perfect if they'd planned it.

"Welcome to Konoha," Ino simply told Karui as she looked at them skeptically as though seriously reconsidering her stay among them.

"The paperwork's signed and processed, so suck it up," Omoi told her warningly as though reading her mind.

"Yeah, at least I'll be glad to be away from you for a while!" Karui snapped back as she stole some food from his plate in retribution.

Ever the pacifist, Omoi didn't retort anything, just looked at the other group in sympathy.


Chapter Text


In all fairness, and while he really didn't have a problem with public confrontations, Kiba had rather honestly – and optimistically – hoped to avoid another scene in the near future, but his mother had other plans.

"One week, Kiba – I leave the village for one week and you manage to make it to the top of the gossip pile!" Tsume tsked as she crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head at him. "I wasn't even there to laugh at you—with you, I mean!"

From his best friend's side, Shino briefly wanted to comment that Kiba had really perfectly anticipated what she'd say, but as if sensing it, she sent him a look, and so he kept quiet and buried his nose deeper into his collar.

"And you!" she continued as she turned to Shikamaru, all but ignoring the looks she was getting from fellow shinobi as they were after all still in the middle of the hallways of the Hokage's building. "You've got crappy timing, you know that?"

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this, trying to determine whether he was actually being yelled at or toyed with – he was thinking the latter, but still… "It's a work in progress," he replied evenly.

Tsume mirrored his raised eyebrow and huffed, looking between her son and the Nara – and occasionally Shino, when he moved, which he promptly stopped doing. "It still took you long enough," she finally declared, practically leaning into Shikamaru's space to stare him down.

"I know," was all he said as he held her look, resisting the urge to step back – although he did slightly lean away.

Tsume's eyes darted to Kiba, then to Akamaru, and finally back to him. "Well. Whatever. If Kiba's happy, then I'm happy!" she declared with another huff as she pulled back and reached to ruffle her son's hair.

"Uh…thank you? I guess…" Shikamaru replied as he frowned at her behavior. Did that mean she approved of them? Or should he sleep with a kunai and a scented smoke-bomb under his pillow?

"We can finally stop worrying, eh Shino?" Tsume asked the Aburame cheerfully.

"Indeed," Shino agreed simply.

The Inuzuka matriarch absently pat Kuromaru's head as she thought about something else. "Hey, Shikamaru, how did Yoshino take it? You probably couldn't have done worse than an Inuzuka as far as she's concerned, I bet!" Despite her words though, she looked more amused than insulted at the prospect.

"Huh…" Shikamaru cleared his throat as he looked to the side, shoving his hands in his pockets. He couldn't really tell her she still hadn't left the house yet and ran him ragged with chores and shopping assignments, could he? "I think she just needs some time…" such as another few months, or possibly years.

"We Inuzuka do grow on people!" Tsume commented modestly. "Right, Shino?" she teased as she 'lightly' elbowed him.

"Surprisingly so," the bug-user gasped out. "If you'll excuse me, I need to tend to my assignments," he quickly said before she could start over again. "Kiba, Akamaru, Shikamaru, Tsume, Kuromaru," he greeted each in turn before leaving.

"Bye Shino! See you tomorrow at Hinata's!" Kiba called back loudly, backed by Akamaru's barks. Sensing an opportunity, he grabbed Shikamaru's arm and pulled him to the side. "So, we'll be going too! Busy evening ahead! See you around, mom!" he called over his shoulder as he dragged his lover along.

"Busy my ass!" Tsume called back before she laughed loudly, leaning back against her nin-dog. "Oh, that was a good one, eh, Kuromaru?"

Kiba groaned and Shikamaru sighed. "I think she'd have liked it better if you'd gone for Shino," the shadow-nin commented with a frown.

"Only because she knows him better," Kiba replied with a roll of his eyes. "But she didn't threaten you, so we're good!" he assured him.

Shikamaru nodded as he had to concede this point. "So…" he started as he turned his head to him. "What does our 'busy evening' entail, exactly?" he asked him with a raised eyebrow.

"You, me," Kiba started as he pointed to them in succession before pausing as though thinking about it. "Dinner. Making out, most likely. Probably bed then. Clothes only an option, obviously," he continued as he listed things on his fingers. "But those're just thoughts, I'm open to suggestions. What do you think?" he asked with a wide self-satisfied grin.

Shikamaru chuckled at this, finding nothing wrong with that prospect. And people thought Kiba couldn't plan properly! "I really can't find anything to complain about," he replied easily. And luckily, they were able to follow through with that plan without any setbacks.

Shikamaru had to hand it to him, sometimes Kiba was a genius.

"You have a thing with public scenes; you know that, don't you?" Omoi asked Shikamaru as he walked to sit down next to him on the bench he'd slumped in for a quick break. He tilted his head back to also look at the clouds, his grin reflecting a perfectly split amount of teasing and support.

The Nara merely frowned at him, letting out a sigh. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't come with the territory of being with an Inuzuka," he tempered, thinking about the number of times Tsume had loudly embarrassed the hell out of her children or Aoba in the shinobi lounges or just around the village – she seemed to make a sport of it, there was just no other plausible explanation. Even the gentle-tempered Hana wasn't above divulging certain (usually) personal details on her lover, like that time when she'd told him not to get so drunk he'd end up sleeping with the nin-dogs again – Raido, who'd laughed the loudest, had spent the next week tensely looking over his shoulder and jumping out of his skin every time he heard a bird's wing flap.

"Yeah, we have a few clans like that in Kumo, too…" the other shinobi noted with a chuckle. "But it's part of home, yeah?"

"Yeah…" Shikamaru agreed as he took in his appearance – he seemed to be fully geared up for travel. "Are you going back?"

Omoi nodded, absently stretching his legs. "Yeah, Karui's settled, she doesn't need a babysitter anymore – although I get the impression Chouji volunteered for the job anyway!" he then added, feeling torn between grinning and frowning at the Akimichi's obvious masochism.

Shikamaru shrugged helplessly, being with him on that one. He opened his mouth to wish him a good trip, but then thought about something else. "Hey, Omoi, can I ask you something? About Kumo?"

"Sure," the other man replied with a blink, curious.

"Relationships like mine and Kiba's…how are they viewed there?" the Nara wondered, crossing his arms over his chest. "You reacted pretty coolly, even when my friends thought I was actually in love with you. And all things considered, so did Karui, even if she repeatedly expressed disgust at the thought of the physical aspects of it," he noted. "But you both told me I was brave for pursuing him." And it had surprised him, coming from Karui – although, specifically, she'd said it 'took balls'.

Omoi hummed as he wondered how to put it, raising a hand to distractedly scratch his cheek. "Well, there's all sorts of people everywhere, but if a guy publically told another he loved him like you did, it's really likely that neither would get command positions in the future," he admitted with a sigh. "I don't know that it's any consolation, but it would be worse for two women," he then added.

Well that was different, Shikamaru thought. Many guys he knew here seemed to be really interested at the prospect of two women being together. "How so?" he asked curiously.

The Kumo shinobi sighed once more as he looked down, one hand absently rising to trail his fingers over the cloud symbol on his forehead protector. "I get the impression it's very different in Konoha, but in Kumo, kunoichi have only really risen through the ranks in the last fifteen years or so – Samui was the first to ever be given a position in the Raikage's entourage, and you can imagine she didn't achieve that by being compliant." No, his teacher was ruthless, unflappable, and determined – determined to prove that she shouldn't be overlooked in favor of others just because she was a woman.

Shikamaru honestly didn't have a problem picturing her staring down the competition and causing quite a few to crap their pants.

"Here, or in Suna, you have many kunoichi who are also clearly feminine – like Ino, Temari, or Tenten," Omoi continued thoughtfully. "And I'm not saying it's bad, on the contrary, but in Kumo, femininity is still seen as a weakness by the older shinobi – those who remember a time when there were absolutely no women on the field on our side. So as a result, many kunoichi back home take on a masculine conduct so they won't be demeaned – you've met Karui, right?"

Atsui had once called her 'a man with boobs' before pausing, looking at her flat chest and adding 'sort of'. He'd consequently spent two days at the hospital. Still, that was the day Omoi knew his teacher's brother would be a friend for life.

"So in a sense, if two women are together, it's like saying that they don't need men, right? Independent women don't sit well with the previous generation…" he finished with a huff.

"And I suppose that in the same vein, as a man, sleeping with another man wouldn't exactly make you masculine enough in their eyes, right?" Shikamaru concluded with a sigh, pushing his hands in his pockets nonchalantly.

Omoi shrugged, not bothering to deny nor minimize it. "As I said, it's mostly a generational thing. My mom wasn't a shinobi, but I was trained by Samui; I've never thought her less capable than anyone else. My father however was a bit reticent at first, but he couldn't deny the results. And I know you, and Kiba; it doesn't faze me that you're together," he said seriously, looking down with a frown before speaking once more. "I think that as always though, the real issue is that people don't like what's different, and they need time to get used to it – time they're not often willing to invest."

After all, his own father, while having fought in the Alliance during the war, really doubted the value of the exchange program, and when he'd learned that Karui volunteered, had turned to Omoi and said 'I'm relieved you had the sense not to apply!' – and Omoi had been half-tempted to reply that he'd wanted to, but Darui had offered him another position so he hadn't, in the end.

"Anyway," the Kumo shinobi continued as he shook his head. "Karui had to prove herself twice as hard, she's used to biased criticism; so I think not mincing her words to you is her way of helping you toughen up against outside comments," he noted quietly, knowing that was her way of being…well, not 'friendly' but…less antagonistic, maybe? Yeah, that sounded more like her.

"I'll try to keep that in mind the next time I wonder why I'm letting my best friend pursue her," Shikamaru replied with a lazy smirk.

Aside from his personal angle in this case, it was always interesting to learn more about the other villages, and barely a couple of years ago no shinobi from Kumo would have told him half as much as Omoi just did. In Konoha, women were typically less likely to rise through the ranks than their male counterparts, but that was mostly linked to personal motivation, not skill – they even often retired after having children, like his mother had. But if a kunoichi had the talent and willpower, her gender mattered nothing – as evidenced by their Fifth Hokage, or Sakura, Ino, Kurenai to name only a few…

"Have…people been giving you two a hard time?" Omoi then asked his friend tentatively, having heard all the talking and seen all the pointing, but nothing that got out of hand to his knowledge.

Shikamaru frowned slightly as he looked at him, shaking his head. "Except for my mother, not really, no…not yet, at any rate," he tempered. And, that he knew, beyond sometimes having to suffer jokes of poor taste, Izumo and Kotetsu hadn't really been ostracized either. Sure, many depreciatingly called them the Hokage's 'errand boys', but they liked that job, and they were good at it – all the while not falling behind when they were assigned actual field work.

"Well…you're Shikamaru Nara of Konoha after all!" Omoi noted with a shrug, reaching to pat his arm amicably as he stood up. "Everyone in the Alliance knows your brains and what they're capable of."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, lazily moving to clap the hand that was held out to him. "Try not to trip over a rock and die on the way home," he drawled with a grin, knowing that the way Omoi's eyes darted to the side at his words meant he was already taking his warning to heart and spinning an unlikely tale of impossible life-altering-by-rocks injuries.

As he watched him go – chuckling as he took a wide step to the side to avoid a marble-sized pebble on the road – he found himself thinking back on his words. "Everyone knows my brains, huh…?" he repeated quietly, letting his head fall back to look at the sky – there were barely any clouds left, unfortunately, it was all white, and it was starting to feel chilly. He'd always figured his 'fame' – so to speak – just meant he had more responsibilities, but thanks to Omoi he now realized it actually also gave him more freedom.

He was Shikamaru Nara of Konoha, his opinion was valued – no matter who he took to bed.

He chuckled at the thought, just as immediately frowning. His opinion was valued, yes, but what about Kiba…? Of course, everyone in Konoha knew the Inuzuka clan, but how many knew Kiba by name? And how many even knew as much only following his involvement with the exchange program? They'd had him mostly working as a liaison with Suna since his return, something he enjoyed, but what if following their recent development they somehow turned it into a way to bench him?

Kiba wasn't particularly interested in command positions (a shame, in Shikamaru's opinion, because once he set his playfulness and competitiveness aside, he had an uncanny instinct when it came to people that was incredibly well-suited for command) – but that was now. What about later?

Kiba would probably raise an eyebrow at him, move a hand to flick a finger at his frown, and remind him with a grin that it was no use worrying about the future, because there's no way of knowing it before it happens.

Shikamaru smiled at this. It was one of the reasons he loved him after all.

Still, from that day on he resolved to pay more attention to his assignments – as discreetly as he could.

In the end, it took over two weeks – almost three – for Yoshino to finally agree to leave the house again, and until then she'd looked at him reproachfully every single day – adding a glower when he hadn't slept in his room the night before. She took her mind off of things by cleaning around the house, and as she'd finally cleared his father's things, Shikamaru inwardly thought that maybe it wasn't so bad, because she'd been holding off on doing that for well over a year. She'd also taken revenge on him in more open ways, such as cooking leeks every other day—he loathed leeks and she knew that very well. To date, the most betrayed and guilt-inducing look had been directed at him when he'd mentioned he'd been invited to have lunch at Tsume's. Ino and Chouji's mothers had been there when he'd come home the next day, and they'd both shaken their heads helplessly and discreetly pointed towards his room. A storm was brewing inside, and Shikamaru had no particular desire to brave it.

Kiba, naturally, felt otherwise, because he was an Inuzuka and that meant he liked jumping into danger head first. He'd been walking through town with Hinata, happily discussing recent assignments when they found themselves face to face with Yoshino. Who then momentarily froze in her spot, narrowed her eyes at him, said a quick greeting to the kunoichi, and went on her way ignoring him.

"That's not very nice…" Hinata commented softly, reaching to place a comforting hand on her friend's arm.

Kiba, however, was far from being offended – he was just plain annoyed. "Hang on, I'll be right back," he told her as he walked after the Nara.

Akamaru whined as he looked up at Hinata, but the Hyuuga just smiled reassuringly as she reached to rub his ears – she had complete faith in Kiba after all.

"Mrs. Nara, wait up please!" Kiba called out as he reached her, refraining from raising his voice as she seemed set on ignoring him. "I said please," he tried again as he stopped in front of her.

"What do you want?" she muttered as she fixed her death-glare on the people around them who'd stopped to look at them and start talking in hushed whispers – they quickly disbanded.

"Just to talk – and you don't even need to say anything, just listen," he replied patiently, resisting the urge to growl as she still wouldn't look at him. "I love him, you know," he started honestly, trying a different approach and grinning inside when it worked and her frown was turned to him.

"You're nineteen, Kiba, you don't know what love is," Yoshino promptly informed him as she crossed her arms over her chest.

The Inuzuka did roll his eyes at that. "Oh, right! Sorry, I forgot that a man can only really be in love at that age if he loves a woman," he said sarcastically. The Nara couple had been around twenty when they'd married, Shikamaru had told him as much – so he didn't appreciate her hypocrisy. "Look, I'm not saying you have to approve of me – you don't even have to like me – but at least stop giving Shikamaru a hard time!" he pressed on earnestly, determined to say his piece before she walked off again.

Yoshino's frown deepened at these words, and for a moment she didn't say anything, merely stared him down, being both annoyed and impressed when he didn't back away and just held her look. It wasn't the loud and messy Kiba Inuzuka who ran around with a puppy on his head who was standing in front of her at that moment; it was a young man all grown up, confident and determined – still as annoying though. Looking at him like that, she knew nothing she did or said would affect them, in the end. "Alright," she finally said after what seemed like an eternity, the word tasting like vinegar in her mouth.

"Alright?" Kiba repeated with a raised eyebrow.

"Alright," Yoshino confirmed, stepping closer to poke his chest. "I don't approve of you. But I can see you're not going to go away if I ignore you," she said accusatorily.

"I'll take what I can get," he replied easily, not stepping back even though her pokes were on the painful side.

Yoshino rolled her eyes and the next second there was a kunai to his throat, its smell confirming that she'd stolen one of his from his holster – well…that he'd let her, to be precise. "Betray him and I will end you," she warned with absolute honesty.

"Hey, you know, just so we're clear, he's the one who's already broken my heart once," Kiba informed her with a frown, motioning with a hand for Akamaru to settle down from where he'd bristled by Hinata's side upon seeing someone threaten his master.

Yoshino did blink at this, despite herself, and then she remembered that from what her friends had told her, Shikamaru had really gone out of his way to win Kiba back – evidently being even willing to do it with an audience. Another movement, and the kunai was back in its holster as she stepped back. "Fair enough," she conceded.

"Truce?" Kiba asked with a wide grin as he held out a hand – he really couldn't help but push it sometimes.

Yoshino rolled her eyes with a scoff but clapped his hand regardless. "Now step out of my way," she said with no real animosity. He raised an eyebrow and literally took just one step to the side, and she once more rolled her eyes as she kept on walking. She then threw a casual look over her shoulder to see he'd returned to his friend – and his oversized flea-bag. Why couldn't Shikamaru have gone for a sweet girl like the Hyuuga who was currently beaming at the Inuzuka?

Still, when Shikamaru came home that evening, he was smiling – and not his usual lazy smile either. He then walked up to her and said "thank you"– just those two words, but he meant them so much she frowned and looked away in embarrassment. "Dinner's almost ready," was all she could mutter in response. Her gaze then trailed to the leeks she'd planned on cooking and she sighed loudly before throwing them away.

She'd grown pretty tired of them herself anyway.

So being with Kiba for good and – dare he say it – officially was a lot easier than he'd anticipated. Not that it was easy, in effect, but it was nothing he – they – couldn't handle. A different rumor about them seemed to surface every week, usually revolving around Shikamaru initially cheating on Kiba, thus explaining why he tried to win him back in public – once, they'd even insisted that Kiba had escaped to Suna heartbroken. Shikamaru hated these with a passion – and his throat still hurt from that time he choked on his food when the latest gossip claimed that he'd cheated on Kiba with Ino. Sai still frowned at him every time they saw each other, because even in rumor, no one was allowed to sleep with his girlfriend but himself. But mostly new gossips just took over, as always.

In all honesty, Shikamaru just had one tiny little slight issue, and it wasn't even linked to Kiba himself directly.

"So I have a problem and it's stupid," he declared without preamble as he sat down next to Chouji as he enjoyed roasted chestnuts outside the office. Inwardly, he was quite relieved that Karui was nowhere in sight, because he didn't need her making fun of him – although in all fairness, making fun of people seemed to be her way of showing something akin to affection. But, she was good to Chouji. As he'd surmised, the direct approach had worked wonders, and Karui did not, in fact, care what Chouji weighed so long as his "heart and stuff" were "in the right places" (which, obviously, they were). Chouji had beamed for a full week after she'd said that.

"Okay…?" the Akimichi started as he looked at him in surprise – Shikamaru didn't often have problems he couldn't deal with on his own. "So what's it about?" he asked as he offered him some comfort food.

"It's stupid," the Nara forewarned once more as he reached for a chestnut absently. "And it's driving me crazy," he added darkly.

Chouji frowned worriedly as this definitely spelled trouble – and he wondered what he'd be able to do about it if his genius of a best friend was stumped. "Come on, we can figure something out together, I'm sure!" he encouraged nonetheless as he placed a hand on his shoulder. Shikamaru took a deep breath and steeled himself before muttering something incomprehensively. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

"I said Akamaru doesn't like me!" Shikamaru hissed as he rubbed his eyes tiredly, obviously feeling embarrassed.

"Of course Akamaru likes you," Chouji instantly replied matter-of-factly. "If he didn't like you, he wouldn't let you get that close to Kiba!"

"He doesn't come to me for pats or scratches or treats!" the Nara argued back, fingers picking at the outer layer of the warm nut to clear it before popping it into his mouth.

Chouji's frown deepened as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Do you want him to come to you for pats or scratches or treats?" he wondered.

Shikamaru sighed at this. "Not exactly…" he sighed once more at this as he leaned his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.

"Well has he been growling at you, or giving you the stink-eye, or the cold shoulder? Or…well, I guess the dog version of the stink-eye or the cold shoulder…is there a dog version?" Chouji trailed off thoughtfully, popping another chestnut in his mouth. "He might just be jealous you know – I mean, Kiba used to be with him all the time but now you're always around! You've probably even kicked him out of his bed!" he added with a teasing grin, mistaking his friend's silence for a confirmation.

"No, that's not it," Shikamaru interrupted with a sigh. "And he's not giving me the dog version of the stink-eye or the cold shoulder either. He's just…I mean…he was all over Kankuro!" he finally mumbled.

"What's Kankuro got to do with this?" the Akimichi wondered, this conversation getting him more confused by the second. A pointed look from his best friend had him gaping. "No way! You're not saying… Kiba and Kankuro? When? How?"

"Back in Suna, sometime during the first few months of Kiba's stay – and I've really made it a point never to think about the how," Shikamaru muttered in annoyance. "But anyway. Akamaru was all over Kankuro – and that was months after they'd split!" he continued sourly.

"Huh…" Chouji let out as he tried to wrap his mind around this new piece of information. Kiba and Kankuro, huh? Wow. Never saw that one coming. Oh, he was suddenly so very glad that whoever Karui had been with before him was anonymously far away in distant Kumo! But back to his friend… "Look, Shikamaru, so maybe Akamaru gets along better with Kankuro – is that really so important?" he tried with a smile.

Shikamaru's frown informed him that yes, it was important, damn it.

"Kiba obviously likes you better, isn't that what matters the most?" Chouji tried once more with a different approach, smile widening as he saw Shikamaru start to wind down the slightest bit. "Besides, I've seen Akamaru playfully bark at you or nuzzle your hand on more than one occasion, so I really don't think you need to worry," he assured him encouragingly.

"I know that…" the shadow-nin replied with another deep sigh. "And I told you it was stupid – but it really annoys me that Kankuro has a better relationship than me with Akamaru!"

Chouji pretended to think about it as he crossed his arms over his chest and looked up with a frown. "Hmm, you know, this sounds somewhat familiar, I've heard of it before – I think it's called…oh, what was it again? Ah! Yes: jealousy," he deadpanned with a wide grin as he looked back down at his friend. "And it's completely normal to feel that way about your boyfriend's ex! I hate the guts of every man Karui's ever looked at even though I don't know any of them personally!"

Shikamaru raised his head from his hands to offer him a glare at this. "Thanks, Chouji, that makes me feel so much better," he replied with a huff.

The Akimichi laughed loudly at this and shrugged innocently as he tried to get him to stop sulking. "Seriously Shikamaru, you're hard to read sometimes. Akamaru probably figures you'd find him troublesome if he asked you for more attention," he reasoned easily. "Have a small talk with him!"

Shikamaru's scowl didn't diminish but that was actually because he was annoyed that he hadn't thought of that on his own. "Huh." And it didn't matter that Akamaru was way smarter than your average normal dog as he understood everything people said to him, because he still felt oddly out of place as he sat down next to the nin-dog while Kiba was getting changed. "So, Akamaru…what do you say we have a little talk, just you and me?" he started awkwardly.

Akamaru cocked his head to the side but wagged his tail, which the shadow-nin decided to take as a 'go ahead'.

"So…I'm not really sure how to say this but…I don't think you're troublesome," he said eloquently. The dog frowned at him, and so he groaned and decided to lay it all out. "And, if there's anything about me that bothers you, I'm willing to work on it. For Kiba," he added.

Akamaru surveyed him for a moment until he yapped, tail wagging faster, and rested his head in his lap.

"So we're good?" Shikamaru asked tentatively as he ruffled the soft fur. The short bark he received in response seemed to confirm that so he sighed in relief. (Take that, Kankuro!) "Man, feeling jealous is exhausting – not to mention troublesome," he muttered to himself. Good thing Kiba only had one ex!

Akamaru just whined sympathetically at that. Good enough.

"Hey now, what'd I miss?" Kiba wondered with a grin as he looked at them from the bedroom's doorsill.

"Nothing," Shikamaru replied evenly as Akamaru barked his own reply.

"Well we'd better get going though, or Kurenai will lecture us," Kiba noted as he checked the clock, rolling his eyes playfully. They weren't late, but still, it was true that she greatly valued timeliness – and it wouldn't do to set a poor example for Mirai! He extended a hand to Shikamaru and grinned as he took it before pulling him up, being rewarded for his efforts with a kiss.

"Hey, we can be a little bit late though, right?" the shadow-nin mumbled against his lips.

"Nice try," Kiba said with an amused huff – although he didn't step back.

"No, really, there's an expression for it – Ino uses that excuse all the time!" Shikamaru insisted, tightening his arms around him. "Fashionably late."

"Kurenai will make us fashionably sorry if we do that," the Inuzuka muttered, fully convinced of the truth behind his words – team 8 had paid dearly for even the slightest delay, it had ingrained a great sense of timeliness in him.

And he was right, because when she opened the door, Kurenai was smiling but her tone was unequivocal as she said, "Boys, right on time!"

"Told you so," Kiba whispered to his lover.

Shikamaru nodded back curtly. Don't be late with Kurenai unless you have an ironclad alibi – duly noted. No wonder Asuma had often had to grovel.


Chapter Text

Shikamaru had always known that Kiba freely expressed his happiness with much exuberance; so really, he shouldn't have been surprised when his lover threw himself at him when he opened the door, sending them tumbling to the floor.

"Good news, I guess?" he asked needlessly as he tried to sit up, Kiba ending up straddling his lap as he proudly held a piece of paper right into his face. The Nara chuckled as he grabbed it so he'd be able to read it and his eyes widened as he did so. It was an official statement bearing the Hokage's seal, very brief in its message but undeniably important.

Inuzuka Kiba – Konoha shinobi registration number 012620 – Following official review and effective immediately: promoted to the rank of tokubetsu jounin as a tracking expert.

"Tokubetsu jounin? You've been holding out on me," Shikamaru teased with a raised eyebrow as he looked back at him. Inwardly, he felt incredibly relieved that Kiba visibly wasn't being punished because of their relationship.

Kiba's grin widened and he shrugged sheepishly. "Kurenai told me I was up for consideration the other night, before we left. It's mostly following my work in Suna and the last few missions I went on here, but I didn't want to get my hopes up, so I didn't talk about it," he admitted. Akamaru barked happily behind him and he nodded. "But I made the cut!"

"I'm not surprised," Shikamaru replied honestly, feeling very proud as he moved a hand to the back of his neck to pull him into a kiss. "I guess I'll need to properly congratulate you," he mused against his lips.

"Why do you think I told you first?" Kiba huffed as he rested his forehead against his. "I'm going to go tell my mom and Hana, and then Shino and Hinata – Kurenai was with me, as my squad leader, so she already knows. But you'll come by later? We'll probably have a huge dinner to celebrate," he asked him excitedly.

"It's a date," Shikamaru joked, leaning in for another kiss, pulling back as something occurred to him. "So I guess you outrank me now…"

Kiba laughed brightly at this, wrapping his arms around his neck. "Does that mean I get to order you around?" Shikamaru rolled his eyes fondly at this and the Inuzuka's smile softened as he moved back to kiss him. "Hey, you know that if you really put your mind to it, you'd get promoted in a heartbeat, right?" he asked rhetorically.

The Nara sighed as he leaned his head against Kiba's shoulder, tightening his hold on his waist. "I'm happy like this," he assured him lazily.

Kiba smirked warmly as he let himself be held. He opened his mouth to tease him more, but tensed as his nose picked up a smell he was familiar with. "Let go," he whispered urgently as he disentangled himself from him and stood back outside of the house.

Shikamaru frowned at him, confused for a second before figuring it out. There was only one person that made Kiba tense like that: Yoshino Nara. And indeed, his mother wasn't long in walking up to the house, letting out a sigh as she saw them.

While she and Kiba never displayed any outward animosity towards each other, theirs was a relationship based solely on mutual tolerance. Kiba didn't particularly care about her approving of him, but he was always on her best behavior when around her, because at the very least, he didn't want her to hate or resent him. And Yoshino shared that mindset; she didn't pretend to like him, but she acted civil because he may have been uncouth and boisterous at times, but he was by no means a bad person, and although it pained her to admit it, he made her son happy.

So there you have it. Mutual tolerance.

"Good afternoon Kiba," she greeted civilly.

"Mrs. Nara," he replied with a polite nod. Even Akamaru behaved extra nicely as he sat by his master's legs obediently and didn't bark.

"Kiba was promoted to tokubetsu jounin," Shikamaru told her with barely contained pride as he stepped closer to his lover. Call him an idealist, but he never tired of pointing out Kiba's successes to her in hopes that she'd finally warm up to him.

Yoshino's eyes widened in surprise and she had to concede that she was impressed. "That is something to be proud of – congratulations," she told him earnestly.

"Thank you," the Inuzuka replied as he fought to keep a blush from spreading over his face. He then cleared his throat, ready for his exit. "Well, I have to go let my family know."

"I'll see you later," Shikamaru said easily.

"Later," Kiba confirmed with a small smile. "Have a nice day," he then told Yoshino before he and Akamaru ran off.

Yoshino sighed slightly as she watched them go and looked back towards her son as he picked the bag she was carrying out of her arms. "Thank you," she replied absently, still taking in the way his expression radiated pure pride – love, to be honest, but she didn't like to think about it like that. "You should hurry up and get promoted too," she said as they walked back into the house. "Otherwise he'll go to places you can't follow," she added off-handedly.

Shikamaru cocked his head to the side at her words, surprised. Since retiring from active duty after his birth, he knew she'd often suffered, watching her husband and then her son go off onto missions day in and day out – where each could be the last. To hear her encouraging him not to let that distance grow bigger in his own life, in her own way, was strangely encouraging. "I guess you're right…" he replied evenly. "But it sure sounds troublesome," he added, just for the principle, and just to annoy her – and it worked, too!

"Shikamaru Nara, you will be the death of me," Yoshino muttered as she yanked the bag back from him and walked off towards the kitchen – although the hasty retreat was to hide her fond grin, and they both knew it.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree, and when Shikamaru got to the Inuzuka household that evening, between the excited family members and the equally excited nin-dogs, he yet again found himself worrying about his hearing down the road. "Would it make sense to you if I told you my ears are somehow getting used to this kind of volume?" he asked Aoba distractedly.

"Strangely so, yes," the other shinobi replied contemplatively. "One of the mysteries of this world, I suppose," he added as he held his glass to him.

"Sounds good to me," Shikamaru agreed as he hit it with his and brought it to his lips. Turning his head to his lover, his grin widened as Tsume and another Inuzuka – Kiba's second cousin, if he remembered correctly – flanked him and forced a drink down his throat to celebrate. Well, if they continued like that, maybe Kiba wouldn't be in any shape to have a private celebration later, the Nara mused, not too happy about the possibility.

Hana for her part frowned as she reached for her husband's glass right as it touched his lips and replaced it with tea. "If I can't drink, you can't drink," she reminded him simply with a sweet smile, daring him to disagree.

"I wouldn't have it any other way!" the sensor quickly assured her, making a show of enjoying his tea.

Opposite of him, Shino's enjoyment of said tea was completely earnest.

Shikamaru hid his smirk behind his glass at this. Pregnancy had strangely turned Hana more like her fellow Inuzuka – with a predilection for playing pranks to boot.

"You're looking great, Hana," Hinata told her, opting for a safer subject.

"Oh, I'm starting to grow a fearsome bump, but I'm holding on!" she replied happily, smile widening as Aoba lovingly moved a hand over her round stomach to stroke it. "And the same time next year, we can forget I ever grew to such proportions, all the while playing with an adorable little pup!"

"It's so great that you're going to be parents!" Hinata commented earnestly as she looked at the couple with a bright smile.

"Isn't it?" Aoba replied contentedly as he rested his chin on his wife's shoulder. "I think it's a girl," he stage-whispered quite seriously.

Hana grinned as she automatically raised a hand to stroke his hair, turning her neck to press a kiss to his head.

"Personally, I'm rather looking forward to that moment where you suddenly realize that finding a babysitter is the most daunting task in the world!" Kurenai teased them easily. She was lucky in that aspect, with both her team and Asuma's, not to forget Konohamaru who always liked to play 'super uncle' – as he was doing this very evening.

Hana just moved her gaze to her brother and raised an eyebrow at Shikamaru. "There're two future uncles right here who very well know they've been signed up for it already!" she declared with a wide Inuzuka grin.

"You bet! We'll be the best uncles ever!" Kiba grinned happily from the headlock his mother had him in while Shikamaru returned to his drink self-consciously.

He felt touched that she so casually referred to him as a future uncle as well – even more so as no one corrected her nor made any comments. It was heartening, even though that was obviously the Inuzuka way – even Kiba referred to Aoba as his brother, more often than not dropping the 'in-law'. Absently, his eyes trailed to the red Inuzuka triangles on Aoba's wrists – those who married into the clan received them there, Kiba had told him, further proof of how much the Inuzukas were really inclusive like a family.

"And I'll be a grandmother! That doesn't make me feel any younger!" Tsume commented with a laugh, her amused expression completely at odds with her complaint. "It feels like it was only yesterday Kiba outgrew his nappies!" she added, much to everyone's amusement – butt of the joke excluded, of course.

"Are you kidding me?" Kiba muttered as he managed to pull out of her clutches and moved away to safety to sit by Shikamaru's side, close enough to press one leg against his. "This is supposed to be my celebration, mom, so no embarrassing memories please!"

"Fine, be that way, Mr. Touchy!" Tsume huffed as she leaned back against Kuromaru – and how eerie was it that the nin-dog's amused huff was so like hers?

"Embarrassing others is a common way for the Inuzuka to show their affection after all," Shino needlessly reminded them all, not failing to notice the flinches of recognition his words drew from the room's occupants.

"Aw, Shino, you'll make me blush!" Tsume chided fondly as her children snorted – all those present knew very well that the only thing that had the ability to make her blush was alcohol.

Laughter – and barks – filled the room once more and Kiba sighed happily, leaning more against Shikamaru and sharing a small smile with him. "Today's a good day," he said brightly.

"It is," Shikamaru agreed easily. "It really is…"

And seeing as Kiba visibly hadn't had too much to drink, the night was even better.

In all honesty, when Kiba had finally made chuunin, it had felt great, but really it had been a team effort, and a logical evolution. Without bragging, it was obvious shinobi of his level did not remain genin their entire careers – unless they retired early. Getting another promotion, however, was never guaranteed, and completely dependent on your own personal skills – and your career plans, naturally. Following the war and having witnessed so many other people's abilities first hand, he'd realized that rather to try and emulate the all-around level of excellence that some seemed to naturally attain, he should concentrate on his own strengths, and so making tokubetsu jounin had become his goal. Having reached it felt amazing. Sure, he'd been proud to become a chuunin, had walked into the mission room without Kurenai for the first time with his head held high and there'd been a near skip to his steps, and yet he hadn't even worn the jacket that long. But this…

Walking into the room where tokubetsu jounin awaited their assignments really did fill him with pride. It was organized and decorated exactly as the other rooms were, the only difference was the sign on the door, but he'd expected that – he still felt a difference. Aoba looked up from the morning's newspaper and motioned him over from the other side of the room as he noticed him, so he walked to him.

"How's the first day going?" his brother-in-law asked him with an easy smile.

"We just got here," Kiba replied as Akamaru greeted the other man. He tilted his head and turned as he felt someone stop next to them however, and raised an eyebrow as he saw a member of the Nara clan – Maen, if he remembered right.

"Do you know what some are saying?" the Nara asked him without preamble.

Kiba chuckled as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Unless you've just returned to the village after months of absence, it's fairly common knowledge that people have been talking about me a lot behind my back for some time now," he reminded him easily. Next to him the corner of Aoba's lips pulled up – he and Hana were so alike, sometimes.

Maen rolled his eyes and rested a hand on his hip. "I meant about your promotion," he corrected.

"Let me guess: I slept for it," Kiba offered, clearly unimpressed – he'd just thrown it out like that, but really, it was what 'people' said of roughly one promotion out of three!

The other man muttered something about 'cocky Inuzukas' and sighed. "Look – Ensui was the Captain to give his final recommendation. So now among those who're still waiting for their own promotion, there are people saying you used your relationship to your advantage," he stated plainly.

"Saying what? That he asked Shikamaru to convince Ensui to promote him?" Aoba cut in dubiously, raising an eyebrow at the idiocy behind such rumors.

"Hey I'm just relaying it – I know it's not true," Maen replied with a frown. "Even a Yamanaka couldn't get Ensui to do anything he doesn't want to! But the fact of the matter is this – you – is affecting the Nara clan's reputation."

Kiba snorted at that. "So what do you expect me to do about it? Apologize? Step down?" Akamaru let out a huff at this, clearly unhappy with the conversation. "I'm not doing either of those."

"Good, because I wasn't going to suggest either," Maen snapped back in annoyance. "Look, I don't really care what you do and who you do it with, even if it's beyond me! I care that it impacts on my clan."

"How kind of you. Again—what do you expect me to do about it?" the Inuzuka asked in the same tone. "Anyone who doubts the merit behind my promotion can feel free to say it to my face, and it'll be my pleasure to prove them wrong down the road. The fact is, I'm among the best damn trackers this village's seen in a while, and this is where I belong," he finished confidently. Some of the room's other occupants had tuned into their conversation, but he shrugged it off – he'd already figured he'd have to contend with that for some time.

Maen let out a deep sigh at this, looking at him tiredly, but with an expression close to satisfaction. "Good," was all he said before walking away.

Aoba sighed as he clapped Kiba's shoulder. "I guess you'd better think of that as a fair warning slash welcome slash hazing," he mused.

"It's not just that," Kiba commented as his eyes narrowed in thought. "I don't care what people say about me, but if Ensui's reputation starts being questioned because of—"

"It wouldn't be the first time," Aoba promptly interrupted him seriously. "Trust me on this, Kiba: promotions are always criticized by people denied their own. You should have heard the rumors flying about when the Fourth chose Genma, Raido and Iwashi for his Guard Platoon instead of more experienced or powerful Anbu!" he assured him. "Besides, Ensui might've been Konoha's final approver, but your first endorsement came from the Kazekage himself!" he needless reminded him. "People are just jealous!"

Kiba chuckled at this, clapping his shoulder back wordlessly. He'd never doubted himself, but it was always nice to have people back you up. Besides, it was true that independently of his relationship, a lot of shinobi were annoyed with him because he'd recognized the exchange program's potential value when they'd all dismissed it, and he had a lot to show for it now.

His name was called at that moment, and he nodded at his brother-in-law before stepping forward, surprised to see Ensui. He shared a quick look with Maen before greeting the very subject of their conversation. "Captain Ensui. I look forward to working with you again," he said with a nod.

Ensui nodded back curtly, eyes darting to his fellow clansman before he sighed. "Maen talked to you, didn't he?" he asked in annoyance. "Never mind, it's unimportant," he added before he could reply as he turned around and walked out.

Kiba toned down his grin as he followed him – there was something about the Nara's nonchalance that he really appreciated, generally speaking.

Ensui opened another door and called out two shinobi, who Kiba didn't know personally but recognized as jounin – Santa from the Yamanaka clan and a kunoichi he knew only by name, Ora. "I hope none of you made plans for dinner, we're leaving on an A-rank," he informed them summarily.

"You're an enemy to life outside of work as usual, Ensui," Santa muttered to his friend, though not really with any animosity.

Ora sighed as her eyes trailed to Kiba and then to Akamaru before settling back ahead unimpressed. "So it's tracking time," she declared in a bored tone, figuring that would be their purpose since they had a tracker.

Kiba was torn between laughing and rolling his eyes, but settled for looking her over instead. As a chuunin, you more or less worked with the same people, teams formed pretty quickly and it set a routine. But now, here he was on an A-rank mission with shinobi he knew little about on his first day.

This was exciting. It felt like being in Suna had. And he reveled in it.

Their prey wasn't hard to track down once Kiba and Akamaru had caught her scent, but she was hard to catch – almost impossibly so, at times, leading them on a chase that lasted days. Eventually though, between the four of them she was apprehended. Ensui had tasked Kiba and Ora with attacking her on all fronts, creating an opening for him to trap her with shadows. Santa had then taken over her body and forced her hands and legs into binds and seals. Once they felt she was secure – and with Ensui keeping her shadow under control just in case – the sensor broke the link and moved to probe her mind to determine whether the deserter had sold any information of value already.

"Most of the information is still in her possession – she was looking for a big buyer," the Yamanaka informed them, eyes still closed as he continued his search. "She's given away some of it to the black market though. Two different handlers, but they met in the village south of here, not at their bases."

"Kiba, how many smells can you track simultaneously?" Ensui enquired as he turned to him in thoughts.

"If you mean the two, that won't be a problem – but I need a sample," the Inuzuka replied. Even without Akamaru, he'd be able to track two scents – it was his specialty, right?

The captain nodded as he hummed, looking at their captive. "Santa can access her olfactory sensations as well, but chances are she won't have smelled anything special about them."

"Normal people don't smell other people," Ora remarked blandly from where she was standing guard.

Kiba ignored the jibe and stepped closer to the Yamanaka. "I just need the faintest trace – I can expand that myself," he assured them.

Santa held out a hand and pressed it to Kiba's head before concentrating on relaying the two exchanges in his mind, as vividly as he could. "Did you get them?"

Kiba didn't reply immediately and wrinkled his nose as he took in a deep breath and then several shorter sniffs. "I've got them. The first leads north-east, about half a day away, not much more. The second is south, we can be on him in a couple of hours," he informed them.

Ensui nodded as he mentally formulated a plan for their next course of action. "We'll track the north-east one first, even if it's farther away – that's Kusa and Ame's direction, I'm not taking any chances. Santa, anything else of value?" he asked the other man.

"No," Santa replied succinctly as he stepped back.

The Nara nodded at his words and used the shadow wrapped around her to snap her neck without further ado. "We leave as soon as you're done with the body, Ora," he instructed as Kiba moved to take her place on watch duty.

The first time he'd tracked someone and it had led to their death, Kiba had wondered whether he should feel guilty that he'd been the one to chase that person down – and therefore bring their end. Fairly quickly however he remembered that shinobi didn't do things without a reason – that traitors who risked their village's safety or people who had every intention to kill you did not deserve mercy, and that when it really came down to it, their fate had nothing to do with him. Nowadays, he didn't even blink anymore. His job was to track, not to judge.

Ora was remarkably fast in dealing with the body – first taking extensive notes in a scroll that she sealed, and then placing the body in a precise position before burning it to a crisp with a perfectly executed jutsu. It was obvious this was her specialty. "Done," she said simply as she walked to them, cocking her head to the side as she noticed Kiba hadn't budged. "Didn't that smell bother you?" she wondered half-curiously, referring to the burning body.

Kiba shrugged. "I'd be out of it most of the time if I hadn't learned to block unpleasant smells," he replied matter-of-factly. He wasn't about to repeat losing a fight to a fart after all!

Ora seemed mildly impressed at this – or at the very least, less unimpressed – and didn't add any more.

"Lead the way, Kiba," Ensui directed as they stood ready.

Kiba nodded and jumped ahead. "I'll follow the trail, you handle our immediate surroundings for traps," he told Akamaru, nodding as the dog barked in agreement. He then concentrated fully on tracking the scent as it was moving closer to the border, all the while also keeping a small part of his attention concentrated on the second scent in case it changed course radically. Tracking two targets moving in opposite directions – a challenge, and dream come true to most Inuzuka. He tried hard not to grin. (He failed.)

Back in Konoha and over at the Academy, Shino frowned as he internally debated the consequences that would await him were he to murder Kumo's exchange shinobi. Nobody had to know after all. He could make the body disappear. And it would be for the children.

"And yeah, so that's why Kumo is infinitely better and stronger!" Karui concluded, crossing her arms over her chest as she stared down his class. On the blackboard behind her, the Aburame had written in neat letters: 'An explanation of the Cloud – a lecture on Kumo by our exchange program guest Karui'. She was wearing the Leaf's symbol on her protector, but had brought hers from the Cloud and it had been passed from hand to hand around the class.

"Thank you for your unbiased description of Kumo's many aspects, Karui," Shino said blandly as he pushed his glasses further up on his nose before turning to his students and taking back her forehead protector. "Does anyone have questions?" His resident trouble-maker raised his hand, and he almost wanted to smile sadistically as he motioned for him to go ahead.

"So are you a boy or a girl?" the child asked with a frown, clearly baffled by her flat chest.

"I'm a WOMAN, you brat!" Karui yelled back as she grabbed him by the front of his shirt, nostrils flaring. As Shino cleared his throat behind her, she set him down and 'gently' pat his head – she hated bugs, they made a sick crunchy sound when you squashed them.

Mercifully, the other questions were actually on Kumo itself, and she grudgingly answered them somewhat seriously. Still, Shino did not hold back his sigh of relief when Shikamaru and Chouji came to pick her up.

"So how'd it go?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow as the children hurried past them since their classes were over for the day.

"Successfully, if our goal was to ensure every child present now believes Kumo to be full of tomboyish bullies," Shino deadpanned as he frowned at him. "Kiba had warned me, but I thought he was exaggerating. I should have listened to him," he added with a bowed head, looking truly repentant.

"That bad, huh?" Shikamaru asked needlessly with a wince as he looked back to where Karui and Chouji were walking off happily – well, he was happy, she was…less annoyed.

"Yes," the bug-user replied simply as he absently extended a hand to guide a solitary ant onto his finger from where it roamed over his desk. "Have you heard from him?" he then wondered.

"No," the Nara admitted with a sigh. "I know I shouldn't worry but…well…first mission as tokujou and he's gone for a week, how can I not?" he asked rhetorically.

Shino nodded at this, strangely satisfied to know he worried. "Good. After all, if you didn't worry, and consequently betrayed his trust, I would be forced to enact my threats," he stated matter-of-factly as he walked to the open window where he set the ant down.

Shikamaru involuntarily shuddered at his words. "Don't worry, I have no intention of giving you any reason to turn my body into an insect breeding ground," he assured him flatly.

"Good," the Aburame concluded as though he hadn't just threatened him again.

"Want to come have dinner with us later on?" Shikamaru offered off-handedly as he shrugged his head towards the couple. He couldn't help but chuckle at Shino's expression though – clearly, one afternoon with Karui was more than enough for him. "Okay, I won't insist! See you around!" he called over his shoulder as he walked to his friends.

Shino nodded at him and his frown deepened as he watched Chouji and the Kumo bully. What an odd couple! Truly, he was baffled. How could such a kind and gentle man as Chouji – who was one of the few people to look at him guiltily when he accidentally killed a bug – feel so much adoration for a no-nonsense nationalist like Karui?

He was supposed to be a teacher now, the one who explained things to others, but this subject eluded him completely…! Inwardly, he wondered if there was a seminar on the matter he could attend, just as quickly dismissing the thought. Love was like friendship, the way he saw it.

Some things weren't meant to be explained after all, just lived.

When Kiba finally returned to Konoha, exactly nine days after leaving, he felt ready to sleep the next nine away. As could be expected from an A-rank mission, it had been extremely demanding, even though it wasn't his first. They'd been successful in their task though, and that always felt extremely satisfying. They'd tracked down both buyers, and had swiftly dealt with them; and since they were black marketers, they didn't bother getting rid of the bodies, but rather left them as a warning for anyone who'd think to buy information on Konoha.

Being back home after such a race felt great, and the Hokage's monument was a welcome sight – Kakashi's face was practically finished, he noted absently.

"Good nose," Ora said simply as she clapped his shoulder before disappearing.

He didn't let it get to him – it hadn't taken him long to determine that she was a woman of very few words, so he figured this was her way of letting him know she wouldn't be opposed to working with him again in the future. Santa didn't say anything as he nodded at them and walked off as well, making a beeline for the food courts – and Kiba had to admit he had the right idea.

"If I hadn't already recommended your promotion, I'd do it right now," Ensui said out of the blue as he turned to him. "So would anyone else in my position. That you're sleeping with one of my clansmen has nothing to do with that," he added bluntly.

Kiba chuckled as he held his look. "I appreciate your saying that," he assured him earnestly.

Ensui nodded at him and then craned his head to the side to crack his neck with a sigh. "I'll handle the report. We'll probably see each other around," he said simply before he too left.

Akamaru grunted as they watched him go and Kiba nodded. "Yeah, you're right…" he replied absently as his stomach growled. "I need food though! And now! But first…" he mumbled as he concentrated on tracking down one particular smell. He found himself smiling as it turned out to be much closer than he'd anticipated, and turned around to be faced with Shikamaru. "How did you know I was back?" he wondered happily.

"I was with Ino, and she sensed you while practicing," the Nara replied, smiling at Akamaru as the dog nuzzled his hand. "Welcome back."

"What, that's it? I don't even get a kiss?" Kiba teased as he crossed his arms over his chest, half-surprised when Shikamaru actually leaned over to press his lips to his briefly in a chaste kiss. "If I weren't so hungry right now I would drag you to my place faster than you can say 'troublesome'," he promised huskily.

Shikamaru chuckled at this and shrugged his head to the side. "Then let's get you both fed. Then after that if you're still up to it we can see who's really faster," he offered with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm game!" Kiba agreed happily as he easily fell into steps with him. "So what'd I miss?"

"I think Shino's ready to kill Karui to protect the village's youth," the shadow-nin replied evenly in amusement.

"Her talk at the Academy went that well, huh?" the Inuzuka asked with a snigger, mentally sympathizing with his best friend – poor Shino, he'd warned him! Akamaru barked and he sniffed the air at this. "Hey, you're right – ramen does sound good right now! D'you mind?" he asked Shikamaru as he turned to him.

"Ramen always sounds good." With that settled, they took a left and were soon at Ichiraku, where Shikamaru inwardly wondered how Naruto managed to be there so often – he'd honestly started suspecting he always kept a shadow clone there, there was just no other way.

"Hey guys!" Naruto greeted happily as he waved at them widely, leaning back in his stool to look at them. "Kiba, I heard you got promoted, way to go!" he congratulated him with a wide grin.

"Thanks!" Kiba replied with his own grin as Akamaru barked.

Naruto chuckled and then paused as he looked between his friends more closely and scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "So…uh…are you guys on a date or…I mean is this just for dinner or…well…what I mean is…" he trailed off at this, visibly annoyed with himself for not being able to find his words.

"We're slightly beyond having 'dates' by now," Shikamaru replied mercifully as they sat down next to him.

"What does that mean?" the blond wondered with a frown, thanking the owner happily as he set a bowl of ramen in front of him – his second.

"That we know how the evening's gonna end anyway, so there's no use being on our best behavior anymore," Kiba mock-whispered, grin widening at his friend's blush and not even needing to turn his head to know Shikamaru was rolling his eyes at him.

"I didn't need to know that much…" Naruto muttered as he turned back to his beloved food and dug in. Absently, he listened as they placed their order, with Akamaru barking his own and Kiba dutifully translating, and Shikamaru teasing them for their request of 'extra-large' servings. He then heard his name and turned to greet a few young genin he'd spent some time with earlier that week, waving at them absentmindedly as he kept slurping his noodles.

"Shino mentioned you've been making regular visits at the Academy," Shikamaru started as he followed his gaze.

"Yeah!" Naruto replied happily as he turned back to his friends. "It's just that…many of them have lost parents so…I want to cheer them up, you know! And it doesn't take much, you just have to show them a few moves – and play a few pranks!" he added mischievously.

"Poor Iruka…it's no wonder he's been sharing more duties with Shino!" Kiba commented with a compassionate thought for their old teacher.

"He's enjoying every second of it!" Naruto insisted brightly, knowing he was right – Iruka wouldn't change a thing, and they all knew it. They continued to talk about the Academy until all the ramen were ready, and after Kiba set Akamaru's down on the ground, they didn't waste any time before getting started.

And as they alternated between eating and talking, Naruto thought to himself that really, spending time with them now wasn't really any different from how it was before. So maybe sometimes they shared a look or a smile, but they were still Shikamaru and Kiba. Yeah, it was weird to think that they did…more, but that also applied to Ino and Sai or any of his friends in the end!

Inwardly, he felt envious. He had friends now, family even (because Iruka and Tsunade were family, at this point, as was Jiraiya), respect and recognition but…he was still missing love. For a brief second, he considered asking them about it, but then he figured Shikamaru would just say it'd be troublesome to explain, and Kiba would likely share way too much information, which had him chuckling.

Maybe he'd be better off finding out about that on his own anyway…


Chapter Text

While he and Kiba were nowhere close to settling into a routine (oh, the horror!), there was one regular occurrence that Shikamaru actually enjoyed: lunch at Tsume's every other Saturday. He'd personally seen her rip enemies to shreds with her teeth on the battlefield, but the Inuzuka Matriarch was an excellent cook and a surprisingly good host. And while she never kept back from teasing them every opportunity she could, she wasn't overly overbearing – and actually, she still teased Hana and Aoba just the same, which made them feel quite good, to be honest.

Growing up, the people he'd been close to were the Yamanaka and Akimichi – not other Nara clansmen. But the Inuzuka were different – they were truly a clan in every sense of the word, and once they warmed to you, you were family, no matter your origins.

"Shikamaru, have some more! You've been looking so drained lately – I made that stew especially for you!" Tsume argued with a frown as she looked at the Nara with an expression that was both threatening and worried.

"Thanks, but I assure you, I could not stomach a third serving," Shikamaru replied quite honestly as he wrapped his arms around his midsection protectively.

Kiba laughed loudly next to him – he was already wondering where he'd put the first two, to be honest!

Tsume tsked and then turned to Aoba. "And you've barely eaten anything!" she accused dismissively.

"I had three plates!" the sensor claimed with a pained frown, holding up three fingers as though to emphasize his commitment.

"Who's going to eat all that then?" Tsume muttered as she looked at the leftovers.

"Oh, that's not a problem I've ever seen on Inuzuka grounds," Aoba replied with a grin, barely avoiding the napkin that was thrown his way.

Hana fondly rolled her eyes at her family's antics and then frowned as she placed a hand over her stomach. "Your daughter wants out," she noted with a sigh.

"Hey, there should be another month left, right?" Kiba asked worriedly.

"I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she decided otherwise!" Hana replied with an amused huff, leaning against Aoba to get more comfortable.

"You were early, actually," Tsume noted contemplatively. "You were right on time," she then added as she shrugged her head at her son.

"Mom says I was late," Shikamaru mused, grinning lazily.

"Yeah, not surprised," Tsume remarked with a snort before turning to Aoba. "I bet you were there right when expected, too, huh?"

"So I've been told," he agreed modestly, flinching slightly at her loud laugh – you never really got used to that, in his opinion. A quick look shared with Shikamaru confirmed he wasn't alone in that. Good.

Because those Inuzuka could drive you crazy. (Which, he supposed, made him slightly masochistic.)

Later, as he was waiting for Kiba to emerge from the kitchen with an armful of leftovers, Shikamaru tilted his head to the side as he saw a box full of baby's toys in the entryway, figuring Tsume had likely pulled it out of storage to give to Hana – or simply to reminisce. A picture album rested on top, and he couldn't help but reach for it, idly leafing through, chuckling at the equal amount of pictures of dogs and Inuzuka – of puppies and babies.

Hana chuckled as she stopped to look over his shoulder. "Aww, look at us, aren't we the cutest?" she cooed as she pointed to a picture of herself and Kiba in front of the academy – and he must've been very young, because he didn't have the red marks on his cheeks yet. The Haimaru triplets, puppies themselves, proudly flanked them.

"It must've been crowded in class with three nin-dogs!" he commented with a grin – because he didn't want to admit it out loud that yes, it was pretty much the most adorable picture he'd ever seen. He turned the pages and time obviously passed, because there were red triangles on Kiba's cheeks now, and on one picture he and Hana were with another man as he knelt behind them and had his hands on their shoulders, with all three grinning brightly. He didn't have the Inuzuka markings on his cheeks, but on his wrists, and there was something strangely familiar about him. He'd also seen him in a couple of other pictures, now that he thought about it – but mostly with Tsume. "Who's he?" he wondered.

"That's our father," Hana said simply. "I'd forgotten he was there for Kiba's academy entrance…" she then muttered as she looked up, as if trying to remember it.

Shikamaru's eyes widened slightly and he looked at the picture more closely. Except for his eyes, which were clearly a hundred percent Tsume, Kiba really took after him – Hana was the exact opposite: she had their father's eyes. He turned some more pages, but the mystery father showed up again only a very few other times, the last when the siblings were much older – that picture couldn't have been more than a few years old. He wanted to ask her about him but then Kiba hurriedly made his way to them, loudly insisting that no, he didn't need more food, thank you, mom, and see you soon!

"Let's get outta here before she tries to dump some on you too!" he told the Nara with a grin, turning to peck his sister's cheek to say goodbye. "Tell my niece to behave, okay? And go in there to save Aoba, you know he can't say 'no'!" he warned good-naturedly.

Hana winced, well aware that the sensor had probably already been given heaps of food that they didn't really need. "Will do…" she muttered as she turned to walk towards the kitchen. "Mom? Are you forcing leftovers on my husband again?"

"He's scrawny!" Tsume insisted loudly.

Kiba and Shikamaru shared amused glances and agreed this was their cue to leave. The shadow-nin reached to help him carry some of the containers and they leisurely made their way back to the apartment. Inwardly, he wondered whether his body would be able to eventually digest all the food he'd consumed, as he did nearly every time he left Tsume's table. As he later let himself fall on the couch with every intention of taking a nap, he found that he couldn't help but think back on the photo album. "Hey Kiba?" he called, turning his head to look at him.

"Yeah?" the Inuzuka replied from his spot on the ground as he brushed Akamaru.

"How come no one ever mentions your father?" he asked him curiously. "You can tell me off if that's not something you want to talk about," he then added seriously at the tracker's wide-eyed look.

Kiba shook his head at that, absently removing a hairball from the brush and dropping it on an ever-growing pile. "No, no, I don't mind – I was just surprised you'd ask," he assured him before looking back at him, wondering what to say. "He's just…never really been our father, you know? Mom argues he's never been much of a husband either, although she's repeatedly added he was – and I quote, to my complete horror – 'quite the lover'," he said with a grimace.

Shikamaru chuckled despite himself, having to admit he could easily imagine Tsume telling her children that – he could actually picture it, predatory grin and wiggling eyebrows included. "He wasn't around much, I take it?" he then asked. Come to think of it, even back during their academy days, Kiba had only ever talked about his mother and sister.

"No," Kiba confirmed, grabbing one of Akamaru's paws to keep brushing. "He was here…what? Putting all his stays together, one month every year, I guess? If even that much! He was an Anbu, always on secret assignments away from the village. To be honest, we didn't really worry or notice when he stopped showing up…"

Shikamaru frowned at this, as in a sense it was difficult to imagine – that people like Kiba and Hana could have such a nonexistent relationship with their father.

"We held a token funeral when Lady Tsunade told us he'd been killed on a mission, but it wasn't exactly devastating," Kiba continued off-handedly. "We don't really know the details, since it was classified, but given the timing, I think he was investigating Akatsuki," he noted, grinning as Akamaru moved on his own to give him another paw.

"Wait—what?" the Nara asked as he sat up in shock.

Kiba blinked as he turned to him, cocking his head to the side. "It was a few weeks before the attack on Konoha, that's why I—"

"No, I mean, he—I didn't know he was—I thought you just used the past tense because you didn't care or something," Shikamaru interrupted him with a frown. He honestly hadn't known that the man had died – years ago, even.

"I do care," Kiba replied, momentarily interrupting his task to turn to him fully. "I liked him, and I liked it when he visited. I just never really considered him my parent, the way my mother is – he felt more like a distant relative," he explained with a shrug before pausing and frowning. "This really seems to shock you," he then noted in confusion.

Shikamaru shrugged slightly, feeling self-conscious. "It's just…your family always seems so close, and inclusive, that I have a hard time picturing you or Hana feeling the way you're telling me…" he admitted.

"Family isn't something you turn on and off," Kiba noted seriously with a frown. "The way I see it, being related isn't everything; and keeping bonds strong must be a mutual effort. He made his choice, and it wasn't us," he finished simply.

Which made sense, Shikamaru had to concede. "What was he like?" he then wondered curiously.

Kiba hummed as he shared a look with Akamaru and thought about it. "Well…he married my mother, so as you can imagine he wasn't stuck-up. What I liked best about him though was that he accepted that his absence gave him no rights over us, so when he was there he didn't pretend to parent us or interfere with mom's teachings – he listened and gave advice, but he never tried to shape us in any way that wasn't us. Does that make sense?" he asked with a frown, really unsure how to explain it.

Shikamaru nodded back absently. "Yes, it makes a lot of sense…" His mother had her good sides, but she'd always done that: tried to shape him into her ideals of what he could be, particularly since his father's death. Shikaku, on the other hand, had been the opposite: letting him be his own person, to the point of appearing almost uninvolved, sometimes – something he'd even apologized for at the end. "That actually makes him a good parent, in a way…" he mused.

Kiba smiled back and nodded slightly. "Sometimes I think that too," he admitted. "He'd have approved of you!" he then added with a grin.

"Oh, really?" Shikamaru asked back with a raised eyebrow. "Did he know you like men?"

"He's the first person who asked me to explain why!" Kiba replied with a roll of his eyes, chuckling as he remembered that particular talk. "He was completely baffled that I don't find women sexually attractive! But in the end he just shrugged and said: 'well it's you we're talking about, so I'm sure you know best'," he recalled.

The Nara hummed at this, leaning back down. "You know…I think my father would've said something like that too…" he thought out loud. Kiba gave him a knowing look before returning to his task, and he smiled as he closed his eyes. Actually, he was certain of it; his father would have trusted him to make the right decisions for himself – he'd always had, after all.

Clearly, there was a lot to learn from the Inuzukas – those born to the clan as well as those who married into it.

Shikamaru's eyes snapped wide open as he heard his mother shriek his name – it'd been a long time since she'd last woken him up like that, and it couldn't be said that he missed it. Still, he tried to ignore her and go back to sleep, if only for the principle, because he knew from past experiences that it wouldn't deter her. And indeed, not even a minute later, she walked into his room, hands on her hips.

"The dog is at the door!" she informed him with a frown.

"Kiba?" he asked with a frown as he instantly sat up.

Yoshino rolled her eyes, although she had to admit that assumption wasn't too far-fetched. "No, the actual dog. Akamaru," she corrected, the words having barely left her mouth before he was up and past her in a hurry. "Hmm…that gets him out of bed quickly, I should keep that in mind…" she muttered to herself, casting one last (pained) look over the sorry state his room was in before following him back outside, cocking her head to the side as she watched him try to communicate with the oversized nin-dog.

"So Kiba's okay?" Shikamaru clarified, sighing in relief as Akamaru barked and wagged his tail. "Where is he?"

Akamaru used his paw to trace a cross in the ground, looking up expectantly.

"The hospital?" Shikamaru guessed with a frown, wondering how that was good news. His eyes then widened as he thought of something else. "Is it Hana? Is the baby here?"

Akamaru yet again barked his agreement, this time spinning once on himself happily.

"Can I visit?"

Yoshino smiled despite herself and rolled her eyes playfully. "Oh, give that poor Hana time to recover, would you?" she chastised her son.

Akamaru gave her a confused whine at this, before barking and wagging his tail even faster.

"I think he's saying you're welcome as well," Shikamaru translated, being inwardly quite please as he'd visibly understood correctly – Kiba would sure be proud of him!

Yoshino's eyes widened and she shook her head. "I just told you to give her room to breathe! Go if you have to, but I'll offer my congratulations later," she said as she fought off the blush that wanted to spread over her face. "Do give her my best wishes, though," she later told him as he walked by her fully dressed and ready to leave.

"Will do," Shikamaru assured her before taking off with Akamaru. The rare people who were about this early in the morning paid them no mind, as after all the Nara walking by an Inuzuka nin-dog had become a familiar sight in Konoha over the past few months. They reached the hospital quickly, and once inside it wasn't long until Kiba excitedly grabbed his hand to drag him towards the nursery.

"Look, look! There she is! The second from the left, that's her!" Kiba informed him happily, somehow managing to keep his voice down – he'd probably been sternly told off by the staff before, knowing him, and was doing his very best not to be kicked out.

"Oh, the one with Aoba crying over her crib?" Shikamaru teased as he took in the other man's exhausted but blissful expression as he watched his newborn daughter. So that was what a new dad looked like. (That was what Mirai had missed out on, a bitter voice in the back of his head added.) "How's Hana?" he then asked.

"Okay, but completely drained. I'm telling you, it sounded brutal! Mom wasn't worried, but I was scared out of my pants! Women are tough!" Kiba added with a shudder, never looking away from the baby. "Mom's with her right now – and the triplets too of course. We're keeping watch here!" he finished as he reached with his free hand to scratch Akamaru's ears to thank him for playing 'fetch the boyfriend'. "She's so tiny…"

Shikamaru smiled softly as he followed his gaze back to her. "What's her name?" he asked as he twined their fingers together.

"Kao. Aoba's tears are out of relief that it's a girl and he won't have to live with having a son called Mushi!" Kiba snickered as he finally turned to him with a grin. Well, it had been their agreement: Aoba would pick girls' names, and Hana boys' names. (They seriously all believed Hana's hormones to be responsible for 'Mushi'.)

Shikamaru chuckled as he had to concede the point, and gave his hand a last squeeze before stepping away. "I'm going to the cafeteria – you and Aoba both look like you could use some tea or coffee," he commented as he looked at them in turn.

"Coffee!" the Inuzuka immediately agreed (also on behalf of his brother-in-law), leaning in to briefly press his lips to his fondly before turning back to his watch. He'd always been some sort of brotherly figure to Mirai, but honestly that felt nothing compared to how he felt in that instant. How could you love someone so much when you didn't even know them yet? When they didn't even have a personality yet? Well…he couldn't wait to know her, and find out what kind of person she'd be, that was for sure! "Life sure is interesting, right Akamaru?"

Akamaru softly whined his agreement (also knowing to keep his tone down in this place), tail wagging happily.

To be fair, people made it so.

Much as he enjoyed watching the Inuzukas fawn over baby Kao – or 'pup', as they all very naturally called her – Shikamaru found himself increasingly busy with work in the following weeks. Most missions took him away from the village, once even as far as Kumo, to Chouji's unbridled satisfaction (and Shikamaru hadn't been surprised to learn that his best friend had volunteered as he did every time there was a mission to Kumo since Karui had returned home). It was almost five weeks before he once more had enough time to just kick back and enjoy – even take naps! – and by then he was surprised by how much Kao had grown.

Hana, as had been expected, had woken up from her post-delivery sleep all fresh and kicking, and she and Aoba had promptly locked themselves in their house to enjoy their bundle of joy ("And poop," Kiba had elegantly reminded them before his mother slapped the back of his head with an exasperated groan, ignoring his, "I was joking!"). Now though, they welcomed visitors and proudly paraded their little loud-mouth (an Inuzuka through and through, clearly).

But, well…his hard work had paid off, at least.

"Let's keep it to the point, shall we? I'm sure you've got places to be," Kakashi commented (both teasingly and seriously, as only he could do) before holding up a document and handing it over to him. "I just signed it, so it's official: you're a jounin. Congratulations on your promotion, you've more than earned it," he said honestly as he smiled at him behind his face-mask.

Shikamaru smiled back lazily as he accepted the paper, quickly going over it to make sure it was the correct one – Kakashi was known to sometimes mix up his documents when Shizune took a well-deserved vacation. "Thank you," he replied as he nodded his head at him before turning to leave. He had people to tell, after all. Ino and Chouji were waiting for him outside of the Hokage's office, and as he held up his promotion orders, they both grinned and clapped his shoulders.

"Okay, let's eat to celebrate – my treat!" Chouji offered brightly.

"Hey, don't use his promotion as an excuse to stuff yourself," Ino chided good-naturedly although she automatically took off in the restaurant's direction.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes fondly as he allowed himself to be dragged off, complaining just for the principle. When he told him the good news later, Kiba's idea of a celebration didn't involve food, but then again it didn't involve clothes, either, and Shikamaru was completely okay with that, naturally. Much as he'd wanted to however, he didn't spend the night with him, because he knew his mother would feel left out – and throw a fit – if he only told her the day after. So his third celebration had been food once more, and he was glad promotions didn't come every day, because he couldn't have done that too often.

The next day, he agreed to accompany her to the market, because at times he did feel bad that she was on her own. It must've been his lucky day though because they ran into Hana and Kiba while there.

"Hana! No one could guess you've just had a baby!" Yoshino praised the young woman teasingly.

"Trust me – the hips are still there!" the Inuzuka replied jovially as she turned to look at her daughter fondly, happily drooling in her uncle's arms as she was. "This is Kao."

Yoshino melted a bit, forgetting for a moment that this was an Inuzuka baby – although Hana had that calming effect on people. "She seems curious, and alert," she cooed.

Kiba chuckled at that. "Yep, she wants to touch and lick everything she sees, it's a constant battle keeping her hands in check!" he said before she decided to illustrate his point by putting her fingers in his mouth and acting like it was obviously quite fun.

Shikamaru grinned at this, resisting the urge to lean over and kiss him as he knew his mother would lose her calm if he did.

"No markings yet though? I'll admit, I almost thought you were just born with them," Yoshino noted half-jokingly.

Hana laughed at the assumption, truly amused. "No, we get those at three during a big ceremony with the whole clan!" she informed her. "It also marks the start of training, so she's got some time yet!" she added, tenderly reaching to rub her back.

"Plenty of time to keep drooling over her uncle!" Kiba added brightly as he managed to pry her hand from his mouth, upon which she effectively returned to his shirt.

"Don't worry, her daddy'll be back soon to take over on the drooling front," Hana reassured him with a fond huff, quickly checking the time. "Really soon, actually, so we should get going," she noted. They then said their goodbyes and left, but not before Kiba wormed a promise out of Shikamaru to visit him that evening.

"Hana must've really taken after her father; she's nothing like all the other Inuzukas I know!" Yoshino mused as they returned to their shopping.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes for the principle but didn't say anything, because he knew it would only result in an argument. The way he saw them, yes the Inuzukas were loud, exuberant and way too attached to their dogs, but that was only at first glance; they were also deeply loyal, honest and loving. Or at the very least, his were. But there was something his mother had said that got him thinking.

"Say, what are they, really?" he wondered curiously as he traced the markings on Kiba's cheeks later that evening.

"Curious?" Kiba asked with a grin, chuckling at the other man's nod. "They're just a seal."

Not a tattoo as many suspected then, and it made sense: how do you keep a three-year-old still enough? Besides, ink faded, but the markings on Kiba's face were still as bright as when he first saw him back when they were kids. "So it didn't hurt then," he pondered.

"I didn't even notice until I looked in a mirror!" Kiba replied with a shrug before nuzzling his neck and resting more comfortably against him. "You Naras have your hair, we Inuzukas have our seals!" he added teasingly.

"Oh yes, and what a clan secret our hair is!" Shikamaru mocked as he pulled his head back to press a kiss to his lips. "Actually, I'm surprised your markings aren't a clan secret," he mused.

Kiba rolled his eyes at that, absently trailing a hand from his waist to his jaw. "Our nin-dog training techniques or the way we work on our nose are secrets – our markings, not so much. If there's anything you want to know, just ask – if it's mine to say, I'll answer any question," he promised mock-seriously.

Shikamaru chuckled but took him up on his offer. "Alright…so, you get your markings and start your training at three…when do you get your nin-dog?" he asked curiously. He remembered Kiba without Akamaru from when they were kids, before they really knew each other at the Academy, but he didn't know whether it was supposed to happen at a specific moment or just when the parents felt the child was ready.

"At five, the same year we're supposed to start the Academy – although there have been a few cases of particularly gifted kids who did both earlier, of course," Kiba replied with a hum, grinning as he craned his neck to look at Akamaru.

"How does it happen? Do you just…pick one?" That was maybe oversimplifying it, but he had a feeling he wasn't too far off.

"Depends. Most of the time, yeah – you see which pup you get a good connection with. Mom chose Akamaru for me though – she was visiting distant relatives on my birthday to check out their pups, and this fluff-ball was born while she was there, the only one in the litter, and she just…figured it was a sign, I guess! So I got my nin-dog a bit later," Kiba said, grin widening as Akamaru barked his agreement. "She was right!"

"Yes she was," Shikamaru easily agreed. "What about Hana? She's the only one I've seen with more than one – is that unusual?"

Kiba nodded at this. "It's rare. It's not convenient on the battlefield, you'd be all over the place, and it's not how we fight! She only takes all three on missions when she's serving as the squad's medic-nin – better defense, you know? If she's expected to fight though, then only one goes with her – like during the war, for instance: the other two stayed back at camp to help with logistics," he reminded him.

"Makes sense," Shikamaru noted before humming as this brought up another thought. "How do you learn to communicate with your nin-dogs? Is it just like learning another language? Or are you somehow just able to do it from birth?"

"Now that is one of the clan secrets I can't tell you about," the Inuzuka noted simply. "But others can learn how to do it when they marry into the clan – like my father or Aoba," he added with a shrug.

"Oh, right, I forgot about that," Shikamaru mumbled as he thought back on how Aoba had complained that he just wasn't gifted in the nin-dog communication department and that the triplets were on top of it taking great pleasure in running him ragged. Smirking, he then asked something else. "Alright, popular sayings now – do the Inuzukas really do everything with their dogs, like sharing baths and beds?" he teased.

Kiba laughed at this, with even Akamaru making his laughing noise. "All true! Until we get a human partner, that is!" he added with a sly smile, leaning up for a kiss.

"So I kicked Akamaru out of bed? Sorry about that!" the Nara apologized to the nin-dog, raising an eyebrow when he barked in response and his lover protested. "What did he say?"

Kiba glared at the oversized dog and huffed before relaying it anyway. "That it's okay, because it would've been pretty sad if I'd kept sharing my bed with my dog at my age," he muttered.

Shikamaru chuckled, nodding at Akamaru. "So…what happens if a nin-dog doesn't like his master's partner?" he wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"Huh…well, Kuromaru never liked our father, and it was mutual, but that didn't stop mom, so…I guess nothing happens. They'll just ignore each other," Kiba replied with a shrug before grinning and patting his cheek reassuringly. "But you don't need to worry, because Akamaru definitely likes you!" he assured him, the dog yet again barking his agreement, tail wagging energetically.

"To be fair, Akamaru is easy to like," Shikamaru praised truthfully. He still wondered why he was so overly fond of Kankuro but well…nobody was perfect. And besides, the puppeteer had probably given him treats or something when Kiba wasn't looking.

Huh…maybe he was on to something…


Chapter Text


Eventually, Yoshino insisted he should have a proper celebration for his promotion (where he resisted telling her that Kiba had already seen to that) and since he knew how much it meant to her, Shikamaru agreed to a dinner at the Nara household. Chouji and Ino (plus Sai) were there naturally, with their parents, and Kiba had also been invited (somewhat grudgingly, although she'd caved at her son's unflinching look when she mentioned perhaps they could keep it to the Ino-Shika-Cho group). Even Akamaru was tolerated inside, although she'd demanded he be bathed and groomed before stepping foot—er, paw inside her house.

Ino and Chouji's parents of course already knew about Kiba and Shikamaru's relationship (with the mothers having often heard Yoshino's woes on the matter) but they'd never really seen them together before, so for a moment it was a bit awkward until they realized that just because they were together it didn't mean they'd be all over each other, and from then on the evening went on quite nicely. Chouji, Shikamaru and Kiba had also discovered with non-dissimulated amusement how much Sai seemed to go out of his way to impress Ino's mother. No monstrosities came out of his mouth, although it was still as fun to watch as always. (And Yoshino had to admit though, if she had to choose between Sai and Kiba, well…maybe the Inuzuka wasn't so bad in the end.)

Compared to an Inuzuka celebration, it could've been called 'tame', but still it was quite enjoyable. More importantly, Shikamaru knew how much it meant to his mother – he'd even pretended not to notice how she'd glanced at his father's portrait more than once. Besides, in the end they'd mostly split in two groups to talk, parents on one side and children on the other, so it was just another evening with his friends.

By the time the little gathering disbanded, much later, with the goodbyes taking a good long while at the door, Shikamaru felt exhausted – in a good way though. At least Sai hadn't said something drastically inappropriate to his mother – he was honestly anticipating a comment on his and Kiba's sex-life at some point, and maybe that was why he felt so tired now: he'd been too tense before. "We're cleaning up tomorrow, I'm beat," he declared as he moved his shoulder until he heard a satisfying 'pop'.

"You sure? I don't mind giving you a hand," Kiba replied easily as he stretched his arms.

"You can give me a hand tomorrow. For now, bed," Shikamaru said back with a lazy grin as he reached for his hand to pull him along.

Kiba chuckled and followed him, shooting a last look at his nin-dog – Akamaru hadn't moved from where he'd peacefully curled up to nap some time ago. "Seriously though, are you sure your mother won't mind? Maybe I should—"

"My mother's aware that I'm not trading war-stories with Chouji when I don't sleep here, Kiba," the Nara interrupted him in amusement, raising an eyebrow at his annoyed expression – oh, suddenly, he felt really awake. "We just need to be quieter than usual," he added easily as they reached his bedroom.

Kiba groaned at that – and it was a lost battle at this point, they both knew it. Still, they also quickly learned that being quiet during sex was easier said than done – much easier. "I never thought of myself as particularly loud, but that was a challenge!" he commented seriously between pants.

"I think Sai once mentioned researching sound-proofing jutsu, remind me to ask him about that," Shikamaru replied against his neck.

"Oh so we're asking Sai for advice now? Did we really stoop that low?" Kiba lamented jokingly, laughing as he felt Shikamaru chuckle against him.

The worse part was that their efforts were apparently in vain because Yoshino still fixed him with a death glare in the morning. Some battles you just couldn't win, he figured as they tried to enjoy one of the most awkward breakfasts he could remember having. Once that was done, they cleaned up last night's party's remains, putting the empty bottles in crates, cleaning up the table and then washing all the bowls and glasses – fairly routine tasks, done with pointless small talk.

At one point Yoshino poked her head in to make sure they hadn't made a mess of her kitchen nor broken all the glasses – always shooting a suspicious look towards Akamaru even though he was behaving like a perfect dog – and finally relaxed slightly when she saw nothing out of the ordinary. "I've left your equipment on the table, Shikamaru," she informed her son evenly.

"Ah, thank you," he said back easily before frowning as a red mark on a certain glass just wouldn't give. "Damn it Ino, what is it that you put on your lips?" he muttered as he scrubbed harder.

Yoshino snorted at this, having to admit that Ino's color choice in lipstick was strong indeed. She was about to mercifully help him when Kiba stepped closer.

"Here, there's a trick to it, let me show you," he said as he reached for the glass and the sponge. "I think Hana probably tried all the products in existence before settling on one, so this isn't the first time I'm confronted to the problem!" he added playfully.

"My hero," Shikamaru drawled as he gently bumped his shoulder against his and traded places with him so he'd be the one drying for a change.

Yoshino bit her lips as she elected to leave, not wanting – liking – to intrude. She couldn't help but stop in her steps however when she heard them talk again.

"D'you get new equipment?" Kiba asked curiously.

"No, it's the same old. My mother usually cleans it up for me though, she likes doing that – used to do it for my father too," Shikamaru replied softly, and she could just picture the small smile on his face as he said it.

"Of course," Kiba said, letting out a small 'a-ha' that likely meant the lipstick was finally gone. "It's proof that you're back," he declared simply.

Yoshino's eyes widened upon hearing these words as she turned to look back towards the kitchen.

"What do you mean?" Shikamaru asked interestedly.

"Your equipment – that you'll need it again is proof that you're back safely. Nicks and blood and whatnot, they're proof that you fought and lived," Kiba explained in an easygoing tone. "Hana and I used to fight over who got to clean mom's equipment all the time when we were kids!" he added, the grin easily audible in his voice. "Although more often than not, that meant giving Kuromaru a bath!"

From her spot in the corridor, Yoshino frowned as she raised a hand to her mouth. That was…basically, that was almost word for word how she'd explained it to Shikaku after he'd asked her why she kept doing it. Maybe…maybe she'd been a bit hard on Kiba…there was obviously much more to him than met the eye – more than she let herself see. Tsume, despite the odds, had clearly raised two strong loyal and loving kids. Perhaps she'd try to cut him some slack…after all, with the way he and Shikamaru behaved together, it was obvious he'd likely be a pretty permanent fixture in her life.

And she knew that Shikaku would've said something along the lines of, "It's his life, Yoshino, as long as he's happy we shouldn't ask for more". He'd always been right, and she'd always hated that.

A suspicious silence settled, followed by an unmistakable sigh and her eyes narrowed back at that, resisting the urge to go to the kitchen to scare them apart.

Okay, so maybe she'd still need more time. She'd already let the dog stay after all, one thing at a time.

As it turned out, Shikamaru's first assignment as jounin was given to him by the Hokage in person – but wouldn't require for him to leave the village, a fact for which he was really thankful, because he felt like he hadn't had a moment to rest recently. "I got your message, what do you need me for?" he asked around a yawn as he walked into his office.

Shizune sighed but didn't say anything, by then used to everyone's behavior.

So was Kakashi, actually, as he wasn't fazed and even yawned himself. "Actually it's your brain we'll need, but I suppose the rest of you can help too," he conceded magnanimously with a shrug.

"My brain is all ears," Shikamaru replied with an amused roll of his eyes.

"The Kazekage has requested to use Konoha as a neutral meeting ground for delicate negotiations," Shizune informed him as she walked to hand him a file.

"Over territory belonging to Kiri that was conquered by Suna during the previous war…" Shikamaru noted as he turned a few pages to get a sense of the task.

"One island in particular, and its natural resources – which include a fantastic natural hot water resort, although I didn't get the sense that was really what the argument was about," Kakashi commented pensively. "Konoha will not be involved in the talks beyond serving as a neutral observing third party. As such I'd like you to make sure the representatives have the proper atmosphere for negotiations – and see to it they don't kill each other in our village, of course," he added as though it was an after-thought. "That would be a mess to clean up!"

"So it's baby-sitting," Shikamaru rephrased with a sigh.

"Glorified baby-sitting," Shizune tried to embellish with a weak grin and fake pep.

"Well paid baby-sitting," Kakashi reminded him pragmatically.

The Nara chuckled at their efforts to motivate him more, nodding at them. "Don't worry, I'll do my job," he assured them before taking his leave to go study the file. This had the potential to be either extremely boring or quite challenging, but he felt up to the task. Besides, Suna's representative alone would make it worth his while.

It'd been way too long since he'd last seen Temari after all.

When he told Kiba about it (since it wasn't classified), the Inuzuka cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes in thought. "Are you gonna tell her?"

"Tell her what?" Shikamaru asked back with a confused frown.

"About us," Kiba said with an exasperated huff.

Shikamaru just raised an eyebrow at that. "Assuming she doesn't already know? Then yeah, of course I'll tell her – besides, you'll want to see her too right?" he asked back with a shrug.

Kiba only grinned widely at this before proceeding to make sure Shikamaru knew how much he appreciated that answer.

It made him wish Temari had visited sooner. Much sooner.

Temari was the first to arrive in Konoha for the negotiations, because of course she'd be. She looked annoyed, and perhaps the slightest bit stressed, but that could just as likely have been linked to the travel, so Shikamaru didn't dare push her buttons yet. "Welcome back," was all he said.

"Seeing you now makes me realize I actually missed your sorry face, to a certain extent!" Temari replied with fake emotion before grinning happily. "It's good to see you again – and congratulations on your promotion," she said more seriously.

Shikamaru found himself smiling back before shrugging his head to the side. "Follow me, I'll show you to your quarters – and before you ask, no, Kiri's representative will not be staying in the same building. We don't trust either of you not to make a mess for us to clean up," he added half-jokingly.

"And I don't blame you for that!" she replied brightly as she idly looked around – she hadn't visited Konoha since they'd finished the reconstruction, so most of the buildings were new to her. "Honestly, I'll just be glad to settle this, they've been breathing down Gaara's neck for months about that stupid island!" she muttered with a frown. "As if he didn't have more important things to worry about…!"

"So you're prepared to let it go?" Shikamaru wondered with a frown – he'd be lying if he said he'd expected that.

"Of course not!" Temari replied with certainty, looking at him as though he'd missed the point. "It's ours! They piss my brother off, they piss me off, and now they're gonna get it!" she forewarned as she smirked worryingly.

The Nara chuckled at that, having to admit that was much more like her. "I almost pity that man…"

"You should," the kunoichi readily agreed with a shrug.

"Please don't kill him under my watch," he asked for the principle.

"I only planned on making him cry," she replied airily, upon which they shared another chuckle. "So how's everyone been doing? How's Kiba?" she asked with a raised eyebrow, but her grin not quite full as she wasn't sure whether that was a good subject to broach.

Shikamaru smiled to himself, absently noting that despite his mother's worries, clearly the news of his unusual relationship hadn't travelled as far as the other villages. "He was doing great when I left him this morning," he replied absently.

"And by 'this morning', you mean…?" Temari demanded as she leaned forward to look at his face.

"When we each went our separate ways to work," he replied innocently just to annoy her. "After he kicked me out of bed because I didn't want to get up so early – and speaking of that, do you absolutely have to get here so damn early every time?" he asked in annoyance.

Temari laughed loudly at this, reaching to clap his back – with enough force to make him feel like coughing out his lungs. "Ha! I knew it!"

"You did?" he asked with a frown as he cleared his throat to keep his internal organs on the inside where they belonged.

"I mean I strongly suspected," she replied with a shrug. "Kiba's face after you left? Yeah, it didn't really leave much room for doubt," she added with a pointed look – and it made him realize he hadn't really thought about how Kiba had felt after he left Suna, in the end. "So, how's that been going?" she asked with a wiggle of her eyebrows.

"Well enough," Shikamaru replied modestly, trying to look casual – but caving in at her unimpressed look. "Okay, more than 'well enough'," he was forced to concede.

Temari chuckled at this, slinging an arm around his neck and rubbing her knuckle against his head – just to be annoying, since his hair was now long and pulled up again. "We have to have dinner together before I go!" she then said happily, pausing and frowning as she noticed she was getting some very strange looks – and Shikamaru some nasty ones. "Shikamaru, why are people looking at us like that?" she asked with a frown.

Shikamaru looked around inquiringly – honestly, he didn't even notice when people stared at him anymore – and promptly rolled his eyes. "Because starting today the newest rumor around the village will you have participating in a threesome with Kiba and me," he informed her tiredly.

"You're joking."

"I wish."

"A threesome."

"Well, up to date, the most popular rumor is that I cheated on Kiba with Ino, prompting him to run away to Suna, where people will now deduce he hooked up with you, and since you're here – presumably to get him back – then I'll have no choice but to suffer to share him if I don't want to lose him to you," he deadpanned, shrugging at her incredulous look. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves – maybe they'll simply think I'm cheating on him with you and there won't be any talks of threesomes," he tempered.

Temari groaned as she slid her fingers under her forehead protector to massage her temples. "You Leaf people are all crazy. Completely gone," she declared with absolute certainty. "I mean…people gossip in Suna too, I'm not going to pretend otherwise, but this?"

Shikamaru sighed heavily, wholeheartedly agreeing as he tried to arrange his hair back. "You learn to ignore them in time," he said off-handedly.

Well, that much was true, she had to admit. She then hummed as she thought about it a bit more. "Wait, so…everyone knows about you two?" she wondered curiously, quite surprised as this was a radical change from back when he wasn't even willing to admit it to her.

"We had a…public get-together," he tempered with a frown, wincing as she grabbed his arm and squeezed.

"Tell me," she ordered with a wide smirk.

Shikamaru only rolled his eyes at this. Women were so troublesome… "We'll have time for that later, now let me do my job and get you settled, okay?"

"Fine, be that way!" Temari muttered with a huff. "Have you ever met the representative from Kiri?" she then asked conversationally, figuring that was part of his job after all.

"I don't think so," Shikamaru replied with a shrug. "I recognized his clan's name from other reports though."

She nodded at this, stretching her arms behind her back. "Yeah, the Satoshi clan has a poison release bloodline limit, they gained a certain level of fame during the war for their role in the Daimyo protection squad," she remembered absently. "First the Fifth Mizukage, now her representative in delicate negotiations…it looks like Kiri's honestly trying to turn the page on their bloody history against bloodline limits – pun intended," she noted seriously.

Shikamaru huffed at this. Every village handled bloodline limits their own way after all. In Konoha, those clans held power and respect; in Suna, they were military leaders; in Kiri, until recently, they'd just been feared scapegoats. It was obvious a change had been necessary – of all the Kage, he honestly believed that the Fifth Mizukage was the one who'd had the hardest job, but she'd done remarkably well given all she'd had to contend with. "He's supposed to get here later this afternoon anyway," he told his friend, smirking at her uninterested shrug.

The representative from the Hidden Mist turned out not to be on time, though, which greatly annoyed Shikamaru – although really, as long as he was in time for the meetings in the morning, he'd be okay, he just didn't want to have to suffer Temari's ire if that wasn't the case. Two hours past their convened time, Shikamaru checked in at the communications tower one last time, sighing in aggravation as indeed they'd received a short message – 'will be slightly late—in time for meeting'. Oh well. If he said so. And if not, then who was he, puny Konoha jounin, to stop the Kazekage's sister from killing a tardy emissary from Kiri?

Thirty minutes before the official – planned – start of the negotiations, Shikamaru was still waiting for Kiri's representative. On the principle, he didn't really care that he was late, because Temari would rip him a new one well enough on her own for that, but until then, it was all on him, so he was getting peeved. Not to mention he could've had more time to sleep. Troublesome.

Eventually one of the gate guards – a sensor – advised him that someone with a different chakra signature was on their way, and he let out a sigh as he walked out to wait for him. He didn't have to wait long at least, until a short man wearing the common Kiri attire stopped by him. "Sojiro Satoshi, I take it?" he asked with a raised eyebrow, hoping his annoyance was plainly conveyed by his bored tone.

"Ah, yes, sorry I'm late," the shinobi replied with a nod as he held up his credentials as per the procedure.

Shikamaru looked over the papers and turned his head to nod at the guards – who immediately relaxed – before turning back to their guest and handing him his documents back. "Welcome to Konoha. My name is Shikamaru Nara and I'll be your contact as well as neutral observer during your talks with Suna's representative," he told him, shrugging his head to the side to indicate he should follow him. "If you'll follow me, you're right on time."

Sojiro sighed at this. "Throwing me right in, are you?" he asked tiredly although he followed him, looking around curiously – first time in Konoha, obviously.

"Your fault for being late," Shikamaru replied without the slightest bit of compassion. "I'll show you to your quarters later on, when you'll take a break from the negotiations."

"Fair enough," the other shinobi agreed as he looked up at the Hokages' monument. "It looks even more impressive than the pictures…" he mused to himself.

Shikamaru shrugged noncommittally. He was used to those faces himself, and honestly thought them rather…showy. But he understood why visitors from other villages were always impressed. Making their way through the village and then the corridors of the Hokage's building, he stopped by one door and knocked once to warn the occupant before stepping in with his charge. Temari was already seated but stood to greet them; she looked well-rested – a euphemism for ready to eat him alive. "Temari of the Sand, Sojiro Satoshi of Kiri," Shikamaru introduced summarily, noting that they both sobered up as they shook hands before taking their seats. The Nara let out a breath as the atmosphere had immediately changed. Moving towards his own seat, he braced himself. This was going to be a long day.

To their credit, both Temari and Sojiro managed to keep things at a reasonable volume for most of the morning. Shikamaru sighed internally as he watched them – he had to admit it was somewhat amusing, to a certain extent. They were similar, in the sense that they controlled themselves really well but were obviously too stubborn to accept any sort of defeat. The premise itself wasn't overly complicated: back during the Third Shinobi war, Suna had invaded and successfully colonized a group of islands belonging to Kiri but close to the Land of Wind geographically speaking. Now, as some of these islands possessed natural resources that Kiri's economy could greatly benefit from, the Land of Water wanted them back. Only, asking nicely obviously wasn't enough.

"Kiri abandoned these islands after barely making an effort to defend them," Temari reminded factually as she tapped her finger on the desk. "The inhabitants themselves welcomed Suna's occupation – even though we were the enemy!"

"You're talking about events that are over a decade-old – we were at war," Sojiro stated calmly, not backing off. "We're not here to discuss how attached to Kiri the islanders were – the fact of the matter remains Suna stole Kiri's territory and we are now determined to have it back."

"Right – after we've brought them stability and aided in their development," Temari noted with a pointed look.

"Kiri has regained the stability we'd lost back then—" the shinobi started to argue.

"Kiri just wants to get their hands on more natural resources – I'm not hearing you're fighting over the barren strips of land Kumo's currently using as training grounds after they stole them from you," Temari cut in with a raised eyebrow.

Shikamaru resisted the urge to smirk at this – he was supposed to remain neutral after all. But this was fun.

"Oh, and I have no doubt Suna's desire to retain these lands has nothing to do with resources, and everything to do with the people's well-being," Sojiro said calmly with a nod.

Shikamaru very barely managed to turn his chuckle into a cough – he couldn't help it, this was way past fun. They both turned to him at this however, he with a confused-annoyed look, she with a fully-annoyed one. Think quickly, Shikamaru, he told himself. "I propose to take a break at this time, it's past noon. Shall we meet up again at two?" he offered calmly, managing to appear completely serious and like he'd actually planned to interrupt them all along.

The two representatives shared a look and imperceptibly nodded their agreement.

Temari was the first to go, but not without shooting him a look. Shikamaru just shrugged it off. Since they were in the middle of negotiations, it would be best if they didn't have lunch together anyway, not without risking Kiri accusing Konoha of favoring Suna – politics were so troublesome. "I'll show you to your quarters," he told the Mist shinobi.

Sojiro seemed to snap out of his thoughts and nodded back as he stood. "Yes, thank you."

On her side, Temari hummed to herself as she walked down the main street, trying to decide what she'd have for lunch – something spicy sounded nice, something to give her extra pep. She laughed to herself at that – she had all the pep she needed already! And truth be told, she was glad her trip hadn't been wasted on a gutless bumbling shinobi – Kiri obviously took it seriously, and it was always gratifying to be taken seriously. Her head snapped up as she heard her name however, and she relaxed as she saw Tenten. Sure, they'd gotten off to a rocky start because she'd literally kicked her ass during the chuunin exams, but their following meetings had allowed them to put that behind them and realize they got along really well, in the end.

"What brings you here?" the weapons specialist asked with an easy smile.

"Negotiations with Kiri – Konoha's the moderator," she replied evenly as they shook hands. "Although we're on lunch break right now."

"Ah, of course! Were you thinking of eating something spicy to keep your energy up?" Tenten asked knowingly as she shrugged her head towards the menu she'd been reading.

The Suna nin held her hands up in surrender. "Hey, in my defense, the guy they sent isn't half bad!"

"Ooh, is he cute?" Tenten immediately asked with a grin, wiggling her eyebrows teasingly.

Temari huffed at this, crossing her arms over her chest. "To be honest, right now I'm just picturing him as a practice dummy – once this is over, I'll let you know if it's worth it to move to Kiri!" They shared a laugh at this and she tilted her head to the side. "Hey, if you haven't had lunch yet, feel like having spicy food?" she offered easily – eating alone got boring very quickly.

Tenten shrugged, not having anything planned. "Sure, I'll need the extra boost too, I'm giving a talk at the academy on ninja weapons later on," she said with a grin as they walked to get a seat in the restaurant. It seemed they'd just arrived between two waves, luckily, so they were quickly attended to. "So who's your mediator?" she asked the other kunoichi curiously.

"Shikamaru," Temari replied as she enjoyed her tea. "I think Gaara asked for him – probably figured he'd keep me from killing Kiri's envoy or something! Anyway! What've you been up to – aside from educating the next generation?" she asked teasingly.

Tenten laughed and stuck her tongue out at this. "I'm only doing it for Shino because he asked nicely and repeatedly! Something about wanting the kids to have a more optimistic outlook after Karui's bullying lecture on Kumo – and getting them to stop fearing women!" she informed her conspiringly.

Temari did raise an eyebrow at this. She wasn't overly familiar with Karui, but from what little she knew, she didn't seem like the prime candidate to speak to children. "How did that even happen?"

"She was here for the exchange program," Tenten explained simply.

"Oh, I see now – Kiba spoke at the academy in Suna as well when he was there! The kids loved him!"

"I have no doubts about that! The kids here were more…intimidated by Karui! So Shino's been asking his friends to try and repair the damage," Tenten concluded diplomatically.

"Smart man," Temari replied in amusement, looking up as they were brought their orders. "So Konoha's successfully set up the exchange program with Kumo then?" Suna hadn't managed that yet, although they'd recently started it with Iwa and were in talks with Kiri – although it wasn't a far stretch to say that depended on how well her own talks would end.

Tenten nodded, pausing to chew and swallow before talking. "I'm actually going there in a couple of weeks," she informed her proudly.

"Really? Good luck then!"

"Thanks!" Tenten replied brightly before smirking and lowering her voice. "And from what I've seen during the war, it's definitely worth it to move to Kumo in terms of cute guys!" she added half-jokingly.

Temari laughed clearly at this, having to agree that there was a certain appeal to their casualness. "Tell you what – I'll accompany Gaara to the Kage meeting in Kumo next summer, and from what I gather you'll be there at the same time? You can tell me all about it then!"

"Deal!" Tenten agreed solemnly.

Thanks to her, Temari was actually in a good mood when she returned to the meeting room, and her smile widened as she saw Shikamaru and Sojiro exchange tense looks. "Let's proceed, shall we?" she asked brightly.

To his credit, Sojiro looked more interested than intimidated.

Shikamaru resisted the urge to wince, infinitely glad he wasn't the one who had to go up against her.

At least the afternoon wouldn't be boring.


Chapter Text

Shikamaru had hoped for a non-boring afternoon, and a non-boring afternoon he got! Temari and Sojiro went on for hours, and it soon became obvious that no compromise would be achieved that day. When he said as much and proposed to meet again in the morning, both shinobi looked equally relieved and annoyed, and it once more struck him how similar they really were. "The only way I see this being resolved immediately would be through a vote, but seeing as there are only two of you it's a moot point," he added off-handedly, pausing as soon as the words left his mouth, the representatives looking at him with wide eyes before they turned to look at each other.

A vote…

"I'll talk to the Kazekage tonight – hopefully we can get a response fairly quickly," Temari said as she inwardly asked herself how they hadn't thought of that before – it was so obvious! With both countries unable and unwilling to let go of their claim, the only way to avoid open conflict was to leave it to the concerned party: the islands themselves.

"And I'll contact the Mizukage," Sojiro said promptly as he stood. "Could you take me to your communications tower?" he asked Shikamaru.

"Of course," Shikamaru replied as he guided them and then waited while they went into private rooms to contact their superiors. He'd just said it like that but…well, if it worked out, it was sure to be easier for everyone involved! Of course, there'd be hurt feelings one way or the other, but realistically speaking the situation was never going to be resolved with everyone being happy. Factually and historically, the islands belonged to Kiri, and yes, their economy needed the boost. But it was true that Suna had in effect rebuilt them after the war, and the children born there since probably associated themselves with the Sand, not the Mist – yet they wouldn't be of voting age. He really gave it a fifty-fifty rate.

Temari was the first to come out – understandably she didn't have to go through as many official channels and intermediates before being allowed to talk to her brother – and she grinned at him as she walked to sit next to him and bump their shoulders. "You genius, you!" she teased him easily.

The so-called 'genius' resisted the urge to roll his eyes and raised an eyebrow at her. "I really did just say it like that…Gaara agreed?"

Temari nodded. "He thinks it's an excellent idea. Now he's got to sell it to council of elders, but I'm sure he'll manage," she informed him seriously, looking up as Sojiro walked out.

"The Mizukage agrees that in our rush to handle this situation we've forgotten the very citizens whose lived would be disrupted once more," he started with a nod. "She will present our option to the council tomorrow morning, and will let us know rapidly."

"Suna's basically at the same point," Temari told him as she stood. "I'll make sure to inform Shikamaru as soon as I know more so he can arrange another meeting once we both have our answers," she offered.

"It seems to be all we can do at this point," Sojiro agreed as he turned to Shikamaru. "I will be in touch tomorrow morning. Good evening until then," he said agreeably before turning around and taking his leave.

"Well," Temari drawled as she turned to her friend once they were left alone. "I guess since that's mostly settled we can finally have dinner together, right?" she asked brightly.

Shikamaru grinned at this, shrugging noncommittally. "Yeah, I guess we can."

"Good! Now let's find your man and grab some food!" she declared happily.

"Sure, sure," he was forced to reply – not really as annoyed as he pretended to be.

Finding Kiba wasn't too hard either, he was on logistics assignment that week and therefore simply in the office. "Hey, Temari! Good to see you again!" he said earnestly as he saw them walk in.

"Nice to see you too Kiba – and you're all pale now!" she teased as indeed he'd lost the tan he'd gotten in Suna. She then grinned as she looked at Akamaru. "Oh, Akamaru! Gimme your paw…good boy! That's the smartest dog in world, yes you are!" she cooed as she rubbed his ears.

"You know, between Temari, Kankuro, and Gaara, I get the impression Akamaru could single-handedly take over Suna," Kiba mused to Shikamaru as he watched the nin-dog's tail wagging back and forth speedily.

"Not an impression," Shikamaru was forced to agree. "We're gonna get dinner, can you come along?" he then asked him, although he knew it was likely too early for him to be able to leave.

Kiba groaned as he looked back towards his desk. "No, I've got another forty minutes on the clock – go on ahead without me, I'll catch up!" he said with a sigh as he let his hand trail down his lover's arm.

Temari's eyes didn't miss this, and she hummed as she leaned closer to Akamaru. "So I take they're doing well, right?" she asked him quietly, grinning as he barked his agreement. "Good boy, Akamaru!" she praised earnestly.

Shikamaru chuckled at her antics and shrugged his head to the side. "Alright then, let's get going –see you two later," he told the Inuzuka and his nin-dog.

"Later!" Kiba replied with a wave before going back to his work.

"Aw, are you being replaced, Kiba?" one of the other tokubetsu on duty said mockingly, to which her friend chuckled.

Kiba turned to her with a wide grin, the glint in his eyes unmistakable. "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening – did you say anything?" Obviously, people still weren't willing to openly mess with him, so as she shrugged and returned to her task, he huffed. "Yeah, I didn't think so either…" he muttered, sharing a look with Akamaru. When he'd finished his work, he left without a glance backwards and wasn't long in finding Shikamaru and Temari.

"Just on time!" Temari teased him. "I was really about to convince Shikamaru to stop waiting for you and order up!"

"You would've broken Akamaru's heart!" Kiba replied with a frown before sitting down, patting his nin-dog as he played along and whined sadly.

The kunoichi looked affronted at this. "I would've ordered something for him!" she insisted before chucking him the menu as she'd already made her choice.

Kiba grabbed it easily and hummed in thoughts as he hesitated, leaning back towards Akamaru to get his opinion. "Say, how's Kankuro?" he then asked her as he reached for Shikamaru's drink and sipped it while waiting for his – and attributed his lover's frown to the stolen drink, not the mention of his ex.

Temari grinned fondly as she always did when talking about her brothers, leaning her cheek in her palm. "Healthy and unbelievably hopeless as usual!" she replied brightly.

Kiba chuckled at this, sharing a quick look with Akamaru. "That sounds like him alright!" he noted, yet again not paying attention to Shikamaru's annoyed expression.

"That's not all," the kunoichi said conspiratorially as she leaned closer to whisper some more news. "He's met someone," she informed him smugly.

"Met someone as in met someone?" Kiba clarified with a raised eyebrow, laughing as she wiggled her eyebrows at him. "Anyone I know?" he wondered.

"I doubt it," Temari replied with a shrug as she leaned back in her seat. "He just recently transferred from the eastern border, he's still getting used to life in Suna – and to having an eyeball of sand following him around randomly!" she added fondly.

Kiba burst out laughing at that because, yeah, he could relate! Gaara had eyeballed him out of the blue a couple of times during the weeks he'd spent with Kankuro. "Ha! That's Gaara for you! How is he anyway?"

"I'm convinced he's having way more fun than a lot of people realize. And he was wondering why you turned his offer down for some time, but I suppose now I can tell him you had a good reason," she noted teasingly with a raised eyebrow.

The Nara finally relaxed as his lover turned to him with a warm grin, visibly agreeing with her.

"Besides," Temari continued as she absently reached to stroke Akamaru's fur. "Shikamaru told me you've also been promoted since? Congratulations!" she offered earnestly. "You boys sure didn't waste any time, huh?"

"Gotta keep busy," Shikamaru tempered with a shrug. Now that they were both there, he knew she'd feel free to grill them on everything that had happened since they'd left Suna, and she didn't prove him wrong.

"So," Temari started with the same intensity and matter-of-factness she'd displayed during her negotiations earlier that day, pressing her hand down flat on the table in front of her. "A public get-together. You've got to explain that one to me." It wasn't a suggestion, she made that much painfully clear.

Kiba chuckled, sending a quick look towards his lover before grinning innocently. "Your version or mine?"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes fondly and – while he was curious what Kiba's 'version' would've been – very simply told Temari the truth. "I was an idiot."

"Ah, yes," the kunoichi replied as though it was obvious – and the Nara's eyebrows twitched in annoyance at this. "So you had to go to great lengths to be forgiven."

"My version had epic battles and a dramatic heartfelt confession in the end, in case anyone was wondering," Kiba noted with a shrug, casually finishing his drink, grin widening as Shikamaru yet again rolled his eyes but bumped their knees together.

Temari chuckled and raised an eyebrow as she reached to poke his forehead. "Somehow I get the feeling his version actually isn't much different when it comes down to it. So then what?"

"My mother wants to kill him, and his best friend threatened to kill me," Shikamaru replied with a shrug.

"Shino's an awesome best friend," Kiba commented as if he were stating an undeniable, universal truth – the sky is blue, the grass is green, and Shino Aburame is an awesome best friend.

"We'll take your word for it," Temari said slowly. Truly, she'd never really been able to understand the bug user; he was just too hard to read, even harder than Gaara, in her opinion – although in all fairness, maybe she was biased on that particular point, as his sister. That Shino and Kiba were so close never ceased to surprise her – and the rest of the world, from what she'd repeatedly gathered.

"Even kids love him! He's started teaching at the academy as a substitute, and he's a natural!" Kiba insisted with a frown, immediately perking up at the mention of children as it made his mind jump to another subject. "Did Shikamaru tell you? My sister Hana had a daughter!" he said excitedly.

Temari cocked her head to the side at this, mentally trying to put a face on the name as she knew she'd seen the older Inuzuka before, but couldn't quite remember her – she promptly gave up though as her brain just conjured an image of a long-haired Kiba with lipstick. Nonetheless, she couldn't help but smile at his proud look. "No, he didn't. Congratulations!" she said earnestly. "Is it a little Inuzuka in training, then? I remember when you came back from attending the wedding, you mentioned her husband married into the Inuzuka clan," she wondered curiously.

"Yep, she's a little Inuzuka pup," he replied easily. "It's really exciting! I'm so impatient to watch her grow up!"

Shikamaru smiled lazily at this, remembering feeling the same way about Mirai – and also about Kao, in a sense, he had to admit.

Temari chuckled as she rested her chin in her hand, looking at them in turn. "I'm not crazy about kids," she admitted honestly – she just didn't know what to do with miniature people who didn't understand you when you spoke to them and weren't capable of handling themselves without needing constant supervision (although it was actually frightening how many adults fit that description too). "But…I guess when they're the children of people you really care about, it's different," she tempered. No one she was personally really close to had had children yet, but she figured it had to feel different.

Shikamaru nodded as this was exactly how he'd always felt. He didn't leave it at that however, because sometimes the tables had to be turned, it was only fair. "Does that mean Gaara and Kankuro won't get to be uncles? How sad…" he goaded with a mock-sigh.

Kiba snorted in amusement and busied himself with patting Akamaru as Temari raised an eyebrow at him – he knew what happened to those who laughed at her, he'd seen it enough times hanging around the Sand siblings in Suna.

Instead of resorting to violence however, she simply grimaced to express her displeasure at the notion. "Oh, the council's pushing for it – 'keep the lineage going' and all that," she told them with a roll of her eyes. "They're not pestering Kankuro because of course no one figures he's going to get a woman pregnant voluntarily, and they leave Gaara alone because…well…Gaara, you know?" she needlessly trailed off as she waved a hand about.

"Which leaves you," Shikamaru finished with a raised eyebrow.

"Lucky me, huh?" Temari replied with perfectly faked pep. "I mean it's not like they're making it an official motion during council meetings; and no one's dared to mention arranged marriages again since my brothers and I simply narrowed our eyes and visibly emitted enough murderous vibrations the first and only time it happened. But the not-so-subtle reminders are there," she tempered.

"Yep, lucky you!" Kiba noted sympathetically as Akamaru went over to rest his head on her lap, tail wagging as she reached to scratch him behind his ears as he so loved.

"Hey, they haven't given up on you, actually!" she then told Shikamaru in amusement. "'You get along well with the Nara of Konoha, Temari', they're fond of saying!"

Kiba frowned as he watched them laugh, only marginally relaxing when Shikamaru drawled that they were obviously behind on their information. He forced himself to snap out of it though and jumped right in to tease her once more – something he loved doing, she reminded him so much of his own sister, at times, and he knew that despite her complaining she enjoyed it as well. And well, he couldn't deny that part of him would always feel a bit nostalgic of his days in Suna – having her there brought some of it back, and it felt nice.

Once they parted ways with Temari outside, Shikamaru turned to Kiba inquisitively, absently watching Akamaru as he trotted peacefully in front of them. "Kiba?"

"Yeah?" Kiba replied absently as he reached for his arm and pulled his hand out of his pocket to join it with his.

The Nara rolled his eyes fondly at this – sometimes, Kiba really behaved like a dog would, demanding affection in such an earnest way that it couldn't be denied. What he wanted to ask was whether he'd told Kankuro about their night together after he'd left Suna, but for some reason he couldn't go through with his original idea – maybe it was because he really didn't like it when the puppeteer was mentioned, even by himself. So he asked about another – inconsequential – thing he'd been wondering about as well. "I never really asked you but…when did you tell Shino about us?"

Kiba blinked at this, obviously not expecting this question nor seeing where it came from, and shrugged. "When I came back for the wedding I guess. I mean it's Shino, I've never kept anything from him – a fact he's often complained about!" he added with a self-satisfied grin.

Shikamaru had no doubt the Aburame felt that way.

"Buut…I might have actively complained to him about you after you pushed me away," the Inuzuka then added.

"I suppose that's why he's always looking at me with that warning expression," Shikamaru noted with a defeated sigh – but that was friendship, he couldn't complain about it. "And the others?" he then wondered curiously.

"I don't kiss and tell!" Kiba replied with mock-shock. "Hana and mom figured it out right away though – scents don't lie. But otherwise everyone else just found out when the village did!" he added teasingly.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes playfully at this, telling him he was troublesome just for the principle. Inwardly, he was glad that Kiba hadn't discussed this with Kankuro – and a part of him was happier still that Temari would tell her brother the good news. He didn't like being petty, but sometimes it just came too easily – and felt too good.

"How about you?" Kiba then asked as he cocked his head to the side. "Did you keep everyone in the dark, like Chouji and Ino, or did someone know?"

Shikamaru shook his head at this. "Kurenai figured us out, so she's the only one who gave me advice with you in mind, but Chouji and Ino…pretty much knew everything but your name," he replied.

"Why? I mean if they already knew I was a man, why not tell them it was me?" the Inuzuka asked back, puzzled.

"Because I was sure they'd get involved – like they did when they thought it was Omoi!" Shikamaru reminded him, unable not to chuckle at the memory – poor Omoi…! He then sighed as he saw they'd reached the intersection where the paths to their respective clan grounds split.

"You're not coming with me?" Kiba asked with a frown.

The Nara sighed once more at this, shaking his head. "It's really troublesome, but since I'm technically in charge of the negotiators I have to be at my registered address in case there's a problem," he explained.

Kiba nodded as it made sense and didn't let it bother him as he stepped closer to press a kiss to his lips. "Well you know where to find me once your work's done," he reminded him slyly.

Shikamaru shook his head but just kissed him again, pushing him back before he could get carried away.

He was almost annoyed when there turned out not to be any problems that night, meaning he could've effectively spent it with Kiba. Work. It never went the way you wanted it to, did it?

How troublesome.

Shikamaru had long ago learned that there was one thing more annoying – and infinitely scarier – than having his mother wake him up by yelling his name.

Having his mother wake him up in a decidedly good mood.

That one had shivers running down his spine, making him snap wide awake and sit up immediately.

"You have a visitor," Yoshino said with a smug grin, almost sing-songing it and even chuckling scarily.

Shikamaru frowned as he dragged himself towards the door, not having to stay in the dark for long as he soon saw Temari sitting in the living-room – politely insisting she'd already had breakfast, thank you, and alright, just a cup of tea, thank you very much. "What're you doing here so early?" he asked with a frown as he yawned without restraint.

"I've got Gaara's answer!" she informed him brightly as she leaned back on her hands.

The shadow-nin sighed as he slumped down opposite of her, resting his head on his hand. "You know, there are official channels in place for that – showing up at my home unannounced is not appropriate," he informed her in (mostly) fake annoyance.

"Oh, did I interrupt poor Shika's beauty sleep?" Temari cooed insufferably. "You're not going to tell on me, are you?" she worried as she reached to poke his face.

"I hate you, woman," Shikamaru informed her with a groan, absently swatting her hand away.

"No you don't," Temari replied matter-of-factly with a wide grin before letting her eyes trail over him critically. "Well? Go get changed, I've got negotiations to conclude!" she pressed cheekily.

"I do hate you," Shikamaru insisted as he stood and walked back to get changed with another jaw-popping yawn. He was tempted to go back to sleep just to annoy her, but then he figured she wouldn't let that stop her from dragging him out herself, so he just got ready as quickly as he could – but in a leisurely way. His mother was in an animated discussion with their guest when he returned, and he smiled despite himself at her excitement. "Okay, let's go settle that dispute," he said evenly as he stifled another yawn.

"What about breakfast?" Yoshino asked with a frown.

"I'll eat something over there – we'll have to wait for our third party to be ready after all," he replied with a shrug – and he didn't really know Sojiro, granted, but he had a feeling he'd have more than enough time for breakfast until the Kiri shinobi joined them.

Yoshino nodded back, trusting he'd find a way. She then grinned as she turned back to Temari. "Temari, you must stay with us for dinner tonight," she invited eagerly.

Temari chuckled self-consciously but then noticed her friend had frozen and was frowning, so she put on an apologetic look. "That's very kind of you, but depending on the outcome of this meeting I'll likely be heading out today already – I don't like leaving my brothers on their own for long," she replied earnestly.

Yoshino sighed in disappointment but nodded. "I understand – work must come first. I was like you once – but do remember to also live life from time to time or before you'll know it you'll have one of him," she said as she shrugged a thumb towards her son, "reminding you that you're old!"

"What is it with everyone over thirty calling themselves old in this village?" Shikamaru muttered under his breath as he rolled his eyes and made for the exit. "I'll see you tomorrow – I'm staying at Kiba's tonight," he threw over his shoulder.

It didn't escape Temari's notice how Yoshino frowned imperceptibly, and she quickly said her own – much more polite – goodbye before following her friend out. After a few minutes walking in silence, she sighed – she wasn't good with sulking people. "She sure wishes we'd hook up, huh?" she wondered rhetorically, deciding to tackle the problem head-on as usual.

"Oh, you, Ino, Hinata – even Tenten although she can never remember her name," Shikamaru informed her in annoyance. Every woman he'd ever spoken to. Everyone who wasn't Kiba.

"Don't worry, even if I end up staying another night, I'll find an excuse," she assured him with a more genuine smile.

Shikamaru smirked absently and then sighed as he turned to look at her. "I'll treat you."

"I take it Kiba doesn't get dinner invitations," Temari noted with a frown although he didn't really need to reply to that. Wordlessly, she reached to punch his shoulder, and grinned widely as he raised an eyebrow, amused despite himself. "I'm troublesome, aren't I?" she asked with fake helplessness.

"It takes the fun out of it if you say it yourself," he informed her lazily. But yeah. Okay. She wasn't all that troublesome, sometimes. As if he'd ever say it out loud though.

As he'd surmised, they'd had to wait another few hours before receiving Kiri's reply. But, at least, it was in line with Suna's: a vote would be held. Konoha, as a neutral party, would supervise it, to ensure that the tally wouldn't be tampered with, and Shikamaru hoped against hope that they wouldn't ask for him. Temari's smirk naturally informed him otherwise.

With friends like her, who needed enemies?

Still, he had to admit he was sad to see her go. They were so busy after all, it was impossible to know for sure when they'd meet again. It made him take more interest in these new technological developments he kept hearing about – something about more easily accessible long-distance radio transmitters, as opposed to how things were now, restricted to the village's command centers. Their world had been changing at a sometimes alarming pace since the war ended, as the different countries started sharing more and more with each other – it came with the times, he supposed. Not that he could really complain about any of it, really.

For the principle though, when asked, he would always say it was troublesome.

A man had to stick to his principles after all.


Chapter Text


Once upon a time at the academy, back when they still knew more about innocence than war, Iruka had given them a strange assignment.

"Imagine that the moon was going to crash down against the land tomorrow. Who would you want to spend your last day with?" he'd asked them with a grin – an oddly misplaced one, given the gloomy question.

Shikamaru remembered thinking that their teacher was visibly in a sullen mood despite his cheerful demeanor – looking back now as an adult, he honestly suspected a bad break-up – and that the hypothesis was baseless and stupid in the first place. The moon? Come crashing down towards them? Yeah right.

Now though, Shikamaru almost blamed Iruka and his forewarning gloominess.

He'd been a shinobi for some years at this point – going on eight, actually – and he'd seen all sorts of unbelievably crazy things, but even he'd had a hard time wrapping his mind around that one. Honestly, would they ever be able to catch a break? To make matters worse, they ended up on the moon where they had to race against the clock to rescue Hanabi, and then Hinata, all the while watching Naruto finally realize his feelings for his long-time admirer. Shikamaru was certain somewhere in Sai's library there had to be a novel with a similar amount of drama. Sai himself just looked at Naruto knowingly, as if waiting for him to figure it out – and how creepy was it that Sai was practically the most emotionally mature of them now, at least as far as relationships were concerned?

As a shinobi, time had always been a luxury during fights, but you were fighting against your own limits, fighting until you had no energy left; it was basically a race, with the victor being the one left standing. Taking all of that and adding an actual time limit before their home was destroyed felt really overwhelming. When he pulled out gloves to hide the timer, he told Sai that it distracted him and kept him from thinking about things rationally and he'd meant it, because he didn't see it as a countdown until their home was gone, he saw it as a deadline until their loved ones would be dead, and as a result he kept telling himself he should've brought Kiba along, damn it, because he couldn't lose him.

He should've never doubted Naruto though, because of course that man didn't know the first thing about giving up and pulled out his very best against impossible odds. Sai and Sakura successfully rescued Hanabi, with Hinata personally taking it upon herself to get her sister's eyes back – and Shikamaru had to admit it was quite satisfying how the usually gentle Hyuuga didn't even flinch at the task. They all eventually made it back safely through the portal, where Naruto and Hinata finally did what everyone had known they would eventually end up doing since they were kids.

"I would much more prefer if we headed back home quickly. As you can imagine, I'd rather be the one sharing a kiss at this time," Sai declared with a small frown after he figured that five minutes was an adequate time to give the new couple.

Shikamaru could've kissed him – figure of speech! – because he shared that sentiment, although with the way Sakura elbowed their friend, he was very glad he'd elected to stay quiet. So troublesome. Luckily for him, he had a trump card, as squad leader. "Hey Naruto! We have to get back to the village to report on our mission's achievement and also assess the situation – we know some pretty big rocks fell down," he yelled towards his friends.

Sakura frowned at him, seeing through his excuse but choosing to let it slide as she had to admit that it would be best for Hanabi to have a complete and proper examination – and well, knowing whether the village was intact was undeniably important! Naruto and Hinata seemed to share those views, so Sai stopped cradling his ribs long enough to summon ink birds to get them back as fast as possible.

That journey felt almost more irritating than the mad dash they'd been on when they left, but in effect it wasn't long until they were back – and noticed with a relieved sigh that the village seemed safe and sound – and whole. Sai landed them next to the Hokage and everyone around them cheered as Kakashi welcomed them back. The artist however wasted no time in going to Ino and kneeling next to her, reaching for her hands as she still had her chakra enhancer helmet on. She seemed to notice what he wanted however – or simply want it herself as well – because she smiled and pulled him to her lips regardless.

Shikamaru grinned at them and then turned to find his own lover. He quickly heard a familiar bark and sighed in relief as he saw Akamaru and Kiba, swiftly jumping over the barriers marking the limits of the Hokage's control center to get to him, not even hesitating for a second before wrapping his arms around him. And truthfully, it was only when he felt his body against his that he really felt like he was back home. "I'm glad you're alright," he mumbled against his lips.

"Hey, that's my line!" Kiba playfully protested as he pinched his cheek while his other arm held him close. "You were on the moon!" he added, barely believing that was even possible. He was satisfied not to smell blood though, meaning there were no serious injuries.

Shikamaru frowned and reached to grab his hand to stop him from abusing his cheek. "Yeah, and somehow, you always end up more at risk than me," he reminded him with a raised eyebrow.

"I'm gifted like that," Kiba replied happily, smiling as the other man pulled him back to his lips. "Is Hanabi okay? And the others?" he then asked with a worried frown.

The Nara nodded at this, shrugging his head back towards their friends. "Yeah, she'll be okay – those Hyuugas are tough after all! And Hinata finally got Naruto to realize that she was more than a friend to him," he added with an amused roll of his eyes.

"No! Seriously?" Kiba exclaimed with round eyes. "That guy is so dense, I honestly thought the day would never come!" he muttered as he looked up ahead, although he couldn't see them – but for sure, their smells were close. "I'm really happy for Hinata – that idiot better not hurt her."

"I don't think we need to worry about them," Shikamaru noted evenly before sighing. "Come on – I think they can handle the rest without me – and if they can't, well they'll just have to wait," he muttered as he stepped to the side and tugged on his hand. He felt exhausted and just wanted to sleep for a whole day – maybe even two.

Obviously, Kiba had no problems with that. He honestly rather enjoyed being used as a pillow.

Naturally, as was always the case after the village experienced a near-destruction, the following days were full of briefings and debriefings and meetings and whatnot – and really, how sad was it that they were now used to near-destruction experiences and had a proper procedure put in place and all?

It put Shikamaru into a somewhat foul mood, because of course he was asked to attend, and of course those meetings were troublesome, but Naruto and Hinata were there too and they looked so happy it was decidedly difficult to remain annoyed too long.

Kiba for his part indulged him on his complaints but eventually had another official summon to respond to himself.

"Don't forget to sit up straight," Tsume muttered to her son as they made their way through the wide corridors. "And be confident when you speak!"

"Hanging onto your manners might be best while we're at it," Hana added from his other side, although as usual, she was infinitely more reassuring than their mother.

Kiba grinned weakly back at her and sighed one last time to steel himself. "I know how to handle myself! Sheesh, I'm not a pup anymore!" he muttered anyway for the principle. He knew he wasn't in trouble, not inherently so. But still, being summoned by the head of the clan was not something one should ever take lightly. He'd received the request barely a few days ago, and he had to admit that while he did feel slightly nervous, when it came down to it he was even more curious.

As they finally reached the designated room, he felt his mother and sister briefly place their hands on his shoulders before they all stepped in. Kiba sat directly in front of the head, Akamaru at his side, while Tsume and Hana sat a small distance back with their own canine companions, allowed in as family, but not to interrupt the talks.

"Huh. Well, you really did take after your father!" the woman before him declared with a huff as she closed her book and took a closer look at him, talking like she hadn't seen him in over a decade.

"Is that a bad thing?" he asked despite himself with a curious frown. Sumire Inuzuka, current head of the clan, laughed and he felt himself relax slightly. He hadn't seen her much, not like this – hadn't had a reason to, really, and his clan was quite big in numbers, with their lands being consequently vast, territorially speaking. They were distantly related, as she was his mother's aunt, but it was true they weren't that alike, aside from their eyes and clan markings. She was however a very good reminder of how well the Inuzuka aged, as she definitely looked at least a decade younger than her sixty years – good news for him, he figured.

"Of course not! Diversity is the fun of life after all! In every sense," she added coyly as she studied him shrewdly, grin widening as he looked away despite himself. "So. Your Nara has been seen quite often on Inuzuka grounds, I hear," she finally stated, getting down to business.

Kiba frowned as he looked back at her – he'd thought it might be about his relationship, since he couldn't really see anything else she might've wanted to discuss with him personally, but it still caught him off-guard to be summoned over such a personal matter. "He visits me whenever he can," he replied simply, truthfully.

"Visitors are of course permitted; we're not recluse animals!" the head of the clan continued, huffing in distaste at the mere idea of shutting themselves out like some clans she knew. "But Shikamaru Nara has been spending quite a lot of time on our lands this past year – almost more than he has on his own clan's domain, some say," she noted factually, leaning back on a hand.

"A simple matter of privacy," Kiba replied evenly, figuring there was no use trying to deny it or defend himself – not that he felt the need to: as far as he was concerned they hadn't done anything that warranted any defense.

"Yes, I figured as much," Sumire replied with a sly grin, her canine companion huffing in amusement next to her. "Tell me, Kiba. Do you plan on marrying him? Is he to join our clan one day?" she asked after a very short moment spent gauging him. Her tone had been teasing until that point, but the grin was gone as she asked him this simple – but heavily loaded – question.

Kiba's eyes widened and he had to remind himself to close his mouth with a 'snap' before he continued gaping like an idiot. He really hadn't been expecting that. "Well, no—I mean yes—I—" he made himself take a breath to calm down and continued more steadily, choosing his words carefully. "If we'll marry, and if following that one of us will join the other's clan, then it's more likely that I would join his," he replied honestly. Although he and Shikamaru hadn't discussed marriage at all (and weren't in a hurry to), that much seemed obvious.

"That was my understanding as well," the head of the clan said simply. "But in any case, he should not be spending as much time as he has on Inuzuka clan grounds," she said pragmatically, not accusing or annoyed about it, just plain factual. "Rules apply equally to everyone, even one of the heroes who saved our village."

Rules that were originally put in place so that children wouldn't be born clanless, something that wasn't going to happen with them, he couldn't help but think to himself – but then again, they'd always wanted to be treated the same as any other couple, so he wasn't going to complain about this. To say that this was completely unexpected would be a lie, but at the same time, it was still jarring. "So…what? Basically, you're saying I should move out of the clan's territory if I want to keep spending time with him?" he asked her with a frown.

"That's up to you, really. What I'm actually saying is that his stays shouldn't exceed casual visits anymore – until you're married. And I assure you, this is not an attack on you or your choice of partner," Sumire stated seriously, leaning her elbow forward on her knee as she shrugged her chin towards Tsume and Hana. "Your mother was given the same warning before your father married into the clan, and so was your sister," she added matter-of-factly as she distractedly reached a hand to scratch her large brown dog between his shoulders. "We must all do our part to protect our secrets – that much I'm certain I don't need to tell you."

Kiba turned back to his family, feeling himself relax slightly as they nodded at him – and he abruptly wondered why he hadn't known that they'd gone through the same thing. And if he forced himself to get past the sting to his slightly-damaged pride, he realized this wasn't truly about him, but about the clan, and he couldn't go against that. "I understand," he replied evenly. Some clans simply barred their doors to outsiders, so he figured he should be happy they'd been left alone for this long.

"Excellent! I knew you would!" the head replied happily as she clapped her hands, informally signifying the end of the meeting as she stood.

Kiba and his family mirrored her and bowed respectfully before making their way back in relative silence. At least, he figured, for once they weren't being called out on their relationship for being both men. And yet, somehow he just felt ostracized by his own clan, and that left him a little more than unsettled, even though he understood why, and had even been expecting it at some point.

Still, it hurt more than he wanted to admit.

"She went easy on you – she asked me a bunch of creepy personal questions!" Hana informed him with a huff as she crossed her arms over her chest.

He wanted to grin at her attempt to lighten the mood, but he didn't really feel like it. "Why didn't you tell me before?" he asked her instead. "Come to think of it, why didn't you ask me to be there for you at the meeting?" he wondered, trying not to be too childish in his hurt at having been left out of something as important.

"Oh, Kiba…you were in Suna at the time – otherwise of course I'd have wanted you there!" she quickly assured him as she moved a hand to ruffle his hair, and he immediately relaxed, feeling slightly embarrassed about his earlier reaction. "And then it felt weird to tell you that Aoba and I got married so he could sleep over freely!" she joked slyly.

Tsume just chuckled as she slung an arm around each of her kids' shoulders. "When I was summoned, she asked whether I was sure your father had the guts to be an Inuzuka! I guess she was right about that, but I insisted that at the very least he'd produce good kids, so I was right too!" she informed them buoyantly.

Kiba and Hana exchanged exasperated looks at this and just shut their mouths – past experiences had taught them that getting their mother started on that particular subject always ended up with them learning things no children ever had any business knowing about their parents.

"What do you say to lunch?" Hana blessedly interrupted Tsume cheerfully, knowing food would get everyone on the same page. Kiba looked at her thankfully and she laughed as she dragged them towards her house. Like they'd ever say no to spending time with little Kao!

As they left Hana's house a couple of hours later, Akamaru gently nudged his chest and Kiba grinned as he fondly ruffled his fur. "I know, I know, I'm overthinking this!" he said, grin widening as his companion barked his agreement. "Okay, let's find Shikamaru so he can take over the thinking part!" he added as he swiftly jumped onto his back, Akamaru letting out a howling bark and sniffing the air before taking off. He stopped in front of the Nara's favorite cloud-watching spot a few minutes later, and Kiba sighed as he got down with a pat.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow as he saw them, but didn't move an inch beyond that. "Fancy meeting you here!"

Kiba rolled his eyes fondly as he walked to him, grinning as Akamaru trotted by to greet the other man, lying down next to him and whining like a big puppy as his ear was scratched. The Inuzuka huffed and sat down against his dog, grin widening as Shikamaru wordlessly moved to rest his head in his lap. "Bad day?" he asked because he knew coming to this place usually meant he wanted to avoid people.

"Nothing a good nap can't solve," Shikamaru assured him as he grabbed one of his hands and pressed it to his lips. "You?"

"I went to play with Kao. You know, not to brag, but I think she'll outshine us all in terms of awesomeness!" Kiba replied in a mock-conspiring whisper, Akamaru yapping his agreement.

A lazy grin was his reply. "She's certainly already got the Inuzuka volume covered…" he joked easily.

"There you go, talking like an old man again," Kiba teased fondly, leaning down to kiss him.

Shikamaru didn't waste a second before responding, and hummed happily as they parted. They returned back to their previous positions, but his eyes remained on Kiba, silently studying him even as he turned to chide Akamaru and a comfortable silence settled in. He acted lightly, as usual, but there was a slight tenseness in his movements. "What's bothering you?" he asked him knowingly.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at him, struggling to decide whether it would be worth it to try denying it – and finding it wouldn't, naturally. "Well, I had a little chat with my mom's aunt this morning, and she thinks you spend too much time on our lands," he said casually but without further ado.

Of course Shikamaru wasn't about to let that one slide. "Your mother's aunt? Wait a second…what?" he asked as he sat up, turning so they'd be face to face, frowning in realization. "You were summoned by the head of your clan?"

Akamaru yawned and Kiba scowled at him to thank him for his great support. "Well, she didn't say it badly or anything…" he started, wondering how to best word it. "It's just that non-clan members shouldn't be spending as much time around as you have." Yeah, that would do – no need to talk about marriage yet, he really didn't want to force things after all.

"Are you in trouble because of me?" Shikamaru asked him with a sigh, as that was the last thing he'd ever wanted.

"No, of course not! Apparently Hana got the same talk, that's why they expedited the wedding back then!" he informed him with a grin – even Akamaru growled in amusement.

Shikamaru chuckled at this, refraining from pointing out that Aoba had married into the Inuzuka clan, which had clearly placated everyone involved, but obviously wouldn't be the same for them. Not that they were stuck without any alternatives. "Well…the answer's simple enough," he started evenly with a shrug.

"That so?" Kiba asked back with a raised eyebrow, wondering what he was up to in anticipation.

"Sure. We get our own place. Away from both clan grounds, so neither of them can complain," Shikamaru replied as he looked back at him. "It'll make things easier anyway, right?" And they were practically already living together, with the amount of time he spent at Kiba's – so he reasonably couldn't argue the head of the clan's point.

Kiba frowned for a second before realization hit him and he grabbed his face between his hands. "I love you, you know that?" he asked with his usual grin.

"I hope so, otherwise this would be really troublesome," Shikamaru replied as he raised his hands to cover his wrists, thumb absently stroking the skin. Akamaru barked at this, and Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "What did he say?"

Kiba rolled his eyes as he tugged on his dog's ears to annoy him. "That if we're gonna have celebratory sex later we should ty to keep it down because he's tired and he wants to sleep."

The Nara frowned as he looked at the nin-dog with something akin to resignation. "You used to be so cute," he deadpanned. Akamaru's response was to 'accidentally' swat his head as he wagged his tail.

"So am I actually banned from the clan grounds?" Shikamaru then asked curiously – after having absently yanked on Akamaru's tail in retaliation.

"Not as long as you keep your visits 'reasonably timed' – so no more spending the night I guess," Kiba informed him with a huff. "Which I suppose is a nice incentive to hurry and find a place of our own, because I'm not really fond of rushed sex, and I'm never doing it at your house again," he added with a shudder as he remembered the one and only time they'd slept together at the Nara household, and while he could swear they'd been quiet, even practically mute, the look Yoshino sent him when they saw each other the next day could have killed lesser men.

Shikamaru sighed with a wince as he wholeheartedly agreed with both points. Their eyes met and they both grinned as he moved to lean back against Akamaru next to Kiba – mostly to keep his toes away from the giant dog who wasn't above chewing them to make him pay for pulling his tail.

"Your mom's gonna kill us, isn't she?" the Inuzuka wondered as he leaned his head against his.

"Yeah, she'll likely try," Shikamaru confirmed with a lazy smile as he reached for his hand.

Akamaru whined and Kiba chuckled. "Yeah, that does make it more fun!" he agreed.

Fun. In a deadly way.

But what was life without fun?

On the Inuzuka side of the 'family', no one was really surprised that they'd be moving in together. Tsume noted it was an obvious evolution with a bored shrug, while Hana and Aoba promised to keep an ear out for available places with reasonable rent. Shino visibly looked torn, and simply fixed Shikamaru with his usual non-committal threatening look, but didn't say anything and agreed to Kiba's request to help him move, eventually. Hinata laughed happily at his antics, and promptly assured them that she and Naruto would also help.

Kurenai, who'd nicknamed herself and Mirai their 'shared relatives', simply pinched their cheeks and then made a show of empathizing with the 'poor, poor' Akamaru who had to live with them. He played right into her hands as always.

Chouji, if possible, was more excited than even they were themselves, and Shikamaru attributed that to him missing Karui and wanting to busy himself one way or the other. Ino, who'd moved in with Sai a couple of months prior, shrugged and asked them what took them so long before volunteering Sai for the move. She then discreetly promised Shikamaru she'd cook them dinner afterwards so they could relax some, adding a wink for good measure and swearing him to secrecy, because she liked that people thought her to be borderline evil.

And then came Yoshino…

And had that been anticlimactic!

"I'm moving out and in with Kiba," Shikamaru said.

"On the Inuzuka clan grounds?" Yoshino asked with a frown.

"No, in the village itself."

"Oh. I see." And she returned to her task – mixing together remedies.

"That's it?" he asked, the slightest bit disappointed despite his better judgement.

Yoshino snorted as she looked up at him. "What do you want me to say? 'Oh, Shikamaru, please don't go and leave your poor old mother all alone on her own!'" she asked mockingly before shaking her head with a chuckle. "You're twenty – it's about time you left the nest!"

"Hmm," was all he replied as he was strangely satisfied by her quip.

"Naturally, you can always come back if things get too tense," she added because she couldn't leave well enough alone.

Shikamaru didn't reply to that, knowing she was trying to annoy him on purpose – they were too similar, after all.

But that was that.

Word of mouth spread and little more than a month later, Kotetsu tapped Kiba's shoulder outside of the Hokage's office to let him know about a friend of his who was leaving her fairly spacious apartment to move to her future husband's clan grounds and was looking for someone to rapidly take it off her hands. As their only other viable option at that point belonged to a recently deceased shinobi (and no one wants to move into a dead person's apartment), they quickly jumped on the opportunity, and from that point on things moved quickly.

Shino, Hinata and Naruto helped Kiba and Akamaru, while Ino 'supervised' Shikamaru, Chouji and Sai's work over at the Nara household – under a very amused Yoshino's eyes. As she'd promised, Ino somehow managed to cook something in their honestly under-furnished kitchen, and a few bottles of booze turned up despite everyone doing their best to look puzzled as to where they came from.

Shikamaru and Kiba figured they could start apologizing to their new neighbors in the morning.

(And apologize they did, although luckily most of them were also shinobi and had either been on duty or understanding of their need to celebrate moving into a new place.)

So in effect, when it came down to it, living together didn't feel all that different.

Except that it was.

Kiba promised to never cook leeks and Shikamaru promised to actually cook, and somehow it worked out. They still had completely different schedules and assignments at times, but at least they saw each other even when that was the case, as opposed to how it was before. Shikamaru sometimes picked up Akamaru's brush and took care of the nin-dog of his own volition (and held one-way conversations like the old man he was inside), and Kiba eventually agreed to learn shogi (and displayed an uncanny ability for bending and stretching the rules).

When Tsume asked Akamaru how their 'two idiots' were doing, he barked back proudly and wagged his tail happily, and she laughed back loudly, clearly satisfied.

When Yoshino asked Shikamaru how things were going, she disliked his sly satisfied grin so much she cooked leeks the next time he visited and guilt-tripped him into eating them.

So all in all, things were normal. And they were different.

They were definitely good.


Chapter Text

Until the war, a meeting of the five Kage had been an extremely rare occurrence, one that didn't bode well, and usually didn't end well. Ever since their victory though, the villages had agreed to an annual meeting, to share in person those details that couldn't be trusted to be put in writing, with the location rotating every time. It was also a good way to keep the relations from degrading due to lack of contact. The first had been in the neutral Land of Iron. Then back during Kiba's stay in Suna, the Kage had taken advantage of the chuunin exam to hold the meeting there as well, to save the extra journey. The next year, it had been held in Kiri. This year would see it in Kumo. Konoha was slated to go next, because it figured that Iwa stalled as much as possible!

Knowing this, Chouji had immediately volunteered to be the Hokage's guard along with Naruto, and Kakashi had eventually granted him his request with barely concealed amusement – besides, as Naruto himself had pointed out years before, the Kage traveling with bodyguards was more a matter of image and tradition than actual necessity.

However, Kiba had also been asked to accompany the little group – to discuss, he'd been told, a potential expansion and even branching off of the exchange program. He wouldn't be alone in this as Tenten was currently already in Kumo finishing her own six months – the Cloud favored the use of weapons, and with her unique techniques, she'd quickly won their approval. Their exchange shinobi from Suna had just gone back home, but Kiba had heard she'd travel to Kumo with the Kazekage, and Konoha's exchange shinobi currently posted in the Sand as well. The exchange shinobi from Kumo had already left the week before. So all in all, everyone who'd been involved in the program and was available would go, he figured.

There was one person however who was unhappy at the prospect.

"I don't like this," Shikamaru muttered for the umpteenth time from his seat on the couch as Kiba brushed Akamaru on the night before the mission.

"Yeah, I think I got that the first thirty-seven times you said it," the Inuzuka muttered back as he cleaned the brush of its hair before continuing his task to the nin-dog's great pleasure. "At least tell me why!" he threw over his shoulder.

Shikamaru's frown deepened as truthfully, he couldn't, because it was baseless. And ridiculous.

"I'm looking forward to it," Kiba continued, unfazed. "It'll be nice to see Tenten and Omoi again – and I suppose I'm happy that Chouji will be able to spend more time with Karui," he added with a grin.

Shikamaru had to concede those were good points. He still wasn't swayed though.

Akamaru barked happily and Kiba nodded. "That's right, we'll see Kankuro, Gaara and Temari, too! I mean, I suppose so…they wouldn't let anyone else be Gaara's bodyguards, right?" he asked rhetorically as he turned to his lover with a raised eyebrow, pausing as he noticed his tense expression. His eyes narrowed at this, and he groaned as it finally clicked in his mind. "Don't tell me you're jealous because of Kankuro again!" he said disbelievingly.

Shikamaru didn't say anything, but that in itself was even more of an answer.

Kiba sighed at this, looking at him in complete exasperation. "I really don't know how to make it clear to you that we're just friends," he said tiredly. Besides, the Sand Siblings knew about them – Temari had been in Konoha after all, and there were no doubts she'd told her brothers in turn.

"Who were lovers," the Nara muttered despite himself.

"For a month! Years ago!" Kiba reminded him as he threw his hands up in the air. "And we weren't in love!"

"Well excuse me for not liking the fact that you get along so well with a guy you had sex with!" Shikamaru replied sarcastically.

This clearly wasn't what Kiba wanted to hear. "Hey you have no right being pissed about things I did before I got together with you! I never complained about you spending so much time with Temari – either in Suna, here or in Kiri!" he then added figuring two could play this game.

"How is that even similar? I never slept with her!" Shikamaru protested as he sat up to look at him.

"Maybe not, but everyone always assumed you would! How do you think that makes me feel, seeing you get along so well with the perfect woman that I know many people would rather see you with – including your mother, who, I might add, invited Temari over to dinner while she still won't look me in the eyes!" Kiba countered as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Akamaru whined as he looked between the two as their voices increased in volume – he'd never seen them like this.

"I'm not even attracted to women!" Shikamaru argued incredulously.

"Yet you were willing to suck it up and make baby geniuses to placate your clan!" Kiba needlessly reminded him.

"Before you!"

"And Kankuro was before you!"

Shikamaru groaned in frustration at this, resting his forehead in his hand tiredly. "Do you honestly not see why I'm annoyed?"

"I sure don't see why you're making such a big deal out of it, no," Kiba replied bluntly. "What, do you think I'd sleep with him again? Is that it, you don't trust me?" he asked him with a frown.

"No, of course that's not it!" the shadow-nin retorted, clearly aggravated. "It's just not possible for me to simply be okay with it! I mean—even Akamaru likes him better!" he added with a huff.

The nin-dog in question cocked his head to the side at this, wondering how he got brought into the argument.

Kiba raised both eyebrows in confusion at this. "What makes you say that?"

"He just does!" Shikamaru insisted before getting up with a sigh. "This is getting nowhere. I need some air," he muttered as he headed towards the door.

"Hey, where do you think you're going?" Kiba demanded as he got up to follow him. "Don't walk out on me in the middle of an argument!" he said with a frown as he moved to stand in front of the door.

"What argument? You're just going to cozy up with an old friend, I'm completely okay with that, and I'll see you when you're back," Shikamaru replied blandly as he zipped up his shoes.

Kiba frowned as he looked at him, closing his mouth before he ended up gaping stupidly. "Well fine, if you're going to be like that!" he snapped as he stepped away and let him go, feeling angry, hurt, and extremely annoyed as he watched him leave, and feeling regret as soon as the door closed.

They'd never really fought before. He supposed it was bound to happen sometime, but wow…he liked it better before! Letting out a groan, he walked back to the couch and let himself fall on it face first, pulling his head back from the cushion when he felt Akamaru lick his fingers. "It's okay…supposedly, it's healthy for couples to fight from time to time…" he told him with a weak grin.

Akamaru whined and stepped closer to lick his cheek, tail wagging as he managed to draw a smile out of his master.

Kiba sighed as he sat up and ruffled his dog's fur. "Hey, Akamaru…do you really like Kankuro better?" he asked him quietly with a frown. Akamaru barked his response and he sighed in relief. "Yeah, I thought so, too…I really wonder where the genius got that idea from…?" he muttered with a huff before looking back at the door. Should he go after him? Shikamaru had been the unreasonable one after all; he was the one who should apologize, right? Or was he being too prideful?

Groaning once more, he let himself fall back into the cushions and looked up at the ceiling. Shikamaru would come back soon anyway, wouldn't he? He just needed a short walk to cool down; it wasn't like he'd really left him. (Had he?) Letting out another groan, he pressed his palms into his eyes. Talk about blowing things out of proportion!

"He's not right, is he?" Kiba wondered out loud after a moment, the silence getting to him. "Just because I slept with Kankuro, it doesn't mean that we can't be friends, does it?"

Akamaru whined at this, resting his head on his stomach.

"Thanks for backing me up," Kiba replied as he felt himself smile slightly, although the sentiment wasn't really there. He fell asleep on the couch, looking at the door and waiting for it to open. It didn't. Morning came and he realized Shikamaru hadn't returned but he forced himself up anyway since he had to get ready for the mission. He didn't feel well rested, and neither a shower nor his breakfast helped pep him up as he'd hoped, but he was a shinobi; private matters shouldn't impact on missions. So once ready, he took in a deep breath, held it shortly and let it out slowly before stepping outside.

Naruto and Chouji were as usual quite cheerful – even if for entirely different reasons – and he didn't want to bring them down, so he grinned at them, returning their energetic greetings. Kakashi was taking his time, as always, as even becoming Hokage hadn't changed that nasty habit despite countless efforts on Shizune's part, so they just waited by the gate. Truth be told, they were still early, so he wasn't exactly late yet. "We're sure he said this gate, right?" Kiba asked for the principle as he kept looking from side to side, although in all honesty he wasn't really hoping to see the copy-nin.

"A hundred percent sure!" Naruto confirmed before sighing as he created a shadow clone. "I'll go see if he's still in bed!" the clone declared before hurrying off. A few more minutes passed uneventfully before Naruto looked up, his clone having visibly relayed something to him. "He's not home," he muttered, figuring that was half-good, since at least it meant he hadn't overslept.

Chouji didn't let his good humor be impacted by this delay though. "I can't wait to get there…" he said happily.

"You realize we'll still have actual work to do, right?" Naruto teased him good-naturedly.

"I don't care as long as I get to see Karui, even from a distance!" the Akimichi insisted, nodding with certainty.

Kiba smiled softly, sighing before rubbing Akamaru's head as the nin-dog nuzzled his hand. They nearly simultaneously looked up as they felt a painfully familiar smell however, and he felt his heartbeat increase as he looked to the side, waiting to see Shikamaru. He soon saw him round the corner running, before stopping and sighing in relief as he realized he hadn't missed them – the Inuzuka felt strangely satisfied that he'd had a scare. Their eyes met and he really had to ground himself to resist running to him and tackling him down however. Shikamaru didn't look away as he walked to him, and Kiba half-expected him to ask to speak to him in private, but he didn't.

"I'm sorry," Shikamaru said without preamble as he reached him. "I behaved like an idiot and I shouldn't have walked away. I tried to catch you at home, but you were already gone – I didn't know you'd leave so early," he added as he looked to the side self-consciously.

"You didn't give me a chance to tell you," Kiba replied quietly, acutely aware of Chouji and Naruto as they turned to look the other way to give them some privacy but couldn't help but listen anyway.

"I'm sorry," Shikamaru repeated with a sigh. "I got carried away, and I was way out of line, you were right," he admitted with some difficulty. "I promise I'll make some serious efforts not to get so jealous again in the future."

"You left! And I waited for you to come back!" Kiba accused with a frown. "Where were you anyway?"

Chouji and Naruto exchanged glances at this, silently agreeing that leaving at this point would be even more awkward, and both dreading the day they'd have fights like this with their lovers.

Shikamaru winced but held his look. "I stayed at Ino's. Look, Kiba, I was just…I thought you'd be really mad at me, and that you wouldn't want to see me."

"This isn't exactly my happy face," the Inuzuka pointed out with a raised eyebrow, finally taking pity on him as he looked really remorseful. "And get your facts straight, genius, because even if it's true that Akamaru really likes Kankuro, he likes you better," he told him matter-of-factly with a sigh.

Shikamaru let out a breath at this and reached down to pat the nin-dog. "Sorry for dragging you into this, Akamaru," he apologized, smiling at the happy bark he received in response. He then looked back at Kiba. "As long as you like me best I'm happy," he assured him, thinking back on Chouji's words when he'd complained to his best friend about this over a year ago.

"I don't care what everyone's always going on about – you're a complete idiot," Kiba snorted as he grabbed his face between his hands. "And don't ever walk out on me in the middle of an argument again – ever," he warned seriously.

"I promise I won't, even if I'd rather just never have another argument," Shikamaru easily replied as he reached for his wrists and pressed his hands closer. "I'm sorry," he repeated one last time.

The sounds that came next left no room for doubt for Chouji and Naruto about what was going on behind them, and they did try to inconspicuously inch closer to the gate this time. Naruto chanced a look over his shoulder and promptly looked back ahead with a blush on his face – did he and Hinata look as invested as well when they kissed? "So…you ever seen them go at it like that before?" he asked his friend conversationally.

"Nope," Chouji replied simply. And a good thing it was, too!

"I wonder who they fought about though, to get Shikamaru that jealous!" the blond shinobi added with a curious grin.

Chouji hummed, figuring it was likely Kankuro – Kiba's comment about Akamaru liking Shikamaru better was a good giveaway. He supposed this had been brewing for some time then, better that it was out, right? He had to admit though, now he was curious to see just how Kiba and Kankuro behaved together.

"Think we gave them enough time?" Kakashi asked distractedly from Naruto's other side as he idly turned a page in his book as though he'd been there for ages.

"When did you get here?" Chouji asked him with a frown – seriously, how was it allowed to be that stealthy?

"Oh, not long after Shikamaru – I figured they could use a moment," the Hokage replied with a shrug, chuckling at a joke on the pages.

Naruto looked over his shoulder and then quickly looked back ahead again (no, they weren't done), clearing his throat loudly. "Kiba, Shikamaru, the Hokage's here, we're ready to go!" he called loudly.

The two in question parted with a sigh, and Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at his partner. "Stay safe, okay?"

"Back at you," Kiba replied with a mock-salute as he stepped back, Akamaru barking his own farewell. "Okay, let's get this show on the road!" he told the others energetically as he slung an arm over Naruto's shoulders.

"Ah, to be young again," Kakashi said with a wistful look as he put his book away and looked at them.

"Lord Kakashi, please stop saying that – you're still in your prime," Chouji reminded him with a sigh.

"Are you kidding? His hair's all grey and all!" Naruto pointed out obnoxiously.

Shikamaru chuckled as he watched them go, knowing they'd be okay, and feeling his smile widen as Kiba turned to grin at him one last time. Yeah, fighting sure sucked. Making up though…not so much.

Hopefully, Chouji would keep an eye out for Kankuro. He'd likely figured out they'd fought about him, after all. Now he just had to wait for them to come back.

(Those would honestly turn out to be the longest twelve days of his life.)

"Oh, you'll see, barbeque is a big deal as well in Kumo, and they have this amazing open-air one that's on the roof of one of the highest building – it's like floating!" Chouji described happily with wide hand gestures as the village of the Hidden Cloud finally came into view.

"Will you please stop talking about food? You're getting me so hungry Akamaru's looking better and better for a snack!" Naruto complained half-heartedly, grinning as the nin-dog in question and his master turned to glare at him.

Kiba huffed at his friend's ever dubious sense of humor and then looked back ahead with a grin. "We've got a familiar welcoming party," he informed them as he smelled Tenten and Omoi. And sure enough, when they finally reached the gate there they were, one with a happy wave and the other with a lazy one, true to themselves.

"Welcome to Kumo!" Tenten said happily as she took them in. "Aw, seeing you again, it's like you brought a piece of home with you!" she added wistfully as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"Long time no see. Welcome to Kumo," Omoi said much less ardently. "If you'll come with me, I'll show you to the Raikage's office," he said to Kakashi as he motioned for them to follow him.

Chouji looked from side to side hopefully, letting out a saddened sigh as he didn't see Karui anywhere.

Kiba however smelled differently. "Cheer up, she's not far," he whispered to his friend, grinning as he immediately brightened up. Sure enough, Karui leisurely fell in steps with them not much long after, off-handedly reminding her lover to focus his attention on his Kage, not her.

"You'll be staying with me after we drop off the Hokage and his guards!" Tenten informed Kiba cheerfully as they closed the small line.

The Inuzuka raised an eyebrow at this. "Do you have more information?" he wondered as he absently raised a hand to pet Akamaru. "I wasn't really told much…"

Tenten shrugged back at this, shaking her head. "Nope…but I know a samurai is the one in charge, so to speak," she replied. "And Temari's also here!"

Kiba hummed at this, figuring they'd just need to wait and see. "So how's your stay been?" he asked conversationally.

"Different, but so eye-opening!" she replied thoughtfully. "It wasn't always easy though, they still tend to expect less from women here," she added honestly. "And not that it's directly related, but I think I just might apply for a different village next year. I don't know, it's still just a thought but…I feel like I want to see more of the world and its cultures. Did you ever want to?" she then questioned as she cocked her head to the side.

Kiba looked up as he wondered how to best reply to this question. "Sure, I thought about it…but then I had other things keeping me busy in Konoha – my promotion, my niece…Shikamaru…" he trailed off with a shrug.

Tenten laughed at this, having to concede the point as she teasingly elbowed his sides. "You lucky devil!" she said with no real animosity before looking up and grinning at him. "Look up and be prepared to say 'wow'," she instructed as they reached the Raikage's office.

Kiba chuckled as he followed her look, but he had to admit that building was quite impressive. He'd seen it from a distance, back during the war, when the different divisions assembled, but seeing it up close was much more impressive. He had to admit, that building did fit the physically imposing man who commanded the village of the Hidden Cloud. "Wow," he said simply.

Omoi turned to them at this and shrugged his head to the side. "Tenten, Kiba, the two of you should report to the council room on the first floor tomorrow morning as discussed. In the meantime I'll show everyone else to their quarters," he said with slightly more motivation than usual.

"Yeah, I'll show him to his," Karui dismissed plainly as she dragged a visibly happy Chouji off by the back of his shirt.

"Isn't he supposed to stay with the Sixth?" Tenten wondered with a frown – purely for the principle.

Kakashi for his part didn't seem to mind overly much, if his amused expression was anything to go by.

"You want to tell Karui that, be my guest," Omoi deadpanned as he resumed his walk. Maybe he could use this opportunity to convince the Akimichi to finally take her to Konoha for good…

Chouji had an unmistakable skip to his steps in the morning, but no one said anything since he was in time to do his actual job and 'guard' the Hokage as he made his way to the meeting. (Alright, Naruto did tease him, but not too much, because Chouji didn't hesitate to turn the tables on him – and for someone usually so outspoken, the Uzumaki really turned into a blushing babbling mess when people teased him on his relationship!)

Kiba and Akamaru for their part followed Omoi and Tenten to another meeting room where they met up with other shinobi from various villages, a fair number of whom they'd met before thanks to the exchange program.

"If it isn't the mutt! And Akamaru," Temari drawled from behind them as she walked in, smiling as the nin-dog walked to her and she pat him fondly. "Hello Tenten," she then said with a less teasing grin as they'd already met the day before.

"Hello again," the weapons specialist greeted back easily as Kiba raised an eyebrow at her.

"I missed you too, Temari," he deadpanned before they shared a chuckle. "How're your brothers?" he asked easily as they all walked to sit down.

Temari sighed at this, frowning at him. "I think Gaara's trying to work himself to an early grave – while Kankuro and I are just working ourselves to early graves trying to get him to relax some," she explained with a huff. "As you can see, it's just a vicious, vicious circle," she concluded pragmatically.

"You're enjoying every second of it," Kiba accused knowingly.

"I am," she was forced to admit with a bowed head. "How about you?" she asked conversationally. "Still enjoying every second of life with Shikamaru?"

Kiba frowned for an instant, thinking back on their big argument, but then his thoughts shifted to Shikamaru's apology and he found himself grinning fondly. "Yeah…" he replied honestly.

"No fair…" Tenten pouted as she leaned her face in her hands. "I want that too! Every guy I try is a complete disappointment!" she declared with a huff.

"Uh…not to judge or anything, but perhaps you should stop just 'trying' them, or consider lowering your standards," Omoi commented with a frown from where he sat down next to her.

Karui wordlessly sat on his other side, a half-smirk on her face that they did not need to ask about.

"But that's the fun part!" Tenten insisted as she turned to him. "Oh, Omoi…I'll miss our drunken talks about my failed conquests!" she then added as she squeezed his shoulder fondly.

The Kumo shinobi sighed at this. "You mean your drunken rants and my consequent headaches?" he deadpanned, being forced to look away at her bright smile. "Okay, yeah, I will too…" he muttered despite himself.

"If you'll all sit down, the meeting will start," a steady voice called from the entrance as the door closed behind him. Those who weren't seated yet did as instructed, and those who already were sat up straighter as the samurai walked to the head of the table. "Thank you. I am Irune, from the Land of Iron. You're probably wondering why you were asked to come to Kumo during these meetings, so I will not stall any longer," he started as he sat down and motioned for them to open the folders set in front of them. "In light of the ties formed during the war, and following the various successes of the exchange program, it has been decided that another division is to be created. The joint village rapid response elite division will aim to create balanced units among the main villages to enable a better distribution of the various assignments received by all members of the Shinobi Alliance."

Murmurs filled the room at this, as many shared looks, with Tenten whispering, "Did you know?" to Temari.

"Gaara's the main backing voice," she whispered back, not really surprising her friends.

"All of you here have either personally participated in the exchange program, or have at the very least been regularly involved with other villages within you own borders," Irune continued once they'd settled down some. "As such, this meeting serves two primary purposes. The first is to ask for any input or recommendations you might have, once I will have explained the project to you. The second, that is purely voluntary, is to allow you to apply for positions within the various headquarters of the future division," he laid out summarily.

Eventually, most hidden villages would in theory be invited to join the Alliance, but at least for now, only the five main villages and the Land of Iron – in other words, the original Alliance – would be part of it, with the hidden villages having permanently based units within a headquarter. In each, a commander – from that village – and a deputy-commander – from another, to keep a balance – would review and dispatch the assignments among their units, which would be comprised of shinobi from all villages. They wouldn't be looking for large numbers at first, as they naturally couldn't risk that some wouldn't have missions for extended periods of time if their particular skillset didn't fit the requests. But it was also a goal to have a rotation and equal representation of every village. It was reasonably well thought-out, if slightly on the optimistic side, although as usual only time and trial would tell the results.

"So…think you'll apply?" Omoi asked with mild interest as they walked out much time later.

"To keep getting drunk with you? What else could I do but apply for a position in Kumo?" Tenten teased him mock-dramatically as she wrapped her arms around one of his.

He looked like he was really considering applying somewhere far away from her at this, but didn't say anything as he suffered her enthusiasm in silence. Besides, what if upon embarking on his journey to Distant Lands he developed an allergy to some local delicacy that they couldn't cure, because none of the locals had ever reacted like that? Then what, huh? He'd die at the tender age of not-even-twenty-yet and would rapidly be forgotten, because who has time to keep track of shinobi who die far away from the village of decidedly lackluster food intoxication? And that was assuming he wouldn't get involved in a freak accident on the road before even reaching his new post! Maybe he should simply apply to stay based in Kumo, to be on the safe side.

"Who knows," Karui replied summarily with a shrug, but the way her brows furrowed, it was obvious she was seriously considering it in the near future.

"I suppose you wouldn't leave your brothers behind?" Kiba asked Temari with a fond grin.

Temari absently ran a hand down her fan at his words and grinned half-apologetically. "Actually, I'll be Suna's headquarters commander!" she admitted, closing an eye at the 'what' that the Konoha shinobi yelled in her ears.

"You could've said something sooner!" Tenten grumbled with a pout.

"It completely slipped my mind!" Temari said with perfectly faked innocence. "Act extra nice and I'll consider making you my second-in-command, Tenten!" she offered slyly with a raised eyebrow.

"Thanks but no thanks," the weapons specialist immediately dismissed straightforwardly. "People are funnier in Kumo."

"I guess that's a compliment," Omoi muttered with a sigh before nodding at them as he and Karui left to return to their posts.

Kiba hummed in thoughts as he looked at them go with an absent-minded grin. "I think I'll apply as well. I like working with shinobi from other villages," he added honestly, Akamaru barking his agreement.

"Suna will take you any time," Temari reminded him straightforwardly. "You and any strays you drag along. And Akamaru, of course," she added as she winked at the nin-dog. Her tone was teasing, but the look in her eyes left no room for doubt that she meant it though.

Still, Kiba knew that he'd be applying for a posting in Konoha, despite a wish to travel more. It was unlikely Shikamaru would want to transfer to another village after all, and he wasn't about to leave him behind, so that was that…

Akamaru whined excitedly by his side and it snapped him out of his thoughts. Looking up, he grinned as he saw Gaara and Kankuro, and looked back down at his nin-dog to nod his agreement at him. He didn't need more before he dashed off and ran to tackle the puppeteer happily, causing his master to chuckle.

"Hey, if it isn't the smartest dog in the world! Good boy, Akamaru!" Kankuro greeted him in amusement as he rubbed his sides.

Next to them, even Gaara smiled slightly. "Hello Kiba, Akamaru. It's good to see you both in good health," the Kazekage greeted them simply, nodding at Tenten as he'd already seen her before.

"Likewise!" the Inuzuka replied brightly before he clapped hands with Kankuro and lightly punched his shoulder. "Nice face paint," he noted as he cocked his head to the side.

"This new pattern was inspired by his recent break-up," Gaara informed him with a sigh.

"Gaara! No it wasn't!" Kankuro insisted with a frown, dragging Kiba in a headlock to punish him for laughing – he couldn't take it out on the Kazekage in public after all, even if they were brothers. "Stop laughing, mutt!" he threatened good-naturedly.

Temari rolled her eyes at their antics and turned to Gaara with a semi-reproachful look in her eyes. "Don't tease our brother so much in public outside of Suna, Gaara."

It was actually funny how he sighed once more and looked away somewhat guiltily at this.

"Aww, it's so cute the way you scold your brothers like kids, Temari!" Tenten cooed as she lightly elbowed her friend's side teasingly.

"Someone's got to keep them in line," the kunoichi replied with a wide self-satisfied grin.

"Right! For me, that would be Shizune!" Kakashi commented matter-of-factly as though he'd been part of the conversation from the beginning although in effect, he and his guard had just joined them.

"A necessary evil, I'm sure," Temari replied with a shrug, eyeing him shrewdly.

Next to the Hokage, Chouji frowned slightly as he looked at Kankuro and Kiba, took in Kankuro's arm around Kiba's neck while his other hand absently scratched Akamaru's head – and yeah, the nin-dog really looked fond of him. Seeing them like that, he did get why Shikamaru was jealous although maybe it would be better if he didn't tell his best friend that.

Much better.


Chapter Text

As the Kages' meetings went on, Naruto continued to 'guard' Kakashi, unofficially and informally learning 'the trade', thereby allowing Chouji to have some free time he profusely thanked the Hokage for – repeatedly. On Suna's side, it turned out Temari was the one to accompany Gaara to the next meeting – to give Kankuro a much deserved and needed break – so he and Kiba were finally able to catch up later that afternoon.

"So, how bad was the break-up?" Kiba asked his friend with all the finesse of a charging bull and the curiosity of a five-year old.

Fortunately, Kankuro was well used to his straightforward way of talking to people, and only laughed at his bluntness rather than being annoyed by it – a fact Akamaru greatly approved of, letting out a satisfied whimper as he rested against his legs. "Eh, I'll just say this: we're not on speaking terms," he replied simply.

"Ouch," Kiba winced sympathetically. "You okay?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

The puppeteer chuckled and reached to punch his shoulder slightly – it had always been so easy to talk together, that was why he was much happier with them keeping this friendship rather than risk it. "It stung a bit, I won't deny that. But I'm still young, plenty of fish in the sea and all that crap, right?"


"I mean you made a pretty good catch," Kankuro then noted simply, grinning slyly. "That started in Suna, didn't it? Your behavior after he left just makes sense in a whole new light when taking that into account…" he mused as he remembered the forced grins back then.

Kiba clucked his tongue absently and shrugged. "Yeah – it was a rocky start though. But we're really good now!" he concluded happily, Akamaru barking his agreement – and approval.

"Does he know about us?" Kankuro then wondered curiously.

The Inuzuka chuckled and scratched the back of his head. "Oh yeah! And it turns out he's actually really jealous – so fair warning: you'll get the stink-eye if and when you'll meet," he warned him seriously.

"Good to know…" Kankuro noted, more amused than worried. Unlike a lot of people, he'd never really thought that he'd need to keep an eye on the Nara on account of his sister, but he sure hadn't expected for their roles to be reversed! "Are you coming back though? To Suna?" he then wondered as he looked back up at his friend.

Kiba blinked in surprise at this, wondering where this question was coming from. "Why are you asking me that?"

The sand nin raised an eyebrow at him, tilting his head to the side. "I assumed Temari already told you she'd like you in her unit."

"Oh, that! Yeah, she made a comment…" Kiba admitted as he trailed off with a shrug.

"And?" Kankuro pressed regardless, not being fooled by his apparent nonchalance.

Kiba sighed as he looked at him and shrugged once more. "And I'm not leaving Konoha."

"Not leaving Shikamaru is more like it," Kankuro corrected with an amused smirk.

Kiba sent him an annoyed look at this but didn't deny it. "I'll be applying in Konoha's HQ though, so maybe I'll visit more often," he replied instead. He really hoped he would, actually.

Kankuro chuckled and held his hands up in surrender. "Make sure you do – Gaara misses Akamaru!" he informed him mock-solemnly.

The tracker and his nin-dog laughed at this, knowing it wasn't a complete lie. "I'm actually more worried about how the two of you are going to handle Temari's change of assignment!" he said teasingly, grin widening as his friend sighed deeply and his smirk turned upside-down.

"I'm already putting together a list of suitable replacements to act as bodyguards and advisors to Gaara – it's as painful as it sounds," Kankuro replied darkly.

"Well, it's not like anyone's ever going to compare to your sister," the leaf shinobi commented matter-of-factly.

"Don't let her hear you say that," Kankuro grumbled before raising an eyebrow at him. "And I was never there to hear you say it!" he added with a scowl.

"Say what?" Kiba asked back innocently, sharing another grin with him. Thinking about it now, and with Shikamaru's words at the back of his mind, he could see why his lover got jealous. He and Kankuro did have a really close friendship – and it felt natural, not the slightest bit awkward, even though they'd been lovers at some point, no matter how little time it actually lasted. He wasn't about to tone down his friendship with the other man, but perhaps he'd tone down his mentions of him or his enthusiasm at seeing him again. He figured it would be compromise enough.

In effect, whenever they had their meetings, the Kage spent more time traveling between the villages than actually attending said meetings. So they left Kumo at dawn on their fourth day, with Tenten, Omoi and Karui seeing them off at the village's eastern gate – and Chouji trying to put up a good front to the best of his abilities. After that, it was almost four days of travel back to Konoha – most of which saw Kiba and Naruto cheering Chouji up to the best of their abilities. They finally reached the village shortly before nightfall. Since it was late August however, the days were still long so in effect it was already late evening, and they therefore split at the gates and went their own ways.

Kiba grinned happily when he and Akamaru finally got within sight of their apartment, particularly as they could smell Shikamaru was home. Electing to surprise him – although he knew for a fact that Shikamaru was never surprised – he knocked on the door rather than letting himself in, and pounced happily once the other man opened it – with his arms held open and ready to catch him, proof that he wasn't really caught unaware. "Missed you!" he said against his neck anyway.

"Missed you too," Shikamaru replied as he closed the door and reached to pat Akamaru's head as he walked by him to go drink his fill in the kitchen. "All good?" he asked with a raised eyebrow – although he already knew the answer, because Kiba wore his emotions on his face, at least with him.

"Yep!" the tracker replied with a nod before kissing him, sighing in contentment against his lips. "All good…"

Shikamaru chuckled at him but only leaned in for another kiss, almost huffing when he pulled back to remove his gear. "So what was it about? The request to go as well?" he then asked him with interest as he walked to the kitchen where Akamaru was patiently waiting for a refill.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at him as he continued his task, amused by his curiosity. "The exchange program's evolving into a new division," he told him as he stretched his arms behind his back, moving his shoulder until he heard a satisfactory 'pop'.

"A division?" the Nara repeated as he refilled Akamaru's water bowl and set it down for him, absently rubbing his fur. "So it'll be much bigger then?"

Kiba hummed his agreement as he let himself fall down on the couch lazily. It smelled of Ino, he noted at the back of his mind, she'd probably visited – he hoped she'd brought cookies, but a few sniffs made him sigh in disappointment. Stingy. "Yeah. With headquarters in the five main hidden villages – a commander, a deputy, and a few captains to supervise the troops," he developed before grinning. "Suna's branch will be Temari's!"

"Now why am I not surprised?" Shikamaru drawled as he moved to sit next to him, letting the other man use his lap as a pillow for his legs. "How will it work?" he wondered curiously.

"As a separate administrative entity, specializing in cases that involve several villages – like missing nins from the blacklists, notably," the tracker replied, moving his hands about as though to illustrate his words. "It's the logical follow-up to the Shinobi Alliance, in a sense."

Shikamaru nodded his agreement as he ran a hand through his hair. "What stage is it in?"

"Oh, still very early! Once again, Suna will be the first test, so for now they're the only ones who know for sure who their commander will be," Kiba replied, thinking about Temari. "Surprisingly, Iwa will also start nearly at the same time. The rest will follow in the upcoming months. So yeah…that's what I'll be busy working on for some time!" he finished brightly as he looked up at him.

"So I see," Shikamaru noted in amusement. He was almost envious, because admittedly, change didn't happen all too often in their world, and working to implement a whole new division was something that, despite the fact that he was certain that it would not be easy, had to feel both challenging and rewarding in the end. "Can you tell me more details about the internal organization, or not yet?" he asked him inquisitively.

Kiba blinked as though surprised he'd be interested before grinning widely as he sat up and inched closer, keeping his legs over his so they'd be more face to face. "So as I said, it's going to have five headquarters, in the main hidden villages. In each HQ, the commander will be in charge of the troops, and mission assignment, as well as communication with the village's main office and Kage – that's why they figured that the commander should be from that same village. Then the deputy commander will basically be a back-up, and eventually also in charge of processing recruitments – and to balance it out, the deputy will be from another village," he explained passionately – he was really looking forward to that. "Then the rank and file will be from basically any and every village in the alliance," he finished with a shrug.

"You also mentioned captains before?" Shikamaru noted with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, right! Well…down the road they're hoping to create specialized units – one for tracking, one for interrogation, one for spying and so on and so forth," Kiba continued with a hum. "Also, shinobi will be encouraged to move from one HQ to the other, to increase the collaboration, but the captains should ideally remain to guarantee a certain stability, familiarity with that village's way of working and a good continuity to mission assignment and completion," he explained. "As of now, they were thinking four captains per HQ – again, ideally of different villages, for balance's sake."

The Nara nodded his understanding as he mulled it over in his head. "If this works, I suppose at a certain point all missions will be routed through this division," he mused with a hum.

Kiba shrugged, not convinced. "A lot of missions remain 100% inherent to the village that receives them – despite alliances, if Konoha gets a request that only concerns the Land of Fire, possibly even in a delicate way, they're not going to involve other shinobi, right?" he reasoned rhetorically. "And that's without even mentioning all those D rank missions the genin get pelted with! The allied division will be an elite sort of thing, so no cat-sitting or fence-painting for us!"

"'Sort of thing'?" Shikamaru repeated with a raised eyebrow. "And you'd been talking so seriously…"

"Oh, shut up," the Inuzuka muttered as he clamped a hand over his lover's (smart) mouth.

Shikamaru chuckled and reached to pull his hand back – not without pressing a kiss to it first. "So what are your plans?" he asked him more seriously.

Kiba hummed as he absently scratched one of his cheeks with his free hand. "I'm going to apply for one of the captain positions – assuming they'll want a captain from Konoha in the first place," he told him.

Shikamaru nodded as it made sense – and he felt really proud. Without being too biased, he was certain that Kiba would make an excellent leader. "Have any names been thrown around for the commander's position?" he wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"Not that they said," Kiba replied, frowning the slightest bit before looking back at him. "Do you think I have a good shot? At making captain I mean? Honestly," he warned as he saw him open his mouth to reply.

The shadow-nin chuckled and waited another few seconds to convince him he wasn't just trying to please him. "Yes. I've always told you I think you have what it takes to captain a team," he reminded him.

"Well," Kiba drawled. "I'll admit I always kinda figured you said that to keep getting into my pants," he teased him easily.

"It wasn't just to keep getting into your pants," Shikamaru assured him with a perfectly serious expression, cracking and chuckling with him before once more turning serious. "But I do mean it – and they'd be idiots not to see it," he assured him.

"I hope you're right," Kiba muttered before shaking his head in amusement and wrapping his arms around his neck. "Want to get into my pants now?" he offered innocently, because twelve days was way too long to go without.

"I thought you'd never ask," Shikamaru replied with a tsk as he let him push him down on the couch.

Akamaru made a sound that was between a snort and a bark to remind them that they weren't alone, and they pulled back sheepishly at that, turning to look at him apologetically.

"Sorry, boy!" Kiba said with a grin before he and Shikamaru shared a look and promptly relocated to their bedroom.

The nin-dog let out another huff as he rested his head back on his cushion, very glad he was as far from that door as possible – although that would do nothing for the smell, unfortunately. His humans were really inconsiderate, sometimes…

After the motion was presented to the council by the Hokage and successfully submitted to a vote, Konoha embarked on the road to starting the joint village rapid response elite division – or just Allied Division, for short. In effect though, the first priority was recruiting volunteers for Suna and Iwa's HQs, since they would be the first to be active. Given his experience with Suna, Kiba had been asked by Temari to be involved in the selection process, something he took quite seriously but was harder than he'd expected.

Tenten, having finished her exchange program with Kumo, surprised quite a few people by applying for Iwa, where she was promptly transferred and even promoted to captain as they were all too happy to recruit a kunoichi who was already familiar with two villages, and held excellent contacts with a third. Gai had cried tears of joy and pride and promptly renamed it the 'Division of Youth' upon learning this, and it had even pushed Lee to apply to join Konoha's future HQ.

Karui for her part was still in Kumo, but there weren't any doubts she'd eventually request a transfer to Konoha – Chouji didn't quite fit in the Cloud as she did in the Leaf, so they all knew it was only a matter of time. Until then, she and Omoi assisted from Kumo, and he even made the trip to the other villages at one point. He didn't apply for any of the command positions despite being asked to, because he'd really always felt more comfortable following than leading – and he had much more freedom and free time that way!

About five months after the Kage's meeting, Suna and Iwa's HQs opened within a week of each other, and less than a month behind schedule, to everyone's great satisfaction. Temari had taken a deputy from Iwa, while the Rock had a deputy from Kiri. In both, they had elected to wear the 'shinobi' forehead protector from the war, to signify that villages of origin did not matter, and it couldn't be denied that it greatly helped set an encouraging atmosphere.

With these two entities inaugurated and developing rapidly, the other villages quickly started refining their own rosters. Eventually, all promoted positions within the division would be based on a vote from that division's troops, but for the beginning, it had been decided that the Kage would assign a commander, and recommend deputies to the other villages, while the commander would choose the captains.

And so it was that a short month after the project was first pitched to them in Kumo, Kakashi informed the as-of-yet unofficial members of Konoha's Allied HQ that their commander would be none other than the famed (and feared) Anko Mitarashi. In all honesty, some did wonder if it was too late to request a transfer, while others, noting Kakashi's unusual cheerfulness, strongly suspected that he wanted to give her a bone to chew so she'd stop chewing him – clearly, it was every man for himself, whether they were at peace or not.

Gai was then named her cheerful assistant to even the odds – unofficially, since he was after all retired, but his experience couldn't be denied and yet again, many suspected ulterior motives from the Hokage.

Thus Konoha's HQ became informally known as the 'Grand Youth HQ'.

Kiba figured there were worse titles.

As he'd planned and once Iwa and Suna were launched, Kiba applied for a captain position in Konoha. Following that, and wanting to make his teammate and teacher proud, so had Lee.

"Of course, you have much more experience than me when it comes to other villages so it'll likely be you, but I would be very proud to be given this chance to prove myself!" the taijutsu expert told him with a bright grin (and nice-guy pose) after handing in his candidacy.

Kiba was eventually called into Anko's office for this the same day that he'd welcomed and escorted their new deputy commander, Maki from the Sand – someone he'd already worked with in Suna as she was often in Temari or Kankuro's units. When he asked her about her transfer, she simply said she needed a change – something he could always relate to. So once Maki was settled, he made his way to the commander's office, trying not to be too nervous.

It didn't help that she had the tendency to look at people the same way she looked at her food.

"Alright," Anko started once the door was closed as she sat back on her desk and looked him in the eyes. "We may not know each other well, Kiba, but I think you know that I'm someone who doesn't beat around the bush."

"Yes, that much is…public knowledge," he replied with a raised eyebrow, wondering what she was up to.

"So let's be blunt. Of all the applicants from Konoha for the position of captain, you're undeniably the most qualified," she declared as she crossed one leg over the other knee, leaning her elbows forward on it. "But," she quickly continued before he had enough time to grin, "I can't promote you."

To say that he was confused would be an understatement. "I'm not following you," Kiba admitted with a frown. "You just said I'm the most qualified."

"You are," she confirmed.

"But you won't promote me."

"I can't," Anko corrected, letting out a huff as she absently scratched the back of her head, ruffling her hair even more. "You were there at the beginning of the exchange program – I'm sure you remember how even the slightest thing could have huge ramifications," she prompted with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes. And? What ramifications are you talking about in our case?" Kiba asked back, Akamaru tilting his head to the side in confusion.

"This is a new organization – and as carefully as we plan it, in its infancy it will always be weak. We have to make it airtight, and that means its authority must not be undermined in any way or shape," the former examiner replied seriously, tapping her knee with her index finger. As he opened his mouth she added the real reason. "There's too big a chance that shinobi from Kiri and Kumo wouldn't respect your authority. That's a risk I can't take right now."

Kiba's frown deepened at this – Kiri and Kumo? Why those two? What could the Mist and the Cloud possibly have against him? Was he too close to Suna, maybe? Unless…no. It couldn't be that.

And yet…

It could only be that.

"I still want you in the division of course, that goes without saying," Anko continued matter-of-factly. "And the next time there's an opening, once we'll have more experience, you have my word your candidacy will be examined in priority – if you'll still be interested," she then added in what she figured was an encouraging tone.

"And you're not worried about shinobi from Kiri and Kumo refusing to follow my orders then?" he asked her with a huff, figuring two could be blunt. "After all, I'll still be in a relationship with a man at that time," he added with a pointed look.

"Yeah, but they'll know you by then," Anko replied simply, unfazed. "Look, having to tell you this isn't exactly the highlight of my day – and you're not the first I had to turn down for stupid reasons. As we speak, building these HQs is a crapful of politics and as a result, 'commander' is just a fancy title for now," she added with a huff, rolling her eyes to the sky. It was almost enough to make her consider quitting, really, but…one way or another, she wanted to make a difference, in a good way for once, and this was her chance.

Kiba held her look and resisted the urge to sigh. As she'd said, he knew her enough to understand she wasn't lying – heck, she didn't even need to tell him any of this, she could've simply said that all things considered, she'd decided to nominate this or that person instead of him, and that would've been that. But she'd been honest, he appreciated that. And from his time spent around Kankuro, he knew how many concessions 'politics' sometimes demanded from people in command positions.

"So who do you plan on nominating?" he asked her, because what else was there to ask, really?

When it came down to it, naturally, Kiba had to admit he was really disappointed. He'd felt drawn to that project from the start—heck, the exchange program was basically the skeleton for the Allied division, it was something he was inherently proud of, something he'd wanted to be a part of, and having a promotion denied because of his personal affiliations was hurtful and even humiliating, to a certain extent. It was also a first, and he figured he should consider himself lucky for that, because realistically that was bound to happen someday, right?

Without a doubt, he knew that Anko would keep that between them. People would still talk, because people always talked, but then again they'd have talked if he'd been promoted, too. He'd learned to ignore that long ago. He'd tell Shino, because he never kept anything from him, but the rest of his friends would just be told he was passed over in favor of someone else, period.

Besides, that someone was Lee, and Kiba really wasn't opposed to working under him. He had an infectious optimism that many shinobi truly lacked, and he deserved it, too. Lee didn't have annoying innate ninjutsu talent or a famous clan name, everything he was he owed to his own work and determination, and that was worth respecting. Furthermore, he'd known loss, and as painful as it was it actually made him more qualified than most to lead.

However there was no way he'd hide it from Shikamaru – firstly because he didn't believe in hiding things from him, and secondly because hiding things from him was close to impossible anyway. Yet just this once, he wished he could gloss over the details. Because there was no doubt that it would hurt him, no doubt that he'd blame himself, and he didn't want him to. "This sucks, huh Akamaru?" he asked his companion rhetorically.

Akamaru nodded once, nuzzling his hand reassuringly.

Kiba just sighed loudly before looking up, nose twitching at a familiar smell, lips pulling in a slight grin as his brother-in-law walked up to them. "Hey Aoba."

"Afternoon you two," Aoba greeted good-naturedly, cocking his head to the side as he looked over his shoulder – at the building that had been designed as Konoha's Allied division HQ. "Was that interview today?"

"Yeah," Kiba replied as he crossed his arms over his chest. The sensor obviously knew him well enough by then to get the outcome from his tone. "She settled on Lee, I can respect that," he immediately tempered with a shrug.

Aoba nodded slowly, not seeing any reason to contradict him on that, but still looking for something to say. The Inuzuka beat him to it however and his eyes widened at his question.

"Hey, Aoba, do you ever regret having married into our clan? I mean not that it's the Inuzuka, but marrying into another clan at all?" Kiba wondered with a frown. "Kao's still young now but when her training starts—"

"I'll feel left out?" Aoba finished for him, sighing as he wondered how to best word his reply, eyes trailing to the clan markings on his wrists. "Yeah, I think about that a lot. But it's okay; she's still my daughter, and you can be sure I'll work some sensing skills into her! Besides…well I really can't say that anyone in the clan has ever made me feel anything but welcome," he admitted honestly, and it was true – he was Aoba Inuzuka, and to the other members of the Inuzuka clan, it truly didn't matter that he didn't have a nin-dog by his side or wasn't born to them: he was one of them, case closed.

Kiba smiled automatically at this, proud of his clansmen, before sobering up as he returned to their conversation. "If we were in Suna, I'd even be given a shot at being deputy commander, if I wanted to," he started quietly. "And here…in my hometown…" he trailed off at this, not really sure whether he really wanted to say why he'd been turned down.

"What's really eating you, Kiba?" Aoba asked him seriously as he stepped closer.

"Relationships are built on compromise, right?" Kiba asked instead, looking up at him. "That means both careers can't be prioritized."

"Not if they'd pull you in different directions, no," the sensor agreed with a nod. "Is it your impression that it's what's happening between you and Shikamaru?" he then asked him quietly.

Kiba nodded back once, sighing as he didn't like complaining about things – it didn't really fix anything and only made you feel marginally better for a short moment – but just this once, he couldn't help it. "He's Shikamaru Nara of Konoha after all. He's never had to deal with any fallout for being with a man."

Aoba's eyes narrowed behind his glasses as he once more looked over his shoulder at the building, and then back at him. "Like being denied a promotion?" he clarified unhappily, huffing as the other man nodded mutely. "Well, that sucks," he declared eloquently, grinning slightly as his brother-in-law chuckled in amusement and raised an eyebrow at him. "Do you want to go to Suna?" he then asked him.

"Yes," Kiba admitted with a sigh.

"More than staying with Shikamaru?" he asked again.

"No," was the reply, said with such certainty that it somehow cleared everything up.

"Well, that's that then," Aoba concluded with a shrug. It was how he'd made his own decision to marry Hana and join her clan after all. You list the things you want the most, and then you see which you could or couldn't bear to live without – in his experience, the answer would usually jump out at you on its own that way. "Will you tell him?" he then wondered curiously.

Kiba laughed brightly and yet again raised an eyebrow at him. "Have you ever tried hiding something from Shikamaru? He's got a built-in bullshit detector! Sex can usually distract him, but that only works for so long!" he huffed fondly.

"Huh," Aoba said in a non-committal manner. After all, from where he stood, the Inuzukas had their very own 'built-in bullshit detector' and were a lot shrewder than most people gave them credit for – which often proved to be a fatal mistake on their part.

Kiba just grinned back at him and gently punched his shoulder in gratefulness. "Thanks Aoba, I appreciate you listening!" he said earnestly.

The sensor frowned at this, waving a hand to dismiss his thanks. "Come on, we're family," he needlessly reminded him matter-of-factly, smiling as Akamaru barked something happily. "That's right, Akamaru!" he agreed easily.

If you couldn't vent with family, then who were you supposed to turn to?

Chapter Text


When he returned home to find Shikamaru waiting for him on the couch, Kiba had to force himself not to sigh. While he would readily admit that it was both sweet and endearing that Shikamaru was anxious to know about his interview, since he didn't exactly have good news to give him it made it even harder on him. "I didn't get the captain position," he blurted out before anything else could be said – before he could be tempted to change the subject or stall. He hated stalling.

Shikamaru closed his mouth with a sigh and then got up to walk to him and loosely wrap his arms around his neck. "I'm sorry," was all he said, knowing his lover didn't like to be actively cheered up when he failed at something.

Kiba couldn't help but smile back fondly and leaned in for a quick kiss, closing his eyes and breathing in his scent as he pulled back, holding him close – and yeah, as he'd thought, this was infinitely better than all the promotions in the world. "She's planning on promoting Lee," he then told him, starting with the 'good' news – and no, that wasn't stalling, just a selective order.

The Nara nodded back, having to concede he was a good choice – there weren't a lot of people around who could genuinely say that they didn't hold a drop of prejudice against shinobi from other villages, but Lee was one of them, hands down. "That's not so bad," he admitted.

"Oh, absolutely – I've got nothing against him getting the job!" Kiba quickly added, letting out a breath as he pulled back to look him in the eyes, knowing he was going to freak out. "There's just a small issue on the…reason why she decided not to promote me."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this, not liking where this was going – Akamaru had even gone off to his cushion and turned the other way, something he explicitly did when he didn't want to get involved at all. "And that reason would be…?"

"Us," Kiba replied straightforwardly. "Anko argued that some shinobi – mostly from Kumo and Kiri – wouldn't respect my authority without knowing me first. So she decided against it as the beginning of the division really isn't the time to test loyalties." Defending that argument hurt like shit and left a bitter taste in his mouth, even though the more rational part of him could understand the position she was in – more than that though, he really, really didn't want Shikamaru to blame himself.

Which he immediately did, of course.

"Please don't look at me like it's your fault," Kiba told him seriously, looking into his eyes.

Shikamaru frowned at him as he tried to move back before giving up as the arms around his waist wouldn't budge an inch. "But it is!"

"If I'd been with any other guy, the issue would've been the same – so there: it's got nothing to do with you," the Inuzuka declared pragmatically.

"But you're not with any other guy: you're with me," Shikamaru snapped back, not knowing what to do with his hands and finally crossing his arms over his chest.

Kiba resisted the urge to roll his eyes fondly. "I'm not going to argue with you about whose fault it is. I only told you because I don't want to hide it from you," he said with a shrug.

"Look me in the eyes and tell me you're not disappointed," the Nara challenged.

"Well of course I'm disappointed!" Kiba replied with a frown. "But I don't blame you! I blame narrow-minded and old-fashioned ways of thinking," he reasoned. Shikamaru chuckled despite his best efforts to remain annoyed and Kiba grinned at this. "Hey, I've still got a job anyway, and I can apply for another promotion the next time something opens up – people will have gotten used to me by then, and you know how relentless I can be!"

Shikamaru sighed as he uncrossed his arms and moved his hands to his face, shaking his head slightly and feeling worse because why was Kiba trying to cheer him up? "I'm sorry – it's always you reassuring me even when it ought to be the other way around," he mused quietly.

"I'd be lying if I said I don't enjoy it," the Inuzuka admitted with a smirk.

"I love you," Shikamaru told him seriously – needlessly – before moving to kiss him.

"That's way more important than any promotion," Kiba assured him against his lips.

Shikamaru chuckled and then just put his mouth to better use.

But he couldn't help it that every time someone learned that Kiba didn't get that promotion, he felt a clump of lead sink down into his stomach. Lee was the worst because he spent a good five minutes alternating between genuine elation and genuine confusion as he looked at Kiba.

And despite Kiba's reassurances, when it really came down to it, Shikamaru felt that it was because of him.

While the Fourth Shinobi War was now almost four years behind them, the ties between the villages hadn't been broken or weakened (yet, some pessimistic naysayers kept grumbling). The shinobi exchange program had eventually grown to be active between all villages (granted, not with the same level of success everywhere) and an active feature of the newly formed Allied division. As initially surmised, many who had participated in the exchange program, both before and after the division's creation, ended up joining its ranks, either in their home village or in another country. It had taken a few months to really get going, but once they got the hang of things the HQ in Konoha started working quite smoothly – Anko didn't suffer delays and promptly 'unstuck' any sticky situations, to her credit.

Kiba had to admit working under her never got boring, at the very least. And Lee had been a pure blast to work with, so he'd soon pushed away his bitterness at not having been promoted, because he still enjoyed his job. He was even part of a semi-regular unit, as he was often assigned to teams captained by a medic from Iwa who could seemingly outdrink anyone.

As expected, Karui had eventually transferred to Konoha – after Kumo's own HQ had become stable, remarkably swiftly – and moved in with Chouji, to the Akimichi's great satisfaction. Omoi for his part visited regularly, and even Tenten had managed a short visit as well in her time.

So all in all, it felt like the villages had never been closer.

That evening however, Kiba pressed his lips together in a thin line as he re-read his mission orders, trying to look for a loophole. But there was none. He knew it. Orders had to be obeyed.

Launch an invasion of the Twisted Kunai Hills.

Looking at the hills in question on the map, he sighed as he noted Omoi's troops were stationed there – he was an ally, damn it! He couldn't just invade his ally's territory! It would be the beginning of the end!

"That bad?" Omoi asked with a wince as he didn't like the way he was looking at him.

Kiba replied with a sigh and nodded gravely.

"Orders are orders," Lee noted solemnly as he reached to place a hand on his shoulder and squeezed briefly.

"Yeah…" Kiba muttered before reaching for the dice and throwing them to determine his attack's strength, moving a pawn to the Twisted Kunai Hills spot on the map, next to Omoi's little figure indicating a camp. "Sorry, Omoi, guess our alliance's over!"

"Wasn't it always bound to be so?" the Cloud shinobi wondered philosophically as he threw his own dice to decide his defenses' efficiency. The other two winced at his pathetically low score, and he sighed deeply as he reached for his drink. "And so ends an era of prosperity!" he declared as he emptied it. "Now your troops will raid my villages, destroy my farmlands, throw my economy upside-down, negate centuries of culture, and probably discover an allergy to our local specialties that no amount of healing herbs can cure!" he forewarned seriously.

"Nobody likes a sore loser," Kiba retorted smartly as he moved his own game-piece over the Twisted Kunai Hills.

"Game's not over yet, he could still do you over! Knowing you, you might even enjoy it," Karui reminded him seriously with a smirk as she reached for the pile of cards labeled mission orders and her smile turned upside down as she read it. "Hold a feast to raise your troops' morale! Pah!"

"But that's actually a good thing!" Lee reminder her in amusement – he wished he'd drawn it; his troops' morale was getting a little low…mutiny was drawing closer than ever on the horizon as things stood.

The kunoichi shrugged as she threw the dice, sighing slightly in relief as it wouldn't cost her too much. "Yeah, but my coffers are almost empty," she commented as she grabbed the morale up perk from the game box, eyeing Lee's quite large funds deposit. Maybe an alliance of their own wouldn't be such a bad idea down the road…she'd probably be able to turn this to her advantage, too.

"Are you still playing Shinobi Conquest?" Shikamaru noted in surprise as he returned home, automatically reaching a hand to pat Akamaru as he went to greet him. He'd already left them huddled around the board game several hours earlier, he hadn't expected to see them at the same spot when he'd be back!

"Well, we're off tomorrow anyway, so we might as well see it through, right?" Karui replied easily, not even looking up as she arranged her cards.

The Nara chuckled, feeling envious even though it just as often happened that he had a day off while they worked. He'd been working irregular schedules recently, too, which was why he was coming back in the middle of the night – but they'd returned from a mission earlier that day, so were well within their rights to unwind. Besides, he knew for a fact how addictive and captivating a good game of Shinobi Conquest could be. "How's it going?" he wondered as he walked over to take a quick look at the board over Kiba's shoulder.

"Kiba just betrayed our alliance," Omoi informed him before nonchalantly adding, "I just thought you should know you're sharing your bed with a vile traitor."

"Hey!" Kiba protested for the principle as they all shared a good laugh – except for Karui who just snorted her amusement at them as usual.

"We'll do our best to keep our voices down," Lee promised seriously, wanting to continue the game – he was sort of winning for once, after all!

"No need," Shikamaru dismissed easily as he stretched his arms behind his head. "I can sleep through anything," he added with a shrug and a yawn.

"Yeah, he once fell asleep at an Inuzuka family reunion!" Kiba added with an amused snort.

Karui frowned slightly as she looked between them. "I suppose that's your way of saying he can really sleep through anything?" she ventured a guess, humming at their nods. "Night then!"

Omoi waved at him and then reached for his own mission orders, smirking slowly as he eyed the as-of-yet unclaimed small patch of land called Centipede Reach that the card had just given him the right to annex – right in the middle of Lee's forces. Oh, how he was going to sow the seeds of dissent! Or, possibly, sell him the land for a hefty price, depending on the circumstances. He wasn't out of it yet!

Akamaru whined and Kiba laughed before translating. "He says this game brings out the worst in people!"

Nobody could deny this. (But wasn't it the fun part?)

The next day saw Shikamaru (as usual) yawning widely as he waited for his friends to arrive – they were actually supposed to go meet Kurenai and Mirai together for dinner, so he hadn't had the heart to turn it down despite being tired by the day's work. Ino's all-knowing smug grin as she lightly elbowed his side in greeting tired him even more, but Chouji's weariness was different. "What's up?"

"Do you know what happened at your place last night?" the Akimichi wondered with a pained frown.

"Did you absolutely have to word it like that?" Shikamaru wondered instead as Ino snorted in amusement.

"Did Karui come home in a bad mood?" Ino offered, straight on the mark. At Chouji's pitiable nod, she reached over to gently rub his back. "There, there…"

"She probably lost at Shinobi Conquest," Shikamaru supplied as they started walking towards the Sarutobi clan grounds.

This immediately cleared things up for Chouji. "She hates losing," he added with a nod.

Ino raised an eyebrow at this. "Shinobi Conquest is not a game for people who're afraid of losing. When you lose, you can lose bad," she needlessly reminded them. "Man, it's been ages since I last played!"

Shikamaru chuckled and then shivered, frowning at her puzzled look. "I just had a mental image of Sai playing the game," he told her.

"Oh yeah, there are just so many ways this could go bad!" she immediately agreed while Chouji nodded as well. Not that Sai was a sore loser, but he…got intense about games, treating them like an actual assignment, and there was no doubt he'd eventually get carried away. But then again…

"No," Shikamaru immediately said as he saw her open her mouth. "We're not playing a game with him to find out."

Ino pouted at this, grabbing both her friends' arms as she imperceptibly pulled them along. "Aw, come on guys! Where's your sense of adventure?" she teased them easily.

"Somewhere on the shelf next to my instinct of self-preservation," Chouji replied matter-of-factly, knowing that after all, if she really made her mind up to do something, then they'd be pulled along – she had that effect on them, always did.

And she knew it.

"Kurenai, could you please help us convince Ino that having Sai play Shinobi Conquest is a bad, bad idea?" Chouji tried nonetheless once they'd reached their destination.

"Shinobi Conquest? It's been so long! Count me in!" the teacher replied brightly instead.

All that Chouji could do was bow his head in regret as Shikamaru narrowed his eyes at him and sighed.

"Uncle Chouji and Uncle Shikamaru look sad," Mirai commented thoughtfully as she looked between the two. "Why?"

"Aw, they're just hungry," Ino reassured her as she pulled her into her lap and tickled her neck. "Right?" she asked the other two with a bright smile.

Kurenai could only laugh as they automatically confirmed it to reassure their almost-niece. Turning her eyes towards Asuma's picture, her smile softened. He'd been as powerless as Chouji and Shikamaru before Ino, and seeing them like this brought back good memories.

"Hey, do you want to play that game with us sometime? It might be a bit too hard for you on your own, but you and I can team up if you'd like!" Ino offered Mirai as she turned her around in her lap.

"Yes!" the little girl immediately replied happily. "Mommy, is that okay?" she then asked her mother excitedly.

"Yes, of course, we'll all play together!" Kurenai replied with a grin, chuckling as the other two relaxed at the thought of Mirai joining them and counter-balancing Sai's…seriousness.

"Even Sai will understand that when playing against children, the nice thing to do is let them win, right?" Chouji whispered to his friend.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this. "The guy who didn't have a childhood? No chance," he replied with a shrug before grinning slowly. "But he'll understand he has to let Ino win," he then added slyly.

Chouji had no choice but to laugh in agreement. It wouldn't be so bad, then.

In all honesty and seriousness, there was one thing Kiba knew he could never master the way Lee did it, not even in a million years.

It was his uncanny ability to make people feel absolutely guilty for not performing to the best of their abilities.

"I assure you Captain, it's not your fault! I just wasn't paying enough attention, is all!" a shinobi from Iwa assured him helplessly as he held his hands together.

"No, do not pretend for my sake!" Lee insisted as he pressed his face into the crook of his elbow. "I have failed you! I was not able to motivate you as I should have, as your captain! I should just hand in my resignation and spare you all the shame!"

"No, Captain, really it's not like that! You're extremely motivating!" he quickly insisted, resolutely blushing as he knew just how his words sounded and was sure new rumors would erupt from this.

"I am…?" Lee asked hesitantly as his tear-stained tentatively face came back into view.

"You're the most motivational of motivators, Captain Lee!" he replied evasively, keeping a bright grin on even as he noticed the amused looks surrounding them.

"Then…perhaps I can give myself one more chance…"


Konoha's Junior Green Beast sighed deeply and then nodded. "Very well then. In penance, I shall do a hundred laps around the village on my hands! I suggest you also take a moment to reflect on your role as a shinobi, as we should all do," he encouraged seriously as he placed a hand on his shoulder and held a thumb up with the other.

"Will do, Captain!" he immediately agreed before running off. He'd never be caught off guard again.

"Sometimes, I swear, you scare me," Kiba told his friend honestly as he rested an elbow on his shoulder.

Lee shrugged his free shoulder at this, turning his sparkly grin to him. "Well, it's his business if he's bored with life and unsure what he wants to do with it, but if he lets go during missions, it's his superiors and fellow shinobi who'll be in trouble – it was time he realized that!" he noted modestly.

"And that's why sometimes you honestly scare me," Kiba repeated with a shake of his head. "Now he's gonna question himself because he won't want his captain to cry on him again – that was pretty sleek of you!"

"Sometimes people just need some perspective," the taijutsu expert replied serenely before sighing. "Besides, it really was because of my shortcomings as a captain that I didn't notice his state earlier, so I am to blame, to a certain extent," he insisted earnestly.

"How like you!" Kiba teased amicably as he ruffled his hair. "So you'll do those laps anyway, right?" he asked needlessly.

"Of course! One must never go back on one's word!"

The Nice Guy pose this exclamation came with was absolutely blinding, so the Inuzuka didn't reply anything and just wished him luck as he moved to returned to his work. His friend called him back as he left and he tilted his head to the side. "Yeah?"

"If you don't have something already planned in the next week, I would appreciate your support with a mission I've just been assigned. It's to the Land of Earth," he offered as he absently rearranged his protector around his waist.

Kiba hummed as he thought it over. "I have to double-check my roster, but I think that should be alright," he replied eventually.

"I'll turn in the formal request then!" Lee declared with a thumb up before leaving to do just that.

People cheered him on his way, and it further proved how appreciated he was. Shinobi worked extra hard when they were assigned to his unit, because he blamed himself like no one else when something went wrong. It was as hilarious as it was heartwarming, at times.

The Grand Youth HQ had to live up to its reputation after all.

The first thing Lee did once they reached Iwa's HQ, understandably, was to look for the deputy commander's office to report that they'd completed their mission on the way – tailing and capture of a separatist – and hand their prisoner over to the local authorities. Then he and his team had the usual mandatory medical examination to confirm they were alright – and under no genjutsu.

But in effect, the second thing he did was to look for Tenten to greet her. Loudly.

"Do you know him, Captain?" a kunoichi asked the weapons specialist as she pretended not to notice the looks they were receiving.


"But he just called your name. Loudly."

"A lot of people know my name."


Tenten's shoulders sagged and she leaned over the railing to look down at Lee and his nice guy pose. "Stop blowing out everyone's eardrums and get your asses up here!"

"Not like I made any noise," Kiba muttered as he moved to follow their energetic captain.

"There's only two of you?" Tenten wondered as they reached her – clapping their backs for good measure and greeting.

"The other two are resting – we're planning on heading back tomorrow morning, Captain," Kiba replied teasingly – earning himself another slap, on his arm this time.

She nodded at this, looking over her shoulder at the time. "We'll be setting out together then, I'm leaving for Kumo tomorrow," she informed them with a grin. "I haven't been back there since I left the exchange program! I miss it! Do you know how Karui and Omoi are doing?"

"Karui moved to Konoha about a month ago, and she's doing just fine!" Kiba replied with a grin, chuckling as she wiggled her eyebrows at this. "And Omoi was just in Konoha actually."

"I believe he mentioned he was going to Suna next, and then Iwa," Lee added as he looked around, nodding at a few familiar faces – from Konoha, the war, or former missions.

"Mmh, guess we'll miss each other then," Tenten muttered with a huff and what suspiciously looked like a pout.

Lee noticed it and hummed before opting to change the subject. "How are things going here?" he asked with interest.

"Here? The HQ you mean?" she replied with a blink, shrugging at his nod. "Can't complain – at all, really. Work even manages to be fun, from time to time, if you'll believe it!"

"Lucky you!" Kiba teased her, raising his hands in peaceful surrender as Lee raised an eyebrow at him. "Omoi says it's going great in Kumo as well!"

"And obviously, we in Konoha are flourishing!" Lee added with a thumb up.

Tenten laughed at his choice of words and quickly looked around before leaning closer to them. "You didn't hear this from me, but I hear whispers it's not so hot in Suna though…"

"In Suna? Really?" Kiba repeated in surprise. "That's not what I'd expect with Temari in charge!" he added honestly – he'd met very few people who could whip others in shape the way she did, so effortlessly.

"Word is it's her deputy that's the problem," the kunoichi corrected.

Lee crossed his arms over his chest as he thought about it. "The deputy in Suna is from Iwa, if memory serves? Then it's no wonder you've heard about it but not us…" he mused thoughtfully.

"Then that means it's not so bad yet – otherwise you'd have heard about it too," Tenten opinionated as she sighed. "We knew this would be a challenge, right?" she added rhetorically.

Kiba nodded anyway, thinking about it. He'd been to Suna at the beginning of the division, and things had seemed fine, but that was probably before the 'problems' – whatever they were – had come up. He'd hoped to get more assignments to the Sand, truthfully, but the occasion hadn't presented itself at all in the past months, yet this new piece of information made him quite curious.

At the same time, missions from and with Suna's HQ kept coming, so whatever was going on didn't affect their dealings with the other HQs, something that really didn't surprise him, coming from Temari. He trusted her, implicitly, but if she really had troubles he wished there was something he could do to help. Of course Konoha was home, but he'd felt an undeniable sense of belonging in Suna, he'd never forget that.

Their rest in Iwa was short-lived however, as Lee had them geared up and ready to depart at the gate at the crack of dawn – unsurprisingly, Tenten had done the same to her team.

"You guys must've had the most gruesome training regimen," one of Tenten's subordinates commented earnestly around a jaw-splitting yawn.

"Hey, at least, I don't punish myself with the craziest impossibly physical exercises when I fail at something!" the weapons specialist tempered.

"It hones the spirit!" Lee insisted pragmatically.

"It kills the spirit," Tenten corrected deadpan.

"It is painful to watch," one of Lee's team, originally from Kiri, commented.

Tenten grinned smugly as though that point made her case.

"But somehow efficient," another kunoichi from Tenten's team added. "Few kunoichi are as resilient as the Captain!"

"And few shinobi are as fast as our Captain!"

Lee and Tenten both flushed proudly at the compliments, and Kiba snickered at that. "Few are so easily pleased, too!" he mock-whispered to the ones closer to him.

"Hey, did you guys know Kiba once fought Naruto in the Chuunin exams and was defeated by a fart?" Tenten asked brightly instead of rising to the bait.

"I hate you," he informed her with a groan as the others tried to hide their chuckles.

"You do that," she replied airily.

"Aw, don't feel bad, Kiba," his teammate from Iwa told him as she clapped his shoulder.

"Yeah, if it's any consolation, we already knew – it's a popular story in Konoha!" the shinobi from Kiri added with a grin.

"It's really not," Kiba informed him – and he actually knew they were already in the know. "Who even went around spreading that story?" he asked for the principle – although no one answered him, as he'd expected. Sure, ties with the other nations were great and all, except when they got in on the village jokes.

But laughter was the best way to form friendships, right? And nothing too easily gained was really worth holding on to. Much as he was loathe to admit it, Anko had been right way back when: even people who initially had a hard time with him because of his relationship eventually eased up once they got to know him and worked with him. But they were able to build these relationships as equals. If he'd been the one in command, some would have likely felt pressured to adapt, and the results wouldn't have been the same, he could see that now.

Besides, it was completely worth it to see Lee finally get the recognition he really deserved.

And Anko scared the scrap out of him so he was happy not to deal with her directly often, but that was another story.

Chapter Text


With the Allied Division's rapid development, they'd all been so busy that before they knew it, it was once more time for the Kage's annual meeting, this time to be held in Konoha. Anko, Maki and Gai had offered the HQ's help with the security – with all three equally claiming full credit for the idea, quite comically – and Kakashi had humored them and accepted their offer – although officiously, there was a betting pool going on for which of the three would snap first and rumor had it the Hokage had quite some money on his eternal rival outlasting the other two.

So it was that running errands between the Grand Youth HQ (the name had stuck, to a lot of people's dismay and many more's amusement) and the Hokage's office became a recurrent enough task for quite a few members of the allied division, Kiba included. That was why he really wasn't suspecting any foul play when he was summoned to the Hokage's office one morning before work.

"You wanted to see me?" he asked Kakashi with a raised eyebrow, ignoring the way the copy-nin put down his Icha-Icha as though it was something that had its place on the Hokage's desk – no wonder Shizune needed more vacations.

"Yes. As I'm sure you well know, the Kazekage will be coming to Konoha soon for the next Kage meeting; he'll actually get here earlier as there are other matters we must discuss. Anyway—he's requested a meeting with you at that time," he informed him, voice always too light and cheerful.

"Lord Gaara did? Am I in trouble?" Kiba joked as he placed a hand on his hip.

Kakashi's eyes trailed down to a scroll on his desk and he shook his head. "I doubt it. He said 'please'," he relayed as though that was all he needed to hear – because obviously people couldn't be up to no good if they made the effort of being polite.

Kiba snorted at that, refraining from pointing out that Gaara said 'please' and 'thank you' a lot as a result of Temari's 'politeness' lessons without necessarily meaning the words all the time. "Well, even if he hadn't, it's not like I'd ignore a request from both the Hokage and the Kazekage!" he replied with a mock-nod.

"I thought as much," Kakashi replied as he handed him a scroll with his orders and schedule. He then picked his book back up, signifying the meeting was over.

Akamaru whined curiously and his master shrugged at him, absently going over the details as they returned to their division's headquarters. Well this should be interesting…

Shikamaru, as could be expected, did not share his mindset. "Gaara asked for you?" he repeated. "He's going to ask you to move to Suna again, I'm sure of it…" he muttered crossly as he stirred the stew he was cooking a bit more energetically than was warranted.

"Think so?" Kiba asked distractedly as he chopped up the nervy meat parts for Akamaru's dinner.

"What else could it be?" the Nara wondered with a frown as he stopped and looked at him. Something else bothered him. "And where there's Gaara, there's Kankuro," he noted darkly.

Kiba paused as he turned to him, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "And…?" he prompted. Shikamaru had never really completely gotten over his jealousy towards Kankuro, and sometimes it was as unnerving as it was endearing.

"Nothing," Shikamaru muttered, realizing he was being unreasonable and not wanting to cause a repeat of their biggest fight yet.

"We'll see what Gaara wants – you never know, maybe he's just thinking about getting a dog and wants an expert's opinion!" Kiba said brightly as he wasn't interested in starting a fight either.

Shikamaru snorted at that. "Yeah, right!" There was nothing to it anyway, they'd just have to wait and see.

In all honesty though, nothing could have prepared Kiba for Gaara's actual request.

He'd met up with him in the Hokage's office, greeting Kankuro at the same time – with Shikamaru silently glaring daggers at the back of his head when he got close to the puppeteer. They'd then moved to another room with casual furniture while Kankuro took a short break. Kiba had honestly expected a request for input on Suna's current program volunteer, or even maybe a recommendation for a Konoha shinobi. He'd visibly aimed too low.

"You what…?" he asked with wide blinking eyes while Akamaru cocked his head to the side, just ask shocked.

"I'd like for you to fill the position of deputy commander of the joint village rapid response elite division headquarters in Suna," Gaara repeated word for word – and of course he used the complete official title! "As you well know, it was decided that a shinobi from another village should be the second-in-command in each village's headquarters, but we've had…troubles with Iwa's representative," he admitted, which was likely a toned down version of 'Temari has reached the limits of her patience and has seriously threatened to kill her'. "We have no choice but to replace her without delay, and Temari and I agree you are the one who immediately comes to mind when thinking about outside shinobi who understand the Sand," he developed, holding his gaze. "The situation is such that my sister could not afford to leave the village, although she'd have wanted to extend this invitation to you herself. The Hokage for his part has naturally given his approval, and should you agree I have brought a transfer request for your commander," he added as he slid a folder to him over the table.

Kiba's eyes didn't diminish in size yet as they slowly moved to the earth-colored binder. He kept himself from asking 'you what' a second time however, because knowing the other man, he'd have repeated the same words again. "But…I'm sure there are other people better suited for command than me – even already in Suna's HQ. I could captain a unit if you want to promote one of your captains, maybe give you an outsider's fresh point of view, but I'm not a division commander, even a deputy!" he told him honestly.

He wasn't completely shocked to hear they'd want to change their roster however, because there had been talk of Suna's HQ's struggles for some time now, and Tenten had even said as much before rumors made it to them. He hadn't been deployed there in a long time and so hadn't been able to verify things for himself however, and now he felt really bad about it. Still, that didn't mean he felt qualified to fix anything.

"Kankuro thought you would say that," Gaara mused as he crossed his arms over his chest, looking at him curiously. "But I think you're quite capable. You understand people, and your instincts are usually correct. You aren't easily intimidated, but aren't stubborn to the point of not admitting someone else's input. Your service records were exemplary during the year you spent with us, as they have been in Konoha and in the division so far."

Kiba was temporarily rendered speechless both by Gaara's completely innocent assessment of Kankuro's knowledge of him and the undeniable praise the Kazekage had just given him. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, when he'd been previously offered to move to the Sand, that was already quite the offer, but this? Command? He'd likely never get such a high position in Konoha as things stood right now, he was well aware of that. But would Shikamaru agree to follow him? That was much more uncertain, even if the position would only be temporary. Not only was he still very much attached to his clan, and his father's memory, but it was his goal to serve as Naruto's personal advisor one day, and there was little doubt that he'd eventually follow in Shikaku's footsteps and be promoted to jounin commander. Was that it then? Did they have to decide which of their careers should be prioritized? "Lord Gaara, I…" he sighed and gave himself a moment to find his words as he looked up at him. "I'm thankful, really, for your offer. It means more than you know, and I would do anything in my power to prove that you'd be right to trust me. But this isn't a decision that I can take lightly, or alone," he told him, resisting the urge to squirm in his seat under his unblinking gaze.

"I understand," Gaara replied with a tentative smile, visibly still trying to figure out just how he should react at times, but getting there. "I would not wish to cause you trouble, and of course, I want you to think about it carefully before giving me a response. After the meeting with the other Kage, I will have time to set this up properly, if your response is positive; following that, the aim would be to have you take your functions within a month. Do you believe you might be able to come to a decision by Wednesday evening, so that I'll know if I'll need to extend my stay in Konoha by a few hours?" he offered as he cocked his head to the side.

"I'll make sure I do, thank you," Kiba replied before thinking about something else. "Can I…ask something else?"


"You're looking to pacify a tense situation, from what I understand? Get the division back to running smoothly?" the Inuzuka started, humming in thoughts at the other man's nod. "In that case, would it be acceptable to you if I were to take on this position for a set period of time – say, a year or so – until the situation can be resolved?" A year away from Konoha seemed a reasonable compromise, neither of them had any particular commitments that they couldn't take a break from.

Gaara frowned at this, and it was hard to say whether it was because the request surprised or annoyed him. "Well…certainly neither Temari nor I would force you to stay if you wished to return to Konoha. If that were your decision, we would respect it," he started fairly. "And it's true that there's a certain urgency to the situation; as such, we would both be relieved to hand it over to you as someone we personally know and trust," he answered as he looked back up at him.

Kiba sighed in relief and then asked his second question, and he was really glad that this was Gaara, someone he knew as a person beyond his title, or this would've been much harder. "Could Shikamaru come along as well? I'm sure you can imagine I'm not really prepared to leave him behind," he said as he held his look.

This time Gaara huffed in amusement. "I don't think you of all people need me to inform you that Shikamaru Nara is the envy of many villages. I have no doubt I could offer him a suitable position in Suna for as long as you'll both be willing," he replied honestly.

"Then you'll have our answer by Wednesday evening as agreed," Kiba promised him with a nod, inwardly hoping that it would be a positive one. Now how to bring it up to Shikamaru, that was another problem altogether…

"You said no, didn't you?" Kankuro asked him with a raised eyebrow as he stood waiting for his brother outside the room.

"I said I'd think about it," Kiba replied with a grin as he crossed his arms over his chest, noting with amusement that Akamaru instantly walked over to get a pat from the puppeteer.

"That means 'no'," Kankuro noted as he looked up from the nin-dog.

"That means 'I'll think about it'!" the Inuzuka argued as he mock-punched his shoulder. He then looked to the side as he sighed. "I mean it's not just my decision. I'm not leaving Shikamaru behind," he said with a warm grin.

Kankuro chuckled as he cocked his head to the side. "Heh, maybe I should give that whole 'settling down' thing a try, what do you say?" he joked as he pulled him in a headlock and ruffled his hair. "It seems to be working out alright for you!"

"No one could handle you, Kankuro!" Kiba teased back as he pulled away and made a show of putting his hair back – meaning there literally wasn't any difference. "Lunch later?" he offered easily.

The puppeteer raised an eyebrow at that, smiling slightly as Akamaru barked his agreement, tail wagging happily. "Well, Gaara has a lunch-meeting planned with the Hokage, so I'm free but…I'm not sure your Nara would be too wild about that," he remarked half-seriously.

Kiba winced as he knew that but wasn't about to take his offer back. "Then we also grab him if you're afraid of your shadow," he offered with a shrug as he pat Akamaru.

"Heck, now you're trying to make this more awkward than scary!" Kankuro replied with a frown. "I'm cool with just us – like old times."

"Great. We'll pick you up here," Kiba replied as he and Akamaru turned to make their way to work.

"Hey Kiba," Kankuro called him back. "For what it's worth, I really do think you'd do a great job at it," he told him seriously.

Kiba's eyes widened and he was momentarily at a loss for words, so he simply grinned at him and waved before leaving.

As if he'd needed more reasons to want to do it!

Although Shikamaru was unusually gifted in appearing bored in all circumstances, Kiba had quickly learned that it didn't apply at all when he was genuinely curious – particularly when he tried to act like he wasn't. "So…what did Gaara want?" he asked nonchalantly as he hung up his jounin vest and his equipment.

Kiba grinned fondly for a second before sobering up as he motioned for him to sit on the couch – which he did, with a long-suffering sigh, figuring something big was afoot. "He does want me back in Suna, you got that part right – or well…Temari does, to be more accurate," he started as he sat cross-legged next to him. "They've offered me the position of deputy commander of Suna's Allied division HQ," he said, watching his reaction attentively.

Shikamaru's eyes widened momentarily before he frowned and then hesitated, as though unsure whether to congratulate him. "What did you tell him?" he finally asked.

"Nothing yet. He's expecting an answer by the end of the meetings, Wednesday evening," Kiba replied with a shrug.

"That's only four days away."

Kiba nodded slowly, very much aware of that fact. "He needs to know whether he'll return to Suna first thing in the morning or stay a bit longer to put this in place, I guess…"

"Oh." In any other circumstances, it would have been amusing to see Shikamaru struggling for words as he was at that moment. But turning down an offer like that wasn't a light decision; they were both aware of it.

"I asked him if it could only be a temporary posting – for a year or so," Kiba continued, purposefully not going into details because as the other man wasn't part of the Allied division, he couldn't just talk to him about the organization's internal struggles, even if he'd probably find out on his own soon enough – Kiba always made it a point to respect the chain of command and follow the procedures in place. "And then of course I asked if you could come with me, and he said yes to both!"

This had the merit of getting Shikamaru to snap out of his thoughts. "You mean move to the Sand? The two of us?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"For a year or so, yeah," Kiba repeated, reaching to place a hand on his arm before he could speak. "Wait, hear me out before you dismiss the idea. Back when Gaara offered me to move to Suna three years ago it was an amazing opportunity for me, but I turned it down for you – and I'm not blaming you, that was my choice and there hasn't been a single day when I've regretted it. But this time I would," he told him honestly, taking in a breath and bracing himself for the rest. "Aside from my tracking skills, I'm an average shinobi, Shikamaru. We both know it's unlikely I'll ever be offered a position that high up in Konoha as it stands now – I didn't even make captain!" And that had stung, he wouldn't deny it.

Akamaru resisted the urge to whine from his side, knowing this was a discussion he shouldn't interrupt but not liking to see his master like that.

"You, on the other hand, have future positions lined up with your name on them already – you can take your pick anytime, anywhere," he continued matter-of-factly. That much was true, and he wasn't jealous of him – he was proud – but it was undeniable that the Nara had it easy compared to nearly everyone else. "So I'm asking you for one year, maybe two, and then we'll come back to Konoha," Kiba finished as he looked at him – firmly resisting the urge to use his so-called 'puppy' look because this was serious.

Shikamaru sighed as he moved to grab the hand that was on his arm and hold it between his, unable to deny that he had a point – over the years, it never ceased to impress him how perceptive Kiba really was despite his perpetually carefree demeanor. Because it was true that Kiba's career in Konoha had peaked with his promotion to tokubetsu jounin, and he had been passed over for captainship when the Allied division had been put in place despite his greater experience working with foreign shinobi – because of them, no less, something Shikamaru had always blamed himself for and resolved to give back someday. Gaara and Temari had really offered Kiba the biggest promotion he was likely to get. On the other hand, as his lover had rightly said, there was little doubt he himself would be able to get any position he wanted down the road. And of course he wasn't about to let him go on his own for so long.

Which only left one question, really.

"What am I going to do in Suna?" he wondered with a raised eyebrow as he tugged on Kiba's arm to pull him against him.

"Gaara honestly didn't seem too worried about coming up with a suitable offer for you," Kiba assured him with a happy grin as he wrapped his arms more tightly around him and nuzzled his neck. "Thank you," he said warmly.

"There's no need to thank me," Shikamaru muttered self-consciously. "The plan is to tackle life together, right?" he asked rhetorically, smiling as he felt Kiba nod against him. "Then it doesn't really matter where we are."

And well…a couple of years in another village might not be so bad after all. Less bossy Ino and exasperating Sai, less crude Karui and smitten Chouji, less constantly annoyed Yoshino, less perverted Hokage…and more really-bossy Temari, more annoying and annoyingly-favored-by-Akamaru Kankuro, more strangely all-seeing Kazekage, more scorching heat, and not to forget the sandstorms. Fifty-fifty then.

Forget the odds. They'd make it work – Shikamaru had no doubts Kiba would even make it fun.

Keeping that decision to themselves once it was taken was actually the hard part. Kiba insisted they should wait for the end of the meetings to tell Gaara, because he wanted Shikamaru to really think it over again and then some – even as the shadow-nin repeatedly told him there was nothing to think about but still indulged him. In the meantime, they put their free time to good use by starting to sort through their belongings for what to keep, what to store, what to bring, what to throw and so on – a daunting task, they soon realized, as it was definitely mind-boggling the amount of things that could get accumulated over the years.

"When did we get this?" Kiba wondered as he held up an apparatus he found at the bottom of one of the kitchen's cupboards.

"Forget the 'when'; I'd like to know what it even is!" Shikamaru replied as he studied it with a frown. "Are you sure it wasn't already there when we moved in?" he wondered as he gingerly tried to poke it and then wiped his finger on his trousers.

Kiba shrugged and they exchanged a nod before he simply tossed it over on the 'throw' pile. Reaching towards the back of the same cupboard once more, his eyes widened in amusement as he found one of Akamaru's old chew toys. "So that's where it was!"

Akamaru scoffed at it and shook his head, clearly indicating he was just fine without it, and onto the 'throw' pile it went too. Ears perking up as this gave him an idea, he made his way to another part of the apartment and pulled out the bottle of vitamins Hana insisted he should take – which tasted foul, and he was just fine without them, thank you very much! – and casually dropped them on the 'throw' pile. Looking up, his tail stopped wagging as he met Shikamaru's amused eyes.

The Nara raised an eyebrow and inwardly debated whether he should tell Kiba and get the vitamins back. He almost broke when the nin-dog did his best puppy eyes, but when Akamaru switched tactics and looked at Kiba before turning back to him, clearly stating 'you don't want me against you', Shikamaru promptly decided that he hadn't seen anything after all and returned to his own sorting.

When Wednesday evening finally rolled by, bringing with it the end of the Kage's meetings, Kiba and Shikamaru managed to get a moment with Gaara before he went to the traditional dinner closing the visits. "We agree to your offer," they told him simply.

"Both of you?" Gaara clarified as Kankuro grinned behind him.

"Both of us," Shikamaru confirmed.

The Kazekage nodded and smiled imperceptibly. "I'll let the Hokage know, and then we can finalize this tomorrow morning," he said with thinly veiled satisfaction before he turned to rejoin his fellow Kage.

Kankuro only lingered to grin at them, saying a quick 'thank you' for helping his siblings before following his brother.

As they were left alone, Kiba and Shikamaru looked at each other and laughed as the tension seemed to come down without warning. "I can't wait to see Anko's face when I tell her!" Kiba admitted as he slung an arm over his shoulder.

"A lot of faces are bound to be funny," Shikamaru admitted as he leaned back against him. "Except maybe my mother's," he added with a frown.

Kiba grimaced at this, and even Akamaru huffed. "Hey, maybe I should leave the village first – then you can tell her you're leaving to join up with me, and that way she won't have a chance to kill me!" he offered, only partly joking.

Shikamaru didn't reply anything to that as he had to admit the plan didn't sound half-bad.

Kakashi had arranged for their respective schedules to be cleared for the day, and so it was that after breakfast, they were meeting up with Gaara and Kankuro once more, this time in their own meeting room, and also with Temari via the communications screen.

"Gotta admit I'm really glad you said 'yes'!" she told Kiba happily before smirking smugly. "Well, I knew you wouldn't be able to resist me, but still…" she teased him easily.

"Is it too late to take it back?" Kiba asked Gaara with a frown for the principle, grinning when the Kazekage understood that it was a joke – a clear improvement from even a couple of years back!

"Gaara should've already given you the transfer order with my signature on it," Temari continued, absently drinking some tea – and he noted she looked really tired, and not just because it was morning.

"Got it here," Kiba confirmed as he waved the papers in front of the camera so she'd see them. "I've signed it too, so now I've just got to hand it over to Anko."

"Good. That means I can tell my current deputy she can return home!" the kunoichi replied with a relieved sigh.

Kiba swallowed a lump at the back of his throat but didn't say anything, only grinned at Shikamaru's reassuring look.

"Now as for you, Shikamaru," Gaara started as he turned to the shadow-nin. "We've discussed it, and we've come to the conclusion that Temari's former position as my advisor and assistant would be perfect for you, if you'd be interested," he offered as his siblings nodded.

"Really?" the Nara replied in surprise – even though he knew Gaara wouldn't joke about this. "Of course, I couldn't ask for better! But I'm not stealing someone's job, am I?" he then wondered with a frown.

"Nah, just returning Baki to his real duties in the council and giving Korobi and Yaoki less headaches," Kankuro assured him seriously. It was true that the two puppeteers had been heavily solicited since Temari changed jobs, and they would undoubtedly be happy to return to their old obligations.

"I left shoes too big to fill," Temari added modestly.

"Then yes, I accept – without question!" Shikamaru repeated, thinking to himself that it had to be fate that he'd always wanted to be the Hokage's assistant and would now end up filling that position for the Kazekage, even if only temporarily.

"Excellent," Gaara noted with a small satisfied smile. "This will need to be handled differently, since the contract will be with Suna, but I don't foresee that there should be too many holdups," he commented thoughtfully.

"I can set that up with Baki as soon as we're back," Kankuro agreed as he crossed his arms over his chest. "And since the Hokage already knows and gave his approval, I think the administrative part here should also be fairly painless," he surmised with a shrug.

Everyone thought to themselves that administration was never painless, but as by some universal agreement, no one spoke the words.

Temari said her goodbyes and added she looked forward to seeing them again before the communication was cut, and Kiba then headed to his HQ to get his transfer started while Shikamaru remained with Gaara a moment longer to discuss his future assignment in more details.

Anko stared at the transfer order for a long moment without saying a word when he handed it to her, while Gai looked from the paper to Kiba repeatedly, eyebrows drawn together as he studied him intently before finally breaking into a wide grin and holding a thumb up to him.

"Spread the youth to other villages, my friend!" he encouraged him solemnly. "I know you can do it!"

"I'll…do my best," Kiba replied slowly after Konoha's Green Beast stared at him a bit too intently while waiting for his answer.

"What goes around comes around, huh?" Anko asked rhetorically as she signed the form and applied Konoha's HQ's seal on it. "I'm not too happy about Temari snatching one of my best elements, but well…you've earned it I suppose," she added with a sigh – because she couldn't just say something nice and be done with it, it wasn't her style.

Lee just further proved how awesome he was and why it was impossible to be jealous of him as he grinned widely and hugged him happily once he told him the news. (Although in all fairness, Lee had been in a fantastic mood recently, even more so than usual, and Kiba wasn't the only one to suspect their Captain Junior Green Beast was involved in a youthful romance, although the mystery lover's identity eluded them all. Drats. He had to make sure someone would keep in the loop in case there were further developments.)

Maybe 'youth' was really just a state of mind in the end…


Chapter Text


Not for the first time in his life, Kiba held himself back from groaning in agony before the combined looks of his mother and sister. "Would the two of you get off my back already?" he muttered with a scowl, briefly glancing at his brother in law. "Help me out here, would you?"

But Aoba, whipped traitor that he was, merely held Kao up closer to him and shook his head. "Imagine those cheeks with the red triangles, Kiba. You don't want to miss this!" he repeated his wife and mother in law's words.

Kiba finally let out that groan and Shikamaru bit his lips to keep from chuckling, sharing a knowing look with Akamaru. Sometimes, loyalty was hard, huh?

"I know that! I said that!" the tracker wheezed out, suddenly feeling tired. "And of course I'll want to be there! I just can't do as you say and demand that time off when I'm new on the job! That's not how it works!" he insisted, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. It was natural that he wanted to attend Kao's third birthday, since she'd finally officially join the clan, but he didn't think he'd be in any position to make vacation demands yet. (Besides, it was still almost ten months away, they were clearly all getting ahead of themselves.)

Hana opened her mouth to argue but Tsume stopped her, turning her serious gaze to her son. "Kiba. My amazing tracker. My once cutest pup in the world. My firstborn son—"

"Your only son," the tracker in question reminded her with a raised eyebrow.

"You wound me, brother," Aoba quipped easily, grinning at the look that was sent his way.

"—My absolute pain in the neck," Tsume continued regardless, making sure he'd look her in the eyes. "You were headhunted. In person. Specifically. By name. Trust me: you're in a position to make demands," she declared simply.

"In all seriousness, she does have a point," Hana commented proudly. "Use your connections a bit more, Kiba! You're doing Temari a favor, it's only natural she scratches your back in return by giving you time off for this!" she reasoned with a shrug.

Kiba sighed, almost feeling like a headache was coming along. They had a point, he knew that, but he didn't want to be that guy. "I'll talk to her about it—in due time," he quickly added before they could interrupt him. Aoba wordlessly set Kao in his arms and he sighed as he looked down at his niece. At least she wasn't harassing him yet, right?

Ah, family...

And to think they hadn't even gotten to the Nara side yet...

"I'm really not sure it's a good idea for you to tag along," Shikamaru said once more with a sigh as they entered the Nara clan grounds.

Kiba frowned as he kept his arms crossed over his chest. "And I want to be able to defend myself when she'll inevitably blame everything on me!" he insisted with a huff. And he'd even left Akamaru behind for once – at Tsume's, after her loud laughter had subsided and she'd stopped talking about her 'hot-shot brat rising up in the world and going places'. The way he saw it, of course Yoshino would never warm up to him if he was never there and Shikamaru just gave her what she considered to be 'bad news' about them – although in all fairness, how little they saw each other was completely her fault, since she never invited him in the first place.

Shikamaru sighed as though the weight of the world was on his shoulders but didn't insist. He knew that once Kiba made up his mind about something there was no swaying him, after all. So as they reached his childhood home, he opened the door and said a half-hearted greeting.

They found Yoshino in the garden, relaxing under the shade as she read a book – the temperatures were particularly high this year, so much that many had been taken completely by surprise. (Inwardly, Shikamaru dreaded to think about what it implied for Suna, since it was notably warmer there.)

"Where's the mutt?" she asked with a frown as she didn't see Akamaru around – mostly suspicious, but also worried, to her credit.

"We left him at my mother's," Kiba replied easily as he took the lead and sat down not far from her chair. "We have big news for you."

Shikamaru rolled his eyes and then narrowed them at him, because with that setup, how was he supposed to stall now? His mother's dubious expression did nothing to help, of course. "We're going to transfer to Suna for a while," he said simply as he also slumped down.

"How long is 'a while'?" Yoshino wondered with a frown as she set her book down and sat up to lean her elbows forward on her thighs.

"At least a year, maybe more – it's not permanent," he replied evenly.

"I got offered the position of Suna's Allied HQ's deputy commander, that's why," Kiba added frankly, unsure whether he was trying to impress her or get the heat off of his lover.

Yoshino blinked in surprise as she reasonably couldn't criticize that kind of reason. "Well done," she praised honestly, almost catching them off-guard. She then frowned as she looked between the two. "And what about you?" she asked her son.

"I'll be working as Gaara's assistant – Temari's old job, really," he replied with a shrug.

Her expression became slightly more contemplative at this, and she sighed. With the way the villages now interacted with each other, it was to be expected, in a sense; but for someone like her who'd grown up in times of tense distrust, it was still quite hard to get used to. "I've always said you would achieve great things – that if you really put your mind to it you could have a go at any position you'd wish!"

"Yeah, I could," Shikamaru agreed with a frown, not seeing where she was taking this.

"Naturally, I've always assumed it would be in Konoha…it's still something we're getting used to, my generation – these ties with the other villages," Yoshino admitted with a partly annoyed expression, knowing Konoha wouldn't necessarily be safer, but at least, it was here. She then looked at Kiba for a moment, feeling equally annoyed and satisfied that he held her look. "I'm not saying this is bad, don't get me wrong, it's a tremendous opportunity – for the both of you. It's just…difficult, for me, to completely let go of the past," she admitted honestly.

Kiba grinned but shook his head at this. "I already lived there before for a year, remember? Suna is not a dangerous place for Leaf shinobi, and since the Allied division started up it's bound to have become even better!" he assured her confidently before grinning as he glanced at his lover sideways. "The only thing you really have to worry about is Shikamaru becoming even more overworked!"

"Hey," Shikamaru protested for the principle, frowning at him.

Yoshino snorted at his expression, seeing how that could be a problem. And yet… "I think this is the first time I've actually seen you…what's the word—not annoyed at the prospect of having more responsibilities?" she teased her son easily, smirking at his annoyed 'tch' sound. "You almost look like you want to take on that challenge!"

The shadow-nin huffed slightly as his eyes trailed to Kiba for a moment before setting back on her. "I want to be with Kiba. And this is a professional opportunity I won't let him pass up on," he finally said, noting his fond smile and her pinched one. "Besides, it's not like I'm actually giving up on anything here, either. I'm just a regular captain at this stage, whereas in Suna I'll work directly under the Kazekage. This is neither a retirement nor a demotion, just a transfer – actually a promotion, any way you look at it," he reasoned matter-of-factly.

"Just to another hidden village instead of another department," Yoshino pointed out with an almost-pout before sighing exaggeratingly. "At any rate – when are you leaving?" she asked as she moved to refill her glass and served them as well because she was feeling accommodating.

"We'll be in function by the end of the month."

"That soon?"

"Well it's…sort of an urgent situation," Kiba replied as he absently scratched his cheek, his other hand reaching for Akamaru until he remembered he wasn't with them – upon which he gingerly flexed his fingers.

"But it's a bit unusual, no? That the deputy commander would change so soon?" the other Nara questioned curiously. At Kiba's guarded smile, her expression changed to a sly one. So he wasn't at liberty to discuss, eh? Sounded juicy. "Fine, keep your secrets!" she replied with fake annoyance. "Is it official yet?"

"You mean 'can you add it to the gossip mill yet'?" Shikamaru rephrased with a raised eyebrow, easily catching the book she threw at his face. "Yes, it's official."

Yoshino pressed her lips in a thin line at this to avoid pouting and just fixed him with a glare – he was too much like her, really. And she remembered a similar conversation with her own parents, actually, when she'd decided to retire. Their generation had been born in an age of wars between newly formed villages and incessant battles; shinobi did not retire from active duty if they were still able to fight, children or no. They hadn't taken well to her argument that she was a pretty mediocre kunoichi anyway and that way she'd have more time with her son than they'd had with her – and the voices quickly got very loud on both sides. But…she'd been right.

Just like maybe he'd be right.

"I still don't like it that much," she declared with a sigh. "But it seems your generation's gift is the ability to actually travel around this world, so you should take advantage of it," she finished with a fairly pinched expression. "And that doesn't mean I won't somewhat blame you," she added towards Kiba before he could grin properly.

Shikamaru chuckled as he muttered about her being troublesome under his breath. But still…they could live with that.

And Kiba's happy smile as they walked back to get Akamaru was completely worth it. Wordlessly, he simply gave their joined hands a squeeze. Maybe he'd been right to tag along after all. But he wouldn't tell him so, just to make sure he wouldn't let it go to his head.

Transferring sounded nice and painless in theory, but Shikamaru soon discovered how naïve an impression that had been. It wasn't just the move, or the constant back-and-forth with Suna's shinobi division, or the ever-growing list of things to do.

It was the paperwork.

He was forced to consciously resist the urge to groan as he took in the seemingly never-ending amount of forms looming ahead. "Temporary address change, temporary authority assignment change, reflected amendment to your contract, confirmation of next of kin, amendments to your health insurance…does this thing even have an end? How did you manage? Twice, even!" he asked Kiba with a frown, finally letting out that sigh. Did people really have to brave this paper storm when they applied for the exchange program or the Allied division? How come so many were still doing it?

"By telling myself it would be worth it," Kiba replied with a shrug as he leaned to have a look over his shoulder, clucking his tongue as he reached to point at something. "Add the 'cacti' plan to your health insurance – you'll want that," he noted seriously.

"Of course – I was just about to do that," Shikamaru drawled sarcastically, finding himself unable not to grin as Kiba rested his chin on his shoulder and pretended to bite him. "I wonder if there's a plan for dog bites…" he mused as he moved to snatch a quick kiss.

"Nope," Kiba replied against his lips. "The closest they've got to wild dogs are fennec foxes, and even the biggest ones aren't bigger than Akamaru when he was a pup! Plus they tend to run away from people, so I think there're probably only a handful of bite cases every year – not enough to set up an insurance plan," he finished cheekily.

"Smartass," Shikamaru muttered with an amused roll of his eyes, ticking the box labeled 'cacti' on his form anyway. Inwardly, he wondered if there was a plan for papercuts or wrist cramps – now that was something to think about! A knock on the door pulled him out of his musings and he was by the door in an instant, all too happy to have a reprieve from his administrative hell.

"You're not leaving Konoha!" Ino said as though she were stating a fact as she let herself in. Behind her, Sai waited for a nod before following in, polite young man that he was.

"Actually, we are," Shikamaru corrected her before raising an eyebrow. "How did you even hear about that?" he then wondered for the principle.

Ino raised an eyebrow back at him and huffed. "Sai, tell him."

The artist immediately complied, counting the names off on his fingers. "Well, there was Gai, who was at the flower shop buying flowers for Neji's grave – but he took brightly colored ones, not the sterile white most people seem to go with for cemeteries. Then Lee joined up just as he was about to leave and told us a second time. Following that, Ino's mother gave us the same account – she'd heard it from your mother, Shikamaru. Coincidentally, we then ran into her as well, so she told us again. And then not to forget the Hokage who mentioned it to me and Naruto during a meeting this morning," he duly reported.

"I stopped listening after the part where Gai bought brightly colored flowers for Neji's grave," Kiba admitted honestly as he held a hand up. And he should really stop by as well before leaving Konoha – aside from Kurenai and Shino (his team), Neji had been the first person to tell him that if he calmed down, he'd make a decent commanding officer, so he should tell him the news, right? (Even if Gai and Lee most likely already did, because honestly to know everything about Konoha's inhabitants, one just had to listen in on their weekly visits to Neji's grave.)

Shikamaru chuckled fondly at his antics and then turned back to Ino. "So by my count you've heard this from five – very varied – sources. What more do you need?"

"When were you planning on telling me and Chouji?" she asked back with a frown, crossing her arms over her chest.

Her lack of pout (and violence) convinced him that she was really upset though, so he closed his mouth instead of teasing her again.

"I mean, I told everyone, you must have it wrong, you know? Because, I told them, there's no way Shikamaru wouldn't have told me and Chouji if he were really leaving, right?" she continued, holding his gaze expectantly.

Behind her, Sai discreetly moved until he was further in – outside of the war zone – and accepted Kiba's offer to sit as he pat down the chair next to his.

"In my defense," Shikamaru started as he stepped closer despite the danger. "I'd really planned to tell you two tonight over dinner – I just underestimated the rumor mill and forgot the flower shop's such an integral part of it," he admitted, half annoyed at this oversight.

Ino couldn't keep in a chuckle at this, having to concede the point. Besides, it was true that they were supposed to meet up that evening. "Fine, but it's your treat!" she warned good-naturedly.

"That was always the plan," he assured her easily.

"There's a 'cacti' plan in the health insurance?" Sai wondered out loud as he couldn't help but skim over the papers on the table.

"Kiba insists it's a necessity," Shikamaru drawled.

"It is," Kiba huffed knowingly.

"The other nations seem so fascinating at times," Sai noted contemplatively.

Ino raised an eyebrow at this. "We're not leaving Konoha," she reminded him simply before turning to Kiba. "Well, in all that, congratulations are definitely in order. Knock'em dead, will you?" she said with a wink.

Kiba laughed at her encouragement and nodded back, giving a small salute. "I plan to, M'am!"

"And you," she continued as she turned back to Shikamaru. "Bring your savings tonight," she said with a sweet predatory grin.

"Was planning to…" he admitted with a resigned sigh.

Chouji was more understanding, as he'd expected. But then again, he was definitely the one with the biggest appetite. "Do you guys remember the first time we watched Gaara fight?" he wondered at one point, shuddering at the memory.

"Heck yeah, I thought he was going to kill Lee!" Ino noted with a frown.

Chouji nodded, glad they saw his point. "Could you have imagined being his assistant, back then?" he asked his friend.

Ino made a face and Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. "Of course not. But he's nothing like he was back then!"

"I know," the Akimichi noted, grabbing another piece of meat and holding out a hand to order another platter. "That's my point: isn't it crazy? How much things can change," he reasoned. "What's in a few years, huh? You're dating Kiba, you're dating Sai, I'm dating a kunoichi from the Cloud – could you have imagined that a few years back?" he wondered as he looked between them excitedly.

"Isn't that what life is all about? Changes? Evolution? Surprises?" Ino wondered with an amused smile as she tilted her head to the side. "What are you getting at?"

"I can't wait to see what we'll be up to in a few years!" Chouji replied simply with a wide smile.

"Probably offsprings, on your part," Shikamaru replied matter-of-factly, unable to resist the urge.

Chouji chuckled sheepishly and Ino grinned happily. "Well, I'm satisfied with just the practicing part, right now!" she informed them with a self-satisfied look.

"Can't reasonably argue against that point…" Shikamaru had to agree.

"But that's what I'm saying, you know?" Chouji noted excitedly. "Right now, I couldn't possibly imagine having kids! But in a few years that could change, and then – wham, just like that – we'll turn into our parents!"

Ino and Shikamaru exchanged half-horrified glances at this before turning back to him shaking with laughter. "Okay, how did you leave the realm of 'happy philosophical musings about life' to cross into 'the stuff of nightmares'?" she asked him teasingly.

"It's not that bad! I'll be pretty happy if I turn out as good a father as mine is!" Chouji reasoned simply as he stole their meat in discreet retaliation – which they obviously noticed, but let slide.

"When you put it like that, of course it's not bad," Ino admitted with a fond roll of her eyes. She still wasn't planning on having kids, but she was sure if she did, she'd be as clingy as her father used to be – and strangely, the thought made her smile.

"Okay, so let's reconvene in a few years and see where we stand!" Shikamaru offered as he managed to grab a piece of meat for himself – and even one for Ino, amazing friend that he was.

Chouji raised an eyebrow and pointed his chopsticks at him. "Hey, you better visit before 'a few years' pass!" he threatened good-naturedly.

"What he said," Ino added around a mouthful.

Shikamaru chuckled as he held his hands up in surrender to pacify them. "Kao turns three in June – she'll get her markings, we can't miss that. So we'll be there then – realistically, I don't think we'll visit before, given the distance, unless we're on assignment," he reasoned.

"Kids grow up too fast," Ino muttered, ignoring Chouji's knowing look as words like that really made her sound like a parent. "That's if the cacti haven't killed you by then," she then added off-handedly.

"Wow, I sense a story there!" Chouji noted as he took in Shikamaru's raised eyebrow.

"Not one worth telling," the Nara assured his best friend easily.

He honestly believed that was someone's idea of a practical joke.

Just because their departure to Suna was growing closer and closer didn't mean they were off the hook in Konoha, professionally speaking. Both were still on active duty and rotated between the assignments as usual. One such evening, as he was leaving for work, Shikamaru blinked as he watched Kiba and Akamaru loudly stumble through the open door. Unsurprisingly, they merged into a wrestling heap of wet limbs on the ground, while Hinata stood over them with a bright grin. Behind her, Shino walked in infinitely more calmly and closed the door. Normal Team 8 behavior.

"Hello, Shikamaru," the Aburame greeted simply. "It's raining," he then added as though feeling the need to clarify the chaotic situation for him.

"I noticed, thanks," Shikamaru muttered back with a raised eyebrow, resisting the urge to huff as the other man shrugged the slightest bit as though to say 'if you say so'. He smiled at Hinata and then grinned as his gaze trailed to Kiba as he energetically rubbed Akamaru with a towel, soon giving up that fight as usual. "Having fun?" he couldn't help but ask as he stopped in front of them.

Kiba looked up with a grin and then growled as Akamaru got out of his clutches and ran to his basket, happily making a nest with the half-damp towel and burrowing in it. Sighing, the Inuzuka simply got up and stepped towards his lover, reaching to press a kiss to his lips in greeting.

Shino walked by them, unfazed, a towel draped around his head as he made his way to the kitchen, Hinata close by as she pat her own hair dry.

"Ready for work?" Kiba asked Shikamaru as he pulled back, noticing he already had his vest and equipment on. Just because they were in their last week in Konoha didn't mean that their assignments had let up after all.

"Yeah – but nightshifts sure are troublesome," the Nara replied for the principle as just thinking about it made him yawn, before he burrowed his nose in Kiba's neck, despite his clothes being slightly damp – he'd soon be caught in the rain too anyway. "You try not to do anything too crazy, okay? Keep Shino in line!" he teased easily, smirking as he could feel the Aburame glaring at the back of his head at the implications.

"Will do!" Kiba replied brightly as he laughed at the thought of Shino doing something crazy – that'd be the day, right? "Who're you working with already?" he wondered curiously.

"Raido's the captain, beyond that I'm not sure," Shikamaru replied lazily. "And it's raining, huh?" he asked although he could tell from the state the trio was in that it was only a drizzle, they weren't soaked so it wouldn't be that bad. "Well, gotta get going anyway," he concluded as he leaned in for a last kiss, calling a goodbye to Akamaru and Hinata over his shoulder before adding Shino's name as well as an afterthought.

"Do you want a dry shirt?" Kiba asked his friends absently as he walked towards the bedroom to change his clothes.

"No thank you, I just need to let the jacket dry up!" Hinata replied as she hung it on the back of a chair in the living room.

Shino looked down at himself to get a better sense of the state his attire was in. Satisfied that his shirt was dry, he simply removed his jacket. "No need for myself either," he called back, wrinkling his nose as the smell of wet dog drifted his way. However Akamaru looked so content as he was that he didn't have the heart to go and give him another rubdown – a task that had been much less daunting back when he was still puppy-sized!

Hinata however didn't feel such hold-ups and called Akamaru's name in a sweet voice as usual to appease him before grabbing the towel and managing to be somehow gentle as she energetically rubbed him drier.

Shino then looked up towards Kiba as he shuffled back their way, imperceptibly huffing in amusement as he watched him bury his nose into his shirt's collar – he didn't need to ask why, the Nara clan symbol on it told him all he needed to know.

"What's on your mind?" Kiba asked him easily as he reached around him for a cutting board and a (clean) knife to get started on the vegetables.

"To my absolute horror, I'm thinking that I might miss you," Shino replied quite seriously, resisting the urge to sigh. Hinata didn't barge into his life quite as often as Kiba was prone to after all; she, unlike someone who shan't be named, actually called before, and worried about intruding. He appreciated it, but truth be told they balanced each other out, so he really was worried about the change to come, to a certain extent.

Kiba laughed brightly at this and shrugged helplessly. "Wow, I bet that sucks, huh?"

"Indeed. Although in all fairness, it's Akamaru I might miss the most," the Aburame added as he set the rice-cooker's timer, smiling the slightest bit as the nin-dog barked a response.

"Akamaru's gonna miss you too, Shino," Kiba assured him lightly, grinning up at him. "But we're both counting on Hinata to make sure you get out of your apartment once in a while!" he added with a wink at their teammate.

"I go out to go to work every day," the teacher reminded him blankly, frowning as he wondered how he could have forgotten that.

"He means leaving to meet peopleoutside of work," Hinata corrected gently, grinning as Akamaru licked her cheek. "Count on me, Kiba, Akamaru!"

"Feel the love, Shino!" Kiba added teasingly as he gently punched his shoulder.

Shino (dubiously, and for the principle) nodded back and walked to sit at the table, grabbing the meat to start the marinade. "I'm sure we can trust you to take good care of each other," he said truthfully, not doubting that part in the slightest.

"Hey, what kind of Inuzuka would I be if I didn't?" Kiba wondered rhetorically, smirking as he absently wiped his hands on a towel and moved to grab a pan.

"Hmm. Indeed. At any rate, I have this impression you might return a changed person," Shino continued matter-of-factly, internally satisfied when his friend paused and raised an eyebrow at him.

"You're being extra-weird tonight…" the Inuzuka muttered with a confused frown, sharing a look with Hinata in hopes she'd know more. "It's not like I'm gonna be gone for a decade!"

"We'll see," Shino concluded with a small shrug as his eyes once more rested on the Nara clan symbol on his shirt. Reaching to push his glasses back up on the bridge of his nose, he returned to his task.

"It might feel like you'll be gone a long time, but I'm sure it'll fly by faster than we know it!" Hinata reasoned as she joined them, not needing to ask them to know where her help was needed. "There's no way you'll miss Kao's birthday, especially this year, right?" she asked needlessly.

The Inuzuka nodded energetically at this. "Just imagining those chubby cheeks with red triangles turns me to mush on the inside!"

"Imagine when she'll get her nin-dog!" Hinata added brightly, having to admit that thought was pretty cute.

"Cuteness overload," Kiba declared with a straight face, shaking his head to dissipate the image.

"I wonder what it is with babies and puppies that drives people so crazy," Shino thought out loud. "Why isn't there the same level of interest towards a young Aburame receiving his or her first insects?"

He sounded so earnest about this that neither of his friends could find it in them to shoot him down.

"I suppose people just aren't used to the Aburame like we are…" Hinata ventured diplomatically.

"Yes, that does seem likely," Shino agreed simply.

"Man, I'm gonna miss you guys something crazy!" Kiba noted instead with a shake of his head.

Hinata smiled back brightly and Shino opened his mouth before closing it, visibly unsure what to say – likely sure he'd regret it later if he became too sentimental about this.

Akamaru just barked happily as he looked at them.

"He'll miss you too," Kiba needlessly relayed.

Apparently Akamaru deserved a hug (from Hinata) and a pat on the head (from Shino).

"You've always loved him more than me…" Kiba muttered good-naturedly.

In the end, it was almost like every day was used to say goodbye to a different person, which didn't feel ominous at all. And then of course there was that farewell drink, although in all honestly no one had a clear recollection of it, because there was too much happening at once at any given moment, plus alcohol, and consequently and inevitably, tears.

(Mostly, it was the alcohol's fault. The tears were just a regrettable side-effect.)


But by mid-September, not even a full month after Gaara's initial offer, everything was finalized for good, and they set off from Konoha's south gate with the promise to visit in June as planned. Somehow, it didn't feel scary at all when it came down to it.

The end of something was always the beginning of something else, after all.

Chapter Text


Having changed units several times during his life, Kiba was used to being 'the new guy', the fresh meat in a new environment – first the academy, then the genin ranks, then chuunin, his unit in the war, his unit in Suna for the exchange program, then tokubetsu jounin, Konoha's Allied division HQ and now, finally, Suna's Allied HQ. He'd never been shy however, and he was used to people dismissing him due to his antics, so being scrutinized was something that had never fazed him – besides, his best friend was Shino Aburame, the man who clearly didn't know how quickly staring at someone crossed over to the creepy territory, so he had that covered.

That was why when Temari introduced him to her division – her minions, Kankuro insisted – he barely felt stressed as he held a hand up and waved. "So. As the commander just said my name is Kiba Inuzuka and this is my nin-dog Akamaru. He'll beg for treats and ear-scratches like any other dog, but he does understand everything we say. I'm a tokubetsu jounin from Konoha specializing in tracking through smell. Some of you may already be familiar with me or my name as the Kazekage's first test subject for the shinobi exchange program here in Suna. More recently, I was based in Konoha's Allied HQ before being transferred here. I look forward to working with you," he introduced himself summarily, grinning slightly as some of the friends he'd made on his first stay in the Sand held their thumbs up at him.

Temari stepped back in front of him as she gestured towards the four shinobi who stood closer. "These are our captains. Mizu Norima of Suna, Yasha Akimichi of Konoha, Sojiro Satoshi of Kiri, and finally Darami Hosuen of Kumo," she introduced one by one.

They nodded and shook hands at this, but Temari didn't give him much more time before dragging him towards his office, which was just opposite hers, with a narrow corridor separating them. "Fair warning: if the door isn't properly closed I can hear everything that goes on in your office," she started slyly. "So don't forget that when you bring Shikamaru in for a quick romp!"

"Temari, you wound my professional pride! I would never!" Kiba replied in mock-shock, scrunching his nose as the room smelled stuffy. "I guess that goes for you too?" he then asked aggravatingly as he moved to open the window.

"I'm your boss," she needlessly reminded him with a raised eyebrow. "I can do whatever I want and you'll pretend you didn't hear a thing."

"Of course, my apologies, Commander," the Konoha shinobi said with a wide grin and a mock-salute as Akamaru snorted next to him.

He didn't even bother avoiding her back-slap.

Shikamaru, over on his side, slowly came to realize one slight – enormous – oversight on his part.

Working closely with Gaara implied working closely with Kankuro.

And they called him a genius…

"You seem to be frowning more than usual," the Kazekage noted. "Is anything the matter?" he asked amicably.

"Ah, no, don't worry," Shikamaru replied as he chuckled tensely, eyes briefly darting to the Sand protector now wrapped around his arm. "This just feels…very new," he admitted evenly – and it wasn't completely untrue.

Gaara nodded at this, turning his gaze back ahead as they walked to his office. "The best way to tackle something new is to jump right into it," he then advised, the corner of his lips pulling up in a small smile.

The way Kankuro chuckled and turned to his brother with a proud grin, the Nara deduced he was the one to have dispensed that particular piece of wisdom to Gaara some time ago – perhaps when he'd been promoted to Kazekage, or even earlier. Shikamaru was (grudgingly) forced to admit it was sound advice. "Let's jump in, then," he replied evenly.

And jump in they did.

Days went by, quickly turning into weeks, leaving both Kiba and Shikamaru wondering where the time went by as the first month rolled by.

At the Kazekage's office, Shikamaru had to get used to the fact that every action anyone did was scrutinized by the Council of Elders, which was much larger and more powerful than it was in Konoha – in all fairness, Suna was a more traditional village in many aspects, even though Gaara and the younger generation were slowly but surely ushering in a new era. But despite their deep-rooted suspiciousness towards shinobi from other villages, Shikamaru's reputation preceded him, and in the end they were all too happy to have 'snatched' him from under the Leaf's nose.

Although, in all honesty, the moment where someone had informed them that he'd actually followed his lover – "The Inuzuka serving as deputy commander at that Allied division headquarters" – had been quite comical to say the least.

Particularly as one of the elders had then pat his shoulder and praised his decision to leave, adding that, "Konoha has always been old-fashioned about the most random things – no one will judge you for your lover's gender in Suna as long as your work is up to par!"

Shikamaru had only replied, "Thank you. I think."

When he'd told him about it later that evening, Kiba had laughed until his sides hurt.

As he served as a sort of mix between assistant and advisor to Gaara – a task that the Kazekage made more interesting and challenging every day – he also worked primarily with Kankuro, who was in charge of his brother's security and also held a seat on the council. Grudgingly, Shikamaru had to concede that Kankuro was deserving of his reputation as one of Suna's best elite shinobi. As far as his work was concerned, every aspect was flawless, and the shadow-nin had a feeling that wasn't only because the puppeteer wanted to help his brother – he was just that good.

Still, every time Temari commented to Kankuro that he should find himself a nice guy – "To remind you what it's actually like to be young and happy before it's too late, little brother!" – Shikamaru mentally cheered for her.

Kiba, on his side, had his hands full helping Temari get the HQ back into shape – she hadn't exaggerated when she told him her previous second-in-command had made a mess of things, from neglecting paperwork to assigning squads and missions all over the place and with no real thought for balance and efficiency. He'd heard quite a few people opinionate that it had been deliberate sabotage, but no one really talked about that, the unspoken rule was simply not to mention her.

As was the case in Konoha (and every other HQ, to his knowledge), the deputy commander was simply referred to as 'commander' for short, and in the end that was the biggest change he had to get used to – getting called that or 'Sir'. Then to his horror – and many people's amusement and surprise – they quickly found out that he was actually good at the administrative side of the job – perhaps because he wanted to be done with it quickly so he went straight to the point every time.

Finally, in addition to daily reports to Temari, he'd also put into place weekly meetings with the four captains to make sure each shinobi was being put to good use while not being overloaded, and all this with the troops' morale not dropping down more than it already was. The HQ had been slowly reaching a point where more requests to transfer away would put it a stone's throw from costing way more than it garnered, and fixing that was quite taxing..

Of the four captains, the one he'd warmed to the fastest was Yasha Akimichi, unsurprisingly. When she wasn't eating, she was laughing – even in battle, reportedly, which motivated her subordinates and scared her opponents. She didn't care much for politics, and had no reservations explaining to everyone who asked that her goal now that they were allies was to spend a few years in each village to learn their specialties so she could "show those narrow-minded idiots back home what they're missing by refusing to step beyond their front door". She often appeared easily distracted, but she respected authority and had no problem earning her troop's respect no matter their village of origin. (Admittedly, the fact that she brought baked goods to the HQ almost daily did help.)

In complete contrast, Darami Hosuen, the medical ninjutsu specialist from Kumo, only had three facial expressions: blank, less blank, and particularly blank – and the same applied to her tone. Many rumors floated about to explain this – from a lost lover to a wound received in the Third Shinobi Wars to a fashion statement – but she obviously never bothered correcting, denying or confirming any of those. Kiba's money – literally, as there was a betting pool – was that she enjoyed making people wonder. Regardless, as expected from shinobi of the Cloud, she was extremely disciplined and resilient, a brilliant medic-nin who remained in complete control no matter the circumstance. (She also appreciated Yasha's version of Suna's typical taro buns, but didn't like it when people commented on that.)

Mizu Norima, the sensor, he already knew from the last time. She used to be with Suna's interrogation division, which naturally also handled torture as necessary, and so she'd always carried with her a smell that made Kiba and Akamaru feel uneasy. Her job had hardened her, but it was obvious she enjoyed sharing her experience with shinobi from other villages, and she was glad for the opportunity to work more as a sensor than an interrogator, at least for some time.

Which left Sojiro Satoshi, the man Shikamaru had told him once represented Kiri in negotiations with Suna – where he'd been equally pitted against Temari. He was one of the Mizukage's most outspoken supporters, eager to prove that Kiri had changed – but always careful with the information he disclosed, as expected from a stealth specialist. His clan's bloodline limit of poison release made him a force to be feared on the battlefield, even though he never really spoke about that, either. Just like he'd never directly replied to those who asked him why he'd chosen to apply in the Sand – amicably so, it was the most popular ice-breaker question among the Allied division, but he just evaded the subject every time it was brought up.

Kiba for his part only wondered whether they'd ever know the reason why he was nearly always late to their meetings. (He really hoped it was something more exciting than simply sleeping in.)

"Sorry I'm late!" Sojiro always said as he rushed in a good ten minutes after they'd begun. At least, he never bothered making far-fetched excuses. Small blessings. "It won't happen again."

"Sojiro, I already didn't believe you the first four times you said that," Kiba deadpanned as he raised an eyebrow at him. "At least come in quietly. The next time you interrupt a meeting with your lateness, I will bite you," he warned him simply.

Yasha and Mizu openly snorted at this and Sojiro frowned. "That might not be such a good idea – poisoned blood and all," he reminded him.

That didn't deter the Inuzuka. "Well I'm willing to take one for the team if that'll teach you a lesson. Besides, I'm sure that Darami will be up to the challenge of figuring out a counter-toxin before I die of the worst case of food poisoning in recent recorded history."

"Indeed, I look forward to the opportunity of thoroughly investigating a Satoshi clan bloodline poisoning, Sir," the Kumo kunoichi replied with her 'less blank' tone.

"See? She's looking forward to it!" Kiba noted cheerfully before frowning at the Kiri shinobi. "Don't tempt us," he reiterated simply.

"I'll make an effort," Sojiro promised contritely, politely shaking his head as Yasha offered him some food.

"Excellent!" the Inuzuka said as he turned back to his notes. "Now, where were we?"

"The recent reports of Allied division units comprising Kumo shinobi being denied from crossing into the Land of Waves without acquitting an exorbitant toll," Darami promptly reminded him, this time in the 'particularly blank' tone.

"Right…" He had to admit he shared her mindset on that one…

Despite what a lot of people believed, being in command didn't necessarily mean you only handled what you wanted. He wished someone had really stressed that to him beforehand so he'd have really psychologically prepared himself for it.

"You know, while on the principle it's hilarious and I often feel like resorting to violence myself, you can't really go around threatening to bite people!" Temari informed him with a wide grin over dinner that evening.

"You threatened to bite someone?" Shikamaru repeated with a raised eyebrow.

"Should you be okay with that?" Kankuro pondered absently, not really surprised in itself.

"I'm not sure," Shikamaru admitted. "Who was it?" he then wondered as he turned back to his lover.

"Sojiro," Kiba replied as he closed his eyes and poked the menu to make his choice, grimacing as he didn't like this time's random selection. "He's always late to the captain meetings and it completely breaks my rhythm," he explained as he gave his method another try, more satisfied with this outcome. "You don't mind if I eat garlic, right Shikamaru?"

The siblings snorted and Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Do what you want – apparently I have no control over what goes in your mouth," he replied absently before freezing as he realized how his words could be interpreted. "Not one word," he told all three very seriously.

Temari didn't hesitate to laugh at him openly, because she was fearless, but Kankuro knew that the Nara wouldn't need many more reasons to kill him and get rid of his body somewhere far far away where no one would ever find it, so he simply coughed and brought his drink to his mouth to keep himself busy.

Shikamaru just gave them a dirty look and tried to remain impassive as Kiba nuzzled his cheek fondly. "So. Back on track – you shouldn't bite him, he's literally poisonous," he said after clearing his throat.

"No he's not," Temari cut in with a frown. "Otherwise how would his clan have endured?" she asked practically.

"Well, I do have a theory, but I feel really uncomfortable voicing it when you're sitting next to me, big sister," Kankuro said matter-of-factly, grinning as she elbowed his arm with a disgusted snort.

"I doubt that's how it is," Kiba dismissed with a shrug. "So I guess you're right, Temari…"

She raised an eyebrow at this, as though to say 'of course I'm right'. "You'll know immediately anyway: his eyes will turn yellow if he activates the bloodline," she reminded him.

"Or you could simply not bite other men," Shikamaru deadpanned with a shrug.

"Other men?" Kankuro repeated with a shit-faced grin – this was so worth getting buried in the desert over.

Shikamaru groaned at this as he slapped a palm over his eyes. This was visibly not his day…

He blamed the locals. (They had to get away from them before the contagion spread.)

As the commander of Suna's Allied division HQ, Temari no longer participated in missions – or only extremely rarely, when the request explicitly came from the Kazekage. Kiba, as deputy commander, wasn't deployed as often as before either, but still regularly, as a tracker of his caliber who was additionally familiar with the area was sometimes too good a combination to pass up on. (Shikamaru, for his part, only left the village when accompanying Gaara, a rare few times with Kankuro.)

With their combined efforts, Temari and Kiba managed to rebuild Suna's Allied HQ's reputation as a viable entity within barely a couple of months. Granted, they might have not gotten sufficient sleep during that time, and neither could it be said that they'd been diligent in eating all their meals (nor that they'd been particularly health-conscious), but at least the hard part was behind them. Following this, more requests for transfers came from the other branches, and there nearly weren't any requests to transfer away anymore. Consequently, as sorting them for the commander was the deputy's job, Kiba spent even less time on deployment.

It therefore limited his patience to entirely new…limits.

"Sorry I'm late!" Sojiro said as he rushed into the meeting room and made for his chair.

"Don't sweat it," Kiba replied nicely with a grin. "How's your arm holding up?" he then asked with a frown, as he'd gotten wounded on his last mission.

The Kiri shinobi blinked as he held it up to show the bandages had been removed. "It's good, thanks for a—argh! You bit me!" he remarked incredulously with round eyes.

At the table, Mizu grudgingly handed a folded note to Yasha.

"Never underestimate an Inuzuka," the Akimichi whispered to her colleague as she accepted the money happily.

Kiba clearly wasn't remorseful as he wiped some blood from his chin, completely unfazed. So he'd let the last late arrivals go unpunished; he'd been in a good mood that day. As previously stated, his patience had reached its limits. "Yeah, I really wonder what part of 'the next time you interrupt a meeting with your lateness I will bite you' was unclear." Darami moved from her seat to come towards him and he shook his head at her. "Don't worry, he didn't poison me – his eyes didn't turn yellow."

"Good," Darami replied as she sat back down with an expression of almost disappointment.

"You bit me," Sojiro repeated as he dabbed at the teeth marks with his other sleeve.

"Yes, I bit you—and so help me you have my word in front of three witnesses that I will bite you every single time you're late without a good reason from now on," the Inuzuka promised him with a huff.

"I could always poison you," the Mist shinobi reminded him for the principle.

"Then Darami will be happy!" Kiba deadpanned – to which the medic-nin nodded curtly once. "Please heal him so we can get back to work," he then asked her before returning to his own chair.

The rest of the meeting continued as though nothing had happened – although the barely contained chuckles and grins were a poor excuse for shinobi stoicism – and honestly, Kiba wasn't at all surprised to hear Temari call his name when he returned to his office. Letting out a deep sigh for the principle and sharing a look with Akamaru, he turned on his heels and took the four steps (give or take) that separated their doors. "Yes, Commander?" he asked sweetly with the brightest grin he could muster.

"You actually did it – you bit him!" Temari noted with a satisfied smirk, looking up from a number of files scattered all over her desk to stare at him with something dreadfully akin to motherly pride. (Kiba would forever deny the shivers he felt running down his spine at this.)

"Yup. I'm having one of those days, you know?" he replied rhetorically as he shrugged and stifled down the urge to balance himself on his heels like a five year old.

"That time of the month, huh?" his poor excuse for a boss drawled back, throwing her head back and laughing hard at the look he sent her – and missing his muttered 'sure, you'd know'.

"Am I in trouble, Commander?" Kiba asked instead, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning slightly back against Akamaru.

Temari absently wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and shrugged. "Nobody filed a complaint – so I'm good!" she noted with a shrug before breaking off laughing again. "Man, I really wish I could've seen it though! The look on his face must've been priceless!" she wheezed out between two bouts.

"Well, he didn't see it coming, that's for sure," the Inuzuka noted modestly, looking visibly proud of himself. On the inside, he noted that it was nice to see Temari laughing like this – he couldn't be 100% sure, but he was quite certain it was the first time since he'd come back to Suna. If a bite here and there was all it took to brighten her day, then he was definitely the right man for the job!

"Let's see how long it takes for Shikamaru to hear about this! And then let's wait and see how he reacts, knowing that his 'special privilege' got used by someone else!" Temari added deviously, having way too much fun at their expense – as usual.

Kiba huffed at this. Whether she was feeling down or high, Temari always found it in her to have a laugh off of other people's backs – honestly, he still wasn't sure if it was a strength or a flaw. (For sure, it was scary.)

Of course as his luck would have it – and because news traveled fast – everyone at the Kazekage's tower had heard about that incident by the time evening came, and between Gaara commending him on his disciplinarian methods and adjustment to his position, and Kankuro snapping his teeth at him whenever he was nearby, he really didn't know how to take Shikamaru's resigned sigh and shake of the head.

All he could do was insist the Kiri shinobi tasted bad.

(It didn't help. Much.)

But after that day, Sojiro tried to test Kiba's warning only once, barely a week later.

Kiba bit him for the second time. And then Darami refused to heal him right away, just because she could.

He was never late again.

It didn't hurt that following this, Kiba's reputation as a man of his word became universally known and established. It was even funnier that people started fearing he'd bite them anytime something wasn't to his liking – with his naturally pointy fangs and tendency to growl when he wasn't satisfied helping the myth grow before eventually settling into that territory between legend and reality.

No one – and certainly not Kiba himself – ever bothered correcting people's misconceptions on the matter.

Some even eventually looked at Shikamaru with something akin to pity or respect at times, somehow convinced that surely, as his lover, he had to face the Inuzuka's fangs on a more than regular basis. That particular line of rumors only really started bothering the Nara when Gaara started looking at him like he believed it. At first, he chose to ignore it, firmly believing it to be the only way to make it go away. But after the twelfth time he got the distinct impression that Gaara was feeling sorry for him, he knew he had to clear the air.

"Gaara, a word, if I may? Not work-related," he asked as soon as the Kazekage's office was empty – well, not entirely empty, Kankuro was still there, but he'd long ago learned the brothers were sort of a group deal. "You don't need to worry about me because of those stupid rumors – I'm not being savagely attacked at home," he informed him as plainly as he could.

Kankuro only tried to stifle his chuckles behind his hand for all of a second and a half before he switched to the 'camouflage with coughing' tactic. (It wasn't an improvement in any way or shape.)

Gaara for his part studied him intently and tilted his head to the side in a microscopic way. "So Kiba does not bite you," he stated instead of asking – but it sounded an awful lot like a question anyway.

"Huh…" This, Shikamaru was not sure how to reply to. "Well…you see…sometimes he does but…how do I say this? It's not bad?" And wow, did that sound clear and confident. He regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. Enough to consider requesting a transfer on his way home, even.

Kankuro, of course, gave up all pretense of keeping up appearances and laughed out loud – in a widely exaggerated fashion, if you asked the Nara.

Gaara merely spared his brother a glance (he was used to his antics after all) as he pressed forward with the discussion, determined to make light of this situation that clearly affected his trusted aide's wellbeing. "Do you like being bitten, then?" he asked with the mother of all straight faces.

"No!" Shikamaru momentarily wondered why these sorts of things happened to him and what he'd done to deserve them, shooting the wheezing puppeteer a nasty look before turning back to the Kazekage. "It's more like…when I say 'bite', I don't mean it in a 'wild animal charging at you and biting' way." Judging from the way Gaara's face relaxed (to the trained eye, and he was getting there), it was painfully obvious that was exactly how he'd first assumed the word's meaning.

Kankuro straightened up slightly at this and sat on a corner of his brother's desk. "He means that in the heat of passion, some people will sometimes bite down," he explained with a shake of his head, before adding, completely off-handedly: "Kiba's like that; hence the biting that's not really biting."

Gaara nodded in understanding but Shikamaru fixed the puppeteer with his absolute best cold glare.

Kankuro completely understood the threat in that look, but it wasn't in his nature to back down. Heck no, it was in his nature to press forward and be annoying just because it was fun! "Trust me, Gaara: you don't need to worry about Shikamaru – he's in good hands!" he assured his brother as he slung an arm around the Nara's neck, all with a bright smile.

Shikamaru's eyes narrowed even more but he put up a good front as he teasingly and gently elbowed his ribs. "I will kill you with your own shadow," he threatened in a low voice.

"Nah, you'd miss me – sooner or later you'll have to come to terms with the fact that I'm growing on you!" Kankuro replied cheekily.

"Over my dead body."

"It's good that you're getting along so well," Gaara commented with finality in his tone. "It makes working together so much more agreeable," he finished as he looked at them in turn before focusing his attention back to his work.

"He's on to us, isn't he?" Shikamaru whispered to his colleague.

"Just smile," Kankuro instructed before chuckling. "You said us! I knew you'd slip up!"

Shikamaru just sighed while he groaned internally. He figured that just proved there was some truth to what people said: there was no perfect job.

It wasn't exactly a secret, but sometimes Kiba forgot that information gathering was one of Suna's main trades. Personally, he wished people would owe up to it and call it for what it was—a love of gossip – but 'information' sounded so much better on paper. If he were ten years old, he'd say it sounded more 'grown-up'. (Okay, so he said that anyway, but still. Gossip.)

So, really, it didn't come as a surprise when Mizu regularly informed them of the recent news in Suna during their captain meetings. The most popular and recurring subject was pressure from the council for Temari and/or Gaara to produce heirs – they seemed to have given up on Kankuro for good, to his satisfaction.

"And then it turned out that provincial lord had actually paid the girl to pretend to be his daughter so he'd get more influence if Gaara chose her – he doesn't actually have any children!" Mizu finished, clicking her tongue disapprovingly. "How stupid can you get? Of course the truth would come out sooner or later – this practically counts as treason!"

Sojiro shook his head at this, visibly agreeing with her. "Unfortunately, this can be observed in the other countries as well! But as you rightly mentioned, the truth always comes out in the end!"

"It's like people don't think beyond one stupid decision – no back-up plan at all!" Yasha added around a warm cup of tea – Suna held quite the extremes, and could get quite cold in the winter, surprisingly.

"When you open the floodgates, you must be wary of the houses down the valley," Sojiro agreed with a sigh, pausing at his fellow shinobis' confused looks. "What, you don't have that saying where you're from?" he wondered with a frown.

Kiba cocked his head to the side at this. "'You reap what you sow', I guess – if I understand you correctly," he offered, sharing a look with the Akimichi who nodded her agreement with a shrug.

"We say, 'as you make your bed, so you must lie in it'," Darami supplied monotonously. "But the finality is not the same, I would say."

"I like ours better," the Kiri nin muttered.

"Yours assumes people visualize what happens to a valley when floodgates are opened – I've never even seen floodgates," Mizu noted with a roll of her eyes. "It's highly nationalist!"

"Are we really arguing about sayings though?" Yasha asked with a sigh, making the competitiveness drop down immediately (as usual).

"Right," Kiba agreed as he shot her a grateful look. "So the Kazekage and our Commander are still unattached. Which, I sometimes think, is a direct result of the council trying to get them attached so much in the first place," he mused.

"A classic example of cause and effect," Darami agreed with a nod. "Being anonymous is better than many realize."

"I like the middle-ground," Sojiro noted although he concurred, in effect.

A few seconds of silence followed as they all wordlessly agreed, and Kiba then cleared his throat. "Well, I won't keep you any longer – we've covered everything I had to tell you. As usual, don't forget to turn in your rosters for next week by Thursday evening."

"Yes, Commander."

"Yasha, please say that again without it sounding like 'yes, Mother'," Kiba complained as he looked at her with a frown.

"Yes, Sir!" she said back with a salute – and a shit-faced grin.

"You'll be the death of me…"

"I should remind you that's what parents typically say, but I'm feeling nice today, so I won't," Sojiro noted with a self-satisfied smirk.

"Yes, how nice of you," Kiba drawled sarcastically, clicking his teeth together and enjoying the way the other shinobi imperceptibly tensed and moved his arm away.

Over at the Kazekage's tower, a similar topic was being discussed following a short meeting with the council of elders.

"On the bright side, with the Mizukage being so touchy about marriage, at least the council will back off during her visit," Kankuro noted with a grin.

"Oh, so should I log in a formal request for her to visit as often as she can?" Shikamaru offered with a smirk, toning it down as Gaara shot them both a look – oddly, the kind usually assimilated to parents scolding their children.

"Don't worry, Gaara – Temari will eventually get around to saving our vital bloodline or whatever," the puppeteer reassured his brother.

"You sound certain," Gaara noted, almost amused.

"Like our sister could pass up on the opportunity of having more people she can be the boss of for their entire lives!" Kankuro huffed confidently. "We'll be uncles, just you wait."

Shikamaru resisted the urge to snort at this – at least, Kankuro had the decency to admit he already was someone she completely bossed around, and always would. "Well, that aside, we are ready for the Mizukage's visit, so I'd say we're good for now," he noted casually as he looked through his ledger.

"Excellent," Gaara replied, succinctly but satisfied. "Oh, and Shikamaru?"


"As always, thank you for accidentally misplacing that list of prospective matches from the council," the Kazekage said earnestly with as usual a perfectly straight face.

Kankuro laughed and Shikamaru did his best not to smirk too widely as he looked down at the folder in question in his hands and wondered what to do with it this time. "You're very welcome, Lord Kazekage."

The things one had to do to have a more contented superior…

"Kankuro, didn't I hear you mention a new incendiary device for your puppets?" the Nara wondered out loud as he turned to the puppeteer.

"It's a work in progress – there're still some issues with collateral damage, you see," Kankuro replied with a sigh, playing along.

"You don't say."

"I do say! Want a demonstration?"

"Since you insist."

Gaara left them at this point – he was willing to order the documents destroyed, not to witness it: he had to maintain some distance and plausible deniability, after all.

Shikamaru whistled slightly as he watched the flames vanish along with the remains of their paper victims. "You know, if you really didn't have control with that thing I'd actually be worried," he admitted easily.

"I know, sometimes I scare myself," the other man replied modestly before nodding at him. "Well, I'm off! See you tomorrow," he added as he turned towards the exit, going in the opposite direction Gaara had.

Shikamaru waved at him and then made his own way home, smiling slightly when he noticed Kiba and Akamaru were already there. He found him checking their mail, which was something he'd actually planned on doing himself since they received a special notice at the Kazekage's office that morning. "Anything interesting?" he asked as he wrapped his arms around his neck and leaned to have a look over his shoulder.

Kiba grinned as he reached for one particular card. "You bet – Naruto and Hinata are getting married!"

"Yeah, Gaara received one as well," the Nara replied easily as he noticed a note penned in with Hinata's handwriting – Gaara's had a scribble from Naruto. "Did you see the date? I wouldn't be surprised if it was Hinata's idea," he noted.

"It is – she said so here," the tracker said happily as he held it up for him to read. "She can't get married without Shino, Akamaru and me around! And since we'll be back in June for Kao's birthday, they settled on the week after – which apparently was the timing they'd been aiming for anyway," he explained, grin widening as he thought about his teammate. "I'd have been really sad to miss that…"

As his mother and sister had recommended when he'd first told them about the job and their consequent move, as soon as he'd gotten Temari in a good mood (read: as soon as he felt he'd buttered her up enough) he asked her about taking time off for Kao's ceremony. She'd grudgingly agreed, but it was obvious she was doing it for show – he had done her a huge favor, so she couldn't exactly deny him time off for his niece.

When Shikamaru had asked Gaara following that, the Kazekage had only blinked at him as Kankuro wondered why he hadn't 'asked the heck earlier' with a confused frown. A shrug, a signature, and case closed.

The Nara chuckled at the memory, having to admit it was really good news they'd end up being able to attend both events, even if it felt strange in a sense to imagine Naruto's wedding. "Guess we won't miss any of the action, so that's good. Somehow though I get the feeling the guest list won't be limited to close friends and family for that wedding," he commented as he moved to sit down next to him.

"And even if – Naruto's so quick to make friends it would already make quite the crowd!" Kiba added with a chuckle. "Three months left!"

"Hard to believe we've already been here for almost six months, huh?" the shadow-nin wondered rhetorically.

"Time flies when you're having fun!" Kiba replied easily before huffing as he had to admit something else. "And when you're overworked."

Shikamaru could only nod his agreement. Fun. And a never ending workload. But fun.

He'd always known it would be fun, too.


Chapter Text

While working together with Kankuro had quickly become easy enough, Shikamaru always remained on his guard with him. Granted, their banter was slightly more abrasive in nature than he was usually accustomed to, and yet somehow it worked – they worked

Kankuro, insufferable man that he was, knew exactly how to push his buttons and seemed to be having the time of his life trying his patience, which was why the Nara was never one to turn away any opportunity to make fun of his co-worker.

Especially when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the man himself.

And in what was becoming an increasingly recurring occurrence, Shikamaru walked into the office one day to find Kankuro glaring holes into a small stack of papers – returns from administration for additional information, to his understanding.

The Sand shinobi did not share his fellow colleague's amusement at the situation though. "It's the third time this month! This is impossible, this guy has it in for me!"

"Is someone giving you a hard time?" Shikamaru drawled with perfectly faked empathy.

"Like you wouldn't believe!" the puppeteer muttered as he frowned at the offending notice affixed to the paper he was holding.

"Can I get a name? I need to buy that guy a drink!" the Nara added with a grin as he checked the documents that had been left on his desk.

"Ha, ha, I'm laughing so hard my sides hurt," Kankuro deadpanned before sighing and shaking his head. "No one else's ever had anything to say about my reports! Why is it every time he's on duty there's a field I haven't filled correctly or a box I haven't ticked right?"

Shikamaru shrugged at this – the world of administration remained a mystery to him, even with the few shifts his previous rotations back home had forced him to take. "Maybe he's bored," he offered, because truthfully, it could be that simple.

"He's out for blood," Kankuro agreed solemnly. "He never even looks me in the eyes, like he knows he's being a pain on purpose!"

Shikamaru wanted to comment that maybe he was overreacting a bit, but a Kankuro with his feathers ruffled was a fun Kankuro to watch and torment, so he was determined to enjoy it while he could. "That must be hard!"

But the puppeteer visibly wanted to get to the bottom of things. "Come with me next time," he asked unexpectedly.


"Come on – you always have something or other to drop to admin!" Kankuro reasoned easily. "So next time he's on duty, we'll both drop in our documents, and we'll see if he's such a hard-ass about yours too!"

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, wondering how such a brilliant shinobi worked out that twisted logic in his brain. Still, it wasn't like it would imply going out of his way, and possibly, he'd get a good laugh out of it, so he just shrugged. "You'll be troublesome either way, so I might as well humor you," he reasoned.

And how sad was it that Kankuro didn't even react upon being referred to as 'troublesome' anymore?

So the next time the dreaded shinobi was on duty, six days later, he accompanied his not-really-friend-but-more-than-just-acquaintance to drop off his forms. The verdict didn't disappoint. Shikamaru's paperwork was all in order; Kankuro's was missing some notes. And in all objectivity, the Nara was as baffled as the puppeteer, because he'd read over his report, and there was nothing to nitpick about.

"I think you might be right – he's got it in for you!" he was forced to concede as they walked back to Gaara's office.

"Somehow having confirmation doesn't make me feel as good as I'd hoped," Kankuro admitted gruffly with a frown.

"Sorry," the shadow-nin replied with a shrug, looking (and actually feeling) completely unapologetic. "You've probably pissed him off one way or the other," he added casually after a minute. "Do you know his name?"

"Tsuneo Susaya," Kankuro replied, sighing at the other man's blank expression. "Yeah, doesn't ring a bell to me either!"

But Shikamaru didn't want to admit defeat just yet. "There must've been something…maybe you turned him down for a promotion? Were too hard on him during a mission? Made his sister cry? Spilled his coffee by accident?" he listed off the top of his head. "He's not bad-looking – maybe you made a pass at him? When you were drunk, possibly, since you don't remember."

"I'd never drink to the point of being so far gone that I'd forget things," Kankuro assured him with a raised eyebrow, almost offended on that one. "Although he is my type," he conceded before frowning and shaking his head as though remembering they were discussing the bane of his administrative existence – by definition, he could not be his type.

"Then maybe he knows one of your exes? That's why I hate your guts, after all," Shikamaru offered matter-of-factly, only half-joking and not bothering to hide his smirk.

Kankuro snorted in amusement at this, knowing he didn't really hate him. "You know what? We might be getting closer to the truth!" he conceded anyway.

Still, when they told Temari and Kiba about this over drinks later that evening, the kunoichi could only frown at her brother incredulously.

"Seriously? Two of the brightest minds in Suna are wrecking their minds over something a genin could figure out?" she clarified as she sized them up over the rim of her glass.

The afore-mentioned bright minds shared mildly insulted looks at this and then turned to Kiba in hope of a more understanding reaction. Of course he would squash their hopes as well.

"It seems obvious enough!" he added, sharing a look with Temari that greatly annoyed the other two.

Since Kankuro visibly didn't see their point, Temari took it upon herself to spell it out. "He likes you, little brother!"

"He's just trying to get your attention any way he can," Kiba agreed with a shrug. "His run-ins with you being limited to admin, that translates into making up excuses to have you come back."

"How can you be so sure?" Shikamaru wondered with a frown as he turned to him while the puppeteer seemed to be intensively trying to recall every interaction to read into it.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at him and chuckled before taking a gulp of his drink. "It's the only logical explanation if the only times Kankuro's reports get picked on are when that guy's there – everyone at this table knows your work's flawless," he noted matter-of-factly, grin widening as Kankuro raised his glass to him in thanks.

Temari nodded at his, tapping her fingers on the table. "Add to the mix that you said he's decent-looking and never looks you in the eyes, and it's easy to deduce – you've got yourself a love-struck admirer!"

Kankuro frowned as he looked at them in turn and finally shook his head, bringing his drink to his lips. "If you're right, then he's picked a really roundabout way to go about this!" he declared as he set the glass back down.

"We're right," Temari assured him confidently, Kiba nodding his assent.

"Want me to go with you again next time?" Shikamaru couldn't help but tease.

"Shut up."

Yes, things always ended up getting better – or simply more fun. One just needed to be patient.

And Shikamaru was good at being patient.

With the development of the Allied division, a phenomenon that used to be extremely rare in any Hidden Village gradually became more common: whole units of foreign shinobi found themselves residing abroad for an undefined period of time. Some even brought their family along. For regular people, merchants and craftsmen, this wasn't so new, but shinobi? Even though the general mood was friendly, old quarrels could break out at any time because of reasons so distant many couldn't even explain themselves properly when caught and chastised – fortunately, as time went by it became a rarer and rarer occurrence.

Temari loved the chastising part, in all honesty, so that wasn't really a problem as far as she was concerned.

And in the end, only newcomers tended to gravitate towards and stick to their fellow villagers. As two shinobi from the same village were rarely put together in a team (for balancing reasons), they very quickly ended up getting to know and more often than not appreciate people who only a few years back could've become enemies at the drop of a hat.

As the first pitcher of the idea of having a joint force between the villages and opening their gates to one another, no one was happier about this than Gaara. A happy Gaara usually meant a happy Temari and a happy Kankuro, so being the ones who were with them the most, naturally Shikamaru and Kiba were all for a happy Kazekage. And seeing as the Mizukage's visit went well and without causing any political hiccups, Gaara was a very happy Kazekage.

Of course though, of all the villages, Kiri was the one trying its hardest to (re)form lasting ties with the others, particularly their neighbor to the west, as the Sand and the Mist had clashed an unmeasurable amount of times in the past since their creation. The Fifth Mizukage took that mission to heart, even took a moment in her busy schedule to visit the Allied HQ building and have a few words with the Kiri shinobi posted there.

Unsurprisingly, a Kage's presence – and encouragements – did wonders not only for those from the Mist, but for everyone present.

Actually, an inane comment from that visit ended up having great ramifications – and not politically.

Apparently, shogi was a thing, in Kiri. And it seemed Sojiro used to play with the Mizukage, because when she asked him if he'd learned new ways of playing in Suna, he shook his head sadly and sighed.

"Unfortunately not, Lady Mizukage. The Sand favors the game of go, and only a handful share our passion for shogi!" he replied woefully.

The Mizukage chuckled and crossed her arms over her chest, visibly not thinking this should be a deterrent. "Ah, so the way I see it, you effectively have two options before you: either you use this opportunity to learn go, or you persevere in finding new shogi players!" she listed simply before turning to Temari. "I get the feeling you would excel at the game, Commander," she noted, her eyes narrowing the slightest bit.

"I've played a few games in my time," the blonde replied coolly, raising an eyebrow in silent challenge.

It strangely reminded Kiba of a fight between his mother and his sister. (Less scary though – but not by much.)

"I hear shogi is more famous in Konoha," Sojiro then added with a pointed look towards Kiba – because he never really forgave him for biting him twice (even though he'd deserved it) and never missed an opportunity for playful banter.

"I prefer a good game of Shinobi Conquest myself," the Inuzuka replied with a shrug. Although it had been a long time since he'd last played…he needed to remedy that. "But I'm sure Shikamaru would be willing to give you a lesson—I mean a good game if you're interested," he then added with a wide grin that might have passed as innocent if the other man didn't know him as he did.

"I'm sure," the Captain echoed with an amused grin before turning back to Temari. "Commander, we should play once, if you wouldn't mind."

Temari's smile didn't diminish at all, but Kiba knew that imperceptible twitch in her right eye – she was annoyed, and holding back only because of their esteemed guest. "I look forward to it – but you'll need to go easy on me: as you've said, it's not our specialty here in the Sand," she replied simply, almost managing to sound modest.

She couldn't turn him down, question of honor, but Kiba wouldn't be surprised if she were looking for a way out of it. He didn't doubt her abilities, but she didn't play often, and he visibly loved the game, it was as simple as that: he'd likely win, and she hated to lose.

The Mizukage left their building not much later, and Suna the day after, her visit ending with both Kage and their Councils equally pleased – for the better part.

For Kiba, it was the start of two things: weekly entertainments, because Temari and Sojiro did start to play shogi, soon deciding on a weekly meeting; and daily headaches, because Temari was a sore loser and as he'd surmised, she lost often.

And then there was also the fact that the day following a defeat, she usually crashed at Kiba and Shikamaru's place to ask the Nara where the game went wrong and what she could've done to win.

"I don't understand why it's so important for you to win at shogi!" Kiba finally declared after her third defeat. "Challenge him at go and turn the tables, you'll feel much better!" he added with a shrug, truly not seeing why she was being so stubborn. Sure, she was a quick learner and strategy had always been her thing, but the guy had years on her with the game, of course there was no way she'd beat him after two or three times – it was almost as pointless as him trying to beat Shikamaru! (Yeah, he knew very well the only reason he'd ever gotten close to actually doing that was because he'd distracted him, something that he figured was definitely against the rules.)

"No, it has to be shogi! I'll get him eventually," Temari stated with a frown, looking at him like he was clearly missing the point – and clearly, he admitted that he did.

"You're the commander, Commander," the Inuzuka noted as he leaned back against Akamaru and watched them play.

Shikamaru for his part didn't mind overly much – that way, he got to play and keep his touch. She was a good study, and the silence that surrounded a game, interrupted (mostly) only by the noise made by the pieces hitting the board, had always been soothing to him. Kiba rarely indulged him, and then it couldn't exactly be said that he kept his games silent. In fact, the Inuzuka tended to try the 'distraction by seduction' tactic when he got bored or felt he'd lose by a lot. (Not that Shikamaru really minded much, naturally, but it was nice to play against a driven opponent from time to time.)

Besides, he knew how proud Temari was, and could understand why she insisted. She didn't just want to show off, or he'd have found the whole deal too troublesome and managed to get out of it. She said she wanted to 'get' Sojiro, but he rather thought she wanted to impress him.

Ever since their first meeting, in Konoha – which he'd been present to – Shikamaru had felt that Temari and Sojiro were too similar for their own good. This rivalry of sorts between them really didn't surprise him, in light of that. And if Kiba's off-handed occasional comments about the Commander and the Captain's banter, and Kankuro's sometimes weary eyeballing of said Captain were any indication, then he really didn't want to sit this one out. And it wasn't payback for the way she'd charged into his business all those years back – no, really.

Simply put, it was too entertaining to stay away from.

Not to mention that not many things were worth getting on Temari's bad side, so sacrificing some of his free time once a week to play shogi with her wasn't really a sacrifice, all things considered.

The hard part was reminding himself not to gloat when he won.

He could live with that.

It seemed that the chance to get back at both siblings was at hand, because after weeks of combined pestering from both Kiba and Temari, Kankuro had finally given in and agreed to test their theory by asking his administrative nemesis out on a drink. He'd been stalling, naturally, but that only gave Shikamaru more opportunities to taunt him for it.

Sometimes it felt good to be aggravating on purpose – childishly so.

And he couldn't deny he felt quite satisfied when the puppeteer sighed, glared at him, and marched towards the admin desk the next time Tsuneo Susaya was on duty, the shadow-nin following him lazily.

And before the poor shinobi could say a word, Kankuro leaned closer. "So, what're you doing after work?" he asked, tone just a level under 'gruff'. "We're meeting up with some friends later on, want to tag along?" he offered as he shrugged his head towards the Nara who was a few steps back, to explain who this 'we' was.

Tsuneo froze with his hand still in mid-air holding onto the newly handed forms and suddenly became so flustered it was almost painful to watch – but it was also really funny, from an outsider's perspective, Shikamaru had to admit. "S-s-sure," he finally stammered out.

"Huh. Okay then. We'll pick you up when we leave," Kankuro replied, nearly just as surprised but doing a much better job of hiding it. He didn't like it when his sister was right, it was a question of principles, but he wasn't entirely annoyed about that one yet. Turning to Shikamaru, he shrugged slightly, raising an eyebrow at his smirk, but didn't say anything. When they left the office – without any comments on his report, at last! – he finally hummed. "Well…that was roundabout!"

"He was blushing," Shikamaru commented, shaking his head in amusement. "Probably has a hero-crush on you, poor thing!" He was quite famous, after all, so it wasn't really surprising.

That didn't deter the puppeteer. "Then I suppose you have to admit it was gutsy to try and get my attention by annoying me!" he noted casually.

"I suppose you're not entirely wrong," Shikamaru agreed eventually.

"Is my sister still forcing you to play with her so she can beat my future brother-in-law?" Kankuro asked instead of rising to the bait.

The Nara laughed at this, agreeing that while it was a rather direct way of putting it, it wasn't entirely inaccurate! "She is, but you sound quite sure of yourself!" he mused.

"Standing up to someone who's both younger and outranks you without being either disrespectful or condescending is a lot harder than it sounds," Kankuro commented seriously. He'd seen it enough times with Gaara, after all. It was a delicate balance to attain, and even harder to maintain. "In my sense, Sojiro's always managed to stay there, and Temari likes that – that's why she doesn't mind losing to him, not really."

"She minds a little," Shikamaru protested in amusement. "You should hear her rant about it!"

"I live with her, remember?" the other man needlessly asked with a raised eyebrow. "With anyone else, she wouldn't have played more than once. She wouldn't care what they'd think. But he's different; she doesn't want him to believe she's giving up."

The shadow-nin nodded slowly at this, conceding he hadn't really thought about it like that – but of course her brother knew her better. It still seemed like a lot of needless moves to him, but to each their own, right?

They continued their tasks for the day with somewhat less banter than usual, with Gaara tilting his head in a knowing way, aware that something was going on, but choosing not to pry. When the workday came to an end, Shikamaru elected to leave first. "I'll pick up Kiba and meet you there," he threw over his shoulder, stopping as the puppeteer grabbed his elbow.

"You're gonna run away now?" Kankuro asked him with a frown, suddenly doubting the plan.

The Nara turned to him, raising a raised eyebrow, very much unimpressed. "This isn't your first date, do you really need me to hold your hand?" he noted as he shrugged his arm free.

"I didn't mean it like that," Kankuro insisted, annoyed with himself for reaching out without thinking. Of course he didn't need help, he knew how to handle a guy! "Don't get distracted on Kiba's desk and take forever!" he said as he turned to go his own way, turning the tables as usual.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes but didn't comment any further. Casually, purposefully taking his time, he made his way to the Allied HQ, nodding a greeting at people he passed and recognized, yawing a few times for good measure, keeping his nose safely muffled in his scarf. They might have been nearing the end of winter, but it was still cold out and about – leagues warmer than what they would've had to contend with in Konoha, he knew, but cold for Suna. Getting to the building was a nice break, and he lazily strolled towards the commander and deputy commander's offices. Temari's door was closed, but Kiba's wasn't, so he tapped his knuckles on the wooden surface for the principle and smiled automatically as Kiba looked up to grin at him – although he wasn't alone. Akamaru barked quietly and went to him, glad for some attention.

"Sorry, we'll be done soon," he told him apologetically as he gestured towards Darami who was sitting on the other side of his desk.

Shikamaru nodded a greeting to the kunoichi, who curtly nodded back as usual. "I'll wait for you near the entrance then," he said as he absently scratched the nin-dog's ears.

"Waiting room," Kiba told him instead, looking like he knew something no one else did. "Trust me."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow but nodded, doing as instructed and making his way to the waiting room. He half-expected a clue as soon as he saw the door, but it wasn't any louder than usual, nor was it any different. Curiously, he pushed it open and gazed around the room before frowning as he recognized a certain mop of hair – and green jumpsuit. "Lee?"

Konoha's Junior Green Beast turned to him, his hair flying about, and grinned at him as he wasted no time going over to shake his hand energetically. "Shikamaru! How nice to see you again! You're looking well!" he said enthusiastically, his grin never diminishing in size.

The Nara automatically chuckled at this, as some things never changed. He pulled his hand back before his arm could fall off and absently massaged his shoulder as he raised an eyebrow at him. "Looking fairly good yourself, I promise! Here on a mission, I take it?" he needlessly asked.

Lee nodded, waving a hand about as though to illustrate it. "Yes, it wasn't exactly planned, but we got here a few hours ago – we'll be staying a few days to rest up, since we're here. Kiba told me you were planning on having drinks tonight, so he asked if I wanted to tag along, which – you know me – I'm always willing to!" he explained.

"Of course," Shikamaru commented with a smirk. "So…last I heard you'd transferred to Kumo – is that still accurate?" he wondered as they sat down.

"Yes, and how enriching it's been!" Lee replied instantly. "Truly, having now experienced it myself, I firmly believe that everyone – given the opportunity – should definitely spend some time abroad! It's an experience that can be substituted for no other!" he declared seriously.

"I hear you," the shadow-nin agreed with a small grin. "And yet it's also a leap of faith, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?"

"Without Kiba, it's highly unlikely I would've tried it," Shikamaru replied matter-of-factly. "Before we left, my mother mentioned that traveling is the gift of our generation, yet most people still won't take advantage of it."

Lee nodded in agreement and then looked back up at him. "I'm certain that the next generation will see it as normal – and they'll tell everyone all about it, so much so that those who sat it out will turn green with envy and regret!" he said with certainty.

Shikamaru laughed at this, having to admit he had no problem imagining Mirai and Kao wreaking havoc abroad once they'd be grown up – or without waiting that long, Shino's students, who'd met shinobi from many Hidden Villages at the Academy. "They'll have a thing or two to say to us, I'm sure!"

"Who will?" Kiba wondered as he poked his head in, closely followed by Akamaru.

"Just talking about how the next generation will criticize us, like the boring old men we are," Shikamaru drawled lazily as he stood to walk to him, leaning in to greet him more properly with a kiss. "Darami not joining us?" he needlessly asked.

"I tried," Kiba replied with a shrug, stealing another kiss before shrugging his head to the side. "Come on, let's go save Kankuro's date."

"What about Temari?" Lee wondered as he fell in steps with them, reaching to pat Akamaru's head.

This time Kiba smirked and chuckled worryingly. "I asked but she's busy with shogi right now," he replied, to which Shikamaru snorted in amusement. "It's probably for the best, though. Yasha was game, but I had to send her out last minute, so it's just us."

Shikamaru nodded before turning to the taijutsu expert and clearing his throat. "In the interest of full disclosure, I should warn you that Kankuro might be on a date."

"Might?" Lee repeated with a raised eyebrow. "How does that work? Oh! Is it a set-up? What do you call it—a blind date?" he wondered, looking excited at the prospect, thumb-up at the ready.

Kiba laughed at this and clucked his tongue. "Not exactly…we're not entirely sure what the situation is – we're basically an excuse to laugh it off in case it's really not a date," he explained as best he could.

"Hmm," Lee replied pensively as he stroked him chin. "Then shall I take advantage of my status as an outsider to stir the pot, or should I pretend nothing's going on?" he asked them with the slightest smirk slowly forming.

Shikamaru almost paused in his steps – being unable to because Kiba tugged on his hand to pull him along – and raised an eyebrow at him, impressed. "Lee, how do you hide that facet of your personality so well?"

Lee laughed easily at this, and it was enough of an answer. "So?" he asked them as they neared the place.

"Stir the pot," Shikamaru said while Kiba said, "Play along." Naturally, they paused and exchanged glances at this.

"Be nice," Kiba said simply as Shikamaru opened his mouth to argue his point.

"Trouble?" Lee asked Akamaru as he crossed his arms over his chest and looked at their silent staring contest. The nin-dog shook his head and the Junior Green Beast relaxed, nodding to himself happily. "I'll go with the flow then!" he declared to break it up – besides, he was getting thirsty, and hungry.

As any self-respecting gathering should, theirs took place at the same old family restaurant that was home to the most infamous and horrifyingly addictive liquor Suna boasted. Finding their pair once there wasn't hard, since Kankuro usually always sat at the same table. Luckily, there seemed to be nothing awkward about the atmosphere – or interrupting it, for that matter.

Kankuro's maybe-date introduced himself to Kiba and Lee – with perhaps narrowed eyes at the Inuzuka, but enough confidence – and the puppeteer didn't waste any time filling their glasses up. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, Lee, but what did you do with Yasha?" he wondered as he set his drink down. A few years ago, when Gaara's near permanent mutilation of Lee was still fresh in everyone's minds, meeting the taijutsu expert had been an awkward experience. His recovery had greatly facilitated the process, so much that Gaara now even enjoyed his visits, to his sibling's relief.

"Last minute mission!" Kiba replied as he grimaced at the taste as usual.

"Oh well—more food for us!"

Shikamaru snorted at this, well acquainted with the woes of eating with an Akimichi. Absently, he brought his glass to his lips and then groaned. "It really does not get any easier with time," he muttered as he looked around so he could get a waitress' attention and some water.

"It's an acquired taste, I'll give you that," Tsuneo replied easily as he couldn't deny it could be brutal on the taste buds at first.

Lee nodded at this, briefly sniffing the liquid as though to determine its components after taking a sip. "And yet, strangely not so repulsive as to give up on drinking it!" he mused. "They have something similar, in Kumo!"

"Is that the place you're calling home these days?" Kankuro asked him conversationally.

"Correct!" He repeated the same things he'd told his fellow Leaf shinobi and then elected to move the spotlight away from himself as they placed their orders. He then turned to Tsuneo and tilted his head slightly. "So, what department do you work for, Tsuneo, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Logistics," the shinobi replied with a blink. "I also do rotations at the administrative desk when needed and the occasional messenger-type mission."

"So I guess that's why you only started at the desk recently," Kankuro mused matter-of-factly. The advent of new technologies such as long-range radio transmissions had greatly diminished the number of missions that required shinobi to act as messengers, so they'd been drafted in other departments according to their needs. Not exactly glorious, but at least they still had work.

Shikamaru refrained from pointing out that maybe Tsuneo had been working there for a longer time but the puppeteer simply never noticed him, hence the scheming with the rejected forms. (The truth was that Kiba knew him too well and knew he wanted to say something like that, so he squeezed his hand and gave him a look, so Shikamaru shut up.)

But all-in-all, the mood was agreeable, and the evening went well – so well that, instead of staying drinking late as they usually would, Shikamaru and Kiba excused themselves earlier than usual, with Lee following, citing a long day and the need for proper rest. At least that way their stomachs remained intact.

"It was a date," Lee noted matter-of-factly as they walked away from the restaurant.

"Good thing you were there," Kiba noted as he grabbed Shikamaru's arm and slung it over his shoulders. "Otherwise it would've been a double-date, and that would've been awkward!"

"That's putting it mildly!" Shikamaru commented with a snort. Yes, he was maybe slowly warming up to Kankuro – but certainly not to the point of having a double-date with him. (It somehow felt like a small victory that Kiba agreed with him.)

In the morning, Kankuro was as usual hard to read – on purpose, he was sure – but then Gaara decided to burst his brother's bubble so the Nara would stop frowning, and very casually said, "My brother returned home late last night, please excuse his distracted state this morning."

"Gaara!" Kankuro called exasperatedly.

The Kazekage merely sent a look towards his brother, the one that said, 'what is it? I didn't lie' and Shikamaru kept himself from laughing openly at that.

"I'm not distracted," Kankuro insisted for the principle, daring the Nara to say anything to that.

Shikamaru merely held his hands up and returned to his ledger. All in good time.

All in good time…


Chapter Text


The day that Kiba turned over a page of their calendar and saw the date of Kao's third birthday circled several times in a bright red pen, he found himself wondering where the time went and how it sped by so quickly.

"Kao's turning three next week," he said to himself out loud, as though to confirm it. He knew that of course – they'd planned some leave days to be there for the celebration and, accessorily, Hinata and Naruto's wedding the week after, but still…he thought for sure they had another month left – or two, maybe even three.

"Time flies, doesn't it?" Shikamaru wondered as he closed the fridge, having heard him anyway. "It's somewhat hard to believe she'll finally get her markings – I'm really looking forward to seeing that!"

The Inuzuka nodded back and grinned. "Yep. Then her training will officially start!" he recalled from his own childhood. Then, upon turning five and entering the Academy, she'd be given her own nin-dog, but that was still some time away!

At any rate, an Inuzuka getting their markings was always a huge celebration that the entire clan was invited (and mostly present) to, even the ones who'd married into other clans. The markings themselves were placed by the Head of the Clan; in opposition, the bonding to a nin-dog was a much more private matter, reserved for direct family only.

"I'm glad I'll be allowed to attend," Shikamaru commented as he sat down for breakfast.

"Why wouldn't you?" Kiba almost growled back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Aoba's parents are allowed to, and they don't know half of a quarter of what you know about the Inuzuka!"

Shikamaru chuckled at this, holding his hands up. The head of the clan had made it clear that he shouldn't be around the clan grounds so much until they got married, after all, so he was always cautious about not overstaying his welcome. And effectively, since they'd moved in together, all his stays on the Inuzuka compound had in fact been short visits, to either Tsume or Hana and Aoba – even if in light of this special occasion, he'd been given permission to remain on the clan grounds as a guest of Hana and Aoba.

And truth be told, he had started thinking about marriage, although it was most likely because now he saw Gaara signing marriage certificates on a regular basis and had even affixed Suna's seal on more than a few of them himself – it was a task equally shared with the administrative support, really. He and Kiba had been together for over three years now, after all, and he'd even followed him to Suna. He knew they'd raise eyebrows, but then again they'd been raising eyebrows since day one anyway, and Kakashi would be happy to put his signature on that certificate, there was no doubting that. He was practically certain that Kiba would say yes, too, but for some reason he hadn't asked him yet.

A part of him always whispered 'what if?' and then he figured they were happy as they were. Another part always dreaded his mother's reaction, although he figured Yoshino had by then accepted that Kiba was there to stay – although it might be more accurate to say she'd resigned herself to that fact.

Besides, Naruto and Hinata getting married made thinking about marriage even more unavoidable. It was good timing though, because they'd be able to be there – Kiba in particular was very happy about not missing his team-mate's happy day. Gaara, Temari and Kankuro, who were also invited, would join them in Konoha a week later, so they wouldn't really break away from Suna completely yet…

So it was that almost a week later, they were back in the Leaf for the first time since leaving nine months ago – exhausted from the journey and somehow finding their hometown chilly. They'd been invited to stay at Hana and Aoba's house, paying their 'rent' in babysitting hours, to their amusement, and had readily agreed because they'd missed a lot of Kao's development and she was now old enough to be really fun to be around.

Obviously though, in the Inuzuka world 'babysitting' began at dawn, as evidenced by Kao as she burst into their room and threw herself over Kiba at a time where most people in their right minds, even the early risers, preferred to sleep. To be honest, they'd initially been scared she'd be too shy around them, since she was still little when they left. Clearly, they needn't have worried.

"Uncle Kiba, can we go walk Akamaru?" she asked excitedly as she pulled back the covers he'd moved over his face.

"He can walk himself," Kiba argued as he tried another tactic – getting her to go back to sleep. "It's too early to be up, just take a nap, pup," he encouraged as he pulled her against his chest. From behind him, Shikamaru made a sound to show he approved this plan.

"But I don't want to sleep anymore," Kao replied with a pout as though explaining something obvious to him, although she'd lowered her volume and didn't try to leave.

The older Inuzuka groaned slightly, willing himself not to let her wrap him around her little finger as she was so prone to. "Kao, Shikamaru and I just got here yesterday after three days' travel. We're not as young as you, we need more sleep to recover!" he insisted patiently as a hand stroked her hair with the hope of lulling her back to sleep. "Your dad's an early riser – maybe you can ask him?" he then suggested.

"He said to ask you," the child replied as she made no move to pull back. "He said you'd understand," she then added, to which Shikamaru snorted in amusement.

Kiba gave up at this, getting the message. "Okay, fine…" As soon as the words had left his mouth, his niece sprung up happily – almost elbowing his face and kneeing his stomach in the process – and ran to tackle Akamaru where he slept with the other nin-dogs. "Get some sleep for me?" he asked Shikamaru with a sigh as he turned to nuzzle his cheek.

Shikamaru grinned but shook his head. "I'm going too – then we can stop by to visit my mom afterwards," he said as he sat up.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at that. "Are you planning on using our niece to shield you from your mother's nagging?" he asked him knowingly.

"Yes," Shikamaru confirmed unashamedly as he paused at the door and turned back to his lover. "Is that wrong?"

"No, that's actually brilliant," Kiba was forced to admit with a shrug as he walked towards the kitchen – he wasn't going to leave without a full breakfast, it was bad enough being up that early on time off! He made enough for every human and dog in the household – because he was a kind, kind brother – and after getting dressed – and making Shikamaru turn the shirt he'd put on backwards because he was not an early morning person – they left with Kao energetically running alongside Akamaru. The nin-dog in question had momentarily looked at the still sleeping Haimaru brothers wistfully, but the pup's excitement had soon won him over.

While there definitely weren't that many people around so early in the morning, there was always someone to run into, and not just the poor souls on watch duty. By the time they'd made a small tour of the village – as much as was needed to comply with Kao's idea of 'walking' Akamaru – some shops were opening and more and more people walked down the streets.

"Where are we going?" Kao asked curiously as they turned down a street she was unfamiliar with.

"To say hello to my mother," Shikamaru replied as he absently reached a hand to steady her on Akamaru's back – although she didn't really need him to. "Do you remember her?" he wondered.

"I don't know," she replied, face scrunched up in concentration.

Kiba chuckled at this, reaching to ruffle her hair fondly. "It's okay pup, she won't bite!" he promised with a wink, clicking his teeth together anyway to make her push him away with a giggle.

Shikamaru smiled as he looked at them, letting out another yawn as they reached the Nara clan grounds. They received some strange looks as they walked further in, and he chuckled to himself as he tried to think about what was going on in their minds. Maybe that they'd been away from Konoha for some time, and now they were back with a kid? He laughed at this, hoping that most would use their heads and remember that Kiba had a niece. As they walked up to his childhood home, his smile turned warmer and he knocked on the door, hoping this wasn't the one day his mother would've decided to sleep in.

Yoshino, true to herself, wasn't long in answering, first looking annoyed – because who visited so damn early? – before grinning as she recognized him. "Shikamaru, you're back!" she said happily.

Kiba didn't let it faze him anymore that she didn't really pay much attention to him. Instead he focused on keeping Kao amused.

"Just for a week or so," Shikamaru immediately tempered, trying not to wince at her obvious disappointment. "Kao will turn three tomorrow, we're here for the celebration," he said as he turned to gesture towards the miniature Inuzuka.

Yoshino followed his lead and her eyes softened at the child's curious expression. "My, how you've grown since I last saw you!" she praised as she smiled at her, briefly looking up at Kiba to nod at him. "Why don't you all come in?"

"Ah, thank you, but we need to get Kao back home," Shikamaru shamelessly replied. "I'll come by tonight though if you want?" he then offered, knowing he wouldn't be able to get away with not having dinner with her.

"Alright. Tonight then – I'll make your favorite," she said brightly before winking at Kao.

"Wow, could she blame me more obviously? I'm honestly not sure whether she's pretending to anymore," Kiba muttered sarcastically as they walked back towards the Inuzuka compound.

"It's her tough love! I think she's over it by now," Shikamaru said as he wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pulled him closer. His mother had taken rather well his news that he'd move to the Sand, but blamed Kiba for the principle, since she saw it as his 'fault'.

"I think she'll really be over it once you break up with me, marry Temari, and move back here," Kiba offered with a smirk and a roll of his eyes. "And give her a grandchild or two, of course – a boy first and then a girl, ideally – or, you know, just aim for twins right away."

"Of course," Shikamaru groaned as he couldn't contradict him on that. "I suppose that means she'll never get over it," he then noted matter-of-factly. "I'm okay with that," he assured him as he pressed a kiss to the side of his head.

"You better be!" Kiba muttered in fake annoyance, looking up as the Haimaru brothers, now up and running, welcomed them on the clan grounds, yapping happily as Kao was back. His eyes then narrowed as he spotted his brother-in-law leaving on his way to work. "Aoba! Good morning!" he told him brazenly.

Aoba only grinned back, clearly not feeling the slightest bit of remorse for having shamelessly thrown his daughter on them earlier so he could get more sleep. "Kiba, Shikamaru! Did you sleep well?"

"You're walking a narrow path, Aoba," Shikamaru warned him with a raised eyebrow.

"Such is life!" the other man replied pragmatically, giving them a mock-salute before vanishing.

Hana, at least, thanked her brother for the breakfast before heading off with her triplets, and while Kiba carried Kao over to the garden to try and tire her out enough for a nap later on, Shikamaru went directly to that part – to show by example. And he needed to store energy for dinner with his mother after all.

He'd been right to.

"So, how is it in Suna – really?" Yoshino asked critically the second they sat down for dinner, as if he'd been censoring his real thoughts those few times they'd spoken before.

"It's going really great, mom, I promise," Shikamaru assured her, chuckling at her dubious look. "Really," he insisted. "Organization is stricter in Suna, and the Council of Elders has much more power than here, so it did take some getting used to. But overall it's not too different from Konoha, when it really comes down to it. Besides, Gaara definitely makes it interesting!"

"Well, as long as you don't regret it," Yoshino stated simply, sipping her tea, looking him in the eyes.

"I don't – not for a moment," Shikamaru said without any doubts before smiling to himself. "And you should see Kiba at it, he's amazing – nobody wants to see him go!" he added proudly.

His mother tilted her head sideways at this, not really surprised because the Inuzuka had always excelled at his work, and he did have some people skills, that much she could never deny. "How much longer will you be staying there?" she wondered with a curious look instead.

Shikamaru looked up as he tried to figure that one out, absently chewing on her famous roast – one of the things he missed the most about Konoha, truthfully. "That's hard to say for sure," he replied honestly. "It was always meant to be between a year and two, but I think we're leaning more towards two."

Yoshino sighed at this, bringing her chopsticks to her mouth. "So another year away…"

"This will be a really helpful experience when I'll work with the Hokage," he offered as he tried to appeal to her optimistic side about the future.

It seemed to help some, as she looked up with a small smile. "How long did you say you were staying here for?" she then asked conversationally.

"Little over a week," he replied, satisfied that she was dropping the Suna part. "As I mentioned this morning, Kao's birthday is tomorrow – there's going to be a huge celebration on the clan grounds, because she'll get her markings."

"Ah, she'll become a true Inuzuka!" Yoshino noted in amusement.

Shikamaru nodded absently at this – he'd always seen her as a 'true Inuzuka' anyway. "And next week, Naruto and Hinata are holding their wedding celebration – I'm sure you've heard about that?"

"Oh, everyone in the village and beyond knows our hero is marrying his princess!" Yoshino replied with a clear laugh, pointing her chopsticks at him. "A lot of people would give their right arm to be invited, you should consider yourselves lucky – it's shaping up to be the event of the decade, perhaps even the age!" she teased him easily.

"Of course," he agreed with a grin. "Granted, the guest list alone could give anyone pause – the four other Kage simply traveling to Konoha as wedding guests? That'll go down in the history books, I'd bet on it!"

"It's so extravagant…!" Yoshino said with faked shock, laughing at their antics. "So naturally the Kazekage will be there as well? With his brother as usual, I suppose?"

"Well, Gaara's practically Naruto's best friend, I think they'd both be openly depressed if he couldn't make it," Shikamaru replied genuinely. "And both Temari and Kankuro will actually be there. After that we'll likely be going back with them," he finished.

"But with both Temari and Kiba here in Konoha, who will be responsible for the Suna Allied headquarters?" Yoshino asked him in confusion.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes, remembering the logistics and discussions behind that very same question. "It took forever to agree on a contingency, but two of the captains are taking over as proxies," he told her. "Temari initially offered to remain in Suna, but in the end an alternate arrangement was found. I think that was mostly Gaara not wanting any of Naruto's friends to be away from the party," he added earnestly.

Yoshino chuckled at this. "Well, as already established it will be quite the celebration!" she agreed.

"He is a hero!" Shikamaru noted with a shrug.

"So are you," his mother reminded him with a raised eyebrow. "You put together strategies that helped in the war! And you're part of the team that stopped the moon from crashing down!" she added proudly.

"Be that as it may…I wouldn't want such a big fuss!" Shikamaru said with a chuckle.

"For what?"

"My wedding," he replied easily. "I mean…only family and close friends, and nothing too big, just a nice moment…" he trailed off as he noticed her confused and shocked expression. "What?"

"Your…wedding…" Yoshino repeated quietly, setting her chopsticks down and looking up at him with a raised eyebrow. "You don't mean to say you're…planning…" she trailed off at this, her hand doing a vague circling gesture that he couldn't really interpret.

"More like thinking," he tempered – although, yeah, he was thinking about going beyond just thinking.

"With Kiba?" she clarified with a frown.

"Who else?" Shikamaru asked back as he mirrored her.

"Do you want a full list?" Yoshino prompted with a chuckle before she could stop herself.

"Well, for your information, Temari's now spoken for, so that ship definitely sailed," he informed her. And even if he was getting slightly ahead of himself, it wasn't exactly a lie, right? Those games of shogi with Sojiro held way too much sexual tension for them to be just games.

Yoshino snorted in amusement at this. Part of her was almost glad that he was still serious in his involvement, because if you're going to go that far you might as well go all the way, right? But really she wasn't ready to give up on him finding himself a nice woman and finally having those grandkids she'd always dreamt of – even if Temari was (possibly) out of the equation. "I didn't know that was on your mind," she noted neutrally.

"On and off, yeah." Shikamaru closed his eyes and let out a breath at this, not wanting to get carried away over a thought. "Look, mom, I don't want to fight with you on this. But provided he says 'yes', I will marry Kiba one day," he told her honestly. He didn't have any doubts about his feelings.

Besides, nobody questioned Naruto when he'd proposed to Hinata after barely a year together, and nobody would question Ino and Sai when he'd finally understand her really not subtle hints – heck, there was even a betting pool going on for when Karui would make Chouji marry her and they still effectively lived villages apart at times! So why did it feel like he and Kiba had to justify themselves for wanting the same thing when they'd been together longer than most of their friends?

Yoshino didn't respond right away. She only looked up at him, as though trying to understand him, to make sense of what he was saying. More than ever, she wished Shikaku were still there. He'd understand him, he'd make sense of his words; she was certain of it. "I don't want to fight with you either, I was just surprised," she finally replied softly. "You know I have a temper," she added lightly, grinning easily.

"Yeah, I know…" he replied as the corner of his lips pulled up in a small smile.

Maybe one day they'd get there after all.

It wasn't exactly late when he left the Nara clan grounds, so he took a slight detour and went by Chouji's apartment. It wasn't located on the Akimichi clan grounds, despite there being more than enough room for them, but Chouji thought that not feeling so surrounded by his family would be better for Karui – undeniably, it was less awkward that way. She seemed to appreciate the thought and gesture though, even if she never commented on that in public.

When she opened the door to his face, she smirked as she always did, as if there was a sign on his forehead that proclaimed something or other – 'I have weird sexual preferences', if he knew her at all. "Guess you're really back at the scene of the crime!" she noted casually as she invited him in and called Chouji.

"You have such a nice way of putting things as usual," he muttered without any real animosity, grin turning more genuine as his best friend's eyes lit up and he ran to squeeze the living daylight out of his ribs. "I hope I'm not interrupting!" he wheezed out for the principle.

"Of course not!" Chouji reassured him with a bashful smile.

"As if we'd have opened the door if that was the case…" Karui scoffed with much less shyness.

Shikamaru couldn't very well deny her point though, so he turned back to his friend. "I just left my mother's, I could definitely go for a drink if you're up to it," he offered, glancing back at Karui as well. "Both of you, of course."

Karui rolled her eyes for show but her grin was genuine as she made shooing motions with her hands. "Not that desperate, but thanks anyway."

Chouji beamed brighter and picked her up in his arms for a twirl before making his way to their bedroom to get changed.

Shikamaru expertly pretended not to have witnessed that as the kunoichi turned back to glare at him, cheeks red and daring him to comment. "I'll be out in front when he's ready. I'll see you around – at Sakura and Ino's dinner, likely?" he said as he cleared his throat.

"Likely," Karui agreed. Complete certainty in terms of presence to this or that event was near impossible to have in their line of work after all, but they made do.

Chouji wasn't long in joining him outside, and they naturally started walking towards the Yamanaka grounds – because their team wasn't complete unless they were a trio.

And really, it shouldn't have surprised them to find Ino waiting for them sitting on a bench at the grounds' entrance, raising an eyebrow at them. "You sure took your time, I picked up on your chakras ages ago!" she accused for the principle as she pinched Shikamaru's cheek before giving him a one-armed hug. "Kay, let's not waste a moment, I have an early day tomorrow so I can't stay up all night, unfortunately!" she declared as she pulled back and pulled them along.

"You're the boss, Ino," Chouji replied easily, sharing an amused look with Shikamaru. Once they were seated, he found it hard to decide on what to ask about first – they hadn't seen each other in nine months, after all, there was a lot to talk about that letters or calls didn't cover! Although…he himself didn't have anything in particular to share. Nothing exceptional had happened – nothing good, nothing bad. Same old. So he settled for the very recent past. "So, did your mother ask whether you've joined a cult in the Sand?"

The other two laughed at this, and Ino shook her head as she thought about Yoshino. "You know, she regularly asks my mother to ask me whether I've heard from you – she didn't believe me when I insisted you didn't contact us more than her!" she said with the slightest reproach laced in.

Shikamaru held a hand up in apology at this, shrugging helplessly. "Those new technologies feel so cold to me! And writing letters isn't really my strong point…"

"You're the Kazekage's assistant. I'm sure you write letters all day long," Ino pointed out with a raised eyebrow. "Don't try to defuse the situation…" she recommended as she poked his side.

"Hey, I'm here now!" the Nara reminded her as he tried to remove her finger from his ribs. "And if you must know, I made the mistake of getting her started on talks of marriage," he replied to Chouji's question.

"Now why would you do that for?" his friend asked him with a frown.

"In my defense, the situation very quickly got out of hand – all I did was mention we'd be going to Naruto and Hinata's wedding next week," Shikamaru defended himself before shaking his head. "I did bring it upon myself, I suppose."

Ino compassionately rubbed his arm as she brought her glass to her lips and then tilted her head to the side. "But wait – so what d'you tell her?" she wondered as a discussion on marriage with Yoshino couldn't have been uneventful.

"That I've been considering it," he replied with a shrug.

"With Kiba?" Chouji immediately asked him excitedly, nearly sitting up to lean closer to him.

"Who else?" Shikamaru asked back for the second time that night, grin widening at Chouji's pout as he insisted he didn't mean it like that.

Ino for her part was shockingly not shocked about the big reveal. "Not like that's completely unexpected – you guys have been together what? Three years? Four?" she wondered out loud as she looked up and tried to remember more precisely.

"Three and a half," Shikamaru replied, not exactly surprised that she wasn't surprised. "I mean it's not a done deal, it's not like Kiba and I have talked about it in details."

"Makes sense," Ino replied warmly.

"Have you been thinking about it too, Ino?" Chouji wondered as he noted her calm.

The sensor blinked in surprise at this, not expecting the tables to get turned on her that rapidly. "Well…yes and no," she started slowly. "You see, I'd like to get married, and I think so would Sai, that way he'd actually have a clan…"

"But?" the Akimichi pressed with a frown.

Ino shrugged at this. "You know people – you know my family. I'd rather get questioned daily about why we aren't married rather than why we don't have kids," she replied as she twisted her mouth.

"Oh! I guess I see your point," Chouji admitted as he thought about it.

Shikamaru nodded his agreement – it wasn't entirely different from what Temari had to contend with, except she was already being pressed for progeny even without having a man at her side (officially). "I wonder if Naruto and Hinata really know what they're in for," he added with a chuckle.

"Well, we'll have to wait and see – but I stopped worrying about them long ago!" Ino replied confidently before turning her eyes to Chouji. "What about you, Chouji? When are you going to make Karui an official citizen of Konoha?" she teased him easily.

Chouji sputtered in embarrassment and turned to Shikamaru for support but the vile traitor only grinned wider and raised an eyebrow at him, so he hung his head. "You know, I think I'll just wait for her to ask me," he confessed.

How sad was it that the other two shared a look and agreed with him?

"I think we know each other too well," he mock-lamented.

At this, they all shared another look and held their glasses up.

That was the good part, right?

When Kao's big day finally came, the majority of the Inuzuka clan and their nin-dogs showed up to celebrate one of their own officially joining their ranks. By nature, the celebration wasn't exactly open to all, but neither was it remotely a secret – in fact, it would have been difficult to find a more informal gathering in the other shinobi clans! Parents were free to invite basically whomever they chose to, and so close friends of Hana and Aoba's were present, in addition to their respective families, and naturally Hinata and Shino had also been invited.

Some of the younger children knew the Aburame from the Academy, and it was a world of fun for Kiba and Hinata to see them grab him by the hand to pull him along towards this or that area to either introduce him to someone or push him to take some food – and, occasionally, beg him to perform a trick or two with his insects.

Hinata's identity had never exactly been a mystery to people, what with her being an heiress of the Hyuuga clan, but getting engaged to Naruto had literally spread that fame to every corner of the shinobi world. She politely accepted the congratulations she received, all the while firmly and politely reminding well-wishers that this was an Inuzuka clan event, for Kao. Her smile was too disarming for anyone to insist – and keep trying to get into her good graces.

Kiba could hardly remember having ever seen his mother so proud – maybe when it had been his and Hana's turns? He barely remembered his own ceremony – he'd been too small, if he thought about it there was only a vague sense of having eaten too much food. He'd seen others since, naturally, given that they were always a clan event, but this was different – this was his niece. Inwardly he felt envious of his sister, because that was something he'd only ever know about from the spectator's side, but he didn't let it bring him down too long, because he was still damn proud himself.

The Haimaru brothers carried Kao on their backs in turn, under Hana's amused and trustful eyes, and eventually she picked her daughter up in her arms and she and Aoba walked with her to sit down in front of Jozu Inuzuka, new head of the Inuzuka clan since his mother Sumire had decided that she'd earned her early retirement – she was still present though, grinning boastfully and eying her son critically.

"I see a lot of people gathered to officially welcome you into our clan, little one," he told Kao with a warm grin, laughing when she frowned at him and jealously guarded the meat bun she was munching on as though fearing he'd take it from her.

"You can have more later, pup; now listen to Jozu," Hana gently coaxed her as she took the half-eaten bun and gave it to her dogs – waste not, right?

Kao pouted but did as she was told after a quick look towards her father, because when both mommy and daddy agreed on something, then she had to do it.

Jozu nodded at the parents and rolled open a large scroll – a family lineage, Shikamaru noted with interest. "Your name?" he asked for the principle.

"Kao, daughter of Hana and Aoba of the Inuzuka clan," Aoba replied for her.

The head of the clan dutifully recorded it, reaching for a kunai to prick the tip of his thumb to affix his seal as witness before handing it over to Hana.

"This will just sting a little, I promise," she said to her daughter as she very quickly touched it to her thumb and helped her press it down next to her name.

Jozu grinned and joined his hands to form several seals, following which the Inuzuka clan's trademark red triangles appeared on Kao's cheeks without further flourish, just as could be expected from this clan.

Kiba's breath hitched and Shikamaru smiled to himself as he felt him reach for his hand, wordlessly squeezing it back. He'd known what to expect, his lover had told him as much years back, but it was still surprising to actually see how it was done.

Next to them, Hinata smiled brightly as she discreetly moved to carefully wipe her eyes as her other hand squeezed Akamaru's fur. By her side, Shino exhaled slowly and nodded once in pure approval and contentment.

"Welcome to the Inuzuka clan, Kao!" the head of the clan declared as he closed the scroll and reached to ruffle her hair.

Kao frowned at him in confusion, but then her parents squeezed her happily, and her grandmother rushed over to ruffle her hair even more and her uncle Kiba was laughing loudly with an arm around her uncle Shikamaru's shoulders, so she figured grown-ups were just strange as she stuck her injured thumb into her father's mouth.

Now where were the meat buns she was promised?

"Hey, does the Nara clan have any sort of huge ceremony like that?" Kiba wondered as he lay sprawled on their bed, head dangling off the edge upside-down as he looked up at the sky through the open window.

"Oh, sure, when there's a new member, we gather in the woods on a night of full moon and commune with the deer," Shikamaru said with a snort as he dug around his bag for an extra hair tie.

"No you don't," Kiba stated as he turned to look at him with a frown.

"No we don't," Shikamaru was forced to admit, not really looking sorry about it. He then tied up his hair absently with the ease of practice as he thought about the question more seriously. "The appointment of a new head is the only thing that comes to mind that would gather everyone in celebration – and even then, I use the term loosely," he finally replied as he walked to him, crossing his arms over his chest as he looked down at him in amusement.

"You're upside-down," Kiba informed him as though it was his fault.

The Nara chuckled and sighed helplessly as he walked to the window to shut the blinds and close it. "Be careful, you'll get a headache," he warned absently, smiling as his lover stuck his tongue out at him. And looking at Kiba being playful and childish like that just after having been part of a special occasion with his clan, somehow it made it crystal clear in his mind. He was going to make it happen.

They were getting married.

"Hey, Kiba?" he finally called out with a lazy smile.

Kiba cocked his head to the side and grinned up at him before throwing out unexpected words. "Marry me," he said confidently – and of course, he'd make what was usually a question into a demand.

Shikamaru frowned at him as he closed his mouth with a snap. "Of all the times to interrupt me…" he muttered as he rubbed his eyes tiredly. "You're really, really troublesome!" he informed him sourly.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at his words, chuckling as he rolled over so he'd be on his stomach and could see him in the normal sense. "Okay, not exactly the answer I was hoping for, I'll admit," he said as he did his best not to sound slightly nervous – because really, should he assume that being told he was (really, really) troublesome was a 'yes' or a 'no'? With Shikamaru, he was never really too sure.

"Backtrack to the beginning of this conversation," the Nara reminded him as he crossed his arms over his chest and walked closer. "I called your name to get your attention, and you were supposed to let me speak, so that I could've said 'marry me' first. You beat me to it," he accused him with narrowed eyes.

Kiba laughed his barking laugh at that and shrugged innocently. "I'll act surprised if you ask me?" he offered.

Shikamaru huffed as he dropped down on his back next to him, arms still crossed. "The moment's gone," he drawled lazily, grinning despite himself as he felt Kiba move to straddle him and press their lips together. "So that's a 'yes'?" he asked as he opened one eye.

"I'm the one who asked!" Kiba protested competitively. "You say 'yes'!"

"So troublesome…"

"So, not that I'm complaining, but what prompted this?" Kiba wondered curiously, completely ignoring his protests.

"That was always the plan, as far as I'm concerned," Shikamaru replied as he looked up at him, finally uncrossing his arms to move them around him. "But I didn't want you to think I asked you just because our friends were doing it," he then added with a shrug.

"Your oversized brain overthinks things too much! I'd never think that," Kiba dismissed with a scoff. "And you didn't actually ask me, by the way."

Shikamaru ignored his last comment in favor of expressing his own curiosity. "What compelled you to demand?"

Kiba hummed as he wondered how to best sum it up. "Well…I always thought it was a matter of 'when', not 'if'," and he didn't fail to notice his lover's warm smile at this. "But then I figured, why wait? Plus I'm in a really good mood right now, that party really pepped me up!" he admitted.

"It was really nice," the Nara agreed lazily.

The Inuzuka smiled as reached for his hands and pressed them back on the bed by his head, twining their fingers. "So, is that a 'yes'?" he asked against his lips.

"Yes, damn it, that's a 'yes'," Shikamaru was forced to admit with a – fond – sigh.

"I can't wait to tell people!" Kiba remarked happily.

"That should be fun," the shadow-nin was forced to agree. "And we're here, so we can tell them in person. It's another reason why I felt like asking – it'd have been troublesome from Suna," he noted.

Kiba's grin widened as he leaned back in to kiss him. "I already told you, you didn't technically ask me anything," he reminded him aggravatingly.

Shikamaru groaned as he resisted the urge to wipe that grin off his face. "Kiba Inuzuka, will you keep on driving me crazy for the rest of my life?" he asked him sarcastically instead.

"Yes," Kiba replied with barely contained satisfaction, grinning widely.

Shikamaru reasonably couldn't really complain about that, so he just freed an arm to wrap it around his neck and pull him close. "You're so troublesome," he muttered fondly into his hair.

So very troublesome.


Chapter Text

When he woke up that morning, Kiba blinked sleepily a few times and paused mid-yawn before remembering the previous night. Kao's ceremony and…wait, had that really happened? "Shika? Hey, Shikamaru," he called as he nudged his lover awake.

"Mmh, what?" the Nara mumbled groggily, refusing to open his eyes.

"Did I really ask you to marry me last night?" Kiba asked hopefully, about 90% sure.

Shikamaru did open one eye at this, frowning slightly. "More like demanded," he muttered before yawning and trying to go back to sleep.

Kiba only grinned happily on his side before nudging him once more. "And you said 'yes', right?"

"Kiba, I love you, but I swear to you if you don't let me sleep right now I will divorce you," Shikamaru declared with all the matter-of-factness of someone who was woken up before they were done sleeping.

The Inuzuka chuckled at this, visibly happy with him despite his words. "Don't worry, I'm leaving you to it, I'm sure my sister could do with some help," he assured him as he pressed a kiss to his head before getting up. The Inuzukas were generally early risers, and Hana, just like him, was already active around the house. "Morning sis'," he called happily as he greeted Akamaru and the Haimaru triplets.

"Morning little brother," she replied affectionately before pausing and sniffing the air. "Hmm…you don't smell like you had fun last night, so what's with the goofy grin?" she asked knowingly with a raised eyebrow.

"I have no idea what you're on about," Kiba assured her innocently before snorting in amusement as he paid attention to her scent. "Hey, you had fun though!" he noted mischievously.

Hana shrugged, not bothering to deny it. "Yup!"

"Are you planning on making me an uncle again in the near future?" he asked half-teasingly.

His sister shrugged once more at this, looking up in thoughts. "It's honestly not really a plan for now…but you never know, right?" she asked rhetorically.

Kiba shrugged back before looking around. "So where's my niece?"

"Making sure her daddy knows to include meat buns in all future celebratory meals," Hana informed him with a fond chuckle. "Help me with the dogs' bowls?" she then asked as she motioned towards a knife and cutting board.

"Sure thing," he replied easily as he moved closer to help as requested. They worked around each other in comfortable silence with the ease of years of practice, and Kiba found himself smiling as it felt nice – being in this kitchen, with her, with the dogs; it reminded him of his childhood.

Aoba appeared carrying Kao under his arm some time later, pretending to drop her on the couch several times to her delight before effectively setting her down, following which she ran into Kiba's legs.

Aoba then wordlessly moved to take the cup of coffee Hana held out to him and pressed a kiss to her lips in thanks before chugging down most of the drink.

Kiba for his part couldn't stop grinning as he pinched his niece's cheeks happily, her markings standing out even more in the light of day. "Kao, you're all grown up!" he praised excitedly.

"Like you and mommy and grandma," she replied with a nod, reaching to pinch his cheeks too before pouting. "But blue would have been prettier," she lamented as only a child could.

"Blue?" Kiba repeated in surprise. "Why blue, pup?"

"Like my eyes!" Kao replied with a frown, looking at him like he was completely beyond help.

Her parents laughed as Kiba held his hands up defense. "I guess I'll never learn how to speak to women," he muttered jokingly to Aoba, making the other man chuckle. He then looked up as Shikamaru trailed in, much more awake than before but still languid in his own morning-way. Kiba tried biting his lips and holding back a while longer, but found that he couldn't. "Shikamaru almost asked me to marry him last night!" he declared happily.

From his side, Akamaru's ears twitched up and he trotted to them, tilting his head questioningly.

"Almost?" Aoba repeated with a frown, wondering if that was good or bad.

Shikamaru for his part chuckled and rolled his eyes fondly as he walked to them. "He beat me to it," he developed as he gratefully accepted the cup of coffee Hana held out for him.

"Why am I not surprised?" Hana teased her brother before turning back to the Nara. "You said 'yes', right?" she asked needlessly as she snaked an arm around Kiba's neck and pulled him against her in a half-hug.

"Of course," Shikamaru confirmed, smiling slightly as Akamaru let out a happy bark and spun on himself twice before going to tackle Kiba.

"Congratulations," Aoba said earnestly as he shook Shikamaru's hand and clapped his shoulder, grinning down at his brother-in-law as he was getting slathered in dog drool.

"Why?" Kao asked curiously as she looked up at them.

"Your uncles are going to get married," Hana explained as she picked her up in her arms.

The look Kao turned on them was full of pure unimpressed confusion. "Not married now?" she wondered, like the adults clearly made a mountain out of a mole hill – adults who were always together and kissed and even shared a bed were married, right? The way they all laughed at her words only further convinced her they were weird.

"Well that was anticlimactic," Shikamaru noted in amusement, reaching to stroke Akamaru's head with one hand as the dog nuzzled it.

Kiba just shrugged at this, leaning against him and absently wiping drool from his face. "I thought you'd be used to the Inuzukas' matter-of-factness by now," he mused teasingly.

"Can you really ever get completely used to it?" Aoba wondered rhetorically, grinning as his wife slapped his arm and their daughter mirrored her mother, figuring 'slap daddy's arm' was this morning's new game.

Shikamaru just smiled contentedly as he looked at them. So maybe it wasn't possible to get entirely used to the Inuzuka's antics, but for sure, it was impossible to get used to living without them once you knew them.

Once Hana and Aoba left for work, their guests found themselves playing babysitter once more. They were supposed to watch Kao for the morning, and then to drop her off at Tsume's for the afternoon. That evening they also had a get-together planned with most of their old friends. So all in all, a mostly lazy but also busy day. The best kind.

Shikamaru sighed happily as he lounged on the porch – the late June weather was absolutely perfect for napping, this year, and he was really much more used to Konoha's temperate climate than Suna's arid one. Kiba walked to sit next to him with Kao in his lap, and he watched in amusement as the little Inuzuka seriously instructed her uncle on how to properly put her hair up in even pigtails. His gaze then trailed to her cheeks, and he had to admit it was extremely heartwarming to (finally) see the red triangles there, although part of him wondered how time could have passed so quickly that she was already three.

Kao magnanimously praised Kiba for his hairstyling achievements once he was done and pressed a sloppy kiss to his cheek in reward before turning to Shikamaru to show off her perfectly bouncy hairdo.

"As cute as a puppy," Shikamaru praised easily, having long ago learned that saying so was always a good bet with an Inuzuka.

"Really?" Kao asked back excitedly, grinning widely.

"Really," he insisted with his most serious expression, smiling lazily as he shared a look with Kiba when Kao giggled and wrapped her uncle's arms tighter around herself to hide her contented embarrassment.

Kiba just grinned at their antics as he held her close, having a sudden mental image of Kao playing with puppies and almost dying at the excess of cuteness it evoked. He would die on his feet the day she'd get her nin-dog, he just knew that. Absently, he traced the triangles on her cheek, and winked at her as she tilted her head back to look at him.

"What about you, Uncle Shikamaru?" she then asked Shikamaru curiously, reaching to pull his hands and examine his wrists. "You don't have red triangles anywhere. Does that mean you're not a grown up yet?" she wondered curiously. Everyone kept telling her she was 'all grown up now', so there had to be a link, right?

The adults exchanged looks and laughed at this, and Shikamaru moved to poke her nose. "I'm grown up alright, but I'm not from the Inuzuka clan. I'm a Nara. We don't get red triangles like you do," he told her in simple terms.

"Do you get blue ones?" she immediately asked enviously.

The Nara frowned in confusion at this question and a quick look towards Kiba told him he'd explain later. "We don't get markings. We usually wear our crest on our clothes," he corrected as he turned slightly and pointed towards his shirt, smiling as she reached to trace the pattern on his back.

"So if someone steals your shirt they can join your clan?" Kao reasoned seriously.

"It's not that simple, pup," Kiba corrected fondly as he lightly teased her with her own pigtails. "There should still be a ceremony."

"Oh, I know! Like marriage!" she exclaimed, proud of her deduction and knowledge.

Kiba chuckled nervously and then nodded. "Yes, like marriage. Like I will," he added as he looked at Shikamaru's shirt.

Shikamaru turned back to them at this, frowning in confusion – he hadn't actually thought that far, to be honest. "What are you saying?"

"Well…I mean I kinda figured we'd do it that way…" Kiba replied with a shrug. "I know how much your clan means to you."

"Yeah, but you're closer to yours!" Shikamaru argued, touched but really not wanting him to take such a big decision just for his sake.

Kiba chuckled as he turned to Kao expectantly. "Kao, what's a clan?"

"Family!" she immediately replied proudly.

"And how long is family for?"


"Good girl!" he praised happily before leaning forward to press his lips to Shikamaru's. "So there you have it. And you're my family," he assured him simply.

Shikamaru chuckled against his lips and shook his head in wonder at their earnestness. Because of course he cared about the Nara clan, and of course Kiba joining it didn't mean that he'd cut ties with the Inuzukas but…when it really came down to it, since they couldn't have children one of them didn't even have to join the other's clan, and yet…he wanted that. Visibly, so did Kiba.

Akamaru appeared behind him and proceeded to communicate his feelings on the matter as he licked their cheeks before moving on to Kao as she clung to him happily.

Family is forever, huh?

What was he supposed to say in response to that…?

In all honesty, neither Kiba nor Shikamaru had felt nervous at the prospect of telling Tsume about their big news, but they'd clearly underestimated Kao's sagacity on the matter.

"Grandma, grandma!" the little Inuzuka called loudly as she jumped at her grandmother's neck. "Kiba and Shikamaru are going to get married!" she informed her quite seriously.

Tsume raised an eyebrow and smirked widely at this. "Oh, is that so?" she asked the two men with a chuckle, as usual eerily imitated by her nin-dog.

"Kao, you shouldn't go around telling other people's news for them!" Kiba chided his niece good-naturedly. She looked guilty for all of two seconds (three, tops).

"Poor Shikamaru, I bet he twisted your arm!" Tsume told Shikamaru with a wide grin.

"Oh, like you wouldn't believe!" the Nara replied with a deep sigh, unable not to smile as Kiba elbowed his side.

The Inuzuka matriarch threw her head back and laughed loudly at this, moving to set Kao down on Kuromaru's back before motioning for the other two to join her for a drink. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't expecting this sooner or later," she tempered as she pulled out three glasses and poured them all a generous amount – more than was usual for a toast, at any rate. "So," she then started without preamble as she set her glass down, smirking as they winced at the strong taste (still pups despite their years, obviously!). "Are we getting an extra Inuzuka, or is the Nara clan gaining the best tracker they'll ever have?" she wondered curiously.

Kiba shared a look with Shikamaru before shrugging his head to the side. "Nara, once we get to it – probably after we're back from Suna though…" he replied as he smacked his lips to get rid of the bad taste. Was he just too used to Suna's alcohol to appreciate Konoha's, now?

"Is that alright with you?" Shikamaru asked her for the principle, knowing she'd say it on her own if that wasn't the case but wanting to show he was willing to discuss it. "I know that's a lot to ask," he continued as he moved a hand to cover Kiba's, thumb absently stroking his skin.

Tsume blinked and then frowned as she looked at him like he'd just said something incredibly stupid. "There's nothing wrong with marrying into another clan," she noted matter-of-factly. Sure, she hadn't, but if it had been important to her husband – if he'd actually been a husband for more than a couple of weeks per year – she wouldn't have been fundamentally opposed to joining another clan and raising her children into it. "Doing that still takes certain strength of character and confidence that I'm proud my son obviously has – although I've never doubted it!" she added simply.

"Told you," Kiba noted cheerfully, that typical smug Inuzuka grin on his face as he leaned against him.

"Yeah, yeah, don't be troublesome," Shikamaru muttered back with obvious fondness.

Tsume, in all her evilness, waited until they reached for the cups again before innocuously asking, "So when can I expect grandkids?"

It was completely worth having to wipe off the alcohol they'd spit on the table as they choked on their drinks. Honestly—teasing your kids had to be the funniest thing in the world.

Even after Kao childishly copied her uncles and did the same thing with her juice.

They left Tsume's house later than they'd originally planned, but eventually figuring they needed to if they wanted to stop by the Nara household before they had to meet up with their friends at the barbeque restaurant for the sort of 'before the wedding get-together' dinner Ino and Sakura had arranged. Well, not that they really wanted to have that talk with Yoshino, but she had to find out after all, and better from them – they didn't put Tsume above gloating about it, honestly. Shikamaru had likened it to popping back a dislocated joint: you had to do it fast and without hesitation, because the more you waited, the more it hurt.

They found her in the garden, grinding some deer horn into powder for remedies. It was a fairly innocuous gesture that Kiba had always thought she somehow still managed to make look threatening – in his mind, he was certain that when Yoshino looked at him, she imagined to be grinding something else entirely and it never failed to make the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

"Shikamaru!…And Kiba..." Yoshino noted, sparing an amused glance towards Akamaru as he sat down obediently. "What brings you here?" she asked as she looked up at them, her arms never ceasing their rhythmic moves.

She's so grinding my fingers right now in her head, Kiba observed as he barely resisted the urge to frown.

"We have something to tell you," Shikamaru started cautiously, leaving a certain safe distance between them just in case.

She's moved on to my skull, I can see it in her eyes, Kiba thought as he kept himself from shuddering, eyes glued to the white-ish powder.

Yoshino's face remained remarkably blank as she turned her gaze back to her task. "So when will it be?" she asked simply.

Shikamaru and Kiba exchanged glances at this. "What do you mean?"

"Your wedding," Yoshino replied – and her tone would've been exactly the same if she'd said 'your walk' or 'spring cleaning day' or anything as unremarkable, somehow that much was obvious. "That's what you're here to tell me, isn't it?" she noted rhetorically.

Kiba didn't even dare think about what part of him she imagined to be crushing into oblivion at this point. Not taking a step back was a clear conscious effort.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to question her but she beat him to it.

"We even talked about that the other day, so really, that's it right?" she asked him as she once more looked up and into his eyes, raising an eyebrow.

"You did?" Kiba wondered in surprise.

"Sort of—I'll tell you later," Shikamaru told him as he held his mother's look. "You're right, that's it. Kiba asked me to marry him – well, I was literally about to ask him, but he beat me to it," he explained. "I said yes, of course," he added unnecessarily.

The Inuzuka was infinitely glad she'd stopped her task even if that meant she'd placed her full attention on them. "We haven't really set a date yet – we'll wait until we're back from Suna," he continued, hoping that keeping the conversation going would keep the moment she'd kill him at bay.

"Maybe not, if we end up staying too long," Shikamaru tempered with a raised eyebrow.

Kiba automatically grinned at him and then cleared his throat as he turned back to Yoshino. "And I'll be…marrying into the Nara clan."

Yoshino blinked in astonishment at this, clearly not having expected that development. "Really?"


"Well that's a…surprise…" she admitted as she'd honestly always half-feared that her son would just be pulled into the depths of the Inuzuka clan's wild ways. "An Inuzuka joining the Nara clan," she repeated pensively before laughing at the thought despite herself, greatly surprising the other two. "Stranger things have happened, I suppose!" she noted with a shrug, somewhat resigned.

"I'll take that as a compliment," Kiba noted as he resisted the urge to sigh, sharing a look with Shikamaru. After they left the Nara clan grounds and were on their way to meet their friends, he finally let out that sigh and shuddered. "If she could get away with castrating me, she'd definitely do it," he declared.

"I wouldn't let her," Shikamaru reassured him as he played along. "I have a vested interest in your non-castration after all," he added with a shrug.

"You'd better," Kiba muttered fondly as he bumped their shoulders together before looking ahead sharply as he smelled a couple of familiar scents. "Hey you two!" he greeted his former teammates happily as he slung an arm around each of their shoulders.

"Hello, Kiba – and Akamaru of course!" Hinata replied with a wide smile as she rubbed the nin-dog's ears – just the way he liked it, as always.

"Hello Kiba, Akamaru," Shino greeted succinctly before turning his head a fraction towards the Nara. "Shikamaru."

"Shino," Shikamaru replied with a sigh, feeling the threats in that simple greeting. "Hello Hinata," he then said with a more genuine smile. "Where's your future husband?" he asked her with a raised eyebrow.

The Hyuuga blushed happily at this, offering them a bright smile. "He's on his way; he was going to pick up Lee."

"He's already here from Kumo?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow. They'd seen him more recently than the others, since he'd been deployed to Suna once, but it was always good to see him again, naturally.

"He arrived earlier this day," the Aburame informed them as he imperceptibly tried to break free from Kiba's hold. "To attend the wedding celebration, naturally."

"Aww, my Hinata's almost a married woman!" Kiba teased her easily as he pulled her closer – he'd been in 'doting uncle' mode last night and as such didn't tease her as much as he'd wanted to, so he was determined to make up for it.

"Kiba…" she chided good-naturedly, (very) lightly elbowing his side. "You're acting like we didn't meet yesterday!"

"Aha, I knew I felt some familiar chakras gathered here!" Ino noted cheerfully as she and Sai walked up to them, cutting off anything else that might've been said. "Shikamaru, I can't believe it – you're on time!" she teased him easily.

Kiba frowned at this, clearing his throat. "When has he ever been late since I became involved in his timetable?" he asked, waiting a moment before nodding in satisfaction. "Yeah, I didn't think so either."

Ino only stuck her tongue out at him (maturely so) before sharing an amused look with the Nara.

Tenten poked her head out of the restaurant at this, raising an eyebrow at them. "Hey, slowpokes! Chouji, Karui and I have been waiting for you like forever! Come in!" she prompted.

Shino sighed at the mention of the Kumo kunoichi but docilely moved after his friends.

"How's Kankuro?" Sai asked Shikamaru and Kiba with interest as they followed Ino in.

"Doing quite well," Shikamaru replied, with surprisingly little defensiveness – he supposed having spent so much time working closely with him, they'd developed a sort of friendship after all, right? (Although to be fair, any animosity there might have ever been between them was purely one-sided, to Shikamaru's annoyance – and the puppeteer really enjoyed reminding him of that fact.)

"He'll be at the wedding, so you should see him soon," Kiba then added with a grin.

"Good. Although I'm starting to wonder who won't be at the wedding," the artist commented curiously with a compassionate sigh for his friends.

"You and me both," Naruto replied right next to him, grinning widely and all happy he'd managed to sneak up on his friend. "Hey, Kiba, Shikamaru! Long time no see!" he greeted brightly.

They both grinned back – Kiba adding an extra threat for his ex-teammate's sake – as they hadn't seen him yet since coming back, before turning to Lee, who true to himself greeted everyone quite energetically until he was called over by Karui and Tenten who wanted news from Kumo.

Sakura ran in right as they were about to consider ordering up, apologizing for her lateness and grumbling under her breath about assistants who lacked any organizing skills whatsoever – for which her friends good-naturedly teased her, of course.

"How did Kao behave following the ceremony?" Shino asked his friend with a raised eyebrow after they sat down – closer to Karui than he'd have liked, but it should be alright.

Kiba grinned happily at this, reaching to pat Akamaru's head. "She said she was hoping her markings would be blue!"

"Blue?" the Aburame repeated in confusion – he'd never heard of an Inuzuka whose markings were any color other than red.

"Like her eyes, Shino!" Kiba informed him with a fond huff, laughing at his frown. "Yeah, I had the same reaction!" he reassured him.

"Interesting," Shino noted seriously. Granted, as a teacher, he spent most of his time with children, but he didn't have a relationship with their parents – so children like Kao, whose parents he personally knew and appreciated, appealed to a completely different part of him, and he couldn't wait until he had her in his class – if he had her in his class, but one could always hope.

Turning his head towards Hinata and Naruto, he found himself thinking he was also looking forward to their kids, even though he suspected any son of Naruto's would be a trouble-maker and class clown despite Hinata's calming presence. That isn't to say any daughters of his would be any quieter though. Genetics was always such a surprising thing…

Looking further down the table at Sai and Ino, he honestly wondered who he should hope their kids would take after the most. Both greatly applied themselves through theoretical study, but in effect, they were as different as night and day in their behaviors – and as much of a handful, though not the same ways.

Next to her childhood friend and ex-rival, Sakura chided Naruto and Sai good-naturedly over something or other, and Shino thought to himself that her children would almost certainly excel in the academic aspects of their studies but would likely have a short temper, like her. He'd need to wait for a prospective father before making a better conjecture though – he'd heard rumors of Sasuke visiting the village and Sakura's apartment in particular, but facts were all he'd accept and for now it was a closely guarded secret.

His eyes then trailed over Lee and he knew that for sure, if he had any, his children would be passionate and well-behaved – he just hoped the green jumpsuit wouldn't be passed down to the next generation as well because the visual assault had to end. Still, he was certain children of the taijutsu expert would respect their teachers, and he did enjoy having students look up to him for guidance…

On her teammate's other side, Tenten seemed to be immersed in the retelling of a captivating mission, and while he didn't know her all that well, the Aburame figured if nothing she was persevering and cheerful, traits she'd surely pass on. Of their group, she was also the one who'd travelled the most, between the exchange program in Kumo and her current posting in Iwa – so there was no doubt her children would greatly benefit from her varied and open-minded view of their world, or so he hoped.

He consciously skipped Karui and Chouji, because he refused to entertain even the slightest possibility that he'd have to contend with a mini-Karui in his class – more realistically, he wanted to keep that moment at bay for as long as physically feasible, it gave him more time to pray for the Akimichi's genes to be dominant.

Finishing his tour of the table, Shino's gaze stopped on Shikamaru and Kiba, and inwardly he felt a slight pinch of disappointment that he wouldn't get his best friend's kids in class, although he'd always figured Kiba likely wouldn't have children. Still…he wondered what kind of offspring a lazy genius and an enthusiastic tracker would have produced – that'd have been a sight to see, for sure!

"What's bugging you?" Kiba asked, cocking his head to the side – pun 100% intended, as always, because it never got old.

"I'm merely reflecting on the future," Shino replied with a shake of his head. "It has become increasingly rare to gather everyone together in one place," he then noted to change the subject.

Kiba saw through his game but decided to humor him anyway. "Well yeah…Lee, Tenten, Shikamaru and me aren't based here anymore after all," he commented with a shrug. "And everyone's getting so busy with work anyway…"

"It's up to those of you who aren't single to keep us all coming back for big weddings!" Tenten declared jokingly from behind the Inuzuka as she'd gotten up to chat with that corner of the table while they waited for their food.

"Not everyone wants a 'big' wedding," Sai said pragmatically before Ino reached for his hand and squeezed it, causing Sakura to snigger happily at their antics.

"Still haven't found Mr. Right then, Tenten?" Sakura asked her friend in amusement as she joined them as well.

The weapons specialist snorted at this. "Don't talk to me about him! Being that oblivious shouldn't be allowed!" she muttered before pouting, making quite a few wonder who, exactly, she was complaining about.

"Men are exasperating, aren't they?" Kiba offered with an easy grin.

"You said it!" Tenten agreed before grinning as she flicked her finger at his forehead – that was devoid of protector for once, as he was simply on vacation. "Which makes me wonder how it is you two work!" she teased them good-naturedly.

"They're probably immune to each other's innate male annoyingness," Sakura supplied with a shit-faced grin, sticking her tongue out at Kiba when he huffed at her.

Hinata giggled at this and Kiba turned to call her a traitor, which only further amused her. "I've really missed this – us all spending time together," she noted fondly.

"Should've gotten married sooner!" Sakura teased her as she reached for her shoulders.

"Hey, your turn now!" the Hyuuga replied happily, eyeing Tenten and Sakura as she craned her head back.

The two deflated at this and the pink-haired medic turned to Ino. "Hey, Ino-pig! Get married so we have an excuse to meet up again!"

Ino frowned at the command, crossing her arms over her chest. "You don't call the shots, forehead-girl!" she replied with fake haughtiness. "Chouji! You get married! That way we can even travel to Kumo!"

Karui raised an eyebrow, but Chouji blushed as he held up his hands. "Hey, they've been together longer!" he argued as he jerked a thumb towards Shikamaru and Kiba.

The nature of the game would've allowed them to pass the 'responsibility' back to someone else, but they shared a look at this, Shikamaru raising an eyebrow as Kiba shrugged.

"Yeah, about that…" the Nara started with a lazy grin, shutting his eyes at the surprised exclamations from most of their friends.

"When did that happen?" Naruto wondered excitedly.

Shino tilted his head to the side, silently reiterating his threats to Shikamaru, but he didn't look surprised. (Shino always knew anyway. Shikamaru had given up years ago on trying to figure out how Kiba managed to pass on information to him so quickly and discreetly, it had saved him a lot of headaches.)

"And why are we only hearing about it now?" Ino added before they could reply, much more threatening.

"We really just decided yesterday evening," Kiba tempered with a grin. "And we'll wait until we're back here anyway…"

"You'd better," the Yamanaka muttered quite seriously.

"I think that's typically a good moment for a toast, right?" Sai wondered as he held up his drink, eager to distract his lover, and quickly imitated by the others.

Kiba grinned and shared a quick look with Shikamaru as he brought his glass to his lips. Well…at least they wouldn't have to make rounds to tell everyone!

Even though he was technically on vacation, as a gesture of good-will and at the Hokage's behest, Shikamaru had agreed to lead Gaara's welcoming party into Konoha. Since it was a leisure visit, Kankuro and Gaara himself could more than handle his schedule, meaning he wasn't exactly needed all day long anyway, so it wasn't much of an issue. He stayed with him and took his job up again during short meetings with the Hokage, and although it felt somehow surreal to be in Konoha as a shinobi from Suna, as his protector proclaimed, he got used to it pretty quickly. Temari was the only sibling who was truly taking time off, in a sense, and Shikamaru and Kankuro only managed to free themselves once the working day was over.

"So how was your niece's ceremony?" Kankuro asked Kiba as he cocked his head to the side once they sat down.

"Where's Gaara?" Temari asked her brother instead with a frown – older sister protective instincts kicking in.

"Who—oh, Gaara! Red hair, yea high? I gave him to someone who really wanted a Gaara of his own!" Kankuro replied with perfectly faked seriousness as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the office's general direction. "He looked completely normal and non-stalker-ish so I figured it would be alright!"

"I'm begging you, please help me get him transferred somewhere far away," Temari muttered with a shake of her head as she resisted the urge to slap her palm to her forehead.

The puppeteer only huffed at this, raising an eyebrow. "You secretly can't live without me," he dismissed matter-of-factly.

Kiba snorted at Temari's exhausted sigh and even Shikamaru had to admit that watching the two interact never got boring.

"He's with Naruto, stop worrying! Although…" Kankuro continued as he raised a hand to scratch his chin, "I'm sort of worried what might happen if for whatever reason Naruto starts talking to him about sex now that he's getting married – I'm sure he'd leave a mess of confusion for me to fix later on!" he added not-so-jokingly.

Kiba laughed and shook his head at that. "I don't think you need to worry about that – Naruto's a sweet guy, he even once asked us if we were on a date when he saw us having dinner together," he told him reassuringly, sharing a chuckle with Shikamaru as they recalled that evening.

"He'll confuse Gaara even more!" Temari noted with a frown before sighing in defeat as she figured they couldn't control their brother forever.

"Well…I wouldn't be opposed to getting nieces and nephews eventually…" Kankuro added with a shrug and a smirk, pointedly eying his sister and looking away when she raised an eyebrow at him.

And on that note, Kiba, being the proud uncle that he was, did not waste a second before producing a picture for them on his phone. "Look, and be melted inside!" he proclaimed proudly.

Temari frowned as she looked at the picture, having to concede that Kao was really cute, especially sporting that wide toothy grin and flanked by Kiba and Shikamaru as she was. "Okay, I think some recluse part of me somewhere deep inside melted a bit – or is at the very least considering the possibility in the near future," she admitted as she handed it back.

"Come on Temari, we all know you're a big softie at heart," Shikamaru drawled from his spot, not bothering to avoid the kick she directed at his shin.

Kankuro sniggered at this, knowing it was the truth. "Seriously though, those markings are like an invitation to pinch cheeks!" he added with a grin as he chuckled at the tiny Inuzuka.

Shikamaru frowned as he didn't like the possible implications of this jibe – namely, that he'd once freely pinched his Inuzuka's cheeks. "And then we got engaged," he added almost absently, shrugging innocently as Kiba turned to him with a knowing look.

"To what?" Temari asked with a frown before his words fully registered and her eyes widened. Turning to share a look with her brother to make sure they understood the same thing, she grinned brightly. "Well now that's some news! Congratulations!" she said happily as she treated them to her world-famous lung-spitting back-slaps.

"Something's always happening in Konoha when we visit!" Kankuro commented with an amused look. "Congratulations," he added earnestly.

Kiba opened his mouth to thank them but Temari pointed a finger at him warningly before he could utter a sound. "Don't think you're getting any more time off, I want you back at your post next week as planned and then you're not setting foot outside of Suna except on missions!" she warned him seriously.

Shikamaru chuckled at his lover's annoyed scowl and shook his head. "Don't worry, we were thinking to actually do it when we'll come back to Konoha – assuming you'll let us go one day," he added evenly.

Kankuro snorted at his sister's smug look, leaning back on his bench. "I hope we'll manage to make the trip at that time!" he added earnestly. "I mean, if we're invited, naturally!"

"Of course you're invited," Kiba replied matter-of-factly, Shikamaru nodding next to him as admittedly, he'd learned to actually appreciate Kankuro, somewhat and in a very loose fashion – not that he'd give him the satisfaction of telling him as much.

Temari hummed in thoughts as she looked between them. "Hey, you know, if you made your move to Suna permanent, Gaara could sign that certificate for you – wouldn't that be more fun than pervy Hokage the Sixth?" she asked teasingly.

They all chuckled at that, having to admit it would indeed be more fun, at the very least.

"I honestly think Gaara's disappointed he can't be the one to sign Naruto's," Kankuro then noted with a fond grin.

"I'm sure the Sixth would be happy to let him co-sign it if he asked!" Shikamaru replied with a lazy smirk.

"And if not, we'll let him co-sign ours!" Kiba added brightly.

Kankuro raised an eyebrow at this, humming as something occurred to him. "You know what? Actually, I think that since technically you're both currently based in Suna, and furthermore Shikamaru's part of his staff, Gaara could just sign yours himself," he noted factually.

"Are you encouraging them to elope?" Temari asked her brother teasingly.

"I'm only saying," Kankuro replied with a shrug.

"We can't elope," Kiba said with a shudder.

"Too many people would kill us if we did," Shikamaru added.

The puppeteer hummed as he thought about a way out of their hypothetical murder scenario. "Say it was an accident!"

"An accident?" Temari repeated as she turned to her brother dubiously.

"Sure – 'oh no, I accidentally checked the 'married' box on this important form and handed it in, so now we have no choice but to get married, or else I lied on an official document and could get into real trouble'!" Kankuro offered with a straight face. "Accidents happen."

"Nice try," Shikamaru conceded gamely.

"But we'd still end up dead," Kiba concluded with a shake of the head.

Temari crossed her arms and leaned them forward on her knees, absently watching the people walking by. "I suppose you've already told everyone else?" she wondered curiously.

"Yup," Kiba replied as he tried to think of anyone in the village they might've forgotten.

Shikamaru tilted his head back to look at the clouds as he did the same. "Well, we should still tell Gaara. We haven't exactly told the Hokage, but I'd be surprised if he didn't know by now," he tempered.

At the very least, it gave them something to do during their time off – they really weren't used to being so idle.

"So what did we miss in Suna?" Kiba asked the siblings conversationally – although he was genuinely interested, particularly regarding as to how Darami was faring as his replacement. Having Mizu replace Temari had been a no-brainer, since she was the only captain from Suna – although she fully deserved it. But deciding on his proxy had been slightly more tedious. He was tempted to choose Sojiro, but he decided to be careful and avoid all possible claims of favoritism even though in effect, nothing had happened between him and Temari – 'better safe than sorry' was the word in politics though, Kiba had learned along the way. Most had expected him to turn to Yasha, but he knew that Darami was the better choice, even if she clearly lost to the Akimichi in people skills. However her work was always flawless, and that was the important bit.

And Temari understood that as she absently toyed with her drink and wondered how to word her thoughts. "Darami…takes some serious getting used to. I mean, compared to you, in terms of behavior, it's like night and day! But as far as work's concerned, she's really efficient," she finally admitted.

Kiba chuckled at this as he really couldn't deny it – she really did take some serious getting used to, plus he had a feeling she actually liked him, as a person, which greatly facilitated their working relationship but wasn't everyone's case. "Well, she gets along well enough with Mizu, so I reckon the HQ will still be standing when we get back," he reassured her optimistically.

"And Baki has a strong hold over the council, so I think we can be bold and go ahead and say the village of the Hidden Sand itself will fare well without us for a week or two," Kankuro butted in with a smirk, not bothering to avoid his sister's elbow.

"So on a less political note, how's it going with Tsuneo?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow. Last he'd heard, that was an area there was no need to worry about, and they'd only be gone for little more than a week, but still – the status-quo could change so quickly, in a relationship…both for the best and the worst!

"Oh, that…well…not to brag or anything but…yeah, we're alright!" Kankuro replied with perfectly faked nonchalance. He looked pretty pleased with himself though.

"Gaara likes him!" Temari added as though it was the most hilarious thing she'd ever been confronted to.

The two Leaf shinobi exchanged glances at this, wondering how that even happened. "What, d'you have him over for dinner or something?" Shikamaru asked as Kiba added a sly, "Or was it breakfast?"

Temari laughed and her grin widened even more at this as she rubbed her brother's arm with something akin to pity. "We were having breakfast the other day, just us siblings, and Gaara goes—"

"Kankuro, I like Tsuneo. I believe he is good for you," Kankuro relayed dutifully, doing a pretty good impression of the Kazekage before sighing woefully about siblings.

"And that's after a few months?" Shikamaru asked with a satisfied smirk and barely concealed amusement at his frenemy's embarrassed expression.

"Man, I guess you'll have no choice but to get married after a year!" Kiba added with a loud barking laugh.

Kankuro just sighed, sparing his sister a sidelong glance. "Now I really understand why you go to such lengths to keep your dating life a secret from him!" he was forced to admit. "He's enjoying this!"

Temari just squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. Yeah, sometimes siblings were a lot to handle.


Chapter Text

They'd talked about it in a joking manner, but Naruto and Hinata's wedding really had the looks of an official peace-gathering event for the Shinobi Alliance, and not only because of the five Kage easily catching up around a glass of good liquor not far from the starters buffet table – although that was surreal in itself already. Their bodyguards were not far at any rate, perhaps not just visibly so, so security wasn't lax.

Normally, when shinobi decided to get married, all they had to do was ask for a certificate from the administration department, fill it in, sign it, and return it to the HR desk. Then once a week – Thursday mornings in Konoha for as far back as anyone could remember, but Tuesdays in Suna, for some unexplained reason – the Hokage would sign a week's worth of requests. His assistant – or someone else in admin, depending on how busy said assistant was – would then affix the village's seal on these papers and return them to the HR department where the union would be duly recorded into the shinobis' files, following which the happy couple would be able to pick the certificate up at the HR desk – usually within a week after it had been signed by the Kage.

The most usual variation was that if one member of the couple would join their spouse's clan, they should also submit a form of approval from the clan head along with their marriage certificate. That way the administrative changes would all get done at once. That part could also be done later though, and wasn't mandatory.

Rumor had it that a full day had been dedicated to this before the Shinobi Alliance left to fight the war's final battle, as a lot of shinobi had decided to get married to ensure their partners would not be left with nothing should anything happen to them.

The celebration that followed, if any, was entirely up to the couple and purely commemorative, as the official parts were already all taken care of. It had been done that way for practical reasons since the founding of the Hidden Villages. Back when shinobi lived as clans, the Head would validate all unions; but as the structure changed, that position was filled by the leader of the Hidden village.

In certain special cases however – say, with the heirs of notable clans or particularly famous shinobi – the celebration and the signing of the certificate were one and the same – and quite the big event. And there was really no doubt that Hinata was from a big clan, that Naruto was a famous shinobi, and that Kakashi would make time to be present at his wedding and sign that certificate.

"This will be in all the villages' history books," Tenten declared decidedly, tone half teasing half solemn as she looked at their friends as they posed for pictures. Hanabi, at her sister's side, held a frame with Neji's picture in it, and it was as touching as it was painful.

Next to the weapons specialist, Kiba wordlessly bumped their shoulders together while Lee reached to squeeze her hand and give her a cheery smile as she turned to him even though his own eyes were also wet. "I think Neji would have enjoyed the ceremony," he said with a thumb held up.

Tenten laughed, reaching to wipe a tear from her eye as she shook her head and grinned widely. "Are you kidding me? He would've hated having so many witnesses see him tear up at his cousin's wedding!" she insisted brightly.

"It's okay – Naruto's crying enough for two," Kiba commented with a warm smile as he leaned into Shikamaru's side.

"He's a fantastic little guy!" Gai declared brightly with his own tear-stained face as he turned in his chair to offer them a true (seated) nice guy pose.

"That he is," Shikamaru agreed easily as their gazes shifted to the blond shinobi.

Silence followed for a moment as they took the atmosphere in before Shino spoke quietly. "Perhaps it would be best for the history books to omit the tears," he opinionated.

They all laughed at this before Tenten turned to him and raised an eyebrow. "Well, even if they don't, you're the teacher; you can tell the kids you were there and there were no tears!" she reminded him brightly.

"Perhaps I will," the Aburame replied with what suspiciously looked like the beginning of a smile.

History was a subjective topic after all, wasn't it?

When their turn came for the pictures, it was easy to forget about emotion and give into elation, and since after this all 'formalities' were over, the newlyweds were finally free to mingle with their guests and enjoy their own party for a change. Naruto was still 'bound' by certain obligations to visit the Kage and other higher-ups, but he didn't see it as such and was barely able to remain in any one place for more than a few minutes at a time.

There also seemed to be a perpetual renewal of guests as shinobi who finished their shifts made an appearance, and honestly no one would've been surprised to learn that everyone in the village had been by at some point – at Naruto's insistence. Not that surprising, given that he considered everyone in the village his family.

"In the end, maybe smaller celebrations wouldn't be such a bad idea," Ino was forced to admit late into the evening as she sat in Sai's lap, completely exhausted.

The artist merely nodded once, having learned long ago not to look smug when she agreed with him. "It's lively like him, though," he said softly, trying to find his teammate in the crowd but failing.

"And warm like her," Kiba added as he gave Akamaru a few more bites to eat – he was full himself, unfortunately.

"But exhausting like him!" Ino added with a chuckle, looking in a direction they knew was the right one since she could probably sense their friends.

Shikamaru smirked at her sorry state, and shared a quick look with Kiba as he reached to stroke Akamaru's head. He loved Suna, he knew they both did, but days like this made him miss Konoha, and he knew Kiba felt the same. Not that they were in a hurry to be back, but in a sense it felt obvious that in the end, they would return. Some day. In the distant future.

Plenty more time to drive the Sand Siblings crazy until then – although that was definitely a mutual endeavor, really.

Their lazy days in the Leaf came to an end all too soon after that, and as planned they traveled back to the Sand with the Kazekage and his detail. Once back, many shinobi curiously asked about the celebration, somehow having already heard all sorts of crazy rumors that really needed correcting – and some that did not, because how awesome was it that people honestly believed that there were giant frogs everywhere or painted decorations on the Hokages' Monument? How had Naruto not thought about that one?

No, seriously—how?

At any rate, Kankuro's bold assertion had proven true: the village of the Hidden Sand had survived just fine without them. (Reassuringly so, in Shikamaru's opinion.)

And Kiba's enthusiasm was largely rewarded as Mizu and Darami, both unharmed, welcomed him and Temari back into the same old not-crumbled-down building. Briefly he thought he saw the Kumo kunoichi sigh in relief but dismissed it as a trick of the light before he was accosted by no less than six shinobi and three kunoichi who told him they'd missed him – four had even touched him to confirm he was real. He consequently almost found himself regretting his open-door policy when he barely had time to grab something to eat the first couple of days, but he'd be lying if he pretended he wasn't positively elated to be appreciated, so he didn't complain more than usual.

Over at the Hokage's tower, Gaara was in a spectacular mood, something the Council of Elders immediately picked up on and immediately elected to take advantage of by scheduling quite a few meetings, stretching Kankuro and Shikamaru quite thin in the process.

Business as usual.

…Maybe slightly more than usual.

They enjoyed every moment of it anyway.

A few weeks after their return from Konoha, on a Tuesday morning unremarkable in every aspect, Kiba looked up from the team roster absently as Temari walked into his office, and offered her a toothy grin. "Not to brag but you missed a nice occasion to mortify Kankuro last night. Has he mentioned anything this morning?" he asked before frowning as he watched her wordlessly close the door and step towards him. "Am I in trouble?" he wondered with a frown, trying to rack his brain for anything he might've done wrong – and finding nothing, to both his relief and confusion.

"Of course not, don't be so dramatic!" Temari snapped back before letting out a deep sigh and crossing her arms over her chest. "Smell me."

To say that he was surprised at the sudden request would be an understatement, but as she sighed once more and pointedly looked to the side, he complied. "You smell like Sojiro," he informed her, waiting for either a denial or an explanation.

"And after I used all that soap…! I hate your nose!" she muttered before sitting on his desk. "I suppose you can guess why."

"Oh, that much is pretty clear," he noted slyly with no thoughts for his safety. All that shogi had to lead somewhere, didn't it? "What I'm really curious about is why you're telling me this when you don't look so thrilled about it," he then added more seriously.

Temari tilted her head sideways as she turned to him. "Because you'd have smelled it anyway – if not on me, then on him. And I don't regret anything I just…it's…complicated."

"Because…?" he prompted as he rested his cheek on his palm.

"Because I'm the commander and he's one of my captains," she clarified with a frown.

"So? You weren't sleeping with him when you appointed him, were you?" Kiba asked her with a shrug although they both knew the answer.

"People will still talk," Temari muttered, absently reaching to smooth her shirt. "And talks on me reflect on Gaara," she then added with yet another sigh.

Kiba's eyes narrowed as he leaned sideways to catch her gaze. "Temari, is there anything you wouldn't do for your brothers?" he asked her seriously.

"Of course not," she replied instantaneously with a frown, wondering where that came from.

"That's how they feel about you," Kiba stated plainly. "Gaara won't care for a second what people say – he's got tough skin after all!" he added with a wink, grinning at her chuckle. "Kankuro's in the throes of romance himself, so I doubt he'll have much to complain about. And if being with Sojiro is what you want, then it's all that matters, don't you think?"

"You're not going to tell me he's old or something?" Temari wondered with a raised eyebrow.

The Inuzuka shrugged at this. "He's thirty, not sixty—"

"Thirty-five," the kunoichi informed him.

"So he's thirty-five, it's still not sixty," Kiba corrected unfazed. "And even if, so what? My sister married a guy who's twelve years older, and they're quite happy!" he said easily. "Besides, you'll already have two protective brothers sizing him down; you don't need me to be antagonistic!"

Temari groaned at this, looking up with a shrug. "I suppose it's payback," she commented meditatively. "At any rate, starting today I want you to be the only authority when it comes to his deployments," she added more seriously.

Kiba simply nodded back as he understood her reasoning – if she wasn't involved at all in his assignments, no one could claim favoritism was in play.

In the end, when she told her brothers, as per his own words, Kankuro had a field day teasing her but did so more moderately than usual, since she could – and did – turn the tables on him all too easily. Gaara was naturally more composed, but no less worried for his sister's happiness. Rumor has it that from that day on, it wasn't unusual to spot a round eye made of sand following Sojiro around.

Most people just pretended not to notice – the Kiri shinobi included.

August rolled by quickly as usual, bringing with it the annual Kage meeting, this time to be held in Iwa. It would serve a double-purpose, because Oonoki had announced – shocking quite a few people – that he would be stepping down as Tsuchikage, and that his granddaughter, Kurotsuchi, would succeed him. As a lot of shinobi couldn't recall a time when he hadn't been the Tsuchikage, so even the idea itself took some time getting used to.

Shikamaru had to admit that of all the Kage meetings that had been held since the war, this one seemed like a prime choice to attend, and so he was glad to accompany Gaara and Kankuro.

Temari also joined them, because it had been proposed that the commanders of each Allied division headquarters should also use this opportunity to meet in person to discuss their evolution, which left Kiba as the one in charge of Suna's HQ – "The only one not invited to the party," as he'd complained with fake annoyance and a long-suffering sigh. As she wouldn't be gone for long, Temari had judged it wasn't necessary for Mizu to replace her as she had when they'd both been gone.

The trip itself was long and tiring, but uneventful, and for most, it was their first time setting foot in the village of the Hidden Stone.

"This place looks as old as its leader," Kankuro whispered to the Nara as they walked past the guards.

Shikamaru smirked lazily but didn't say anything, and they both looked away innocently as Temari turned to look at them pointedly.

"Gaara! Shikamaru!"

Both men paused and turned to the loud voice who'd just shouted across the street to find Naruto waving at them.

"You cut your hair again!" the Uzumaki remarked to the Nara as soon as he reached them. "It's always so weird to see you like that!" he added with a laugh.

"Yeah, well, try to handle summer in Suna with an extra mop of hair on your head! It's torture," Shikamaru remarked with a shrug before deciding to tease him. "And why are you leaving your wife so soon anyway?"

"Don't say it like that…!" the blond shinobi insisted with an annoyed pout before turning to Gaara with a grin – knowing he wouldn't tease him. "Hey!"

"Hello, Naruto," Gaara replied amiably as they shook hands.

"Have you been here for long?" Kankuro wondered, looking around for the Hokage.

Naruto sighed and hung his head at that. "We got here two days ago. Sakura insisted so Kakashi and I had no choice but to speed up! She's probably with that creepy Anko now, they were talking about amazing mud or something," he added with an amused roll of his eyes.

"Ah, yes, Anko Mitarashi – my Konoha counterpart," Temari hummed at the familiar name. And incidentally, the 'amazing mud' he talked about was probably that clay treatment that apparently did wonders for dry skin that she kept hearing about – if she was lucky, she hoped she'd have time to indulge as well, although she doubted it. She tsk'ed at this; she should've pushed her brothers to get there earlier as well.

"If you'll follow me," their guide excused herself by clearing her throat. "I'll show you to your quarters, and then you'll be able to meet with the other delegations at your leisure."

"Of course," Gaara agreed as they moved to follow her once more, not before Naruto wormed a promise to have dinner or lunch out of him.

The next day, the ceremony itself was without pomp and fuss, and so after Oonoki had repeatedly insisted that he wasn't stepping down because of his old age or 'pressure from the youngsters' but only due to the will to 'relax for a change', Kurotsuchi had taken his hat and then position at the council of the Kages.

No one was sure what to make of her yet, so the beginnings were a bit tense, with Shikamaru often remarking to himself that she seemed to be testing people's limits on purpose at times, to get a sense of their ticks and reactions. A smile on her face but a kunai held behind her back, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness – she made him want to be on guard at all times, and as he noticed Kankuro stood the slightest bit closer to Gaara than usual, visibly he wasn't the only one to feel that way.

When she joined up with him and Kankuro in the evening (just them, since Naruto had dragged Gaara away once more as forewarned), Temari proved her own meetings hadn't been any less draining. "The HQ's commander here suggested that to keep a good balance I should once more promote a shinobi from Iwa to the post of deputy, instead of my replacement from the Leaf, since we also have a captain from Konoha," she relayed with a roll of her eyes.

"So what did you tell her?" Kankuro asked with a raised eyebrow.

"That Iwa is welcome to send applications, if and when a position opens up, and that my replacement from the Leaf is capable of running the HQ in my absence, which obviously isn't the case here as her deputy had to interrupt our meeting," she told him bluntly. "She didn't like my pointing that out," she then added innocently.

"I wonder why…" Shikamaru drawled, pleased that Kiba was obviously a model of success for the Allied division.

Temari shrugged at him, not adding anything more on the subject. Besides, Iwa had other problems than proper representation in other lands; of all the villages they were the ones with the fewest application requests – many were still quite wary of the Hidden Stone, and few were willing to go beyond their prejudice to apply. In all honesty, if it weren't for Tenten, Temari would have firmly believed that the few who did were treated as tolerated guests rather than allies who were privy to information.

And speak of the devil…

"In all fairness, it's not entirely the commander's fault – our deputy doesn't have the most effective attention span at times," Tenten informed them as she leaned her cheek in her hand, absently reaching over to steal something from Shikamaru's plate.

"Sure, help yourself," the Nara chuckled as he didn't really mind. Kankuro seemed to take that as an open invitation because he reached over too only to have his hand slapped away. "Not you!" he said with a frown.

The puppeteer only grinned insufferably at his rebuttal – he was always restless when Gaara was out of his sight, something that would probably never change. "Come on, Shikamaru! I'm emotionally fragile right now, you know that!" he tried while batting his eyelashes.

It didn't really get him on Shikamaru's good side. "You know, you can't keep on using the break-up card forever," he told him without real animosity.

Kankuro huffed and shrugged as he reached for his drink. "'S always worth a try, though!"

Shikamaru shook his head slightly at this. He didn't really know all the details, because he hadn't felt he was in a position to pry, but only a week before, Kankuro had abruptly broken up with Tsuneo – which had really come as a surprise to them all, because it seemed to be going really well. The puppeteer hadn't really talked about it either, and he only acted heartbroken when it served his interests – although Shikamaru really suspected that sometimes, the act wasn't one at all.

"Okay, you can have one," he finally muttered, cursing his soft side and smirking despite himself at the other man's surprised grin.

Tenten chuckled at their antics and then whined as Temari reached to pull on her braid. "Hey, hey, hey! What gives?"

"You left me alone in that HQ all day! Were you having a romp in the closet with your latest victim or what?" the Sand kunoichi teased her friend easily, knowing she wouldn't take offense at her words.

"I was working, Commander!" the weapons specialist insisted innocently, sticking her tongue out at her as she pulled her hair free. "And to answer your barb, no, there is no victim at this time – not the fun kind, at least," she lamented with a huff and a pout.

"I'm almost disappointed," Temari said in mock-regret.

"You've got to stop living through others, Temari," Tenten cooed teasingly, visibly not fearing for her life.

Shikamaru couldn't help but chuckle at that one – Temari did have an unhealthy amount of interest in her friends' love lives and a tendency to get overly involved, that much couldn't be denied. As both women turned their gazes to him however, he cleared his throat and busied himself with his food. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Kankuro raise an eyebrow at him and understood his message – look down, shut up, or you'll regret it.

"So, what were you saying about the deputy?" Temari asked the other kunoichi as she turned to her, noting she'd managed to grab a waitress' attention to ask for a drink.

Tenten looked back at her with a blink and then and huffed. "Oh, once he gets focused on something, he's scarily good, but sometimes it's like he's got issues with his attention span – like a bird flying by or and insect landing close are enough to make him go into his little world," she explained with a shrug. "I heard he interrupted your meeting, but honestly, I'm certain the commander had already given him the information he asked for, his head just wasn't in it when she did!"

Temari, as a rule, did not allow herself to feel sorry for her words or actions, but she didn't like to be out of line – and visibly, she'd made incorrect assumptions. "Hmm."

"Hmm what?" Tenten wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"Hmm she wrongly antagonized your commander," Shikamaru helpfully supplied. Kankuro shook his head at him and didn't sympathize when his sister kicked the Nara's shin hard under the table.

"I'm reassured though – I was afraid you were in a sort of hell-hole!" Temari told her friend brightly as she ignored the shadow-nin's pained moan. (Besides, as far as she felt concerned, Iwa's commander had started it, what with telling her what to do in her own HQ!)

Tenten chuckled, shaking her head, thanking a waiter as he brought her that drink. "Oh no – I mean, it takes some getting used to, like any new place, but I really like it here!" she assured them. "Hard work and outside-of-the-box thinking are rewarded, and there's no bias against women – don't get me wrong, Kumo was great, but the older men with their ancient mindset were a real bummer!" she added with a frown.

Temari nodded her approval, hitting their glasses together. Shikamaru smiled slightly as he watched them and found himself thinking back on a conversation with Omoi, years back, when he'd explained to him how kunoichi hadn't really been respected until just a generation ago in the Cloud. It was interesting to hear Tenten echo it, because from what he'd always understood, her fighting style linked to weapons had been greatly appreciated there – but still, he hadn't known that some had remained stuck on her gender. Fleetingly, he wondered if that was why she'd applied to another village's HQ – something that had surprised them all back then, as they'd figured she'd go back to Kumo.

"How about you, Commander? How's your HQ doing?" the weapons specialist asked with a grin.

Temari chuckled and then shrugged helplessly, shooting a quick look towards Shikamaru. "Hopefully, Kiba won't have brought the building down by the time we're back – or gotten them to mutiny against me!" she said jokingly before turning more serious. "I honestly can't complain. I probably shouldn't say this out loud here, but after my first deputy I was close to quitting myself – things are exponentially better now!"

"Yeah…" Tenten huffed as she leaned closer to whisper. "Between you and me, when she returned here she was encouraged to retire from active duty altogether."

Temari opened round eyes and Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this, exchanging a look with Kankuro. Okay, so clearly something had snapped. "I won't say I'm surprised," she noted neutrally.

"Iwa's eager to wipe the slate clean – that's why they'd really like better representation in Suna," Tenten continued as she sipped her drink.

"Well…I'll admit it seems I had the wrong idea about them, so from now on maybe I'll stop turning my nose up when Kiba hands me files from Iwa," the commander acknowledged, not liking to admit to it but not stubborn to the point of ignoring the facts.

Shikamaru grinned lazily so she kicked his shin again for the principle – the same leg, on the very same spot, sadistically. Kankuro just shook his head and pat his shoulder.

Tenten grinned at their antics, pulling the slice of orange attached to her glass off and eating it. "Hey, I was on deployment not too long ago and I ran into one of your teams – captained by the guy from Kiri, Sojiro?" she started brightly.

Temari cocked her head to the side, remembering that indeed his team did cover quite the distance on a recent assignment. "Trouble?" she asked for the principle.

"Only the beating of my heart! I definitely wouldn't mind making him my victim!" Tenten declared smugly, wiggling her eyebrows.

Temari frowned at this. "You would mind: he's poisonous – literally," she deadpanned, very expertly keeping her defensiveness unnoticeable.

"No he's not," Kankuro huffed – only, years of experience had taught him to keep his shins from harm's way.

"Kiba bit him once – twice, actually," Shikamaru added with a fond grin.

"Oh, this I have to hear!"

Shikamaru obliged, and they all shared a laugh at this. "The short version is that he was always late to the captains' meetings, and so Kiba told him he'd bite him the next time it happened. He made good on his threat."

"And the second time?" Tenten wondered around a full-bellied laugh.

"Sojiro tested him again, so Kiba asserted his authority," the Nara replied, shaking his head fondly.

"It's become some sort of urban legend now, you know!" Kankuro added with a chuckle. "Don't piss off Kiba Inuzuka or he'll bite you."

"Oh, he must be loving it!"

"That he is…"

"I have to admit I'm really sorry I wasn't there to witness it," Temari confessed with a smirk.

"Tell me about it! But seriously though Temari – Sojiro. He's got a few years on us, maybe even a decade, but he's cute," Tenten insisted, puzzled at her friend's nonchalant shrug. "Come on guys, back me up here!" she told the other two.

"He's not my type," Kankuro dismissed with a wave of the hand, not mentioning whose type he was. "But yeah, hypothetically speaking, he's attractive – nice face."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, and then tried to ignore the question until Tenten slung an arm over his shoulder and insisted. "He's definitely not bad-looking…great figure for someone who eats poison," he mumbled, having to admit this much despite himself and hoping this didn't mean Temari would want him dead. The siblings raised an eyebrow at him and he scowled back at them. "What? I'm taken, not blind!" he defended himself.

He couldn't take revenge on Temari, but Kankuro would pay – oh, yes…one way or another, he'd pay. On second thought though…yes, he could punish Temari! "According to Kiba though he's definitely only got eyes for the commander," he drawled lazily – after he'd pulled his shins out of the way, quick learner that he was.

"Ooh, is that so?" Tenten asked infuriatingly as she grinned smugly at her friend.

Temari frowned at them and crossed her arms over her chest. "With friends like you, who needs enemies?" she wondered instead, unable to remain serious too long despite herself. This was the best part of traveling, in her opinion – meeting up with people you hadn't seen in a long time: you could tell them yesterday's news, and it was still novelty to them. "But if you must know…" And then she leaned closer to whisper something in her ear, cupping her hands around her mouth for effect.

"No way!" Tenten exclaimed with glee as she teasingly slapped her shoulder repeatedly. "Next time I'm mouthing off about your man, just cut me off sooner, would you?" she chided her in a mock-chastising tone, wagging finger and all.

"I'll keep that in mind," Temari promised easily.

"And you two! Playing along! Not cool, guys!" Tenten pouted as she turned to Kankuro and Shikamaru and held her thumb down.

"Hey, let's face it: she's scarier than you, so of course we'd go along with her!" Kankuro replied matter-of-factly.

Shikamaru was briefly worried for their shins, but his sister actually looked happy at the comment. Go figure.

And if once back home Temari paid more attention to Sojiro – or more accurately, to how other women looked at him – she completely and unrepentantly blamed Tenten. That was what friends were for, right?

For their part, Kankuro, Shikamaru and Kiba just found it hilarious.

(Discreetly so, of course. They valued their shins.)


Chapter Text


Shikamaru clucked his tongue as he reviewed Gaara's schedule for the day on his way to his office. As usual it was shaping to be quite the busy one, although to compensate, he'd been able to arrange a quiet morning the next day – both for the Kazekage's sake and his own, in all honesty. And even if 'quiet' didn't mean completely off but more along the lines of 'we can start a bit later and then actually take a real break for a change', it was rare, and ever so enjoyable.

So naturally, since things could never just simply proceed as planned, a courier hurried to him with an urgent message and he almost groaned as he read it. So much for that quiet morning.

"I swear to you Gaara, one day I will manage to plan you some quiet time and stick to it," he promised Gaara as he walked into his office.

"That bad?" Kankuro asked with a raised eyebrow, letting out a huff at his nod. "Tomorrow morning?" he then asked half-hopefully, already figuring what the answer would be.

Shikamaru shook his head as he held the recently received message and read it over out loud. "The Raikage addresses his respect and warns that an envoy will be reaching Suna on the morning of the 5th – sadly, tomorrow – there to request an urgent audience to discuss enemy movements and possible inside assistance," he finished as he handed Gaara the message.

"Are you positive he meant the 5th of April? Could be May," the puppeteer noted with a shrug as he moved to read over his brother's shoulder.

"It's clearly dated, and it's the 5th of April," Shikamaru assured him patiently. "Why don't you write him back saying May would be more convenient if it's so important to you?" he teased back all too easily.

"Hey, I just might do that! But to be on the safe side, I'll sign with your name!" Kankuro replied brazenly.

"To send this message so tardily, he must have feared interception and wished to ensure the messenger could not be stopped," Gaara noted seriously, interrupting their banter although he was always amused by it. "The Raikage is a careful man, I'm sure this isn't without reason."

"It better be, I had plans," Kankuro muttered as he mentally reviewed who should be reassigned to the Kazekage's protection squad in the morning.

"Oh? What's his name?" Gaara asked him with interest as he turned his head to him. "I liked Tsuneo," he then added because he never passed up an opportunity to let his brother know he let a good one get away in his opinion, even eight months after the fact.

Shikamaru snorted in amusement as the puppeteer crossed his arms over his chest.

"Gaara, that's not an appropriate question to ask me at the office!" Kankuro playfully chided him, pointedly ignoring his reference to his ex.

"Then I'll ask you again at home," the Kazekage declared simply as he turned back to Shikamaru. "As for today?" he prompted, purposefully ignoring his brother's embarrassed huff.

"Ah, yes—today," Shikamaru replied as he returned to business.

This last-minute secret messenger from Kumo had him thinking though. Gaara was right: the Raikage was a careful man, but he was also still fairly distrustful; he didn't ask the other villages for assistance or favors if he could avoid it. The Nara however forced himself to push it out his mind to focus on the tasks at hand.

It wasn't until Gaara took a break – read: took a seat at the mission assignment desk instead of remaining holed up in his office – that Shikamaru and Kankuro had a moment to themselves and used it to get much needed nutrients. (Gaara, as a rule, seemed to not require as much food as most people, so it sometimes made it difficult to fit lunch breaks into their busy days.)

Food generally had to be eaten quickly, but since the Kazekage usually stayed at the mission desk at least a couple of hours every time and therefore likely wouldn't need them, they weren't in a hurry for once. The roof of the Kage's building was deserted enough at this hour, except for the odd sentry or two, or every so often, someone on their cigarette break. They were now in spring, but spring in Suna was at times warmer than summer in Konoha, which was why he'd kept his hair short again. There were no clouds about, either, so Shikamaru wasn't distracted and found himself growing curious about his colleague.

"Did you really have plans with someone new?" he wondered as he opened one eye to look up at him from his resting place.

Kankuro raised an eyebrow and turned to him, wondering what to think about the question.

"Take it as it is – it's a fairly simple question, I don't have any ulterior motives," the Nara added (almost) smugly as though reading his mind.

"You always have ulterior motives, it's why you're so good at your job," Kankuro commented matter-of-factly with an amused snort. "But if you must know, yeah."

"Anyone I know?" the Nara asked airily as he closed his eyes to enjoy the sunshine.

"No idea," Kankuro replied with a shrug. "Doesn't really matter anyway."

Shikamaru opened one eye to glance up at him at this, frowning slightly. "Not planning on introducing your boyfriend to your friends? That's cold, even for you!"

Kankuro chuckled and mock-punched his chest at this. "Yeah, I've realized that doesn't really work for me – the whole 'boyfriend' deal."

"Bullshit. Tsuneo worked well enough!" the Nara commented with an unimpressed look.

"Tsuneo was a fluke," Kankuro replied with another shrug as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"You're the fluke," Shikamaru retorted easily.

"Nice come-back, genius!"

"I mean it, Kankuro," Shikamaru interrupted him quietly, raising an eyebrow in silent challenge. "Don't say anything if you don't want to, but don't feel like you have to put up a good front – I think we're past that." Or at the very least he liked to think they were past that.

The puppeteer studied him in silence for a moment – a short one that felt much longer before uncrossing his arms. "I absolutely and completely suck at relationships," he eventually laid out the simple truth.

"And that's an excuse to stop trying, because…?"

"Because it's easier," Kankuro replied simply. "Not glorious, I know, but it works for me."

Shikamaru held his look as he mentally debated whether he should call him on his bullshit or look the other way. The confrontational side of him won that argument. "If I really thought you actually believe that, I'd be shutting up right now."

"But you're not shutting up," Kankuro remarked more than asked, not annoyed despite what his tone might suggest.

Shikamaru shook his head at that. "Unfortunately not – undoubtedly your bad, bad influence. At the risk of sounding like Gaara, I really think Tsuneo was good for you. And you weren't a complete jerk to him because it's obvious from the way he looks at you he'd take you back in a second. So what are you doing with a random guy?" he asked him point blank.

Kankuro huffed at this, more amused than aggravated, in all seriousness. Even Temari hadn't called him on it like that – but it was true that the person he spent the most time with every day wasn't his sister, but the Nara, in the end. "Wanna know why I broke up with Tsuneo?"

"Please. One less mystery for the ages."

"You're really not as cute as you think you are when you're being a smartass," the puppeteer informed his friend with a sorry sigh.

"Kiba thinks I am."

Kankuro paused at this, visibly surprised he'd bring Kiba into this himself, but didn't say a word.

Shikamaru's smirk diminished and he had to fight the urge to sit up as he didn't want to appear defensive. And he had been wondering about that one for a few years, to be perfectly honest… "So?"

"I fell in love," was the simple reply. "Really, deeply in love."

"With someone else?" the Nara tried to clarify with a frown – and mentally trying to figure out just who it could have been.

"No, with him."

"Eh?" Shikamaru tried very hard to make sense of this, but it just wouldn't compute. He had to sit up. "Wait—you broke up with Tsuneo because you fell in love with him?" he reformulated dubiously.

"Yeah, that's the long and short of it," the puppeteer had the gall to confirm with a shrug.

There was silence for a moment following this as Shikamaru did his best to stop looking at the other shinobi as if he'd sprouted a second head. "I'm trying very hard to understand your way of thinking, right now," he informed him honestly.

Kankuro chuckled and shrugged at this, not offended. "I know I'm not exactly doing things in the right order."

"You think? At the risk of sounding like a complete idiot, please allow me this one question."


"Why?" Shikamaru asked in absolute bewilderment. "Weren't you happy? Tsuneo's obviously crazy about you, so what's your issue with it being mutual?" he wondered as this felt like a mystery he had to get to the bottom of.

Kankuro just looked back at him tranquilly, trying to find the right words to explain it and going for simple. "My issue is it's terrifying."

"Being in love?"

"Yes. I find being in love terrifying – I told you I was weird. There's many things that change! Priorities, cares, feelings...I don't know how you guys deal with it...!"

How did Kiba ever agree to break up because of such a stupid-sounding reason? Not that Shikamaru wasn't happy about that, of course. It was just mindboggling. "You do realize that's normal, right? And that it gets better? And easier? With something commonly referred to as 'time'," he explained slowly, as though doubting his capacity to understand his words.

Kankuro sighed at this, absently reaching to move his protector and run a hand through his hair. "Look, I hear you, okay? I see you guys, or other people, and I think to myself, 'damn, that must feel great'. But then when it happens to me all that I can think is 'mission integrity compromised, abort'! As if it's inevitably going to blow up in my face, so I should end it before it hurts too much."

Wow. Shikamaru had honestly rarely wanted to use his shadow to control someone as much as he did at that moment. It would be so easy to force him to face Tsuneo, too.

"I'm not even going to pretend I understand. I guess in the end, whatever makes you happy, right? I personally believe it takes two, but your life's up to you," he finally declared as he dropped back down on the ground.

"But you think I should try to get Tsuneo back, don't you?" the puppeteer asked with a raised eyebrow.

"You still love him, right?" Shikamaru asked back instead, resisting the urge to roll his eyes at the other's reluctant nod. "There's your answer, then. Besides, what are the odds of you meeting someone who gets along so well with Gaara again?"

Kankuro didn't say any more, just gently punched his chest again.

The shadow-nin huffed slightly as he contemplated whether he should keep talking, but after all, they'd gone this far, right? In a sense, he had to know what he owed his current happiness to. Just a quirky trait of character? A…what would Ino call it? A commitmentphobe? Was that even a real word?

"In the interest of putting it behind us and because it's the logical follow-up, I'm going to ask you one last thing."

"Breaking up with Kiba wasn't exactly for the same reason," Kankuro replied without needing him to ask the question. "Back then I needed a friend a lot more than I needed anything else," he explained, turning to him. "You've probably noticed, but all the people my siblings and I call 'friends', we've met in the last few years, and in other villages at first. To me, having someone that I could lean back on and trust felt too important to risk on a relationship."

Shikamaru nodded slowly at this, remembering that Temari had confided in him something similar, a long time ago. That growing up, people were either scared of them, or bent on using their station to further their own needs. As she'd said, their first real friends were from other villages. Hearing those words from Kankuro's mouth made him feel like the other man really was her younger brother after all. He briefly wondered whether Gaara felt the same – and then promptly realized that yes, because it was Naruto's genuine offer of friendship that had first reached his heart.

"Hey, good for you, right? Maybe I'd be the one engaged to Kiba right now if I wasn't so weird!" the puppeteer continued with a smirk, obviously aiming to lighten the mood.

The Nara glared at him and then shook his head as if to dissipate the mental image this evoked – okay, so despite their friendship, perhaps it was still too soon to make 'I could've married Kiba' jokes.

When Kiba got home that night, Shikamaru held him slightly tighter than usual. "For the record, I love you, and I believe that my happiness is in direct correlation to you being there," he told him simply.

Kiba chuckled fondly and nuzzled his cheek at that. "I shouldn't ask, right?"

"It's a weird story," Shikamaru replied very truthfully with a frown. "I don't really get it myself."

And he didn't. He really didn't.

The next morning, when the guards posted at the gate contacted the main office to advise them that Samui and Omoi of the Cloud had arrived and were requesting an audience, Shikamaru definitely didn't like the sound of it, because few shinobi held the Raikage's trust the way Samui did, so for sure her presence did not bode well. "Long time no see," he greeted them as he waited for them by the entrance.

Omoi waved tiredly, and Samui nodded curtly as was her usual habit. "Hello, Nara. Will the Kazekage be able to meet with us shortly?" she asked him with a frown.

He nodded at her and motioned for them to follow him inside. "We received your coded message yesterday, so we've been expecting you," he informed her as they navigated the corridors to the highest office. "The messengers from Kumo are here," he told the brothers as they all walked in, and then nodded at the guards posted outside. "No one is to interrupt this meeting until further notice, nor to wait around this corridor," he instructed before closing the door.

Samui nodded respectfully at Gaara and then stepped closer to place a sealed scroll on his desk, making a few signs with her hands to break it. "Lord Kazekage, we have reason to believe that separatists from Kumo have been operating from a small cell here in the Land of Wind," she began without further ado. "The individuals we managed to capture revealed to be quite resilient to interrogation, with one of them going as far as killing himself before cracking. But one element we have been able to verify is that some funds are coming from here."

Gaara frowned as he picked up the report, his eyes quickly going over it before he handed it to Shikamaru. "While this is unfortunate, from what I've just read I don't get the sense that the Sand is really threatened by this faction; the Cloud is the real target," he noted seriously. "What is the Raikage's request?" he asked her sharply.

"There is only one place a foreign shinobi could be operating from," Samui noted before briefly turning her eyes to Shikamaru. "Well, in theory," she conceded.

"You mean the Allied division headquarters," Shikamaru said with a raised eyebrow. Actual transfers to another village's authority, independently from the Allied division, were still rare – he was still part of the exception, not the rule.

"Yes," she confirmed with a nod before shrugging her head back towards Omoi. "With your permission, we'd like to temporarily place Omoi there, so that he can conduct his own internal investigation on Cloud shinobi active in the Sand," she requested formally.

"I've got an official transfer request and all, to keep up with appearances," Omoi added as he stepped forward, standing straight for once.

"And if possible, we would request that the real reason for his presence doesn't leave this office," Samui added as she held Gaara's look.

"Wouldn't it be more productive to involve Temari and Kiba as well? They're the ones handing out the assignments after all," Kankuro noted with a raised eyebrow.

"It is our assessment that the less people who know, the better our chances of success are," the kunoichi replied firmly. "If alright with you, naturally," she deferred to Gaara.

The Kazekage shared a look with his brother and his advisor, who both nodded imperceptibly, and then nodded his head as well. "As long as our own operations are not disrupted, I do not see a reason to deny your request. Provided, naturally, that Omoi report to one of us – or Temari and Kiba, if time is truly lacking – before attempting any capture within our borders," he stipulated clearly.

"Of course. He will not be attempting any solitary operations," Samui confirmed practically.

"Yeah, he won't!" Omoi added, visibly not looking too keen at the suggestion.

"Then we are in agreement," Gaara concluded, placing his signature where indicated on her scroll before handing it back to her – upon which she promptly sealed it once more. He then wrote a quick note on a piece of paper that he folded and handed to Omoi. "Add this to your application. Shikamaru will show you to the headquarters," he instructed.

Shikamaru almost smirked at the Kazekage gratefully for this excuse to visit Kiba (since of course everyone present knew that Omoi knew where it was), but simply tilted his head and motioned for Omoi to follow him. "Fair warning: Gaara will get Temari to sign your transfer orders, but you'll be on your own when she and Kiba pester you for more details on why you didn't follow the usual procedure," he told him seriously with a raised eyebrow – Kiba, in particular, complained very loudly when people ignored procedures, thereby giving him more paperwork.

Omoi sighed deeply, shoulders slumping at the prospect. "I figured…" he muttered before turning to him with a raised eyebrow. "So how's it going for you guys? Still happy living here?"

"Kiba's naturally adaptable, and the Kazekage knows how to make work interesting, so yeah, we're still happy," the Konoha shinobi replied honestly with a lazy grin. "What about you? That's a pretty daunting task you've been given," he noted as they walked out on the streets.

"Yep…" Omoi agreed distractedly as he looked around, taking in his new daily sights. "But I'm pretty adaptable, too!" he then added with a confident grin. This was nowhere near his first visit to Suna, but he'd never stayed there long before, and he was actually looking forward to it.

Shikamaru chuckled at this, not adding anything more. Once they reached the headquarters, he stopped just past the entrance and said, slightly louder than usual, "The commander's office is still that way, last door on the right."

"Thanks for showing me the way, it was nice seeing you again," Omoi replied as they shook hands, having caught up on his play. Shikamaru nodded back at him and walked his own way, towards the last door on the left – likely the deputy commander's office, he figured.

Temari was surprised to see him, and even more so when he handed her his transfer application. The note from her brother – which simply said 'sign it, please' – further convinced her that something more was afoot, but she trusted she'd be included in the loop if the situation demanded it, so she signed his papers, handed them back to him and moved to one of the piles on her desk.

"Kiba will set you up with a timetable, appropriate credentials, and lodgings," Temari informed him summarily, raising an eyebrow as she heard laughter coming from her deputy's door – one really did hear what went on it the other's office, she hadn't exaggerated that fact. "Is Shikamaru in with him?" she asked him with a frown. "Then knock before going in," she simply advised at his nod before returning to her work.

Omoi still waited for a good ten minutes before knocking on Kiba's door and even though Shikamaru was just leaning back against Kiba's desk he felt like he was intruding. The Nara nodded at him and then took his leave, muttering about getting back to his no-so-quiet-anymore morning.

As forewarned, Kiba tried to get more information out of him, but Omoi just held on fast, and before long his transfer was officially completed.

For the most part, his assignment went rather well. He was quickly able to clear certain shinobi, and he was confident that his cover, so to speak, hadn't been blown.

And he had to admit, despite the heat (in Kumo, April was still 70% winter, here it was already the end of spring), Suna really wasn't so bad. Sure, the scorpions were a pain and so you had to be careful where you stepped, and every time you opened your mouth too wide – say, to yawn innocuously – you risked getting a mouthful of sand, and apparently cacti shouldn't be touched, and not only because of their needles, and who knew there was a 'cacti' plan in their health insurance? (And more importantly, why hadn't anyone told him about it?)

But yeah, aside from that it really wasn't bad.

The first significant wrench in his plans came exactly three weeks later, although in all fairness, it wasn't even related to his assignment at all: Tenten arrived in Suna with a team from Iwa's HQ.

Kiba grinned widely as he saw his fellow Konoha shinobi walk into his office, with Akamaru immediately going to her with a happy bark. "Tenten, you're late, I was getting worried!" he chided good-naturedly.

"Sandstorm," she replied matter-of-factly as she rubbed Akamaru's sides. "Aw, Kiba, look at you! It always brings a tear to my eyes to see you at your desk, Mr. Deputy Commander!" she cooed as she gave him a mock-salute.

"Aw, Tenten, look at you! It always does something to my heart to see you with your insignia, Ms. Captain!" he teased her back easily. "And still as cheeky as ever!" he added with a sigh, shaking his head in fake resignation.

Tenten smiled self-consciously, resting a hand on her hip. "I guess we're both boring grown-ups now, huh?" she lamented with an exaggerated sigh.

"Speak for yourself," he muttered with another grin, avoiding the scrunched up paper ball that she threw his way – and not even being surprised when it bounced off the wall and into his bin, proving she'd accounted for his evasion and was still the best shot around. "Papers please," he asked as he held out his hand.

The weapons specialist hummed as she reached for them and handed them over. "As planned, we'd like authorization to use the village as our base of operations while we explore the surrounding areas for weapons smugglers' hideouts," she requested formally.

Kiba nodded as he quickly looked them over, finding everything was in order as expected. "Okay, I'll get the commander to sign it by this afternoon. In the meantime, you and your team can report to the accommodations desk," he instructed as he handed her four temporary badges.

"Thanks!" Tenten replied brightly as she reached for them and returned to her team who was seated in the break room – a samurai, a kunoichi from Iwa and a medic from Suna. She handed them their passes and together they then made their way to the accommodations desk to get settled – except for the Suna shinobi, who used this time to drop his bag home. That part was barely done when she walked into Omoi, opening round eyes at seeing him here. "Omoi! Are you also here on a mission?" she asked him brightly.

The Kumo shinobi blinked as he looked at her, truly caught off guard – had it really been almost a year since they last saw each other? She looked as prett—as lively as ever. "No I…transferred here. Recently—very recently. What about you?" he wondered with a frown.

"I'm here with my team," she replied easily.

"Your team?" he repeated, tilting his head sideways as he noticed the insignia on her flak jacket. "Ah, that's right! You're a captain!"

"What, did you forget?" she asked with a pout. "It's not like it's a recent thing limited to Iwa," she noted as she crossed her arms over her chest.

Omoi inwardly wondered if there was a safe way to reply to that, quickly coming to the conclusion there wasn't and he should just be honest. "I'm sorry—of course not, I knew that! I've been really busy, so my brain's been a bit…scattered, recently…" he offered sincerely. It seemed to placate her and he sighed in relief. "So…will you be here for long?" he wondered conversationally.

"A couple of weeks, at least," Tenten confirmed. "We're searching the area for weapons smuggling rings," she then said, since her mission wasn't classified – and the more people who paid attention on deployment, the better. "Let me know if you spot anything out of the ordinary, would you?"

"Will do," he confirmed, frowning as he thought about it. It would definitely be worth it to pay attention to how her mission unfolded – it might end up overlapping with his, you never knew: smuggling did yield decent funding.

When Kiba later handed her the duly signed mission order, Tenten sulked at him. "You could've told me Omoi was here!" she accused.

Kiba just raised an eyebrow, wondering what he'd done wrong. "Why? You obviously found out on your own…"

Tenten frowned at him in disbelief before throwing her hands up in the air. "Men!" was all she declared before leaving his office.

"Was it something I said?" the Inuzuka asked his nin-dog with a confused frown.

Akamaru simply whined. Females were too hard to understand.

"Yeah, you got that right…!"

Kiba sighed as he tried to concentrate on his work – but it wasn't easy when he could hear Temari and Tenten laughing from the commander's office. "Keep it down, I'm trying to concentrate!" he called loudly, rolling his eyes as they naturally took it as their cue to be even louder. "Women…you'd think after a week they'd have caught up already!"

But no, Temari and Tenten never ran out of things to discuss!

Akamaru loyally agreed from where he lay on the ground, ears perking up as the sound of dashing feet could be heard until a familiar person stood in the doorway.

"Kiba, I have to know what mission Rema was assigned to!" Omoi asked hurriedly as he walked to him.

Kiba merely raised an eyebrow at him, unimpressed by his sudden entrance. "Hello Omoi, nice to see you too! Why yes, I did cut my hair, thank you for noticing! How are you doing today? And why are you asking me about other people's assignments?" he asked back as leaned his face in his palm.

"Kiba, I mean it, please! That's my real mission, finding a mole from the Cloud – and I know it's her!" Omoi stressed seriously as he handed him his official credentials and rested his hands on his desk.

"So Gaara's in on it," Kiba noted as he the Kazekage's seal was also there.


The deputy nodded as he turned to grab one of the large folders behind him, looking for that particular kunoichi. "Okay so…she was assigned to a supply run yesterday evening – solo. She should have returned this morning," he informed him as he looked up.

"Except she didn't," Omoi noted with a sigh. "She must've figured I was onto her…" He really should've acted sooner, even if he wasn't 100% sure yet – playing it safe obviously wasn't always the best answer.

"What do you need?" Kiba asked him seriously as he put the folder back in place.

The Kumo shinobi closed his eyes for a second to gather himself and then looked back at him. "I don't have time to ask the Kazekage, so I need your approval to mount a tracking mission to apprehend her," he replied.

"So let's go get you that approval," the other shinobi said as he walked to Temari's office, clearly not feeling bad about interrupting her – besides, Rema, the kunoichi Omoi was chasing, was a poison specialist, so a long-range fighter like Tenten would actually be an asset. Without wasting a second, they brought the two up to speed.

"Omoi, I realize this is a mission from Kumo to hunt down a Kumo nin, but you're still in Suna and Rema's still one of my subordinates, so Kiba's in command," she noted seriously, naturally not having to think long about appointing the Inuzuka – this was a tracking mission after all.

"Alright," Omoi readily agreed – he'd never really enjoyed being in command, in spite of everything.

Kiba nodded at them and then turned to Tenten. "Get Yuoh and meet with us at the barracks, we'll be there to get her scent," he instructed.

"You won't find anything there," Omoi intervened with a frown. "She knows that's your specialty, she won't have risked anything. But I anticipated this," he noted as he rummaged through his pockets to hand him a small bag, revealing a piece of fabric within it. "I hope my own scent hasn't cancelled hers…" he mumbled with a frown.

Temari chuckled at this, looking at her deputy with nothing but the utmost confidence. "Kiba, Akamaru – fetch!" she said simply.

"Yes Commander," he replied with a salute as Akamaru barked. "Just meet us on the roof, Tenten, we'll get her direction!" he threw over his shoulder as he made his way to the stairs.

Tenten nodded back at him and promptly left to go get her medic-nin – as he was from Suna, it was logical that it would be best to bring him, in addition to having a healer along.

"I suppose simply assuming that she's just headed for Kumo would be naïve?" the tracker asked his friend as he glanced towards each gate in turn.

"I think she's headed towards Oto, but it's likely she has other ideas in mind as well, we're not sure yet how deep their organization runs – I honestly wouldn't be surprised if she returned here at some point, but it's a risk I can't take…" Omoi replied seriously.

"If Temari or I had been warned, she wouldn't have been given solo assignments and running away might not have been so easy," the Inuzuka noted with a raised eyebrow.

"I had my orders," Omoi muttered, visibly agreeing on the principle.

Kiba simply shrugged as he and Akamaru concentrated on the smell, on separating it from Omoi's – as indeed, carrying the sample around in his pocket had somewhat altered it. Each searched a different direction, and as the nin-dog barked he turned his head to him. "Where?" he asked, sniffing the air a few times at the response. "Good boy, Akamaru!" he praised with a grin.

"Perfect timing, it seems!" Tenten noted cheerfully as they joined up with them. "Yuoh's briefed!" she then added as the shinobi next to her nodded.

"Then let's go catch ourselves a deserter, team!" Kiba declared simply as he motioned for them to follow him.

Growing up in a clan of shinobi, befriending other aspiring ninja and eventually becoming one yourself, not only did you have to be prepared to risk your life at all times, you also had to learn to get used to seeing your loved ones risk theirs. Those who couldn't handle it simply weren't meant for that kind of life.

Until the moment Tenten ran through the doors to the Kazekage's office calling his name in obvious apprehension, Shikamaru had honestly thought he'd be able to cope with anything, that he'd learned his lessons and life had prepared him and hardened him.

Yet his blood still froze in his veins at her words.

"Shikamaru, Kiba's hurt!"


Chapter Text

" Shikamaru, Kiba's hurt!"

Silence followed Tenten's words, and Kankuro opened his mouth to ask the weapons specialist what happened to Kiba, exactly, when his brother spoke before he could.

"Go," Gaara said simply to Shikamaru – even though the Nara was gone before the word had really been spoken.

Tenten nodded at the Kazekage, apologizing for her loud irruption, before turning to go after her friend. "We managed to catch up to her but we couldn't avoid a head-on confrontation – and she'd joined up with accomplices by then. Yuoh was severely wounded, and Kiba got poisoned when he pushed Omoi out of an attack's way. He should be okay but he collapsed right after we handed our captives to the interrogation team," she explained quickly as she led him towards the medical wing.

He only listened to her words absently, forcing himself to repeat 'please be alright' over and over in his head to retain some semblance of control over himself. Kiba wasn't even supposed to be on that mission! But he often mentioned he grew antsy staying in the village so much, and Omoi's assignment clearly needed a rapid tracker…plus it was their job.

Upon reaching the emergency ward, he barely registered Omoi as his friend got up to greet him. Akamaru sat whining on the floor by his master's bed as a sickeningly pale Kiba rested there uncharacteristically still. There was a scratch on his forearm which was currently being disinfected by a nurse, but it seemed to be his only injury.

Darami was there, curtly calling out orders and it reassured him slightly. She was by the second bed of the room, where Yuoh, ironically enough the team's medic, lay badly wounded. She briefly looked up at the Nara and then promptly returned to her patient.

"Don't worry, he's not in danger. I got the poison out and Mizu's currently picking Rema's mind apart, so I'll be able to create a counter-toxin for any residual effects soon enough," she said in her usual clipped tone – but she was oddly reassuring, somehow. "He just collapsed because his body relaxed once the mission was completed."

Shikamaru nodded back mutely, knowing that Darami did not lie – if Kiba were in grave danger, she'd tell him, bluntly so. He raised a hand to touch him, but the medic-nin sent him a warning glance so he let his hand return to his side as he took a step back, turning to Akamaru. "Hey boy, are you okay?" he asked quietly.

Akamaru whined as he set his head down on his paws, and Shikamaru sighed as he rubbed his fur.

Tenten let out a breath in relief from the door as she looked at them, and then jumped slightly as she felt Omoi reach for her good hand to drag her away. "Omoi, what are you doing?"

"Making sure you get that arm fixed," he noted simply as he signaled one of the healers. "We've got a broken arm here," he said as he pointed towards her limp left arm.

Tenten looked down sheepishly as she'd wanted to make sure that their teammates were okay first – and that Shikamaru would be with Kiba if not. "It doesn't really hurt anymore…" she mumbled.

Omoi raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed, and opened his mouth to remind her that just because she didn't feel the pain anymore, it didn't mean that it wasn't effectively painful, and a broken arm shouldn't be taken lightly, not to mention a wound could always get infected, particularly as they'd fought a kunoichi who visibly employed poison as a weapon, and maybe the lack of pain was a sign of worse things to come and she'd lose that arm, and then what?

He was kept from expressing himself however as Sojiro, effectively looking the part of having just returned from mission himself, poked his head around the corner. "If you're looking for Darami, she's in the second-last room to the right," Omoi told him, correctly deducting his purpose.

"Thanks!" the Kiri shinobi replied as he quickly made his way as directed, stopping in front of his fellow captain. "I just got back to the village – Mizu tagged me. This is the list of components, and I'm also at your disposal if you need to test anything," he offered as he looked down at the Sand shinobi. His wounds were worse than he'd thought and clearly looked infected already – the poison was obviously very potent, so the man was one hell of a fighter to still be alive.

Darami frowned, ignoring Shikamaru's inquisitive look as she snatched the paper and read over its contents. "I can do this fairly quickly," she noted simply. "Can you identify potential side-effects we need to look out for if I give you a sample? That would save time he doesn't have in case I need to redo anything," she added as her eyes darted back to her critical patient.

"Easily," Sojiro replied as he pulled a chair to sit down.

"A sample?" one of the assisting medics repeated with a frown.

"My body breaks down any poison I come into contact with as a way to protect itself from my own techniques," the other man explained. "But I can tell which areas would have been affected."

Darami didn't even need to be told as much as she carefully dipped a syringe into the removed poison and moved towards him. "Open up," she instructed as she unhesitatingly emptied the contents in his mouth before turning to her assistant to give him the empty equipment to dispose of.

Sojiro's eyes took on the yellow color that indicated his bloodline ability had been activated, and he winced for a moment – at the taste or in pain, they weren't sure. "No hidden side-effects, it's fairly straightforward – it's designed to knock out the target and fester painfully in wounds to render natural remission impossible," he declared swiftly.

Darami nodded and gave more instructions before taking with her the poison and the list to go fix the antidote.

Shikamaru just remained by Akamaru's side, eyes fixed on Kiba as the words 'he'll be alright' were the only thing going around his head. Looking up as he felt someone looming over, he saw it was the Kiri shinobi. "Thank you. That didn't look like it tasted good," he said automatically although he knew that ingesting new poisons actually strengthened his own ability, so it wasn't only for altruism's sake that he'd done it.

Actually, the way he'd come to understand it, Sojiro's body didn't actually break down poisons he came into contact with so much as it created stronger versions that negated (and absorbed) the original strain, consequently immunizing him. So naturally, the more he was poisoned, the stronger he became.

Sojiro shook his head at his words, eyes back to their regular brown. "Don't mention it. He'd have done the same for me, despite having actually bitten me twice," he said earnestly, indicating that no thanks were necessary among comrades.

Yes, Kiba would've, definitely, Shikamaru agreed with a tired smile.

The other man then cleared his throat, frowning as he hesitated over his words. "He'll…uh…he'll be okay. His resilience has surprised me more than once before," he finally said.

Shikamaru chuckled despite not really having the energy to, raising an eyebrow at him. "Sojiro, are you trying to comfort me?" he asked despite himself.

"No," the poison specialist replied matter-of-factly, crossing his arms over his chest. He held his look for almost a minute before sighing. "Okay, yes – maybe. No offence."

"None taken," the Nara replied in almost amusement.

Same-gender relationships were much more discreetly lived in Kiri than they were in Konoha, so he knew Sojiro had looked at them very puzzled and uncertain at first. That he was now keenly trying to cheer him up felt like a real change, one that he knew couldn't entirely be credited to his relationship with Temari. Sojiro had just needed to see the obvious for himself: that they were no different from any other couple, in the end.

He certainly helped, even in his clumsy way, but still it wasn't until Darami was back with an injection ready and a smug look on her usually guarded face that Shikamaru allowed himself to stop worrying.

Without pause or ceremony, she injected her cure into Kiba's neck, pressing a hand to his chest and closing her eyes to sense him before nodding once in satisfaction and stepping back. "He'll wake up soon," she declared summarily as she turned to Shikamaru. "You can touch him now, if you must," she told him with a tone that could almost be likened to kindness before walking off to fully concentrate on Yuoh, with Sojiro walking after her to give them some privacy.

Regardless of her bedside manners, he didn't need to be told twice. Akamaru followed him, resting his head on the other side of the bed by Kiba's hand. For the next few minutes Shikamaru's heartbeat was deafening in his ears and his breath nearly inexistent, but as color slowly returned to Kiba's skin, he felt his entire body sag with relief.

Kiba groaned groggily, eyes scrunching before he blinked them open slowly. He tried to sit up with a start, but his body wouldn't really allow him to move yet so he just moaned at the pain. "Who used me as a practice dummy?" he wondered with a frown.

Shikamaru chuckled breathlessly, shaking his head fondly as he brought his hand to his lips. "I can't let you out of my sight for even a day, can I?" he asked him tiredly.

Kiba grinned feebly, turning his other hand slightly to rub Akamaru's head as the nin-dog's tail wagged frantically. He then frowned as he turned back to his lover. "How's Yuoh? And Tenten—I know her arm got broken pretty badly," he asked urgently.

Shikamaru momentarily felt guilty, because he hadn't really paid attention to Tenten, although now that he thought back on it, her left arm had remained completely limp from the shoulder down as they ran here.

"They're both being taken care of, Captain, and our mission was a success," Omoi replied for him as he walked in before pausing in front of him with a sigh. "Sorry I was careless, and thank you," he said earnestly. "I owe you one."

"No you don't," Kiba replied matter-of-factly, blinking sleepily, relieved that despite his lackluster shape his team was alright – and their mission was a success, which was always good, naturally! "I think I'm going to take a nap now," he informed them before his eyes closed and he effectively lost consciousness.

His even breathing and peaceful face reassured them it was indeed just a break.

"I'll go report on the mission to the commander," Omoi replied as he figured he should leave them alone. Of course, Temari probably already knew a lot, since after all Darami, Sojiro and Mizu had gotten involved, but someone really should brief her on the outcome before she brought the building down on them because she was the last to know. And then naturally, he should also advise the Kazekage. And send a message to the Raikage's office. And—

Tenten shot him a tired grin as he walked by her and he casually waved back.

He wanted to ask her to come back to the Cloud, although he had no idea how to bring that up. And then what if he asked her and she said 'no'? Should he just keep trying?

Or maybe simply chicken out like every time before, which was easier. Of course, afterwards he'd be really annoyed with himself, maybe even downright angry, and who was going to fall for an annoyed-slash-angry guy? He'd spend the rest of his life alone, shadowing the future Raikage, and everyone in the village would know him and praise his dedication to his job before sighing and adding that it was such a shame, because he'd been such a lovely-looking young man and he could've been so happy with a nice wife by his side. So maybe he'd get a cat. He wouldn't be completely alone that way.

But he really felt too tired to think about that after such a stressful ordeal.


Ears twitching, he turned around to see Shikamaru walking up to him. "Hey, he still okay?" he asked worriedly – things couldn't have worsened so quickly, right? Darami had looked so confident!

Shikamaru nodded, running a hand through his hair with a sigh. "Yeah, but Darami sent me that look that sort-of implied I'd be better anywhere but in her line of sight."

"Ah, yeah. That look," the Kumo shinobi related easily. He'd been on the receiving end before – the first time when he'd been young enough to end up crying, actually. His father had even yelled at him for allowing a girl to make him cry, but had dropped it when he'd actually met Darami.

"It's troublesome, but she's got a life in her hands right now, I get why manners aren't her priority," the Nara tempered as he looked around. "Where's Tenten?"

Omoi pointed towards the room in question and tried to relax some as he said, "She's getting her arm treated right now, should be fine – seems like it was a clean break."

"Good, I'm relieved to hear that," Shikamaru said sincerely, still feeling slightly bad that he'd ignored her state. "I know you need to get going, and so do I actually; but I might need a favor, so I just wanted to know – are you staying in Suna for a few more days, or will you be off to Kumo now?" he wondered.

"Staying for a while longer. Transport's too risky, I'm not positive we've caught the whole gang yet; so we'll interrogate them here," Omoi replied easily – he had to put that in place, actually, assuming Mizu hadn't completely broken their prisoners yet. Apart from Rema, they'd managed to capture one of her accomplices – the other, Tenten had had no choice but to kill as he'd been about to deal the already wounded Yuoh a fatal blow. Still, two was better than one, and definitely better than zero, which was what they'd had until just this morning.

"So what can I do for you? Just name it," he added earnestly.

Shikamaru smiled slowly, relaxing the slightest bit, and simply slid his hands in his pockets. "I need to touch base with someone else first, but I'll let you know," he replied mysteriously.

Omoi spent the entire walk to the HQ trying to predict what this 'favor' could be, and although his guesses had gotten pretty wild by the time he met Temari, he had no idea whether he was any closer to the truth.

At the very least, despite their dangers, it could never be said that his travels were boring.

Between his own physical fitness and Darami's medical skills, Kiba hadn't needed more than a good night's rest before returning to his duties, although Temari showed her relief (and worry) by dumping as many administrative tasks as she could on him for the next few days. Following Kankuro's earnest recommendation, the Inuzuka amiably put up with it – besides, Darami brought him an herbal infusion 'just in case' once in the morning and then again in the afternoon if she was there, and it wasn't that bad.

But because of Temari's murderous mood, everyone turned to him instead, even if it was just to ask him to hand her a report or other, and he'd probably made a few enemies when he'd refused and sent them to the commander's office to face their doom on their own.

It was in that mindset that Kiba groaned from his desk as he saw Shikamaru walk in with a folder under his arm. "Please don't say that's more work – I swear, Temari's trying to drown me under all that paperwork to make sure I won't ever leave the village again!" he growled in annoyance, not caring if she heard him from her office.

Indeed, her response of, "Less talk more work, Kiba!" wasn't long in coming from across the corridor.

"See what I mean? This is bordering abuse!" the Inuzuka muttered with a frown as he absently moved another transfer request from Kiri to an ever-growing pile. "So, is that one for me or for her?" he asked with a defeated sigh as he shrugged his head towards him.

Shikamaru chuckled as he shook his head. "Oh, this one's definitely for you," he replied cryptically as he walked to lean back against his desk, facing him. Wordlessly, he then handed him said folder.

Kiba sighed but complied, pulling the paper out, freezing as he read the header before looking back up at him. "A…marriage certificate?" he asked, confused, eyes darting back to re-check it.

Their details were all entered, only the signatures and official seal were missing – had he forgotten something? Did the poison sap some of his memories? A quick look towards Akamaru didn't reassure him any more as the nin-dog simply wagged his tail happily.

"I don't want to wait anymore," Shikamaru replied simply, honestly. "Marry me, Kiba. Today—now," he asked him seriously.

"Today? Now?" Kiba repeated with wide eyes – it couldn't be that easy, could it? "Won't Gaara have more important things to attend to?" he asked for the principle.

"The Kazekage won't mind – I have connections," the Nara informed him with mock-modesty.

This had Kiba chuckling. "You do, huh?" he asked teasingly as he got up to wrap his arms around his neck and nuzzle his cheek. "Okay, let's do this! I just need to ask my boss for a moment's reprieve."

"Why do you think she was keeping you so busy?" Temari drawled from her spot by the door, grinning smugly as she looked at them.

"Because she was in on it," Kiba realized with a fond roll of his eyes before smiling at his lover. He couldn't really help himself and leaned in to kiss him, only pulling back when Temari cleared her throat loudly.

"That's traditionally what tonight will be all about, but until then, can we please get going? People are going to start thinking you turned Shikamaru down if we're late," she said teasingly as she turned to leave.

"People?" Kiba repeated with a raised eyebrow.

"News travel fast and everyone loves an excuse to drink," Shikamaru replied with a helpless shrug.

'People', Kiba soon found out, turned out to be about everyone they knew well and who was currently in Suna. They were all simply dressed in their uniforms, and the room itself was barely decorated, but that actually felt natural – neither of them had ever liked stuffy clothes or showy designs anyway.

Tenten and Omoi were waiting for them at the door, and had actually helped plan this, Shikamaru informed him. Sojiro and Darami were present, the Kumo kunoichi looking puzzled at her own attendance but managing to sound (somewhat) genuine upon wishing them well. Mizu and Yasha, he knew, were on deployment outside of the village, so he wasn't surprised they weren't there, but Sojiro assured him they were sorry to miss it and wished them the best – and had pooled in for the drinks.

Some of the Allied HQ members who weren't currently on missions were there as well, with Kiba recognizing most of them as having probably been in on the whole 'keeping him busy' scheme when they grinned roguishly. People were offering congratulations ranging from nods to handshakes, without forgetting winks or shoulder-claps, until Temari walked in with her brothers in tow, and as he saw Gaara, it somehow grounded the situation into Kiba's mind: they were getting married. He found himself chuckling happily at this.

Gaara offered them his version of a smile as he reached them. "I'm glad to see you're feeling well," he told Kiba sincerely.

"Hey, Temari was the real danger to my health these days," the Inuzuka immediately dismissed teasingly, figuring she wouldn't dare hit him at his wedding.

She visibly saw through him, because she glared at him. "Enjoy it while you can," she said warningly before smirking in satisfaction at his gulp. She then winked at Sojiro who chuckled before leaning in to give her a quick kiss.

"Shall we?" the Kazekage asked as he gestured towards the desk where Omoi had placed the document after Shikamaru had handed it to him when they arrived.

The two shared a look – and a smile – at this before nodding.

Taking a hold of the pen set next to them, Shikamaru signed his name first and then handed it to Kiba, who shook his head in amusement and disbelief before signing it as well. Gaara then affixed his own signature before Kankuro handed him the village's seal and he stamped it in the designated spot.

"I'm glad to say it's now official," the Kazekage declared as he held up the certificate. "Congratulations," he said earnestly.

He'd signed many marriage certificates, but never for friends until that day – and for the first time, he was really happy that it was part of his duties.

Akamaru howled happily as those present clapped while Tenten kept taking pictures left and right, and Kiba chuckled before grabbing a hold of Shikamaru's vest to pull him to his lips. "Mine," he whispered as they parted.

"Yours," Shikamaru confirmed with a smug expression.

The Sand siblings exchanged satisfied looks and Kankuro fondly punched his brother's shoulder as he saw his expression. "Days like this could come more often, huh?"

"Indeed," Gaara agreed with a small smile.

"Your hints are as subtle as ever, Kankuro," Sojiro muttered with a stubborn blush at Temari's more than pleased chuckle. Yeah…the puppeteer really wasn't discreet in letting everyone know he wanted nephews.

At least he had the decency not to deny it.

Likewise, Temari was always willing to annoy her brother back. "Hey, look who also showed up," she 'whispered' as she elbowed his side and shrugged her head to the side.

Kankuro frowned as he followed her look and then gulped as he saw Tsuneo there – well sure, he was also friends with Kiba and Shikamaru, so he wasn't exactly out of place but…

Gaara joined his sister in pushing him forward, and he knew that was a lost fight, so he took in a deep breath, straightened up, and went to talk to him.

"They grow up so fast…" Temari cooed smugly as she watched him go. Next to her, Sojiro snorted in amusement but didn't say anything. She then blinked as she looked at Darami who was to the side, looking down at the marriage certificate curiously. "Darami, grab something to drink!" she told her easily.

The Kumo kunoichi looked up and tilted her head to the side. "Oh, so drinking in large quantities is also customary here," she noted neutrally as she followed their lead and picked up a glass – following customs was an important part of integration after all.

"I think we can safely establish that's likely customary everywhere," Sojiro noted with a raised eyebrow. "It certainly is in Kiri as well!"

"I wouldn't know," the medic replied with a slight shrug. "I've only attended my sister's wedding before. But since she's not a shinobi, I don't think it's the same. It was extremely lively," she then added with a frown, and it was hard to say if her tone was disapproving or not.

This piqued Gaara's interest, as usually, the way of the ninja was a family affair – barring illness or severe injury, it was rare for siblings to follow such radically different paths. "That is an unusual situation – that you would be a ranking officer while she remained a civilian," he commented.

Darami blinked as she turned to him and tilted her head to the side. "Well back when we were at the academy, we soon realized she wasn't cut out for it – she's a carpenter now, it suits her much better," she noted simply.

"Was the academy particularly difficult?" Sojiro wondered with a raised eyebrow.

"Not compared to Kiri, I'd say," the medic replied openly, acknowledging that no hardship could equal Kiri's old custom of aspiring ninja killing each other to be promoted to higher ranks. She wasn't sure whether Sojiro had graduated under these circumstances – his age would indicate that yes, but since his clan held a bloodline limit, he'd most likely not followed the usual curriculum, for his own safety.

"For girls it was tough in a different way though; Kumo didn't think much of kunoichi back then and it showed," she concluded before the conversation could get carried away – they really didn't need a 'who had it worse' contest.

Temari scoffed at the idea and crossed her arms over her chest. "I bet they're regretting that now, with three women having attained the Kage position in other villages these past years!"

Darami shrugged noncommittally as she looked back at the Kazekage. "So…since you're the one signing all the marriage certificates, what happens when you get married?" she wondered, tone almost curious – but really, just 'less blank'.

Gaara opened his mouth to respond but then realized he wasn't sure, exactly. A quick look to his sister – who just shrugged – indicated she didn't know either. "Well…perhaps then the Council will step up," he opinionated.

The medic hummed and then returned to her drink.

Temari raised an eyebrow at the scene, as having those two standing next to each other suddenly made her realize how similar they were, at first glance. And judging by Sojiro's amused grin, she wasn't the only one to think so.

Kiba chose that moment to sling an arm over their shoulders and 'whisper' conspicuously, "Is it just me or is Kankuro talking to Tsuneo?"

"Isn't it just an awesome day?" Temari asked back with a clear laugh. Sparing a look towards her brother and his ex, her smile widened – it seemed to be going not so bad, too!

"Thank you for persuading him to attend," Gaara told Shikamaru with a neutral expression as he held out his fist to him.

The Nara chuckled as he bumped his fist against his and shook his head. "My pleasure – really." After all, as the one who spent the most time with Kankuro, if he could help resolve his issues, he'd really be quite happy. His grin widened as Kiba nearly launched himself at him at this and he barely managed to grab him before he sent them both to the ground. Akamaru chose not to imitate his master for once so he sighed in relief – and then went back to grinning as the nin-dog turned to the Kazekage who obliged and reached to pet his head.

They'd likely get a world of pain from their families and friends back in Konoha, but in all honesty, that simple ceremony – if it could even be called that – and its small group of attendees was just perfect for them. Ending the celebration with Suna's famous gut-piercing liquor made it even better. And, of course, after Temari slyly informed Kiba that Shikamaru had additionally negotiated the next day off for them, well…there was nothing keeping them from enjoying the night to its full extent. Neither of them would have changed a thing.

"There's just one thing missing," Kiba commented with a hum as he pushed himself up on his elbows over Shikamaru much time later, after the party had disbanded and they'd returned home. Thankfully, he didn't feel too bad even though he'd had a lot to drink, so maybe he was building up a resistance to the stuff? (Stranger things did happen, didn't they?)

"I'm listening," Shikamaru humored him as he reached up to run his hand through his hair.

The Inuzuka grinned and grabbed his wrist, gently tugging his hand back before moving to lightly bite his left-hand ring finger.

"More food?" Shikamaru asked lazily because being annoying was his legal right now, correct? He chuckled as his lover – now husband, he reminded himself – gently nibbled on his finger in retaliation and he raised an eyebrow at him. "Okay, I get it, I get it…you want a ring."

Kiba let go of his finger to press a kiss to his hand, grinning in satisfaction. "Call me old fashioned, but yeah!"

His parents didn't carry rings, but then again their marriage hadn't exactly been a conventional one – and okay, so fairly, neither was his, but it was still more traditional in the sense that at least they'd be together, so getting rings wasn't too far-fetched, right? Right.

"Fine with me," the Nara replied easily as he pulled him back down against his lips. "We can check on that tomorrow after picking up the certificate from the registry."

Kankuro had promised them he'd personally see to it that it would be ready the next day, and much as he was loathe admitting it, he trusted his word. His eyes briefly darted to the side then, to his jacket, where Tenten had carefully stuffed the two rolls of pictures she'd taken – the last half of which when they'd all been on the last bottles, so 'sobriety and propriety not guaranteed', she'd warned fairly. They should also drop by the photo shop to get them developed, because he was really curious. "'A picture's worth a thousand words', right?" he quoted quietly.

"Mmh? What're you mumbling about?" Kiba wondered as he pulled his head back from his neck.

"Just wondering what kind of crazy behavior those pictures will reveal," the shadow-nin replied slowly with a self-satisfied smirk.

Kiba laughed at this, remembering Kankuro and Sojiro's drinking competition – how had it ended, already? Ah, yes! With the both of them nearly passed out, leaving Darami as the victor – yet between future brothers-in-law, a tie was really the best outcome…

"Yeah, some people really got out of hand…" he commented airily.

"Pot calling the kettle," Shikamaru said with a raised eyebrow.

Kiba just shrugged, grin smug. "Hey, I got married – I think I'm entitled some leeway."

"Oh? Is that contractual?" the shadow-nin played along with a smirk.

"You're entitled too, husband," Kiba reassured him mock-reassuringly.

Shikamaru didn't exactly respond to that with words, but that was okay. They'd always been entitled to that.

As they knew he would, Kankuro did deliver, and they picked up their certificate from the admin desk the next day, in the early afternoon – with effective changes registered in their shinobi files and even forwarded to Konoha.

"I guess the clan-stuff you'll have to take care of in the Leaf, since we don't have access to their registry, but the important part's done, at least," the puppeteer noted with a grin as he crossed his arms over his chest smugly. "Go on, then. Say it. I'm awesome."

"That you are!" Kiba agreed cheerfully as he punched his arm, grinning cheekily as he saw him hold back a wince.

"I'm not saying that," Shikamaru replied with an amused roll of his eyes. "But thank you," he conceded anyway.

"Good enough," Kankuro said back with a shrug.

Kiba's grin then widened as he moved closer to poke his chest and then sling an arm over his neck. "Sooo…anything you want to share?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

The puppeteer mirrored him as he didn't even try to break free – he knew Kiba had ever more fun when people fought back. "No idea what you're going on about!"

Shikamaru huffed as he resisted the urge to roll his eyes at this – oh, he read him like a completely open book at this point. "I think nothing happened yet, but a dialogue has been tentatively established so something might happen eventually," he ventured a guess.

Kankuro openly frowned at him as he tried to understand just how he did it. "You know me too well – and I've gotta be honest with you, I'm not so comfortable with that," he told him quite seriously.

For obvious reasons, it only pleased the Nara to be told this. Kiba found it too amusing for words.

Kankuro just sighed before shrugging his head to the side. "Now off with you, before we draft you back into work!"

"We're gone!" Kiba assured him as he turned and dragged Shikamaru along. "And we were never here, either!"

"Sure you weren't! I must've hallucinated the whole deal! Let me go tell my brother I'm too overworked and need a day off too!" Kankuro called back in amusement before shaking his head and returning to work. He'd get payback on Shikamaru soon enough anyway…

It was hard not to be in an extremely good mood when every acquaintance in the village congratulated them on their way out – or their walk about. Even buying rings was entirely mundane, with the merchant in charge not even blinking when he saw them.

"You know, not to bring down the mood, but I get the feeling that we'd be getting odd looks instead of congratulations in Konoha," Shikamaru mused as they made their way back home.

"Yeah, Shino said so too!" Kiba commented in amusement as he hummed, looking at his left hand happily.


"This morning – when I told him," was the simple reply. "He sounded happy though – for us, I mean, because it's easier here."

Shikamaru stopped in his steps at this. Again? When? How? He couldn't even remember a moment when they'd been apart that day that would be long enough! How did they do it? Did Team 8 undergo some sort of sensing experiment that formed a link in their minds or something? Or was there some sort of bug that Shino planted on his teammates that somehow related everything that happened to them to another bug the Aburame kept on his own person?

"This is giving me a headache…did he issue any new threats for me?" he wondered as he fell back into steps with him.

"Of course not. He's an awesome best friend," Kiba added with a happy grin, once more stating the obvious as Akamaru barked his agreement.

"Apparently, he is…" the Nara was forced to admit. "Did you tell anyone else?" he then wondered – maybe he just didn't know it, but Hinata always knew everything right away too?

But Kiba shook his head. "Nope. Didn't have much time this morning," he added with a sly grin as he bumped their shoulders. "You?"

"No," Shikamaru replied before adding, "But my mother knows – I actually called her the day before, so she wouldn't feel blindsided by the news," he told him with an amused smirk.

"And? What did she say?" the tracker asked curiously while Akamaru tilted his head to the side.

"I'm not entirely sure she doesn't think it might be a joke," Shikamaru admitted with a hum. "She sounded worried about you though, when I told her what happened – so I suppose that's a good sign," he mused as he turned to him.

Kiba automatically smiled back and then shuddered. "Or maybe she just doesn't want anyone else taking me out first…" he added despite knowing how overly dramatic it made him sound.

"Yeah, maybe that's it," Shikamaru said with a snort.

"Bad Shika, bad – only I can joke about my own impending doom!" was Kiba's only reply – his shit-faced grin betraying him.

"Sorry…" the other man replied not sounding sorry at all.

Akamaru just shook his head at his humans' antics.

As that year once more marked Suna's turn to host the Kages' meeting, preparations started early, despite it being held in August as always. Nearly every department naturally expected they'd end up working overtime in the weeks leading up to it.

On the other hand the various Allied HQ commanders had apparently judged the previous years' meeting to be useful and conductive to progress, but while they agreed this should also become an annual occurrence, they also decided it would be best if it weren't held at the same time as the Kages' meeting, so June it was for them. Temari complained for the principle, wondering why they bothered meeting in the same village if they weren't going to travel together, but she was still determined to make it the best damn meeting they'd ever attended.

So unfortunately for Kiba and Shikamaru, that meant there was no way to get enough days off at the same time to enable a visit to Konoha in the summertime.

Basically, May and June were black-out months at the HQ, while July and August were black-out months at the Hokage's tower for anything more than the odd day off or maybe two, which obviously wasn't enough to make the trip home. So getting two weeks off together (the minimum for it to be worth it, since the journey alone already almost took one week) could be compared to juggling shuriken while walking on a wire and dodging kunai lined with explosive tags – only harder, much harder, since they'd actually done that as genins (and more).

They naturally would've preferred to tell people about their getting married in person, but figured half a year would be too long to keep such a detail secret. So they had to say it over the phone, however impersonal that felt.

Kiba insisted it wouldn't be such a big deal, because Shino took it just fine.

Shikamaru refrained from saying that Shino was not a viable test subject for comparison.

"Worst case, we can always say it was an accident," he said instead, thinking back on Kankuro's joke back when they got engaged.

Kiba laughed happily but didn't refute the idea, so at least they agreed on the back-up plan.

But anyway…they called Yoshino first even though she already knew, because Shikamaru figured she should still know he hadn't been joking.

"Is a marriage license issued in Suna even valid in Konoha?" she questioned instead – curiously, and the slightest bit teasingly, not antagonistically, to their relief.

The two exchanged a look at this and then shrugged. "There's probably more paperwork involved, but I don't see that it should be an issue nowadays," Shikamaru noted evenly.

"We have lots of married shinobi who work at the HQ, and they've never mentioned they had a hard time getting their unions recognized…" Kiba added as he thought about it.

Yoshino hummed and then declared, "Well, I still say it doesn't count – so I suppose if you really want it to be validated, you should come back home sooner rather than later." And she said it so off-handedly it was hard not to laugh.

"Much as we'd love to, unfortunately as you already know, we won't be able to make it until autumn – at best," Shikamaru replied with a sigh – it sounded like such a long time away!

"Well, not that I don't want to see you, but if you're going to visit that late, you might as well make it New Year's – I'm sure they don't do it like we do in the Sand," Yoshino added, subtle as always.

Yet they had to admit it wasn't such a bad idea – while the Sand held excellent celebrations for the New Year, they'd missed Konoha during that period.

Tsume spent a good minute laughing into the receiver but eventually reiterated Yoshino's comment that they should just as well postpone their visit to the end of the year and make it longer. "Ah, Kiba…! My little tracker, all grown up and eloping! I'm so proud of you!" she cooed before promptly dissolving into another fit of laughter.

Kiba wasn't the least bit ashamed that he hung up after another minute had rolled by. (He was fairly certain she wasn't offended, and had likely laughed even more anyway.)

Hana and Aoba, of course, were models of perfection – the right amount of teasing and congratulation mingling perfectly with Kao's earnest and heartfelt wishes for: "A marriage as happy as mommy and daddy's." (Predictably, they heard Aoba choke on a sob in the background, as he was always prone to do when his little girl acted 'extra-extra-cute' – his words, although of course no one in their right mind could ever contradict him on that.)

Chouji admirably played his cards to make his best friend feel bad about it. "Of course, I'm very happy for the both of you…!" he assured him before sighing woefully – and quite exaggeratingly, if you asked the Nara. "I just…I really wish I could've been there!"

Shikamaru just informed him that was a low blow – to which his best friend cheerfully replied: "I know, but what did you expect?"

He couldn't reasonably reply anything to that. In the background he head Karui say a very monotonous and disinterested 'hurray' as Chouji relayed the news to her – but that actually made him smile, because constants were reassuring.

Ino didn't even pretend not to care. "I'm thrilled for you two – I really am! Of course though, that doesn't mean I'm not incredibly pissed you went and got hitched without me – and Chouji – around! Seriously, Shikamaru, what kind of best friend does that? And Kiba's probably broken poor Shino's heart!"

Shikamaru personally doubted that, and Kiba raised an eyebrow at the accusation.

"Shino's not heartbroken," he insisted, adding, "He's an awesome best friend," under his breath – to which Akamaru loyally barked in agreement.

"Of course he is!" Ino maintained with a huff. "Sai, didn't poor Shino look heartbroken when we saw him earlier?"


"Sai, darling?"

"…He looked heartbroken," the artist confirmed contritely.

"Heartbroken!" Ino repeated once more.

Kiba winced and Shikamaru felt sorry for him – Sai had learned his lesson long ago regarding what would happen to him should he contradict Ino in public, so they forgave him for it.

"Look, we'll still have a celebration of sorts once we'll be back," Shikamaru tried to placate her – and it worked, of course, because she was just teasing them on purpose after all.

Following that, Kiba called Shino to ensure he really wasn't heartbroken, and the Aburame actually sighed before assuring him that, "No, I'm not heartbroken, Kiba."

Kiba sighed in relief at that, but still, once they'd called Hinata and Naruto – and lived through his excited and loud congratulations – he asked his teammate whether she'd noticed any chance in Shino's behavior.

"I don't think he's heartbroken, Kiba," Hinata assured him serenely, the amusement audible in her voice.

Kurenai reassured him as well, quite amused that he'd taken Ino's teasing to heart. Her voice sounded slightly emotional, and Kiba concentrated real hard not to let it get to him. He lost it however when Mirai took over the phone and congratulated them too.

So in the end, as they'd imagined, everyone teasingly gave them a hard time but no real grudges would be held – and really, it would just be turned into an excuse to treat them all once they'd be back.

They could live with that.



Chapter Text


At least, this good mood of theirs was lasting. Even going back to work following their day off (jokingly called the 'shortest honeymoon ever' more than once) didn't dampen it – probably because they each got more congratulations (it certainly didn't hurt). And a good thing it was, too, as since that break had been a last-minute scramble, there was a lot to take care of once back, for the both of them.

It was slightly easier though for Shikamaru, because he at least had known in advance about said day off, and had accordingly asked Korobi and Yaoki for help. The two puppeteers were in Gaara's office with him when he got there, and they good-naturedly teased him in lieu of greetings – although they'd also been at the wedding, so said teasing was merely a continuation.

"I was just asking Korobi and Yaoki about something, but maybe you would have an idea," the Kazekage began as he rested his elbows on the table and crossed his hands together.

"Always happy to help, you know that," Shikamaru replied easily.

"Well, Gaara was wondering who'd sign a Kage's certificate if they were to get married while in office," Korobi filled him in, crossing his arms over his chest as he frowned in thoughts. "I'd say they'd probably just sign it too, but maybe they'd need an additional witness, like they do in civilian weddings," he ventured a guess.

"From what I hear, the Mizukage would die to find out!" Yaoki added with a chuckle, taking on an innocent expression and clearing his throat when the Kazekage raised an eyebrow at him. "But, I think that where possible, a previous Kage would do the honors, so to speak – ah, but Suna doesn't have any alive, so…maybe a future Kage?"

Korobi nodded at his friend at this. "Yes, why not? The one currently designated as successor – for you, it would be your brother, right?" he asked Gaara as he turned backto him.

Gaara nodded back, having to admit that he'd actually like it if Kankuro could be the one to sign his marriage certificate – if and when, of course.

Shikamaru smiled slightly as he noticed as much from his expression but didn't call him out on it. "Well…we still have Lady Tsunade in Konoha, so I'd go with Yaoki's idea," and shuddered at the mere thought of Kakashi getting married, but didn't voice that feeling. "Then in Suna's case…hmm…probably the Council?" he offered as he stroked his chin.

"Yes, this was also my thought," Gaara agreed evenly.

"What even brought this up anyway?" Yaoki wondered in amusement as he raised an eyebrow at him.

Korobi grinned as he lightly elbowed Shikamaru's side. "Was it his marriage that got you thinking?"

"In a sense," the Kazekage replied as he uncrossed his hands and leaned back in his chair. "Darami expressed her curiosity – I merely agree that her question is not without value," he noted neutrally.

The two puppeteers all but discreetly exchanged looks and Shikamaru did his best to be as casual as possible as he asked, "Do you want me to find out for sure?"

"No, I don't see why you should trouble yourself with hypotheticals," Gaara replied matter-of-factly. "I'll deny having said this, but I already overwork you enough as things are," he added with a serious expression.

The other three chuckled at this and dropped the subject. The lively duo said their lively farewells and returned to their (lively?) postings, passing by Kankuro on their way out – and then it was back to their usual tasks.

"Gaara's wondering about marriage now," Shikamaru informed Kiba once he got home that evening.

The tracker paused in the process of removing his equipment to look at him with a frown upon hearing this. "What, like he asked you questions about us, or do you mean generally speaking?" he clarified.

"Generally speaking," Shikamaru replied with a smirk. "He was wondering who would sign his certificate, if he were to get married."

"Fair question," Kiba noted as he walked to the fridge, stopping by him to press a kiss to his lips in greeting.

"Darami first brought it up," the Nara then added with a raised eyebrow.

Kiba almost spit out the water he was drinking, wiping his chin as he turned to him. "Darami?" he repeated dubiously.

"Apparently. I was hoping to get more information from you," Shikamaru admitted as he craned is neck to look back at him.

But Kiba looked just as surprised as he'd been, sharing a look with Akamaru. "Look, I know Temari refers to me as 'the Darami expert', but I'm as lost as the next guy when it comes to really understanding her," he admitted as he slumped down against him on the couch. He thought about it a bit more but then he had to stop because he started laughing so badly his brain actually hurt.

Shikamaru didn't say anything, just waited it out as usual – besides, he had a pretty good idea why he was laughing, because the thought of Gaara and Darami hitting it off was indeed hilarious.

No further discussions on marriage happened at the Kazekage's tower, to Shikamaru and Kankuro's disappointment – and the puppeteer had been greatly saddened to have missed the original 'talk'. A couple of days later, Omoi came by to send a message, consequently running into Shikamaru, and as Gaara was in session with the Council (which the Nara never attended since Kankuro was there anyway), they were able to take a short break together.

They were interrupted when Temari walked into the break room next to the Kazekage's office in search of her brothers, huffing in disappointment when she realized they were nowhere to be seen – and then rolling her eyes as she probably remembered there was a council session planned this morning. As her gaze trailed to them however, she seemed genuinely surprised to see Omoi there.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded as she crossed her arms over her chest.

"Umm…break?" he replied in confusion, sharing a look with Shikamaru – and being relieved when his friend seemed as lost as he was. "Was I supposed to be somewhere else?"

Temari raised an eyebrow at this. "You do realize Tenten's returning to Iwa today, don't you?" She'd stayed longer to take time to let her arm heal properly, but now she was expected back since her mission was over – it had actually crossed over with Omoi's, in the end.

Omoi frowned at this, looking down at his hands. "So…what?"

"So you're just going to let her go without doing anything?" Temari asked him with rapidly waning patience.

"She's not interested in transferring to Kumo," he said with a sigh.

"Did you ask her?" the kunoichi prompted.

"Yeah," he replied with a shrug, tensing as she leaned forward to place a hand on his shoulder and look him in the eyes, her face inches from his.

It was a very small comfort to know that Shikamaru would be there to testify that she'd killed him.

"Your exact words, Omoi," Temari commanded seriously.

Omoi looked up briefly, trying to think back on that conversation, and hummed. "Umm…you should transfer back to Kumo, a lot of people miss you and you'd do really well…? Or something…?" he offered.

So maybe Shikamaru wouldn't testify that Temari killed him, but he could surely attest that she head-butted him with enough strength that he winced for his friend – the sound their forehead protectors made as they collided even echoed around the room.

Temari huffed in annoyance as she looked at him, resting her hands on her hips. "Why should she care about people? She cares about you, you moron, although I'm really starting to wonder why!" she informed him with a shake of her head.

Omoi's eyes widened and he paused mid-pained moan to look up at her as the words registered. "Me…? But she…she's always telling me about every single guy she even just talks to!" he argued.

Temari pressed a palm to her forehead as she closed her eyes, groaning in frustration. "Women like to make men jealous – it's supposed to spring them into action!" she informed him plainly. "And you! Why didn't you correct him?" she asked Shikamaru as she turned her glare to him.

"I'm married to a man," he needlessly reminded her with a raised eyebrow. "How am I supposed to be an expert on women?"

"Wait!" Omoi said as he stood and grabbed her arms. "You mean she was really just trying to make me jealous?" he clarified seriously.

"Yes, and now repeat after me: 'I miss you and I want you to come back to Kumo with me'," Temari enunciated clearly.

Omoi gulped nervously but a second later he was gone.

"I can't believe you almost let that happen," Temari accused her friend with a frown. "I've been working on Tenten for days!" she added reproachfully before turning around and going back to search for her brothers, council be damned.

"How did it become my fault?" Shikamaru wondered with a frown.

Women were definitely too troublesome, saying one thing but meaning another! Kiba was so much easier to understand!

A fellow shinobi on break let out a breath as he lowered the journal he'd been hiding behind in fear of Temari's wrath. "If it's any consolation, I wouldn't have realized either," he assured him.

It really wasn't, but Shikamaru nodded at him nonetheless.

Kiba was pulled from his work by a soft knock on the door, and he smiled widely as he saw Tenten in the doorway. "All set?" he asked as he stood and walked to her.

"Yep, all set," she confirmed, moving her arm to prove she was fit, and shrugging her head to the side to indicate her team was finalizing their departure. "You take care of yourself, okay, Kiba? You're doing a great job here, they're lucky to have you," she told him earnestly.

"Iwa's lucky to have you," he said back with a raised eyebrow. "If there's ever an opening here rest assured you'll be at the top of the list!" he mock-whispered.

"And I might just take you up on that, you never know – or try to get you recruited in Iwa!" Tenten replied with a wink before giving him a quick hug.

"Take care, and thanks again – for the wedding, and the pictures," Kiba added as he squeezed her briefly.

"That was my genuine pleasure!" she assured him happily, grin widening as she pat Akamaru's head before looking to the side as she heard her name being called. "Omoi?" she realized with a frown. "Here, in Kiba's office!" she called back, puzzled, as she stepped out into the corridor.

Omoi wasn't long in rounding the corner and he slowly let out a breath as he walked to her. "Hi," he started eloquently.

"Hi," she said back with a raised eyebrow, puzzled.

Akamaru cocked his head to the side from his spot and Kiba shrugged.

"So…I…you…" Omoi huffed and rolled his eyes as though willing himself to start over, and do better – much better. "You should definitely come back to Kumo – and I'm not saying that for Kumo's HQ, although of course you'd be an asset, you're an asset no matter where you go – I'm saying that for me, because I want you to come back so I can see you more often. Because I'm scared that otherwise, another guy's gonna whisk you away eventually, and then what? I'll just have been too late, and maybe it'll be horrible and he'll break your heart, and then I'll break his neck – or on the contrary, maybe it'll be this amazing romance and that'll be even worse for me – and this got out hand, because I have no idea what I'm saying anymore and of course it's not like I'd be glad if some guy hypothetically broke your heart," he continued rambling.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at this, visibly holding back from laughing out loud. "I have a suggestion to shut him up," he offered his friend off-handedly, half-serious.

"Way ahead of you," Tenten dismissed as she walked to the Kumo shinobi and grabbed his collar to pull him into a kiss, effectively silencing his crazy rant. "Start over and make your point in one short sentence, would you?" she muttered fondly against his lips.

"I want us to be together," Omoi replied simply, hands twitching by his side as though he wasn't really sure what to do with them yet.

Tenten grinned happily as she slid her arms around his neck. "Now you're talking!"

Akamaru let out a huff, having leaned his head out to see what the commotion was about, and Kiba chided him good-naturedly as he pushed him back into his office, giving the two some privacy – relative privacy, since they were still in the corridor after all.

Omoi chuckled at this, relaxing as he moved his arms up to (finally, his mind supplied) hold her close. "So you'll do it?" he asked hopefully.

"Eventually – possibly," she tempered honestly. "I've worked hard to make a name for myself in Iwa, so I want to enjoy it – but I'll visit! Or you can visit – or we'll meet half-way, in Konoha maybe?" she offered as she held his look.

The Cloud nin deflated slightly at this – although of course he couldn't really ask her to drop everything just like that, right? – but he found himself smiling as he saw she meant it. She wanted to give them a try. "I'm sure we'll be able to make it work," he noted before taking some initiative and kissing her.

"Your timing sucks though, you know that, right?" Tenten informed him against his lips before turning her head back towards Temari's office. "Kiba, is Temari's door locked?" she called loudly.

"Shouldn't be," was the reply from his own desk.

Omoi barely had time to frown and open his mouth to ask why that was relevant before she slipped her fingers under his jacket's collar to drag him along.

Kiba just grinned as he heard the door open and close – just for fun's sake, he hoped Temari would be back quickly. (She wasn't, but that was okay.)

That evening, Shikamaru couldn't help but question Kiba as he remembered Temari's accusations. "Did you actually realize that Tenten was just trying to make Omoi jealous?" he wondered with a frown.

"Who didn't? Aside from Omoi, obviously," Kiba scoffed with an amused chuckle as he set the table for them, pausing with a glass in hand as he noticed his self-conscious expression. "Really? How did you not notice?" he wondered, much more amused than should be allowed.

"You're the one who spent a lot of time with her, not me," Shikamaru reminded him with a frown.

"True," Kiba conceded, finishing his task before turning back to him. "So apparently, during one of their drunken group outings in Kumo back when she was on the exchange program, Omoi said that he wasn't interest in being with anyone. And that's when she started trying to make him jealous," he told him with a shrug.

Shikamaru hummed as he could put things in context much better now. But still… "That was years ago! She should've just told him she wanted him from the start – would've saved them a lot of time and headaches!" he commented as he pulled the pan away from the stove. "I think he literally ended up thinking she was interested in anyone but him!"

"Well, I guess she did pick a roundabout way…" Kiba agreed easily as he pulled out drinks from the fridge.

"To put it mildly!" Shikamaru snorted. "I'm really glad I've got you!" he added matter-of-factly as he washed his hands and wiped them absently, smiling lazily as he felt Kiba wrap his arms around his waist and press himself to his back.

"You are?" the Inuzuka prompted.

"You always say exactly what you mean – obviously that's not such a common trait of character, so I'm lucky," Shikamaru replied easily, knowing he was fishing for compliments but being unable to deny him.

Kiba grinned happily at this, nuzzling his neck. "I think Omoi must've realized the merits of speaking clearly now, so they should be okay," he mused.

"Yeah, now he just needs to get over his visceral fear of Temari," the Nara drawled in amusement.

But Omoi, as it turned out and to their great amusement, found the way to do so: he avoided her as much as he could for the remainder of his stay in the Sand – and really, it was a very difficult task, since he was supposed to stay a few more weeks.

Temari just declared it reason to celebrate anyway and they once more subjected themselves to Suna's famed liquor – after she'd dragged him along, naturally.

Because obviously the prospect of a destroyed stomach doesn't sound so horrible when it's 'in the name of friendship'!

In effect, since he hadn't travelled to Iwa the year before, and hadn't had a mission in Kiri since the Allied division's implementation, Kiba had yet to meet in person the commanders of these HQs – travels to Kumo had been a regular occurrence, back when he was still based in Konoha. He corresponded frequently with his fellow deputy commanders though, and Maki had even jokingly suggested it wasn't fair for them to be left out and they should have annual deputy commander meetings too.

(If it were ever put up to a vote, Kiba would definitely vote 'yes'. In a heartbeat – and he knew that so would the others. But of course no one asked them.)

So as it stood, his counterparts were house-sitting and he was…well…also house-sitting, in a sense. Since it was only for a day, he took on Temari's duties on top of his own; Mizu had only been assigned when they were both busy. Not that he was overly annoyed, after all it gave him an excuse to avoid Anko, past the mandatory greeting as he'd joined Temari in welcoming their guests before she whisked them away on a summary 'tour' on their way to the meeting room.

He knew it couldn't work forever though; after all, his office wasn't hard to find, and he couldn't escape through the window because only crazy people did that and despite what a lot of people thought he wasn't crazy so he didn't.

Her grin suddenly appearing in his doorsill made him wish he was – crazy enough to escape through the window, that is.

"Kiba, Kiba, Kiba…" she almost sing-sung as she casually strolled towards his desk.

"Anko, Anko, Anko…?" he replied with a raised eyebrow. Her laugh at this marginally relaxed him, and he easily grinned back. "What brings you to our lair?" he asked as Akamaru lazily wagged his tail from his corner – with the temperatures they'd been having, he wasn't using his pillow but moving regularly from one cool spot on the floor to the next, so at this moment he was by the door.

"Good old-fashioned curiosity," Anko replied easily with a shrug as she gingerly poked at a pile of scrolls on his desk, miraculously managing to not make it tumble down – and giggling happily as he threw her a wary look at this. "That, and Maki asked me to say hello to you so…hello!"

This had Kiba smiling more genuinely. "Thanks for the message – please say 'hello' back if you don't mind."

"Oh, I think I can do this much, given how hard I make her life on a fairly regular basis!" the commander chuckled before crossing her arms over her chest, looking at him pointedly.

"Something on my face?" he asked after a good minute had gone by with no words being spoken but her eyes remaining fixed on his face.

"Probably dog slobber," Anko replied matter-of-factly before holding her left hand up and wiggling her fingers. "Congratulations, by the way."

Kiba blinked in confusion for a moment, having a hard time keeping up with her out of the blue approach to dialogues. But then it clicked. "Thank you," he said, assuming she was referring to his getting married.

Briefly he wondered how she knew, since his ring wasn't on his finger, but on a chain around his neck. In his half-beast form, having his hands completely free from any sorts of restraints was a non-negotiable necessity after all, however disappointed he'd felt when he'd removed it – although he still put it back on whenever he had a day off. But she knew, so she must've checked his file – or simply heard it mentioned, either option was viable.

"Temari says you're doing good," Anko continued, once more changing the subject. "Well, not exactly – actually she doesn't say you're doing bad, which is code for 'you're doing good'," she explained with a shrug.

"I'll just be honest here and say I have no idea what's going on in this conversation," Kiba admitted with a frown as he wondered if there was a point to any of this. "Do you have a point?" he finally asked, figuring that perhaps he should've done that from the start.

Anko's grin widened and she laughed in amusement before shrugging innocently. "Not really, no. Sorry," she confessed with a mock-bow of apology. "I just like ruffling people's feathers, you know that."

Everyone knows that, he thought, but decided not to say out loud because, again, he wasn't crazy.

"I'm just checking in on my fellow Konoha shinobi – no ulterior motives, promise!" she continued as she held up her left hand – and really, he had to wonder about the sincerity of her statement, because didn't people usually raise their right hand when they solemnly promised something?

Her satisfied grin informed him she was doing that on purpose too.

"Seriously now, I'm just glad to see things are going well for you," she added in an indeed more serious tone. As he nodded at her, she nodded back, and then gave a small off-handed salute. "That was it – I just wanted to say that – oh! And mess with your brain! Yeah, that too," she added with a happy grin before walking towards the window. "See you around in Konoha!" were her last words before she left right through it.

Well…Kiba figured it was official then.

Only crazy people escaped through windows.

The next day, when he stood by Temari's side as she bid the other commanders a safe journey back home, he couldn't help but sigh in relief.

"Why are you sighing?" Temari asked him with a frown. "I'm the one who should be sighing!"

Kiba just wordlessly moved a hand to pat her shoulder before going back inside – with a satisfied grin, because he knew she'd follow him to find out what happened.

Truth be told, he couldn't entirely dislike Anko…

…Because he had to admit, they were pretty similar, and riling people up was a lot of fun.

In late July, barely a couple of weeks before their meeting, the various Kages' offices started sending Suna the names of the shinobi who'd be accompanying their Kage, for their records and security purposes. And Shikamaru froze, paled and resisted the urge to gulp as he saw the name next to the eternal 'Naruto Uzumaki'.

'Ino Yamanaka'.

"I'm dead. How troublesome," he declared with a heartfelt sigh as he closed his eyes and counted to ten before checking the paper again, in case he'd just been tired or something.

'Ino Yamanaka' still greeted his sight.

"Who killed you?" Kankuro asked him conversationally as he walked by him some time later.

"You know me too well," Shikamaru said back instead of giving him a straight answer. At the other's raised eyebrow, he sighed once more and handed him Konoha's paper.

It was really vexing how the puppeteer's eyes narrowed in recognition before he smirked, huffed, and clapped his shoulder. "Try to die with dignity, okay? Make that Sand protector proud!"

"I'll do my best," the Nara said back tiredly, unimpressed by his lack of sympathy.

Kiba was undeniably more understanding – he'd likely share similar pains, after all, albeit a fraction. But he only worried for a second because he was more amused by the recent turn of events, namely Gaara visiting the Allied HQ more regularly these days – and stopping by the medical unit's quarters instead of his sister's office, to be precise. The worst part was that beyond that, there was nothing to tell yet, but Kiba (and the better part of Suna) didn't despair and kept hoping for juicier news each time.

Little more than a week later at the tower, the communications team tracked Shikamaru down on a rare break and handed him a top secret message from the Hokage. "For the Kazekage's eyes only, huh? Can't be good…" he muttered to himself as he made his way to Gaara's office and handed him the sealed scroll.

Kankuro huffed as he watched his brother open it, turning to the Nara. "Got any ideas?" he wondered absently.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Shikamaru replied with a shrug. "Hopefully it's about the meeting, and not some new impending doom that we have to brace for."

Kankuro chuckled at this, elbowing him lightly. "Ah, Shikamaru – ever the optimist – I like that about you!"

"Stop it you philanderer, I'm a married man," Shikamaru said back lazily in a monotonous voice.

Kankuro opened his mouth to reply but Gaara cleared his throat as he set the scroll back down on his desk, ever so amused by their banter but needing their undivided attention – and he'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy it when they straightened up and turned to him all serious. "It's not bad news," he started. "We'll just have another guest at the meeting," he added as he held out the scroll to them so they could read it as well.

"I thought you said it wasn't bad news," Kankuro muttered with a huff as he crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm gonna need to review entire parts of our security plan!"

Shikamaru shared his sentiment but trusted he'd find a way – Kankuro was annoyingly good, after all. "I just hope the Raikage has also been warned – it's Suna's structural integrity I'm worried about if he finds out on the spot," he commented with a frown. As far as he was concerned though, this new guest to the meeting didn't force him to make many additional and (or) special adjustments.

He'd just need to double-check the housing assignments, and to be on the safe side, review the staff on duty to make sure there wouldn't be a problem. And then visibly cram another meeting into Gaara's already airtight schedule. And…Oh, who was he kidding? This was an additional bucket-load of work for him too! He sighed as he looked back down at the scroll, the letters remaining unchanged.

The Hokage would like to inform you that Sasuke Uchiha will also travel with Konoha's delegation to present new findings to the council of the Kages.

"Should this really be kept a secret?" Shikamaru wondered as he turned back to the brothers. After all, between the people who either feared him or worshipped him, the only shinobi village Sasuke could relatively safely visit was Konoha, since he'd grown up there and people were at least used to seeing him. But elsewhere… "We have a lot of shinobi from Kumo in the Allied HQ," he needlessly reminded them.

The Cloud had never really forgotten (nor forgiven) Sasuke's fight against Killer Bee and his consequent 'capture'. That he ended up helping save their lives during the war barely amounted to an 'I'm sorry, I won't do it again' as far as many felt concerned – barely acceptable as apologies went. The good news was that Omoi and Darui would be traveling with the Raikage, so at least they should behave, but still…it was actually the Kage himself they needed to worry about.

Gaara crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back in his chair, considering their options. "Add his name under Konoha's delegates to the memo that will be distributed to all squad leaders and ensure the Allied Division HQ gets a copy. I will not facilitate resentment by appearing reluctant or defensive – that being said, I'll trust the two of you with carefully selecting the units who will be on duty during these talks," he requested finally, as usual completely calm and confident.

"You got it!" Kankuro replied with a grin as Shikamaru said a laconic, "Sure."

The Nara let out a sigh for good measure however as he sat back at his own desk with a non-negligible stack of files to appraise. Sasuke Uchiha, huh? Hearing his name wasn't so rare, but seeing him in person? For him, that had probably happened only a handful of times in the past years – all of them in Konoha, most of them from a distance.

After the war, and once his wounds were (mostly) healed, Sasuke hadn't waited much time before leaving Konoha once more despite having received a pardon.

"It sure helps being the current Hokage's student and the future Hokage's best friend," Kiba had never had any qualms saying.

(And Shikamaru had to smile at this, because while this belligerent side of Kiba had always annoyed him when they were kids, now he strangely found it somewhat appealing – at the very least, he loved that he always spoke his mind no matter what.)

To his credit, the Uchiha had probably realized that most people were still wary of him and that earning their trust back would take some time – he'd already betrayed the village once, and an Uchiha was behind their world almost coming to an end after all, so helping to save said world didn't wipe his slate clean with everyone. He came by from time to time to inform Kakashi and the other Kages about his findings, but even then he mostly kept to himself. Gradually, as expected, people had relaxed, and he could now walk through the streets without attracting too much unwanted attention.

Having transferred to Suna, Shikamaru and Kiba heard about him even less than before. However on their last visit home, their friends (aka Ino the Gossip Master) had informed them that Sasuke had eventually entered a sort of relationship with Sakura – although 'arrangement' might be the better description.

Ino had initially been quite annoyed with that, but had mostly kept it to herself – with Sai wrongly mistaking it for jealousy until she'd reminded him without the shadow of a doubt that he was hers. What she was really annoyed at wasn't that Sakura had succeeded in 'getting' Sasuke, but that he wouldn't try to settle with her – for her.

Tenten, when commenting about it recently, had pointed out that it was Sakura's choice, and she was visibly okay with just having the sexual aspect of their relationship, grinning as she added that sometimes, waiting for 'Mr. Right' got too tiring and making do with 'Mr. Right Now' was a satisfying alternative. Omoi hadn't liked that comment but then again they hadn't been together yet at the time and she'd probably said it to try and get a rise out of him in the first place.

Kiba would've agreed with her on the principle, except that it was plain to see that Sakura was (still) in love with Sasuke, and his opinion was that settling for only sex when there actually were feelings involved was stupid – he himself had opted to risk losing Shikamaru rather than to have just that, back when the Nara had been uncertain.

Effectively though, neither Kiba nor Shikamaru had ever really interacted with the man since their days at the Academy – and even then, he was focused on growing stronger while they were 'focused' on having fun and napping, respectively. And neither really cared much either way – you didn't need to like someone to accept they were a valuable asset after all, and Sasuke was extremely valuable as far as shinobi assets went. And it certainly couldn't be said he'd had it easy growing up, no one would argue that point – even if it didn't excuse much.

So as far as he was concerned, Shikamaru didn't consider Sasuke's presence to the meetings bad news in itself. He just hoped that whatever he had to report wouldn't be either.

After all, with the powers Sasuke now possessed, if he defined something – anything – as 'bad news', then they'd be in real trouble.


Chapter Text

With the Kages' meeting date finally around the corner, their various guests started arriving in Suna, unmistakably bringing more liveliness to the village as the streets were bustling with children, young shinobi and even civilians of all ages who hoped to catch a glimpse of the other Kages and their guards. Despite being a potential diplomatic catastrophe waiting to happen, and involving a heavy extra workload from everyone in the Kage's tower to organize, said event had actually become a good economy booster, since it also fueled the hosting village's tourism industry.

Standing under the arid August sun at the northern gate waiting to welcome the Hokage's party, Shikamaru found himself feeling strangely tranquil, the way he usually felt before battle. Or at least he felt that way until he saw Sakura's smile – almost making him blink in surprise because he'd really been on the ready to face his best friend, but she was very strangely nowhere to be seen.

"On behalf of the Kazekage, welcome to the village of the Hidden Sand," he declared nonchalantly instead of giving into his urge to grab Sakura's shoulders and look into her eyes to see if it was a transformation jutsu – or maybe even Ino using her signature move!

Either way, she'd never dare harm a representative of the Kazekage, would she?

(Kankuro's reassurance that Gaara would give him a 'poignant' eulogy in case that meeting ended up costing him his life did little to actually reassure him.)

"Hey, hey, hey, Shikamaru!" Naruto called excitedly as he dashed to him and slung an arm around his shoulder to pull him towards the group, his other hand tugging on his arm so he'd show his forehead protector. "See, Sasuke? I wasn't making it up!" he claimed as he tapped the hourglass shape on the metal.

"Was my protector a heated subject of discussion on your way here or what?" Shikamaru wondered with a raised eyebrow as he didn't fight back – like quicksand (and Kiba), Naruto was harder to escape if you fought him off.

Sasuke opened his mouth the slightest bit before closing it, opting for a sigh instead – although Shikamaru highly doubted the Uchiha had actually accused Naruto of making anything up, and had visibly decided not to bother correcting him in the end.

"And I wasn't making that up either!" the Uzumaki continued happily as he moved from Shikamaru's protector to his hand, holding it up so the ring on it would be more visible. "See, see?"

"I think it's a widely established fact that Sasuke's eyes are in working order, Naruto," Shikamaru couldn't help but comment with a huff – but not feeling nearly as annoyed as he pretended to be.

Naruto pouted and Sasuke let out a small smirk at his expense. As Sakura stepped forward however, it took all of Shikamaru's willpower not to jerk his hand back when she reached for it. (He'd swear he saw it happening in slow motion, but that had most likely been stress making him hallucinate.)

"How lovely," she drawled, perfect smile still in place as she squeezed his fingers between hers. "Ino asked me to convey her well wishes to you! She's sorry she couldn't do so in person, but she's been so busy recently…I hope you're okay with little old me!" the medic finished brightly as she didn't let go of his hand.

Shikamaru only wondered why it didn't hurt more than that.

"It's always a pleasure to see you, Sakura," the diplomat in him replied easily – not that he didn't mean it, of course. "And seeing Team 7 like this sure brings back memories!" he added with a small grin.

"I know, I know, right?" Naruto asked eagerly, visibly happy someone else thought so too.

"Makes me feel a good few years younger myself!" Kakashi laughed at their antics before offering the Nara a perfect way out. "Say, Shikamaru, can you show me the way first so I can leave you youngsters to your reminiscing?"

"Of course," the shadow-nin replied evenly, glad to have his hand back safely.

Sakura actually laughed at this, looking both very amused and quite proud of herself as she followed him docilely. When he took his leave, she bumped their shoulders together and he found himself smiling slightly, figuring that maybe she wouldn't give him such a hard time in the end.



In the end, Shikamaru needn't have worried about Sakura actively toying with him; she may have been Ino's best friend, but she was also the Fifth Hokage's student: she knew how to behave herself during official meetings and simply stood by Kakashi's side discreetly and efficiently. Still, from his spot by the door, the shadow-nin really wasn't ashamed to admit that he tried to stay out of her way as much as he could – although of course Kankuro noticed it and raised an eyebrow at him from his usual place behind his brother, horrible person that he was.

Sasuke didn't take part in the primary wave of meetings, but rather stepped in with Naruto sometime during the afternoon – and Shikamaru had to agree that had been a smart move from Kakashi, having Naruto lead him in with his infectious grin.

The Tsuchikage's eyes narrowed imperceptibly but she didn't otherwise react, and kept her face leaned in her left palm.

Next to her, the Mizukage's face took on that calculating expression that reminded people why she was a Kage in first place, even though she often acted like a ditz.

The Raikage's frown deepened and his mouth turned upside-down as he huffed and crossed his arms over his chest, but he remained seated – behind him, Darui sighed as though the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and really, really, really hoped his Kage would behave.

Gaara's demeanor didn't change, because after all he trusted Naruto implicitly, so if the Uzumaki said Sasuke could be trusted, he was willing to listen to him – and yet Shikamaru knew that if need be, he'd be ready to fight him without the slightest hesitation.

Kakashi, naturally, was his usual model of boredom. "So, you all know Sasuke," he unnecessarily stated. "He's got some information to share."

"It's not exactly game-changing news, nor is it particularly bad," the Uchiha moderated as he stepped forward.

He spoke in clear, concise sentences, as if reciting a report, and when it came down to it, it felt obvious to Shikamaru that Sasuke was as thrilled to attend this meeting as the Raikage was to see him there. And neither was his presence a necessity, really, which made the Nara want to sigh although he resisted the urge – clearly all that buildup had been needless. Naruto and Kakashi had likely somehow persuaded – pestered – him so he'd deliver these news in person, because effectively, the Hokage could've done as much on his own.

And yet, he had a feeling he understood why they'd done it – it was there, in Naruto and Sakura's smiles. They were simply trying to make sure their friend didn't completely isolate himself from the world all the time, and accepted some recognition for his work behind the scenes. And really, it was entirely to Sasuke's credit that he went along with it to please them.

Besides, it went without saying that everyone was very satisfied with the lack of bad news.

As was customary, they concluded that first day with a formal dinner – although the word 'formal' should've really been used lightly, when it came down to it. And for once, Shikamaru agreed that Kakashi was preferable to Tsunade, because at least he didn't make it a point to outdrink everyone.

Even though he still had to stay on his toes to make sure everything went smoothly, it was the first time the Kazekage's assistant was somewhat able to relax a little that day, something Omoi picked up on as he clapped his shoulder.

"You look exhausted," he said sympathetically.

"You don't look much better," Shikamaru said back with a raised eyebrow. "Did the Raikage decide to race you here again?" he asked knowingly.

Omoi sighed woefully and held his glass up in a toast, wincing at the familiar burn. "For the record, I liked it better the last time we were celebrating something here," he added with a knowing smile.

Shikamaru smirked lazily as he reasonably couldn't deny that his and Kiba's wedding had been infinitely more fun and less stressful – well, it was a different kind of stress, really. "How's it going with Tenten?" he then wondered, still keeping an eye and ear out for anything that might require his attention.

The Cloud shinobi's smile turned even more genuine as he looked down at his drink. "The distance doesn't make it any easier, but we're good – we're really good, you know?" he replied with a happy sigh. "I mean, it could've been bad – it's so easy for things to go wrong, and then of course since we're not there in person next to each other, sometimes it could really spin out of control, but so far it hasn't, and—"

"Okay, it's going well – let's keep it at that!" the shadow-nin interrupted him with a pat on his back before he could start visualizing up to eight different ways their relationship could collapse in the following hour.

Omoi grinned back sheepishly, fully aware of the fact that he did have a tendency to let his negative side run rampant hand-in-hand with his overactive imagination. "How about you guys? Did marriage change anything? Or everything, maybe?" he wondered curiously.

Shikamaru almost snorted at that question. "So far, the biggest change is that we need to remember to check a different box when filling out forms!" he informed him in amusement.

Okay, admittedly, they also did get a kick out of saying they were married, and Kiba absolutely loved it when someone else used the word 'husband' – fine, Shikamaru loved it too, but he was more reserved about expressing it and didn't ask the person who'd said it to say it again (and again).

A somewhat loud sound drew his attention to the side, and the Raikage looked like he was debating something with the Tsuchikage, but then again from a certain angle it also looked like they were just having a drinking contest – yet the table was still in one piece, nor where there any chairs flying, so he figured all was well. Darui shrugged as they shared a look and then returned to his conversation with Chôjurô.

"So did Kiba join the Nara clan yet?" Omoi then asked, wincing from another gulp of liquor.

"Not yet, no," Shikamaru replied with a shake of his head. "We need the head of the clan's approval, and it can only be finalized in Konoha anyway, so that'll be taken care of the next time we visit – which should be around New Year's," he told him, shrugging lightly.

"Oh, is that so?" a voice asked sweetly from above.

Shikamaru froze in his seat as he slowly looked up into Sakura's bright eyes and her bright, bright smile.

"You were in such a hurry to get married, but that can wait half a year?" she asked once more, absolutely loving the fact that he resisted the urge to gulp and had to crane his neck to look at her.

Omoi looked between the two with a frown, visibly trying to figure out how serious it was and whether he should get involved – but electing to keep a safe distance, because he'd seen what the pink haired medic was capable of.

Sakura's smile only widened as she sat down between them. "Please don't mind me – by all means, carry on! I find the subject fascinating!" she insisted.

The way he saw it, Shikamaru had two options. One, he let her win: apologize, say whatever he needed to say to satisfy her (and Ino) and call it quits. Two, he turned the tables on her – and would possibly suffer the consequences at Ino's hands one day in the future.

Decisions, decisions…

"Personally I find your fascination with the subject more interesting," he said nonchalantly, deciding on ditching safety and going with option two – Kiba would be so proud. "I wonder whether it wouldn't be linked to a certain someone," he added, eyes darting towards the Uchiha.

Omoi raised an eyebrow but otherwise kept his expression neutral, enjoying the show.

Sakura for her part blushed stubbornly but still held his look – though she was visibly fighting back a chuckle.

"Just how much did Ino ask you to make me pay?" Shikamaru finally asked her knowingly.

The medic did laugh at this, tapping a finger to her lips. "A self-respecting best friend doesn't betray her best friend's secrets!" she replied with a wink.

"Fair enough – how about we both call it quits then? I'll even tell her you almost made me cry," he offered easily as he held out his hand.

Sakura grinned and clapped it – with way more force than was necessary and therefore making it hit the table, but he figured he should just count himself lucky that said hand was still attached, all things considered.

"Seriously though, I am happy for the two of you," she added earnestly, chuckling at his 'thanks'. "But I didn't know Kiba was going to join the Nara clan – Ino didn't mention it."

Omoi briefly wondered whether he'd blundered and that particular piece of information wasn't supposed to make it to Konoha yet, but Shikamaru didn't look alarmed, so he relaxed.

"That's likely because it's possible I didn't mention it to her," the shadow-nin replied with a shrug, trying to recall their recent conversations. "It just never came up, I suppose."

Sakura shrugged back as she had to admit that didn't exactly trump their getting married in the first place. "It's so funny though! I mean, you and Kiba! Married! To each other! If someone had told me that when we were kids…!" she added with a grin.

"Hey, not everyone ends up with their childhood crush," he teased her back easily, noting her blush and Omoi's raised eyebrow at this – as a rule, Omoi didn't really tease people, but he loved watching others do the honors. "I guess we'd all have been shocked by the future, as kids. Just look at Chouji and Tenten – corrupted by shinobi from the Cloud!" he added with a mock shake of his head.

The Cloud shinobi in question chuckled at this, leaning his head against his fist. "Oh, yes, Tenten has indeed already complained about being corrupted by me!" he deadpanned in amusement.

Sakura laughed clearly as she slapped his shoulder in agreement. "Yeah, as far as the two of you are concerned, I'd say we all know who's doing the corrupting!" she teased him easily.

"Not sure how I ought to take that," he admitted with a raised eyebrow.

"Well, it's not an insult," Shikamaru reasoned with a shrug.

"Certainly not!" the medic confirmed happily, cackling smugly as she leaned closer to Omoi and elbowed his side. "Don't worry, I have it on good authority Tenten loves it when you try to 'corrupt' her anyway!" she assured him.

Omoi blushed – but still managed to look pleased – while Shikamaru resisted the urge to slap a palm over his forehead. "Really? We're going there? Now? Here?"

Sakura only snorted at his rebuttal. "Oh, please Shikamaru! Don't be a prude – you're married to Kiba, your cover's already blown!" she stated matter-of-factly.

What was it with everyone always assuming Kiba was a sex-crazed beast?

"For the record, and just so we're clear, he doesn't start things that much more often than I do," Shikamaru stated with a huff. "And neither does he go in heat!" he added with a frown because that particular rumor about the Inuzukas had been driving him crazy for years – as well as Aoba, and most if not all other Inuzuka clan-members' spouses.

"I know that!" the medic replied with a huff before lightly elbowing his side. "So you get horny too, well noted – I've never doubted you though: it's always the quiet ones after all!" Sakura teased him between giggles – giggles, and somehow it made Shikamaru wonder whether maybe she wasn't done playing with him on Ino's behalf after all.

"Yes, after all you've been able to test and verify that particular theory yourself," he couldn't help but say back as he wouldn't give her the satisfaction of cradling his ribs.

Sakura blushed but grinned happily, and Sasuke actually raised an eyebrow at them at this, which momentarily made the Nara fear for his life – because he doubted Sasuke was the kind of guy who was okay with other people making jokes about his sex-life. But he just turned his attention back to Kakashi and Shikamaru wasn't ashamed to admit he'd almost sighed in relief – he really didn't want to make Kiba a widower so soon after all.

"You and Kiba sure are lucky though," Omoi told him out of the blue, sighing deeply.

"In what sense?" Shikamaru asked him with a raised eyebrow – because yeah, he knew they were, no questions there.

"Living together must be so nice…" the Cloud nin commented wistfully – honestly, requesting a transfer to Iwa was become more attractive every day.

Sakura wordlessly reached to pat his shoulder, having sobered up the slightest bit because yeah, she could relate to that too – and admittedly, living together had to be really nice…

Shikamaru opened his mouth to cheer them up, but Gaara caught his gaze and tilted his head to the side, so with a pat on their shoulders he excused himself from his friends and went to his Kage's side – these friendships actually made it dangerously easy to forget that this was an official gathering and he was still on the clock!

It was almost two hours later that he finally made it home, and he did his best to make as little noise as possible so that he wouldn't wake up Akamaru and Kiba for good – of course they'd wake up anyway, but if he wasn't too loud they'd fall right back asleep. The nin-dog wagged his tail once in greeting as he passed by his cushion in the living-room, and he whispered a good night to him around a jaw-splitting yawn.

"So how doomed is the world?" Kiba asked him sleepily as he felt him slip into bed with him, automatically shifting closer.

"Not that badly," Shikamaru assured him, letting out a satisfied sigh as finally, he could really relax for real. "Sakura says 'hi'."

Omoi said 'hi' too of course, but he and Kiba had actually already seen each other since he'd arrived in the village the day before, so he didn't think he needed to reiterate his greeting.

"Sakura?" Kiba repeated, slightly more awake. "So it was her scent that I picked up! Is Ino okay?" he asked worriedly as he slightly turned to him.

"Yeah, don't worry," Shikamaru replied against his shoulder, voice half-muffled. "I think she just let Sakura take her place so she could have more time with Sasuke," he mused – it was only his theory anyway, but it sounded like something Ino would do, amazing friend that she was, so he'd stick to it.

Kiba relaxed and chuckled at this, yawning as he put his head back down on the pillow. "Gotta try to sneak in a visit tomorrow…" he mumbled, falling back asleep mid-sentence.

Shikamaru didn't notice; he was already gone.

Good thing those Kage meeting only happened once a year and not always in Suna, the schedule was way too crazy – even without accounting for additional special guests.

As was more often than not the case, nothing of great importance happened during the second day of meetings – which some would argue should be viewed as a good thing, since it implied that there was nothing too bad to discuss or plan for.

The Tsuchikage elected to leave in the early afternoon right after lunch, and the Raikage didn't dally for too long either – with Omoi shooting his friends a pleading look and giving a half-hearted wave as the imposing man once more decided to race his guards. The Mizukage was in less of a hurry, although in effect she didn't stay back much longer before taking her leave – to her credit, she stopped by the Allied Division HQ to greet and encourage the Mist shinobi stationed there, even further boosting her popularity among those of other villages.

This only left Kakashi, with the Hokage postponing his departure mainly because Naruto (who wanted more time with Gaara) and Sakura (who wanted an excuse to keep Sasuke from leaving off on his own, although she did want to stop by the Allied HQ's medical ninjutsu department) gave him pleading looks.

As the Kazekage, Gaara originally insisted he should see to his guest, but finally gave in when Kankuro and Shikamaru assured him they'd keep the Hokage company, and following that Naruto happily dragged him off – his schedule had already been cleared for the day just in case after all, because of the meetings.

Sakura, not being one to miss golden opportunities, particularly when they were handed to her on a silver platter, promptly offered Sasuke to accompany her to the HQ, which the Uchiha couldn't exactly refuse. And he really put quite the effort in keeping a neutral face on in front of so many witnesses, so Shikamaru really couldn't tell how he felt – but that he didn't turn her down had to mean something, he supposed.

Truly, Kakashi didn't really need any babysitting, but he and Kankuro soon got into a discussion centered on Suna's history after the puppeteer mentioned they held statues of their Kages in the village council room instead of a very large and public monument like Konoha did. It seemed the copy-nin was slightly envious of the more discreet tribute – something the others could easily relate to, in all honesty.

Shikamaru used that time to check in with the other departments to make sure everything was going smoothly and nothing required Gaara's immediate presence. Sometime later, Korobi almost apologetically gave him some documents that required the Kazekage's signature and he shrugged meditatively at him, saying it was bound to happen anyway.

"Besides, I don't think tracking him down should be too difficult since Naruto's with him," he added with a smirk – oh yes, their friend still knew nothing of the meaning of the word 'discretion'.

"Aww, does that mean you don't need me?" a voice asked teasingly from the doorway.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes fondly as he turned to the newcomer. "Not necessarily."

"Hey Kiba!" Korobi greeted energetically.

"Looking good, Korobi!" the tracker greeted back as he clapped his hand. "Probably just relieved the meetings are over with the village still standing!"

The puppeteer very well couldn't deny that, and simply shrugged. "Well, what can I say? I'm a man of simple pleasures!" he praised himself modestly as he placed a hand over his chest and mock-bowed.

"I'll tell your wife you said that!" Shikamaru teased him easily, chuckling at his frown before waving his folder at him. "I'll get you these back and signed as soon as I can," he promised.

Korobi nodded his thanks and clapped Kiba's shoulder before turning back to his work.

"What brings you here?" Shikamaru wondered as he stroked Akamaru's head.

Kiba shrugged as he stretched his arms above his head. "I told you I'd try to cram in a visit, didn't I?" he reminded him easily as he smirked at him.

The Nara only lightly bumped their shoulders in reply. "Where's Gaara?" he asked him instead.

Kiba wiggled his nose and shrugged his head towards the roof. "On the roof with Naruto. Kakashi's with them."

Shikamaru blinked as he checked the time, not having realized that a couple of hours had already passed since he'd returned to work. "Kankuro's not with them?" he asked, although he figured that if he'd left the Hokage, it was at the man's request – implying he was ready to leave.

"He's by the western gate – a patrol came back in bad shape, I heard he went to check it out."

"How bad is it?" Shikamaru asked him with a frown – and wondering why he hadn't heard about it.

"Doesn't smell like death," was all that Kiba could say.

Shikamaru nodded back, trusting him. "I'll just wait for his report then. Sakura and Sasuke?"

"They were at the HQ a while back – nearly took ten years off Temari's life, seeing him in the middle of so many shinobi from every village like that without more of a heads-up," he told him as he winced upon remembering.

"Did anything happen?" the Nara asked back with a raised eyebrow.

"Nah, don't worry. Sakura's a really well-respected medic across the Alliance, no one would dare give her a hard time," Kiba assured him before sighing in mock-disappointment. "But right now they're just strolling along the gate-walls," he said as though he'd been expecting them to do something more fun.

"Don't sound so disappointed," the shadow-nin drawled, smirk widening at Akamaru's barking laugh.

"Gross," was all that Kiba replied, instantly perking up as they walked out on the roof terrace of the tower and Naruto ran towards them.

"Hey, Kiba, Akamaru! I've got something for you guys from Hinata!" the blond shinobi said excitedly.

"Yeah? What is it?" Kiba asked with a wide grin. It was almost comical how similar the nin-dog and his master looked as they tilted their heads to the side.

Naruto chuckled and then glomped them both, sending them tumbling to the ground in a pile of limbs. "That's her congratulations to you, Kiba! And Akamaru gets one too because she misses him!" he told them happily.

Akamaru barked back, tail wagging, and Kiba fake-sighed at this. "Sure, she's always liked him best!"

"Yes, you're visibly heartbroken over it," Shikamaru commented with a raised eyebrow.

Gaara and Kakashi walked over to them and the three disentangled themselves before standing up – with the nin-dog immediately going to the Kazekage, as always.

"Hello, Kiba," the Hokage greeted easily. "I've already told Shikamaru, but congratulations," he said in his usual knowing tone.

"Thanks!" Kiba replied brightly anyway, sharing a happy look with his husband.

"Since you're here, would you mind helping us track down Sakura and Sasuke? We really should get going before we'll be forced to spend the night sleeping on the ground somewhere cold and creepy," Kakashi requested as he slid his hands in his pockets.

"You're welcome to spend an extra night in Suna, as always," Gaara needlessly reminded him – although he knew that Kakashi was only complaining for the principle. His eyes then caught sight of a folder under Shikamaru's arm and he frowned imperceptibly as he looked at his assistant. "Does this require my attention?" he asked him although he knew the answer.

"It's nothing that can't wait until after we've seen our guests off," Shikamaru replied honestly – Korobi hadn't said it was a matter of life and death, after all.

"Please, we're not going to keep you any longer," Kakashi said seriously, remembering very well how much work he'd had to catch up on when the meetings had been held in Konoha. "Kiba can help us track down the other two and then see us out," he offered with a shrug.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at being volunteered, but obviously didn't mind – he was technically just on break, but it wouldn't take him too long anyway. "I don't mind," he assured Gaara.

The Kazekage nodded at him and Naruto pouted as they said goodbye, before promising him he'd visit soon, and bring Hinata with him this time. Gaara could honestly say he was looking forward to it.

Shikamaru left Naruto with a message for Chouji, and then followed his Kage back to his office, going over what they'd missed during the meetings.

Naruto once more slung an arm over Kiba's neck once he started leading them towards their team-members and poked his side conspiringly. "Kiiibaaa! I can't believe you're married! I never thought it would happen!" he said excitedly.

Kiba frowned at him, raising an eyebrow at Kakashi upon having distinctively heard him snort in amusement – but of course, when he turned to him the man just looked too damn innocent. "Hey, what's with the lack of faith? You knew we were planning on it!" he needlessly reminded him.

The Uzumaki blinked at this, waving a hand about to dismiss the notion. "Yeah, of course, I knew that – I just meant generally speaking! Back when we were kids?" he clarified.

"Okay, fair enough – I wasn't sure either back then," the tracker conceded as he had to admit as much. "I could say the same to you though!" he then said back easily.

"Yeah, I know…" Naruto shrugged self-consciously – but looking very, very pleased with himself.

"I'd say that as a rule, during childhood we aren't equipped to know what the future holds for us," Kakashi opinionated wisely, amused by their antics.

Naruto chuckled but then raised an eyebrow as he looked back at him. "You should get married too, Professor – you're not that old yet, but you're not getting any younger, so you shouldn't waste so much time!"

Kiba hard to work really hard not to snicker at this, because truly, Naruto was the only who could get away with saying stuff like that to Kakashi of the Sharingan – well, maybe so could Sakura, but her instincts of self-preservation were clearly superior. Still, for his own safety, he stepped away from his friend – Kakashi's happy expression had to be a sign of horrible things to come, after all.

"How sweet of my adorable student to still worry about his dear old teacher!" the Hokage noted with a sigh as he clamped a hand on his shoulder, enjoying the way he tensed. "Oh, look! Sakura and Sasuke! There they are! Should I maybe tell Sakura you've made certain comments?" he offered absently, leaning his face an inch away from his.

"N-no, thank you," Naruto replied slowly and carefully, turning pleading eyes to the Inuzuka.

But Kiba definitely wasn't about to get the tables turned on him, and ignored him as he said 'hello again' to Sakura with a bright grin – and nodded at the Uchiha, not wanting it to be said that he wasn't polite.

After that it wasn't long until Konoha's delegation left, and he cracked his shoulder absently as he figured he should go back to work himself. He'd call Hinata to thank her for the hug, too.

Really, that Naruto…how did he do it? He'd barely left the village, and it already seemed quieter!


Chapter Text

Kiba breathed heavily, eyes never leaving his target as he kept his guard up and spit out some blood. By habit, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, running his tongue along his teeth to ensure nothing was broken as the metallic taste pervaded his mouth – although since he'd managed to land in a bite, he knew it wasn't necessarily all his. Akamaru was out, this was all on him. The adrenaline was rushing through his every fiber, he was tense but ready – he felt amazing, all things considered.

His opponent's arm moved the slightest bit but it was enough for his eyes to lock onto the weapon as it was raised higher and swung his way with force – but he'd been ready, he evaded it easily although he somewhat pretended not to, using his fake stumble as cover to place another tag under the snow. Just one more, and his layered trap would be complete – and then it would be show time.

The shinobi who were watching from the sidelines made excited comments to each other, and although he only kept a fragment of his attention on them, he could smell the moldy scent of paper notes being exchanged – this had turned into quite the spectacle, visibly.

The kunoichi in front of him didn't waste a moment before mounting another attack, but this time getting hit wasn't entirely faked, and he cursed as his hand got the brunt of it, absorbing his body's weight when he evaded to the side – but it was okay, he'd lived through worse, this was nothing. His fangs were ready.

That attack gave him the opportunity he'd been waiting for to place his last explosive tag and he detonated the sequence as planned, snow flying up in every direction and mixing up with smoke, bringing with it the scent of paper and fire. Without wasting this brief opening, and at the perfect instant, he lunged forward, and he actually felt his attack connect – but then he felt a powerful wind jutsu hit his back, although he was still able to land a safe distance away despite how much it hurt, still appraising his foe.

Temari looked at him through eyes narrowed in pain, chest heaving up as she held her fan spread between them. Her leg had been the target of his last attack, but it was her shoulder she was referring to when she snarled, "You bit me!" accusingly, almost not daring to believe it.

"You sliced me up!" he called back with a frown, feeling the cuts on his back burn and wanting nothing more than to roll in the snow to soothe the pain.

The Sand kunoichi stared him down a moment longer, carefully looking around her. "How many more tags do you have in place?" she asked him seriously.

"Enough," he replied with a smirk – after all, whenever possible he made it a point to put a contingency in place, courtesy of Kurenai's influence. Back when he'd started training under her and she forbade them from attacking without having at least one tangible back-up plan, he'd been annoyed at her – he felt like she cramped his style, which was based on all-out instincts. He'd soon learned the value in her teachings though, even if realistically, in an actual fight, it wasn't always doable.

Temari cursed before turning her eyes to her shoulder, where teeth marks could be seen beneath the torn clothes and the blood. Looking down, she couldn't deny her leg was trembling beyond her control and it further annoyed her. Letting out a deep breath, she closed her fan and straightened up. "Then you get this one," she admitted grudgingly. Her arm was giving way under the strain, and with her leg feeling like cotton, she wouldn't be able to get out another counter-attack that would be strong enough to take him out – and that was without even mentioning avoiding his next attack in the first place.

Kiba blinked in surprise but then grinned widely as he pumped a fist in the air. "Yes! Did you see that Akamaru? Wasn't I awesome?" he asked his nin-dog excitedly.

Akamaru loyally barked back his approval but moved to nuzzle Temari's hand worriedly.

"I'm fine, don't worry – the snow's redder on his side!" she assured him with a tired smile.

Around them, other members of the Allied Division cheered or booed, depending on who they'd placed their bets on as money changed hands.

"Soak it up while you can!" Temari advised them all with a huff. "I'm taking mental note of every single one of you who bet against their commander," she added as she gingerly tried to move her sleeve away so she could assess the damage – smirking in satisfaction at the groans she heard in response.

"Unfair, Commander!"

"It was your idea!"

Temari quite naturally ignored them. "Damn it, I can't believe you got away with such a bite! This hurts like hell!" Not that she was surprised she got bitten at all; she just hadn't expected it to hurt so bad – she hadn't thought he'd be able to bite down so deeply in the middle of combat, truth be told.

Kiba only looked satisfied, naturally. Besides, as the others needlessly reminded her she'd been the one to bring the idea up. He was always looking to train against shinobi who specialized in long-distance combat, and she applied herself training in snowy conditions, the rare times it snowed in Suna – the match-up seemed too perfect to ignore. And actually, when it snowed in the Sand, it did so with the same magnitude that sandstorms usually possessed, forcing a halt to all travels and therefore keeping people stuck in the village – hence their little 'sparring' sessions.

Once he got to her, Sojiro winced for his lover's sake as he carefully helped her clear her wound. "Wow, he bit you even worse than he bit me!" he couldn't help but comment.

"Pff! You got love bites, Sojiro! In battle it's a whole other thing!" Kiba huffed at him as he gave into his urge to fall back down into the snow, nearly moaning in satisfaction as it felt just as good as he'd imagined. Sitting up, he frowned as he felt a pang of pain in his right hand and brought it closer for inspection.

"That looks painful," Yasha commented with a wince as she looked at the oddly-bent knuckles on one of his fingers.

"No shit, this actually hurts more than my back!" he noted before moving said finger into his mouth.

Shocked silence met the sharp crunching sound that echoed after that.

Temari looked down at him with a frown, and by her side Sojiro looked decidedly disturbed. "Kiba, did you just…bite off your finger?" she asked dubiously.

The look he sent her almost made her feel like a child. "Really, Temari? Do I really come across to you as a guy who'd bite off his own finger after a practice fight?" he asked back as he held his hand up, wiggling the finger he'd just set back in place.

"Next time, let the medics handle it instead of shocking everyone, Commander," a shinobi from the medical unit commented as he grabbed his hand to study it just in case – quickly dropping it down in satisfaction before moving on to take care of his back.

Another medic-nin was by Temari's side, pressing a hand cloaked in green chakra to her bite wound.

"That was fun, wasn't it?" Kiba asked Temari brightly, one hand absently rubbing Akamaru's head as his back was being treated.

The nin-dog actually hadn't participated in the sparring session because Temari insisted she could never attack Akamaru, even just for practice – naturally, this only got her bonus points with nearly everyone present because the nin-dog was sort of Suna's HQ's unofficial mascot.

"You and I have a different definition of fun," she replied quite matter-of-factly as she resisted the urge to sigh happily as the medic's jutsu was making rapid progress. "But yeah…it was interesting!" He sure knew how to take advantage of the snow, unsurprisingly – it was widespread knowledge that Konoha was entirely white in the winter, and actually in previous wars, they'd used that to their advantage against their neighbors to the south.

"Everyone's got a different definition of fun – it's what makes it fun!" Kiba commented sagely.

Temari elected to ignore that particular piece of wisdom. "Oh, this is gonna bruise so bad, I just know it," she commented instead as she carefully tried to move her shoulder around after the healer stepped back and moved to her leg – the wound had been closed, but the stiffness in her joints would need time for a full recovery.

"Wanna have a contest over who'll have it worst?" Kiba asked her with a raised eyebrow, knowing for a fact he wouldn't be able to sleep on his back for at least a day – Shikamaru would not be amused, he'd never really approved of his tendency to actually go all-out during practice.

Naturally, the medics could also heal them completely, but for the body's sake in the long run it was always best to leave some manner of natural remission. If either of them needed to leave on a mission, then medical ninjutsu would finish the job, but otherwise, they'd just sleep it off.

"Well, at the very least you left your audience very satisfied!" Yasha commented happily – Kiba had no doubts that she'd won some money with the bets, because she was an unnaturally gifted gambler, although he had to admit he felt flattered she'd backed him. "It's a pity Mizu and Darami missed this, they would've loved it!" she then added cheerfully.

Several voices sounded out in agreement and Temari snorted as she looked at her deputy with a raised eyebrow. "Everyone's just glad Kiba didn't end up biting any of them for slacking off," she noted.

"That can always be arranged," was all he said as he clicked his teeth together.

The desired effect was instantly visible as all those present busied themselves to appear occupied.

Temari rolled her eyes in amusement but walked to sit on a wall which Sojiro had previously cleared of snow. She then clapped her hands together, enjoying that they all turned their attention to her – somewhat fearfully. "Well then…who's next?" she asked with a wide grin.

Kiba laughed as he followed Yasha back to her bookmaker spot as several shinobi raised their hands to volunteer. "You're not gonna get dirty?" he asked her easily as he leaned his side against Akamaru.

"Would you bet on me if I did?" she asked back with her usual smile.

"I have faith in those who have faith in me!" Kiba replied in a fake wise tone as Akamaru howled his agreement.

The Akimichi raised an eyebrow but didn't discount the possibility of participating in the next match – until then, she had her notebook at the ready as people came to her to place their bets.

Who ever said being snowed in at work was horrible?

Over at the Kazekage's tower, things were much tamer, as the only battles going on were fought with paperwork – which most would argue was a good thing. That wasn't to say anyone was having a safer day though, since politics and paperwork were known to sap the strength of lesser shinobi, but no blood had been shed – unless you were to count Yaoki's particularly nasty papercut, which had caused quite a few people to wince in sympathy.

Gaara and Kankuro had been in session with the Council for the better part of the morning, so Shikamaru had used that time to catch up on almost a week's worth of paperwork, all the while being wary not to join Yaoki in the ranks of shinobi injured by official reports – inglorious as it sounded. It only slightly reassured him that he wasn't the only one as Korobi had momentarily tried working with gloves on – he'd soon given up once he realized it really wasn't helping, but it had been entertaining to say the least while it lasted.

After the siblings returned, it was time to adjust Gaara's schedule according to that morning's meeting, and after that, there was a review of his upcoming trip to Kiri, since the messenger had just returned with the Mizukage's response. It was Tsuneo who'd done the trip, having personally delivered the Kazekage's message and waited for a reply.

"Thank you," Gaara told him earnestly once his report was finished. "I will be sure to contact you should the need for an additional response arise," he assured him.

"I'll be there!" Tsuneo promised easily before taking his leave with a smile and a nod, being eager to get warmed up and change clothes. As a messenger, he was familiar enough with the village's surroundings that he'd braved the snow instead of waiting it out, but that didn't mean he was impervious to its effects.

Kankuro and Shikamaru followed him out – the puppeteer, just to walk him out, the Nara, because he needed to check in with another department on troublesome follow-ups.

"See? I told you you'd be perfect for the job!" Kankuro said happily as he moved to sling an arm over his shoulder.

Tsuneo sighed as he avoided his arm and raised an eyebrow at him. "My ability to complete the mission was never the issue," he argued before looking down. "It's just that I don't like it when you throw work my way."

"It was Gaara's idea," the puppet master defended himself. "He likes you! As a person! And he trusts you."

On his other side, Shikamaru very politely did his best to tune them out – he was almost at his stop anyway.

"The only reason Gaara even knows I exist is because of us," Tsuneo needlessly reminded him. "I don't want anyone to think I'm just using our relationship to my advantage!"

Kankuro just frowned at this, not seeing his issue. "Who cares what anyone thinks? We know better, right? And you aced that mission!" The outcome should be all that mattered, as far as he was concerned.

The messenger sighed once more, his eyes trailing to Shikamaru for a second. "Look, Kankuro, I'm exhausted – can we do this some other time, at a more appropriate place and with no audience?"

Kankuro followed his look towards the Nara and shrugged. "Hey, if we end up arguing about this, Shikamaru will hear about it anyway, so no need to hold back on his account," he said matter-of-factly.

Shikamaru mentally cringed as he looked at his friend in pure exasperation, and wasn't surprised when Tsuneo groaned and nodded at him before simply leaving.

"What's gotten into him…?" Kankuro muttered as he watched him go before turning to the shadow-nin and frowning at his look. "What?" he asked defensively.

"Remember that time when we had that talk, and you told me you suck at relationships?" he asked him with a raised eyebrow, waiting for confirmation before continuing. "Well ever since, I thought you were just being too hard on yourself – and yet obviously, I was wrong and you were right!" And there weren't many instances in which he'd say something like that, truthfully.

Kankuro's frown deepened as he paused in his steps, clearly going over the last moments in his head and groaning when he saw his point. "Yeah, I…didn't exactly ace that one, did I?" he asked him needlessly as he really hadn't meant to come across as so…dismissive? Arrogant? Stupid?

"No, you think?" Shikamaru asked back sarcastically, barely repressing the urge to roll his eyes so as not to pour salt in the wound.

"Did I blow it?" Kankuro asked him quite seriously.

"Probably not," Shikamaru reassured him. "But neither did you help your case at all," he tempered.

After all, whether it should be considered a good thing or not, Tsuneo was rather used to Kankuro's 'foot in mouth' policy by then – sometimes it made Shikamaru wonder what, exactly, Kankuro had told him to convince him to give him another chance.

"Could you just say those words again – in the same order?" Kankuro asked him with a smirk. "You know, the 'I was wrong and you were right' part – gotta be honest, I loved it!"

"The next time you're heartbroken over a breakup I won't share my food with you!" Shikamaru threw over his shoulder, leaving the puppeteer to ponder on his advice on his own as he moved on in search of Yaoki – hoping that the traumatic memory of his earlier injury would have subsided enough for him to have gathered the information he needed. Only a couple of hours left.

Kiba was sprawled on his stomach on the couch once he got home, only managing a half-hearted greeting by raising his hand. "Hey, how was your day?" he asked, tone more cheerful than his general lack of movement might've indicated.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at his state, smiling at Akamaru as he moved to greet him. "How was yours?" he returned the question, walking to stop next to him.

"We had practice fights at the HQ – I beat Temari, it was fun!" was the happy reply. "I even managed to bite her!" he added proudly.

"Oh, am I going to get those looks again?" the shadow-nin wondered, really hoping that wouldn't be the case because he liked it better when people didn't look at him like he was a regular victim of Kiba's biting tendencies.

"Nah, don't worry!" Kiba replied confidently as he sat up, reaching for him to pull him closer and rest his cheek against his stomach. "After that Yasha flattened Sojiro into the ground – that was fun too!"

Shikamaru chuckled at this because he figured the Akimichi had really literally flattened him. "Well, clearly you had a better day than me!" he was forced to concede.

His day has been just…regular. Nothing special. Well…except for that little disagreement between Kankuro and Tsuneo – a disagreement that would likely evolve into a full-blown argument by the time the puppeteer made it to his lover's home, in his opinion.

Wordlessly, he moved a hand to stroke Kiba's hair, smiling to himself at the satisfied whimper his husband let out at that. "How bad does it hurt?" he asked him knowingly after a moment.

"So bad," Kiba was forced to admit, not bothering to put up a good front with him.

It was practice that allowed Shikamaru not to chuckle at this – he had to sympathize after all, right? – although he did share a look with Akamaru. "Well…let's get you fed. And then you should try to get some sleep."

The tracker didn't say anything, only nodded against him – and took some time and coaxing before letting him go.

So Shikamaru really had to recant his previous thoughts. His day was rather good, in the end.

Back when the villages had first started working on the exchange program, of course at the core of it stood the notion of 'exchanging' knowledge, but there was one area they'd clearly underestimated and that literally exploded once the Allied Division was put into place.

Medical ninjutsu.

Bolstered by their experience during the war, many shinobi had been game for a few years abroad, but none had been so invested in studying and learning from each other as the medic nins, so much so that there was actually an entire side-program devoted to them, with one to two weeks per months spent in the village's hospital. Because this was in such high demand, positions were limited, and so Kiba was very surprised when Darami walked into his office one day with a shinobi folder.

"Please help me get this transfer approved," was all she said.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at her, somewhat startled although really, it was true that the one thing she was passionate about was her work as a medic nin – and Gaara, but that one was still more private, and rarely expressed. "You know the roster's all filled up," he needlessly reminded her. "Besides, it's Temari you should be pleading your case to."

"But he's from the Itoda clan. I figured as a Leaf shinobi you'd understand my enthusiasm better," she insisted, her expression so blank that Kiba wanted to laugh at her use of the word 'enthusiasm' – Akamaru had no such hold-ups and cackled from his spot. "Sakura Haruno recommended him to me on her last visit. She mentioned that his current posting was coming to an end and he'd be available starting next year," she added as though this proved a point.

It did catch his interest so he opened the file – and Akamaru's as well as he trotted over to him. Anyone recommended by Sakura had to be worth their salt after all. "My father was born in the Itoda clan," he found himself saying as he looked over the details.

"Why aren't you a medic nin in that case?" Darami asked with something akin to disbelief.

In Konoha, the Itoda weren't a very big or prestigious clan, but they could boast to being the only clan effectively specialized in medical ninjutsu – in the sense that it was rare for one of them to not have solid medical knowledge and abilities. For this, they were actually more famous in the other villages in a sense, and he could imagine that Darami would view it as a waste, for him to have had access to such a professor but not have taken advantage of it – although he did learn from his father, just not about medical ninjutsu.

"My sister is," he replied with a shrug. "I'm better with my fangs," he added matter-of-factly as he kept perusing the file.

Iori Itoda, 27, Jounin of Konoha; currently finishing a medical exchange program in Kiri's Allied Division HQ. Previous posting: Konoha's Allied Division HQ, as supervisor for the medical exchange program.

"Look, I understand why you'd want him to join the program here, but you know as well as I do it's a matter of funding if there are no vacancies," he said with a sigh as he looked back at her. "There's nothing I can do at my level, you really need to take this up to Temari." Admittedly, he really wasn't sorry that he wasn't more involved in handling matters pertaining to funding.

The captain visibly looked like she wanted to say something but it pained her, and after a couple of minutes had passed, she looked to the side and cleared her throat. "Can you do it on my behalf, Commander?" she asked, before frowning and adding, "Please."

Now this had Kiba raising an eyebrow, because Darami could be called many things, but self-conscious was not one of them. "Darami, are you sweet-talking me? Because I gotta be honest, I don't know how to feel about that!"

She frowned at him and crossed her arms over her chest, back to her usual self. "I don't want anyone to think that I'm using my relationship with the Kazekage to garner preferential treatment from his sister, that's all," she stated unequivocally.

Oh, so they weren't keeping that under wraps anymore, were they?

Akamaru disappeared under his desk so he could do his laughing guffaw unseen and Kiba absently thought that he was a traitor as he worked very hard to keep his grin from splitting his face. "I'll see what I can do," he replied evenly before pointing a finger at her. "But if by some miracle this gets approved, then it's up to you to arrange it, got it?"

"Got it," Darami confirmed, allowing the slightest smile to almost pull at the corners of her lips.

Kiba just shook his head in amusement as he watched her go, nudging his nin-dog with his foot. "Hey, you're supposed to share my pains, not run off on your own, fluffball!" he chided him easily.

"Awroo!" Akamaru replied as he stepped out from under the desk.

"Yeah, yeah…you keep telling yourself that!"

Temari was in very much the same state after he told her everything, and vowed to find a way to get the funding, adding that Suna's hospital could afford to pitch in more than they currently were, since they benefited from their foreign experts just as much as the HQ – if not more, at times.

Two days later, she triumphantly gave her deputy the go-ahead, and he had to admit he was quite pleased to let Darami know – she'd even said 'thank you' twice before heading off.

Kiba tried not to make too big a deal out of it as he supposed stranger things did happen.

While originally, the thought of having (ahem) 'double-dates' with Kankuro and Tsuneo had sounded really weird to Kiba and Shikamaru, eventually as they befriended Tsuneo it became much, much less awkward. The chuunin visibly knew about Kankuro and Kiba's past relationship and had initially been slightly defensive around him, but that had rather quickly subsided.

So when Kankuro wasn't making an idiot of himself (which he did at least once a month, more often than not more), they actually met up quite regularly. And as the couple had made up following that little argument brought by Kankuro's latest blunder which Shikamaru really wished he hadn't witnessed, they kept their scheduled dinner that week, so Kiba was quite happy to share the tale of Darami asking him to play go-between with Temari.

"I bet that explains Gaara's good mood this afternoon," Kankuro mused, shaking his head as he thought about it some more. "Man, I'd have loved to have been there!"

"Hey, be nice to your brother," Tsuneo chided him easily as he pinched his arm, turning back to Kiba before his lover could retaliate. "I've gotta admit I've never heard of the Itoda clan – are they really that good?" he wondered curiously.

Kiba shrugged at this, sharing a look with Akamaru. "At the very least, my father was – when he used to train me, he'd always say, 'don't hold back, go all out, I'll fix you up'!" he recalled. "And he always did." Usually after having beaten him up pretty badly in the first place, but in hindsight he appreciated what he'd learned during those lessons – he really did believe there was no better way to learn than trial by error.

"They're rarely assigned to missions below B-rank actually – nearly all them at least make Tokujou thanks to their healing skills," Shikamaru supplied, leaning his head in his hand. "I've worked with a couple myself; nothing to complain about."

Tsuneo nodded as he thought about it. "Yeah, I guess we don't really have that in Suna – specializations by clans. Focus is placed on individual potential rather than the clan of origin," he reasoned. "Among the Susaya clan, I'm specialized in speed, but my mother was a bodyguard, and my grandfather a genjutsu specialist – there's no underlying link."

"Exactly – just like Gaara, Temari and I have such distinct specialties," Kankuro noted with a shrug. Actually he knew that shinobi from other villages were often puzzled to see siblings with such different ways of fighting, but for them it was normal. "Here it's actually encouraged for siblings to learn different techniques – to increase the clan's potential as a whole."

"That does make sense," Shikamaru agreed, once more being struck by how things were different from one village to the next. "In Konoha it's also encouraged in a sense, but only after the clan's primary techniques are mastered."

Ino had actually been requested to prove her mastery of basic Yamanaka mind-control techniques before being allowed to fully pursue medical ninjutsu training – something that had really seemed stupid to them at the time, although in hindsight he could somewhat understand it slightly better.

"If you think about it, it also limits any one clan's unity and power as a whole – and therefore diminishes any threat it could pose to the village itself," Tsuneo added, crossing his arms over his chest. "Let's say Suna's puppeteers tried to stage a coup—"

"Hey, why us?" Kankuro interrupted with a raised eyebrow, being silenced by a hand on his mouth – and not biting it away because he was nice like that.

"—well it wouldn't be one clan's doing, since most clans have puppeteers nowadays," Tsuneo continued as though he hadn't been interrupted.

Kiba grinned at their antics but looked up as it reminded him of something else. "I've had a similar talk with a kunoichi from Iwa once, and apparently over there it's particularly the case for bloodline limits – the more clans they're spread across, the better!"

"Well, we're not so different in that aspect. You've gotta admit that's one good way of ensuring great power isn't limited to one family alone – politically, too!" Kankuro reasoned, gently pulling his lover's hand away from his mouth and absently twining their fingers. "It's actually why our father was encouraged to have several kids, and why the Council's on our backs nowadays: they want that ability to control sand to be more widely spread across the village, since it almost died out after the Second and Third Shinobi Wars – and actually has a very small activation percentage."

Indeed, while he and Temari could in theory pass it down to their children, at this precise moment Gaara was the only person in the village who actively held that power, so in a sense he understood the council's relentlessness on the matter.

Shikamaru hummed to himself as he figured that this unusual viewpoint was likely why same-gender relationships were never viewed as an issue in Suna: because it had never been expected of people to pass down their skills to their children alone. A clan's strength was not measured by the number of shinobi who mastered a given skill, but rather on the number of skills it had at its disposal as a whole – only the village's overall ability mattered. Put like that, it was hard to deny it sounded really clever.

"Well, I don't know…" Kiba admitted as he reached over to pat Akamaru's head. "Somehow, I get what you mean – no clan would try a coup if they were that well integrated with the other clans. But then I look at my clan, and the Inuzuka are really like a big crazy family! Now obviously I'm all for marrying across clans," he started as he lightly poked Shikamaru's cheek, "but that doesn't mean I'd be okay with someone who's got no Inuzuka relations at all suddenly learning how to fight with a nin-dog – using our techniques!"

A clan's boundaries shouldn't be crossed, he believed that, and that was why he hadn't taught Shikamaru how to understand Akamaru, although effectively, that was something they could've kept a secret.

"Yeah, I suppose that for you guys, it would feel like a violation of your way of life," Tsuneo mused, fascinated with these differences.

"It took about a generation for people to get used to it back when Suna was created, so I guess that's normal," Kankuro tempered, remembering the history lessons he'd been subjected to as a child – where being a pest to Temari had been the only highlight of his day, poor child that he was. "And yet, maybe that's where we're headed, globally speaking – I mean not just within our own villages, but across the entire Alliance," he added seriously.

"You think so?" Shikamaru asked with a raised eyebrow.

The puppeteer shrugged at this, leaning an elbow forward on the table. "Well, I gotta admit Temari and Sojiro get me thinking sometimes, you know?" he said as he absently ran a hand through his hair. "Let's go with the road that won't cause the Council members to have an ulcer: Sojiro marries into our clan, and therefore our village. He still has a bloodline limit – so as we've just established, as far as Suna's concerned, if they have a kid who inherits it, it would be viewed as a good thing, since it would add more variety to the village's strengths. But how would the Satoshi Clan and Kiri view that?"

"Well how would it be handled in Konoha?" Tsuneo asked the other two with a raised eyebrow. "I'm sure you've already had cases of shinobi with bloodline limits marrying into other clans…"

Kiba blinked in surprise at the question, having to admit he hadn't thought about it, but yeah… "Naruto and Hinata will face that issue one day, but I'm not sure what could happen exactly…" he commented, turning to Shikamaru inquisitively.

The Nara shrugged, not really sure himself. "Honestly, to my knowledge, that might've been the first time a Hyuuga married into another clan – precisely so that issue wouldn't come up. But that's not counting the secondary branch members who might've been allowed to, since their Byakugan was sealed," he amended.

And it seemed almost certain that with or without Sakura, Sasuke would likely eventually get around to making sure the Sharingan wouldn't die with him – and that implied somehow recreating the Uchiha clan. But that was neither here nor there yet at this moment…

"I'm not sure there's a definite rule…"

"So it's unknown territory for them too!" Kankuro mused with an easy grin.

"I think it's unknown territory for a lot of us, all over the place," Tsuneo commented with a shrug – after all, many aspects of shinobi life, including his own original specialization as a courier weren't needed as much as before, these days.

Akamaru barked something and Kiba chuckled as he ruffled his head. "He says that it's interesting to be living in an era where everything's changing."

The others shared a laugh at this, having to admit the nin-dog wasn't wrong on that one. At the very least, things never got boring, and that was the important part.


Chapter Text


It was only in mid-December that Suna started getting colder. (Ish.) Not particularly looking forward to the likely near-arctic temperatures in Konoha, Kiba and Shikamaru (and Akamaru, of course) nonetheless set off one morning for their long-delayed visit back home. Three weeks off, the longest either of them had ever taken, in retrospect.

Temari and Kankuro, being the horrible people that they were, saw them off with waving arms and exaggerated farewells, before commenting to each other that it was really cold, this year. Heartless monsters.

No matter, they were born and raised in the Leaf; they knew how to handle its winters. And when they finally saw the village's gates, it truly felt like coming back home, and the difficult – and cold – journey was all but forgotten.

Making their way to the Inuzuka clan grounds, since Hana and Aoba had once more invited them over in need of babysitters, they had to admit that finally being inside where it was warm and…warm, was truly fantastic.

And then Kiba's eyes widened as he really looked at his sister. "Ha—Hana! Your—you're!"

Hana just laughed in satisfaction as she placed her hands on her hips and looked down at her round stomach. "Surprise!"

Shikamaru chuckled at their antics but Kiba visibly wasn't done being shocked. "But—you—this—it's not…! That's not the kind of thing you keep a surprise for so long!" he said with a frown as he resisted the urge to pout. "What are you, seven months along?"

"Hey now, no need to be mean – just five!" she replied with a full-blown pout, crossing her arms over her chest. She didn't keep that expression for long however as she grinned at her sulking brother. "I thought it would make a really nice surprise for when you'd get here! You're just finding out a couple of months later!" she reasoned easily.

Kiba mumbled something but eventually relented as his look softened. "Well…it is a nice surprise…" he was forced to admit as he moved to hug her.

Shikamaru shook his head fondly as he looked at them. "Now I get your desperate need of babysitters!" he teased her easily.

Hana feigned innocence and hurt at his words, but the grin on her face betrayed her. "Come along and get warmed up instead of teasing a defenseless pregnant woman!"

The shadow-nin followed her but grumbled under his breath that he'd never actually met a 'defenseless' woman in his life – and even if he had, she surely wouldn't have been an Inuzuka. "How did you get your mother to play along and not spill the beans?" he wondered instead of voicing up his opinion.

"She agreed it would be a fun surprise," was the simple response.

"And mine?"

"She did too."

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this but didn't press the issue any further.

"Where're Kao and Aoba?" Kiba wondered as they followed her to the guest room.

"Kao's at mom's – they'll both come over for lunch later on," Hana said with a smile as she stretched her arms over head. "And Aoba's away on a mission – he should be back sometime during the night, and then he'll actually have some time off, so don't worry: we're not really going to exploit you!"

"Aw, don't mind him!" Kiba said happily as he wrapped an arm around Shikamaru's neck. "He complains a lot, but he actually loves being exploited!" he assured her.

"Probably only by you, Kiba," Hana replied easily, effectively cutting off Shikamaru as he'd opened his mouth to reply.

He didn't see a need to contradict her, either, because he'd actually been about to say something along those lines. Nor did he hold back from smirking when Kiba nuzzled his cheek in amusement.

Thankfully, they had enough time to shower and relax slightly before Kao and Tsume stormed through the front door and then literally dived on the couch as if racing each other – how telling was it that it was actually Kuromaru who'd closed the door behind them?

Tsume grinned happily when she saw the three visitors and laughed as she ruffled her son's hair and Akamaru's head before 'gently' punching Shikamaru's shoulder. "You can call me 'mom' now, if you'd like!" she offered modestly, seriously.

Naturally, she was only able to remain serious for two seconds before laughing loudly – that same old barking laugh – and clapping his shoulder fondly. "Oh, it never gets old teasing you!" she praised honestly.

Maybe a few years back, Shikamaru would've felt completely unsure how to react, but by then, he was used to her antics and simply punched her shoulder back – he'd put in some strength, too, but she was such a specimen that she barely felt it. Still, she grinned approvingly at this as he shared a look with Kiba – who also looked quite satisfied.

Kao stood back slightly, and for a second they were worried that maybe she didn't remember them anymore – it had been almost a year and a half since they'd last seen her, after all, even though they'd talked on the phone. However more prodding revealed she was pouting because they'd missed her fourth birthday, horrible uncles that they were.

Kiba spent the time they had until lunch was ready assuring her that they hadn't wanted to miss said birthday, but it was only when they'd agreed to take her to the winter festival that evening that she mellowed and greeted them with hugs as though the previous meeting hadn't happened and she'd never sulked in the first place.

"She really wanted to go this evening, since her friends are going – but Aoba's out of town, I have the late shift at the hospital, and mom's also got a mission," Hana explained. "See? Exploiting you already despite what I said!" she added brightly.

"He doesn't mind," Kiba replied with a wide grin, ignoring Shikamaru's roll of his eyes. "I don't either, of course!"

After lunch, Kao asked them many questions on 'where they lived', and 'what kind of persons lived there', before demanding to know all about their marriage – although she visibly deflated in disappointment when she found out there hadn't been 'amazing' decorations all over the place and they'd just worn their uniforms. Magnanimously, she then let them rest for a while, even tagging along – not that she needed a nap herself, she wasn't tired at all and just did it to keep them company, of course, she repeatedly insisted.

Once the evening came however she was as usual a restless ball of energy, and she'd quickly let the festive atmosphere rile her up further, as soon as she met some friends along the way – notably Mirai, and Kurenai could only laugh at the cheerful children.

"Where is all that energy coming from?" Shikamaru wondered with a frown as Kao led them around another tour of the various stalls.

"Inner awesomeness," Kiba replied matter-of-factly. "It's an Inuzuka thing," he then added modestly, grinning as Shikamaru wordlessly bumped their shoulders together.

"Says the future Nara," Kurenai noted with a raised eyebrow.

"It's inner – you're born with it and it stays with you always," Kiba argued easily, resisting the urge to pout at his former teacher's 'if you say so'.

The shadow-nin didn't contradict him, only grinned lazily as they kept following the hyperactive little future-shinobi, keeping an eye on their niece even as they met with other friends who caught them up on the latest changes and rumors. He'd originally tensed upon seeing Ino, but soon relaxed as he realized she wouldn't kill him with so many witnesses – admittedly, her genuine smile and vocal reassurance she wouldn't kill him helped.

Eventually though, Kao ran back into Kiba's legs with tears brimming in her eyes.

"My tummy hurts," she complained as she looked up at them.

"What did you eat?" Kiba asked her knowingly as he scooped her up into his arms.

"Nothing," she lied with all the buoyancy of a child, clamping a hand over her mouth. Next to them, Mirai loyally and emphatically nodded her head, looking around innocently as her mother raised an eyebrow at her.

The tracker simply rolled his eyes fondly, sharing a look with the others. "Okay, let's get you home. I'll see you guys around," he said as he made to leave, smiling softly when Shikamaru followed him. "You could've stayed with them."

"They'll still be in the village tomorrow and the days after," Shikamaru replied easily as Akamaru trotted by him. "Plus I'm actually beat, she's a number to keep up with!" he added around a yawn.

Kiba chuckled in agreement as he gently pat his niece's back – and he was able to handle her rather well, even though his 'patient' refused to provide him with an accurate recounting of what really happened.

Half-way there, Kao got sick and barely had time to warn him before throwing up on the side of the road, but that actually seemed to help. She almost went a second time once they reached the house, and after washing her face he gave her an infusion to settle her stomach – which she really didn't want to drink at first, but he knew how to be persuasive enough when it mattered.

As the Inuzukas used their mouth as a weapon, they were used to ingesting all sorts of potentially disruptive things and knew how to take care of themselves in that aspect. They even had their own number of homemade remedies although it had been argued before that Inuzuka 'remedies' were stronger than the germs they were supposed to fight back and should therefore be considered just as dangerous – the unfazed Inuzukas just laughed at the detractors' decidedly weak and wimpy stomachs.

There was no doubt in his mind that Kao had tried to eat what she wasn't supposed to, probably a mushroom or something similar to impress the other children. He couldn't exactly fault her for that: he'd lost count of the number of times he'd eaten the wrong things on a dare as a kid, although now he understood what he'd put his mother through and almost felt like apologizing to her. (Except she'd make fun of him and hold it over his head until the day she died, so he didn't.)

Kao called for her parents, naturally, but he patiently told her that they were working, and would he and Shikamaru be okay for one night? It seemed okay for her, and so she fell asleep nestled in Kiba's arms, her favorite plush (a dog, of course) squeezed between them.

And as he watched them, Shikamaru found that he was willing to broach a subject he hadn't thought about in quite some time. He also felt that they should, because he wouldn't be surprised if the head of the Nara clan brought it up himself – but more than that, he realized that he actually wanted to. "Kiba?" he called quietly, so as not to wake up Kao.

"Mmh?" the tracker replied as he kept stroking his niece's hair soothingly.

"Would you want to have a kid?" Shikamaru asked him openly.

"You mean us? Have our own?" Kiba clarified as he half-turned to him with a frown, briefly looking down at his nod. "I thought you didn't really want to be a father?" he wondered honestly, thinking back on their first argument on this, right before they'd gotten together for good.

Shikamaru sighed at this, absently reaching to pull a strand of Kao's hair out of her mouth before she chewed it off – which had happened before, and more than once, actually. "I didn't, back when I couldn't picture anyone doing it with me. But now I've got you," he admitted honestly. "You'd be an amazing father, that much is obvious, watching you with her – or any kid," he whispered as he shifted closer. "And I think I'd like being a father – with you."

There was silence for a split-second before Kiba spoke. "You'll never stop surprising me, will you?" he wondered softly as he moved his free hand to stroke his face. "Just when I think I've finally got you figured, you pull something like that…"

"That's good though, right?" the Nara asked back with a lazy grin. "You hate monotony."

Kiba rolled his eyes fondly before huffing slightly. "Our list of things to take care of once we'll be back keeps getting longer!" he commented teasingly.

"That's good too," Shikamaru replied as he closed his eyes contentedly.

"Yeah, that's good – that way we won't get bored," Kiba confirmed quietly – as far as he was concerned, boredom was life's ultimate enemy after all, and Shikamaru knew how he felt about that.

Of course, in the morning, Kao – now all better – quite happily informed her mother that she'd be getting a cousin soon – because apparently even ill little girls pretend to be asleep so they can eavesdrop.

"Anything you want to tell me, you two?" Hana asked teasingly as she raised an eyebrow at them.

"It's just a thought for now," Kiba muttered with a blush.

"Hmm-hmm," Hana replied infuriatingly, grin entirely too smug to their liking as Kao beamed innocently.

"Kids are devious," Shikamaru noted with a frown.

Kiba and Akamaru could only nod back.

"What did I miss?" Aoba wondered around a yawn as he walked in wearing casual clothes.

"I'm going to have a cousin!" Kao relayed happily as she jumped into his arms.

The sensor automatically smiled at her as he caught her purely thanks to his reflexes and then looked at his brothers-in-law over her head with a raised eyebrow. "I didn't know that was in the works!"

"It's not," Shikamaru replied self-consciously as he absently moved a hand to massage the back of his neck. "It's a thought."

"Kao's definitely getting a sister or a brother before a cousin anyway!" Kiba continued as he wiggled his eyebrows at them.

"Nice deflection," Hana praised teasingly as a hand automatically went to rest above her belly.

Kiba stuck out his tongue at her, sharing a quick happy look with his husband. "Besides, we actually need to get me into the Nara clan first!" he added with a huff.

"Shouldn't be very painful, should it?" Aoba wondered as he sat Kao down before moving to grab more fruit from the counter. His entry into the Inuzuka clan had been an ordeal, because of the amount of drinking involved and Tsume's idea of a welcoming speech, but effectively speaking, the official bit had been over in a flash.

"I have no idea, honestly – my father never bothered making me attend clan meetings since he knew I'd just sleep through them," Shikamaru replied with a shrug. "We'll know soon enough anyway. Thanks for having us over once again, by the way," he added earnestly as they hadn't seen him yet because of work.

Aoba immediately dismissed it with a shrug. "Please, what's family for? The house is big enough!" He didn't say it out loud that it was also repayment for using them as babysitters, but everyone understood that clearly anyway.

The Nara household would also have been big enough, but he didn't think his mother was ready to have them rooming there together despite the years and how she'd considerably mellowed. Although he should really visit her – today, preferably, before she yet again dramatically accused him of favoring his married family over his birth one – and hadn't that been a fun talk?

"Alright, I think I should go now before I get any more food into my system," Shikamaru stated after breakfast as he stood and stretched.

"Go where?" Aoba wondered with a frown.

"Say hello to my mother. Kiba said I should spend some time with her before she forces me to divorce him for keeping me away – since now we can actually get divorced!" he added jokingly.

Hana burst out laughing at this, though somehow not startling the dogs, and even Aoba laughed clearly.

"I didn't say it exactly like that…" Kiba muttered in embarrassment as he crossed his arms over his chest, however smiling despite himself as the other man leaned in to press a quick kiss to his lips. "Say hi for me."

"Will do. See you all later," he told the other Inuzukas with a wave.

The walk to his childhood home was relaxing to say the least, and it felt really nice to be back to such familiar sights, he had to admit as much – he'd never exactly felt homesick, but coming back always felt good. His mother rolled her eyes at him with a fond sigh as she opened the door, and he found himself smiling genuinely. "Hey mom."

"About time…" she grumbled for the principle as she pulled him in. "Did you eat yet?" she asked over her shoulder.

"Too much," he replied honestly with a pained groan. "Kao helped with breakfast, too, so she insisted we all have seconds."

Yoshino chuckled as she had no difficulty picturing the little Inuzuka 'forcing' her family to eat more food. "Children really slap you in the face with how fast the time flies, don't they?" she wondered rhetorically.

Shikamaru chuckled at this, having to concede the point. And for once, it didn't feel like she said it to hint that he should have kids. "They sure do…"

"Been up to anything exciting since you got back?" she wondered conversationally as she poured them both some tea.

"Hana and Aoba were on duty last night so we took Kao to the festival – it turned out to be the most exhausting thing I've ever done!" he let out with a sigh.

"Somehow, I don't doubt you!" Yoshino humored him, chuckling at his sorry state. As he reached for his cup and she noticed the ring on his left hand, she automatically raised an eyebrow.

Following her gaze, he shot her a quick smile. "Yeah, that part wasn't a joke."

"You're too lazy to joke about something like this – although I still say Suna doesn't count," she said back easily, frowning fondly and grinning when he held his hands up in surrender. "So what are your plans now?"

"Take it easy," Shikamaru replied with a shrug. "We're meeting up with Shikato tomorrow though – we need his signature to finalize Kiba's entry into the clan," he added as he tentatively brought his mug to his lips to test the temperature, satisfied that it was drinkable.

Yoshino raised an eyebrow at this as she put her hands together and leaned on her forearms. "Shikamaru, can we speak frankly?" she asked him seriously as she looked up at him – but there was an amused glint in her eyes, so he didn't feel the urge to flee.

"Weren't we already?" he asked back with a raised eyebrow. As he saw her look, he sat up straighter and nodded, setting his mug back on the table. "Alright, I'm listening."

She seemed to hesitate for a second, not because she was having second thoughts, but because she was searching for the right way to word these thoughts. "Are you…happy? As you are now, with Kiba?"

"What are you asking me, exactly?" Shikamaru replied carefully, wondering where this was heading. "I married him – he's going to join our clan. I love him, and I want to spend my life with him. Of course I'm happy – we're happy."

"Do you ever fight?"

"Sure, we fight from time to time, we're still people!" he needlessly reminded her before raising an eyebrow at her line of questioning. "Just what are you trying to find out, exactly?"

"Indulge a worried mother, would you?" Yoshino asked back with a grin before huffing. "He's a good man, I know that, and he makes you happy, I see that. But I see you so rarely I can't help but worry every once in a while!" she said frankly. "Whenever I think about Kiba, I still picture that loud daredevil running around with a puppy perched on his head – the both of them splattered with mud from head to toe! Assimilating that image to a devoted husband feels surreal at times!"

Shikamaru chuckled at this, appreciating her honesty – and loving the mental image. Besides, he had to admit, he didn't entirely mind that she worried about him. "Well, he's both! He's still a loud daredevil running around with his nin-dog, and he's a devoted husband," he reasoned as he moved a hand to rub his neck.

Yoshino chuckled at this, having to admit that maybe that was exactly what her (un)usually lazy son needed: someone extra-lively to whip him into shape – and Kiba Inuzuka had quite certainly never been lacking on that front, that much couldn't be denied.

The conversation then picked up on much more general topics, as she filled him in on what he'd missed – the latest gossips, mainly, although she insisted she wasn't gossiping, merely informing him. After a few hours she let him go, but only when she noticed she'd almost be late to meet her friends for their card-playing afternoon.

At the door however, she absently dusted off his jacket and said, "Why don't the two of you come over after your meeting with Shikato tomorrow? I mean—if you can, naturally. And Akamaru can tag along as well," she added after a moment's hesitation.

Shikamaru was surprised but smiled warmly at her efforts. "We'd like that."

"Don't dally too long," Yoshino chided good-naturedly to hide her embarrassment as she pushed him out.

The shadow-nin chuckled but docilely did as he was instructed. When he got back to the Inuzuka household, he wasn't surprised to find Kiba playing a card game with Aoba and didn't delay long before joining them.

He couldn't wait to see the look on Kiba's face when he'd tell him about his mother's invitation; despite the years, he could count the number of times that had happened on the fingers of one hand – and still have fingers left. Akamaru automatically shifted closer to him, and Shikamaru grinned as he indulged him.

Honestly, at this point it was hard to remember a time when those two hadn't been a part of his life. And if Akamaru's drooling and Kiba's snoring hadn't changed that, he seriously doubted anything ever could.

"You're meeting with the head of the Nara clan?" Chouji repeated with wide eyes over dinner that evening. "Isn't that really serious?" he then asked them worriedly.

Ino raised an eyebrow at him, replying before either Shikamaru or Kiba could. "Joining a clan is usually regarded as serious," she needlessly reminded him teasingly.

"I didn't mean it like that!" Chouji insisted with the beginning of a pout. "I just meant it's…you know…I mean it's really…"

"Serious?" Karui helpfully provided, smirking in satisfaction as he pouted at her.

"I was about to say 'ominous'!" he informed her, mumbling to himself about having no support.

Kiba laughed at this, leaning back into his seat. "Come on, give the guy a break! He's right, it does sound ominous!" he remarked, grinning at Chouji's thankful nod.

"How so?" Sai asked with a blink, frowning in confusion. "It's my understanding that this is merely a formality – it isn't like they could actually deny your request, is it?" he questioned seriously.

Shikamaru hummed as he wondered about that himself, truth be told. "I can't see they'd have a valid reason to," he started with a shrug. "And if they do, then I'll just learn to speak to nin-dogs!"

Akamaru barked happily at this while Kiba wordlessly squeezed his hand.

"Formal meetings are always a drag anyway," Karui concluded with a snort. "Actually, any meeting where you have to behave is a drag," she added as an after-thought.

Ino chuckled as it occurred to her at that instant that if they'd gone for each other, Karui and Shikamaru would have likely been the less motivated couple in History. "Kiba Nara does have a nice ring to it," she said instead, to get the conversation away from listing all the things that could qualify as a 'drag' – or they'd never leave this table.

Shikamaru's eyes darted to her, as though he was surprised to hear someone else say that name aloud, but Kiba only grinned widely. "Yeah, Akamaru said the same thing!"

"Well, he is the smartest nin-dog in the world after all," the shadow-nin commented easily, smiling as said smartest nin-dog in the world moved to nuzzle his hand.

Karui rolled her eyes in amusement at their antics but didn't comment – even after all these years, she still didn't get why they fawned so much over an oversized pet, although she realized he was more than that. Curiously, she then asked, "Were there any issues in getting the papers recognized in Konoha?"

Kiba tilted his head to the side as Shikamaru shrugged. "None. I'll even admit I hadn't expected it to be that easy."

"That's a by-product of our alliances," Chouji commented happily, unable not to sneak in a look at his lover. "Setting up the Allied Division probably helped speed things up too," he added as he turned back to them.

"We've certainly gotten used to seeing shinobi from other villages walking down our streets," Ino agreed as she leaned her chin in her hand. "We've even recently hired a shinobi from Kiri in the sensor division!"

"You mean under Konoha's authority?" Shikamaru clarified with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, like you in Suna," she confirmed with a smile. "He's a nice guy, and actually—"

"Ino," Chouji suddenly interrupted her somewhat nervously. "Why don't you tell them about the progress you and Sakura are making at the hospital?" he encouraged her.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at their exchanged looks at this – he knew his teammates well enough to realize a silent conversation was going on between them. "What aren't you telling me?" he asked knowingly.

"Nothing," Ino said quite credibly while Chouji blurted out a much less convincing, "Nothing!"

Sai and Karui shared a look and then he looked back ahead while she sighed. Visibly, they weren't going to go their usual way and untactfully blurt out what this was about, for once.

"You know they'll find out anyway, right? Shino and Hinata won't tiptoe around it like you do," Karui reminded them matter-of-factly anyway after a second, being unable to keep quiet.

"Oh, right…" Chouji said dejectedly.

Ino nodded and then let out a deep breath. "Guess we should tell you now?"

"Am I going to like what you're about to say?" Shikamaru questioned straightforwardly.

Chouji and Ino once more exchanged glances and shrugged. "Honestly not sure."

"Am I going to like what you're about to say?" Kiba asked with a grin, quite entertained.

"Honestly not sure," was yet again the joint reply.

"Wow, now I really want to know," the tracker commented seriously.

But Ino and Chouji were clearly pushing each other to be the one to break the news, a chorus of back-and-forth 'you do it'/'no, you do it' easily audible in hushed whispers.

"Kurenai has been dating that Kiri shinobi Ino mentioned for the past two months," Sai finally announced when it became obvious this could've gone on for long, looking really relieved that that was out – and not really understanding why it was even in in the first place. As his lover raised an eyebrow at him, he just shrugged innocently. "It was my impression that you and Chouji were uncertain how to go about it," he offered earnestly.

"I can't believe this!" Kiba said with a frown.

"You're telling me…!" Shikamaru muttered as he tried to wrap his mind around it.

"I cannot believe this!" Kiba repeated, sharing a look with Akamaru. "So Shino knows?"

"Yeah, why?" Chouji asked him with a frown.

"I've never kept a thing from him and he didn't even tell me our teacher wasn't alone anymore!" he replied with a frown as though that was obvious.

"I told you you broke his heart by getting married without him there," Ino reminded him airily. "This is payback!" Although admittedly, she really would've never guessed that Shino Aburame was the kind of person who believed in and enforced payback – this was an interesting piece of information, one worth keeping in mind for future reference.

"Wait, that's what you're bummed about? That Shino didn't tell you?" Shikamaru wondered in surprise.

Kiba blinked at him in confusion, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, what else? It was bound to happen someday right? I was actually hoping for it! I can't believe she managed to hide it from us the other day though! She's as good as ever!" he added fondly as indeed his professor had always been a master at being in control of both her words and body language.

Shikamaru's frown deepened and he sighed as he turned back to his teammates. "What kind of man is he?" he asked them seriously.

"Handsome," Ino said right away, enjoying Sai's frown at this – and reaching to squeeze his hand reassuringly. "He's a good guy, okay? Hard-working, open-minded…"

"Good with kids, too – Mirai loves him!" Chouji supplied brightly – little Mirai was their combined concern, after all.

"He sucks at Shinobi Conquest though," Karui added mercifully, like it was important.

"…So you like him?" Kiba clarified as he looked at her.

"Yeah," she confirmed with a shrug. Admittedly, she liked anyone she could beat the crap out of when playing board games.

They didn't say any more on the subject, but when they made their way back to the Inuzuka household, Kiba could tell Shikamaru was still mulling it over in his mind.

"Speak up," he said lightly as he bumped their shoulders together.

Shikamaru briefly glanced at him and then sighed, not sure how to voice his thoughts. "I don't think I need to tell you that I know how well your nose works by now. Did you honestly not smell this about her last night?" he wondered.

Kiba held his look and hummed, crossing his arms over his chest. "Hypothetically, how would it be any business of mine to tell others about?" he asked back seriously.

Shikamaru snorted in amusement at this, raising an eyebrow. "I could give you a pretty extensive list of people whose sex life you've mentioned more than once, in their presence or not!"

"Yeah, friends, because teasing each other is what friends do – and they've more often than not returned the favor! But not…not her, you know?" Kiba asked rhetorically, shrugging slightly. "Besides, Kurenai knows a thing or two about throwing my nose off-balance, so I wasn't actually sure. Plus I don't really care," he added, because Kurenai was like family to him, and like most people he didn't really like to think about the sexual life (or lack thereof) of family members.

"You're…really not bothered at all that she'd be with someone else?" Shikamaru asked him honestly after a moment.

Kiba's eyes widened slightly as he finally understood what was troubling him. "It's not a betrayal, Shikamaru," he started, quickly raising a hand to gently place his index over his mouth as he saw he was about to protest. "It's not a betrayal," he repeated firmly.

"To me it feels like one," Shikamaru admitted quietly.

"It shouldn't. Asuma's been gone for almost eight years now – I know that hurts, and yeah, it sucks just as much now as it did back then. But Kurenai is still here. She's allowed another shot at happiness," the tracker reasoned, not mincing his words as usual. "Hey, you're the one who once told me that your happiness is linked to my being there, remember?" he reminded him as he grabbed his face in his hands.


"So, I sure hope that if for whatever reason one day I'm not there anymore—"

"Don't even joke about that," Shikamaru interrupted him seriously, reaching for his hands.

"But if it happens, you'd better not spend the rest of your life missing me all on your own!" Kiba finished nonetheless resolutely.

"Is that what you'd do?" the shadow-nin asked back, frowning as he held his look. "If anything happened to me, you'd just move on?"

"Eventually, I'd hope to – keeping in mind that moving on does not mean 'forgetting', or 'replacing'," Kiba replied, completely honest. "I love you like crazy, and you're everything to me. But if we're talking worst case scenario, then yes, I'd allow myself to move on, and I'd want you to do the same if our roles were reversed. And I'm happy Kurenai's found it in her to finally do it too," he finished earnestly.

There was silence for a beat and then he added: "According to Ino and Chouji, he's a good guy, he treats her right and Mirai likes him – what more could anyone ask for?"

Shikamaru stared at him quietly for a moment, trying to find a loophole in his logic, or a weakness in his beliefs, but finding none – as usual, when it was about people, Kiba was too damn good at understanding human nature. "I don't like it when you're completely right and I'm wrong," he finally said with a sigh.

"Bull," Kiba huffed before leaning in to steal a kiss. "You think I'm hot when I'm completely right."

"Yeah but not when I'm wrong," Shikamaru argued for the principle, letting him pull him closer as he wrapped his arms around his neck. "We're in the middle of the Inuzuka clan grounds," he needlessly reminded him – although he didn't do a thing to push him off.

"This is me not caring – you secretly think that's hot too," was Kiba's reply as he kissed him anyway.

Shikamaru reasonably couldn't deny that claim.

Of course though, someone interrupted them, and of course, it had to be Tsume.

"Well, well…still haven't gotten enough of each other yet I see – I guess that's a good sign, eh Kuromaru?" she asked her nin-dog slyly.

Kuromaru was the only one who replied to that comment.

Or the ones that followed, for that matter.


Chapter Text

Although he'd visited the Nara grounds a few times in the past – mostly to see Shikamaru, both as children and adults – Kiba had only been to the house of the head of the clan once, shortly before the war when he and his team had acted as messengers. He was back for an entirely different purpose now however, and he felt a lot more nervous than back then – he wasn't nervous at all back then actually, so that wasn't hard.

Shikato Nara, current head of the clan – and Shikamaru's uncle – wasn't as intimidating as other heads of clan he'd met (including the Inuzuka's), and like many of his fellow clansmen he was much more nonchalant than stuck-up. (Not being stuck-up was always a good point, in Kiba's book.) He'd taken over after his brother's death during the war since Shikamaru was considered – by others as well as himself – too young to shoulder the burden yet (another good point for him, because he didn't have to).

Besides, their meeting really wasn't supposed to take long – they just needed his signature on one form so Kiba could be registered under the Nara clan's name. They actually weren't sure what was supposed to happen beyond that, because if joining the clan was accompanied by any sort of ceremony, it definitely wasn't public and Shikamaru had never attended one.

"Well, first things first, congratulations are in order," the man told them simply as they sat around a low table where they were served tea. It was lightly snowing outside, but the house was kept warm.

"But the certificate was signed by the Kazekage, not our Hokage," another member commented with a huff, a kunoichi younger than them by a few years – the head's youngest child.

Both Shikamaru and Kiba were immediately annoyed at Gaara's dismissal, but didn't react beyond sharing a fleeting look.

"It's been validated and added to our local records by the Hokage's office, so it's solid!" Kiba replied evenly as he absently pat Akamaru to calm him down as well – the nin-dog was very partial to Gaara.

"Holding old grudges against other villages does not allow to question their authority," the head of the clan noted with a raised eyebrow towards her, reminding everyone present that this was, in effect, a family meeting, not a debate court – even though it was true that despite the fact that Suna and Konoha enjoyed an exceptional relationship as far as shinobi villages were concerned, some in Konoha hadn't forgotten that the Sand had once allied itself with the Sound to invade them.

The girl pouted as she crossed her arms over her chest, muttering a, "Sorry, it wasn't my intention."

Shikato nodded at her, an amused glint in his eyes, before turning back to their guests. "Back to the matter at hand. You wish to join our clan by way of your marriage, Kiba?" he asked him although they all knew the answer to that, since after all, it was what they were meeting for.

"Yes," Kiba replied regardless, holding his gaze.

"I'm not fundamentally opposed to it, I just wonder what the point is," their host admitted honestly, tone not the slightest bit hostile and expression completely open.

"Is wanting to share the same clan as your partner something so surprising that it needs to be explained?" Kiba asked back with a raised eyebrow, inquisitive.

"Just seems an awful lot of paperwork for something that'll have so little incidence down the road," Shikato replied simply, absently sipping his tea. "Normally I'd be jumping up and down at Inuzuka blood joining the clan – you're sturdier and faster than us, something the future generations of Nara could greatly benefit from. But that won't exactly be a possibility, will it?" he concluded rhetorically.

Shikamaru's cousin smirked and Kiba resisted the urge to growl at her.

"Obviously not, biologically speaking," Shikamaru said calmly.

His uncle raised an eyebrow at his choice of words, gaze shifting between the two before settling back on his nephew. "But you might consider another way?"

"Possibly, in the future," Shikamaru replied, trying not to smirk as Kiba grinned slightly.

Shikato almost chuckled at them before crossing his arms over his chest. Well, there wasn't much to say in the end, was there? He had a feeling that if Kiba wasn't made a Nara, then they'd just turn to the Inuzuka clan, and that scruffy Jozu wouldn't hesitate for a second before making a genius like Shikamaru an Inuzuka—which simply wouldn't do, he was a symbol of the Nara clan beyond just their borders!

Besides, it wasn't like this would unreasonably implicate the clan in any way. It was just adding a name to an already large registry – and to be fair, it wasn't just any name, there really was no questioning Kiba's abilities as a tracker.

"Give me the form then," he said simply as he held out his hand.

Kiba and Shikamaru exchanged somewhat relieved glances at this and did as instructed. The head of the clan affixed his signature and their seal on it before handing it back with a 'welcome to the Nara clan, Kiba', and that was it. Again, much buildup for nothing.

"I think your cousin doesn't like me," Kiba commented as they walked back towards Yoshino's house, both looking and sounding not sorry at all about that state of affairs.

Shikamaru almost snorted at that, raising an eyebrow at him. "Didn't you notice her blush? She likes you alright, hence the brattiness!"

The tracker frowned at this, sharing a look with Akamaru, before looking up as he gave it some serious thoughts. Huh. Maybe. "She's too young," he finally dismissed. She couldn't have been older than 14, really.

"Wow, good for me," Shikamaru drawled, smirk widening as one of his hands was pulled out of his pocket and solidly held.

Kiba as usual ignored his jibe and reached to pet Akamaru's head with his other hand. "So…I'm a Nara now – or almost, anyway, I guess!"

Shikamaru's smirk turned fond as he glanced at him sideways before frowning as something else occurred to him now. "You won't be expected to remove those, will you?" he wondered despite his better judgement as he reached to trail the back of his free hand over the red triangles on his cheeks.

Kiba blinked in surprise and then laughed, waving a hand about. "The Inuzukas really aren't that overly dramatic, you know!" he teased him easily.

"Right…" Not always. But something told him it was better not to voice that opinion.

"Hey, does that mean you can teach me to use my shadow?" Kiba wondered instead of rising to the bait.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at him, having to admit he actually hadn't thought about that. "Well…I suppose so. You'd want me to?" he asked him in surprise.

The tracker shrugged at this. "Not to use it during battle – I can't really see how that'd work with the rest of my techniques. But just for knowledge's sake. It could be fun!" Akamaru barked his agreement next to them, visibly as curious as his master.

"Well, I don't see why not!" Shikamaru had no doubt he'd be a quick learner, too – and he found himself looking forward to trying that out.

His childhood home came into view and he let out a breath at this, but he needn't have worried, because his mother sounded and looked earnest when she welcomed Kiba into the clan.

"Hem…thank you. Really," Kiba replied, the slightest bit flustered – Shikamaru almost wanted to chuckle, it was such a rare look on him.

Yoshino however turned more serious and held up a finger, signifying she wasn't done speaking. "You need to learn who to avoid, and whose good side is worth getting onto!"

Kiba immediately brightened up at this – every clan had its weirdoes and celebrities, right? But usually only the clan-members themselves really knew who was which. "I hope Maen's not in the latter category, because we already butted heads a couple of times in the past!"

"Oh save me, absolutely not! He reminds me of that saying – small dogs have the loudest bark? Or something," Yoshino immediately dismissed, and they had to laugh at her choice of words.

Kiba resisted the urge to snort at this. Plus he'd walked by Maen's house on the clan grounds a few times before, and his pond always smelled moldy – he briefly wondered about sharing that random fact, but then figured he should keep some for later.

"Ensui has a high opinion of you, that's really good – he's well respected," Shikamaru continued before they'd get further carried away, leaning his head on his hand.

"Ooh, I like him, too! He's a great captain!" the tracker said happily as Akamaru barked his agreement.

A rapid review of those they were most likely to run into followed, and it was surprisingly civil – even lighthearted and practically fun, to Shikamaru's enjoyment.

Well, it was undeniably (and finally) progress, right? And it only took five years!

The next day, while they were finalizing the administrative hassle linked to registering their marriage and Kiba joining the Nara clan, they ran into Konoha's Allied HQ's deputy, Maki of Suna, who promptly asked Kiba whether Anko had spoken to him – sporting a grin as she did so, worrying them.

"No…" Kiba replied slowly, wondering what she wanted with him. "Was she supposed to?"

Maki just smiled mysteriously and shrugged. "Come by the HQ before you leave," she said conspiringly before going on her merry way.

"Think you're in trouble?" Shikamaru asked him with a lazy smirk.

"Hey!" the tracker protested as he lightly elbowed his ribs. "She's probably got something to pass along to Temari…I'll drop by tomorrow or the day after – remind me to, in case I forget," he added with a shrug.

"Of course, leave it to me…" Shikamaru said automatically and then yawned as he checked the time, rolling his shoulders absently. "You want to try to catch Shino today?" he asked him around another yawn.

Kiba blinked and thought about it after a look at the clock. "Yeah, he should be done soon. Wanna tag along?"

"Not really," was the direct response. "I'm going to take a nap. Do you know how long it's been since I was last able to take a nap?" he asked him contemplatively.

Akamaru barked and Kiba dutifully relayed, "A day?"

Shikamaru shot them both a look and huffed. "Before that, it had been way too long."

Akamaru whined and Kiba actually laughed before saying, "Didn't you take a nap the day before too?"

"Now you're just being aggravating on purpose," the shadow-nin accused with a frown. "So I'll be taking my leave."

"No kiss goodbye?" Kiba teased him as he watched him go, sharing a look with Akamaru who was just as amused. "What, you're not even going to bother romancing me anymore?"

"You already signed your soul over to the Nara clan, my work here is done!" Shikamaru threw over his shoulder with a smirk.

Kiba raised an eyebrow at this, but as the shadow-nin stopped in his steps, he didn't hesitate for a second before walking to him and getting that kiss. "Okay, you can take your leave now," he declared as he pulled back.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes fondly but didn't say anything, just waved a hand about and then yawned, determined to get to that nap before someone else barred his way with unreasonable demands. (Hah.)

The tracker and his nin-dog just exchanged amused glances and then made their way to the academy, strolling around the grounds in reminiscence until class would be dismissed. There were only a couple of days left before the end of the year break, so he knew the kids would be even more restless than usual. And right on cue, he heard the children cheering as they escaped their daily daytime prison, as he used to call it – and really, now he felt guilty for having felt like that, and all the headaches he'd given poor Iruka…he definitely owed the man a fair number of drinks!

Mirai's eyes widened happily as she saw him, and she wasted no time in tackling him before moving to hug Akamaru. "How's Kao doing?" she then asked him worriedly.

Kiba blinked in confusion until he figured she was likely referring to Kao's indigestion from the other night at the festival, and he shook his head as he ruffled her hair fondly. "She's fine, don't worry. She got over it pretty quickly," he assured her.

Mirai sighed in relief and squeezed Akamaru tighter. "Good…I tried telling her not to eat that mushroom, you know? But Miko dared her to and then—"

"Don't blame yourself, Mirai," he quickly interrupted reassuringly – it wasn't her fault, after all. "Now, do you know if Shino's still alive?" he asked her with a wink.

The little Sarutobi giggled and nodded with certainty. "Of course! No one could kill Uncle Shino!" she replied confidently. She wasn't in his class, but she had faith in him.

"I know that! But I'll go and see if he needs back-up anyway! Try to behave, okay?" Kiba asked her with a serious expression as he ruffled her hair one last time.

"I'll try!" she promised happily as Akamaru licked her cheek.

Kiba nodded back and then walked towards Shino's classroom, greeting a couple of other professors on the way. "Hey Shino! Missed me?" he asked his best friend brightly as he walked into the room.

"We met at the festival the other night," Shino needlessly reminded him as he finished gathering his papers without looking up at him.

"You missed me," Kiba stated matter-of-factly as he strolled over to him. "Did you give them a test right before the break? That's mean," he then added with a raised eyebrow.

"They more than deserved it," was the Aburame's reply as he briefly looked up at him, however pausing as he took a good look at his face. "What is it?" he asked as he tilted his head to the side the slightest bit.

"What is what?" his friend asked back with a blink, sitting up on his desk.

"You clearly wish to ask me something," Shino noted, frowning slightly at his casual confusion about treating his desk as a chair but not voicing the complaint.

Kiba chuckled, happy he knew him so well, and leaned closer while narrowing his eyes conspiringly. "So we found out about Kurenai and that guy from Kiri! I can't believe you kept that from me!"

Shino merely raised an eyebrow at the accusation. "And why should I have said anything? You know I don't gossip, Kiba."

"Aw, Shino! Gossip is such an ugly word! Gossip is when it's about people you don't know!" Kiba argued with a grin. "When you're close it's just—"

"Gossip all the same."

"—information," was the correction, backed by a faithful bark.

"I'm fairly certain that gossip is always referred to as such when you're spreading stories that are about someone other than yourself," the professor insisted pragmatically. "In fact, I would even go as far as to say that this is gossip's very definition."

But that didn't really annoy Kiba. "Aw, Shino…you drive me crazy, I missed that so much!" he said honestly.

"Yet we talk to each other quite often," Shino reminded him, sounding a little amused.

"It's not the same and you know it!" Kiba paused at this and frowned as he eyed him in a gauging manner. "Hey, you're really not mad at me for getting married out of the blue, right?"

Damn Ino for managing to make him worry about that again!

Shino seemed surprised by the question, but slowly shook his head. "It wasn't out of the blue – you'd announced your intention to do so quite some time back, as I'm sure you'll recall."

"You know what I mean, Shino," Kiba said with a roll of his eyes.

Shino closed his mouth and looked at him, absently putting the quizzes into a folder. "I'm not mad at you, Kiba," he assured him.

The tracker sighed in relief and opened his mouth to get back to teasing him but his friend wasn't done speaking.

"I'm mad at Shikamaru," the Aburame informed him.

"I know you're not exactly crazy about him but—" Kiba started but was cut off.

"You didn't know, so how could I be mad at you for not telling me something you didn't know? Besides, you called me as soon as you were able." Shino continued as though he hadn't said anything. "And I understand your reasons for getting married; I even understand Shikamaru's eagerness to get it done, in light of the fright you gave him after that mission," he added the slightest bit reproachfully.

Kiba frowned slowly at this, unused to hearing his best friend expand so much on something – usually he did most of the listening and kept his sentences to a subject, verb and noun, with sometimes maybe an adjective or an adverb finding their way in there. "So then what…?"

"Three days," Shino said simply, frowning slightly. "That's all it would have taken for us to be there. And if schedules didn't permit, then that would have been out of our hands, but at least we would have had an opportunity."

Kiba frowned at this, trying to see it from his point of view – and yeah, he could get why he felt a bit stung, because Shino kept grudges, and Shikamaru hadn't impressed him at the start of their relationship. "I know you'll say it's not my place to apologize, but I'm sorry anyway," he told him earnestly. "I'm not going to lie to you, it was a very awesome day for me; but it's true that having you guys there would've made it even better," he admitted as he reached to punch his shoulder fondly.

"I know," Shino replied easily, having never doubted him. "How did the meeting on Nara grounds go?" he then asked, figuring they could move on to the next subject now that they'd laid it all out in the open.

Luckily Kiba was used to his ways by then so this didn't faze him. "Well, you're looking at the newest Nara in the clan," the tracker replied, shrugging modestly.

Shino simply nodded. He for one would've preferred it if his best friend hadn't joined another clan, but he respected his decision to do so and didn't feel the need to comment about it.

Kiba grinned at him and then hummed as he tapped his nose. "So I ran into Maki at the tower before getting here. She seemed to want me to visit the HQ, any ideas why?" he asked him with wiggling eyebrows.

"Why would I?" Shino asked back with a raised eyebrow.

Akamaru did his barking laugh and Kiba snorted. "Come on, I can tell the two of you still have that—what was it you called it? 'Mutually beneficial arrangement'?"

"Our arrangement notwithstanding, if she has any business with you, I can hardly see why it would be appropriate for her to discuss it with me," was Shino's factual response.

Kiba shrugged it off, having figured that would most likely be the case. "I'll keep you posted anyway," he commented dismissively. He then grinned even wider as he remembered what Shikamaru had brought up the other night, about having their own kid one day, and he quickly sniffed the air to make sure no one else was around before turning back to his friend. "Hey, you'll never guess what Shikamaru asked me the other day!"

Shino raised an eyebrow and while he didn't actually try to guess, neither did he stop him from sharing.

After all, even though he personally didn't like Shikamaru all that much, he didn't actually dislike him either. But Kiba's face lit up whenever he talked about him, and he knew it was mutual, so he figured that was the important part.

Besides, true childlike optimism in adults was hardly seen, and Shino had to admit he actually liked that about his friend. It reassured him when thinking about his students and what their lives might become like as shinobi.

A couple of days later, Kiba remembered Maki's advice to visit the HQ without needing to be reminded, and so it was that shortly before noon he got to Anko's office and knocked on the open door. "Maki said you wanted to see me?" he asked her with a raised eyebrow, really hoping he wouldn't just be asked to be an errand boy for Temari.

Anko looked up at this and her eyes narrowed slightly – the way a predator's did when it spotted prey. "Yes! Good thing she ran into you, I was about to have someone track you down! Walk in, close the door, sit down," she replied simply as she gestured to the chair in front of her desk.

"Yeah, if it's all the same to you, then I'll stay standing," Kiba said with a chuckle as he closed the door and stepped closer to her but remained standing.

"Suit yourself," Anko noted conversationally as she walked around her desk to sit on it facing him. "How've things been going, Kiba?" she asked without preamble, starting much like she had when she'd visited his office in Suna.

Akamaru tilted his head to the side as Kiba held her look. "Things seem to be running smoothly enough. But I doubt you called me over to compare notes on our HQs," he said matter-of-factly.

The kunoichi threw her head back and laughed at this – the kind of laughter that usually sent shivers down spines – wiping a fake tear from her eye for show. "Aw, Kiba, I would never!" she assured him before grinning once more. "You're as feisty as ever, I like that."

Not creepy at all, Kiba thought. Where was Temari when you needed her? Or even Maki? This was her fault anyway!

"So…what did you need me for?" he asked again as he really, really, wanted to get going.

"There's an opening for captain coming up," Anko informed him as she interrupted his thoughts, knowing she'd piqued his interest. "It's not official yet – to be honest, it's not certain yet, either. I can't go into details, but it might be just temporary, meaning we'll promote someone internally for a short while. But there's also a pretty good chance it'll be permanent, meaning we'll be looking for someone new full time starting April – maybe May at the latest," she explained, holding his gaze. "Should that be the case, and should you be interested, the job's yours. And seeing as I haven't had a captain from Konoha since Lee transferred to Kumo, there wouldn't be any red tape stopping me."

Kiba's eyes widened and narrowed in quick succession as he searched her face for any indication it wasn't true, unsure how to react, exactly. Matter-of-factly, being captain in Konoha would be a demotion compared to his current posting, it was undeniable; yet at the same time, as a rule he couldn't be deputy commander in his hometown, so there wasn't an equivalent in the first place. And the position didn't open up all that often, so there was no telling how long he'd have to wait for the next opportunity.

He and Shikamaru had always talked about Suna as a temporary stint, but he knew for a fact they both greatly enjoyed themselves there – and that included their jobs, something that wasn't always easy to find. Could he imagine making it permanent? Abstractly, yes.

But Konoha was home. Their families were there. And if Shikamaru was serious about adopting, then raising a child in the Leaf would be more natural for them. There was nothing easy about that decision. And again, he knew it wasn't one he should or could take on his own.

Besides, this was still only a hypothetical, and Anko wasn't the person whose word he trusted the most. "Can I get that in writing?" he asked as he decided on being gutsy all the way.

Anko raised an eyebrow and made a sound between a hiss and a chuckle as she sized him up, looking both pleased and annoyed at his request. "Proof, eh?"

"You're asking me to consider leaving a higher ranked posting on a 'maybe'. If I have to wait for some official indication before being able to tell my commander that I plan on asking for a transfer, I want to be sure the job would actually be mine," Kiba replied simply, trying not to smirk too widely at Akamaru's proud expression next to him.

"Smart man," Anko praised slyly as she leaned back on her hands, moving one leg to cross it over the other. "You'll get your proof, Kiba Nara," she promised curtly.

Kiba's eyes almost widened at this before he remembered himself. News traveled fast, he knew that, but it was likely she'd simply accessed his file, something that he now realized she must've been doing regularly, since back in Suna she'd also known they'd gotten married – in a sense, keeping tabs on him showed she was serious in her offer. (Even if it was creepy that she was one of the first to call him that.)

"Give my regards to Temari, would you?" she asked to conclude their meeting.

"Sure thing," Kiba replied, mirroring her (fake) grin and thinking 'like hell I will' because these two nearly broke each other's hands in greeting whenever they met and he wanted no part in it.

When he got back to the Inuzuka household, he found Shikamaru playing a game of shogi with Aoba, who had Kao half-sprawled over his lap as she played with the pieces he'd captured. Sitting down next to them, he shrugged at Shikamaru's questioning look, figuring they weren't exactly in a hurry – besides, from what he could see the game would soon be over. He spent the remaining time explaining the pieces' names to his niece as she'd moved to rest against Akamaru.

"Proper etiquette would dictate one should let their host win from time to time," Aoba told Shikamaru with an exaggerated frown as they put the board back in order.

"Ah, but knowing my host as I do, it's my impression he wouldn't really be satisfied with a fake victory, and might even feel offended by it," the shadow-nin drawled back in amusement, chuckling as Kao went to comfort her 'poor daddy'. Turning to his husband, he nodded at him as they moved to the porch by the garden, wincing as he watched Akamaru frolic in the snow – he knew they'd have to pat him dry before he was allowed back in, and that usually meant patience, wet clothes and a sore back.

Kiba relayed his conversation with Anko almost word for word, and Shikamaru's reaction wasn't surprise as much as it was annoyance.

"That woman has some serious nerve trying to steal you from another branch after having turned you down!" he muttered before looking back up at him. "I mean, don't get me wrong, this is good – it's just her methods that rub me the wrong way," he quickly assured him.

Kiba chuckled at that. "You and me both," he confirmed with a huff. "I'd really rather work for Temari than Anko, but she got me thinking…"

"About…?" Shikamaru prompted as he absently watched Akamaru roll on his back happily – it was hard to be annoyed at him when he looked so happy with so little, really.

Kiba was silent for a short moment as he tried to think of the best way to word his thoughts. "I want her job," he declared finally, settling for 'to the point' as usual.

That wasn't exactly the answer Shikamaru had been expecting, and he raised an eyebrow at him, half-amused half-surprised. "Commander of Konoha's HQ?" he clarified.

Kiba nodded, turning his eyes back to him. "Call it a gut feeling, but I doubt Anko will stay there until she retires. If and when that happens, I want her job. And for that, I think being a captain in Konoha would be more to my advantage than remaining deputy commander in Suna," he developed.

Shikamaru could only chuckle fondly at this situation, because really Kiba never missed an opportunity to throw him in for another round. Not that he doubted him at all, and seeing how appreciated he was by his subordinates in Suna, he knew for a fact he'd make an excellent commander – as he'd always said.

"That being said," Kiba continued as he moved to grab his hand. "We're not at a 'now-or-never' kind of moment. I'd rather not owe Anko anything, obviously," he added with a frown.

"I think you'd owe Maki as well – she seemed awfully keen on you dropping by the HQ," Shikamaru reminded him easily.

The tracker nodded slowly at this as it wasn't impossible – he'd worked under Maki a fair number of times during his stay in Suna, and then when she was his deputy commander in Konoha; he knew they got along and liked each other genuinely enough. "I won't be miserable if we stay in Suna," he then started fairly, as though afraid that was how he'd come across. "I really love everything about it – I could honestly see us spending the rest of our lives over there."

"Me too," Shikamaru had to admit evenly. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'd even miss Kankuro!" he added with a frown, clearly wondering how that happened.

Kiba grinned in that infuriating 'I knew you'd say that eventually' manner and leaned over to steal a kiss before turning a bit more serious once again. "I just meant to say that I don't want us to move again just for me – especially when there's no guarantee I'd even get her position if and when it opens up," he stated slowly.

Shikamaru nodded as he thought about it in more details. He had to admit that he enjoyed working with Gaara. Of course, there was no doubt that Naruto would be the next Hokage, and he knew his friend would hire him on the spot – and could probably really use his help. Working with him would be a never-ending adventure, in an entirely different way. But it was hard to choose between something he already had and enjoyed, and something he could have, even if it was something he'd always wanted.

It sounded too much like a gamble either way, and Shikamaru had never been much of a gambler…

"I don't really care where we live," he started matter-of-factly. "And yes, moving to Suna was – at first – to further your career, but at this point it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say we've built a life for ourselves there."

And they had, undoubtedly. Legally, after a certain number of years spent in the village they'd also be eligible to apply for citizenship, so it wasn't too abstract to think they could be part of that first wave of shinobi who'd moved to other villages – that was what the alliance was about, wasn't it? Karui had done it and if they remained on the optimistic side, then either Tenten and Omoi, or Temari and Sojiro, would also end up doing it – although for them all it would be through marriage.

"I think the old-fashioned part of me would enjoy raising our child in Konoha, in the same setting we grew up in, but that doesn't mean I can't consider the alternatives," Shikamaru continued honestly.

Kiba nodded as he could completely relate to that. "Yeah, and the mushy-hearted part of me would love to watch his sister's kids grow up – and then watch our friends' kids too when they get to it!" he added with a bright grin. He then let out a breath as he moved to wrap his arms around Shikamaru's waist and rest his head by his neck. "It's not like we need to make a decision this instant – no matter what Anko says, if the position eventually opens up I can still turn it down, even if it was 'guaranteed' to be mine," he reasoned.

Shikamaru made a sound of agreement as he absently ran a hand through his hair. "Might be worth it just to see the look on her face," he drawled back lazily, smirk widening as he felt his husband's laughter against him. "Say yes for now," he added more seriously. "We can see about the rest if and when the time comes."

Kiba nodded slightly, tightening his hold on him as he smiled fondly. "Hey, at the very least, you can never say I make your life boring, right?" he wondered rhetorically.

Shikamaru snorted in response, sighing woefully for good measure. "You can be called many things Kiba, both good and bad, but boring is not one of them," he mock-muttered.

"I sure hope so; otherwise what'd you marry me for?" the tracker wondered with a huff.

"What, you mean I needed a reason beside your good looks?" Shikamaru asked back, managing to sound actually confused.

"At least you think I look good!" Kiba replied smartly, kissing him for good measure.

Akamaru took that scene as an invitation to join them and tackled them gleefully – bringing with him about half the snow in the garden, naturally. Personally, Shikamaru had been inclined to avoid said snow-laden nin-dog, but Kiba's arms around him hadn't let him.

The woes of married life…

Aoba and Kao poked their heads out at that moment and raised an eyebrow at the scene, but didn't comment further. Well, more precisely, she decided to join in on the fun and just threw herself over them. Her father could only lament the sorry state they were all in afterwards – although he was tempted to simply ignore them.

Just another day at the Inuzukas'.


Chapter Text

Ever since they'd returned to Suna from their break in Konoha, it was sometimes difficult for Kiba to face Temari while knowing he might leave; he more than once contemplated telling her, but then he figured he might be making a mountain out of a mole-hill, and he should just wait and see. There was no good answer, in his mind. Plus despite the fact that he did have Anko's promise in writing – it had either a red stain of questionable origin or a lipstick mark next to her name, and he honestly wasn't sure which was creepier – he wasn't 100% ready to put all his faith in her just yet.

And yet a month later, Konoha's HQ transmitted that a captain position would open up – with Maki calling him to cheerfully add that they already had 'someone in mind, wink-wink, nudge-nudge', which, as Kiba understood it, was a clear message from Anko that she'd kept her word.

Really, a job posting shouldn't ever have been so ominous, in Kiba's opinion.

And of course, it figured that he finished early while Shikamaru was working late that day, leaving him to turn the idea around in his head on his own!

He still managed to fall asleep waiting for him, although he snapped out of it when the front door opened and closed. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up on the couch to look at his husband, yawning for good measure. "Busy day?"

"Yeah – worst part is, I don't even know why," Shikamaru assured him as he yawned as well, easily influenced man that he was – at least when it came to that area. "Were you waiting for me?" he asked him with a raised eyebrow as he reached to run a hand through his hair.

"Mmh," Kiba confirmed as he pulled him closer to bury his face in his stomach. "Gh coll mh ki day," he mumbled against him.

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at this. "I'd like to say that sounds fascinating, but I actually have no idea what you just said," he admitted.

The tracker pulled back to look up at him with a grin, and pulled him down to share a proper kiss before repeating, "I got a call from Maki today."

Shikamaru immediately connected the dots. "So is it happening for real?" he asked him, half-surprised as he hadn't been entirely certain Anko wasn't just talking smack.

"Oh, it's real alright – we received the official job opening notice at the HQ right before I got her call," Kiba replied with a huff as he let himself fall back on the couch, arms crossed over his chest.

"So what do we do now?" Shikamaru asked him with a raised eyebrow as he looked at him in amusement.

Kiba pushed himself up on his elbows and frowned slightly as he looked at him. Opening and closing his mouth once, he finally said, "Let's go back home?"

Shikamaru held his look and then huffed in amusement. "Good thing Gaara's in a good mood!"

Kiba laughed and then sat up straighter as something in his tone made him realize it wasn't just a figure of speech. "Did something happen?"

The shadow-nin raised an eyebrow at this. "Not specifically, but Kankuro told me that Darami actually stayed for breakfast, this morning," Shikamaru informed him with a grin. "Temari was at Sojiro's, that's probably why she didn't tell you," he then added with a shrug.

"Wow…I guess in Gaara-Darami terms that means marriage on the horizon!" Kiba joked with an amused laugh at this, having to admit that sometimes just thinking about these two holding a romantically inclined conversation almost made his sides hurt. But they worked remarkably well, somehow – probably because they likely didn't have romantically inclined conversations in the first place.

Shikamaru shrugged nonchalantly at this. "I have to admit, having both Gaara and Kankuro in successful relationships has made work considerably more agreeable at times."

"I have to find an excuse to visit the tower tomorrow…" Kiba muttered as this, he just had to see. Turning back to the shadow-nin, he took his hands in his and looked him in the eyes. "So, all jokes aside…we're doing this?"

"We're doing this," Shikamaru confirmed against his lips, as though it was that simple.

Then again, maybe it was.

In all honesty, Kiba wasn't stalling.

He really wasn't.

Inuzukas didn't stall. Ever.

…but he was a Nara now, and they were notorious stallers, so maybe he was stalling the slightest bit.

Avoiding someone, when their office is literally three steps away from yours, wasn't exactly an easy task – Kiba credited his shinobi training for his success during the morning.

But since he and Temari had their daily briefing in the afternoon, the avoidance had to come to an end, and he found himself surprisingly tranquil as he sat down on her desk as he'd somehow ended up doing regularly over the years.

He started going through the files as he normally would, even going for extremely casual. "And, last and definitely least on the list of our playmates' requests, the HQ in Kumo is asking about common allocated funds for forehead protectors," he concluded as he went over the last few items he needed to brief her on.

Temari, for her part, was not impressed with this appeal. "Tell them to stuff themselves and die a slow and painful death. Their own locally produced idiots are the ones depleting the stocks by breaking them left and right and changing the color according to the season and fashion – so they can handle the replacement costs on their own for once," she declared tiredly but very seriously.

"Tactfully inform them that our own funds have already been allocated elsewhere and put in a good word with the fabrics guild in Kusa for a better deal on the next order—got it," Kiba rephrased, completely unfazed, before moving on to the next topic.

"Up next, transfer requests – I've already authorized a couple; I'll just need your signature so it's all nice and official. I've split the rest into our usual categories—" 'sure', 'whatever' and 'thanks but no thanks', as they'd tacitly agreed on years ago, "—so it's up to you," he finished as he moved the non-negligible pile to her desk, managing to look completely uninterested.

Temari sighed a long-suffering sigh as she reached for the papers, affixing her signature on the first he'd already validated before pausing as she reached the second. "Kiba, this is your file," she noted suspiciously.

All ideas involving the 'playing dumb' card immediately vanished from his mind at her expression.

"It is," he confirmed as he held her look. "And I know we have to make the offer open to follow procedure, but I'd like to nominate Darami as my replacement. I've also put together a list of potential candidates for her own post – with two from Iwa," he added, explaining the folder's thickness. "Although we'll likely receive more applications from the other HQs."

"That doesn't tell me why you're asking me to approve your transfer request," she remarked him with a deep frown. To say that she hadn't worried at all when she'd seen that captain position opening in Konoha would be a lie, but she didn't really think that Kiba would apply.

"We always knew this day would come," he replied with a sigh.

Temari's frown deepened even more at his words. "You love doing this – being this! But even though there's an opening, they'll likely promote internally, so you're not even guaranteed to make captain in Konoha!" she reminded him. "You're a respected figure in Suna, but you've admitted it yourself that they treat you as comic relief over there!" she added, setting her pen down as though to stress that she refused to sign it.

"It's our home," Kiba said with a huff as he leaned against her desk, slightly annoyed that she was right on that point. Still, home was home, no matter what. "It's where we want to establish our family."

"You mean it's where Shikamaru wants to work," Temari corrected with a roll of her eyes. "Because being the Kazekage's assistant isn't the same as one day becoming the Hokage's assistant."

"It's not all on Shikamaru," Kiba tempered as he met her eyes again. "And I actually will get that captain post – Anko's guaranteed it to me in writing," he admitted, glad to get that one off his chest.

Temari visibly wasn't happy with this information. "You want to run that by me again?"

Kiba sighed at this, trying to think back on the dozen speeches he practiced in his mind for this particular talk. "Anko promised me that it would be mine if I wanted it – I even got her to put it in writing."

"So how long have you known that you were leaving?" Temari asked him coldly. "Was it since your visit to Konoha? Wow, Kiba…a full month – and you're only telling me now?"

"Temari…it wasn't like that," he insisted quietly, Akamaru looking glum by his side. "Until the position was openly advertised I didn't know it was a done deal! And seeing as we got the news yesterday, I think I'm being quick in letting you know. Besides, it's not until May, so we have plenty of time," he reasoned.

He'd always hated speaking in hypotheticals. What good would it have done to tell her he 'might' leave a month ago when nothing was sure?

"Look me in the eyes and tell me you don't want to stay," she dared him as she stood to be at his level.

"Of course I want to stay!" Kiba started as he didn't look away. "And I'm glad you're fighting me on this, I really am. I love this village, and you're right: I love my job, and that's partly why I'm leaving."

Temari blinked in confusion at this, cocking her head to the side. "What do you mean?"

"I want to be the commander, not just the deputy," he informed her with a confident grin. And since after all the commander of each HQ was from that village, as things stood now he could only reach that goal in Konoha.

Temari just looked at him, frozen in place for a short moment before relaxing completely and laughing at the situation. "I should've known you were after my job all along!" she teased him easily as she slapped his shoulder.

Kiba grinned back at her and shrugged, resisting the urge to soothingly rub his stinging shoulder. "Well, I didn't want you to start keeping me at bay before I had enough time to learn all your trade secrets!" he teased back before shrugging his head towards the open folder. "So, are you going to sign it?"

"Yeah, yeah…and I don't care if the others aren't happy about it: I'm approving Darami's promotion, so you can tell her the job is hers – if she wants it, but that's another issue," the kunoichi added with a dismissive wave as she sat back down. "I can't deny I'd rather keep running this place with you, but I can't keep you back from doing your own thing," she said in the fond tone she usually reserved for her brothers. "Not to mention dealing with you instead of Anko in the future would be a significant improvement for my morale!"

He had to work really hard not to tear up at that, he really did – he was so proud of himself for staying strong.

"Kiba," she called him back before he could leave. "Did you say it's where you want to establish your family?" she asked him slowly.

Kiba looked to the side self-consciously and nodded. "Yeah…"

"Family – as in: more than just the two of you – children," Temari clarified, chuckling at his nod. "I didn't know that was the plan," she noted warmly.

"Not many people do—I mean, just Shino, and Hana and Aoba, because Kao overheard us and promptly babbled about it…well scratch that, now most of Konoha probably knows too, she's too young to understand the concept of keeping a secret!" the tracker started rambling nervously before clearing his throat to get himself back on track. "We haven't…really looked into the procedure yet though," he admitted. "Maybe it won't even be possible…" he added with a guarded shrug.

"I know you'll find a way," Temari replied with complete faith, grinning at his pleased hum. Okay, so she could understand it a bit better now…

It still took her more time than she cared to admit before she was really able to sign that paper.

She would kill Anko for stealing her deputy the next time they met – with any luck, it would even speed up Kiba's promotion…Win-win!

Over at the Kazekage's tower, Shikamaru's task was only marginally easier. Or not at all.

Forget it, he considered it harder – sometimes he still couldn't figure out what Gaara was thinking. "I hope you understand this decision is in no way a negative reflection of the way I feel about working with you," he said with a frown as the silence had stretched on a bit too much to his liking. "Both of you, actually," he added as his gaze flickered to Kankuro.

The puppeteer raised an eyebrow and then unexpectedly burst out laughing – with even Gaara allowing a small smile, to the Nara's surprise.

And then it clicked.

"You were playing me," he accused as he shoved his hands in his pockets.

"Hey, I was only following my Kage's lead," Kankuro defended himself easily as he sat back on his brother's desk. "And I got to hear you admit it out loud that you enjoy working with me! I wish there'd been witnesses! I wish I'd recorded it for posterity!" he continued smugly.

Shikamaru almost rolled his eyes but then figured that he'd just be playing right into his hands if he did, so he remained neutral. "Well played," was all he said.

"You will be with us another three months still, and leaving Suna does not mean we'll never see each other again," Gaara stated with his usual matter-of-factness. "And I must admit that down the road, it will greatly reassure me to know that Naruto will have you to help him," he added with a fond thought for his best friend – and Shikamaru thought to himself how telling it was, that even Gaara had never doubted for a second that the blond shinobi would become the Hokage but still worried about him.

"Help him? Keep him in line, you mean," Kankuro corrected with a raised eyebrow.

Gaara didn't say anything to that, but then again the lack of contradiction actually spoke volumes. "Now, what is our schedule this morning?" he asked his assistant.

Shikamaru smiled lazily a