Chapter 1: Step 1
Step 1: Find somebody who has a problem that is similar to your own, and offer yourself up as the solution.
Shikamaru had never been so happy to get a mission summons as he was now. He gave a lazy wave to his mother, whose face was pinched in annoyance, and grabbed his already-prepared pack before heading for the tower.
The discussion he had just escaped was one that had been brought up with increasing frequency since he'd turned eighteen. Even his father, who was generally laid back, had been hinting heavily that it was time for Shikamaru to find a partner in marriage.
As the future clan head, he needed to find somebody to take on the role that Yoshino herself now filled. And he only had until he was twenty to do it.
He knew if he didn't name somebody soon he'd be facing an arranged marriage. Probably to Aoi, the civilian daughter of one of Yoshino's friends, if the way their parents had been forcing them together lately was any indication. It wasn't that he disliked Aoi, it was just that he didn't really feel one way or the other about her. If she was anything like her mother, Yoshino's best friend, and Yoshino herself, she'd end up being overbearing and a total pain to be around.
He sighed but pushed his worries from his mind as Kakashi began briefing his team on their mission. He'd figure out what to do about the situation when he got home. What a drag.
"No." Neji wasn't sure whether he or Hiashi was more surprised by what had just come out of his mouth.
For the past five years, Neji and his uncle's relationship had become more stable and less full of resentment. Even at his most reticent, however, he couldn't ever remember outright refusing something his clan head asked of him. Even as he shocked himself with his own audacity, he knew he could not back down on this.
Neji met Hiashi's gaze steadily and spoke the word again. "No. I'm sorry, Uncle, but I cannot do this."
Hiashi raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow. "Oh? Is there somebody else you'd like to put forward as a candidate for marriage, then?"
Neji paused and gathered his thoughts. Hiashi had just informed him that he was in preliminary talks with the parents of another branch member, Chiyo, for marriage. Neji knew that at the age of twenty, as a respected Hyuuga Clan member, he was expected to marry soon. If he didn't have a suitable candidate to put forth, the marriage would move forward with or without his permission.
Later he would blame the spike of panic that went through him at the thought of being married off to a woman, of all things, for his next words.
"There is," he said, genius brain working quickly to come up with a way to forestall the next question that was sure to come from Hiashi's mouth.
After all, nobody was aware he was dating anybody - probably because he wasn't.
"I'd like a chance to speak with him before putting his name forward," he quickly added and didn't miss the way his uncle jerked in surprise at the pronoun.
"Him?" Hiashi said thoughtfully. "If this is a case of gender, I can always find a branch member that is more aligned to your tastes."
Neji tensed and forced himself not to look away from Hiashi's shrewd gaze. He couldn't stand the possibility of somebody else choose his marriage partner. Not to mention that he definitely couldn't think of any Hyuuga he'd want to marry.
The thought of marrying one of his clan members - no matter how hypocritical - was stifling. He wanted to create a path outside of the one laid out for him by others where he could.
Neji needed to stall for time to come up with a solution. He was cursing himself for not seeing this coming before it was dropped on him. An unforgivable oversight, for sure.
"Uncle...the person I have in mind is not of the Hyuuga clan," he said, choosing his words carefully, and Hiashi frowned.
"Neji, you know the Clan Elders will not allow such a strong member of the Hyuuga clan to marry just anybody. To get a marriage outside of the clan approved, the union would need to benefit the clan greatly."
Neji wanted to be angry with his uncle, but he could see the sorrow behind Hiashi's stoic facade. If there was one thing Neji had learned in the past seven years, it was that even as clan head Hiashi did not have absolute power.
"I understand. I don't believe this will be an issue." If Neji had any less control over himself, he might have winced at the hole he was digging himself into.
Hiashi cocked his head to the side. "I believe it would be more expedient to simply tell me the name of your lover so that I can begin preparing arguments in your favor."
Neji knew he was blushing slightly at the word 'lover' and 'your' being spoken in the same sentence by his uncle, but both men ignored it.
"I'd like to speak with him first and make sure he would be...amenable to this arrangement. We haven't spoken of marriage before, and I don't want to put pressure on him if he isn't interested."
Hiashi frowned slightly at that but dipped his head in acknowledgment. "Will you speak with him tonight, then?"
Neji felt ice creep into in his veins - he needed more time than that to find a solution.
"He is currently on a mission, and isn't expected to return for a few weeks," he said in a surprisingly level tone, considering his heart felt like it was ready to burst from his chest.
Hiashi hummed, brow furrowed in thought. "Okay," he said. "I can stall the discussion for a few weeks. However, I'll need to have a name or your permission to move forward with finding a suitable match within the clan at the end of that time."
Neji bowed. "Yes, Hiashi-sama."
What had he gotten himself into?
The mission had gone to hell from almost the beginning, though considering what team he'd been sent out with, that wasn't overly surprising. Shikamaru stared down at the map he had scratched into the dirt, his hands held in the upside down circle that meant he was deep in thought.
"If we set up traps here," he pointed at an outcropping that was located at the front of the canyon, "and here," another spot further in, "we can take out a few of the enemy with falling rock and explosions.
"They'll be coming before the backup we requested can make it, so we don't need to worry about friendly fire. Naruto, once they've triggered both traps, they'll be disoriented.
"That's when you'll hit them with the clones, but I want you to henge them to look like the enemy so that they don't know who is friend or foe. Sakura, at Naruto's signal, you'll take down the wall here," he pointed at a weak spot he had identified on their mad dash through the canyon.
At Sakura's firm nod, he turned his attention to Sasuke, who was watching him with a dark, assessing gaze. It was the first time he'd worked directly with the man since he'd returned to the village, but Shikamaru wasn't worried - he trusted Naruto's word that Sasuke was loyal, and so far on the mission, he'd been invaluable.
"Sasuke, after Sakura collapses the canyon wall, you'll hit them with the ninja wire and fire we set up on the way here. Naruto, Sakura, make sure you get out of there fast." They nodded in agreement.
"Okay. I'll stay here and guard the client - if anybody gets through I can use a defensive jutsu I've been working on to keep him safe until you return. This plan will probably only take out about half of the enemy," he warned. "After that, we'll have to keep them at bay until backup arrives. Depending on the team, that should be in two to three hours.
"Keeping that in mind, we need to pace ourselves. We'll switch in and out in teams of two. Sakura and I have worked together before, and our styles compliment each other, so we'll be team one, and Sasuke and Naruto will be team two. Whoever isn't directly fighting is responsible for keeping Haya-sama alive."
"Don't worry, Haya-sama!" Naruto said to the man sitting calmly in the half-dome of earth Sakura had created to shield him from projectile weapons in the fight to come. "We'll keep you safe, believe it!"
He gave Naruto a small, but true smile. "I never doubted, it, Naruto-san."
Neji's team was known for their combat strength. Between Tenten's terrifying weapon array attacks, Lee's monster Taijutsu, and Neji's proficiency with his clan techniques and his intelligence, they could do some truly scary things together.
Still, it was difficult not to be impressed with the sheer amount of destruction Team Seven's original members could accomplish when they worked together - especially when they had the greatest strategic mind of their generation directing them.
They leapt over the bodies littering the ground beneath the scorched rubble of what used to be the walls of the canyon and sped towards the sounds of fighting. They came around the corner to the sight of a battlefield.
A half dozen high-level shinobi were attempting to get past a bedraggled Sakura and Shikamaru to a dome of earth set against the dead-end wall of the canyon. Sasuke and Naruto stood defensively in front of it, blocking any stray attacks that made it past Shikamaru and Sakura.
"The diplomat is alive in the earth dome," he muttered to Tenten and Lee after activating his Byakugan, and they nodded, their faces showing relief.
The man was considered almost as important to peace talks as Naruto himself - to lose him would be a huge blow.
Neji raised an eyebrow as Sakura leapt from a large displaced boulder and slammed a fist down in front of three ninja who weren't quite fast enough to dodge and were sent flying - right into the shadows Shikamaru had waiting for them.
Two more dead. From the looks of things, the fight had been going on for a while, but the Konoha nin didn't falter as Shikamaru yelled "Switch!" in a hoarse voice, and Naruto and Sasuke leaped into the fray while a winded Shikamaru and Sakura fell back into the defensive position.
"Smart," Neji muttered. "By switching off they've been able to conserve energy."
"Tenten, join Sakura and Shikamaru in defense. Lee and I will assist Sasuke and Naruto in taking out the rest of the enemy. If you see a chance to take somebody out long-range, do it." His team nodded in understanding, and they all dashed to their positions.
Naruto beamed at Lee and Neji as they appeared on the battlefield.
"Hey, guys," he said. "Glad you could make it."
Neji let his lips quirk up in a small smile as he landed in front of Naruto.
"I am surprised there are any enemy left. You must be losing your touch," Neji replied in as solemn a voice as he could manage.
"Hey!" the blonde yelped as Neji engaged with one of the nin. "We've taken out a small army worth of ninja, here!"
Once Neji had sent two jounin flying, allowing Naruto and Sasuke to take the advantage and knock them out, he replied.
"Only a small army? Hmm, I'll have to suggest to Hokage-sama that he come up with a training regime to get you back up to snuff."
Sasuke snorted from where he was engaged in battle next to Lee. Neji heard Sakura's distinctive giggle and Shikamaru's short laugh behind him as Naruto cried out in horror.
Kakashi's training sessions with his students, when he had a moment to leave the tower, were legendary, and always ended in the three sprawled out on the ground moaning in pain.
Eventually the last of the ninja were taken out, with two kept alive as prisoners for T & I to pick apart when they got home.
"Took you long enough to get here," an exhausted Shikamaru said as Neji offered him his water bottle, Byakugan activated and searching the area for any missed enemy nin.
"I apologize - we ran into trouble on the way here. They had a perimeter set up to keep backup from reaching you." Shikamaru frowned at that after drinking half the water.
"This whole situation has been annoying," he grumbled, and Neji rolled his eyes, familiar with Shikamaru's attitude after several joint high ranked missions.
He knew no matter how much he complained, however, he always came through with a brilliant plan.
"You did well," he said simply and raised an eyebrow when Shikamaru looked down almost bashfully and shrugged.
"Your missive said that you were being attacked by rogue nin from Iwa," Neji said a few minutes later as the group carefully made their way out of the cavern. "Yet, there were too many. Also -"
"Their skills were too diverse to have been from one country," Shikamaru finished from where he was walking beside him, body battered and exhausted but his eyes still sharp.
Neji just nodded as Sakura hummed thoughtfully from her spot next to Haya in the middle, Naruto and Sasuke taking up rear guard, with Lee and Tenten running perimeter.
"We've heard rumors in Intelligence of a group of rogue nin banding together from different countries with the goal of preventing the Great Nation Treaties from being signed, but this is the first solid proof I've encountered of their existence," Shikamaru said, quietly enough that only Neji could hear him.
"Haya-san is a lynchpin in these talks. He isn't from one of the larger nations, so nobody is worried about his allegiance being to one nation over the others, and his insight and diplomatic skills have proven invaluable. It makes sense that a terrorist organization trying to disrupt peace talks would target him. Do you think we can expect more trouble on this trip?"
"If so, I would expect a more subtle attack than the one we just saw. We've just proven that brute strength doesn't work against us and that we're willing to send in our heavy hitters to keep Haya-sama safe," Neji said.
"That's what I thought, too." Shikamaru sighed. "We'll need to stop soon to rest - I'll tell the others to be prepared for guerilla and assassination tactics. It will put more pressure on you and I to catch it."
Neji cheeks warmed at the acknowledgment of his skill, but just nodded his understanding and ignored Shikamaru's sharp eyes taking in the blush and his subsequent raised brow and quirked lip.
That night and the next day nothing of import happened. Sakura had recovered enough to heal the worst of everybody's wounds, and the enemy seemed to be taking the chance to regroup after their defeat.
Though Neji was still on the lookout for danger, his mind couldn't help but turn over the problem waiting for him at home. His two weeks were up soon, and he still hadn't found a solution. Finding a male that was respected and powerful enough to meet his clan's expectations and that was willing to marry Neji on short notice was no easy feat.
The day they entered Fire Country they all relaxed a bit, though everybody was still wary of attack. They were sitting around the fire, Haya already asleep in his bedroll, when Naruto turned serious blue eyes on Neji and did what he was best at - blurted out something that took Neji completely off guard.
"What's wrong, Neji? You've been down since we met up."
Neji's eyes widened minutely as everybody's attention turned towards him. He wanted to lie and say it was nothing, but it was impossible with Naruto's wide blue eyes on him, and Shikamaru's calculating brown ones.
The desperation that had been clawing at his chest hit peak levels, and to his shame he found himself trembling slightly under Naruto's kind regard.
Naruto made a noise of concern and put a hand on his shoulder. "Whatever it is, we'll help you. You're not alone," he said softly.
Lee gave him a thumbs up and a smile. "You know Tenten and I will always help you in whatever way we can."
Despite knowing that there wasn't actually anything his comrades could do to change his situation, he couldn't help but feel just a tiny bit better for their support.
"I lied to my uncle," he blurted and looked down at his hands to avoid their gazes. "He told me he was planning to arrange a marriage for me within the clan and I...panicked. I told him that I was seeing somebody else.
"Someone who has enough power and influence that the clan elders would agree to let me marry them even though they aren't a Hyuuga. But this person doesn't exist, and when I get home tomorrow, I'll have to tell him I don't have an alternative, and by next year I'll be married to a stranger."
For a moment everyone was silent, and then his friends erupted into chatter all at once.
"They can't just...just force you to marry someone!" Tenten said from where she had stood, fists clenched. "They've already taken so much."
"I will challenge all of the elders at once -"
"That's archaic -"
Naruto was staring down at his fists clenched in his lap. When he looked up his eyes were red and he was shaking.
Neji blinked in shock - he knew Naruto had control of the Kyuubi and wasn't going to hurt him, but his eyes only bled into red when he was really and truly angry.
"I won't let them," he growled and everyone else went silent. "Hanabi and Hinata and I have all agreed that once I'm the Hokage, we'll put a stop to the Caged Bird Seal, but I...I won't let them force you into this while we work on a peaceful solution."
Neji hesitated before placing a hand on Naruto's arm. "I am thankful for your support. All of you," he said, looking at his friends' furious faces - well, except Shikamaru, who had fallen into his thinking pose, which was just as terrifying as Naruto's red eyes to anybody who had ever worked with the man - and meant every word.
"But this is not something that can be stopped." He held up a hand to prevent the wave of protests.
"Naruto," he continued gently, "this is not something specific to the Branch family. In fact, usually, it is members of the main line that expect arranged marriages if they don't find a suitable spouse on their own.
"Branch members generally have more freedom in that regard. However, my status has made the elders interested in me, and so they meddle." Neji gave a small, humorless smile. "I am the pride of my clan, after all. I was hoping I could find somebody outside of the clan to marry to save a modicum of my independence, at least, but I just didn't have enough time to find a solution."
"What are the requirements of your spouse?" Shikamaru spoke for the first time, and Neji looked over at him, surprised at the intensity on the boy's face.
"Somebody that the clan couldn't say no to ideally," Neji said slowly. "So a well respected and connected member of the community. They would probably need to bring some sort of benefit to the clan, monetary or otherwise."
He paused before saying, "I also informed my uncle that I prefer men, so this person would need to be male. But, like I said, I only have until we arrive in the village to give Hiashi-sama an answer. There's no way I could find a person before then."
"Well, maybe we could buy you some time," Sakura said from her spot on the other side of Naruto. "I mean, if we all put our minds together, I'm sure we can find a solution. Either we can convince your clan to leave you be, or we can find somebody who fits your criteria." She hesitated. "But Neji, don't you want to marry for...for..."
"Love?" His lips quirked up into a smile and he shrugged. "I would be happy with somebody I respect and admire, and that feels the same for me. Somebody who doesn't just see me as the Hyuuga genius -" he cut himself off, embarrassed at his openness, but the people sitting around the fire didn't seem put off by it.
"I have a similar problem," Shikamaru said and everybody looked over at him.
He had come out of his thinking pose and had the intense, focused look that meant he had made a plan and now just needed to get everybody else on board so he could execute it.
"My parents have been pressuring me to find somebody to marry before I take on the responsibilities of Clan Head in a year. I know they're considering an arranged marriage since I haven't chosen somebody on my own. I don't want to deal with romance or a nagging wife."
Sakura and Tenten both cracked their knuckles and Shikamaru winced a little, then grumbled something about them proving his point.
"Shikamaru, are you suggesting..." Neji turned his head towards Naruto, whose face had brightened in realization.
"What?" Neji asked, confused, and Shikamaru chuckled.
"I guess what I'm saying is, Neji, will you marry me?"
Neji gaped at Shikamaru as their friends once again erupted into chatter around them.
Chapter 2: Step 2
Step 2: Get everybody else on board.
Shikamaru met Neji’s shocked gaze calmly. He was enjoying throwing the stoic man off balance, something that was usually a difficult feat. His heart was beating faster than usual as he waited for his reply. He couldn’t believe the answer to his problems at home had fallen so neatly into his lap.
Neji was a trusted comrade, somebody whose intellect, though geared in a different direction than Shikamaru’s, was closer to his own than any of their peers. He wasn’t loud, overbearing, or likely to yell at Shikamaru for his laziness. If he had to marry, a union of convenience with somebody that understood the life of a ninja and wouldn’t ask too much of Shikamaru was the best case scenario.
“Do you even like men?” Neji finally said, and the rest of the group quieted and leaned forward in interest. Shikamaru had never dated, never shown an interest in it before now, so he understood their curiosity.
He shrugged. “Gender doesn’t really matter to me.”
“What about Temari-san?” Tenten asked from across the fire.
“What about her?”
He knew the rumors that were going around about them. Most people outside of his close circle assumed they were dating, or moving towards it. Part of that had to do with the fact that Temari was halfway in love with him. He had mostly ignored her feelings, as rejecting her outright would probably result in him being crushed by a thousand liters of sand. She was also his friend, a good one, and he didn’t want to hurt her.
Actually, this would provide a neat solution to that situation, as well. If he married a man, nobody could say he’d rejected Temari, since the assumption would be that he simply preferred men.
“Well, aren’t you two...” Tenten drifted off, shifting uncomfortably.
He snorted. “No. Like I said, I find women troublesome. I’m not interested in Temari that way.”
Neji’s expression had gone thoughtful as he worked through the implications. “You certainly fit the criteria. If the elders rejected our betrothal, it would be an insult to your clan. You’re also considered a hero of the village, and your father is a formidable clan head.”
Shikamaru yawned, then nodded. “Yeah. We’ll probably still need to claim that it’s a love match to get my father and your uncle to enter serious talks. Otherwise, nobody will bother to get up in arms.”
Neji frowned. “I believe there was a similar situation with a main branch cousin some years ago. The elders somehow caught wind of her dating the cousin of the Inuzuka clan heir. They threatened to force her sister into marriage in her place if she didn’t break off the relationship and marry somebody from the clan.”
Sasuke scoffed, and to Shikamaru’s surprise actually joined the conversation. “Well, we’ll need to get in front of them, then. After all, we just witnessed Nara’s very touching marriage proposal,” he said, lips twitching up into a sarcastic smile.
“If you were somehow forced to reject it at a later date, all those people we told about your obvious love for each other in the face of an arranged marriage would be suspicious. Your clan has already lost political capital in the village the past few years after the truth of the Caged Bird Seal came out. They won’t want to risk it.”
Naruto grinned at Sasuke as if he had suddenly announced that ramen had become Fire Country’s official dish and Sakura sent him a soft smile. Shikamaru shuddered at the adoration the three were showing as they stared at each other, reaffirming his belief that love was a total pain.
“That’s a good idea. When we get back, the rest of you will tell people that Neji was upset because of his upcoming arranged marriage and that I proposed to prevent our separation. It was all horribly romantic,” he said with a grimace and Neji snorted delicately next to him.
Shikamaru shot him a half smile. “That is, of course, if you accept?”
Neji studied him closely. He didn’t ask if Shikamaru was sure, which he appreciated. He wouldn’t have offered if he wasn’t, and Neji knew him well enough to understand that.
“I accept your proposal,” Neji said, relief evident, and returned his smile.
They made it to the village the next day without further incident. Their party had been watching the two with thoughtful expressions, but after Neji and Shikamaru had spent some time assuring them that they were content with the arrangement, they’d accepted their decision and vowed to help their plan succeed.
Shikamaru would never stop being thankful for his friends. He trusted that even Naruto could keep their secret. He had grown up a lot in the last few years. They all had.
After debriefing, as they went to separate at the door of the tower, Naruto loudly congratulated them on their engagement and demanded an invite to the wedding. Since it was midday, the street was crowded and his announcement pulled the attention of curious shinobi.
Shikamaru sighed but couldn’t help quirking his lips up at Naruto’s antics. “Thanks,” he said, then turned to a resigned and red-faced Neji. “I’ll walk you home.”
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and ignored the raised eyebrows of his companions. The Hyuuga compound wasn’t on the way to the Nara compound and it wasn’t like Shikamaru to go out of his way for anything.
If they were going to make this relationship believable and garner the support of the village, though, they’d need to actually be seen together. Neji seemed to pick up on his thoughts because he just nodded and fell into step with him.
Shikamaru studied Neji from the corner of his eyes as they walked. The stress that had been obvious in the man for most of their travels had left him. Shikamaru secretly thought he’d lucked out. Neji was gorgeous, after all, along with being smart, talented, and self-contained.
“Thank you,” Neji said, breaking the silence, and Shikamaru tipped his head towards him in question.
“For agreeing to this,” he clarified. “The thought of marrying within the clan...”
Shikamaru shrugged. “I told you, this is helping me, too. I would have ended up married to a civilian that’s just like my mother.”
He couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran through him at the thought. To his surprise, Neji laughed, something that he’d rarely seen him do in the past. It made his already handsome face even more attractive and Shikamaru grinned at him in response, unable to help himself.
“Well, I am thankful, all the same. To find somebody that I trust and respect on top of considering a friend is more than I had dared to hope for,” Neji said as they turned the corner that would lead them to the Hyuuga compound.
Shikamaru blinked once, slowly - Hyuugas weren’t known for their heartfelt declarations, so he assumed that Neji meant every word. “Me, too,” he finally settled on.
Neji gave him another small, rare smile at the gates, ignoring the guard. “I’ll tell my Uncle tonight, so your parents can expect to hear from him in the next week or so.”
Shikamaru slumped. “I’ll tell my parents, too. Hopefully, word hasn’t already reached them. Naruto is so troublesome."
Neji surprised him again with a low, pleasant laugh. “Well, that’s what you get for proposing to me in front of all our friends,” he said serenely, ignoring the way the Hyuuga guard stiffened behind them.
“Well, you’re not any better,” Shikamaru said, “accepting with a smile on your face while they were still watching.”
He was pretty sure the guard was doing the Hyuuga version of gasping in shock. His eyes had widened minutely and his jaw had slackened. From the way Neji’s eyes were glinting, he knew Shikamaru was enjoying messing with the aloof clan member as much as Neji was.
“I suppose that is true.” He reached out and ran the knuckles of two of his fingers down the side of Shikamaru’s cheek. “Thank you for walking me home. I’ll see you soon.”
Shikamaru stared at Neji as he turned and glided past the guard, ignoring the man’s expression. Shikamaru brought his fingers up to where his cheek was still tingling before shaking his head. Maybe this whole situation wouldn’t be as problem free as he’d assumed.
That night, after showering and taking a nap, Shikamaru sat at the table, listening to his mother chatter on about Aoi, trying to come up with a way to broach the subject of his engagement. His father, who had been studying him closely all evening, brought it up for him.
“I heard an interesting rumor today,” he said and took a bite of rice.
Yoshino frowned at her husband. Shikamaru understood her confusion - it wasn’t like Shikaku to gossip. He slumped in his seat, already knowing what was coming.
Shikaku sighed and set down his chopsticks before giving Shikamaru an unimpressed stare. Yoshino looked between them, brow furrowed.
“You should expect an invitation from Hyuuga Hiashi soon,” he finally said and Shikaku pinched the bridge of his nose.
“So it’s true,” the man said.
“What’s true?” Yoshino snapped and both men twitched.
“I asked Hyuuga Neji to marry me, and he said yes,” Shikamaru stated without fanfare, then took a fortifying sip of water in preparation for the discussion to come.
Yoshino’s face went from shock to disbelief, then finally morphed into a scowl.
“Absolutely not,” she said, and Shikamaru felt familiar annoyance flare to life but didn’t outwardly react.
“It’s a done deal.”
“It’s not a done deal until the contracts are signed, and we won’t be signing them,” Yoshino said.
“Why not?” Shikamaru asked though he had his suspicions about the answer.
“He’s a Hyuuga!” Yoshino bit out and Shikamaru pressed his lips together to keep from responding.
Shikaku sighed. “We can’t just refuse, Yoshino. The whole village knows about the engagement.”
Shikamaru fought to keep the triumph off his face. Good old Naruto.
“So?” Yoshino asked, red-faced. “It’s not their business! And they can’t honestly expect us to be okay with Shikamaru marrying somebody from a clan that thinks using seals to control their members is a legitimate form of leadership. This man will be in a position of authority in the Nara clan. Also - what about heirs? I’m sorry, but I refuse to let this happen.”
Shikamaru was taken aback by her vehemence. He knew many people looked at the Hyuuga clan elders with distrust, but he hadn’t actually expected such intense prejudice from her. Most of the clan had simply been victims to the old traditions of the elders, after all, including Neji.
“Well, that’s not really for you to decide,” he said more harshly than he usually would.
“Shikamaru...” Shikaku said in a warning tone, but he’d had enough.
Just like his father, he wasn’t quick to anger and preferred to avoid confrontation where he could - especially with Yoshino. But he was so tired of her insistence that he marry who she wanted him to that he'd lost patience.
“I’ll marry Neji, or nobody at all,” Shikamaru said, voice hard.
He met both of his parents’ surprised gazes levelly, so they would know he was serious.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Yoshino said. “If you don’t marry, the clan might vote somebody else in for clan head.”
“Then I guess you’d better hope the talks go well with Hyuuga Hiashi.”
He didn’t miss the way his mother’s eyes narrowed - she should know his mind had already picked up on the possible scenario of Yoshino and Shikaku pretending to go along with the engagement only to subtly sabotage the process. Not that he thought his father would do that, but he did seem to bend to Yoshino’s whims a little too easily at times.
“I mean it, mom. Neji is my choice, and other than your problem with his clan and the fact that he isn’t a baby making machine, he’s a good one.”
Shikaku studied his son. “Tell us why you want to marry him, then. Convince me.” He held a hand up to silence Yoshino when she went to argue, not taking his eyes from Shikamaru’s face.
He sighed and slumped back into his seat. This part, he knew, would be the hardest. Lying to his father was impossible, so he’d need to answer with the truth without revealing that this was not a love story.
“Neji is one of the strongest people I know,” he began slowly. “He overcame the obstacles of being born into the Hyuuga branch family to become one of the village’s greatest and most respected assets.
“He is loyal, steady, and strong. He’s smart enough to keep up with me and understands the duty of a shinobi and that of a clan head more than most. I’ve always respected him, and find that he suits me well as a partner.”
Shikamaru paused there and scratched the back of his head, uncomfortable under his parents’ gazes. “I also trust him.”
Shikaku hummed. “So you care for him,” he said bluntly.
Shikamaru nodded because it was true - he cared for all his friends.
“Are you sure about this? There will be no backing out once talks start with the Hyuuga. We can’t afford a silly rivalry between two of the village’s most important clans right now. I know Neji is part of the branch family, but he is Hiashi’s nephew and that man cares for him like a son.”
Shikamaru thought of a life with Aoi and nodded firmly. “I’m sure,” he said, hoping that his father picked up on the seriousness of his answer.
Shikaku sighed and ran a hand down his face.
“This is going to be so troublesome,” he muttered.
Shikaku stared across the table at Hiashi, studying him closely. He knew he was being scrutinized by the Hyuuga clan head in turn, but wasn’t bothered by it. They both stayed silent until the waitress had finished making their tea and exited the private, sealed room, sliding the door shut behind her.
“So,” Shikaku said and lifted the cup of tea to his lips to take a small sip. “If our kids have their way, it looks like we’ll be family soon.”
Hiashi’s eye twitched in annoyance and Shikaku‘s mouth turned up into a smile, though inwardly he was wishing the tea was something stronger. He wasn’t sure there was enough sake in the world to make this situation bearable.
When he had passed Tsume on the street yesterday the woman had laughed so hard at his predicament that she’d had to stop and lean against a wall for support. Why couldn’t Shikamaru have chosen anybody else in the village for his scheme to escape his mother’s matchmaking?
“It appears so,” Hiashi finally said in a dry tone.
An awkward silence descended until Shikaku broke it. “Well, we should hash out some of the details now before going to our clan elders. It’ll be easier if I know what I can’t include, and what your hard asks are.”
Hiashi raised an eyebrow at that, and he shrugged.
“You and I both know this is going to be a pain. We may as well cut some of the back and forth now.”
Hiashi nodded. “I am assuming since he will be marrying the future clan head and therefore taking on the responsibilities that entails, that you will want Neji to take the Nara name.”
Shikaku dipped his head in confirmation, so Hiashi continued.
“I don’t believe that will be an issue for the elders, as Neji is sealed. However, if they choose to find a surrogate and have children, any children born with the Byakugan would need to train under Neji or another member of the Hyuuga house.”
“The children will still live with the Nara clan, though we will find somebody that can train them in the Gentle Fist and Byakugan. We can work out the details on that later,” Shikaku agreed.
He then took a sip of tea before setting it down and meeting Hiashi’s gaze squarely. “They will not be sealed,” Shikaku said in a hard tone that was rarely used and never argued with if people knew what was good for them.
Hiashi drummed his fingers on the table. “I should be able to get the elders to agree to that. They are aware of Konoha’s general discontent with the seal. I believe between the efforts of Hinata, Hanabi, Naruto, Kakashi-sama, and myself, that nobody else will be sealed, in any case. But we will include it in the contract.”
“Good.” Shikaku took a sip of his tea in a way that he told himself wasn’t petulant.
“Now, I suppose we should discuss dowries.”
Shikaku stared down at the table mournfully and wondered what he had done in life to deserve such punishment.
Chapter 3: Step 3
Step 3: Spend time with your intended; strictly as a way to convince others of your deep commitment.
“Shikamaru!” he sighed and looked up at the sky, but didn’t bother to pretend that he hadn’t heard Ino calling his name.
He slowed down and turned towards her, raising an eyebrow at her stormy expression. She stomped up to him, ignoring the people on the sidewalk she shouldered out of the way and smacked his arm.
“Ouch, woman! What the hell?”
“How could you not tell me you’re engaged? I had to hear it from Sakura, you ass!”
He opened his mouth to snark at her, but then took in her tense posture and furrowed brow - something she never did unless she was distraught as to avoid premature wrinkles - and sighed. Her feelings were hurt.
“I haven’t had a chance yet. We’ve barely been engaged two days, and you were out of the village yesterday. Naruto opened his big mouth, and now the whole village knows. My father even found out before I could tell him.”
Ino’s face cleared and she rolled her eyes. “That idiot! Of course, he’d do something like that. Well. I can’t believe you’re the first to get engaged out of all of us. I thought you’d end up an old man with grey hair, sitting on your porch by yourself and sniping at passing old women.”
Shikamaru’s lips quirked up. Ino knew him so well. If it weren’t for his mom, he might have ended up there. They turned and fell into step with each other, both heading to Intelligence for a shift.
“Eh, I guess Neji just cracked through my hard outer shell.”
“Pfft, you’d better hope he didn’t, since all he’d find under it is dust bunnies.”
“So mean.” He stumbled when she shoved his shoulder good-naturedly.
They reached the building, and he reached out and opened the door for her. She swept through it, then turned to face him, walking backward. “I didn’t even know you were dating,” she said, head tilted to the side.
“People are so annoying, always giving out dating advice. We didn’t want to deal with the drama.” He yawned. He hated mornings.
“Huh. I guess that makes sense.”
Shikamaru wondered if he should feel bad about lying to Ino. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Plus, the truth would just make her sad and then she’d get all overbearing and try to ‘fix’ it for him. Then the game would be up, and he’d be back to awkward dinners with Aoi and their parents.
She turned back around and walked next to him until they reached the stairs. She had to go down to Interrogation, and he needed to go up two levels to cryptology.
“We should do a double date. You and Neji and me and Sai. It would be fun.” Ino's eyes were wide and hopeful.
He resisted the urge to sigh. Not many people realized that Ino was sensitive beneath the bluster and beauty. If he didn’t go, it would hurt her feelings.
Though if they went and managed to convince the biggest gossip in the village of their love, that would only strengthen their position. Shikamaru knew his mother. If she sensed any weakness, she’d go for the jugular. Ino would help them build an ironclad defense.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll ask Neji.”
She brightened, and he suffered through a quick hug before she turned and sashayed down the stairs, ponytail swinging.
He was slumped over his desk a few hours later, trying to decide between going and getting lunch and just napping. His mother usually packed him one, but she wasn’t exactly happy with him at the moment, so she’d left him on his own. He put his head on his desk and ignored the snickers of the other ninja around him.
He’d spent the morning pouring through every piece of intel they had on the group that had attacked them during their escort mission. It was becoming more and more likely that shinobi from various villages had banded together to try and stop the peace treaties from being signed.
These weren’t missing-nin, either. All of these shinobi were loyal to their villages, to the point of being extremists. He thought it was ironic that they were working with shinobi and kunoichi outside of their respective villages to prevent the villages from working together. People were so damn illogical sometimes.
“Shikamaru,” a familiar voice said, cutting through his annoyed thoughts, and he lifted his head and squinted up at the person standing in the doorway.
“Neji.” He straightened and barely resisted the urge to make sure his hair wasn’t messy from his head’s foray on his desk.
Neji tilted his head and his eyes crinkled in amusement at the corners. His white kimono shirt and loose pants were impeccable, his grey apron perfectly placed over the top. Shikamaru was pretty sure his shirt was wrinkled beneath his flak jacket. Another side effect of pissing off his mother. Then he wondered why he even cared about his appearance.
“I packed you a lunch today,” Neji said and Shikamaru’s eyes darted down to the two bento in his hands.
He ignored the whispers around him, especially the “Aw look how cute they are,” from Naiya.
“That’s perfect, actually.” Shikamaru stood and stretched his arms over his head, making a sound of relief when his back popped.
He then flipped off his coworkers, who were making kissy faces in their direction, before moving to the door. He put his hands in his pockets and followed Neji down the stairs and out the back entrance.
“You seem tired,” Neji noted and Shikamaru shrugged.
“Eh, my mother’s in punishment mode,” he admitted as they entered a mostly-empty park.
“Oh? She wasn’t happy about our engagement then?”
They sat down on a bench and Neji set their bentos between them. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow as he opened one to reveal two perfect rice balls and seaweed salad.
“She still has this fantasy that I’ll marry her best friend’s daughter, Aoi, and we’ll make babies and they’ll be co-grandparents.”
He accepted the chopsticks and box that Neji handed him. His lips pulled up into a small smile that Shikamaru found himself thinking was charming - what was wrong with him - before he busied himself with his lunch.
“And what does this vengeance look like?” Neji asked before taking a delicate bite of his salad.
Shikamaru cleared his throat and shrugged. “Waking me up early by vacuuming the house, giving me extra chores. Refusing to do my laundry or make my lunches.”
He sulked down and glared at his rice ball before taking a bite. It was good - delicious, actually.
Neji raised an eyebrow. “You’re almost twenty. Shouldn’t you be doing those things for yourself?”
Shikamaru huffed after he swallowed. “Why should I? What’s the point of living with my parents if my mom isn’t going to do that stuff for me? This is good, by the way.”
Neji seemed scandalized. “The point is that you’re an adult. Also, you wouldn’t have to come into work hungry and looking like you slept in your clothes.”
Shikamaru slumped and scowled at the ground. Neji sighed.
“I won’t be able to maintain the house as your mother does, along with being an active shinobi and the husband of the clan head.”
Shikamaru glanced over at him, taking in his downcast expression.
“If you’d prefer someone who can meet those needs, perhaps -”
“No.” Shikamaru's voice was surprisingly firm. “You’re right. I can...learn to do...housework.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. While Shikamaru was lazy enough to let somebody else do day to day chores for him, he was smart enough not to allow it to be used as leverage against him.
Neji’s shoulders lowered and he sent Shikamaru that same amused look that he’d been wearing around him recently. It made Shikamaru’s skin tingle and he shifted uncomfortably.
“I would be happy to assist you in learning these skills.”
“So you’re pretty good at all that?” Shikamaru took another large bite.
“Yes. As a branch member, it was my responsibility to learn to do such things. It was only later in my life that I was recognized for my achievements as a shinobi.”
Shikamaru hummed and swallowed the food in his mouth. He’d never say this out loud for fear of being murdered by his mother, but he was pretty sure this was even better than the lunches Yoshino made him.
“You could come over tonight. My uncle is out of the house, which means we generally fend for ourselves. We’ll make dinner. Bring tomorrow’s clothes, and we can iron them for you, too,” he said primly.
Shikamaru snorted. “That’s really bothering you, huh?”
Neji tilted his head and gave him an unimpressed look. “I can’t have my fiancé running around looking like a slob, now, can I?”
Shikamaru sighed and slumped back against the bench, setting his now-empty bento aside. “It’s not that bad.” He scowled when Neji pointedly didn’t say anything.
He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, knowing that he’d have to head back inside soon. The late fall sun was pleasantly warm on his face, and the park around them was mostly empty and blessedly silent.
“So what time should I come over?” Shikamaru said a few minutes later.
“Hmm. Just stop by when you’re done with your shift. After you grab clothes for tomorrow for us to...deal with.”
Shikamaru slid further down on the bench and crossed his arms over his chest. It’s not like he’d shown up with stains on his shirt or his underwear on over his pants.
“Have I offended you?” Neji asked and Shikamaru rolled his head to the side and peeked open one eye.
Neji was sitting as primly as he usually did, back straight, hair perfectly in place. The only sign of his discomfort was the way his hands clenched together and the tiny furrow between his brows. Usually, other people’s unease didn’t bother him, but something about the way Neji’s eyes darted to his, unsure, made him feel a little guilty.
“Nah. Just annoyed with the situation with my mother, I guess. Sorry. I’ll try not to be such a grump.”
Neji gave a small, delicate snort, but his fingers relaxed their grip on each other. “Nara, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you be anything other than grumpy unless you’re asleep.”
Shikamaru stretched his legs out in front of him and tilted his lips up slightly. “Eh, it’s part of my charm.”
Neji’s shoulders shook in a silent laugh next to him and Shikamaru felt his smile grow just a fraction wider.
Instead of heading home after work Shikamaru grabbed the extra change of clothes he kept in his locker in the jounin break room for emergencies. He’d rather avoid his mother wherever possible at this point. He loved her, but she was a major pain when she got worked up.
He made his way to the Hyuuga compound. The guard there let him in, and Shikamaru sent him a suspicious look when the man seemed almost friendly. He hadn’t thought the Hyuuga clan did friendly. Huh.
Neji was waiting for him just inside the gates, and Shikamaru glanced around the compound in interest.
The design was traditional, with slightly elevated wooden buildings that had sliding doors and thatched roofs. Large, peaceful gardens and courtyards dotted the area, and Shikamaru counted three koi ponds before they entered one of the more modest houses.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I thought we could do this in my house instead of the main one.” Neji offered him a pair of clean slippers and slid the door shut behind them.
“Nah, it’s fine,” Shikamaru said. “I prefer the peace and quiet.”
Neji raised an eyebrow at the obvious statement and Shikamaru shrugged.
“Alright. I thought that we’d start with the basics,” Neji said.
“Seems like a sound strategy.”
Neji reached up into a cupboard and pulled down a bag of rice. “The general rule is two to one proportions of water and rice. A cup will be enough to feed us both. I’m going to double that, so we have some left over for our lunches.” His motions were sure as he opened various drawers and pulled out a pot, a metal bowl, and a measuring cup.
Shikamaru just nodded along, committing the instructions to memory. So far it seemed simple enough.
Neji measured two cups of rice into the metal bowl, then moved to the sink and gestured for Shikamaru to follow him.
“First we need to rinse the rice. Otherwise, there will be too much starch, and the rice will be overly sticky.”
Neji turned on the tap and let the bowl fill with water. He neatly folded up his sleeves before reaching into it and gently stirring the rice with his hands.
“You see how cloudy the water is? We want it to be as clear as possible before cooking.” He drained most of the water, holding back the grains of rice with one elegant hand.
“I’ll start the water boiling if you work on this,” Neji instructed and Shikamaru sent him an amused look at his bossiness.
“Alright.” He unzipped and removed his vest before draping it over a chair at the small kitchen table.
He rolled up his sleeves and went over to the sink after Neji had measured out the water he needed. Shikamaru turned on the water, watching as it became immediately cloudy upon hitting the rice.
“What else are we making?”
“I thought we could do a stir fry with various vegetables from the garden. They are already prepped in the fridge. I would have saved the prep work had I known we were doing this lesson earlier,” Neji said, then moved over to watch as Shikamaru drained the rice.
“The water’s cold,” Shikamaru complained.
“So it is.” Neji lifted an eyebrow.
“I’m sensitive to cold,” Shikamaru grumped, draining the rice again.
“That should be fine.” Neji put his hand over Shikamaru’s when he set it on the knob to turn on the water again. It was warm against his chilled skin and felt nice.
“Alright.” He glanced over at Neji, who was standing close to him.
The hair that framed his face fell forward when he tilted his head so he could meet Shikamaru’s gaze. His skin was clear, and his eyes, which Shikamaru had always vaguely recognized as beautiful, were distracting this close-up.
Neji blinked once, slowly, before clearing his throat and lifting the bowl from the sink. Shikamaru didn’t miss the blush on his cheeks when he turned towards the stove. Well, that was unexpected, but not, he was surprised to note, unwelcome.
Shikamaru hadn’t felt the need to be physically intimate with somebody else for months. Sure, he got urges, but he took care of them himself, not wanting to go through the annoying song and dance of finding a willing body that wouldn’t have expectations later.
His last partner had gotten needy, despite Shikamaru’s clearly stated boundaries. It had caused enough drama that Shikamaru had vowed never to have sex with someone casually again. He supposed it didn’t get any less casual than being engaged.
He frowned. They hadn’t discussed that aspect of their marriage. Or any aspect of it. It was...surprisingly short-sighted for Shikamaru.
He let his thoughts ruminate in the back of his mind while Neji finished showing him how to start the rice cooking, then followed him back into a small laundry room while it simmered on the stove.
“Alright,” Neji said, “now you’ll learn to iron.”
“Can’t wait,” Shikamaru said, but obediently slouched over stand with Neji, watching as he plugged in and switched in the iron. He spent a good ten minutes talking about seams and settings and wrinkles.
By the end of it, Shikamaru had a nicely pressed uniform, though the half Neji had done was visibly sharper. Eh, Shikamaru was okay with mostly ironed.
The rest of the evening was comfortable, Shikamaru sitting on the counter and watching as Neji sautéed the vegetables, listening to his steady voice explain why he used certain spices or sauces.
When they sat down to eat, Shikamaru had to admit it was delicious. Neji looked down and murmured a thank you, which was a pretty bashful move for the man, and Shikamaru tried not to be charmed by it. He failed.
He headed home with his nicely folded uniform in a bag and tomorrow’s lunch under his arm, feeling vaguely like he’d been knocked over by a rampaging Chouji.
I have a crush on my fiancé, he finally admitted to himself and gave a tired sigh. Things could never be simple.
Chapter 4: Step 4
Step 4: Open a clear line of communication.
The next morning he entered the kitchen mid-yawn dressed in his mostly-unwrinkled uniform and ignored the sharp look his mother gave him. He poured a glass of milk and popped two pieces of bread in the toaster since it looked like she had once again forgone making breakfast.
He waved it in the air in front of Shikaku after it popped up, and he grunted. Shikamaru buttered it, then placed it in front of his father, who raised his eyebrow but took a bite.
“You want some, mom?” he asked after a moment of hesitation.
“No,” she snapped and pressed her lips together.
He shrugged and spent the next two minutes staring miserably at the toaster before the bread popped up. He had just sat down and taken a bite when Yoshino spoke.
“You look nice today,” she said, more suspicious than admiring.
He swallowed. “Thanks.”
Her eyes narrowed. Shikaku looked between the two of them before hiding behind his newspaper. Coward.
“You didn’t come home until late.”
“I had dinner with Neji.” Shikamaru busied himself taking another bite of toast as Yoshino’s lips twisted.
“There’s a bento in the fridge.”
“Well, there were leftovers, so we made lunch for today,” he said and stared down at his empty plate, wondering if making more toast was worth further conversation with his mother.
“I suppose my bentos aren’t good enough for you anymore, then?”
Ah, guilt was the name of the game today. Shikamaru shrugged and stood, bringing his plate to the sink. “I thought you might want a break. I’m a grown man, after all.”
He washed his plate quickly and darted over to the fridge, pulling out his bento just as his mother exploded.
“Oh, so now you don’t need me anymore, huh?”
Shikamaru decided retreat was the best option and darted out the front door, Shikaku on his heels.
“Was that necessary?” his father grumbled.
Shikamaru just shrugged, and his father sighed. They were silent until they reached Intelligence. Shikamaru turned towards the door.
“I know she’s your wife, and you want to support her,” he said, still not looking at Shikaku. “But don’t forget - I’m your son. I could use some support here too.”
It was the closest he’d come to arguing with his dad since the day Shikaku had dragged him kicking and screaming out of the house to attend the Academy for the first time. Shikaku didn’t reply, but then Shikamaru hadn’t expected him too.
What a mess.
Neji firmly told himself not to fidget as he entered the restaurant. He had nothing to be nervous about. He was well acquainted with Ino, after all, and had been on a few missions with Sai as well. If they were going to disapprove of the engagement, they would have already.
Shikamaru had been over to his house three more times that week, and it had been unexpectedly pleasant. Now that the overwhelming relief of having found a solution to his problem had faded, he was starting to think the situation through.
Shikamaru was undeniably apathetic, grumpy, and terrible with people in general. Most individuals would think twice before attaching themselves to him for life, and a month ago Neji would have counted himself among that group.
Lately, however, Neji had found himself thinking that his acerbic commentary was funny. His perpetual grumpiness just reminded him of Hanabi’s cat, which Neji was quite fond of. Neji had also noticed that his indolent nature paired with his indifferent expression was quite sexy when he took his intelligence and skill as a shinobi into account.
So while Neji wasn’t rethinking marrying Shikamaru, he was somehow more nervous about the whole thing than he’d been before he had come to the discovery that he might be developing feelings of the romantic sort for him.
Going on a double date with one of the people who ostensibly knew Shikamaru the best, and whose opinion undoubtedly held weight with the man, was putting Neji on edge.
The hostess looked him up and down in appreciation before leading him through the restaurant, but he ignored it, used to his looks and elegance pulling that sort of attention. His eyes landed on Shikamaru as soon as he became visible. He was leaning forward in his chair and resting his chin on a fist, rolling his eyes as Ino said something to him in a low voice, a small smile on her face.
Sai was watching Ino, head tilted to the side and eyes creased in amusement. It was a domestic scene, and Neji had the sudden urge to run the other way. Shikamaru chose that moment to glance over at him, however. He raised an eyebrow when the hostess put a lingering hand on Neji’s arm as she walked away.
Neji’s lips pulled up on one side and just like that, his nerves calmed. Shikamaru stood as he approached the table and Neji reached forward and ran the back of two knuckles lightly down his cheek, enjoying the softness of his skin against his fingers.
Shikamaru grumbled a hello and his eyes darted to the side. Ino was watching the interaction with wide eyes and Sai was studying them with his head tilted in that odd way he had.
“Hello,” Neji greeted.
“Hey, Neji,” Ino said as he sat, Shikamaru sinking low into his own chair.
“Ino,” he greeted. “Sai.”
“Congratulations...if that’s the right thing to say,” she teased.
Neji looked over at Shikamaru, who was glowering at his water glass.
“Yes, I think that’s appropriate,” he said.
Shikamaru glanced at him, eyes sharp and searching. Neji met his gaze levelly, and after a moment his expression cleared and he humphed, sounding more like a cranky old man than a nineteen-year-old boy.
“Yeah, I guess it could be considered a happy occasion for both of us,” Shikamaru agreed.
Ino’s smile was bright when Neji finally pulled his gaze from Shikamaru’s, and he busied himself with the menu to hide his fluster.
“So, Shika, I heard that they’re talking about giving you a promotion in Intelligence,” Ino said slyly and Shikamaru sighed.
“Ino always knows everything about everybody. Sometimes even before you know it yourself.” He sounded more annoyed than impressed.
“Ino is also up for promotion,” Sai offered and Shikamaru perked up a bit at that.
Ino blushed, but she didn’t drop her gaze or act modestly. She just smiled and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well, it’s been coming for a while, hasn’t it?”
Shikamaru rolled his eyes but didn’t argue. Neji was trying to decide between pork or chicken when Ino’s eyes landed on him. “I heard Shika and I aren’t the only ones up for career advancement.”
“Really?” Shikamaru asked, interest obvious.
Neji hesitated. “What do you mean?”
Ino leaned forward. “I mean, the Hokage is considering adding you to his personal guard, right?”
Shikamaru’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Really? That’s a big deal.”
“You didn’t know?” Ino asked, glancing at Shikamaru and looking honestly surprised.
Shikamaru just frowned and gave a small shake of his head, though his eyes were still on Neji. Neji felt a flash of annoyance directed at Ino but did his best to hide it.
“I was under the impression that this wasn’t common knowledge,” he said carefully.
Ino just waved her hand in the air dismissively. “A lot of the things I know aren’t common knowledge.”
Neji wondered how Chouji had survived being on a team with both Ino and Shikamaru with his sanity intact. He pressed his lips together and glanced at Shikamaru, who seemed to be back to slumping over in a pout.
“I haven’t even told my family,” he said in a low voice to him, wondering as he did why he even felt the need to explain. “If it didn’t work out, I didn’t want anybody to be...disappointed.”
Shikamaru relaxed, then turned a glare on Ino, who at least had the grace to look ashamed. “Keep your mouth shut about it, Ino.”
She held up her hands. “I will, I promise. I haven’t told anybody else, you know I wouldn’t.”
Shikamaru nodded and Neji decided a subject change was in order. “Your promotion - is it within Interrogation?”
Ino perked up, and the topic of her role in T&I carried them through ordering and appetizers. Neji and Ino had somehow gotten onto the subject of healing poultices and field first aid while they ate their entrees.
Neji wasn’t an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but all Hyuuga shinobi were expected to know the clan’s recipes and first aid procedures. They had been passed down to generations of kunoichi and shinobi from a time before Konoha was born, so he did have some tips she’d never heard before.
He hadn't needed to speak to Ino much before this but found her more engaging than he would have expected. She was smart and quick witted, and a good conversationalist when she wasn’t blurting his private business out to all and sundry.
Sai was mostly silent, but when he spoke it was usually because he had something of substance to add. Shikamaru, of course, only contributed to the conversation when he had to. Neji had never thought he’d be the talkative one in whatever relationship he ended up in.
By the time they paid and left, Shikamaru was accepting Ino’s praise for his choice in men with a self-satisfied expression that should have been off-putting. Instead, Neji was pleased with his apparent pride in Neji as a partner, and when Shikamaru offered to walk him home, he accepted without a second thought.
“Have fun?” Shikamaru asked as they turned off the main road towards the quieter parts of Konoha.
“Sorry about Ino. Sometimes she doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut.”
Neji shrugged. “As long as she does keep it to herself, it’s fine.”
“She will,” Shikamaru said, “now that she’s promised.”
Neji didn’t reply, choosing instead to enjoy the night sounds around them.
“You know, it really is amazing that you’re even being considered for the guard. I doubt Kakashi-sama will pass you over, but even if he did...” Neji glanced over at Shikamaru, who had looked off to the side and was rubbing the back of his neck.
“Yes?” he prompted, and Shikamaru sighed and dropped his hand.
“Well, I’d still be proud of you. So in the future, if you want, you can...tell me about that stuff.”
Neji’s chest warmed along with Shikamaru’s cheeks. They were standing at the corner where the road leading to the Hyuuga compound met with one of Konoha’s residential streets. He could see the gates of his home, and the stiff figure of the guard.
“That is good to know,” he said lamely, studying Shikamaru.
He looked quite handsome in the low lighting, the black lines painted around his eyes giving him a fierce countenance. His shoulders strained against his shirt nicely, his long legs tapering up into slim hips that were attractive in ways that had Neji’s body warming. He wondered idly what they’d feel like wrapped around his waist, and whether Shikamaru would be willing to sometimes engage in the more carnal side of marriage.
When he finally dragged his gaze back up to Shikamaru’s face, his eyes were focused on Neji; head tipped to the side. He was working something through in that impressive mind of his, and Neji patiently waited him out.
“I wonder,” Shikamaru said, drawing out his words and rocking back on his heels. “If you’d let me kiss you.”
Neji swallowed. “I would,” he said in a low voice.
Shikamaru hummed and took his hands out of his pockets. He stepped forward until there was only an inch of air left between them. Neji’s lips parted slightly when he reached up with one hand and lightly touched the lock of hair framing one side of Neji’s face.
“Hmm, just as soft as I imagined,” Shikamaru said.
Before Neji could ask him just how long he’d been wondering about the texture of his hair, Shikamaru leaned forward and pressed his lips firmly against Neji’s. They were close to the same height - Shikamaru had maybe an inch on Neji - so he only had to duck his head slightly. His lips were soft and dry, and he didn’t try to deepen it past the initial press.
Despite the relative innocence of the kiss, it still sent a thrill through Neji, and one hand lifted to settle on Shikamaru’s waist over his flak jacket. He swayed forward and shivered when his chest brushed against Shikamaru’s, who made that humming sound he was so fond of in response.
Shikamaru swayed back, then leaned in for another kiss, though he still didn’t try to deepen it. His hand moved from where he’d been idly rubbing the lock of Neji’s hair between his thumb and the knuckle of his pointer finger to cup Neji’s jaw and the side of his neck beneath the fall of his hair.
When Shikamaru broke the kiss the second time he stepped back, letting his hand slowly fall back to his side, his fingers leaving goosebumps in their wake as they trailed across the sensitive skin of Neji’s neck.
“I was trying to figure out a way to ask if you’d be interested in a physical relationship without sounding like a creep. Guess I have my answer,” he said, and Neji’s eyebrow twitched in annoyance as he was brought out of his post-kiss haze.
This time, he didn’t think the superior expression on Shikamaru’s face was cute at all. Had the kiss been merely some test to see if Neji would be willing to satisfy his physical needs? His ire rose along with his embarrassment. He’d thought the kiss was sweet, something that hinted at the possibility of a deeper emotional connection. It seemed as though he’d been wrong.
“I think,” he snapped, “that you’re getting ahead of yourself. One kiss doesn’t mean I’m ready to lay back and think of Konoha.”
Shikamaru’s eyes widened. “I didn’t mean -”
“Next time you have a question like that, just ask instead of putting me through some ridiculous Nara test.”
Before Shikamaru could reply he spun on his heel and stalked down the street, leaving the other man standing on the corner, one hand raised in the air, mouth working as he tried to figure out what had just happened.
“Way to go, Shikamaru,” he grumbled to himself as Neji disappeared through the gates and the guard gave him a suspicious look.
Shikamaru was slumped over his cereal, generally feeling sorry for himself and ignoring Shikaku’s version of concerned looks (side-eyeing him every time he turned a page in the report he was reading) and Yoshino’s hopeful one. His mother probably guessed that he was feeling shitty because of a fight with Neji, and was eagerly awaiting an announcement that they had broken up and Shikamaru was miraculously in love with Aoi.
“How did dinner with Ino and Sai go last night?” Yoshino finally asked.
“Neji was there too,” he pointed out in an annoyed tone, then took a deep calming breath and ignored his father’s warning look.
The number one house rule: never be rude to your mother. How could Shikamaru have forgotten? Why did he still live at home, again? It used to be pure laziness, but now that his mother was punishing him he didn’t even get the benefit of her doing all the housework and making him food.
“It went well. Ino and Neji have a lot in common.”
He shoved his last bite of cereal in his mouth and stood before she could reply. He washed his bowl out and set it on the drying rack. When he turned around both of his parents were looking at him like he’d grown a second head.
“You...washed your own bowl,” Yoshino said.
He hadn’t been that bad before Neji started teaching him how to cook and do laundry and clean.
Shikaku tilted his head to the side. “Your uniform is clean and nicely pressed, but I didn’t hear your mother ironing this morning.”
Shikamaru looked at the ceiling. “I can iron my own clothes.”
“I never taught you how,” Yoshino pointed out.
“...Neji taught me,” he admitted, a little embarrassed at how helpless he’d let himself become.
Perhaps he’d been a little too passive about the things his mother did for him.
“Huh,” Shikaku said, then went back to his papers.
Shikamaru was sure his father had Thoughts on what had just transpired but knew he’d keep them to himself. Yoshino’s expression was an odd mix of pride and annoyance, and Shikamaru decided to get out while he could. He had to catch Sakura before her shift, after all.
Neji moved through his warm-up stretches, ignoring the way his tired muscles protested the movements. He hadn’t slept well the night before, instead of spending the time he should have been in slumber castigating himself for his overreaction.
He’d acted like a spurned teenager instead of a grown man. Shikamaru didn’t owe him romance just because Neji had decided that he liked the annoying man.
This was an arrangement, and even if Neji had hoped that the sweetness of the kiss meant that Shikamaru was having thoughts of the romantic persuasion about Neji, well, that was just him reading too much into it.
Shikamaru probably thought he was some needy hanger-on now. Neji stood abruptly and went to stand in front of a training post, moving his body through the familiar punches and strikes his uncle had taught him years ago.
He hadn’t been lying when he told Sakura he wasn’t expecting or even hoping for a romantic match. Yet something about the almost sweet way Shikamaru had been treating him the past few weeks had made him hopeful, he supposed.
When he discovered that Shikamaru was only angling for sex, it had hurt more than Neji expected. Especially considering that his one and only lover had treated him similarly in the past, a humiliation that still burned if he let his thoughts linger on it.
Neji cursed as his hit went a millimeter to the left of where he meant to land it. He tugged his hand back and stared down at the splinter now sticking into the meat of his hand. It was large, at least an inch long, and half of it was embedded deeply in his palm.
He’d seen the loose piece of wood, of course, but had just made a mental note not to land a strike there. It seemed he was more distracted than he initially thought, which was unacceptable.
“Here,” a voice said, and Neji jumped in surprise.
Shikamaru was standing a few feet away, holding his hand out palm up. He was in his usual slouched posture, but his eyes were wary. Neji couldn’t help but let his eyes linger on his lips, which he now knew would be firm and soft against his own.
“I didn’t hear you arrive,” Neji said, and slowly held his hand out, which was now dripping a small amount of blood down the side, following the path of one of the lifelines.
“I didn’t want to distract you.” Shikamaru gently cradled Neji’s hand and frowned down at the wood, hissing in sympathy. “Ouch. Looks like it stings.”
Neji just hummed and tried not to enjoy the feeling of Shikamaru’s calloused fingers against his skin.
“Come on,” Shikamaru said.
He pulled Neji over to a log that looked like it’d been kicked down at some point by an over-enthusiastic ninja. That was probably exactly what had happened since Lee tended to use this particular training field often.
Neji sat next to Shikamaru, who laid his hand in his lap before reaching into his jacket for a small first aid kit. At first, it looked like the standard one that all chunin and jounin carried. On closer inspection, however, it held some extra items.
“What is that?” Neji asked, tapping a small tube lying next to the bandages in the open box with his free hand.
Shikamaru pulled out a pair of tweezers. “It’s an antibacterial cream created by my clan,” he said, and bent low over Neji’s hand, brow furrowed in concentration.
“I can do that, you know,” Neji said mildly, though he didn’t try to pull his hand away.
“I’m your fiancé, I’m supposed to help you out with stuff like this,” Shikamaru said as he grasped the piece of wood and started to tug it out gently.
It stung, but it wasn’t painful compared to other injuries that Neji has sustained, so he didn’t flinch.
“That is...if you’re still willing to marry me despite my...idiotic show of masculine obtuseness.”
Neji raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like a quote.”
Shikamaru’s lips quirked up on one side. The splinter slid out, and he studied it with an unreadable expression before dropping it onto the ground. He put the tweezers back and took out the tube.
“I may have gone to Sakura for advice this morning,” Shikamaru admitted readily, and some of Neji’s surprise must have shown because Shikamaru gave a small, self-deprecating smile.
“A good strategist knows when he’s out of his depth and calls for reinforcements.”
Neji laughed before he could help himself, and Shikamaru’s smile turned pleased. It was back to being adorable, annoyingly enough. He gently rubbed the paste onto Neji’s wound after wiping away the blood that had pooled there.
“She explained to me that it’s generally bad form to bring up having sex right after a first kiss. Apparently, it’s as good as saying that the only thing I cared about was sex when I should have been letting us...bask in the romance.”
Shikamaru sighed and wiped his finger off on the bandage he’d used to clean the blood, then reached for a fresh roll.
“Sometimes I’m not...great with interpersonal relationships, and I say the wrong thing. Anyway, I want you to know that it’s not just sex. I guess I like you. Romantically. Though sex is something I wouldn’t mind doing, as well, if you’re willing at some point. ”
Shikamaru was scowling and avoiding his gaze as he wrapped the bandage around Neji’s hand with sure movements. The ointment had taken most of the sting out of the cut, and though he probably didn’t need the bandage, he also didn’t want Shikamaru to stop.
The only other person who treated Neji so gently was Hinata, and their respective places in the clan meant that they generally kept a wall of propriety up between them. While Hinata would bandage his hand without thinking twice about it, he probably would feel guilty the whole time that the heir of the clan was doing something so mundane for him.
“So. This marriage, you want it to be more than a simple...arrangement?” Neji said.
Shikamaru sighed and looked over at him. “I suppose I did it all backward. Asking you to marry me first, then kissing you, and only now getting around to asking you on a proper date.”
Neji raised an eyebrow. “Is that was this is?”
“Yep. I thought I could pick you up around seven?”
Neji knew his smile was overly soft but didn't try to stop it. “Alright,” he agreed.
Shikamaru gently placed Neji’s hand into his lap, then busied himself with putting his supplies away.
“Thank you,” Neji said, running his fingers along the edge of the bandage.
Shikamaru just shrugged, but his cheeks were slightly pink. Neji stood and straightened his apron.
He glanced up at Neji from where he was fiddling with a cigarette and lighter.
“You can safely assume that I’ll be willing at some point.”
Shikamaru’s cigarette fell from his lips, and he fumbled to catch it as Neji turned and walked away, ducking his head to hide his smile.
Chapter 5: Step 5
Step 5: Show him you care.
Shikamaru sometimes forgot that his mother used to be a kunoichi. Then she’d suddenly appear in front of him as he was attempting to leave the house without being seen, eyes narrowed and arms crossed, and he’d remember.
“You look nice,” she said, taking in his button up shirt and black pants that he’d asked Ino to help him pick out earlier that day.
He’d regretted his decision by the third store they’d visited, but he had to admit she had a good eye. She’d even followed him home, then insisted on doing his eyeliner for him before clapping and squealing and taking a picture.
She’d run away, laughing, before he could take the camera from her. Ugh, women.
“Thanks,” he said, resisting the urge to squirm.
She reached out to adjust his collar. “I’m not trying to be a monster, you know. I’m just worried.”
Shikamaru studied her. “You should meet him before you make any judgments.”
Yoshino stepped back and tilted her head to the side. “You’re probably right. Why don’t you bring him to the dinner we’re having with Chouza and Inoichi’s family next Friday?”
“Alright.” Shikamaru narrowed his eyes when her answering smile was too bright.
If there was one thing he knew about his mother, it was that she didn’t give up easily. He didn’t have time to feel her out, though, since he was going to be late if he didn’t leave right away.
He put the problem of his mother out of his mind as he made his way to the Hyuuga compound. He waved hello to a few of his clan members that were out and about and ignored their double takes. It wasn’t very often that he wore anything other than his standard shinobi uniform, after all. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, breathing deeply and letting the nicotine soothe his frazzled nerves.
Shikamaru had never put effort into dating before and thought it was kind of funny that he was only doing it now, for somebody who was guaranteed to marry him anyway. It would probably seem strange to somebody from the outside, but it made perfect sense to him.
It was only smart to make sure he had a fairly healthy and respectful relationship with his future husband. Now that there seemed to be some mutual attraction, at the very least, Shikamaru had to tread lightly. There was serious potential for bad feelings to develop if he screwed up again.
It was with that cheerful thought in mind that he stopped to buy flowers, already knowing that Ino wasn’t working that evening. The girl that she’d hired to help out on the evenings and during weekends put together a small bouquet without a word.
Shikamaru arrived at the Hyuuga compound at seven on the dot, throwing his third cigarette to the ground and stepping on it. He was nervous and annoyed that he was nervous. What had he gotten himself into, anyway?
Neji stepped into the room where Shikamaru was waiting and raised his eyebrow at his outfit and the flowers in his hands. He smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and was scowling down at a lily, which surely would have wilted by now if looks could kill.
“Shikamaru,” he said, and the man’s gaze drifted to him. His eyes moved over him, and his expression cleared.
“Neji,” he greeted. “You look nice.”
“So do you. Are those for me?” He didn’t try to keep the amusement from his tone as the scowl made another appearance.
“They’re lovely. You do know that it isn’t necessary?” He crossed the room and took them from him.
Shikamaru just shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets, pulling the fabric of the already snug pants he was wearing tighter across his hips and groin. Neji let his eyes linger appreciatively.
“Well, I’m not going to complain about it,” he said. “Give me a moment to put these in water, and we can go.
“Sure.” Shikamaru wandered over to look at a large watercolor rendition of Konoha hanging on the wall.
When Neji returned he was still looking at it. “This is good,” he said, and Neji moved to stand next to him.
“My mother painted it,” he admitted, and felt Shikamaru’s eyes on him, though he kept his on the painting.
“It’s strange, seeing Konoha as it was before Pein.”
Neji nodded. “I agree. It’s nice, to have a piece of the past as a reminder.”
Shikamaru just hummed next to him. When Neji glanced over at him, he was looking at him with a small smile playing across his lips. “Should we go? I made reservations.”
Neji hoped his nerves weren’t apparent. This was his first time on an actual date. The only other relationship he’d been in had been a behind-closed-doors affair. He forced his mind away from that and turned to lead Shikamaru from the room and through the compound. Dwelling on his mistakes was not the type of reminder of the past that he preferred.
Shikamaru took him to a restaurant with low lighting that was mostly comprised of tables for two with lit candles set upon thick white tablecloths. He looked supremely uncomfortable as they sat, and Neji’s mood lifted along with his amusement. It was sweet, how hard Shikamaru was trying with his by-the-book date, and soothed the rest of Neji’s ruffled feathers over what he’d said after their kiss.
“So,” Shikamaru said after he’d ordered a bottle of wine and some appetizers.
Neji leaned back and raised an eyebrow, enjoying his uncharacteristic awkwardness.
“My mom invited you to the monthly Ino-Shika-Cho dinner next Friday.”
Neji took a sip of wine to buy himself time before answering. He knew he’d have to face Shikamaru’s mother at some point, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. His existence had derailed her own plans for Shikamaru, and like any Nara, she’d be annoyed at his interference with her scheming.
“I look forward to it,” he settled on since there was no reason not to be gracious when he knew there wasn’t a choice.
Shikamaru’s lips turned up at the corners. “Liar,” he said, then leaned back, apparently feeling better now that it was Neji who was off-balance.
Neji raised a brow. “You have no proof.”
His chest warmed when Shikamaru laughed. The conversation turned to clan politics, which was one that Neji generally avoided. Shikamaru’s caustic remarks and sharp insights, however, made it bearable.
“I had no idea that your relationship with the Yamanaka was anything but roses and sunshine,” Neji said, fascinated.
Shikamaru shrugged and swallowed a bite of steak he’d just taken. “Yeah, well, we put up a good front, but we’re still part of different clans, with different needs. It’s almost more of a pain trying to hammer out contracts with the Akimichi and Yamanaka. We have to be careful not to be too cutthroat in our dealings, which is difficult for a clan full of strategists. I know dad’s taken losses on some business deals with them just to keep the peace.”
Neji tapped his fingers on the table. “I wonder what they’ll think of dealing with a Hyuuga in these matters.”
“If anything, it will be useful. Your clan is known for taking hard lines, so they won’t take it personally.”
Neji looked down at his pasta. It was a nice thought, that he could be useful to Shikamaru’s clan. He took a bite - the food was good - and they both fell into silence for a while. When he looked up Shikamaru’s eyelids were drooping, and he seemed content.
“I have a secondary interview tomorrow. For the position Ino mentioned.”
Shikamaru looked up at him in interest, and Neji tried to resist the urge to fidget. He hadn’t spoken to anybody about the possible promotion, outside of when Ino revealed it at dinner.
“That’s a big deal.”
“A branch member has never held a place on the guard before,” he said in a low tone. “As far as I know, no Hyuuga has.”
Shikamaru’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “I don’t doubt you’ll get it,” he said simply before taking another bite.
They didn’t speak of it again, but Neji had a hard time keeping the small smile on his face from growing through the rest of the meal.
Shikamaru walked him back after he paid, hands in his pockets and posture much more relaxed than when they originally set out.
“You know,” Neji said, and Shikamaru glanced over at him. “I appreciate the gesture of the date. However, I think I prefer the more simple get-togethers we’ve been having.”
Shikamaru looked so relieved that he chuckled. “I don’t like places like that any more than you do,” he admitted.
“Yeah, well. Sakura said I should take you there.”
“Sakura is an intelligent woman,” is all Neji said, and Shikamaru sighed.
“Now I’m just confused.”
“An uncomfortable feeling for any Nara, I would imagine,” Neji said, voice and movements placid.
Shikamaru was silent at his side for a while. “This is your revenge, isn’t it?”
“Revenge is for the petty.”
He turned his head away to hide his smile when Shikamaru groaned. When he looked over, however, he seemed more amused than annoyed.
This time when Shikamaru kissed him, he opened his mouth and allowed him to run his tongue along his own. Without the bulk of his flak jacket in the way, Neji could feel the heat of him through his yukata. He slid his hand around his waist, rubbing his thumbs in light circles over the soft fabric of the shirt.
Shikamaru had one hand tangled in his hair, and the other was resting on his hip. The smell of cigarette smoke wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and he discovered that Shikamaru was anything but lazy when he kissed.
Every flick of his tongue and change in angle felt deliberate and focused and sent heat twisting around Neji’s spine. They stood there kissing for a long time until Neji felt lightheaded and his lips were tingling.
When Shikamaru pulled back, his eyes were half-lidded and his cheeks were flushed. Neji licked his lips and his gaze followed the motion with interest.
“I’m going to go now,” Shikamaru said, voice low and husky.
Neji hummed, then leaned forward to kiss him again, letting his lips linger.
“Alright,” he whispered. “I’ll bring you lunch tomorrow?”
Shikamaru blinked rapidly when he stepped back, and Neji was a little proud of the effect he had on him. “I - yes. That would be good.”
Neji’s lips twitched. “Goodnight,” he said, then turned and made his way towards the gates.
Shikamaru was still standing where he’d left him when he glanced over his shoulder right before he entered the compound. He only had a few moments to feel smug before Hiashi appeared before him.
“Uncle,” he said, jolting in shock before bowing belatedly.
“Neji. How was your date?” Neji cleared his throat as Hiashi’s eyes took in his no-doubt ruffled appearance.
“It went well, thank you for asking.”
“A guard informed me that you and Shikamaru seemed to have a disagreement yesterday,” Hiashi pressed.
“Ah. We’ve worked it out,” Neji said stiffly.
He kept himself still under his uncle’s steady gaze. After a few moments, his face softened minutely. “Every couple has their troubles. I am gratified that you have worked through it. I want your future to be bright, Neji.”
Neji felt a stab of guilt when Hiashi put a light hand on his shoulder before sweeping past him and heading for the main house. He couldn’t help but wonder what Hiashi would say if he knew that Neji had lied to him.
Shikamaru ignored the raised eyebrows he garnered when he was the first person out the door after his debrief ended. Yeah, he got it, he didn’t generally rush around unless it was a life or death situation.
The meeting had run late, though, and he knew that Neji was stopping by for lunch. He seemed to have been forgiven for his screw up, but he didn’t want to push his luck.
When he entered his office, Neji was standing at his desk, looking down at the notes there with interest. “You’re getting closer to figuring out who the ringleaders are.”
Shikamaru walked up to stand next to him, ignoring his team as they filtered in and started up with the kissing noises again. “Yeah. We’re just waiting to hear back on some inquiries I sent out.”
He held his breath when Neji turned towards him and propped his hip on the desk. “I’d like to be on the team that you put together when it’s time.”
Shikamaru glanced down at the notes as he thought the request through. He wasn’t being asked by Neji his fiancé, he knew, but by Neji his teammate.
“If it makes sense, I’ll include you,” he agreed.
Neji’s lips quirked up. They both knew that he was useful in a fight and in information gathering missions, so most likely it wouldn’t be a problem.
“Alright.” He reached up and ran the back of two fingers down Shikamaru’s cheek in a gesture that was quickly becoming familiar. “Do you still have time for lunch?”
“Yeah. Sorry I’m late.”
Neji picked up the bentos he’d packed from the desk and they both turned towards the door. Shikamaru sighed when they caught the tail end of Naiya and Daiki staring into each other’s eyes and slow dancing in an obvious parody of Shikamaru and Neji.
“Ignore them,” he grumbled.
Neji looked more amused than annoyed, luckily, even when Naiya yelled, “Don’t have too much fun! You’ve got to be back here in forty-five minutes, after all!”
“Sorry about them,” Shikamaru said once they were making their way down the stairs.
Shikamaru gave him a sideways look before stepping forward to open the door for him. “That’s one way to put it,” he drawled and tried not to feel overly pleased at the resulting laugh.
They had just set their food aside when Shikamaru decided to bring up the subject of their relationship status. “So. It seems as though we’ll be more than simple roommates once we’re married.”
Neji paused where he was packing their garbage back into the bentos and looked up, face wary. “Yes. I’m aware of your outlook on romance in general, however...”
He drifted off and looked down at the bench. Shikamaru waited patiently for him to speak, wishing he had a cigarette. Neji took a breath and met his eyes squarely.
“I’m not one who can keep things casual while being physically intimate with someone.”
Shikamaru leaned back against the bench and considered that. “Well,” he finally said, “I don’t think it gets any less casual than marriage. Perhaps we should consider doing this...for real.”
Neji chuckled, and Shikamaru looked over at him, wondering what about his statement he considered funny. “Nara, did you just propose to your fiancé?”
Shikamaru rolled his eyes.
“You’re such a romantic,” Neji teased, and Shikamaru hunched down and scowled.
“Is that a no, or what?”
A hand on his arm pulled his attention back to Neji, who was watching him with a fond expression. “I’d like that.”
Shikamaru’s lips twitched up and he struggled not to look as relieved as he felt. “Alright. We’ll give it a try.”
Shikamaru threw his cigarette butt on the ground in front of him and ground it into the dirt. He was worried, though anybody who didn’t know him well probably wouldn’t be able to tell. He was leaning against the wall of a clothing shop located across the street from one of the village’s indoor training arenas.
He ignored the foot traffic around him and glanced up at the sky. He’d been there for fifteen minutes already. If Neji didn’t emerge soon, they wouldn’t have much time to talk. His shoulders relaxed when he spotted the man in question leaving the building, and he straightened and made his way through the crowd towards him.
“Neji,” he called, and he stopped and turned, ignoring the flow of traffic around him as he studied Shikamaru.
“Damn, that must have been some interview.” Shikamaru took in the dirt smudged across his clothes and reached up to lightly touch a nasty gash on his cheek. The skin around it was already purpling.
Neji smiled and reached up to grab his hand in his own. “Kakashi-sama is quite the opponent,” he said serenely. Before Shikamaru could properly form a response to information that Neji’s last interview for the position of one of the Hokage’s guard was getting kicked around by Kakashi himself, Neji spoke again.
“Did you come all the way over here just to check on me?”
Shikamaru shrugged and resisted the urge to fidget. “You seemed nervous about it yesterday at lunch. I just wanted to see how it went.”
“Come on,” Neji said and tugged at the hand he was still holding, much to Shikamaru’s combined joy and horror. “Let’s get out of the street.”
They ended up at a noodle stand, sitting next to each other in the shade that the awning afforded. “So? How’d it go?”
Neji looked down at his hands, and Shikamaru’s heart clenched. He’d tried to act like it didn’t matter, but he knew that Neji had his heart set on the position. “Neji, I’m -”
“I start next month,” Neji said, and Shikamaru gaped at him when he hid a smile by taking a drink of water.
“You jerk,” he grumbled, but he didn’t sound convincing even to himself. A smile was playing along his lips, and pride over Neji’s accomplishment was making his chest expand. “Congratulations. I knew they’d choose you.”
Neji ducked his head. “You didn’t seem so sure a second ago,” he said, but he was obviously pleased by Shikamaru’s statement.
“That was shock you were seeing, as in, I was completely baffled as to why they’d choose somebody other than you.”
Neji turned in his seat, and Shikamaru propped his head in his hand, resting his elbow on the counter and angling his body towards Neji’s.
“You mean that,” Neji said after a pause, and Shikamaru shrugged.
“Why would I say it if I didn’t? You’re a good choice. You’re intelligent and damn hard to get through once you set your mind to planting yourself somewhere. Kakashi-sama’s lucky to have you, and he’s a smart enough man to know it.”
Shikamaru’s eyes widened when Neji leaned forward and kissed him. They had spent a few happy hours the past week making out in Neji’s house in the Hyuuga compound, so the kiss itself wasn’t strange. They hadn’t, however, kissed anyplace more public than the perpetually-empty path in front of the Hyuuga gates.
Shikamaru blinked at him when he pulled back, but their noodles had arrived and Neji turned his attention to his bowl. “Better eat, Nara. I have a feeling you’re not supposed to be away from your desk right now.”
Shikamaru shoved a bite of noodles in his mouth, hoping it would stop the goofy smile that was trying to spread across his face from forming. Love was such a pain.
Chapter 6: Step 6
Step 6: Get used to working together; you’re a partnership now.
Neji was pulled from his morning training when a hawk flew overhead in a familiar pattern. A mission, then.
He tried not to feel overly relieved that he would most likely miss the dinner that Shikamaru’s mother had invited him to the next evening. If she was anything like her son, she hadn’t yet given up on her goal of marrying Shikamaru off to her civilian friend’s daughter.
He stopped to grab his pre-packed storage scroll from his room before heading for the tower. When he arrived he was surprised to see that Shikamaru was one of the two other shinobi already in the room. The other was Uchiha Sasuke.
Shikamaru sent him a crooked smile that now had the unfortunate side-effect of sending his heart racing since he tended to flash it right before he pressed Neji down on his couch and kissed him senseless. He moved to stand next to him after bowing and greeting Kakashi, who was leaning back in his chair and drumming his fingers on his desk.
“You’re all familiar with the group of shinobi and kunoichi who have decided to make all of our lives difficult by trying to kill off anybody important to the international peace talks coming up,” Kakashi said without preamble.
“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Neji murmured and Sasuke grunted his agreement next to him.
“Shikamaru and his team have been chasing down leads on them for the past month. We have confirmation on the location of the base of operations which gives us the opportunity to identify the key players.”
Shikamaru handed Sasuke a packet that he’d been holding between his arm and side, then gave one to Neji. His fingers brushed his as he handed it off, and Neji knew it had to be purposeful - Shikamaru was too controlled to do it by accident.
Neji resisted the urge to glare at him. They were working. Shikamaru’s lips twitched and Neji looked down at the information in his hands instead of doing something undignified like hanging the other man out of the window by his ankles. Or kissing him.
Kakashi cleared his throat and Shikamaru yawned before picking up where he’d left off. “Our goal, like Kakashi-sama said, is reconnaissance. We need to get in, learn as much as we can about them, and get back out. It’s best to avoid any combat since it’s going to be a hodgepodge of shinobi from different countries.”
“I suppose that’s why you wanted two different doujutsu,” Sasuke said and Shikamaru hummed his agreement.
“You and Neji are also there to ensure my strategist makes it out alive. Consider this a trial run for your new job, Neji.”
It wasn’t difficult for Neji to say, “Yes, Hokage-sama,” with the proper amount of determination.
This was about more than proving to Kakashi that he had what it takes to be a trustworthy bodyguard. It was also about keeping Shikamaru, whose face had twisted into an annoyed expression, from harm. He had become surprisingly attached to him the past few weeks and would be...upset if anything happened to him.
“Way to call my manhood into question,” Shikamaru grumbled at Kakashi, who just eye-smiled at him.
Sasuke snorted and rolled his eyes and Neji didn’t dignify that with a response. This had nothing to do with manhood or anything else. Shikamaru was an asset to the village, and while he could certainly take care of himself, direct combat was not where his focus lay.
“We believe they’re located at the point where Rain, Grass, and Earth meet. Most likely members rotate in and out, since they’re all active shinobi and can’t be gone from their villages for long. We’ll need to continue our surveillance for at least three weeks to make sure we get an accurate representation of their resources.”
Neji was fairly certain he wasn’t supposed to look forward to three weeks of camping out and surveillance, which was arguably the most boring of all the jobs that were handed out to high-level shinobi. Yet doing all of that with Shikamaru sent his stomach fluttering.
They finished their debrief and Neji ignored Kakashi’s parting comment of, “Don’t let the lovebirds forget they’re supposed to be working, Sasuke-kun.”
Shikamaru sighed and they exchanged a wry look while Sasuke glared at his mentor and the target of most of his ire these days. The three of them walked out of the tower together and Shikamaru put his hands in his pockets. “We’ll meet at the gates in an hour. Pack light - we won’t be putting up tents unless the weather calls for it.”
Sasuke didn’t bother saying goodbye before he took off. Shikamaru looked over at Neji with a raised eyebrow when he fell into step next to him.
“Don’t you need to pack?”
In response, Neji held up his scroll. “I need to stop and buy a rainproof cloak. My last one was ruined.”
“Eh, I should probably get one, too. The lining on mine is fucked.” He sighed and dug around in his pockets for a pack of cigarettes. “I don’t think I’ll have time, though. I’m behind on laundry.”
“Oh? Yoshino-sama still punishing you, then?”
“Don’t give me that judging eyebrow. I’ve been spending all my time going through intel the past few days.” As if to punctuate his point he yawned, and Neji was a little horrified with himself when he found it beguiling instead of rude.
“I’ll get you one,” he offered. “I’ll already be there, after all. It will be a gift.”
Shikamaru’s crooked smile made another appearance. “Ah, such a good wife I’ve found,” he said airily, then yelped when Neji kicked at his ankle and caused him to stumble while keeping his hands laced in front of him and his expression serene.
“You know, when we’re married we’ll sleep next to one another. You may want to keep that in mind when teasing me.”
“Well that’s...terrifying,” Shikamaru said, but he was trying to hold back laughter so Neji didn’t take it seriously.
Instead of responding he reached out and ran his fingers down Shikamaru’s cheek, enjoying the content sound he made in response. “I’ll see you soon.”
Shikamaru tilted his head to the side. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Neji spent more time than he’d like to admit carefully feeling the lining of rain cloaks. He knew from helping Shikamaru with his ironing and watching him run his fingers across the plush blanket across the back of Neji’s favorite chair that he had a weakness for soft, quality fabrics.
He finally settled on matching cloaks in grey with a high-quality wool blend that somehow managed not to be itchy for lining. The owner of the supply store swore up and down that the manufacturer had the best formula for waterproofing to be found in the village. Neji had never spent so much on an item of clothing before, but he had the unreasonable urge to get Shikamaru the best that money could buy.
He arrived at the gates just as Sasuke did and they exchanged nods before going back to their own silent contemplation.
Shikamaru showed up a few minutes later and snorted after taking them in. “Well, there won’t be any idle chatter with you two, will there?”
Neji just raised an eyebrow at him. “I sealed the cloaks into my scroll. Do you want to try yours on before we go?”
“Nah, I trust you,” Shikamaru said casually.
Neji ignored the judging stare Sasuke sent him when his cheeks heated at the words. Luckily Shikamaru was checking them out at the gates and didn’t notice. He was unbearably smug when he managed to make Neji blush.
They ran all day and into the night. Shikamaru had explained that he’d rather arrive under the cover of darkness, so they’d need to keep a steady pace if they wanted to get there before the following morning. Neji wasn’t surprised when Sasuke maintained his speed without visibly tiring, but he hadn’t expected Shikamaru to keep up so well.
He must have sensed Neji’s concern because when they stopped to rest for half an hour sometime after midnight, he snorted. “Neji. I’m part of the Hokage’s contingent whenever we travel. I kind of have to be able to keep up.”
He had said it in a light tone, but Neji could hear his ire. “I wasn’t -”
“Yes you were,” Shikamaru said, then took a drink and stood. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Sasuke glanced between them but didn’t comment, instead adjusting his sword and tucking his own water away. Neji resisted the urge to reach out and grab Shikamaru’s arm since it’d be highly inappropriate. Shikamaru was currently the leader of their team and he’d given the order to move out.
Neji would just have to find a chance to talk to him and apologize for his faux pas after they made camp. Their first joint mission as an engaged couple was off to a fantastic start.
Neji hadn’t realized how used he’d gotten to having Shikamaru’s attention on him until he’d stopped receiving it. He wasn’t effusive, but he would look at Neji every few moments. His sharp commentary on random things he’d noticed and lazy touches didn’t seem all that prolific until they were suddenly gone.
They crossed into Grass under the cover of darkness and approached the border it shared with Rain and Earth two hours later. Sasuke and Neji were scanning their surroundings with their doujutsu activated in shifts, and other than being forced to avoid a patrol their team hadn’t run into trouble.
Shikamaru held up a hand and they came to a stop next to a large pile of boulders. The air had grown progressively cooler and a cutting breeze that smelled like rain was blowing across rocky landscape. The stars were being covered by large, ominous clouds.
“We should put on our rain gear - looks like it’s going to get wet,” Shikamaru said.
Neji and Sasuke both nodded and pulled out their storage scrolls. Neji handed the cloak he’d bought for Shikamaru over without meeting his eyes. Shikamaru grunted out a thank you and paused when he took the cloak from Neji. He pretended not to see the way Shikamaru ran his hands along the fabric as he pulled his own on.
It immediately cocooned him from the wind and Neji’s shoulders relaxed. He pulled the hood up and couldn’t resist rubbing his cheek against the soft lining there. Perhaps he’d consider spending more money on his gear in the future if this was the result. He’d be comfortably warm for the remainder of this mission as long as the sealant on the outside really was as amazing as the shop owner had claimed.
He felt Shikamaru’s eyes on him but resisted the urge to glance over. It would just make him feel even more miserable when he refused to meet his gaze again.
Shikamaru cleared his throat. “Alright. Let’s go. Neji, we need to locate their base, and then find a place to rest and regroup.”
Neji nodded and activated his Byakugan when they started moving again. He could hear the rain against his hood as it started to fall faster around them and his cloak whipped around his legs when the wind picked up. The shopkeeper’s promises seemed to be made in good faith because Neji remained dry and toasty and was relieved when he realized that meant Shikamaru would also be comfortably warm.
After about half an hour he slowed to a stop. The rain was blowing at them sideways and their faces were lit by lightning as it flashed across the sky. He waited until the thunder faded before trying to communicate what he’d found.
Shikamaru and Sasuke both leaned in close so that they could hear each other over the sound of the storm, but he was still forced to yell. “There’s a structure three miles southwest with thirteen people in it. I’ve also located caves half a mile to the east. There is one patrol, but they’re staying close to the base.”
He could see Shikamaru despite the low visibility and cloak and was struck by how handsome he was, even when he only saw him in glowing blue through the lens of his Byakugan. “Okay. Let’s head to the caves - this storm is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Neji, take point.”
They arrived at the caves ten minutes later. There was a whole network of them and they chose a smallish one mostly hidden behind a group of boulders. The entrance was located a few feet above ground level, which meant it would be safe from flooding.
They shook out their cloaks and Neji wrinkled his nose at the way his shoes squelched as he walked. His fancy new cloak couldn’t do anything about the wet ground.
Shikamaru busied himself with unsealing an electric lantern and they all settled into the back of the cave once its meager light gave them some visibility. They began pulling out bedrolls and supplies, pausing when the bit of sky that they could see from the entrance of their cave lit up. Ten seconds later thunder rumbled through their dwelling, strong enough that the stone floor vibrated with it.
“Cozy,” Shikamaru drawled, glancing at Neji. He still had his cloak on and Neji remembered that when he’d been teaching him to cook rice he’d complained about being sensitive to the cold.
Neji looked away, still reeling from the silent treatment he’d been given on the way there. He’d never thought of Shikamaru as an affectionate person until he’d had his particular brand of affection abruptly taken away.
“It’s better than being out there,” he said stiffly and laid out his bedroll as far from Shikamaru’s as he could get while not compromising group safety.
“I’m going to do one more sweep of the perimeter,” Sasuke said then disappeared out the entrance before Shikamaru could protest.
“I’m supposed to be the team leader, here,” he grumbled. Neji didn’t say anything, though he did activate his Byakugan to make sure Sasuke wasn’t being attacked. With the man’s luck, it wouldn’t be surprising.
Shikamaru sighed and Neji glanced over at him. It was difficult to make out his expression in the dim lighting of the electric lamp, but his eyes were on Neji.
“The cloak - it’s really nice. Thank you.”
“Neji, I’m sorry I was an asshole, alright? I was just...” he trailed off, then swore. “I was embarrassed, alright? Kakashi-sama made a big deal out of me needing a bodyguard, and then you were acting like I was some fainting damsel who couldn’t even run -”
“That’s not what I was doing,” Neji snapped. “And the Hokage didn’t tell me to guard you because you’re weak, he told me to guard you because you’re important. As for my worry about your ability to keep up, well, both Sasuke and I are well-known for our physical capabilities. There simply aren’t many people - even jounin - who can keep up with us. It was nothing personal.”
Shikamaru glared down at his feet. “Yeah, well, I don’t want you to see me as somebody who can’t take care of himself. It’s not the impression a guy wants to leave his boyfriend with.”
Neji paused in his angry straightening of his blankets. “Boyfriend?” The word shouldn’t make his chest warm, especially since, pending their families giving in, they were fiancés, but it did.
“Well. Yeah. Or, I thought...” Shikamaru rubbed the back of his neck and scowled at the wall and Neji pressed his lips together to keep from smiling.
“I suppose that’s as good a word as any until our clan heads finish with negotiations and sign the final contract.”
Shikamaru looked over at him. “So does that mean I’m forgiven?”
Neji’s eyes narrowed. “Only if I am.”
“Deal. Now, do you want to move your bedroll over here? I get cold easily. I’m pretty sure it’s your job now to keep me warm.”
Neji stopped trying to fight his smile. “Is it, now? I suppose I shouldn’t be remiss in my duties, then.”
By the time Sasuke came back inside Neji and Shikamaru were huddled next to the lamp over a piece of paper and Neji was drawing out a rough map of the area around the hideout.
“It was too dark to get a complete picture. Even the Byakugan can’t see everything in the dark,” Neji said. “I’ll have to fill in more details once this storm passes.”
Sasuke joined them and crouched next to Neji. “It will be difficult to stay out of sight with the lack of vegetation.”
“The rocks should provide enough cover if we’re careful,” Shikamaru said absently. He sighed and ran a hand over his eyes. “Well, I doubt anybody will be patrolling this area in this weather. We’ll set up traps, but we should take this as a chance to rest, so no watches.”
Sasuke just shrugged. At their level, they’d probably wake up well before anybody got close, anyway. Especially Sasuke - Neji wouldn’t be surprised if he slept with his eyes open.
Neji resisted the urge to blush when Sasuke took in the close proximity of their bedrolls with a smirk. Luckily he was still a man of few words and didn’t comment. They set up traps - some of the ones Shikamaru put together were downright nasty - and then crawled into their bedrolls.
Shikamaru switched off the lantern and Neji glanced over when he felt him turn over so that their sides were touching. They’d never slept together before; in any sense of the word, and Neji felt absurdly nervous, even though they wouldn’t be doing anything scandalous with Sasuke four feet away.
He jumped when Shikamaru’s cold hand found his under his covers and glared in his direction when he snickered. “Your hand is freezing,” he said in a low tone.
“Yeah, well, it matches the rest of me.”
Neji couldn’t stop his low sound of concern and Shikamaru’s hand tightened briefly over his. “It’s fine, I’m used to it. I barely notice anymore.”
Neji’s eyes narrowed. He’d have to gift him more cold weather gear. He was pretty sure he’d seen a sleeping roll that advertised a new lightweight material that also kept its occupant warm in low temperatures. He turned on his side, then tugged on Shikamaru’s hand.
There was a moment of hesitation, and then Shikamaru was silently slipping into his bedroll with him. Neji reached over and pulled Shikamaru’s bedding over the top of them. Relieved that Shikamaru couldn’t see how red his cheeks were, he wrapped an arm around him and tugged him up against Neji’s body.
It wasn’t the most comfortable he’d ever been, since they were still in their gear, and he had to spend some time pushing a spiky ponytail out of his face until Shikamaru sighed and reached up to pull it out of its band. Despite all that, Neji’s stomach was fluttering and his skin felt overly tight, which shouldn’t have been as pleasant as it was.
Shikamaru grumbled something about being the little spoon and Neji’s shoulders shook with laughter. “I like you as the little spoon,” he muttered into his ear and Shikamaru elbowed him lightly.
“So I suppose this means that you’re not just pretending anymore,” Sasuke said and Neji and Shikamaru froze. He’d forgotten he was there for a moment, and he was fairly certain his whole body was flushed with embarrassment.
“What was your first clue?” Shikamaru said in a bored tone and Neji rolled his eyes. Was he always this unaffected?
“I guess this means Sakura wins the bet,” was Sasuke’s only reply. “If you don’t mind turning down the flirting, I’d like to sleep now.”
Neji buried his face in Shikamaru’s hair in mortification. “Hm, if we’re attacked our reaction times will be off like this. I suppose we’ll have to depend on Sasuke to save us.”
“Shut up,” Neji hissed and Shikamaru’s body shook with laughter.
“You can always throw your body over mine to shield me. It’ll be like we’re in one of those romance novels. I’m the temple priestess being targeted by the evil overlord -”
“Shikamaru, I swear to god -”
“And you’re the big, strong ninja tasked to protect me. Right now we’re being forced to huddle together for warmth. I do hope you don’t plan on taking advantage -”
Shikamaru made the most undignified sound Neji had ever heard from him when he shoved him out of their nest of covers. Across the cave, he was fairly certain he heard a low chuckle.
“This one,” Neji said, pulling out one of the pictures of possible members of the group that various villages had sent over to Shikamaru. An older woman with her hair pulled back into a severe braid was staring up at him. “And him,” he pointed to a picture of a young, reedy brunette with a battle fan strapped to his back.
“Alright. You know the drill - I need a description of the third member of their party that wasn’t in any of our files.”
Neji nodded and let his eyes linger on Shikamaru’s face. He was compelling like this - his brow scrunched up in concentration, exuding an air of confidence. They’d been on the mission for almost three weeks now, and Neji was starting to think it had been designed as a specific way to torture him.
They hadn’t shared a bedroll since that first night, as they changed where they were camping every night to avoid detection and were now on strict watch schedules. It limited mobility to share a bedroll and there were no more convenient storms to hide away in.
The three of them spent most of their time crouched in various positions for hours watching people come and go from the worn wooden structure set back against some rocks. They’d discovered quickly that most of their enemies' time was spent ranting about the short-sightedness of their ‘peace-loving’ Kage and getting into brutal fights with people from other villages.
At one point after watching an Iwa nin and a Sand nin beat each other senseless Shikamaru had said what they were all thinking. “How did these idiots manage to give us such a hard time? I’m surprised they could keep it together long enough to coordinate that attack on us last month.”
“They do seem to be self-destructing,” Neji had agreed, and Sasuke had scoffed at the understatement.
Their mission was to sit and observe, however, so that’s what they did. It just got more and more painful the more that they saw. The three new arrivals, who were from Sand, managed to incite a brawl within twenty minutes and since there were no medic-nin in sight, they were all stuck nursing broken bones and open wounds instead of making any attempts to coordinate a real plan of action.
“I think we’ve got enough,” Shikamaru said that evening from where he was sitting only a few inches from Neji.
“Thank god, watching those idiots is just painful,” Sasuke said from where he was leaning up against a tree.
“What do you think Kakashi-sama will want to do?”
“Eh, he’ll probably just pass on the information to the various Kage and they’ll deal with culprits from their villages individually.”
“There was nobody from Konoha,” Sasuke said casually, but he was watching Shikamaru with interest.
“That’s because we already identified the few people that were involved in our village. There weren’t many, and like you said, this group isn’t exactly subtle.”
Neji couldn’t help the small swell of pride he felt at the realization that his clever partner had already weeded out their own dissenters. No matter what he said, it’s not something that most people were capable of. Shikamaru glanced over at him, then cleared his throat and looked down at his ration bar when Neji didn’t try to hide his approval.
“Anyway, once we do that, I doubt that we’ll have any issues with these guys again. They’re running out of steam as it is.”
Neji hummed and activated his Byakugan to scan the area. He sat up in alarm. “We have incoming. All eight of the ninja that were in the base, plus one, are two minutes out.”
Shikamaru and Sasuke were already reacting. Shikamaru’s movements were fast but sure as he sealed their information into the secure scroll that Neji knew only he and Kakashi could access.
“Neji and I can handle them,” Sasuke said, drawing his sword and moving to flank him. “Shikamaru, you go on ahead. We’ll catch up.”
Shikamaru glared. “I don’t think so.”
The nin were spreading out around them in a half circle, but there was nobody blocking their exit. Neji relayed the information in a clipped tone and added, “Sasuke’s right, Shikamaru. The information is the priority, plus mission parameters state -”
“I’m not leaving you,” Shikamaru said and Neji pursed his lips in annoyance.
“Don’t trust your fiancé to handle himself, Nara?” Sasuke snapped and Neji avoided Shikamaru’s gaze when it fell on him.
All three of them knew that if it were anybody else of Neji’s skill level, Shikamaru wouldn’t have hesitated. He essentially was the package, and one of them securing it while the others dealt with the threat was standard procedure.
“Fuck. No. Alright. We’ll meet up at rendezvous point B.”
“Understood,” Neji said as the hurt and annoyance he’d felt at Sasuke’s words faded.
Shikamaru gripped Neji’s shoulder. “Be careful,” he said in a low tone before disappearing.
“You ready for this, Hyuuga?”
“I am,” he said and white met red when they glanced at each other and they exchanged sharp grins. Neji had a feeling this wouldn’t last long.
“On your left.” Sasuke was already whirling, sword flashing to block the shuriken that came at him from the trees.
Neji took a moment to make sure Shikamaru wasn’t being pursued before moving into Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four palms to take out the three Sand nin who had surrounded him. In the background, an earth wall emerged between Sasuke and one of the older Iwa nin, and Neji smirked when Sasuke blew straight through it and cut down the woman.
“Shit, it’s Uchiha Sasuke and Hyuuga Neji,” someone said.
Neji rolled his eyes as the remaining three took off. “Should we pursue?” Sasuke asked after landing lightly next to him and taking in the bodies around him with a nod of approval.
“Since they are active shinobi of another village, probably not.”
Sasuke sighed. “That wasn’t even a challenge.”
“I think they’ve lost their teeth and claws, and all that remains is their bark.”
“Hmm. They can still cause trouble at the treaties if we aren’t careful. Though I suppose that’s Nara’s problem.”
Neji was surprised when he chuckled. The last thing he expected was a moment of levity with the last living member of the Uchiha clan, after all.
“Did you leave yours alive?”
Sasuke shrugged. “I promised Naruto I wouldn’t kill if I didn’t have to,” he said in answer.
“Mine are alive, too.” He didn’t have to say out loud that he’d been trying to avoid a political fallout for Shikamaru to deal with later.
“Let’s secure them and then go get Shikamaru.”
Neji ended up going to their rendezvous point, which was a sad copse of trees about four miles away. He could see Shikamaru pacing back and forth when he activated his Byakugan and couldn’t help his fond smile at the proof of his worry for Neji.
He landed in the clearing a few feet from him and Shikamaru strode over and put his hands on his shoulders. “Are you alright?” His tone was strained, and the warmth in Neji’s chest grew.
“I am. We incapacitated five of them, and three of them were able to escape.”
Shikamaru responded by pulling him close and slotting his lips over his own. Neji wrapped his arms around him and opened his mouth, allowing Shikamaru to lead the kiss. His pulse was thundering in his ears and his whole body was tingling by the time he pulled back.
“Don’t ask me to leave you behind again.”
Neji raised an eyebrow. “It was the right thing to do.”
Shikamaru scowled and Neji reached up with two fingers and put them to his cheek, enjoying the rasp of whiskers against them as they moved across it. None of them had a chance to shave for a few days. “This is my job. You’ll have to accept that when I’m on the Hokage’s guard,” he said seriously.
Shikamaru turned his face into the caress and sighed. “I know. Sorry.”
Neji leaned in to kiss him again. “I appreciate your concern, though. Perhaps I can show you just how much once we’re back in the village.”
Shikamaru’s smile was slow and full of promise. “Oh yeah? Well, I won’t say no to that.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
Shikamaru hummed and kissed him one more time. “Confident. Alright. Let’s get back to Sasuke. We’ll have to use his summons to request a team to come to deal with our prisoners. Dammit. How did they know we were there?”
“One of the attackers was unfamiliar to me. She was probably a sensor of some sort that arrived after we left our posts for the day.”
“Well, I think we can blame Sasuke for that,” Shikamaru said as the began running back to their compromised campsite.
“How do you figure that?” Neji asked, curious, and Shikamaru shot him a crooked smile and made his cheeks heat.
“Well, it’s a simple case of bad luck. Which team do we know has the worst luck out of anybody else we’ve ever met?”
Neji was surprised into a laugh. “Team Seven.”
“Yep. This is why I try to avoid missions with them. Whatever can go wrong inevitably will.”
“It’s a good thing they’re all S-ranked nin who can handle just about anything,” Neji supplied.
“Yeah, well, I’d prefer my future husband didn’t get caught up in the middle of it,” Shikamaru grumped and Neji had to fight his smile for the rest of the night while they waited to hear back from Kakashi.
Chapter 7: Step 7
Step 7: Learn to take a stand in the face of adversity.
Shikamaru knocked lightly on Neji’s door and did his best to ignore the dampness of his palms and the way his heart rate was elevated. He was acting like a virgin on his way to have his first sexual encounter. Which he wasn’t. A virgin, that is, though hopefully, a sexual encounter was on the table.
The door opened and Shikamaru took a moment to admire Neji’s perfectly pressed clothes and once-again shiny hair. They had all been looking a little less than perfect by the time they returned yesterday afternoon from their mission. Though a little dirt wasn’t even close to enough to detract from Neji’s attractiveness. The man was unfairly beautiful. Shikamaru spent a lot of time feeling smug about it these days.
“Shikamaru,” Neji said with his usual serene expression, but he knew him well enough now that he could see the appreciation in the way his gaze flicked down his body. It was possible Shikamaru had dressed to impress that evening in the clothes Ino had helped him pick out for their date weeks ago.
He was a strategist, after all, and tonight his plan was to have a mutual orgasm with his boyfriend. Who was now swallowing thickly and had tell-tale blotches of color high on his cheeks. Yep, Shikamaru’s scheme was unfolding nicely.
“Can I come in?”
“Yes, of course.”
Shikamaru sauntered into the now-familiar house, then leaned in to press a slow, sweet kiss to Neji’s lips, flicking his tongue against them lightly before pulling back. He ignored the way his pants had gone uncomfortably tight and felt a swell of satisfaction when Neji leaned forward as though to follow his lips.
“Dinner smells good.” Shikamaru’s voice came out low and husky and he cleared his throat. “Wouldn’t want to waste all the effort you put into it.”
Shikamaru would almost call the expression on Neji’s face a pout. Almost, because he knew how uncomfortable having his tenketsu points blocked was and didn’t think it’d be considered a fun form of foreplay.
Neji led him into the kitchen where the table was already set. Shikamaru took in the steaming udon in broth and shot Neji a small smile. “Looks good.”
“I thought something warm might do you good after three weeks straight living in cold weather.” Neji’s voice was stilted and Shikamaru had begun to recognize it as a sign that he was embarrassed.
He stepped closer to him and wrapped an arm around his waist, then reeled him in for another kiss. This one was dirtier than the last and by the time he pulled back they were both panting and Shikamaru was half-hard.
“Thanks.” He let go of Neji and walked casually to his chair, pulling it out and sitting. His stomach rumbled when the rich smell of the broth hit his nose.
Neji was blinking at him from where he’d left him and Shikamaru raised an eyebrow. Neji’s eyes narrowed minutely before he gathered himself enough to glide gracefully to his own chair. Shikamaru took a sip of water to hide his smile.
“Did you and Kakashi-sama manage to coordinate your efforts with the other villages?” Neji asked after Shikamaru had taken a few bites of the dish, which tasted just as good as it smelled.
“Yeah. It’s just like we thought - the villages are handling their dissenters individually. A few of them haven’t returned; we think they’ve probably gone rogue. Considering the intelligence level of this group, it shouldn’t take long to gather them all up.”
Neji’s lip quirked up before he took another bite and Shikamaru’s gaze caught on the sheen of broth on his lower lip. Shit, he really hoped Neji was ready for the next step in their relationship and hadn’t just been teasing the other day. Shikamaru would wait as long as he needed without complaint, of course, but he really, really didn’t want to.
Neji caught him staring, but Shikamaru didn’t bother hiding his interest as he brought more noodles to his mouth. He’d never thought that somebody could look sexy eating udon, but Neji was proving him wrong.
Shikamaru licked his lips, his own meal forgotten in favor of imagining what else Neji could do with the clever fingers currently wrapped around his chopsticks. When his cheeks hollowed as he pulled the noodles into his mouth Shikamaru had to swallow a groan. Neji set his chopsticks aside, then brought a napkin up to his mouth. His cheeks were red and he cleared his throat as he set the cloth back down.
“Shikamaru. You should know that I’m not as...experienced as you are when it comes to sex.”
Shikamaru blinked rapidly, the word ‘sex’ coming from Neji’s mouth having short-circuited his brain, and forced his mind to take in what he’d said. “You’re not a virgin, though.”
Neji laughed, a low, rumbling sound that went straight to Shikamaru’s groin. “No. I’ve only had one lover, however.”
Huh. Jealousy - there was something Shikamaru had never thought he’d feel. “Oh yeah? And what, uh, happened to this lover?”
Neji raised his eyebrow and Shikamaru resisted the urge to fiddle with his napkin. “We had different ideas on where the relationship was heading. It was not something we advertised, out of necessity. The pressures of dating me are not inconsequential. I believed we were waiting for the right time to inform our families. He believed that day would never come, as he planned on marrying a woman his parents had picked out for him.”
Shikamaru’s fist clenched at his side. “Oh yeah? And what’s this guy’s name?” he asked as casually as he could.
Neji actually rolled his eyes. “It’s over and done with - he married the woman six months ago. He also truly didn’t mean to hurt me. I am not...effusive, so he didn’t realize I had become attached until it was too late.”
His back was straight and the words were stiff and formal. He was embarrassed. “I don’t know, I think you’re plenty effusive. Somebody stupid enough to let you go was probably just too dense to see it.”
Neji’s eyebrows raised almost to his hairline. “That is...very kind of you to say.”
Shikamaru looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s true.”
There was silence for a beat before Neji spoke, uncharacteristically hesitant. “And...your experience?”
Shikamaru fought the urge to grimace. “Just casual relationships. Mostly men. I, uh, stopped doing that a while ago. Casual is a hard thing for most people when it comes to sex.”
“And with me?”
Shikamaru looked up and met his eyes. “Not casual. Not even close.”
Neji relaxed and let out a breath. “Would you like to move to the couch? Perhaps have a glass of wine?”
Shikamaru tipped his head to the side. “Yeah. Sure.” He followed Neji into the living room after he grabbed a bottle and two glasses.
They’d made out on that same couch more than once and Shikamaru swallowed at the memories and the thought of what, exactly, their earlier conversation probably meant for how the night would end. Neji handed him a glass and Shikamaru took a sip before setting it down on the table next to him.
He wanted to have a clear head for what he hoped was about to happen. Neji was watching him steadily and he leaned forward and ran his thumb along his lower lip. “Can I kiss you?”
Neji’s lips moved beneath the pad of his thumb when he smiled. “You may.”
Shikamaru took his glass from his hand and set it aside, then leaned forward and pressed their lips lightly together. “You’re gorgeous,” he said in a low, husky tone when he pulled back.
Neji’s breath hitched and he placed one of his palms on Shikamaru’s chest, then ran it up over his shoulder and looped it behind his neck. He used his grip to pull forward. Their next kiss was deep and desperate and by the end of it Shikamaru’s hands were wrapped in Neji’s hair and they were both breathing hard.
When Neji dropped down to his knees on the floor between Shikamaru’s legs, he couldn’t stop his low groan. “Can I?” Neji asked.
“Yes.” He was fairly certain that his answer had been obvious from the bulge straining against his zipper and the way his pulse was fluttering at his throat but decided now wasn’t the time for pointed commentary or snark.
Neji’s fingers brushed against him as he moved to unbutton Shikamaru’s pants. He scooted low on the couch and spread his legs further apart so that Neji could settle in between them. The feeling of his warm hand wrapping around Shikamaru’s cock was almost too much, and he bit off a curse.
It had been so long since somebody had touched him, and he took a moment to be thankful for the absolute control over his body that being a shinobi afforded him. At least he could keep himself from embarrassing himself overmuch.
It only took the feeling of Neji’s breath against the head of him to start doubting that assertion, however. There was only so much control one man could have. Then his lips were wrapped around him and all thoughts of embarrassment and control flew from his mind.
Neji was good at this, though he shouldn’t be surprised - Neji was good at just about everything. He laid his head back on the couch and moaned when Neji flicked his tongue against the head of his cock. Shikamaru pushed his fingers into Neji’s hair and it was a struggle not to press down to encourage him to take more of him.
When Neji bobbed his further head down Shikamaru groaned and his fingers tightened. “That’s good. Just like that,” he breathed and couldn’t help but press upwards a bit when Neji swallowed around him.
“Oh fuck. That - that’s really - mmph.” He lost the ability to speak after that, the only sounds he was capable of making low moans and sighs.
When he came, Neji didn’t pull back despite his choked out warning. He continued to suck and lap at him until he was a sweaty, sated heap on the couch. He only had a second of dazed contemplation over the amazing things he must have done in his past life to deserve a blow job like the one he’d just received before he had a lap full of enthusiastic Hyuuga.
He groaned into the somewhat frantic kiss Neji was giving him and pulled back to admire his swollen lips and red cheeks. “You’re gorgeous like this.”
“You gonna do something about it, Nara?” Neji’s voice was rough, and knowing it was from having Shikamaru’s cock down his throat had his body practically leaping out of its post-orgasmic daze.
“Yeah. I’m going to let you fuck me.” Neji stilled in his struggles to undo the buttons of Shikamaru’s shirt.
“If you’re comfortable with that,” he added in a rush, then grimaced when Neji pulled back to stare at him with an unreadable expression. He was about to offer to suck Neji off and call it good when he spoke.
“You’d...let me do that?”
Shikamaru’s brow furrowed. “Let you? Yeah, you could say that. Considering I’ve been thinking about it for weeks -”
Neji pressed their lips together again in a hard kiss before pulling back and standing. He held his hand out to Shikamaru. “If we’re doing this, I’d prefer it happen in an actual bed.”
Shikamaru blinked rapidly before taking his hand and allowing him to help him up. “I - yes. Okay. A bed. Right.”
Neji’s lips twitched. “Hmm, it seems I’ve finally discovered a way to switch off that impressive brain of yours.”
Shikamaru glowered, but couldn’t think of a good comeback since his attention was still on those lips. Neji chuckled and led him to the bedroom, which Shikamaru only had a moment to take in before he was being pressed down on the soft comforter.
Their clothes were removed without fanfare and Shikamaru’s libido started gearing up for another round when he drank in the long, pale lines of Neji’s nude body as he lowered himself over him. Shikamaru ran his hands down his back and over the firm muscles of his ass, squeezing once in appreciation.
Neji huffed out a laugh and pulled back from where he’d been doing fantastic things to Shikamaru’s neck with his tongue. His hair fell in a curtain around them and Shikamaru stared up into his face, searching for any signs of unease. He didn’t find any.
Neji leaned down and kissed him again before reaching over and opening the drawer of the bedside table, presumably to grab some lube. “I’ve only done this a few times,” Neji said after some hesitation. “Are you sure -”
Shikamaru looked down at Neji’s erection and a shiver ran through him when he imagined what it would feel like moving inside of him. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m completely on board with this.”
Neji didn’t ask again, and despite his disclaimer, his fingers were sure and gentle as they opened him up. It had been a long while since somebody had done this to Shikamaru and he had to concentrate on remaining relaxed. The sight of Neji kneeling between his spread legs, watching the proceedings with both fierce concentration and an air of reverence went a long way towards bringing his erection fully back to life.
Shikamaru thought about turning over - it would be easier for both of them - but he wanted to watch Neji as he slid into him, so he stayed where he was at after Neji’s fingers left him. When he finally did enter him, Shikamaru was glad that he’d decided to do it like this. He wouldn’t have wanted to miss the look on Neji’s face for anything.
He stilled once he was all the way inside, giving Shikamaru a chance to adjust. Neji reached up and pushed some of his hair out of his face and Shikamaru leaned into the touch. They were both covered in a thin layer of sweat and despite the initial discomfort, Shikamaru was more than ready to get the show on the road.
He wrapped a leg around Neji and arched against him, shuddering when he felt him move inside of him. Neji made a low sound before pulling back and gently pressing forward. When Shikamaru’s back bowed at the intense feeling and he breathed out Neji’s name, he began rolling his hips forward in slow, powerful thrusts.
Shikamaru lost track of time after that, all of his considerable focus latching onto the way Neji felt moving inside him, and on how he was hitting his prostate on every third stroke, sending bursts of pleasure up his spine. When Neji wrapped a hand around him it took only half a dozen strokes before he was coming. Shikamaru made a low, satisfied sound when Neji followed him soon after.
Neji pulled out carefully and lay to the side of Shikamaru, who hummed happily when he tugged him close and began running a hand through his hair.
“You...really enjoyed that,” he said after a few minutes when Shikamaru was just starting to consider getting up to do something about the sticky mess on his stomach.
He opened one eye to take in Neji’s thoughtful expression. “Was I not supposed to?”
“You were,” Neji said slowly. “I just...hadn’t been with somebody before that preferred that position.”
Shikamaru stretched and did his best not to pout at the reminder of Neji’s past lover. “I like it both ways. I just like sex.”
Neji huffed. “I never would have thought you’d like something that took so much effort.”
“I don’t mind putting forth the effort when the payout is so large,” he said with a grin and waggle of his eyebrows. Damn, but he felt good. He ran his fingers lightly up Neji’s bare side, watching the resulting goosebumps with more than a passing interest.
“We should get in the shower so that you can rest properly. You look like you didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night.”
Shikamaru shrugged and let Neji pull him to his feet, wrinkling his nose a bit at the thought of the clean up he’d need to do. “I caught a few hours in-between coordinating with Kakashi and the other villages.”
He followed Neji into the bathroom, tone distracted since most of his attention was riveted on the very compelling backside in front of him. “You know,” Neji said in a voice that Shikamaru almost wanted to call coy, “I don’t have a preference, either. In fact, I’m quite fond of the idea of you being the one taking me -”
He cut off with a bark of laughter when Shikamaru shoved him lightly against the shower wall and leaned into his space. “That can be arranged, Hyuuga.”
“Shikamaru! Did you set the table?”
“Yes, mom. And I trimmed the bushes and cleaned my room, though I don’t know why anybody would go up there.”
Yoshino appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel and staring Shikamaru down. “Shikamaru, soon you will be the clan head, and since you’ve decided to marry somebody who will be just as busy as you are, you need to learn to -”
Shikamaru stared up at the ceiling and nodded at the correct pauses in his mother’s speech. She always got all worked up on Ino-Shika-Cho days. Unfortunately, there were no convenient missions to use as an excuse to skip it this month.
Shikamaru felt a bit more secure in he and Neji’s relationship than he had four weeks ago, though, and was confident that his mother’s meddling wouldn’t cause too much undue stress. They just had to make it through this dinner. Tomorrow Shikaku and Hiashi were meeting up to sign the official papers that would declare them betrothed.
Shikamaru never thought he’d get the warm and fuzzies over marriage. The idea of marrying Neji, however, filled him with a contentment he hadn’t known he was capable of. It could have something to do with all the fantastic sex they’d been having.
A knock on the door pulled him from his thoughts and his mother from her lecture. “Oh! Will you answer the door, Shikamaru? I need to check the rice.”
“Sure.” He stood and ambled down the hall, opening the door to reveal Inoichi, Ino, Sai, Chouji, Chouza, and Chouji’s mother, Aina, standing on the porch.
“Hey,” he greeted and stepped aside to let them in.
“Hey, Shika. You excited for Neji’s first dinner with the family?” Ino waggled her eyebrows and Shikamaru sighed. Sai sent him what he thought might be a sympathetic look as he followed Ino into the house.
“Yeah, should be loads of fun.” Chouji slapped his shoulder as he passed. Shikamaru was about to close the door behind them when he caught sight of a figure in a spotless white yukata coming up the walk. He was holding a bottle of what was most likely top-shelf sake in his hands.
Shikamaru’s scowl was replaced with a smile and he stepped out onto the porch to meet Neji. “Hey.”
Neji hummed against his lips in greeting when Shikamaru leaned in to steal a kiss. “Hi.”
Shikamaru pulled back to study him. He looked as serene as always, but Shikamaru knew him well enough to spot the tension in his shoulders and around his mouth. He brought a hand up and cupped his cheek. “Hey, it’s gonna be fine. Chouza and Inoichi are both pretty laid back, and you’re already friends with Ino and Chouji.”
“Yes, well, it’s not them I’m worried about.”
Shikamaru ran his thumb across his cheekbone. “I told you I thought mom was coming around. She hasn’t made a fuss about the engagement all week. It’ll be fine. We just have to make it through tonight and then tomorrow we’ll be officially engaged.”
Neji’s lips quirked up and he met Shikamaru’s gaze. “That will be nice.”
“Yeah,” he agreed in a low tone.
Their moment was broken when the door opened and Ino stuck her head out. “Shikamaru, come on! Dinner’s ready and the Akimichis are looking impatient. Hey, Neji. You look nice.”
Neji stepped around Shikamaru. “Thank you, Ino.”
They filed into the kitchen and Yoshino looked up from where she’d just placed a large bowl of rice on the table. “Oh! Neji, good, you’ve arrived.”
Shikamaru sent her a warning look at her tone. Neji was five minutes early and she was making it sound like he’d kept them waiting. He felt his first true frisson of unease about the dinner and wondered if his mother had just been luring him into a false sense of security all week.
“Thank you for inviting me, Nara-sama. You have a lovely home.”
“So formal,” Yoshino said and not as though it was a good thing.
There was an awkward pause and Shikamaru saw Sai lean forward in what looked like fascination from his seat next to Ino. Shikaku cleared his throat and stood, walking over and offering his hand.
“Glad you make it, son. Is that Kichi sake?” he let out a low whistle and accepted the bottle from Neji. “This is good stuff. We should use it for toasts later, to celebrate your upcoming engagement to Shikamaru.”
Shikamaru sent Shikaku a grateful look and his father winked at him and put a hand on Neji’s shoulder. “Come on, I saved you two the seats closest to me. Ino was telling me your clan have some interesting recipes for healing salves -”
Shikamaru slunk after them and took the open chair next to Neji, who had relaxed at the topic of conversation. Ino caught his gaze and widened her eyes before flicking them towards Yoshino in obvious question. He shrugged imperceptibly and hoped she picked up his pleading expression. Help.
Because Ino was sometimes the best, she turned to Yoshino and asked her where she’d gotten her “lovely blouse.” Shikamaru let himself relax when Yoshino was successfully distracted and slung his arm across the back of Neji’s chair. Shikaku actually seemed interested in the conversation and Shikamaru tried not to look too smug while his father got an up close look at just how intelligent Neji really was.
“So, Neji, how’s the new position as Hokage’s guard?” Ino asked when his conversation with Shikaku wound down.
Naji wiped his mouth with a napkin before answering. “It’s quite interesting, actually. The amount of paperwork that goes into running a village is astounding.”
Shikaku chuckled and Shikamaru wanted to kiss Neji when his cheeks warmed. “Yeah, I feel like it’s half my job, really.”
“The hours must be pretty long,” Yoshino cut in and Shikamaru knew he probably looked as wary as he felt.
Neji glanced over at him before replying. “Yes, the Hokage does tend to work an odd schedule.”
“It’ll be tough to juggle that and your future duties to the Nara Clan, don’t you think?”
“What, Shikamaru, it’s an honest question.”
“Neji and I will figure that out together when the time comes.”
“Daddy has a few assistants,” Ino offered. “Since mom died and he works full time, you know.”
Inoichi grunted when Ino elbowed him, then nodded. “It’s true. I chose a few people in the clan I trusted implicitly and delegated. It’s worked well for me.”
Yoshino’s answering smile was strained, but she dropped the subject. The conversation turned towards more innocuous topics and Shikamaru fiddled with a hunk of Neji’s hair that had fallen from its tie.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door and Shikamaru was immediately suspicious when Yoshino jumped to her feet. “Oh, who could that be? I’ll get it.”
She dashed from the room and Shikamaru glanced at his father, whose brow was furrowed. He didn’t know what was going on either, then.
Shikamaru stiffened when he heard the voice of Aoi’s mother, Juno, filtering down the hall. “...wouldn’t want to intrude!”
“Oh, no, it’s fine! There’s plenty of food,” Yoshino said as she entered the kitchen. “Look who stopped by unexpectedly. I hope you don’t mind, I asked them to stay for dinner.”
Shikamaru closed his eyes and breathed in deeply through his nose. Unexpectedly, his ass. When he opened his eyes again, Aoi and Juno were standing at the other end of the table as Yoshino bustled around setting up places for them.
“Mom,” he said in a low, warning tone. “What are you doing? This is a private dinner.”
There was uncomfortable shifting around the table and he didn’t miss the way Aoi covered her face with one hand. So she wasn’t any happier about this attempted coup than Shikamaru. “Mother, we should leave. We can come back to ask Yoshino about patterns tomorrow -”
“Don’t be silly. Shikamaru, you’re being rude,” Yoshino said and for once Shikamaru didn’t back down when she glared at him. He met her straight on with a glare of his own.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not the one being rude.”
“Shikamaru,” Shikaku broke in with a low, warning tone. Neji had gone so stiff that he could have been carved from stone and Ino’s eyes had gone impossibly wide.
The silence around the table was extremely uncomfortable as the additions to the dinner took their seats. Aoi caught Shikamaru’s gaze and grimaced apologetically, but Juno and Yoshino seemed unaffected by the general atmosphere.
Shikamaru was caught somewhere between shock and fury. There was no way Yoshino hadn’t planned this out in advance with Juno.
“So, Shikamaru, I heard that you’re doing well at work,” Juno said.
He grunted in response and took a large bite of vegetables. Aoi was staring down at her plate and Shikamaru felt almost sorry for her. He’d never really considered how humiliating it must be to have her mother shove her at available bachelors.
Juno cleared her throat and Shikamaru stiffened when she turned her attention to Neji. “Hyuuga-san, you must be excited about the upcoming engagement.”
Neji set his chopsticks down with careful grace. “Yes, Juno-san. I believe Shikamaru and I are well-matched.”
Shikamaru sent him a small half-smile, which he returned. Of course, that wasn’t the end of it.
“You must be if you’re willing to go against the wishes of his clan members to marry him.”
Shikamaru straightened and swallowed the bite in his mouth, wincing when it stuck in his throat. “Excuse me?”
Shikaku leaned forward. “The Nara clan has no issue with Shikamaru’s choice.”
Juno feigned surprise - badly - and Shikamaru wondered what in the hell his mother had been thinking. Every single person was staring at Juno like she’d grown two heads. Even Yoshino was looking slightly uncomfortable.
“Really? But, at our last knitting session, a few of the women were talking about...you know what, it’s not my business.”
“No, it’s not,” Shikamaru muttered.
She took a dainty bite and Neji turned to Shikamaru with a questioning look. He just shook his head to let him know not to take her words to heart. Yoshino’s knitting group consisted of a bunch of gossiping older women who never seemed to have a nice thing to say about anybody.
“Well,” Ino said. “I’m not sure if Shikamaru told you, Yoshino-sama, but I’ve just been promoted -”
“It’s just, shouldn’t you know that your new clan is worried about you bringing, how should I say it, the unsavory practices your clan has a history of using against its own members into practice?”
“Mother!” Aoi hissed.
“Unsavory practices?” Neji asked and Shikamaru pressed his lips together at his stricken look. They all knew she was referring to the Caged Bird seal - an ‘unsavory practice’ that Neji himself was the recipient of.
“I think,” Shikaku said, “that this dinner is over.”
“I’d like to hear this, if you don’t mind, Shikaku-sama.” Shikamaru’s hand fisted at the frostiness in Neji’s tone.
“Neji, she’s just a bitter old woman trying to spread shit - “
“Shikamaru!” Yoshino said as Juno gasped in outrage.
“No, mother, I’m not going to sit here as you try and drive my fiancé away with some bullshit, made up drama -”
“He’s not your fiancé, yet -”
Shikamaru slammed his hand down on the table and everyone went silent when he stood up and yelled, “Dammit, mom, just stop it!”
“Shikamaru, that is enough.” He spun to his father, incredulous.
“You’re seriously going to take her side in this?”
“I’m not taking sides, I’m just -”
“Excuse me.” Shikamaru turned his attention to Neji and swallowed when he saw how pale he was.
His lips were pressed together and when he carefully set his napkin down on his plate Shikamaru saw that his hand was trembling slightly. “Yoshino-sama, thank you for your hospitality. I’m afraid I must take my leave.”
He stood and bowed his head to her slightly, then turned to Shikaku, who was rubbing at his temples. “Shikaku-sama.”
He turned and walked quickly from the room. Shikamaru gritted his teeth. He was so angry his whole body was shaking. “Real classy, mom.”
He spun on his heel and followed Neji out of the room, ignoring the flurry of conversation that erupted behind him. Juno was exclaiming about how rude Shikamaru was, and Ino snapped at her to shut up before she made her. Shikamaru really loved his friends, sometimes.
Neji was already at the entrance, putting his shoes on. “Neji, wait up,” he said and sighed when he ignored him and slipped outside.
Shikamaru sped up, not bothering to stop to put his shoes on or close the door behind him. He caught up to Neji just as he started down the steps and grabbed his arm.
“Neji, fuck, I’m so sorry about my mom, I don’t know what the hell she was thinking -”
“Did you know?”
“What, that crazy Juno was going to crash the dinner? No way, I would have -”
“That your clan disapproves of this match.”
Shikamaru stared at Neji, taking in his pale skin and too-wide eyes. “Neji,” he said slowly, “my clan doesn’t disapprove of you. Mom’s knitting group are a bunch of ignorant, gossiping biddies with nothing better to do with their time than trash talk. I haven’t heard any real complaints about our engagement.”
“Except from your mother.” Neji looked away and Shikamaru’s chest fluttered in what he recognized as the beginnings of panic.
“Neji...I don’t know what my mother’s problem is, but she’ll get over it. Don’t let her get to you.”
He tried to catch his gaze, but Neji looked down at his feet. “I can’t do it again.”
“My childhood was spent being looked down upon and...treated as a second class citizen by my own clan. Only recently have things started to improve. I cannot marry into a clan that despises me. I cannot marry into a family that despises me.”
The pressure in Shikamaru’s chest increased until he was having trouble pulling in a full breath. “Neji, don’t do this.”
“I’m sorry, Shikamaru, but I think it would be best if we called off the engagement.”
Shikamaru’s hands fell to his sides and he stared at Neji, who still wouldn’t look at him. “Don’t. We can - we can figure this out. Neji, please, I love you, I don’t want anybody else -”
Neji’s face twisted into something awful and full of pain at his words. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. Shikamaru reached for him when he brought his hands up to make a sign, but he was too slow, and his hand closed over air. Neji was gone.
Shikamaru stood on the porch staring at the empty spot where Neji used to be. He couldn’t believe it. Two hours ago he’d been blissfully happy, secure in the knowledge that by this time tomorrow he’d be officially betrothed.
He was pulled from his shock by the sound of harsh voices. “Shikaku, you know this will have consequences for our clans, right? Your wife just used us to humiliate Hyuuga Hiashi’s nephew.”
“I’ll go talk to Hiashi and Neji tomorrow and work it out -”
“I don’t know what the problem is, I was just being honest -”
“You were being a horrible, spiteful gossip, mom. I can’t believe you. I’m so embarrassed!” Aoi sounded close to tears.
“You know Hiashi, it will take much more than a simple apology to -”
Shikamaru somehow found himself back in the dining room, watching the people surrounding the table with an impassive expression. Sai was holding Ino back from getting into Juno’s face. Shikaku was rubbing his forehead with one hand while Inoichi lectured him and Yoshino was sitting unmoving and wide-eyed in her seat.
“Neji broke off the engagement.” Everyone went silent and turned to stare at him. “He didn’t want to marry into a clan or family that would mistreat him.”
Shikaku ran a hand down his face. “Son -”
Juno scoffed. “If he couldn’t handle a bit of competition -”
The numbness that had taken hold of Shikamaru broke at her words. Yoshino was trying to shush her but it was too late. Shikamaru pulled his hand into a fist, then lifted his arm and slammed it into the wall behind him. He felt the plaster buckle and crumble beneath the force of the blow. There were a few gasps from around the table, and Juno stopped talking.
He stared at Juno, who was pale, and looked like she’d just realized that Shikamaru could kill her with a few flicks of his fingers. Right now, it felt pretty tempting. “Get out of my sight. Right now.”
He turned and pointed his finger at his mother. Whatever his face was doing must have shown at least a fraction of what he was feeling because the color drained from Yoshino’s face.
“I cannot believe you did that.”
“I didn’t -”
His voice was cold and calm, and for the first time in his life, he understood what true betrayal felt like. “Don’t.” He glanced at his father. “I told you. I told you that she was going to take it too far, but you just let her do what she wanted, just like you always do.”
“No, I’m done with this conversation. I made you a promise when I told you I planned on marrying Neji. Do you remember what it was?”
Yoshino’s eyes were sparkling with tears. “Shikamaru -”
“I said that I wouldn’t marry anybody but him. I meant it. Congratulations, you’ve just ensured that I’ll be a bachelor for life. I hope you weren’t too set on grandkids.”
Shikaku took a deep breath. “Son, I’ll leave right now to speak to Hiashi.”
Shikamaru ran a hand over the top of his head, movements jerky. “You didn’t see his face. You have no idea what you’ve done. Mom, you made such a big deal over how the Hyuuga clan treats their members, but the only cruelty I’ve seen doled out in this whole situation is from you. I’m just so...disappointed in you. Both of you.”
He turned away when Yoshino’s breath caught and her lips trembled. “I can’t even look at you right now.” He started to leave the room.
“W-where are you going?” Yoshino asked, voice wobbling and low.
“To pack. I’m moving out.”
He practically ran out of the room and up the stairs when Yoshino sobbed. He heard Juno say “Well, I’ve never seen a son treat his mother so badly -”
“Juno. You’re no longer welcome in my house,” Shikaku cut her off.
“Too little too late, dad,” he muttered as he slammed into his room, not bothering to listen to the rest of the conversation. He wondered how his mom was even friends with that woman. Surely, knowing each other from childhood wasn’t enough to stay loyal to a person like that?
He pulled his closet open and pulled out a few duffle bags. He walked over and dumped them on the bed, then went over to his dresser and opened the top drawer. A few minutes later he was still staring down at the neat rows of socks.
His rage was cooling and being replaced with a bone-deep weariness. He now understood what people meant by the word ‘heartsick.’ He braced his hands on the top of the dresser and lowered his head.
“Here,” Ino’s voice was soft, and he wondered when she’d entered his room. “Let us.”
He watched as she reached under his arms and grabbed a handful of socks. Chouji’s large hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed once before he moved to Shikamaru’s closet and grabbed an armful of clothes. They packed in silence for the next ten minutes while Shikamaru watched, not quite able to muster the will to do it himself.
Ino slipped into the bathroom across the hall and came back with a plastic bag full of his toiletries. She zipped up the last duffle and put her hands on her hips, eyes moving around the room to check that they’d gotten everything. “You’ll stay with Sai and I until you find your own place, okay? We have that extra guest bed.”
Shikamaru crossed the space between them, stopping in front of her with his arms hanging limply at his sides. Her brow furrowed as she stared up at him. “Shika?”
He hunched over and shoved his face in her shoulder. She let out a breath and wrapped her arms around him. Chouji joined them and pulled them both into a bear hug.
The presence of his team was smoothing the rougher edges of betrayal and heartbreak that had been paralyzing him. “I can’t believe she did that,” he choked out.
Ino tightened her hold. “I know. If it helps, I don’t think she expected Juno to go quite so far.”
Shikamaru stiffened and she huffed. “Chill, I’m not defending her. I just...I don’t think she was trying to hurt him. Probably thought you’d see Aoi and suddenly decide that you loved her. Who knows? I love you, Shika, but your mom is kind of crazy when she gets focused on something.”
He snorted and pulled away from them, running his sleeve across his eyes while Ino and Chouji stepped back. “Thanks,” he said in a low tone.
“You know we’re here for you,” Chouji said and Shikamaru nodded because, yeah, he did know.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here. We’ll get wasted tonight and tomorrow we’ll lay around coming up with plans to get your man back.”
Shikamaru let out a breath as he felt the world steadying back under his feet. With Ino and Chouji on his side, there wasn’t much he couldn’t do. “Sounds good.”
Yoshino and Shikaku were standing at the foot of the stairs when they came back down. It looked like everybody else had left. Shikamaru didn’t blame them.
His father was leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. His mom was standing next to him wringing her hands and she stepped forward as soon as she saw them. Her expression fell when she saw the bags that they were carrying.
“Shikamaru, please don’t go, I’m sorry -” The way her voice wobbled had a lump forming in his throat. He never could stand it on the rare occasions when she cried.
“Let him go, Yoshino.” She froze at Shikaku’s words. His tone didn’t leave room for argument and Yoshino ducked her head and didn’t try to stop them as they walked past.
Shikamaru looked over and met his father’s gaze, who returned his look steadily. His expression was full of regret, though he didn’t try to apologize. He knew Shikamaru well enough to understand he wasn’t ready to hear it. “I’ll do my best to help you sort this out,” he said instead.
Shikamaru just nodded. He didn’t think he could talk to his parents without yelling right now, and he didn’t want that. He’d always hated fighting with them.
Some things, though, were worth standing up to even them for. Neji, he knew, was one of them.
True story, I based Juno off a person I know in real life.
Also, we'll hear from Yoshino next chapter and find out what was going on in that crazy brain of hers. :)
Chapter 8: Step 8
Step 8: Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong.
Yoshino watched as Shikaku sat down across from her at their table. She knew from his slow, controlled movements and the tenseness around his lips that his talk with Hiashi hadn’t gone well. She’d always been able to read him, something that continued to surprise and delight him, for the most part.
Her eyes moved to the right without her permission to take in the small crater in the wall behind him, cracks flowing out from it towards the ceiling and floor. A physical reminder of just how much she’d screwed up, not that she needed it. The emptiness of her house was proof enough.
It wasn’t like she’d had any idea Juno would go that route, though perhaps she should have. Juno was no longer the sweet girl from their youth that Yoshino remembered. She was supposed to ‘unexpectedly’ show up with her daughter, stay for dinner, maybe try to drive a small wedge between Neji and Shikamaru by bringing up Aoi and Shikamaru’s long history. Not insult his clan and flat out tell him that he wasn't wanted by the Nara. Though it had been Yoshino’s fault she even had the whole ‘Nara clan doesn’t want a Hyuuga leading them’ idea in her head.
The knitting group Yoshino was in consisted mostly of Nara, but they all tended to bring their outside friends with them. Yoshino actually hated the stupid club. Unfortunately, part of her role was hosting things like that for members of the clan to promote a sense of community. When some of the older, more prejudiced women had started griping about Neji she just...hadn’t said anything.
She’d been feeling bitter about the engagement, certain that Shikamaru had only done it as one of his weird, sideways rebellions. Bitter enough that she’d not stepped in when she should have. Juno had been with her that day. She’d completely forgotten.
Shikaku sighed and she bit her lip and focused on him again. He was waiting for her to ask. She didn’t want to. “How did it go?”
His lips twisted into a parody of the warm grin he only ever wore around her. “Hiashi doesn’t know exactly what happened, except that Neji came to our house for dinner to meet us and our closest allies, and left single and heartbroken. He’s furious, but since Neji was good enough not to give details I don’t know that he’ll retaliate. Much.”
Yoshino looked down at her hands and told herself sternly not to cry. “Were you able to speak with Neji?”
“No.” He didn’t elaborate and Yoshino didn’t ask him to.
She took a deep breath and steeled herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it - for it to go quite that far.”
“But you still meant to do it.”
Yoshino swallowed and resisted the urge to curl her shoulders in. Another deep breath, and she found the strength to lift her head to meet Shikaku’s gaze. “Yes.”
His expression softened - probably because of the tears swimming in her eyes. He always caved at her tears, which was why she tried to never, ever cry when they were fighting. Part of what she loved about Shikaku is that he always gave as good as she did when it was important. When it wasn’t important he pretended to be terrified of her and ran about grumbling and doing what she asked.
“Is being married to me really so horrible?” His voice was soft and his eyes were searching and it was enough to have the tears in her eyes overflowing just enough for a few drops to start making slow trails down her cheeks.
“No. No, Shikaku, of course not. I love you, I’ve never regretted choosing you. I just...” she trailed off and sighed.
“You just what?”
“I just sometimes get tired of living with the fear.” Her voice was shaky and she was relieved when he didn’t ask for clarification. He didn’t have to - he’d already known. He’d known the whole time, she was sure, about her reasons for acting the way she did.
“You’re going to have to fix this, Yoshino.”
She nodded once, gaze moving again to the hole in the wall. She couldn’t stop recalling the look on Shikamaru’s face when he’d come back from talking to Neji. He’d been angry, sure, but worse, he’d been heartbroken. She’d broken her boy’s heart.
Yoshino swallowed, then stood quickly. “I just - I need to -”
Before she could flee the kitchen Shikaku was there, pulling her against him. She knew she didn’t deserve his comfort, but then, marriage wasn’t really about deserving. It was a partnership, after all, which meant he’d be there for her, and she’d be there for him, even if they were incredibly pissed off at or disappointed in each other.
“You’ll make it right. You’re too stubborn not to.”
“What if he never forgives me?” Her voice caught on the last word and his arms tightened around her.
“He’s your son. He’ll forgive you.”
“So? People stop talking to their parents all the time.”
He chest rumbled with a chuckle. “Yeah, but he’s also my son. He won’t be able to stop loving you. Just like me.”
“Shikaku, you charmer,” she grumbled into his shoulder, but her heart already felt a little lighter.
“You’re the most bullheaded woman I know. Just do what you know is right. Stop letting fear dictate your actions.”
Yoshino sighed and resisted the urge to deny that she’d been acting like a scared ninny. “Fine. I’m sorry I put you in that situation, Shikaku. I really am. At the very least, I’ll make sure Shikamaru starts talking to you again.”
Shikaku’s hand was large against her back as he rubbed it up and down her spine. “I’ll deal with my relationship with Shikamaru. I was just as guilty as you, in some ways. He’s right, I should have protected him. I buried my head in the sand.”
Yoshino pressed closer to him when his voice deepened on the last sentence. A sure sign he was feeling bad. “I am sorry, still. I suppose I should start off by making it up to you.”
She leaned back and looked up at him from under her now thankfully-dry lashes. His eyebrow went up in a way that always made her stomach do flips. His thumb came up and rubbed against her bottom lip.
“Oh? And how are you going to do that?”
She smiled. “Well, my mouth got me into this. It’s only proper that it should get me out.”
He laughed, and it was her favorite of all his laughs. Like it had been surprised out of him before he could put it through his Nara Man of Langour filter. His eyes lit up and crinkled at the corners and the sound was lighter than his usual deep rumbles. God, she loved him.
She put her guilt over potentially costing Shikamaru this same happiness into a small box. At the moment, she had a husband to make up with. Her eyes lingered on the crater in the wall as she pulled Shikaku past it and towards the stairs.
Determination was a comfortable warmth as it filled her, much better than the guilt and despair she’d been wallowing in for the past day and a half. When Yoshino Nara set off to accomplish something, she always succeeded. Even if it was fixing something she’d broken with her own hands.
Neji was uneasy. It was similar to the feeling he got just before the clouds rolled in before a storm while he was out on a mission. Something was coming.
He shook his head as he stepped outside, scanning the skies for a hint of rain. Nothing. He glanced back at the building and frowned. Should he go back and warn Kakashi-sama that something felt off?
Nobody would think it odd - they were all honed, highly-trained individuals. Sometimes their subconscious minds picked up on things thanks to their hyper-awareness. No, it didn’t feel like danger, exactly. If he were honest with himself, he’d admit it was probably just lack of sleep messing with him.
The past two nights had not been pleasant. He’d become used to Shikamaru’s weight next to him on the nights they were both free, and knowing that he would never be there again made it difficult to find sleep. Neji turned back to the street and continued walking towards home.
His uncle had been angrier than Neji had seen for a long while after he had announced that he broke off the engagement, though not with him. He’d taken one look at Neji’s face and had somehow just known that something had happened to force his hand.
Neji hadn’t wanted to be the cause of drama between the clans, though, so he’d just said that he’d decided he and Shikamaru were no longer compatible. Too bad Hiashi wasn’t an idiot. He knew the Nara had done something to upset him, he just didn’t know what.
His uncle’s glowering face and Neji’s own broken heart had made the compound a tense place for the past two days. Add in the presents Shikamaru had taken to leaving on his porch multiple times a day (how he was getting past the guards, Neji didn’t know), and yes, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep his mind off the other man.
The first morning he’d left a huge bouquet of flowers, along with a large bottle of the expensive cream Neji used to keep his hair shiny and in place. Seeing it there had him remembering the slow smile that had spread across Shikamaru’s face the first time he’d seen him use it.
“I knew that nobody’s hair could just be as perfect as yours is.”
“Oh, and I suppose yours just stays in its ponytail without any assistance from gel?”
Shikamaru had ended the argument pretty quickly by shoving Neji up against the counter and kissing him senseless, mussing up both of their hair in the process. An effective strategy, all around.
Neji had gone to eat a tense dinner with his family and when he’d returned there had been a pack of his preferred kunai and his favorite candies sitting on his doormat. This morning, there had been more flowers and a rice cooker Neji had been eyeing one day while they were out at the market together.
He wondered if there would be anything waiting for him when he got home. The thought was distracting enough that he didn’t notice Yoshino until she’d fallen into step with him. He stiffened but otherwise didn’t react. The humiliation from dinner two nights ago rushed back to him, stealing any words he might have spoken.
Yoshino didn’t break the silence until they’d turned down a less busy road that was lined on one side by a park and on the other by single-family homes. “Neji-san. I was hoping for a moment of your time.”
Neji looked over at her from the corner of his eye. Her hands were folded in front of her and her chin was raised in the air, but he didn’t miss the slight tremble of her lips. She was nervous, then.
“Of course, Nara-sama.” There wasn’t really a choice. When the wife of the head of a prestigious clan asked for your time, you gave it to them.
“Perhaps we could find a seat in the park?”
He nodded and then followed her onto the grass and towards the large trees offering shade. There were no children playing at the moment, save for a few very young ones on the equipment about half a block down.
Neji wondered what she wanted to say and how long she’d waited outside the building for him to get off his shift. The Hokage Guards’ schedules were a closely-held secret and ever-changing, and he doubted Shikaku would give them to anybody, even his own wife. She had probably been sitting in wait for him for a while, then.
She chose a bench that was mostly out of view of the street but offered them a wide range of vision so they could avoid eavesdroppers. He remembered that Shikamaru had mentioned offhand once that his mother had been a chuunin specializing in sabotage before she’d had him and retired. Neji was less than surprised.
Neji settled next to her, keeping plenty of space between them, but not so much that it would seem like a snub. He settled his hands in his lap and waited for her to speak, wondering if he was about to get warned away from being swayed by Shikamaru’s gifts.
“I owe you an apology.” Neji stilled. Well, that wasn’t what he was expecting.
She held up a hand and he stopped talking. “Just, please, let me get this out. I think it’s important that you understand why I did what I did. If we’re going to be family, we need to clear the air.”
Neji’s jaw dropped. He’d thought that his fiancé - ex- fiancé - was just being dramatic when he complained about Yoshino, but Shikamaru was right. She was crazy if she thought she could just waltz in and declare that Neji was going to forget what happened and marry her son.
She glanced over and winced when she saw his expression. “Sorry. That was...overbearing of me. I meant that I hope that you and Shikamaru will work this out, and if you do, I’d like us to have a semi-friendly relationship.”
“So, this is where he gets his tendency to put his foot in his mouth. I had always assumed that it came from Shikaku-sama.”
He immediately wanted to snatch the words back. He’d been hanging out with Shikamaru too much - he’d even drawled while he said that. To his surprise, Yoshino laughed. “No, he gets that from me. Probably any time you’re thinking ‘what an idiot,’ it’s my fault.”
She was grinning at him and for the first time, he saw her as an actual person, not just a woman who was trying to take the man he loved from him. “Then I should thank you. Those moments are generally amusing.”
Yoshino laughed again, then sobered and looked at her hands. “I am sorry. I didn’t - I didn’t mean for Juno to say what she did. I want you to know, it’s not true. Most of the clan is fine with the engagement. Well, were fine.” She cringed.
“There are always going to be a few sour grapes, no matter what, and Shikamaru was right. What Juno repeated, she heard from a couple of old gossips. Another thing to apologize for - I should have defended you. But I was...”
Her lips twisted and she sighed. Neji was getting a distinct impression that Yoshino didn’t apologize often. “Why was she at the dinner, then?”
Yoshino’s cheeks turned red. “Honestly? I was hoping to drive a wedge between you. Through jealousy, mostly. It was a bit of a last-ditch, desperate effort. I figured if the two of you were serious, the most it would do is annoy Shikamaru. I suppose...I wasn’t thinking about your feelings.”
Neji pressed his lips together and looked over at a sapling that was swaying in the slight breeze. A squirrel clung to the thin branches at the top, looking somewhat nervously down at the ground. “It doesn’t change anything. You’re Shikamaru’s mother. I can’t - won’t - join a family that thinks so little of me.”
Yoshino leaned over and put her hand on his arm. He glanced at her and almost flinched at the way she was staring straight at him, all traces of hesitation gone. “I don’t have anything against you or your clan, outside of the general disapproval of the Caged Bird Seal, which I do know isn’t your doing. It wasn’t personal.”
“It felt personal,” he said, back stiff.
“I know.” Her hand dropped and she slumped back against the bench in a very Shikamaru-like way. The thought made his lip twitch. Yoshino’s fingers drummed on the bench next to her. After a moment of thought, she straightened.
“Alright. I hope that you will keep what I tell you to yourself. It’s not often that I share my...innermost feelings, but I owe you that much.”
Neji raised his brows in honest surprise. This woman wasn’t what he expected at all. He’d thought she was a bit of a shrew, to be honest. Well, that probably wasn’t too far off base, but it was becoming clear that she was more than that, perhaps.
“I was engaged to marry a nice paperwork chuunin when I met Shikaku.” Her expression softened when she spoke his name and Neji watched the emotions play across her face, fascinated. “He was...well, by the end of the two-week mission we were on, I was in love. I broke up with the nice, safe man my mother had picked out for me and six months later we were married.”
She turned and smiled. “I’ve never regretted it. Not really. But, being married to a man of Shikaku’s station is difficult. You jounin, you burn so brightly, but that flame can be put out like that.” She snapped her fingers to punctuate her point. “Before he became the Jounin Commander, he was gone a lot. First for the war, then later for cleanup and to take high-ranking missions to help the village recover.
“He wasn’t there when Shikamaru was born, or for most of his first year of life.” Yoshino blinked rapidly and Neji reached over and put his hand over hers, which was clenched in her skirt. She looked down at it, then up at him in surprise.
He went to pull his hand back - what had he been thinking, just because she was reminding him of Shikamaru didn’t mean he could treat her so familiarly - but then her other hand moved to cover his and squeezed. She cleared her throat and continued on, this time steadier.
“It’s a constant weight, every time he leaves. When will he be back? Will he be back? I love him, and would never take back my decision to marry him, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
Neji leaned back in realization. “That’s why you wanted him to marry a civilian. To spare him that.”
Yoshino shrugged. “Yes. I know I was being...well, a bit of a hypocrite. If anybody had decided to stand between Shikaku and I, I would have burned their world to the ground.”
Neji blinked at the calm, sure way she said that and realized suddenly that Shikaku might not be the most dangerous member of the Nara clan, after all. Well, then.
“You were trying to protect him.”
“Yes. But...I ended up breaking his heart instead.” She turned and looked at him. “I am truly sorry, Neji-san. What happened was inexcusable. Even if you can’t forgive me, please believe me when I say that I will support you and Shikamaru fully from here on out. So please, please reconsider your decision.”
Neji’s eyes widened when she pulled her hand from his and slipped off the bench and onto her knees. She bent at the waist in a bow, brown hair falling forward. Right there, out in the open, where anybody could see one of the heads of the Nara clan bowing to a much lower-ranking member of the Hyuuga clan.
“Nara-sama, please stand,” he said, leaning forward and putting his hand lightly on her arm. She shook her head once, stubbornly, and bowed lower.
“Yes, I forgive you. Please just stand up.”
Yoshino looked up and beamed, gracefully standing and then sitting next to him, idly brushing the grass from her knees and adjusting her dress. Neji stared at her satisfied expression, mouth dropped open in an undignified gape. He’d been played.
She looked over at him and then rolled her eyes. “Don’t make that face. I meant every word I said.”
He snapped his mouth shut, then crossed his arms over his chest and fumed. Yes, this was very similar to interacting with Shikamaru. He wondered how Shikaku had lived with the two of them for so many years.
“So. Do you forgive my son, then? He was very fierce in his defense of you, you know. He punched a wall.”
Neji glanced over in interest, unable to help it. She smiled and patted him on the arm. “Oh, yes. He declared that he’d marry nobody but you, then packed up all of his things and moved out.”
Neji stood, alarmed. “He what?”
Yoshino’s smile faltered and for a moment he thought her eyes looked a little wet. “I’m afraid that bowing trick won’t work on him. He won’t even speak to me.”
Neji would never have thought that he’d be feeling sorry for Nara Yoshino after that disastrous, painful dinner, but here he was, putting a hand on her surprisingly delicate shoulder. “He loves you. He’ll come around.”
Yoshino shrugged. “Well, either way, I hope that you two can work it out.” Her tone was brusque as she stood and straightened her dress. “I don’t suppose you can get me in to see your uncle?”
He was once again speechless. Hiashi was terrifying when he was angry, everybody knew that. Why in the world would Yoshino want to talk to him? Neji was marrying into a clan of crazy people.
He jolted at the stray thought. Well, it looked like his declaration of forgiveness hadn’t been lip service, after all.
“Yoshino-sama.” She smiled at his use of her first name as they began moving towards the Hyuuga compound again. “I lost my parents at a very young age. I hope that you and I can move past this and...” he trailed off, unable to actually voice his thoughts.
She patted his arm and when he looked over her eyes were definitely wet, though she was smiling. “I’d like that, Neji-san. Now, any tips on how to come out of this meeting with your uncle alive?”
Yes, she was a crazy person.
Neji waited for Yoshino to finish with her meeting with Hiashi, even if part of him wanted to run off and find Shikamaru right that second. Neji wondered if Shikamaru had been as miserable as him the past few days. He remembered the way Shikamaru’s face had twisted after he’d told him he was breaking off the engagement.
Then Shikamaru told him that he loved him and Neji had just...left him there. His stomach dipped in guilt. Shikamaru had effectively lost his fiancé and his home in one fell swoop. Yet he’d been patiently waiting Neji out, unobtrusively leaving gifts to let him know he was still there.
Neji had zipped over to his house after showing Yoshino to the tearoom and informing his uncle that she was there. Hiashi had just raised an eyebrow at him when he’d tried to follow him inside, effectively stopping him in his tracks.
Sure enough, waiting for him on his porch was a pair of high-quality binoculars. Neji had mentioned to Shikamaru that his had been cracked last week. The message he was sending with the gifts was obvious. I know you. I love you.
When Yoshino finally exited the room she looked a bit like a small breeze could knock her over. She patted him on the arm and cleared her throat. “You’re lucky to have an uncle who loves you as much as he does.”
Neji pressed his lips together to keep the smile off his face and bowed. “Let me walk you out.”
She nodded a bit too eagerly and they walked to the gates in silence. Before she left, she gave him a level look. “You’re a good person, Neji. I can see why Shikamaru loves you so much.”
Then she was gone, leaving Neji blushing and the guard making a valiant attempt to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. Neji sighed. “Right.”
He made his way back to the tearoom, aware that Hiashi was probably waiting for him. He entered the room and sure enough, he was seated at a low table, sipping tea and reading through a scroll. He glanced up at Neji and then gestured for him to join him. Neji stifled the impatience to get to Shikamaru and sank down on his knees across from him. Hiashi set the scroll to the side and turned all of his attention to Neji.
“I just had an interesting conversation with Nara Yoshino.”
Neji just hummed and poured himself a cup of tea. Hiashi’s lips twitched at his reticence. “She told me what happened at the dinner.”
Neji stiffened and barely managed not to slosh tea over the edge of his cup. “Oh?”
“Yes. I was surprised - both you and Nara Shikaku danced around the subject. She did not. She gave quite the apology.”
“She does seem to have a knack for them,” Neji muttered. Then he thought about the presents on his porch and realized there was yet another thing that Shikamaru had gotten from his mother.
Hiashi stared at him for a few moments and then sighed. “I see. I suppose it would be pointless to start a feud with your future clan over this. Sometimes, I think you’re too forgiving.”
Neji knew his expression was nothing short of incredulous, but, really? Did Hiashi just conveniently forget about Neji’s pre-teen years? Forgiveness was not something he’d ever been prone to.
Hiashi’s lips quirked. “Yes, well, you did forgive me, and by extension the clan, eventually, did you not? Many still hold a grudge against those who were once the main branch. You rose above that bitterness. Yoshino-san is right. Shikamaru is lucky to have you.”
Neji wasn’t even surprised that Hiashi had followed them to spy on their conversation and then somehow came back and managed to look like he hadn’t been darting around hiding in shadows.
“I’d like to put this behind us, yes, if only for the sake of my relationship with the Nara clan.”
Hiashi sighed, and if he were anybody else Neji would say he looked petulant. Neji looked up at the ceiling, just for a moment, then shrugged. “Though you might be able to get a little extra from the contracts before you sign.”
Hiashi smiled, a rare and bone-chilling experience. “Indeed. Well, then, I suppose this means the engagement is back on?”
Neji hesitated. “I need to speak to Shikamaru, first. I’m fairly certain he’ll be amenable, but -”
The look Hiashi sent him was compassionate, for lack of a better word. “Judging by the frequency he’s been sneaking into the compound and the expense and thought he put into your gifts, I wouldn’t worry overly much.”
Neji shook his head. Of course, Hiashi had known Shikamaru was sneaking in. “He begged me not to leave, and I did it anyway. Even after...”
A brush of fingers against his hand pulled his gaze up back to Hiashi, who leaned back after the slight touch. “He will forgive you. Your reaction was understandable.” Hiashi’s expression darkened and Neji realized suddenly that he hadn’t said anything about not getting revenge on Juno.
He opened his mouth to ask him not to, but what came out instead was, “The daughter tried to stop her. She had no part in what happened.”
Hiashi didn’t try to pretend that he had no idea what he meant. He just nodded, once, and Neji relaxed. Whatever retaliation Hiashi came up with for the insult to his nephew, Aoi wouldn’t be affected. The girl had looked as wretched as Neji had felt.
He took his leave from his uncle a few minutes later, heart lighter than it had been in days. He wasn’t exactly over what had happened, but at least he knew Yoshino wouldn’t be a problem when - if - they married. He thought they might actually get along. And wouldn’t that send Shikamaru into a tizzy?
The thought had him chuckling under his breath as he made his way to Shikamaru’s office. He would have preferred to seek him out after work, but since he didn’t know where he was currently residing, this would be easier. It was still fairly early in the afternoon, so Shikamaru would probably be around.
When he entered the room, though, Shikamaru’s desk was empty and his coworkers all went silent when they spotted him. Neji almost left without saying anything when he caught sight of their narrow-eyed expressions, but he just cleared his throat and stepped further into the room.
“Excuse me. Do you know when Shikamaru will return?”
Naiya, the woman who liked to tease Shikamaru whenever Neji stopped by, crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s it to you?”
“I’d like to speak with him.” Neji didn’t let his annoyance show since he was fairly certain he knew the reason behind her rudeness.
“Oh, now you want to speak to him?” She stood and ignored her coworkers when they tried to shush her. “Where were you the past two days, when he was looking miserable and like he hasn’t slept? We all know he moved out -”
“I understand your concern for your friend, but I’m afraid our relationship is none of your business.”
Naiya’s jaw dropped. “None of my business? Listen, Shikamaru’s been our captain for almost two years and has pulled my ass out of the fire more than once. If you’re hurting him, it’s my business.”
Neji stiffened. “I can see you won’t be of any assistance. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
He had only taken one step towards the door when Naiya sighed. “God, you Hyuuga are always so sensitive. Fine, fine. He’s staying with Ino-san, but he left on a mission three hours ago.”
Neji turned back to her warily. “Do you know how long he’ll be gone?”
She shrugged. “He said he’d be back tomorrow. He’s just going to check out reports of activity from the last few members of that group of idiot shinobi who are causing trouble for everybody. He went with Uchiha Sasuke and your cousin.”
Neji relaxed. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Yeah, well. I just hope you’re planning on forgiving him or whatever. I’m tired of watching him sulk.”
Neji smiled and she blinked rapidly and then blushed. “Don’t worry, Naiya-san. He’ll be back to his usual cheerful self soon.”
That surprised a laugh out of her and the rest of her team, and Neji could only hope that he wasn’t lying. Shikamaru had to take him back, first.
He returned home after that, disappointment that he’d missed Shikamaru heavy in his chest. He wasn’t on schedule to work the next day, so hopefully, he would catch Shikamaru right after he returned. Neji stopped and asked the guard to have someone let him know as soon as Hinata checked back into the compound.
He had dinner with Hiashi and Hanabi, who looked confused but relieved at the lack of murderous rage pouring from her father and sulking from her cousin. Neji trained for the remainder of the evening, hoping that the physical exertion plus his conversation with Yoshino would be enough for him to get some sleep that night. It worked, and he fell asleep easily.
He was awoken early the next morning by a soft but urgent knock on his front door. He sat up, immediately alert, and reached for his shirt. “Neji-nii? It’s Hinata. Please, open the door.”
Neji fumbled as he pulled the shirt on. Hinata showing up at his door at dawn when she was supposed to be on a mission was not a good sign. He rushed out of his room and to the front of his house. When he flung open the door his breath caught at the state his cousin was in. There was a gash on her forehead and she was holding her right arm against her side stiffly. Her whole body was covered in dust and what looked like blood and she was swaying slightly. “Hinata!”
He reached out to steady her. “Why are you here? You need to be at the hospital.”
She bit her lip and leaned against him. “I was just there. I’ll go back, but I needed to come get you, I knew you’d want to know -”
She was cut off by Hiashi appearing next to her and placing a hand on her shoulder, brow furrowed in concern. Neji felt the blood drain from his face even as he distantly noted that one of the gate guards must have seen the state Hinata was in and gone to fetch her father.
“Shikamaru,” Neji whispered.
“Hinata, come, we’ll get you to a medic -”
Hinata shook her head and focused on Neji. “I’m fine. Neji, we were ambushed in a gully. The chunin who we went to meet - the ones who called in the suspicious activity - they didn’t get out of the way in time. Shikamaru saved them, but he was hit by some falling rock -”
Hiashi reached out to grip Neji’s arm when he swayed so that he was supporting both him and Hinata. “Is he - “
“He’s alive, Neji-san. He’s at the hospital -”
“Let’s go.” He stepped out of his house, the sound of his own heartbeat loud in his ears. He’s alive, he’s fine, he thought to himself.
“I can walk, Father -”
“Hinata, you will let me carry you,” Hiashi’s stern tone said, followed by a squeak he hadn’t heard from Hinata in years.
Then Neji was sprinting down the path and past the guards at the gate, Hiashi a calm presence next to him, Hinata in his arms with an expression that was a cross between annoyance, fondness, and worry.
They made it to the hospital in less than two minutes, slowing in the lobby because medics were terrifying when they were angry. Neji had seen a young boy with zero muscle mass take down a raging man twice his size with a few swipes of his hand in the waiting room once. It was a well-known rule that most shinobi didn’t break no matter how distressed - don’t mess with a medic’s territory or patients. It was a good way to find yourself face down in a puddle of your own drool and urine.
Hiashi asked where Shikamaru was being kept and they made their way to the appropriate waiting room. After Hiashi firmly but politely requested a medic, someone bustled in to set Hinata’s shoulder and heal the gash on her head.
“It’s okay, Neji-san. I really think we got him back in time. Sasuke-kun returned from scouting soon after the ambush and he and I were able to take care of the threat. Then we ran back here. Sasuke asked for Sakura, so -”
“Neji!” He stood when Yoshino rushed into the room, Shikaku on her heels.
“Yoshino-sama,” he greeted, but his voice cracked and the next thing he knew he was being pulled into a hug by Shikamaru’s mother. She was shaking, so after a moment of stunned silence, he returned it.
“We spoke to the doctor on our way in here,” Shikaku said and Neji looked over at him, still trapped in Yoshino’s death grip. He was fairly certain he’d have bruises. “They think he’s going to be fine. He’s having minor surgery to deal with some internal bleeding. He has a pretty severe concussion and some broken ribs. Haruno Sakura is performing the procedure.”
Neji might have collapsed in relief if it wouldn’t have resulted in him squishing Shikamaru’s mother. The fear that had been pressing down on his chest eased and he suddenly had more than a surface understanding of what Yoshino had been trying to protect Shikamaru from. The possibility that he wasn’t going to be okay had been enough to almost bring Neji to his knees.
A moment later Sasuke ghosted into the room, pausing when he saw Yoshino clinging to Neji. He raised one perfect brow before grunting a greeting to the room and sitting in a chair in the corner.
Yoshino finally pulled back and placed her hands on Neji’s cheeks. “Are you okay?”
Neji pressed his lips together and nodded, though he honestly wasn’t sure. Despite the relief of learning that Shikamaru was going to be okay, he couldn’t quite let go of the panic that had been thrumming through him. Yoshino’s smile was wobbly and she looked pale, so he led her to the seat next to Hiashi and helped her sit down.
Then he wondered why she’d hugged him. He had needed the comfort, but they weren’t exactly close, considering a few days ago she’d been doing her best to sabotage his relationship. He glanced at Shikaku, who had wandered over to sit next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.
Shikaku was tense - almost as tense as he’d been towards the end of that disastrous dinner. Neji remembered that the last time they’d seen Shikamaru he’d been furious with them and moving out of their house. When they’d found out he was injured it must have been quite the blow.
Neji could empathize. One of the thoughts that had been repeating in his mind as he dashed over was he doesn’t know I love him, alternating with, please don’t be dead.
He settled into the chair next to Hinata and didn’t protest when she put a hand on his arm. Ino and Chouji burst into the room half an hour later, both looking like they’d been dragged out of bed.
“Is he -” Ino started and Yoshino stood and crossed over to her, taking one of her hands in both of hers.
“They think he’ll be fine. He’s in surgery now.”
Ino let out a long, low breath and Chouji ran a huge hand down his face. “That’s good. What happened?”
While Hinata repeated the story of the ambush, Neji avoided Ino and Chouji’s gazes. They probably hated him. After all, he’d broken their best friend’s heart. Maybe if he hadn’t been upset or distracted by his personal problems, he would have been just a smidge faster, and wouldn’t be lying in a hospital bed -
His morose thoughts were brought to a halt when Ino came to stand in front of him. He stiffened and waited for the accusations to begin, but instead, she squatted down in front of him and took his hands in her own. “Are you okay?”
He stared into her concerned blue eyes, knowing his own were wide with disbelief. “I - yes. Thank you. Are you?”
Ino shrugged. “Shika’s tough. I know he’ll be alright.” She hesitated, then added, “You know you shouldn’t beat yourself up over your fight. Shikamaru knows you love him, too.”
He stared at her and she smiled and patted his hand before standing and moving to take one of the seats across from him. Aware of the eyes on them, he didn’t comment. No wonder Shikamaru thought all women were confusing if Ino and Yoshino were his examples.
Ino noticed his disbelieving gaze and smiled as Chouji clapped a hand on his shoulder before moving to sit next to her. “Neji. I was there. You held it together way better than I would have. Besides, I knew you were going to give in to the idiot’s puppy eyes and love letters eventually.”
Neji ignored Shikaku’s snort and crossed his arms over his chest. “There were no love letters.”
Ino shrugged. “Not yet.”
Hinata giggled and Neji refused to look over at Hiashi’s reaction to that statement. Actually, he wasn’t sure why his uncle was still there. He glanced over at him. He was sitting in his seat, looking for all the world like he was sitting at their table at home, waiting to be served tea.
Hiashi turned his head slightly to meet his gaze. He nodded at him, once, before turning and speaking to Shikaku in low tones. Neji couldn’t help the warmth that moved through him when he realized Hiashi was there to support him. He let out a shaky breath and forced himself to relax. Everything would be fine.
Shikamaru woke up slightly groggy, and it only took him about thirty seconds of staring blearily at the people seated in chairs next to the bed to become more than slightly confused. Was he hallucinating?
Neji was sitting next to Yoshino, who seemed to be...brushing his hair? Shikaku was rolling his eyes and asking why Neji got to have his hair brushed while Shikaku had to sit there ungroomed and alone.
“Oh, shush, Shikaku. Poor Neji ran straight here from bed and didn’t have a chance to get the tangles out. Plus his hair is so beautiful.”
“Thank you, Yoshino-sama,” Neji intoned just as Shikaku mumbled, “And what is my hair, chopped liver?”
Yeah, there was no way he was actually seeing this. He blinked rapidly, then groaned when the pain in his head doubled at the action. His mother dropped her brush and gasped, and then there were three concerned faces peering down at him. He pressed back into his pillow, alarmed.
Yoshino’s hands were cool when they cupped his cheeks. “Shikamaru, baby, can you hear me?”
“I can,” he said slowly, “though I’m not sure that’s actually a good sign since you’re all hallucinations.”
Neji’s brow wrinkled in that adorable way he had, and then he was leaning around Yoshino to address Shikaku. “I think he must not be completely lucid. Should we get the doctor?”
“Yeah, I’ll go with you.” Then Shikaku stepped around Yoshino and clapped a hand on Neji’s shoulder. His lips quirked up into a small smile and they walked out of the room together, Shikaku’s hand still on his shoulder.
“What a lovely boy,” Yoshino said and Shikamaru turned his gaping back to her.
“Oh my god. I’m stuck in some coma-induced hallucination.”
Yoshino frowned. “Oh, sweetheart, they said there wouldn’t be any permanent damage to your brain. Do you know who I am?”
Shikamaru squinted. “Well, you look like my mother, if my mother didn’t hate my fiancé’s - uh, ex-fiancé’s - guts. But I’m pretty sure I just saw you brushing his hair and telling him he was beautiful. And he was just standing there like he didn’t want to kill you, so.”
Yoshino’s expression cleared and he winced when she smacked him lightly on the shoulder. “Nara Shikamaru! Don’t you scare me like that!”
“Ow! Okay, brain, if we’re going to hallucinate, we can at least avoid the physical abuse mom doles out -”
“Shikamaru! I do not abuse you!”
Shikamaru just clamped his mouth shut and after a moment she sighed and pinched her brow. “This probably isn’t the time for this, but obviously you’re confused and need to have a few things clarified. Yesterday I sought out Neji and we had a nice, long talk. We’ve decided to start over. I believe your father had a similar conversation with him.”
Shikamaru stared at her and Yoshino hesitated before taking his hand. “Shikamaru, baby. I’m so, so sorry. I was trying to do what I thought was best for you, but I - I ended up betraying your trust and hurting you and someone you love. I know I don’t deserve it, but -”
“Shut up,” he said and then sighed when she looked like she might cry. “Mom, of course, I forgive you, god. Women are so dramatic.”
Well, those drugs certainly didn’t leave him with much of a filter. Her eyes narrowed, but before she could start yelling Shikaku and Neji returned, Sakura trailing in behind them. Now that Shikamaru was fairly certain he wasn’t hallucinating, he drank in the sight of Neji. Did the fact that he was there mean they were still getting married?
Sakura bustled around him asking him questions that he only answered with half his attention. No, the pain wasn’t horrible (he had a feeling that would come later). Yes, he knew where he was. Ow, yeah, it hurts when you press there, woman!
Then Shikaku was moving in and leaning down to give him a light hug. “I’m glad you’re okay, son.”
He smiled up at him. “Thanks, dad.” And that was that - they were made up. This is why his dad was his favorite.
Then Yoshino was hustling Shikaku out of the room just as Shikamaru’s eyelids started to get heavy. “We’ll grab some sandwiches and tea and be right back, boys!” she called before closing the door behind them.
“Smooth, mom,” Shikamaru mumbled, but his attention was still on Neji. He’d missed him and couldn’t quite believe they were in the same room again.
“Did you get my gifts?” he blurted.
Neji smiled and reached forward to run the back of two fingers down his cheek. “I did. They were perfect, thank you.”
Shikamaru’s eyes drifted shut at the gesture. When he opened them again, Neji looked nervous. “Shikamaru...I’m sorry. About the way I left. I should have stayed and talked to you.”
Shikamaru blinked and willed his body to stay awake for just a few more minutes. “No. I understand why you made the decision you did. But, Neji, we can - we can work through it. We don’t even have to stay in the clan -”
Neji placed a finger over Shikamaru’s lips and smiled. “I love you, too. And of course, we’re staying in your clan. I don’t know if you noticed, but your mom and I have worked out our differences.”
Shikamaru stared up at him. “Oh,” he finally mumbled against Neji’s finger, and his chest warmed when he laughed. “Now go to sleep. We’ll talk more when you wake up.”
Shikamaru nodded, then winced when it made his head throb. Neji’s hand moved from his lips to run lightly through his hair, and he closed his eyes and hummed in contentment. “So jus’ to be clear - we’re engaged again.”
Neji’s light laughter and his, “Yes, Nara. Now go to sleep,” were the last things he heard before he drifted off.
He wondered idly if getting rocks dropped on his head would work as a way to gain forgiveness every time they fought.
Whew, that was a long one! Turns out it takes a lot more words to fix something than it does to break it.
Yeah, that's right. Some super wise words to go along with your ByakuNara Thursday. Or something.
Chapter 9: Step 9
Step 9: Live happily ever after.
“Ino, I’m fine, I’m - ow, woman, why would you do that?” He put a hand over the spot on his shoulder that she’d just given a vicious poke.
“I told you that you’re not healed yet, so take it easy! Sakura and I can carry the couch.”
Shikamaru sighed. “I can’t just let girls carry my furniture, Ino.”
“Last time I checked, Sakura is still stronger than the rest of us combined, moron. Sit down and stop acting like a neanderthal.”
He was about to protest but the glare Sakura sent him from where she was holding his couch over her head with one hand changed his mind. He sighed and slunk over to a low wall in front of his newly purchased house and sat down.
It was a fairly spacious four bedroom located on the edge of the Nara lands. Out of the four that he’d viewed with Neji it was the only one that the other man gave more than a passing ‘it’s fine.’ Shikamaru had immediately put in an offer. Since nobody was going to turn down the future head of the clan, it had been accepted.
Neji didn’t actually know that he had bought it yet. Shikamaru had ended up asking his friends for help moving in on a day he knew Neji was working since he was still not up for heavy lifting. It would be a good surprise, he hoped. Maybe even a good enough one to get one of Neji’s fantastic blowjobs.
He spaced out for a while imagining all the ways Neji could show how much he appreciated the purchase of their future home. His fantasies were interrupted twenty minutes later when Ino appeared in front of him, hands on her hips and looking...really pissed off, actually.
“I wasn’t doing anything!” he blurted. “I swear, I was sitting here the whole time.”
Her glare intensified and she pointed a finger in his face. He leaned back, wondering if he was about to get one of her infamous slaps. Shikamaru had been the recipient of one only once when she’d caught him looking up one of her friends’ skirts. It hadn’t even been his fault.
They’d been standing next to him giggling about something while he napped. He’d opened his eyes and it was right there. She’d been wearing a thong. His eyes had only wandered because he’d still been half asleep and not thinking rationally. He’d honestly thought he was still dreaming. Not his finest moment.
“You wanna tell me why I just overheard Sasuke talking about how he lost a hundred bucks because Sakura guessed that your fake love would become real?”
Shikamaru stared at her. Dammit, he needed new friends. “Uh.”
Her eyes widened at the confirmation and she lowered her hand. She drew herself up and he flailed when her eyes filled with tears. “You told them and not me and Chouji? I thought we were friends. Best friends.”
He reached out to snag her hand when she turned around to leave. She struggled when he pulled her in for a hug. “Don’t be stupid. We are best friends. I just didn’t want to worry you.”
She stopped trying to push him away, which was good because he really was still healing, but she remained stiff. “So you lied?”
“Well. Only a little. And we really do love each other, now. I swear, Ino, I just didn’t want you to feel like you needed to fix it for me. I knew that if you thought it was a love match from the get-go, you’d be happy.”
He paused, then sighed and tightened his hold on her. “I hate it when you and Chouji are sad, you know.”
She sighed, but relaxed and returned his hug. “You idiot. Of course, we would have worried. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re your team.”
“I know. Sorry.”
“You’re only sorry that you got caught.”
He chuckled and she huffed. “Well, I promise not to lie to you next time I decide to get a fake boyfriend.”
“You’re a jerk.”
“Yeah.” When she pulled back a smile was playing around her lips, so he figured they’d be mostly okay. She’d get some sort of revenge, of course, but he was sure it wouldn’t be too awful. Hopefully.
A few hours later he was lying flat on his back, watching with wide eyes while Neji moved up and down, head thrown back and hair loose around his bare shoulders. His chest and neck were flushed and Shikamaru groaned and tightened his grip on his hips when he rotated them, taking Shikamaru deeper inside himself.
Neji had liked their new house. He had shown his appreciation enthusiastically, first with a spectacular blowjob and then by opening himself up while Shikamaru watched before moving on to the grand finale. He hadn’t allowed Shikamaru to do anything more strenuous than lie there and watch since he was ‘still healing.’
Yeah, he wasn’t complaining. This was an amazing way to break in their new bed, which Shikamaru and Naruto had spent two frustrating hours putting together until Sasuke had intervened. He didn’t want to think about what that meant for the future of their village.
Neji gripped himself and began to jerk himself off and Shikamaru decided that was tactic permission to head for the finish line. He ignored Neji’s half-hearted glare when he broke the no exertion rule and tugged his hips down flush against him. Neji lifted himself back up and they both moaned when Shikamaru did it again, the sound of their flesh slapping together loud in the otherwise silent house.
It only took three more thrusts before Shikamaru came. Neji followed shortly after and they lay in their new bed, panting and staring up at the white ceiling. Boxes were still sitting on the floor, unpacked, and it was overly cool in the house since Shikamaru had only turned the heat on a few minutes ago.
Still, with Neji next to him, it felt perfect. He was idly tracing patterns on Shikamaru’s chest, fingers detouring to run lightly across the shoulder that had been injured by falling rock. Shikamaru grabbed his hand and brought it to his lips, pressing a kiss to the knuckles.
Neji just hummed and his eyes moved to take in the room. “We’ll need to paint. The white is a little bland.”
Shikamaru wrinkled his nose. “Can’t we pay somebody to do it?”
Neji chuckled, then leaned up to kiss him. “No,” he said, then sat up, ignoring Shikamaru’s protests. “Come on, we’re supposed to have dinner with your parents. We need to shower and get ready or we’ll be late.”
Shikamaru eyed all of the skin on display when Neji stood. “I changed my mind. I’m still horribly injured. I need to stay in bed.”
Neji raised one imperious eyebrow and Shikamaru felt interest stirring in his stomach. He leered and then laughed when Neji threw his shirt, discarded on the floor earlier, at him.
“Come on. You know they’re still upset that you didn't move back in with them until the wedding. You can’t skip dinner or they’ll assume you’re still angry.”
Shikamaru sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed and then looked down at his feet. A moment later the bed dipped next to him when Neji sat, and his warm hand rested lightly on Shikamaru’s back.
“Shikamaru?” He glanced over at Neji, whose brows were furrowed. “You’re not still upset with them, are you?”
Shikamaru shrugged, then winced. Neji put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’m fine. Just a little tender when I move it up and down.”
Neji reached up and ran the back of his fingers down Shikamaru's cheek. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m not mad, exactly. I guess I’m just not sure how to act around them. I know they aren’t perfect, obviously, but they’d never really let me down like that before. I just feel strange around them. Don’t you? After all, mom’s behavior hurt you worse than it did me.”
Neji hummed and turned to look out their window at the thick growth of trees in their yard. “I think I’m just very practiced in forgiveness by now. Plus, your mother didn’t mean for it to go quite so far. And she truly regrets her actions.”
He leaned in and kissed Shikamaru gently. “I also wouldn’t say that I was more hurt than you by what happened. Perhaps I was the target, but you suffered, too.”
Shikamaru shrugged, a little uncomfortable but feeling marginally better. He’d been worried that Neji was just putting on a show with the whole forgiveness thing, but he didn’t seem bothered about the upcoming dinner.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get ready. My future wife, he nags and nags -” he yelped when Neji pushed him off the bed. “Hey, I’m injured!”
Neji just laughed and took off for the bathroom. Shikamaru grinned and scrambled to his feet before chasing after him.
They were ten minutes late for dinner and were a little out of breath when they got to his parents’ front porch. Shikamaru wrapped his arm around Neji and pulled him in for a deep kiss before he could knock on the door.
“Shikamaru, we’re in public,” he hissed when he nuzzled into his neck.
He was about to respond when a familiar, grating voice filtered through the open window. “...you need to fix this, Yoshino!”
Neji stiffened in his arms and Shikamaru froze, unable to believe that his parents had let that woman back inside.
“Fix what, Juno? I can’t help that business is down, or that you’ve gained a sudden paranoia regarding the Hyuuga clan.”
“Down? I haven’t had a customer for a week! Not one customer. And it’s not paranoia. Every time I turn around, one of them is just there, with their freaky eyes, staring at me. It’s a threat, Yoshino, and I will not stand for it. I will not!”
Neji and Shikamaru exchanged wide-eyed looks before shuffling closer to the window, not needing to communicate that they were interested in hearing this conversation.
“Well, Juno, I suppose you should have thought of that before you insulted the beloved nephew of the clan head.” Shikaku’s drawling voice drifted through the window.
Juno scoffed. “Please, I only did what Yoshino didn’t have the guts to do. That’s why we’ve always been such good friends.”
There was a long pause, and then Yoshino spoke. “I honestly don’t know why we’re friends anymore at this point. Though, you’re right that this was mostly my fault. Hiashi-sama has already gotten his pound of flesh from our clan, though. The marriage contract is far more beneficial to his clan than ours after a bit of a renegotiation following that dinner.”
Neji looked stricken at this information and Shikamaru just tugged him against him and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s nothing terrible.”
“Well, but you haven’t lost all your customers, have you? Not to mention, Aoi received a scholarship for some school in the capital and has announced she’s leaving! Just like that, out of the blue - she didn’t even apply. Who will help me run the shop now?”
“Oh really? How odd,” Shikaku deadpanned. “Guess it’s a good thing all your customers are gone after all. Well, I think I told you that you weren’t welcome here anymore after last time, Juno. Let me walk you out.”
“What? Yoshino, are you going to just let him do this to me? We’ve been friends for almost forty years!”
“I’m sorry, Juno, but...I don’t think I really like you much anymore. And I definitely don’t like who I am when I’m around you. I’d suggest going and giving Hyuuga Hiashi a real apology, along with his nephew. I’m sure business would pick back up for you after.”
“Yoshino,” Juno’s voice sounded lost and Shikamaru almost felt bad for her. Almost.
Then the door opened and a teary-eyed Juno and amused Shikaku stepped out on the porch. She caught sight of them and her eyes narrowed. Neji stiffened and his cold, Hyuuga mask fell into place. Her mouth opened, probably to say something nasty, but Shikaku stepped between them.
“Juno. Leave, right now, before you say something we’ll both regret.”
Shikamaru couldn’t see his father’s face, but he was fairly certain it was doing something vaguely terrifying if the way Juno squeaked and then hustled down the steps and across the lawn was any indication. They watched her form move further and further away, nobody saying anything until she turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
Shikaku turned back to them and rubbed a hand down his face. “Son, I’m sorry about that -”
Shikamaru stepped forward and hugged him. Shikaku inhaled a sharp, surprised breath before he returned it. “Thanks, dad,” he said and then stepped back.
When he glanced over Yoshino was standing at the door, watching him with wary eyes. He reached back and grabbed Neji’s hand, then tugged him forward until they were both standing in front of his mom.
Shikamaru leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Smells good, mom. What’s for dinner?”
Her eyes were wide when she looked up at him and after a few seconds of silence a small, pleased smile lit up her face. “Well, I made your favorite.”
“Mackerel cooked in miso? You’re the best, mom.”
She beamed and leaned over to kiss Neji’s cheek. “I hope that’s okay with you?”
Neji’s lips turned up and Shikamaru’s chest warmed. “It is, Yoshino-sama. It sounds perfect.”
Yoshino bustled them into the kitchen and then fluttered around getting everybody served. Shikamaru realized she was nervous and couldn’t really blame her, considering the last dinner they’d all eaten together at this very table.
“So, Neji, how do you like the new house?” Shikaku asked.
Neji’s small smile made another appearance. “It’s perfect. I think we’ll be very happy there.”
Shikamaru tried not to look too smug, but the way his mother snickered told him he probably failed. “Well, I’m glad. Shikamaru was pretty nervous about it, you know.”
“Mom,” he groaned, then leaned back and put his arm around Neji. “You can’t just ruin my cool like that.”
“What? I think it’s sweet. It’s like that time when you were six -”
“-and you found those baby skunks stuck in that burrow right next to your cloud watching hill after a storm.”
“Seriously, mom, Neji doesn’t need to hear this -”
“-you took them out and carried them all the way home, with them biting and spraying you the whole time!”
“Mom, no -”
“-and when your dad asked what you were thinking, you said,” Shikamaru leaned down and rested his forehead next to his plate when Shikaku joined in on the next words, “well, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t sleep past all the crying.”
Neji was shaking with silent laughter next to him and his dad chuckled. “You were trying to act so cool about it, but when the Inuzuka vet took them from you, you cried every night for a week.”
“You said you wanted to keep them and train them to spray only enemies. Oh, Shika, you were so adorable, even when it took us three days to get the stench out of you.”
“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” he grumbled at Neji, but he turned his head enough to take in the way his eyes crinkled and the little dimple on his cheek and couldn’t quite stop the small, helpless smile that spread across his face.
“We have pictures, you know,” Yoshino leaned forward to say conspiratorially to Neji, who looked way too intrigued by that.
“No.” Shikamaru sat up, alarmed, but Neji and his mother were already gone.
Shikaku leaned back and let out a full belly laugh that Shikamaru had only seen him do a few times before in his life.
“Son,” he said when he was done, then leaned over to clap him on the shoulder. “Welcome to married life.”
Another one bites the dust!
Happy ByakuNara Thursday! Thanks for everybody who gave your support through kudos and comments, you're awesome!
This fic is part of ByakuNara Thursdays! Check out the other works in the series if you enjoyed this one. :)