She was different when she returned.
More settled, content in her skin and confident in her abilities. She was taller, her skin darker, her hair brighter, her eyes deeper, her body stronger.
"So, are you going to just stare at her or are you going to say hi?" Ino prodded.
"Stare a little more, I bet." Choji replied in his stead. "It's less rude if he does it from a distance rather than when he's expected to talk to her."
Ino snorted, grinning. Let her have her satisfaction at his expense - Choji was right. He had to get his head on straight before he walked up to her. A good tactician never enters without a plan. And on someone as spontaneous as Naruto, one had to be prepared for anything.
In the sunlight, she was beautiful. Childhood had left her behind. It was hard to coincide the tomboy from the Academy with the woman standing in the middle of the street chatting so casually with Kiba and Hinata. How anyone could look at her and not have the wind knocked out of them, he didn't know.
She was wearing armoured mesh leggings underneath knee-length black shorts. She had half her shins down into her boots covered in ninja tape, practical black boots on her feet. She had on a zipped up jacket, the chest pulled tighter than her old clothing. It looked new; black across the shoulders and arms, an orange chest and waist decorated with black striping along the bottom, her customary red swirl on her back. He wondered if she still wore the mesh undershirt.
"What a drag." He muttered to himself, shoving his hands in his pockets and making the decision to amble over.
He remembered well the nerves that had been inspired in him that day, how it had taken all of his concentration to actually talk to her and not just gawk. It wasn't much different now, standing in her living room waiting for her to come out.
He was taking her back to his place for dinner with his parents. While he had no doubts that she would be treated with respect, it was still tearing up his insides. She had no parents to meet - he had no one to impress for her. Her seal of approval was the only one he needed, and he felt that she was at a disadvantage.
"I can hear you thinking. It's distracting." She called from her bedroom.
"I can't help it. I feel bad." They'd had this discussion already when he'd first asked her to come over.
"I've already met Shikaku and he's cool. I doubt your mom's going to be any different. Besides," She stepped out of her room, looking even more stunning than normal, "I'd have to do this with anyone. Everyone has parents I'd have to meet, and I'm more comfortable facing down Shikaku than Hiashi."
That caught him by surprise. "Neji asked you to meet the clan head?"
She shrugged. "I guess Hinata had a crush on me in the Academy and thought she was into girls. She got Kiba to ask me to go on a date with her just to try it out. She's with him now, so she's into guys obviously. But that would have been a terrifying meet-the-parents."
"Ah." Yeah, he'd known about Hinata's crush. Everyone but Naruto had known. "Oh well. Her loss, my gain."
She rolled her eyes good-naturedly. Accepting compliments didn't come naturally - she was much more used to having to defend herself - but she was getting better. The less extravagant, the better she was with handling them. "Let's get going. I don't want to start emulating Kakashi that much."
He chuckled, took her hand and exited the apartment, leading her through the more scenic route to his clan home.
"I'm home." He called when they entered. "And I brought Naruto."
"Oh good! Come in, come in!" Yoshino called from the kitchen.
The Nara clan leader house was somewhat of an understated affair. Likely due to the clan being less than pretentious, it was big enough for a family of six, but not extravagant; the only reason it was even that big was due to the fact the Nara had joined the Senju in the creation of Konoha shortly after the Uchiha had, dragging the Yamanaka and Akamichi with them, and back then they had large families to compensate for the inevitable loss of the heirs to war or disease. Much of that extra space was used as storage and office space, or left as guest bedrooms for the other members of the InoShikaCho to collapse into.
He could already tell she liked the neutral, woodsy tones to his mother's decorating, with the deep sage greens and dark lacquer to the furniture. Naruto's own home was a mismatch of cheap furniture and on-sale linens. Nothing made any design sense and the colour of her walls were a boring beige with the standard wooden floor. Frankly, if it wasn't for her garbage and scattered (though very, very limited) personal items, one would assume the apartment didn't belong to anybody. She lived as though she would need to throw all of her belongings into a bag and blow away on the wind, everything she loved able to fit on her person.
Shikamaru hoped to be the tree that her transient soul made a nest in, the place she would always come home to. Sappy and troublesome, but true. After all, blue eyes and blonde hair would look so, so good in his faded greens and black-browns.
Shikaku was lounging on the couch, more casual than the situation called for. It was comforting to see that despite any potential catastrophe, his father never changed. He looked up from the book he'd been reading when they entered the room.
"Yo." Shikaku waved serenely. "Take a seat anywhere. Yoshino will be out any minute with drinks."
"Oh. Does she need help?" Naruto looked towards the entrance to the kitchen.
"If you try to help her as a guest, she'll lose her mind." He grabbed her wrist. "It's better just to wait and let her wait on you."
"Uh, alright." He could tell that made her uncomfortable to do (another sign of how lonely her upbringing had been, how the village and the people who were supposed to protect and support her had failed), so he took her hand and pulled her over to the shogi board set up on the far end of the coffee table. Sufficiently distracted, she sat down across from him and considered the names printed on the pieces.
"Have you ever played shogi before?" He asked.
"Nope." She sat forward, hands in her lap. "Teach me?"
He couldn't keep the soft smile off his face. "Sure. I'll explain what each piece does, but you've always learned better doing."
Shikaku got up and moved around, sitting so he was hovering over her shoulder. "You can ask me questions so you don't give away your strategy to him."
She beamed up at his father, possibly the purest individual he'd ever had the pleasure of knowing. "Thanks, Shikaku-san!"
"No need for formalities." Shikaku said.
"Uuh, okay?" She didn't seem overly concerned by his proximity (probably from all the practise she'd had at having Shikamaru between her legs on the training grounds) (er, watching clouds, that is - she grew up alone, so having anyone touch her meant violence, not kindness).
He shook himself out of his reverie and explained each piece's function, then began the game. By the time Yoshino joined them with drinks, Naruto'd lost two matches to Shikamaru, but was quickly gaining skill.
"How about against a different opponent?" Shikaku suggested, switching places.
"Sure. Can I still keep Shikamaru as a handicap?"
Shikaku glanced up with his son with a sly little quirk of his lips. "All good Hokage have advisors, don't they?"
Naruto lit up like the sun itself. "Yup! And Shikamaru's definitely going to be mine!"
Thankfully she wasn't facing him, because it would have been embarrassing for her to see him clutch his chest and melt against his mother, trying to keep his heart from melting out between his ribs. Shikaku admirably kept his cool, not betraying his son's lovesick distress, but his eyes sparkled in mirth.
"Come help me bring out the other dishes?" Yoshino suggested, taking her son's hand and giving him some air and recovery time.
Hidden safely in the kitchen, he held her tightly. "I'm going to die."
She nodded sagely. "That's exactly what Shikaku said when he fell in love with me."
His hand was still pressed into his chest. "How am I supposed to function when I can't decide whether I want to kiss her or hug her with all my might? God, if I sleep over at her place, I might never be able to sleep without her again."
"It's the Nara hyperfixation."
"The- The what?"
She pulled back to smile down at her son. "Your father told me that every Nara finds someone they can't get out of their head. Once that person's in there, they're there forever."
"So, you're telling me I'm going to be like this forever?"
"Shikaku still can't help himself when I do something cute accidentally." Yoshino confirmed. "He also can't sleep if he's not cuddling me unless he's on a mission. And I'm pretty sure that Naruto's wormed her way into your head."
"I'm so screwed." He sighed in a manner that said he wouldn't really mind it all that much. "Troublesome."
"Naruto's always been trouble. Now she's just your trouble."
She watched the play of emotion over her son's face. The Nara were incredibly relaxed and thoughtful, often confused for laziness. They would help who they could when they could, but they kept anything they loved close to their chests, possessive and protective but not jealous. The exact same look had taken over Shikaku's face when she'd agreed to date him, when she agreed to marry him, when she told him she was pregnant and directed at this very child when he was born. The Nara loved simply, but deeply, and guarded that love with their lives. Shikamaru was no exception to his clan, and had found the star that would guide him for the rest of his life.
It was humbling to be on the other side of, watching devotion and purpose well up inside of her son and envelop him.
She pulled back and handed him a plate, taking the dip bowl herself and leading him back to the living room. They sat down behind Shikaku and Shikamaru honed in instantly on the fact his father, despite still having most of his pieces, was on the ropes.
"Are you serious?" He breathed.
Shikaku moved a piece to try and head off a direct attack on his king, but a diagonal move from the back of the board by Naruto took the king.
"I win, right?" She said, looking up for confirmation.
Shikaku nodded mutely in shock.
"Cool." Naruto smiled.
All the air rushed out of Shikamaru at once. "Marry me."
She laughed, bright and easy. "We've got to actually date each other for more than a few weeks before we get engaged, Shika."
"Nonsense." Yoshino cut in. "You already fit right in."
Those soulful blue eyes welled up with hope. " . . . I do?"
"Definitely." Shikaku managed, finally regaining his voice. He got up and moved around the table, pulling her into a hug. "I'm glad you're dating my son."
Naruto flushed right up to her hairline. "I'm glad you approve of me. And I'm glad to be dating him."
Shikamaru just wanted to melt into the couch, overcome by sentimentality.
Yoshino giggled. "Now I'm glad I delayed dinner. No one outside the Nara has beaten Shikaku at shogi in a long time."
Naruto turned her wide eyes back on the Nara men. "You weren't just going easy on me, were you?"
"My pride wishes I had been." Shikaku cracked a wry grin. "Shikamaru, why don't you show her around the grounds? I think the deer are in the backyard."
He managed to get his weak knees to support him and took her hand.
"Don't be too long, dinner will be soon!" Yoshino called after them.
"We won't be!" Naruto answered, trailing behind Shikamaru.
Once they were out of sight and into the trees, he pulled her into him, just basking in having her touch. She stroked the back of his neck, sighing happily into his neck.
"This is nice." She said quietly. His arms tightened around her waist.
"Yeah. It is."
She chuckled. "Were you seriously asking me to marry you?"
She pulled back to catch his gaze. "Wait, really?"
"Oh." She chuckled nervously, her voice even scratchier than normal. She was repressing tears. "Wow."
"Why? What's wrong?"
"It's just . . . a little weird to be alone for so long and then suddenly, I'm invited to be part of a family." She choked back the noises that wanted to come out. "I, uh, I'm just overwhelmed."
"I don't do anything without a reason." He smirked. "Too troublesome."
"And investing so much time in me?"
"Evidently I really like you." He nudged her nose with his. "A lot. Probably more than I should for us only officially dating for like, a month and a half."
She laughed wetly. "Yeah. But I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who gets attached quickly. Makes me feel less clingy."
"If it's you, anything goes." He flickered his gaze down to her lips, gratified when she wasted no time and kissed him for all she was worth. It was like she'd been waiting all day to do it.
"Good to know my limits." She grinned. "Not that I've followed any before now."
He nuzzled into her. "I look forward to you bulldozing into my life."
"Didn't I already do that?"
"Yeah, but now you've got permission from my parents. They're totally going to want you over every other day for dinner and to sleep over. Don't be surprised if my mom tries to become your mom too."
"Oh, because that would be such a hardship."
"You don't know her that well. She'll nag you and make you wear clothes she chooses and try to make you marry me."
"Oh no," She mocked, pulling him in for a kiss, "how could she be so cruel?"
"I don't know. Part of her biology, I guess."
She pressed into his hands as he wiped away her escaped tears. "I can't wait."
Dinner was significantly more lively with Naruto there. Their normally quiet and reserved family gathering was filled with Naruto's regaled tales of her time on the road and Jiraiya's perverted escapades in bath houses. She was loud and exuberant and gestured wildly telling her stories with rigour and enthusiasm. She didn't comment when he wrapped his arm around her hips, just leaned into his embrace as she vigorously debated the merits of actually having a strategy in battle with Shikaku. She let him settle in behind her and rest his chin on her shoulder when they moved back to the living room, discussing her adoration of the colour orange with Yoshino and possible adaptations to her wardrobe. Shikaku was mirroring his position with his wife, trading wordless glances with his son as their women talked about Naruto's apartment.
"Oh wow. It's dark." Naruto commented, coming to the surface of conversation for the first time since dinner started.
"Has been for a while." He reported, drowsy, from her shoulder.
"I should have noticed. I should be getting home."
"Nonsense." Yoshino waved her rebuttal off. "Shikamaru's bed is large enough for a companion. Or, if you're not that comfortable, we have plenty of spare rooms. You can wash up and leave in the morning if you have somewhere to be."
"Really?" It was tragic how Naruto's eyes shone with poorly concealed hope every time someone offered her basic and common kindnesses. He felt it like physical pain every time he had to witness it.
"Of course. If you're not busy, perhaps we could even go shopping like we discussed."
"Eh, well, I don't really have that much money-"
"That's not a problem." Shikaku interjected, standing and stretching. "For as long as you're around, you're part of the family. Besides, there's no greater gift you could give us than making our son happy."
Yoshino nodded, standing herself. "Shikamaru can show you to his room, or one of the spares, but we'll be retiring for the evening."
"Right! Goodnight, Shikaku, Yoshino." Naruto ducked her head to them, the most she'd ever bowed to anyone, and waved to them with a smile as they disappeared deeper into the house.
"So, what do you want to do?"
She flushed, ducking her head to try and hide it along with her sheepish smirk. "Is the offer of your bed still open?"
He fought down a blush of his own. "Yeah. Follow me."
He woke up to the warmth of the sun filtering through the rice paper walls. He could hear the gentle pattering of his mother, the whisper of the wind through the trees. He let out a deep breath, snuggling closer. The recognition of a heartbeat under his ear forced him from his dose and he actually opened his eyes, finding his own shirt bunched under his cheek, the dip of a bronze collarbone in his sightline.
"Ah, shit." He muttered.
"Hmm?" The hand he didn't realize was in his hair shifted, combing through it gently.
"This was a mistake."
The hand froze. "Why?"
He tightened his arms around a muscular waist, tucking his face into that golden neck. "How the hell am I supposed to sleep on my own now? My mom totally set this up."
The hand in his hair resumed, and the chest he was on vibrated with a warm, honey-thick laugh. "Yeah, me neither."
Callused fingertips tilted his head back and he met her sleep-dampened gaze, the soft look of fondness almost too much for his heart. He stretched up to meet her halfway, relishing in the sweetness of her gentle kiss. Her fingers skated up his jaw to cup it, the smile on her face worth everything. Her brilliant golden halo scattered on his pillow was nearly enough for him to roll them over right now, protocol be damned.
He laid back down on her instead, letting out a content sigh. "I just want to stay here forever."
She kissed the top of his head. "Me too."
There was a soft knock at the door. Shikaku's voice came from the other side. "Your mother wanted me to tell you breakfast is going to be ready in about an hour."
"Thanks dad." He called back. Shikaku padded away.
"See? I don't know what you were so afraid of."
He forced himself to sit up, leaning on one arm to take her in. Nara green looked good on her, and he wasn't going to lie and say that seeing his clan symbol stretched proudly across her chest didn't spark heat low in his gut. She offered him a smile, then stretched out, shifting the covers down enough to catch a glimpse of powerful thigh. He swallowed thickly just watching her. When she began to twist and groan in a dangerously erotic manner, he had to break the spell.
"You're testing my resolve here, Naruto." He muttered blandly.
"Huh?" She dropped back down onto the mattress, blinking up at him. "What do you mean?"
He dropped back down, sliding up behind her and pulling her back into contact with his chest. His arm slid around her, resting under her breasts. She gasped, going lax as he breathed hotly against the back of her neck, pressing gentle kisses up to her hairline.
"Oh." She breathed, covering his arm with her own.
"Yeah." He licked the shell of her ear just to feel her shiver and groaned low enough for her to feel it vibrate against her back. "I want you so badly already."
"Soon." She murmured. "Meeting the parents is the last really big step until like, marriage, right? So, soon."
He forced himself to roll away, but it was like flaying off his own skin. "I'm going to die."
"What? Why?" She sat up and pouted. "I thought I was giving you what you asked for!"
"You just made me an erotic promise, in my bed, wearing my clan clothes, minutes before we have to meet my parents for breakfast, which means I don't get it until later. What a drag."
Naruto broke into a beaming grin that lit up the room. "Troublesome, 'ttebayo."
"Yeah." He smiled back at her because it was impossible not to.
"Well, the sooner started, the sooner ended." She stood up to go get changed and he remembered that she didn't take pants to sleep in last night.
"Jeez, I'm not going to survive." He rolled onto his stomach, stuffing his face in a pillow and willing the half-mast she'd given him to go away before he had to get up and change.