Chapter 2: "Near Death"
The mission went off without a hitch the next day.
It wasn't until they were making their weary way back to the village that it happened.
Sakura was the only one speaking, going on about this and that-- mostly about the stupidity of the men they had just beaten. Sasuke would occassionally grunt his response, and Naruto was unusually silent, lost in his own thoughts as he rubbed absently at the old scar on the back of his hand.
He'd been hoping she would have decided to go shopping in the village they had just helped; it would have given him a few minutes alone with his stoic lover to try and figure out just what the hell was wrong with him lately. He was starting to get tired of the stupid cat-and-mouse game going on between them. The nights alone weren't that great either. He knew eventually he was going to have to talk to Sakura about it, as embarrassing as it was. He'd rather keep his problems to himself, but maybe she could help. She had to be better than Shikamaru.
What was Shikamaru hiding from him? The other boy acted like he knew exactly what was causing Sasuke to act all distant. Although he would never admit it out loud, Shikamaru's secrecy hurt his feelings almost as much as Sasuke's sudden aloofness. The young genius was one of his closest friends. He'd been one of the first outside of his team to accept Naruto for who he was. It had just taken Naruto a little while to realize that. Shikamaru was crass with him sometimes, and tended to call him an idiot... but he treated Naruto no differently than he treated other people. He was too lazy and introverted to give a damn that one was not supposed to be friends with the cursed child. Naruto had never realized just how much the other boy's opinion mattered to him until now. He could use some help with this. If someone didn't stop him, he was going to strangle Sasuke the next time the other boy said something degrading.
He was so lost in thought, he didn't notice that the birds and the crickets had stopped their song. Sasuke's arm shot out in front of him, halting him in his tracks, and he looked up irritably. Now what..?
But Sasuke wasn't looking at him. The young ninja was glancing around, eyes narrowed suspiciously, while Sakura looked at him curiously.
"Something's wrong," Sasuke said flatly.
Naruto looked around quickly, hand moving towards his kunai. "I don't see anything," he started to say, mostly just to be contradictory.
Something erupted from the bushes to the side of the path. Naruto, who was closest, gave a squawk as their attacker hit him head on; they went tumbling to the ground in a cloud of dust, accompanied by Sakura's startled shriek.
Naruto was trying to writhe away the instant his stomach hit the ground; his weapon had gone flying on impact and he couldn't get his other hand loose from the knee pinning it to do a jutsu. He saw Sasuke out of the corner of his eye, darting forward to deliver a hard kick to his attacker's ribs. Then, abruptly, the other ninja stopped, eyes widening slightly.
A hard hand caught Naruto's free hand and twisted it cruelly; he howled in outraged pain and twisted his head to see who had caught him off guard.
He met Neiji's pale, scornful eyes and stopped struggling, too surprised at first to think of anything to say.
"You're too slow," Neiji informed him coolly. "I could have killed you from the bushes, runt."
Naruto exploded in humiliation and fury, thrashing in an attempt to get free. "Neiji, you jackass! Get the hell off me! What the fuck's your problem??" How dare he make him look like an incompetant idiot in front of Sasuke and Sakura! And all for a joke!
Neiji just put more weight on him, scowling in disgust. "You'll never be a real ninja," he said acidly. "You can't even walk and pay attention at the same time. If I was an enemy, you'd be bleeding to death right now."
"Neiji," Sasuke said quietly but firmly, eyes narrowing slightly.
The taller boy gave Naruto's wrist one last twist, then rose smoothly to his feet. Snarling and seething, Naruto scrambled away before jumping up, glaring furiously at the other student. "Go to hell, Neiji! I should kick your ass for that!"
Neiji's strange eyes flashed in warning. "Try it," he suggested.
Before Naruto could go for his throat, Sasuke stepped in between them, shooting Naruto a quelling glare before turning his attention on Neiji. "What are you doing here?" he demanded in a dead-pan voice.
Neiji ignored Naruto and turned his eyes on Sasuke. "Meditating." He made a vague gesture over his shoulder, towards the trees. "I need to talk to you, Uchiha."
"We're on our way home," Sasuke interrupted shortly. "To report on how the mission went."
"Let the runt and the girl report," Neiji said dismissively. Over Sasuke's shoulder, Naruto made a threatening gesture that went unnoticed. "I need to talk to you."
Sasuke hesitated, glancing from Sakura to Naruto. His lover frowned at him irritably. "What, don't think we can do something so simple? Get lost, I don't care." He regretted the words as soon as he'd said them-- he sounded like a petulant child. Unable to take them back, he turned away quickly, holding his hands behind his head in a forced pose of nonchalance as he started down the path again. "Come on, Sakura," he snapped over his shoulder.
"Uh, hai..." Sakura gave the other two students a curious look before hurrying after her partner.
Shikamaru was playing idly with the dredges of his ramen when Naruto entered the ramen shop, so the blond nabbed a bowl and seated himself across from his friend. Shikamaru glanced up at him, but said nothing. Naruto ignored him for a few moments, slurping down half the ramen in record time before pausing to breathe and focus on the other boy.
"Difficulties?" Shikamaru asked, arching a brow, chin resting in a palm.
The dark-haired boy lifted his chopsticks, aiming them at a scratch on Naruto's brow. "The mission."
"Oh, this.." Naruto reached up to touch it, making sure it had stopped bleeding. "Nah, piece of cake. This is from that lizard-face Neiji. He jumped me on the way home." He scowled darkly. "I'm so gonna kick his ass for that."
Shikamaru arched a brow, glancing back down at his bowl as he stirred the few remaining noodles with his chopsticks. "Neiji? What was he doing out of the village?"
"Meditating," Naruto said around a mouthful of hot ramen. "He said he had to talk to Sasuke."
"'Mmm'? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing." Shikamaru looked up at him from under hooded lids, not bothering to lift his head. "Did you talk to Sasuke, yet?"
Naruto scowled down at his bowl, fingers tightening on his chopsticks. "No," he muttered. "Didn't get the chance. Anyway," he retalitated, "did you talk to Ino?"
"Geeez." Naruto gulped down the rest of his ramen before pushing the empty bowl aside impatiently. "If you weren't so busy having naptime every ten minutes, you'd know she's pissed at you."
"I dunno, this is Ino we're talking about," Naruto reminded him, rolling his eyes. Then he grinned teasingly. "But I know part of it has to do with you holding out on her."
"Holding..? Oh." Shikamaru actually flinched. "Not that again."
Naruto leaned forward a little, still grining wickedly. "C'mon, Shikamaru, quit being such a baby and do it. She's not gonna wait around forever, you know. What's wrong? She isn't cute enough for you? Afraid her dad will find out? I'm the one with a boyfriend, retard, not you. So what's your excuse?"
Shikamaru glowered at him grumpily. "Mind your own business, Uzumaki."
"Do I have to try and persuade you again?" Naruto teased, bringing up his hands as if he was about to do the Sexy no Jutsu.
Shikamaru jabbed him on the top of his head with his chopsticks. "Knock it off, monkey-idiot!"
"Oww!" Naruto jerked back, rubbing the top of his head. "Punk! You want me to stab you for real??"
"Just drop it, Naruto," Shikamaru said wearily, tossing the sticks carelessly into his bowl and rising to his feet, stool scraping against the ground. "And speaking of her Horny Holiness, she was looking for you and Sakura earlier."
"What's she want?" Naruto demanded, leaning over to take a peek at the other's bowl to see if there was enough ramen left to steal.
Shikamaru stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged carelessly. "Beats me. I'm outta here." He turned and shuffled away.
Going to take a nap, no doubt, Naruto thought with a mental roll of the eyes as he nabbed the abandoned bowl and sipped up the last dredges of noodles and broth. Smacking his lips with satisfaction, he hurried off towards his house. He wasn't in the mood to listen to Ino's whining, and he was hoping Sasuke would come home soon so they could finally talk.
Ino was waiting for him on his porch, leaning against the doorframe and watching him come down the road with a look of determination. As soon as he spotted her he froze, wondering if he could risk ditching her.
"I see you, Naruto," she called. "Don't you dare run away!"
Muttering to himself, Naruto continued down the road to his house and sent her a mild glare out of the corner of his eye. "What now? I'm tired," he snapped.
"That's nice," Ino said pitilessly, smacking the top of his head with a folded sheet of paper. "Here. You can thank Shikamaru for this, fox breath."
"Don't call me that, brat." Naruto snatched the paper away and practically tore it by unfolding it in his irritation. He scanned the words quickly and shot a startled look Ino's way.
She tossed her honey-colored hair over her shoulder with a little huff, not meeting his eyes. "You're Sakura's friend," she muttered. "And one of the few friends Shikamaru has. So... I want you to come." She gestured towards the paper as she moved out of the way of the door and stepped off the small porch. "You don't have to bring anything. And don't worry about being exactly on time..." she rolled her eyes. "Shikamaru will probably be 'fashionably late' anyway. He'll fall asleep and miss the start of it. Anyway... see ya," she finished a little awkwardly, and hurried off.
Naruto watched her go for a moment before looking quickly at the paper again, reading it two more times in growing disbelief.
A birthday party.
He'd been invited to Ino's birthday party.
A strange sound like a mix between a laugh and a nervous giggle slipped from his throat.
Uzamaki Naruto was not the kind of boy you invited to your birthday party. Not when he held inside himself the same demon who had killed your parents and the parents of most of the village's children.
For the first time in his life, Naruto had been invited to a party.
Oh, there had been Sakura's birthday, but they'd been on a mission on her actual birthday, and had bought a small cake on the way home to have their own private celebration, just the three of them. And later her other friends had found her and given her gifts. But to actually go to a party... with all the other young adults in the village...
Naruto's fist clenched convulsively around the invitation. It was because of Shikamaru that he'd been invited, he knew. Ino could be selfish; Sakura's friendship with him wouldn't have been enough to make her give in and invite the village outcast. But his friendship with her boyfriend was something else all together.
Naruto grinned, his mood significantly better. He read it once more, then hurried inside to mark his calendar. In four days Naruto would have one of the biggest victories of his young life.
He would finally be accepted.
Sasuke did not return that day.
By the time Naruto went to bed alone for the nth time in a row, his mood had darkened again.
and i've got
no illusions about you
and guess what?
i never did
and when i said
when i said i'll take it
i meant as is
Shikamaru glanced up at the welcoming call of the ramen shop owner, losing track of whatever Ino was talking about from her place across from him. In the table beside him, Sasuke's dark eyes flitted towards the entrance, then returned to his bowl.
Naruto took three steps into the shop, saw Sasuke, and scowled. Without breaking stride, he pivoted on his heel and stalked off again. Shikamaru arched a brow and looked to Sasuke, who was still eating stoically.
"Giving you the cold shoulder?" he asked unecessarily. "You dug this pit for yourself, Uchiha."
"Urusai," Sasuke said shortly, not looking up. "It's none of your business."
Shikamaru frowned slightly, but didn't press it. He finished his own ramen and rose to his feet.
Ino broke off mid-sentance and blinked up at him in surprsie. "Shikamaru?"
"I'm going to take a piss," he informed her solemnly.
She held up her chopsticks threateningly. "Don't go braying that out in public, you nerd! Just go! Jeeez. And hurry back. I want to talk about the party."
He shrugged and wandered out of the shop, following the mop of yellow hair down the street towards the woods. He caught up to the other boy when he stopped by the river, hurling rocks into the water in high dungeon.
Shikamaru leaned against a nearby tree, hands stuffed in his pockets, and watched, unimpressed. "I thought you were going to talk to him."
Naruto glanced back quickly, eyes narrowing. "I might have," he growled, "if he'd bothered to come over yesterday after the mission."
"I think Neiji's turning him against me," Naruto stated, glowering at his reflection and rubbing absently at a large stone in his palm. "He's always hated me. He's probably filling Sasuke's head with garbage about me every chance he gets."
"Neiji has never liked you," Shikamaru admitted. "But he does respect you somewhat."
"Feh!" Naruto hurled the rock into the water. "That's a laugh."
"He respects your skills as a ninja," Shikamaru said simply. "No matter what he says, he knows how strong you are. I think he resents you for it. He thinks he should be the strongest in the village. You and Uchiha are his two top competitors. Rock Lee, too, though he refuses to admit it."
Naruto hid the flash of surprise in his eyes with a loud, confident laugh. "That's right! I'm going to be the Hogake one day-- the strongest in the village! He damn well better be scared!"
Shikamaru slitted his eyes against the sun. "I didn't say he was afraid of you, you squinty-eyed dork. Respect and fear are two completely different things."
"Whatever." Naruto bent over to rummage in the sandy dirt for more rocks. "That'll change one day. You'll see." He tossed a few more small rocks into the river. "Is that all you had to say? 'Talk to Sasuke', 'Neiji's a dumbass'?"
"I didn't say he was a-"
"Cuz I already knew that." Naruto threw the last rock in and dusted his hands off on his pants, turning to look at the other boy. "Never mind those two. Guess who did come to my house yesterday?" At Shikamaru's blank look, he pointed at him with a grin. "Somebody's prissy girlfriend actually bit down her pride enough to come and invite me to her birthday," he said triumphantly. "I knew she'd realize how cool I am one day."
Shikamaru made a face at him. "She thinks you're an idiot," he reminded him flatly.
"Shut up. I'm still invited." Naruto scowled at him in mock anger before looking around for something else to throw into the rushing water. "Help me lift this big rock."
Shikamaru frowned at the abrupt retreat from the subject, but shook his head. "Leave it, dipshit. You'll just get wet with the splash it makes. Anyway, quit changing the subject. When are you going to talk to Uchiha?"
Naruto rounded on him in exasperation. "Jeez, not that again! Just drop it already! I'll take care of it. What do you care, anyway? Quit bugging me about it. It's none of your damn business anyway."
"You're right," Shikamaru said shortly, irked at the other boy's attitude. "I don't know why I bothered." He pushed himself away from the tree and turned to leave.
"Hey, wait-" Naruto scrambled over a boulder and jogged over to his friend. "Don't get mad. I'm not tryin' to piss you off or anything. It's just..." he scowled weakly, eyes flicking aside. "I'm not used to people trying to help me, I guess," he muttered. "And this thing between me and Sasuke is kinda private."
"Says the idiot who sticks his nose into my relationship," Shikamaru shot back.
Naruto waved his hands in apology. "Right, right, I get it. Sorry, man. Didn't think it bothered you that much. I'll stop bugging you about your lack of a sex life-" he held up a finger when Shikamaru scowled at him, "if you'll butt out of the.. problems between me and Mr. I'm The Coolest Thing Since Sliced Bread. OK?"
Shikamaru shook his head slightly, looking at Naruto with a shadow of sympathy on his bored face. "It's your funeral, Naruto. But I am your friend, though I don't know why. So at least let me give you one word of advice before we drop this whole thing."
"Yeah, what?" Naruto demanded warily.
"Dump him," the other boy said simply.
Naruto gaped at him for a moment before his face twisted into an expression of annoyance. "Why the hell would I do that?? I don't even know what his problem is yet!"
"Then talk to him," Shikamaru snapped.
"I will! I'm not dumping him, geez! We're just hitting a rough patch, that's all."
Shikamaru shrugged as if he didn't care one way or the other and started to walk off. "Just don't say I didn't warn you."
"Feh!" Naruto turned his back on his retreating friend. "Whatever."
It would be several more days before Naruto would look back on that strange conversation with a wince, and regret not listening further to what his friend had to say.
Sasuke refused to talk to Naruto about the obvious tension between them, and Naruto spent the following nights before the party alone. He began to avoid the other boy. He knew he should corner him-- force the truth out of him. But he was too stubborn, and his pride got in the way. He limited his time to fooling around at his house and training with either Sakura or Shikamaru.
Shikamaru was true to his word, and Sasuke's name was not brought up again. But Sakura was obviously worried about what her friends were going through, and badgered him about it until he began to avoid her as well. Shikamaru seemed to trying to escape Ino's frenzied party plans, so he and Naruto ended up hanging out a lot more. In the next couple of days, Naruto began to understand aspects of his mysterious friend he'd never noticed or comprehended before.
He could see now why Ino, who had once thought only the great Uchiha Sasuke was good enough for her, had bullied Shikamaru into a relationship with her. He was definitely not as good looking as Sasuke, but behind the bored expression and the lazy attitude was a strength of character Naruto had only glimpsed in tournaments and when test results came back in class.
Some of the teachers had long heralded the sullen boy as a young genius, constantly complaining that he never bothered to bring out his full potential. So Naruto had accepted-- grudgingly --the possibility that Shikamaru was probably a lot smarter than he looked. He also knew that when annoyed, Shikamaru could be almost as crass as Naruto himself, though rarely as loud or violent. He was non-confrontational by nature, Naruto's complete opposite. And while Naruto craved attention and acceptance, Shikamaru could care less what people thought of him. He knew when he was beaten and when to throw in the towel; he would go to lengths to avoid an argument, either by walking away or adopting a look of complete boredom. He also preferred to train by himself, and didn't put much effort into his fighting when training with others. He frustrated the hell out of Naruto, but at the same time his curiosity was piqued.
Because despite all his flaws and his blatant "I don't give a shit" attitude, Shikamaru could be surprisingly sensitive. He just chose to keep that side of himself hidden, or mask it in impatience and ridicule. His inquiries into Naruto's love life were such an example. And while Naruto was glad the questions and the "suggestions" that he talk to Sasuke were gone, a part of him appreciated his friend's honest attempts to help him.
Naruto had to bully, cajole, and pester Shikamaru to train with him the day after the conversation about dumping Sasuke. It was only by shouting taunts and generally annoying the hell out of his spar partner that he finally got the other boy to fight back in earnest-- and that was only an hour into their session. By the time they were done, they were both sweaty and exhausted.
"Dammit, Naruto," Shikamaru grumbled, sprawling on a boulder and closing his eyes. His brow was furrowed with irritation. "I didn't come out to the woods to work my ass off, I came here to nap."
"Shut up. Quit bitching." Naruto dragged off his sweaty shirt and hopped on one foot as he tugged at his shoe. "If you'd just practice more like that, you'd be a better ninja, you know."
"Unlike you," Shikamaru muttered, throwing an arm over his eyes to block the sun, "I don't have aspirations to be the big cheese of the village one day. As long as I can defend myself, that's good enough."
"And Ino," Naruto interrupted, tossing his shoes aside and wriggling out of his pants, still breathing hard from their sparring.
"Protect yourself and Ino," Naruto corrected firmly. "Geez, no wonder you piss her off so much. You're unromantic to the core, man."
"She can watch after herself," Shikamaru said, unconcerned. "I wouldn't date a girl who couldn't even take care of herself."
"Too lazy to run to the rescue?" Naruto teased, striding over to the banks of the river and testing the temperature with a toe.
"That too," Shikamaru admitted in a drawl. "But who wants to be with someone who always needs you to come to the rescue? Give me a break. Girls like that annoy me."
Naruto leaned over and scooped water into his palms before hurling it at Shikamaru. He sputtered and propped himself up on his elbows to glare down at the grinning boy. "Omae--" he stopped short, eyes widening slightly before a mask of condescending annoyance slammed down. "What the hell are you doing running around in your scivvies, monkey-idiot?"
"Swimming, retard, what's it look like?" Naruto waded into the rushing water and stopped before the cold water reached his navel. "I'm going to cool off."
"You're going to go into shock, that's what you're going to do," Shikamaru grumbled, flopping back down.
Shikamaru's eyes were closed again, and he waved a hand vaguely in the air as he explained in a bored tone. "You're putting your body from one extreme temperature to the other. You're worked up from two hours of sparring, now you're going to submerge yourself in cold water all at once. Your body can't take that, you idiot. At the least you'll get cramps. Get out and let the breeze cool you down."
There was no answer. After a few moments, Shikamaru opened one eye and lifted his head. Naruto was out in the middle of the river, having lost interest in his speech somewhere in the middle. He was bobbing under the water repeatedly, obviously trying to catch some of the fish that inhabited the river. Shikamaru scowled in irritation and lowered his head again. "Idiot."
Shikamaru shot up into a sitting position at the strangled scream, looking around wildly. His hand shot automatically for his belt, but he'd taken his kunai off and left them at the foot of the boulder. He looked towards the river in a sudden suspicion. If Naruto was goofing off again...
Naruto had disappeared. Shikamaru climbed to his feet slowly, eyes narrowing in growing trepidation and confusion. He stared hard at the spot Naruto had been, and a moment later a burst of bubbles broke the surface. But still no Naruto.
Shikamaru stripped as he ran, yanking off his shirt and hurling it to the side, kicking off his shoes and ripping off his belt. He didn't bother with his pants-- he'd already reached the edge of the boulder. He leapt from the peak of it, lifting his arms and curving his body into a last-minute dive.
He broke the surface an instant later and made for the spot where Naruto had been in long, strong strokes, teeth gritted in fear and anger. Stupid Naruto! If this was a prank, he was going to knock his head against the rocks over and over.
He reached the place and took a deep breath, diving deep.
It was no prank.
He could see Naruto, curled up into a fetal position, drifting towards the rocky bottom of the river as all the air escaped his wide-open mouth in large bubbles. Shikamaru kicked frantically to catch up and reached out, snagging a fistful of blond hair. Hauling the other boy up to him, he locked his elbow around Naruto's neck and put all his strength into pulling them both to the surface.
He gasped for air the minute his head cleared the water, and quickly manuevered his arm so that Naruto's head was also above water. He struggled to bring the other boy towards the shore, but Naruto was still mostly curled up, and wasn't cooperating.
Shikamaru's limbs were still tired from training, but adrenaline and fear gave him an extra boost of strength, and he managed to swim back to shore somehow, dragging the gasping boy with him. He collapsed the instant they'd reached the safety of the shore, his arms and legs trembling from the effort as he panted for air desperately. When he'd managed to slow down his breathing somewhat, he rolled over to check on his friend.
Naruto's face was twisted with pain, eyes tightly shut and teeth clenched as he grabbed at the air and sand with clawed fingers.
"Idiot!" Shikamaru scrambled in the sand for a minute before he managed to stagger to his feet. He hurried over to the boulder and the clothes Naruto had discarded. He snatched up the big coat and dropped to his knees beside the quaking boy, quickly covering him with the makeshift blanket. "Idiot!" he repeated, almost shouting. "If you'd listened to me--"
Naruto seemed to be recovering slowly, and he opened his eyes, forcing a weak grin. "Ahaha... my bad," he croaked. "Didn't think you were saying anything real important.."
Shikamaru resisted the urge to hit him and instead glared furiously down at him. "Well I was," he snapped. "I told you you'd get cramps if you did something stupid like that."
"Oh," Naruto breathed, eyes sliding shut. His body gave another spasm before he gave a shaky sigh. "Thanks, man.."
"Ch'!" Shikamaru flopped onto his back, closing his own eyes and drawing in great lungfuls of air. "Stupid monkey-idiot. You almost got us both killed."
"Sorry," Naruto murmured, barely audible.
"Oi." Shikamaru prodded him irritably with his foot. "Don't go to sleep, retard. You need to go home and warm up."
"Sorry," Naruto repeated weakly, lips quirking up in a tired grin. "And you just bitched.. about girls that need rescuing all the time..."
Shikamaru stared up at the foliage overhead for a long moment before muttering back sullenly, "You're not a chick."
Naruto gave a wheezing laugh. "What's that have to do with it?"
"Shut up. That was only a one-time thing." Shikamaru forced himself into a sitting position. "It's pretty sad when a guy has to go rescue another guy. If you weren't such a retard, that wouldn't have happened in the first place."
Shikamaru couldn't quite stop the small grin that tugged at his mouth. At least he seemed to be recovering all right, if he could spout obscenities. "Get up. I'll take you home and make sure you don't run into a tree or something. That would be just like you-- to escape drowning only to kill yourself by being a clutz."
"Go jump off a cliff, Shikamaru," Naruto retorted, but there was no heat behind it, and he allowed the other boy to help him to his feet. They staggered their way back home, exchanging insults and accusations.
Author's Notes: This chapter has been sitting on my disk half finished for ages now.. ^^;; Finally popped in a few music CD's and made myself sit here and finish it, tho. Hope you're all happy XD; You can stop the threats on my life now o_O;;
FYI.. I know a lot of ppl don't like Sakura. I was annoyed with her too in the beginning of the manga, and she tends to distract Sasuke when I would prefer he pay more attention to Naruto... but other than that I luv the girl. ^_^ She's gutsier and kinder than most give her credit for, so don't expect any Sakura bashing in this fic.
Back to Amiko's Fics