Chapter 3: "Miscommunication"

    "You wanna know what the real problem with us is?" Naruto grumbled around a mouthful of rice, stretching to reach for the sake they'd managed to snitch.
    Shikamaru, flat on his back a few feet away, reached blindly for another slice of raw fish and slid it into his mouth. "What?"
    "Communication." Naruto poured a liberal amount of soy sauce on his rice and began to dig in, leaning his back against a tree. "We never really talk."
    Shikamaru turned his head on the grass to arch a brow at his friend. "What brought this up? I thought you didn't want to talk about Sasuke anymore."
    "Yeah..." Naruto polished off the rice in record time and set the bowl aside. "But I feel like I'm gonna scream if I don't rant to someone. You mind?"
    "Nah." Shikamaru held out his hand for the sake. "Just don't go all mushy on me or go into any gross details about your sex life."
    "As if." Naruto took a quick gulp of the rice wine and handed it over.
    It was the day after his near-drowning incident, and they'd decided to have a picnic in the woods with the stolen sake and the fish they'd managed to catch. Mostly it was an excuse to avoid Ino and Sasuke, though the weather was nice enough to encourage the spontaneous outing. Two days remained until the party.
    "Communication," Shikamaru repeated, already sounding half asleep as he plucked a long grass stem and slid it between his lips. He closed his eyes against the dappled sunlight filtering down through the overhead foliage. "Y'mean you guys don't talk?"
    "Yeah. And when we do, we argue. It's been like that since I've known the jerk, but..." Naruto scowled at the fish slice in his fingers. "I guess I assumed it'd be different when we were, ah, involved."
    "People don't really change when you get with them," Shikamaru murmured. "Look at Ino and me. You shouldn't expect someone to change for you. I think I'd be freaked out if Ino had turned into a sappy twit when we started dating. I didn't start dating her because I was hoping she'd chill if we went out."
    Naruto grinned at him, popping the fish in his mouth. "I thought you started dating her because you wanted her to stop asking you to go out with her."
    "That too," Shikamaru muttered without a trace of embarrassment. "Shut up. My point is, you start dating someone because you like how they are when you met them. You don't start dating them in the hopes they'll turn into someone else. What's the point? Might as well find some other person to date that has those characteristics you want."
    Naruto blinked, a little caught off guard at the other boy's insightfulness, then gave an uncomfortable shrug. "All right. So maybe I was expecting a little too much. And if you want me to be honest, the relationship started mostly cuz of, er, sex."
    "I'm not going into any details," Naruto snapped. "But you're wrong. People do change in relationships."
    Shikamaru cracked open an eye to stare at him.
    "They do.. y'know, couple things. They at least show affection, right? That's a change."
    "Aa, I suppose," Shikamaru relented, closing his eye again. "But those things should be there beforehand. You guys weren't exactly friendly touchy-feely before you started dating. That should have been your first clue. No flirting equals no emotional interest."
    Naruto was stung by the blunt words, and he retaliated waspishly. "Which means you don't give a damn about Ino, either, right? I never saw you 'flirt' with her before you finally started dating." He paused, thinking for a moment. "In fact, I never see you do any PDA-- unless she starts it."
    Shikamaru sat up abruptly and turned on his butt to glare at Naruto, hands on his knees. "Not all of us are as open with their emotions as you are, monkey-brain," he said tersely.
    Naruto frowned at him. "Here you are trying to give me advice and telling me to dump Sasuke, when you've got problems of your own with Ino. Only you won't even admit there are problems!" He was getting mad, now. "You're being a god damn hypocrite. How can you keep telling me Sasuke's a waste of my time when you treat Ino the same way he treats me??"
    Shikamaru's eyes narrowed irritably. "I don't hit Ino," he said with such force that Naruto rocked back a little. "I don't hit her when she annoys the shit out of me. I don't tell her to shut the fuck up whenever she opens her mouth. Sasuke treats you like a possession, Naruto. I treat Ino the same I treat everyone else. He treats you like a stupid dog that keeps getting in his way. That's the difference."
    Naruto scowled, but looked away. He still felt angry, but Shikamaru's words had hit a little too close to home for his liking. He could feel his face burning with shame and resentment. "You make it sound worse than it is," he grumbled. "We're not in an abusive relationship or anything. We just-"
    "You aren't even in a relationship," Shikamaru snapped. "You're fuck buddies, Naruto!"
    Naruto sprang to his feet, stung. He crammed his fists in his pockets to keep himself from hitting his friend and glared down at him furiously. "Fuck you, Shikamaru! I don't need to hear this shit from you."
    "You brought it up," the other boy reminded him, glaring back.
    "I should have known better," Naruto growled, turning away and stalking off.
    He ignored the annoyed call and leapt for the nearest tree, grabbing a low branch and scuttling up quick as a squirrel. He used the higher limbs to jump from tree to tree until he'd reached the village. He was so angry he didn't check the ground below before dropping down, landing on his hands and feet like a cat.
    "What--" Neiji jerked back, eyes widening slightly in surprise he wasn't quick enough to hide. He scowled darkly at the startled blond at his feet. "Out of the way, pig."
    Naruto rose slowly to his feet, flicking a narrow glance from one boy to the other.
    Sasuke stared back at him, face unreadable. He didn't seem startled, only a little irritated at his lover's sudden appearance.
    "We need to talk," Naruto said shortly before he could stop himself.
    Sasuke's eyes narrowed slightly. "I'm busy," he snapped.
    "You're always busy," Naruto noted, tilting his chin challengingly towards Neiji. "So this is who you've been sparring with?"
    "Maybe you should come along," Neiji suggested, pale eyes dangerous. "It would do you good to get knocked down a peg or two, demon-brat."
    Naruto met his gaze with a glare of his own, fists tightening in his pockets until his fingernails cut his palms.
    "That's what I thought," Neiji jeered, shouldering him aside as he continued down the path. "Come on, Uchiha. He can wait until the next tournament to see how strong we've become."
    Naruto turned, yanking his fist from his pocket. He was going to smear Neiji's fucking face all over the ground--
    A hand snagged his wrist and jerked it down, catching him off guard. He started to turn to curse whoever-- Sasuke, most likely --had been so stupid as to interrupt him.
    It wasn't Sasuke. "Uchiha. Have you seen Ino?" Shikamaru asked mildly, still holding Naruto's hand down and out of sight behind him as he stood between Sasuke and his frustrated lover.
    Sasuke barely spared the other boy a glance as he started to follow Neiji, hands in his pockets. "Iie."
    "Are you coming to her party? It'd be better if you told me now, before she tracks you down herself."
    "I doubt it," Sasuke shot over his shoulder, and disappeared into the trees after Neiji.
    Naruto wrenched his arm free, glaring furiously at his calm-faced friend. "What the hell's the big idea? I'm gonna break that punk's neck!"
    "And lower yourself in their eyes by attacking him from the rear?" Shikamaru looked unimpressed. "Anyway, it's not worth it. Don't waste your time. He's baiting you, and he'll only win if you respond."
    Naruto scowled darkly at him, crossing his arms huffily across his chest.
    Shikamaru gave a huff of annoyance. "Will you quit sulking like a brat?" he snapped. "You're the one who brought it up in the first pla--"
    "I don't care anymore," Naruto interrupted, shifting his narrowed gaze towards the trees. The blunt, hard tone of voice gave Shikamaru pause. "Sorry," Naruto muttered grudgingly. "Didn't mean to... go off on ya. I just don't wanna admit that...." He took a deep breath, scowl still stubbornly in place, "that you might be right."
    Shikamaru gave his friend a long, calculating look. "I'm not telling you what to do," he said finally. "That's not my place. I just think if you let him keep treating you like this, you're just going to end up getting hurt in the end." He looked away abruptly, embarrassed, and made a face. "Whatever. None of my business," he grumbled. "Do what you want, loser."
    "You're the loser, Mister Won't Put Out," Naruto growled, but without any real heat. "Come on. I'm gonna kick your ass some more."
    "More training?" Shikamaru groaned. "No way. It's time for my nap."
    "You nap all day every day," Naruto protested, dragging him back into the treeline. "You're gonna get fat and lazy."
    "Who's fat?? Idiot!"


    Sasuke ducked the leg that came swinging at him and kicked out in an attempt to throw his opponent's feet out from under him, his sandal skidding in the loam.
    Neiji leapt back nimbly and landed far out of reach. He went automatically into a defensive stance, chest moving rapidly as he panted for breath.
    Finally, Sasuke thought irritably. After over an hour's worth of training, he'd begun to wonder if Neiji ever got tired.
    He darted for the other boy, and Neiji whirled, arm snapping out. Sasuke sprang into the air, narrowly missing the kunai that shot past below, thudding home in a nearby treetrunk. He flicked some of his own kunai, at the same time twisting his body into a spin that brought his foot smashing down on the arms that raised hastily in a block.
    Neiji grunted, shoving him away, and Sasuke landed in the dirt several feet away, on hands and feet like a cat, skidding a bit. He dug his sandals in and reached for his belt once more-- empty.
    He glanced to see where the last of his kunai had fallen. Neiji must have twisted sharply to avoid them; one was buried deep in the ground beside his foot.
    Almost, Sasuke thought to himself, mouth beginning to twitch into a smirk.
    Neiji straightened, dropping his arms by his sides, and Sasuke rose to his own feet, dusting his palms off on his thighs. "Tired already?" he taunted quietly, though he could feet the sweat trickling down his own brow.
    Neiji grunted in response and headed over to the tree where they'd left their bag. Sasuke followed slowly, and caught the canteen his partner tossed his way.
    "..I have to get home," Neiji replied at last, once he had taken a long drink. "You're not the only one I'm training with today."
    "Hinata," Sasuke guessed, wiping a few drops of water and sweat from his upper brow and tucking the canteen into the loop on his belt. He glanced up at the slowly sinking sun, judging the time. His stomach snarled at him, demanding attention. "Do you have time for dinner?"
    Neiji hesitated, staring back with his cold, colorless eyes. After a moment he shrugged one shoulder indifferently. He slung his sack onto his back and followed his sparring partner as he led the way back towards the village. "Uzumaki suspects something," he said bluntly after several moments of silence.
    Sasuke barely glanced back at him. "He knows by now that we're training together. If it bothered him that much, he would train with us, or at least get a better sparring partner than Shikamaru," he stated unsympathetically. "If he wants to be strong, he has to work at it."
    Neiji frowned slightly, opening his mouth, but changed his mind. "Why don't you spar with him?" he asked instead. "As much as I hate to admit it, the moron does have potential."
    Sasuke frowned. "He has boasts to back up occassional bursts of strength," Sasuke snapped. "He can't control that thing inside of him. He has to be pushed to the limit in order to get even a small amount of that thing's chakra in battle. He loses his cool too quickly when we spar, anyhow. I get tired of listening to him."
    "Can you work with him?"
    Sasuke flicked him a narrowed glance. "We're on the same team," he snapped. "We've learned to complete missions together. But outside of that..." he shook his head, scowling to himself. "I don't know why I keep him around," he finished under his breath.
    Neiji heard, but didn't comment.


    Naruto searched high and low for his friend the next day, but Shikamaru was nowhere to be found. He checked by the lake, he scoured the woods, he popped into the ramen shop at least three times-- and ate two out of those three times --and asked everyone he ran across if they'd seen the other boy. No one had. Not all day.
    Naruto frowned to himself, jogging slowly down the main road and glancing left and right. Was he at Ino's? He hadn't been able to find her, either, and even Sakura admitted to not having seen the girl since morning.
    Finally Naruto dropped by his friend's house. He started to bang on the front door, then realized his father might be home and wouldn't appreciate the gesture. He rapped it sharply instead and paced the porch impatiently.
    He had to knock twice more before the door finally swung open so abruptly he jumped back in alarm.
    Ino stood in the doorway, clenching the door with a white-knuckled grip. There was a look of barely-restrained impatience and aggravation on her flushed face, and her hair was in disarray. The waist apron she wore was splattered and smeared with unidentifiable food bits. Naruto stared, then leaned back a bit to check the name by the door. Yes, Shikamaru's house. He hesitated. Perhaps he'd come at a bad time? If Ino was finally breaking down her boyfriend's defenses and they were about to do something he'd rather not know about, maybe training by himself wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.
    "What?" Ino snapped impatiently.
    Naruto started and took a nervous step back. "Ah... Is Shikamaru home?"
    "Of course he's home," Ino growled. "He's been home sick all day. What do you want, Naruto?"
    "Oh... never mind." Naruto glanced over her shoulder, but couldn't see much of the house. "I'll come back tomorrow..."
    "No- Wait wait." Ino stepped outside hastily, pulling the door partially closed behind her. "Perfect timing, Naruto," she said with obvious relief. "I'm about to lose my mind in here."
    Naruto blinked. "Huh?"
    "I was going to cook for him, but everything I try to cook gets burnt or spilled or--" she cut herself off, flushing a bit at the admittance of her own shortcomings. She coughed and continued gruffly, "His father's on a mission and won't be home until god knows when tonight. Shikamaru's pretty much bed-ridden, so I offered to take care of him."
    "Bed-ridden?" Naruto repeated in surprise and sudden alarm.
    "Shut up, you'll wake him up," Ino hissed. "It's not that bad. Looks like one of those 24-hour stomach bugs or something. But he doesn't seem interested in moving from his bed, and anyway, his father thinks he should stay there anyway. Hopes it'll clear up quicker if he gets plenty of sleep...." She rolled her eyes. "As if he doesn't get enough already. Anyway, I really really need to finish getting things ready for the party, but I can't just leave him here by himself. I need you to watch him until his dad gets home."
    "Me??" Naruto squawked. "Why me? I'm not a damn nursemaid!"
    Ino glared at him so furiously that he took another step back. "You get in here and take care of him, or you're uninvited to my birthday party, Uzumaki Naruto," she growled. "I have things to do. You obviously have nothing to do if you came all the way over just to look for him. Just... I don't care what you do. Mess around with the training equipment in the backyard for all I care. Just check up on him periodically, and try to get him to eat some soup or something light."
    Ino was already untying the apron from around her waist, acting as if he hadn't even spoken. "I cleaned up most of the mess in the kitchen, and there should be enough ingredients left to make soup-- but no meat! He might puke it all back up, and I doubt you wanna be cleaning that up."
    "But I--"
    She tossed the apron aside and snatched her back from a hook just inside. "His da said he might be back a little after dinner, but that it's more likely that he won't return until closer to midnight." She shoved past him and hurried down the porch steps. "You're perfect. It's not like you have a time you need to be back home or anything. No one's waiting for you. So just keep an eye on him until his dad gets back, all right?" She froze with one foot still on the last step, flinching visibly. She glanced over her shoulder back at the other boy.
    Naruto was still standing before the door, back turned to her. He hadn't moved or responded, but she could see the sudden tension in his shoulders.
    Three years ago Ino wouldn't have given a damn that she might have unintentionally hurt the feelings of "that boy", the idiot Uzumaki whom everyone avoided and mocked. But-- while she still viewed the blonde as an idiotic loud-mouthed twerp --her attitude towards him was more vague annoyance than outright malice. Naruto had been accepted slowly over the years, in small ways, in invisible ways. The changes were slight enough that no one-- including Naruto himself --had really acknowledged them. But they were there.
    Ino flushed with embarrassment, hesitating. Her mouth opened for an apology, but her pride choked it back. "Um-- I meant--"
    "Yeah, fine, whatever," Naruto huffed, turning to make a face at her. He was once again his normal self. Whether it was a quickly constructed mask or not was anyone's guess. "I'll watch the moron. But if he pukes, I'm not cleaning it up."
    Ino nodded, still a bit too embarrassed to speak, and hurried off.
    Naruto watched her go for a moment, then heaved a sigh of annoyance and marched into the house.
    He, Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage of Hidden Leaf, forced to be a nursemaid!
    It was insulting was what it was.

Author's Notes: @__@;; Um.... gomen.... *hides*
I know I haven't worked on this since, um... the beginning of '05.. XD; Even tho I knew the outline of the entire story, I got frustrated with it. Plus I had no urge to do Naruto fandom. So about halfway thru this chapter I put it aside and forgot about it til now.
But lately (BLAME MALDOROR), the Naruto itch is back. So I'll try to have this fic finished soon! There's only about 2 chapters left anyway.
Sorry for the delay!!

Ch. 1
Ch. 2
Ch. 4
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