Shikamaru awoke in a dark room, on a hospital bed. The room smelt of cigarette smoke, both old and new, and he could hear slow, relaxed breathing. As he opened his eyes a crack he confirmed the assumption he'd made from those hints: Asuma was sitting in a chair in the corner. He felt safe in his sensei's company, despite his altered form, so he sat up. His fingers were still clawed, a bracelet of paper with a seal painted on it was on one wrist, and the floor around the bed was covered in more patterns. A machine of some kind with more black designs was beside him. Shikamaru thought of something and looked more closely: his bed was the only one in the room, the door was heavy, and the window had a strong bar over it. The view from it confirmed what he suspected: this wasn't the hospital.

"You're awake." Asuma said. He moved his chair across (it raised sparks from the black sigils), and smiled at his student. He looked honestly relieved, but there were hints of other emotions there too.

"How long was I out for?" Shikamaru asked, scratching the back of his head. His hair was still loose, and it was matted with dried blood.

"This is the fourth day."

"And where am I?"

"Well, I was hoping to save this conversation for later, but... As you can see, you're not in Konoha General Hospital." Asuma's mouth twisted in distaste, and when he continued it was with suppressed anger: "This is part of a deserted research lab once used by Orochimaru. It was shut down, but the hospital stores equipment here so when the council decided it was too dangerous to keep in the village, they grabbed you and took you over here so they could make informed guesses as to whether you'd wake up like - ...well, you can guess what they were scared of."

Shikamaru didn't wince at the thought, but it took effort for him to hold himself still. He was partly disgusted and angry, partly hurt that his fears had been vindicated.

"The chakra flares sent up weren't exactly reassuring." Asuma said neutrally. The jounin settled back in his seat, waving his cigarette in emphasis before taking a deep drag on it. "The nasty truth is, you stayed out this long because they were drugging you. They didn't tell anyone where you were sent, or anything about your status. If Kazama hadn't rounded up your friends and family and got me to investigate under my authority as your jounin-sensei, it's likely... Well. You can extrapolate that for yourself."

"Sandaime-sama allowed this?"

Asuma looked down, visibly saddened.

Shikamaru couldn't process what that look meant for a minute, and he said nothing.

"He was - assassinated, by-" Asuma said thickly, then stopped and shook his head, then steeled himself to speak. But Shikamaru spoke first.

"By the Sound leader who had taken the place of the Kazekage?"

"As always, remarkable analysis;" the tone was sarcastic, but it turned to fondness: "I should have expected it of you, I suppose."

"I didn't see this coming." Shikamaru knew he should have said something else, condolences, but he didn't.

Asuma ignored the lack of kind words. He got up, took another deep toke of his cigarette, and stubbed it out. Matter-of-factly, he walked over to the window, and destroyed the bar across it with a single confident strike of his hien attack. He then removed the ruined bar and opened the window, gesturing for Shikamaru to get up.

"Now are you okay to jump down there?"

The shadow-nin got off the bed and stretched. He was wearing hospital-issue clothes, and the skin that was visible had been washed clean of most but not all the blood. The seals sparked madly where he touched them, but at Asuma's gesture he got up. His sensei deactivated them through a combination of vandalism and 'kai' skills, and Shikamaru joined him at the window.

"You go first, I'll stay and - sign you out." His voice was very serious.

"Are- is that okay? Should I avoid the village?"

"That might be wise, just for the time being. There's a lot of people worried about you, though. Don't keep them waiting."

The jounin turned and walked out of the door. Shikamaru looked out of the window, before jumping from it in a smooth motion.

He reached the Nara fields by running through the forest, but when he got to his cloud-watching spot, he was surprised.

Naruto lay there.

Shikamaru approached, slowly. He wasn't sure he wanted to have a conversation with his friend just yet, he was tired, he wanted to be calm and stare at the sky, not weigh himself down with melodrama and emotion.

Naruto got up, fast, as if reacting to a threat.

Shikamaru held out his hands in a peaceful gesture, but the blond just threw himself forward and hugged his friend.

"Shouldn't go missing, you bastard. We were worried, dammit."

Naruto had moved so suddenly Shikamaru hadn't had time to react, and the surprised shadow-nin just stood there blankly for a second, clawed hands half-raised from their aborted reaction to sudden movement. Then Naruto moved away as quickly as he'd advanced, and laughed and flopped down onto the grass, muttering that he was still pissed off but not specifying at what.

Shikamaru thought vaguely: 'I've just been glomped. By another guy.'

Then he flopped down onto the grass beside Naruto, laughing quietly.

"You know," Naruto said in a strange tone, "We were all worried about you, stupid genius. Me and Ino and Chouji got everyone together to go shout at the council for you. I even went and talked to your mom and sister, and they're freaking scary, I wouldn't do that for just anyone. Heh. I can see where your whole troublesome thing about women comes from. But yeah, even Kakashi-sensei came (not even very late!) and ero-sennin. But your sister said something to him and he spent the whole time going as spastic as his frogs with some perverted idea he got from her... Yeah, that was weird. But anyways, you're back now, so you can pay us all back by buying ramen, right?!"

"Too troublesome."

Naruto rolled over to stick his face in Shikamaru's and glared at him, trying to look angry but failing.

Shikamaru bared his teeth and growled.

"Gyah!! It's horrible!" Naruto leapt back, then fell over laughing as Shikamaru looked worried he really had scared his friend.

The shadow-nin gave Naruto a not-amused look and turned his attention back to the sky, silently pleased.



"It's not your fault. None of it."

Ino, Chouji and Rumiko had seen a roughly Shikamaru-shaped being jumping between the trees, and before long they came to Konoha's number one cloud-watching location to investigate. They found two young ninja staring at the sky.

"Oh my god!" Ino cried dramatically "Shikamaru's corrupted Naruto into slacking!"

Shikamaru sat up, subtly shifting his hair over his face. Ino wouldn't stand for this, and she scooted over to his side with narrowed eyes.

"That look is attractive only when you have clean, styled hair. You'd need an inch off the ends, layers at the back - maybe gelled?"

He made some kind of sound, one that clearly indicated he found her troublesome.

"Seriously, get that hair out of your eyes." She said briskly.

He had no choice. Shikamaru lifted one clawed hand and brushed back his untidy mop of hair.

"Huuh. You haven't been hiding out in the woods for three days stressing about this, have you?" Ino asked.

"Tch, no. I was unconscious."

Chouji cleared his throat, started to say something, then stopped.

"Your eyes are pretty like that" Rumiko said. Ino said something quietly, and both girls laughed. Naruto, Chouji and Shikamaru exchanged looks of unease, and Shikamaru realised with a surge of joy that neither his team-mates nor his sister were concerned about his changed appearance.

They spent a peaceful time in the field, Naruto narrating his confrontation with Gaara on top of the Shukaku's head and Shikamaru giving the others some information on where he'd awoken (but cutting down on the facts, he didn't want them to realise just how ostracised he would be now; he didn't want to realise it himself). The others filled him in on the invasion of Konoha and its aftermath, the telling of which was interrupted by his sister departing with the command that he should go home and speak to his parents soon. Naruto left to train with Sasuke not long later, and Team Ten was left in the grass, lying on their backs in a rare state of content.

"Shikamaru?" Chouji drew his friend's attention down from the sky, "You don't... regret doing whatever you did?"

Shikamaru thought seriously about it. At the start of the month, he might well have, but now he had a different perspective. The people whose opinions he valued knew about the Kyuubi, and (with the exception of his father), were unconcerned by it. They knew he knew, there would be no reason to hide his appearance or deny the cause of it. It would be majorly troublesome to have to deal with the probable disapproval and hostility of the other citizens of Konoha, but that had been an inevitable consequence of doing what he'd done. And the fact he and Naruto had defeated Gaara – because it wasn't really just about saving Naruto, even if that had been the impetus behind his decision, it had been about carrying out his mission and saving Gaara from the Shukaku – meant he wouldn't resent this change in his appearance. Besides, running through the forest had seemed easier, he could sense things clearly, hear better and most likely fight better.

He thought back on his thoughts, and realised he'd given in to the shinobi lifestyle. But that was okay, it was past time to move on from his indifference.

"Not at all, Chouji."


See my profile for the link to my photobucket account, where there are scribbled drawings based on this fic.