Disclaimer: Nope, Naruto's not mine. Hinata can have him.
Spoilers: For the Chuunin finals, and it's full of details, so if you're still new to Naruto, you probably won't understand this.
"It's rare to see you particularly interested in something of this overall importance."
Flying, finding a branch to land on, jumping. Once he was flying again, he silently contemplated his sensei's words.
Yes, silently. It was not that he did not consider them to be worth an answer, but just the fact that he was undecided on its precise wording.
But was this not exactly what his sensei had been getting at? If he found it in him to do anything – for example, answering such an indirect question – he would never do it half-heartedly. Asuma had not said this, but it was obvious he'd meant it, considering the situation he had found his pupil in.
"Shikamaru? You sure you're okay? No serious injuries I'd better be aware of?"
Again, he stepped on a branch. "Yeah, just… thinking."
Asuma actually sent a smile back over his shoulder in response to this small concession. "Well, it's not as if I wasn't used to that, now, is it?"
"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed absent-mindedly. So at least he did not have to worry about irritating his sensei with his weird behaviour, seeing as it irritated himself way too much already.
"Okay, stop there for a moment," Asuma commanded rather suddenly.
Obediently, Shikamaru came to a halt on a stable enough looking branch, its ability to hold a person standing on it being of rather great importance to him. He'd had enough action today to want to fall down a tree, especially such a tall one. "Sure, what is it?"
"I should be the one asking that question." Asuma did not even bother to hide his concern when he turned to look at him. "It's okay now, you know. They could have killed you, yeah, but they had no chance to do so. You should not worry about that anymore."
Shikamaru blinked. "I don't."
Asuma raised an eyebrow. "Then what's your problem?"
If only he knew that himself. "Nothing. Just…"
With an expression unreadable to even himself, he looked back into the deep void of the forest. "…I can't help out anymore…"
He did not dare look up into his sensei's face at those words, was sure he would not be able to bear the genuine surprise etched into those features.
He had said it without thinking, which was a pretty rare thing for him to do, but realised in an instant that it was true. It was not the near loss of his life which caused him uneasiness, but the fact that by being willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of two fellow Genin and a dog – and for Sasuke and, figuratively speaking, Konoha in general – he had denied himself the possibility of taking a more active part in the fight which was sure to come up. And it was sure to come up, it felt as if the ground would never stop shaking anymore.
Asuma turned and motioned for Shikamaru to also get going again. "You… can't help out anymore?" he finally repeated, his voice holding the very same surprise Shikamaru suspected to have appeared on his face, but then chuckled quietly to himself. "So you are not feeling well after all. Shikamaru, don't get me wrong there, but that's so unlike you, even more than fighting those Sound ninja all on your own! And considering the fact that for your own match you had to be shoved into the fighting area by Naruto…"
Jumping, flying, frowning, thinking. Yeah, his sensei had a point there.
But it was true – he did not really bother with the fact that at this very moment, he could be lying dead amidst a pile of roots and leaves, unbeknownst to anyone caring. Not anymore. After all, his recent match with that Temari woman and his reaction to it had proven that he did not think about past events for a very long time.
No, what bothered, what scared him right now were the contents of his very own thoughts.
What in all heavens had possessed him to decide to risk his life just in order to save a dog and two people he did not quite like?
He just could not figure it out. Sacrificing oneself for the sake of others? What was that about? He had understood in that moment, he had known what he'd had to do it for, what it had been to let him make that decision. It had felt so reasonable! But now, his mind was blank, the understanding disappearing, the knowledge gone.
Well, he really should not be so surprised. How could he expect to solve a philosophical problem in this kind of hectic? Oh, it was not that his intellect did not work properly in the heat of battle, no, it still provided him with enough thoughts to keep him busy, even if his life was in immediate danger. It was just that the nature of those thoughts did not really help with his dilemma. Strategies, yes, offensive moves, sure – but philosophy?
Matters such as this one needed to be thought over in piece and quiet – preferably on his favourite rooftop in Konoha, staring at the clouds in the process. It had always helped before with those kind of things.
Even the clouds above the forest would do to stare at, but the tree tops were shielding them from his view, and even if he ignored the fact the he would smash head-on into the first convenient trunk on his way if he let his gaze wander like that, there still was this nagging suspicion his sensei actually wanted an answer to that barely concealed question of his.
"Yeah, but… I feel bad leaving them alone…"
And it sounded odd, even to his own ears. This hastily set up A-rank mission technically had nothing to do with him. They had gone after a person he disliked, to help said person fight a fight which did not concern him in the least. It was none of his business, did not hold an inkling of responsibility for him.
Yet, he had almost given his life to this mission.
Thinking about this had made him go very quiet, and his sensei did not ask further questions. Actually, at this moment he could almost sense Asuma's decision to finally drop the subject.
"Hey, look over there! We've finally reached the outskirts of the village."
When he followed his sensei's gaze, he realised that this was true, and for a moment his strangely guilty feelings were washed away by a sudden wave of relief.
But the two of them did not slow down their pace because of this – quite the opposite, actually. And of course, Shikamaru immediately realised why so.
Whichever street of Konoha they followed, everywhere they passed fighting people.
They chose a path over the roofs of the houses to avoid coming across too much trouble or tripping over all the bodies lying in the streets, but even up here, there were people fighting, viciously attacking each other, throwing jutsu here and there.
And this, he knew, was not just some well-(or not-so-well-)organised Chuunin Selection Tournament.
These were real life and death battles.
Naturally, Asuma seemed to try his best to keep Shikamaru and himself out of the more forcible ones, but seeing as the entire village seemed to be up and fighting, this was quite some task to accomplish, as they had to dodge dozens of blown-off-course attacks apparently not meant to hit anyone in particular, as well as a few nastier ones actually directed at them by Sand ninja not willing to let them pass just like that.
And after a while, Shikamaru started wondering why Asuma-sensei would bother with him in the first place. Judging by all the fighting going on, it was not particularly hard to tell that the village seemed to be in a serious amount of trouble. So surely, the villagers would greatly appreciate the help of every Jounin or Anbu they could get their hands on, right? Why would Asuma not just leave him on his own to go help people who were in greater need of protection?
But his sensei just kept running and shielding him from harm, a single one out of all of the young ninja in this village. Hell, he was not even a civilian – and yet this escort.
What was he thinking, that guy?
It could not have to do with his mission, either. Shikamaru was pretty sure that this mission had been to follow their pursuers and stop them. Had he been told to protect the three Genin, he would have had to go after Naruto and Sakura as well, which he had not done. Nobody could actually have known that only Shikamaru had been in immediate danger at that moment.
A somewhat rueful smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
Even with that bright mind of his, thinking for so long now, he just kept sending his thoughts in circles around the very same thing.
Asuma-sensei was just risking his life for him right now, was he not?
He was much more surprised about this realisation than he should have been, which was why he almost bumped into his sensei's back when he suddenly stopped.
Shikamaru looked up – and immediately started protesting. "The hospital? Now, now, sensei, I told you I'm not injured!"
He would never admit it, but hospitals gave him the creeps. Entering hospitals always meant that either you were injured yourself, which was troublesome in itself, or someone dear to you, which was even worse. There was no other reason to enter a hospital – if you did not happen to be a medic, that was – and thus, he hated going there.
"It's not that I don't believe you," Asuma tried to calm him down, and Shikamaru noticed in how much of a hurry he actually must have been when he made for the doors and started dragging him along. "But you've done your share in this fight already, and this is where people gather if they've done the same or if they bring along injured comrades or something like that."
Shikamaru decided that it was not worth fighting over this, because his sensei seemed determined to stay firm on his decision to make him remain here. Besides, he had given up on two fights in a short period of time due to being too exhausted to fight on; he really did not think he should push his luck and do it a third time. So he allowed himself to be led up the front steps and through the main doors – where he froze.
The entrance hall of the hospital was pure chaos.
For a few seconds, Shikamaru could do nothing but stare at screaming people, crying children, and medical ninja running around frantically in order to treat the life-threatening wounds first.
Asuma put a hand on his shoulder, as if he had read his thoughts. "You'll manage? 'cause they'll probably need me elsewhere as soon as possible."
"Yeah…" Shikamaru breathed, then mentally shook himself and looked up. "Yeah, think I'll do. Um, sensei, about earlier…"
"It's all right," Asuma assured him, smiling. "Glad I could be of help." He made for the door, but turned around one last time.
"Shikamaru… I'm very proud of what you did."
And with that, he was out.
Feeling a little lost despite his words, he did not know where to go or what to do right now, but was relieved of the responsibility to make a decision for himself when a nurse came running over to him. From the looks of things, she had just finished treating a crying boy, and with so many injured people around, she must not even have a tiny second of time to take a break in between treatments.
"You all right? Are you hurt?" Her facial expression told him that she could not find any serious injuries on him.
"Well, actually, no, I'm okay," Shikamaru tried to explain. "I just had… this fight and… my sensei dragged me here…"
But he soon realised that she must neither have the time nor the nerve to make small talk in a situation like this. "It's okay," he assured her. "I don't need to be taken care of, I'll manage on my own."
She smiled a little. "Glad to hear that. But it still must have been a shock, I guess…" Her expression grew a little more serious. "Judging by your age, you won't have underwent any medical training which could help out here a little?"
When he shook his head, she pointed to the other end of the hall. "Well, there are a few seats you can sit down on, over there. You should not go outside right now, they're still fighting in the streets. Just make sure you're not being in the way. Once the worst is over, we will patch up those scratches of yours a little, okay?" But she was off before he had the time to mutter his response of "Yeah, thanks".
Feeling out of place, he moved over to where she had pointed, and, after carefully trying to make it there without pushing anyone and thus causing further damage, found a rather large sitting area which appeared to be entirely occupied by people who only had minor injuries, scratches and such, just like him.
He staggered when the ground shook again, and heard some people screaming in fear. Frowning, he wondered what Konoha had got itself into now – and why he still felt remorse at the prospect of not being where he could be of some use.
He could not make out a free seat, but he still did not want to bother anyone. Furthermore, even with his Chakra reserves almost entirely used up, he did not feel exhausted enough to desperately need to sit down anyway, so it was okay with him to just remain standing.
So it must have been a shock for him, huh? Now, why did everyone assume that? Yeah, all right, he could have died, but he was alive right now, which was, after all, kind of a good thing. Why did nobody think he could handle it?
Frowning and changing his mind from one second to the other, he slumped to the floor with his back against the wall.
Or were they right? His twisted thoughts up till now could very well be an after-effect of a shock, right?
To know this for sure, he would have had to be medically educated, which, as he had stated earlier, he was not, so he just let it go. Who cared if he had experienced a shock? To him, his somewhat radical change of personality had come as the greatest shock of all.
Which had been exactly the thought he had tried to avoid, right?
He groaned in frustration, not able to let his worries rest for at least a while. His mind still kept running in circles, and he was sick of it.
Since when did he fight for what he cared for?
He froze as a somewhat scary thought hit him.
Since when did he care?
Without the room getting any colder, he suddenly started shivering. Surely he had cared before, too, now, had he not? It would be a very bad thing if he had not.
But he shook his head viciously.
He should not think about such stupid things now. He would have plenty of time to question the reason of his existence once Konoha was safe and sound again.
Well, maybe sound was not really the appropriate choice of words right now, but still…
"Stupid mind…" he muttered, rubbing his forehead. "Can't you leave me alone for just once?"
Startled, he made to look up, but was prevented from doing so by a happy bark, followed by a wet tongue brushing over his face.
Hastily, he got Akamaru to get off him, rubbed his face dry again and, on the second try, managed to raise his head and meet the typical grin of his fellow Genin with a rather twisted one of his own.
"You know, there are people who consider talking to your own head a symptom of madness," Kiba teased.
Shikamaru did not even bother answering that. "What are you doing here? Are you hurt?"
Kiba sat down next to him. "Nah, I'm fine. It's Hinata who's being treated right now… you know, when I woke up, they told me we had been brought here by some Jounin, but they ran off again before I could say thanks. So, yeah, I did pass out at some time during the Finals, but it was that freaking Anbu's fault that I did!"
Shikamaru did not get a word of what Kiba was saying – or was trying to say, he did not seem so sure himself either – but thought it best not to ask any further questions concerning that matter. "So what about Hinata? Did she choose to fight alongside the others or was she drawn into the battle by accident?"
Kiba sighed. "Neither one, she just collapsed during the first match. Think she still has to fight those injuries Neji caused her."
Shikamaru frowned. He had not even noticed her collapsing. But then again, he had been with the other contestants most of the time, and when Naruto had dragged him along to meet Kakashi-sensei he had not really had the time to take in his surroundings.
Well, he sure hoped she was all right.
"…and then he said it was okay and then he must have knocked me out and… Shikamaru, are you even listening to me?"
His head jerked up, painfully reminding him of where he was and why he was there. "Huh? Oh… yes, I… it's just that I…" He sighed, lowering his gaze. "No, I guess not. Sorry, Kiba."
Kiba frowned. "Are you okay?" And then – late though, but never mind that – realisation seemed to hit him. "Oi, hold on a second – why are you here in the first place?"
"Had a fight," he mumbled as casually as he could muster, not wanting to draw attention to his previous actions. Still, he should have known it would not satisfy Kiba.
"Whom did you fight then? The last thing I know is that Naruto and Neji were halfway through their battle, did you even get your match? Nah, wait, I bet it was not in the stadium, right?" Shikamaru felt his gaze wash over him to take in his full appearance, probably for the first time since showing up all of a sudden. "People are talking about the Sand's Genin fleeing. You don't happen to have been part of that? Would be cool to have some first-hand information."
Shikamaru rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. "Yeah… Actually, I was. But I don't really feel like talking right now, if you don't mind."
"Oh, that's okay." Kiba shrugged it off, and then, presumably out of a lack of options, started talking to his dog. "Ne, Akamaru, we've had enough action today to last for at least a month, don't you think? Hmm, or maybe half a month…"
"Arf!" was the answer.
Shikamaru opened his eyes again. "He's been fighting, too?"
"Nah!" Kiba laughed. "He hasn't been doing anything pretty much, he just licked my face until I woke up! Seems to have taken him a while, though, which is odd, 'cause usually, I always feel it when he's around or trying to wake me or such. Must have been one helluva jutsu that guy used on me… Kinda weird, isn't it?"
Shikamaru answered without even thinking – again. "Yeah, weird thing to do something you normally wouldn't. Happened to me all day."
Great. Distraction time was over. He should have known that trying to escape the working of your own mind was a futile attempt.
His words were rewarded with a deadly puzzled look from Kiba's direction. "Didn't you just say you… oh, never mind that. Wanna tell?"
Shikamaru smiled a little, since he had just made out a small window out of which he could see a single, fluffy cloud. The shaking of the ground had become even more frequent and violent by now, but still, that cloud seemed to ease his mind a little. "'s not much to tell, I suppose. I almost died protecting Naruto and Sakura, you know…"
"And that's not much to tell?!" Kiba bellowed, the blast of sound almost knocking Shikamaru flat to the floor. "Man, you should work on your priorities, you know that? That's a great thing to do, where the hell is your problem?"
Shikamaru considered sharing his thoughts with Kiba, but decided on not doing so, since he did not believe his fellow Genin to be able to understand things like that. He just did not think about things like that. Of course, that did not necessarily make him stupid – he himself would probably prefer calling it care-free – but it did not make him the best choice for confiding in with these things either.
"Let's just say I think it's not like me," he muttered.
Kiba snorted. "And I thought Shino was hard to under-… Okay, he is, but… nah, scratch that. Honestly, you've done that before, haven't you? I heard Ino and Sakura talking about how you people came to help Sakura and her guys during the survival training. Seems like everyone but our team was there, huh?"
Shikamaru frowned. Indeed, he'd done it before… But wasn't it all the more reason to worry?
Then again, what was there to worry about in the first place? Regardless of if he had cared before or why he had changed his mind so drastically out of a sudden, he did care now, right?
And, furthermore, the others knew that he cared, did they not? He would have had to be an idiot not to notice Naruto and Sakura's unwillingness to let him go, back then. And would Kiba have told him about Hinata if he had thought that it was of no interest to him?
But that train of thought was not finished there, because what hit him next was the realisation that not only they knew he cared – they cared for him themselves. The way Asuma had been concerned for him had been saying quite enough, and then the way that nurse had pitied him, probably for having to have joined the fights as a mere Genin rookie – and now Kiba congratulating him on how great a thing he had done today…
Still, that thought would not go away.
"Yeah, seems like it…" he answered, though he was not quite sure anymore if this was an answer to Kiba's ranting or to his own thinking.
But Kiba obviously took no offence in his conversation partner's seeming lack of interest in the conversation. "Know what, I just hate hospitals! Being in here always means that someone is injured. It's awful."
With a start, Shikamaru whirled around to stare at him.
Kiba just stared back dumbly. "Um, you don't think so?"
And without really knowing why, Shikamaru burst out laughing. "Yeah, you're quite right about that!"
Kiba eyed him suspiciously, but that was okay for Shikamaru, since he had just found the answer to finally be able to let his mind rest a little.
Those had been his thoughts, right? Only moments before he had entered the hospital, he had thought about only going there if you were injured yourself or if your friends were.
He clearly remembered considering the latter the worse possibility. And suddenly, he knew that this was something about him which had not just changed over night.
Had he not visited Chouji when he had had to stay in hospital for eating too much? Had he not even found it in his heart to pay Naruto a visit, just because he felt the guy needed some company?
True, he did not particularly like all of those people he constantly came in contact with – save Chouji – but regardless of that, he cared.
Kiba frowned at him. "Oi, Shikamaru - you sure you're okay?"
It was the second time that day that he was asked that question – but this time, he knew the answer.
Smiling, he made to pat Akamaru on the head. "Yeah, I actually feel fine. Thank you, Kiba!"
Whether this was for asking or trying to figure out a solution to the problem bothering him, he was not entirely sure himself, but he did not mind that.
The fighting might be new for him.
But the caring had always been there.
A/N: Reposted the story for my new account, so if you feel you know this already, that's probably why. Also changed a few minor bits and pieces.
Reviews are welcome and greatly appreciated, even single-word ones. (Though I DO like longer ones better. :D)