Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any aspects of it. The story and characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto.

Sincerity

"Slow down Naruto!"

I turn to look behind me to see what the big deal is. As soon as I see Sakura-chan, Sai, and Shikamaru, I know that they're worn out. We've been traveling back from a B ranked mission for about two days now, but the nonstop trekking must be getting to them. We need to set up camp soon because it's getting dark pretty fast. I could keep going for about another half a day, but their slowing paces and tired faces remind me that I have more stamina than they do.

I jump down from the trees after I hear the next complaint. Sakura-chan lands next to me and quickly grabs my jacket.

"Why do you always go so far ahead of everybody! We are a squad on this mission!" she says as she shakes me senseless.

"S-sakura, please. Calm down." Sai pleads from a distance. He knows well not to approach her during one of her explosions.

"Grr! I'm going to find a clearing!" she exclaims as she walks away angrily.

"Naruto." Sai attempts to comfort me.

It's okay. I'm used to her temper by now. I kind of wish she had a little restraint though. My head feels like it's going to fall off.

"Naruto, I need you to gather firewood." Shikamaru tells me.

"Okay." And I'm off without hesitation.

While I walk through the forest, I can't help but laugh at how long this mission has been. We were supposed to escort a princess's friend to her home in the Land of Snow. It took us about a week to get her there safely, and now we're on our way back to the Leaf Village. The payment is pretty decent, too.

I look up to the setting sky and take in the beautiful colors the clouds turn when the sun sets. We should be back in Konoha in about three days or so. I haven't had any ramen since we got to the Land of Snow because I couldn't find any ramen stands, and we were in a hurry, so I couldn't shop either.

I pat my stomach apologetically. All I have eaten for the past couple days were fruits we found. Sakura-chan made sure they were edible, of course. I'm glad she found her talent in the medical field. I would be dead by now had it not been for her. We've all changed…including Sasuke.

I remember what Sakura-chan told me she witnessed him do, or, about to do. That girl he was travelling with, Karin, he almost killed her. When we talked to her about it, she said that she knew he had been changing, but not to the point where he would kill her because she was taken hostage by Danzo. If you ask me, her ninja skills seem minimal at best, so he should have expected her capture anyway. Ever since then, she's been held up in the Leaf Village under Ibiki-sensei's watch. I don't know what Grandma Tsunade plans to do with her, but I hope she finds peace in Konoha.

"This should be enough firewood. I'd better not hear any complaints from him."

I make my way back to the others swiftly because the moon is rising. I never liked being out in the woods at night. When I finally do reach them, I smile because most of the work setting up camp has already been done. Well, at least I did my part.

I drop the firewood in front of the two tents. Sakura-chan walks up to me and speaks much calmer than before.

"I found a nice pond a few yards ahead of you."

"Thanks Sakura-chan. Sleep well." I tell her as she makes her way to her tent. She deserves a good rest.

I hear the bushes rustle and my hand is already on my kunai. I'm relieved when I see that it's only Sai. He's holding his drawing utensils in his hands.

"Naruto, I can keep watch tonight." He says assuredly. I don't doubt him either. He's a member of the ROOT division in Konoha. I can't imagine what harder tasks he's had to do. At least Danzo is out of the picture though. That guy was no good and everyone knew it.

"Are you sure? We can rotate." I offer.

He simply shakes his head and takes his post a few feet in front of the tents. He doesn't seem as tired anymore. Maybe he's used to being awake at night. He really is mystery sometimes, but he's always a good friend.

I smirk and nod as I make my way to the pond Sakura-chan mentioned earlier. I guess a good rinse couldn't hurt.

When I reach the pond, I see that it's fairly hidden under the trees with a good opening above them. There are also a few fireflies floating around on the water's surface. Sakura-chan was right, it is nice. I am kind of sweaty right now, so I decide to wash out my clothes too. I strip naked and kneel to wash them gently and then lay them on a tree branch before diving in myself. The water is cool, a good break from the sweaty night.

I swim to the middle of the pond and then down to the bottom. It isn't very deep. I'd say about five feet in this area would be a generous measurement. I decide to backstroke back to the shallow end instead of swimming. I can see the fireflies I interrupted above me now, and their lights mingle with the stars' lights above. I can see the moon when I make it back. It's really beautiful, but it looks like a sad lady to me. I don't know why.

Suddenly, I hear footsteps in the grass in the area above my head and I'm immediately on my guard. I flip over to and stand, ready to attack or defend if necessary. Shikamaru immediately laughs at my paranoia.

"It's not funny!" I yell.

He doesn't comment at all. He stands and stares at me for a brief moment before averting his eyes skyward; a small red tint has taken hold of his cheeks. I immediately freeze and realize that the only part of me being covered by the water is my lower legs. My movement to sit was the quickest one I made all day. My cheeks are hot and I look to my right to avoid any eye contact with him.

"W-what do you want!"

"I, uh, I came here to tell you that you were supposed to start the fire too." He says, seriousness taking hold of him again.

"Well fine! I'll do it when I get back!" I answer.

He doesn't hesitate to take his leave. When I can't hear anymore footsteps, I make my way out of the water and quickly dress myself. When I get back to camp, I see that the fire has already been lit. I'm not complaining about it though. Still, I wonder who did that.

I say good night to Sai, who is up in a tree, before I enter the other tent. It's dark and I can barely see anything. Before I took three steps, I tripped over something.

"Ouch! That really-"

"Naruto, watch your step!" Shikamaru exclaims, now sitting up from under his blanket.

"Watch where you're leg is lying!" I retort, sitting angrily.

My eyes have adjusted to the dark and I can see a little better now. He is still in his sitting position, and the tent is uncomfortably silent. I can't help but feel a little awkward now. I want to go to sleep, but it seems like Shikamaru is wide awake for now. Maybe he wants to talk.

"Naruto"

"Yeah?"

"I want to talk to you. More precisely, I want to tell you something." His demeanor has changed now.

"What is it?"

"Sasuke," He has my full attention now, "I know you want to save him, and I also know that he is a rogue who's wanted internationally."

"What's your point?" I ask, suspiciously.

"It's not going to be easy. I think he's intent on destroying the Leaf Village, so I hope you have a good resolve."

His words were making me angry now. What was he trying to get at?

"I'm going to save Sasuke from his hatred while protecting the Leaf!"

"That wasn't all I wanted to say. I'm just…worried about you. He's put you and everyone else through so much pain, and he tried to kill Sakura and his former teammate Karin. He won't hesitate on killing any of us, even you."

"What's your point?" I ask again.

"I won't hesitate to kill him if he attempts to kill you." His seriousness is enough to stun me for a second.

"But why Shikamaru? Why would you do that?"

"Because…because I care about you Naruto, deeply."

His hand moves to mine and he's suddenly too close for comfort. He takes my hand into his and looks me in the eye.

"I-I don't understand." I say, pulling my hand from his slowly.

"You're just as slow as ever Naruto."

He moves away from me and lies down again. But I am frozen. What does he mean by all of this? What's going on? I can't think clearly, and I can't speak. I feel that my pants are now tight, my heart is racing, and I am as confused as ever. What does he mean?

I don't remember much else because soon my eyes got too heavy to keep open and I fell asleep. I woke up the next morning to find that Shikamaru was gone. I stared at his neatly folded sheets for a minute before pulling myself together again. I left the tent and saw Sai and Sakura-chan eating something that she had cooked.

"Good morning Naruto." She spoke sweetly.

"Good morning Sakura-chan, hey Sai." I responded, looking around the camp.

"Looking for Shikamaru?" Sai asked.

"Um, no. I'm just taking in our surroundings again. I wasn't paying a lot of attention yesterday." I can be quick on my feet, despite what most people think.

"Of course" Sai joked.

"Your smile gives you away Naruto." Sakura-chan smiled.

"Fine! Where is he?"

"He went to clean some kunai for me." Sakura-chan answered, turning her attention back to her meal.

"Oh."

I make myself a dish and take my seat on the ground near them. My mind is racing like crazy about Shikamaru's words. I didn't know how to respond to what he told me. Even more importantly, I didn't know what to say about what he said about Sasuke. Would he really kill him if provoked?

I glance at Sakura-chan and remember that she struggled with trying to kill him before, which almost cost her her life. Would Shikamaru have such a struggle? He wasn't a part of Team 7, and from what I know, he didn't ever care for Sasuke at all.

"We're going to the hot springs closest to us when we leave Naruto." Sakura-chan spoke as she finished her meal, successfully distracting me from my thoughts.

I can understand why she would say that. It'll be nice to sleep on a real bed instead of a tent. She is a girl, and they have their own boundaries and limitations. I wouldn't tell her that though. She would slap me senseless.

Sai finished next, ignoring Sakura-chan's comment completely, and headed to the tent. I guess we'll be heading out soon. I hurry and finish my own plate and follow suit.

"I guess we'll be out of the village longer than we expected." Sai comments when he sees me.

"Yeah. At least we get a break."

All of the constant missions and travelling was a little unnerving. It makes me wonder how busy Shikamaru has been. Team 10 isn't currently chasing a friend and trying to save him. I am still counting on the day that I bring Sasuke back to the village, and reunite Team 7.

"Hey, will you help me put away the tent?"

"Sure Sai. You don't even have to ask!"

After packing our bags and moving everything outside, we began disassembling the tent. I looked to my left and saw that Sakura-chan had already disassembled hers herself. She looked at Sai and me and giggled.

"Having trouble?"

"No!" I yelled, and then jumped when I remembered who I was talking to.

She shrugged and began packing her things. I heard footsteps in the distance and somehow I was relieved that Shikamaru had made his way back to camp.

"Who are you!" I turned around when I heard Sakura-chan's question.

Standing before us were six bandits, all varying in size.

"She asked you a question!" I exclaim, irritated.

"We want all the money you have. If you refuse, we can help you change your minds." the biggest one said.

"Do you really think we're daft enough to fall for your bluff? You're all weak, and so you try to intimidate people with size and numbers." Sai spoke confidently.

"You little- If you want to see intimidation by size, I'll show you!" the smallest one shouted.

He stuck his pointer finger and thumb into his mouth and whistled. Suddenly, the ground began shaking. I heard a roar and suddenly there was a large bear standing in front of us. I stepped back, momentarily shocked, but I formed my hand sign and summoned ten shadow clones.

"Wh-what! Ninja!"

"I can't tell if you all are ignorant or just plain stupid, but we have ninja gear clearly visible on our bodies. It's obvious that we're ninja." Sai laughed.

"N-no! We can't handle ninja! Run!"

Suddenly, a shadow ran through my legs, using my shadow as an extension. I turned around quickly when I heard the familiar "Shadow Possession Jutsu success." from behind. There was Shikamaru, just a ways behind me.

"Surrender! You're outnumbered and outmatched." Sakura-chan said as she adjusted her gloves.

"You can drop all the money you've collected so far on the ground!" I add.

The bear growled at its lack of mobility. I silenced it with a few clones. It'd be best for us to be gone when it wakes up. The bandits followed Shikamaru's movements and dug into their pockets, then dropped their money on the ground. Suddenly Sai and Shikamaru are moving back. I follow Shikamaru's movements of his will because he has my shadow as well. Once our things are collected by Sai and the bandits have walked backwards in the opposite direction, Sakura-chan leaps into the air and punches the ground with a loud "SHANNARO!" We are now successfully separated from them, so Shikamaru breaks his jutsu.

I turn and face him, and then I remember what he told me last night. I still can't think of anything to say. I'm still very confused inside, and I can't understand his motives at all. Since I am speechless at the moment, I resort to turning and collecting the money the bandits dropped. When I'm done, I bring the money to Sakura-chan.

"This'll be more than enough to get us our own separate rooms!" she smiles.

I make sure we've left nothing behind before I take off after the others. Soon I'm leading the group again. Shikamaru is the leader of the mission, but I always end up in front of him because he's slacking off.

I spot a large dirt road in the distance and realize we're finally getting out of the forest. I jump down and take in my surroundings. There's no sign of ninja anywhere; just a bunch of townspeople out shopping I guess. When the others land behind me, I point to the hot springs I've spotted.

"Let's go." Sakura-chan walked quickly past me, followed by Sai.

I turn and notice that Shikamaru is standing in place, looking at me. I feel a little awkward now, but it's quickly replaced with a jumping feeling in my stomach when he smiles and approaches me.

"Naruto, have you thought about what I said?"

"Of course! I'm not going to get killed by Sasuke! You won't have to do anything to protect me. Believe it!"

"That's not what I was talking about." He grabs my hand and leads me back to the forest's exit. Suddenly, I'm up against a tree staring intently at his face. He makes sure we're out of anyone's sight before he looks back at me. I can't meet his gaze, so I look down.

"Naruto, have you thought about what I told you?" he asks again.

I can feel his eyes staring me down in the small distance he left between us. I'm nervous and honestly a little scared right now.

"Is it Sasuke?" he asks.

"N-no! You're…you're a guy! I'm a guy! It's wrong Shikamaru!" I'm in unfamiliar territory now.

"So? That doesn't matter. And I'm well aware of the fact that you're a guy. I can see the bulge in your pants right now."

I close my eyes tight because I don't know what else to do. He's right. I have a boner, and it's because of him.

"Look, I know you're confused, but you aren't telling yourself to have a boner right now. It isn't your choice who you're attracted to. Love is blind." He touches my cheek, which surprises me.

He's right again. I'm not telling myself to be turned on right now. I give in and let him have his way. He runs his fingers along my whisker marks, causing my cheeks to go hot again. Then his hand leaves me, and I open my eyes to look at him, missing the contact the moment it disappears.

"Naruto, I know I'm lazy, and maybe you think I'm boring, but I can't help but want to be with you. You're a nice motivation. We need you in the Leaf Village. I need you in the Leaf Village." His words are sincere and he's smiling now.

"You're not boring Shikamaru."

"I want to be here for you. Not like Sasuke, who left you. Let me in, let me help you. I can't stand to see you in so much pain." He scratches his head before continuing, "So how about it Naruto? Will you go out with me?"

I'm calmer now, and I know he means every word he says. I am attracted to him, and he just made me feel a whole lot better about the whole situation. I feel myself getting hot. I look at him slowly. He's waiting for an answer, a small smile present on his lips. He knows I won't turn him down. All he's waiting for is my consent. I gulp and decide that I'll give it a chance.

"O-okay. Sure."

His smile gets a little bigger, but he quickly calms himself.

"All right, I promise to be here for you in any way I can. I'll protect you with everything I've got Naruto."

I don't know what else to do, so I lean forward and hug him tightly. I can feel his breath on my neck and I welcome the sensation. I break the hug and remind him that we should get back to Sakura-chan and Sai.

"What happened?" Sakura-chan asked when she sees us, "We've been waiting for you two so we can check in."

"Oh, we saw a girl who kind of looked like Ino, so we followed to see if it was her." Shikamaru cleverly said.

That was smart. Sakura-chan is probably going to drop the subject at that. She had an argument with Ino before we left.

"Anyway! Let's check in." she said, falling for Shikamaru's plan.

With the money we got from the bandits, we were able to get four separate rooms, a private hot spring (girls and boys separate), and a dinner and breakfast buffet. I was surprised that we still had any money left over from that little run in earlier.

We all entered our rooms after receiving the keys around noon. I unpacked my clothes and set them on the bed for later. After searching the bathroom, I found the towels and headed to the linked hot spring. I took my time getting into the water because it was very hot. When I heard another bedroom door open, I jumped in recklessly. When I came up, I heard Shikamaru's laugh and became red all over. I turned myself away from his naked form even before I opened my eyes.

"You're so jumpy Naruto." He said as he entered the water.

He slowly made his way over to me and turned me around. I opened my eyes and instantly giggled when I saw that his hair was not in its usual spiky ponytail. He scowled at me and I stopped. I stared right into his eyes and felt his desire to be with me. But more than that, I felt my stomach doing flips again. He moved closer to me, so I splashed him with an armful of water.

"Baka! What was that for!" he shouted.

"Catch me if you can!" I responded as I backed away from him as fast as I could.

He wiped his eyes and walked after me. I wasn't about to let him catch me, so I backed up as fast as I could. Then I felt my back hit the wall. I tried to get away, but Shikamaru had me cornered. When he finally got close enough, he grabbed my face in his hands and stared at me again. I knew I had to be red all over, but he didn't seem to care at all.

My eyes went wide when I felt his lips touch mine. I saw that he had closed his eyes, so I let mine follow his example. I raised my arms and ran my fingers up his back until they found his hair. It was soft, very soft. I was surprised because it usually looks thick and prickly.

Shikamaru's tongue touched my lips and I knew he wanted entrance, so I gave it to him. As soon as I did, his tongue was moving over every part of my mouth. Finally, he found my tongue. I moved mine against his and enjoyed the taste. I wanted to remember the taste forever.

"Hello comrades."

We broke the kiss and tore apart quickly when we heard Sai's voice. I hope he hadn't seen anything through the steam! Shikamaru looked in the direction his voice came from and then back at me briefly before letting my shoulders go. I looked over his shoulder and saw Sai coming into view. Quickly, I ducked underwater, and almost lost my breath when I realized that Shikamaru's privates were right in my face. I swam as far away from him as I could before the heat got the better of me and I rose out of the water. I wiped my eyes and saw Sai giving me a puzzled look while Shikamaru blushed deeply. I guess he felt the bubbles when I opened my mouth.

"Why are you swimming in a hot springs pool?" Sai asked as he made his way over to me.

At least he hadn't noticed Shikamaru's face. He was practically glowing right now.

"I-I wanted to test my endurance!" I lied deviously.

"Endurance?" he echoed.

"Y-yeah! S-sasuke uses Fire Style jutsu, so I need to prepare myself."

As soon as I said it, I knew it was true. Sasuke is going to be a tough opponent to beat, but I've saved hundreds before, and I can do it again.

"That's true."

"I've had enough training today!" I yelled, making my way out of the water.

I hear water moving close behind me so I move faster. When I'm out, I grab my towel and rush into my room, closing the door behind me. I see the shadow on the door. It's Shikamaru, I can tell by the shoulder length hair. He stands in that spot for a few seconds, and then walks away. I doubt he'll stay in the water with Sai, so he probably went to his room.

I can't help but feel rotten. We had just made out, and then I ran from him. It's all Sai's fault, but I could have let him into my room. I probably really hurt him… I'm pulled from my thoughts by a knock at my other door. I dress and jump up, answering it as fast as I can.

"Shikamaru, I'm so-"

"Does Shikamaru have pink hair?" It's Sakura-chan.

Her hair is wet, and she's wearing a thick robe. I guess we weren't the only one's enjoying the hot springs.

"Sorry Sakura-chan."

"Did you do something to Shikamaru? Naruto! You haven't matured at all!" she yells, stomping her foot.

"No, I didn't do anything to him on purpose. I, uh, accidentally knocked him into the water." Lying has become a bad habit of mine lately. Can you blame me? I'm scared of this little secret getting out.

"Oh. Well you should be apologizing. Anyway," she looks at my dripping hair and then continues, "Are you enjoying the hot springs?"

"Oh, yeah. It's great to have a private one for just us." I smiled widely.

"I guess so. I was all alone in mine." She sighed, "Well, I guess I'm going to go see what medical supplies this town has."

"I'll come too." I say quickly.

"Huh? Why?"

"I can't let you go alone Sakura-chan. Besides, I'm bored." It was all true, but I needed to get out for now. I'll apologize to Shikamaru later.

"Well that's fine, but—wait! Are you doubting my ability to protect myself!"

"N-no! I just want to help you out." I say.

"Well, I guess. I'll go get dressed and we can get going."

I closed and lock my door before walking to the end of the hallway. It doesn't take her too long before she's out and dressed. We silently made our way out of the building and to the store down the street.

I have to say, the only thing I did while she looked through the supplies the store had was look over her shoulder. The labels had so much writing on them I couldn't read them. When she had finished her shopping, we left the store and walked slowly back to the hot springs. It was nearing nighttime now, and the sky had become filled with so many pinks, oranges, and dark violets it was nearly intoxicating. Sakura-chan looked over to me and smiled.

"What's been with you lately? You seem so much calmer."

"Oh really? I hadn't noticed." I smirk even though I have no idea what she's talking about.

"I can't put my finger on it, but you're a lot less hyper these days. Maybe Shikamaru is wearing off on you."

"You have no idea."