The story of Yoshino and Shikaku - with bonus tiny twins.

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It starts the way a lot of ninja stories start – on the battlefield.

It starts the way a lot of ninja friendships do – one is in trouble and the other swoops in to rescue them.

It starts the way a lot of ninja romances don't – Yoshino is outnumbered and outgunned. Her genjutsu keeps slipping from her opponent; next to useless. She is readying an earth jutsu, a final projectile that will either end it or buy her time to escape.

A blur of darkness and danger swoops down to interpose itself between them. One enemy falls, then the next. The third is poised on the edge of death and -

"Watch out!" She shouts in horror, as her earth jutsu launches itself, clips her saviour and misses the enemy entirely.

There is a brief, disbelieving pause as he skids ungainly across the ground. The enemy may laugh. Then the shadows rise up to swallow him, and his opinion is discounted.

"Ow," Shikaku says, flat on his back. "Watch where you're aiming those, woman."

Yoshino bristles. "You watch where you're jumping, idiot!"

("Of course it takes a woman actually hitting you over the head to catch your attention," Inoichi will say whenever the story is told, a mixture of fondness and exasperation in his voice. "Nothing less could have done it."

"He should have been paying more attention," Yoshino will scowl, just as irritated no matter how much time passes. "Stepping into my line of fire like that.")

And for weeks and weeks after that, she finds a tall and lanky form lazily passing through the edges of her life. She doesn't think much of it, because Yoshino Kinokawa is too practical to sigh and swoon at every handsome saviour.

She's a good ninja, but she never fools herself into thinking she's more than 'good'. She's pretty, but not beautiful. She's too blunt and too practical and too straightforward to be the perfect kunoichi and every technique she has is scrapped together from basics and lots of luck.

She doesn't fit in with his clan born crowd; has neither the manners nor the station nor the skills to make them accept her. They're from different worlds.

Yet. He's there anyway. There with careful greetings and acknowledgements, wishes of good luck for her missions and off-hand advice that somehow never seems patronising. They're just… friends. And it seems, sometimes, like they had always been friends because it's so easy and so natural.

It's no whirlwind romance. It doesn't even feel like a romance at all.

Then they're saying goodbye to each other over early morning cups of tea, both of them leaving on separate missions at the same time. Their breath is misting in the cold air, weak dawn light filtering orange through the tree leaves.

Then he turns to her and presses a brief, chaste kiss to the corner of her mouth. "Stay safe."

His eyes, when he draws back, are watchful.

Yoshino feels like her reaction is so very important. She just doesn't know what to do. "You too," she says, with an uncertain, wobbly smile.

It's not until she's out the gate, Konoha fading into the horizon behind her, that she thinks 'oh. That was very romantic, wasn't it?'

Yoshino is a practical woman. She is content with a life in the small details, of patrols and minor missions and routine. She has no ambition for things outside her reach.

"I thought you were betrothed," she says when she gets back to Konoha.

"I was," he says, eyes drifting out the small window of her apartment. He shouldn't fit there, shouldn't look so at home in surroundings that are so far from his own but he does. "I broke it."

"And your clan let you?" Yoshino doesn't understand clans the way most civilians don't understand clans. It's something stricter than family, she knows, but family is the only comparison she has. Her parents are bare memories, but she tries to imagine defying them.

He shrugs, rolling his shoulders in a long movement. "They weren't happy," he says, indifferent.

It's not the end of it, of course, but it's enough.

She has missions and he has missions – more of them, with goals and destinations he can't talk about. The twisting tattoo on his shoulder says more than his lack of words, and she knows not to ask. They don't have much, but they don't need much either. He spends more and more time at her apartment and less and less at his home, but it's not till Inoichi – kind eyed, tired Inoichi – explains that she really understands.

"They're disowning you?" She asks, horrified and alarmed.

Shikaku shrugs. He's made the barest pretense of removing his Anbu uniform, the white chestplate and guards gone, but the black of it is equally distinctive. He stretches out on the bed. "They weren't happy," he repeats.

It's the worst kind of understatement.

"I don't understand."

It's easy to forget how serious he can be, how heavy the weight of his gaze is, because he turns it on her so rarely. "Ikoma will do fine as Clan Head," he says. "If it comes to that. It would be foolish to hold onto that and lose you, when I know which one I want to keep forever."

He doesn't seem to care; more content in her small apartment than trying to argue with people who think they know best about what he should do with his life.

It would probably have continued that way, but then Ikoma dies in a spectacular fuck up of a mission, gone so far south that all the Hokage returns is a headband and a report with so much blacked out that all that is visible is his name, and the Nara Clan decides that a disobedient heir is better than no heir at all. Yoshino is accepted because they have no other choice, though many of them never warm to her until the birth of the next heir.

Inoichi and Chouza like her – or like that Shikaku likes her – which smooths things over quite a bit when the three of them end up as Heads. Shikano dies in the Third War, bare months before the end of it, when the division he is leading is over run and wiped out to the last man. Konoha curses the loss of its Chief Tactician and grief sits heavy on Shikaku's shoulders while he is expected to step up into so many roles at once.

Things are difficult, but they cope. They survive.

And then the war is over, and things start going right for a change.

Yoshino Nara is twenty four when she finds out she's pregnant with twins.

"It's highly likely you will miscarry one, or both," the medic nin says with only minimal attempts at compassion. "If they do last to term, one or both may be stillborn or suffer post-natal complications from chakra starvation in the womb."

They recommend that she induce a miscarriage and simply try again.

"I can't," she says to Shikaku, hand over her still flat stomach. "I can't." They aren't children yet, but they are the idea of children and she cannot simply discard them.

The next few months are a parade of medical ninja, exhaustion and emotions. If Setsuko Akimichi and Tomomi Yamanaka hadn't been suffering the same things along with her, she suspects she might have committed homicide somewhere along the way. Probably of her husband.

(She meets Kushina Uzumaki a few times, when the Fourth Hokage urgently needs Shikaku. They eat food in terrible combinations and complain about morning sickness. Kushina will confess that she made Minato travel to Land of Wind yesterday morning because she was craving grilled cactus pads. Years and years later, their son will offer her a cactus in a pot as a host gift, and she will ache.)

Yoshino spends nearly two days in labour, nurses clucking fretfully over her the whole time, before the twins are born thirty minutes apart.

"Lazy as their father," she growls somewhere between the beginning and the end of it. "Just have to take their time."

Shikaku murmurs soothingly and doesn't try defend himself.

But the twins are born and they're both healthy and whole.

Something inside her collapses at the news.

"Shikamaru," Shikaku murmurs over them. "Shikako."

"My little miracles," Yoshino whispers back.

She reminds herself that over the next few weeks, when their daughter won't stop crying. It's incessant noise, and drives right through her skull. The respite when the Kyuubi comes is no respite at all, fueled with terror and despair and guilt at just wanting Shikako to shut up. She cradles her children in the shelter, surrounded by hundreds of screaming babies, trying to calm Shikamaru down, and hears only the absence of her daughter's voice.

"Is she-" Shikaku asks, when he finally, finally makes it home.

It might be the first time she has seen him afraid. She knows how he feels.

"I don't know," Yoshino breathes. She cradles the two small bodies to her chest. "She just stopped."

He takes Shikako into his arms. He still smells like smoke, like the battlefield. He's been fighting and leading and commanding for days straight, and instead of resting he sinks down into a rocking chair.

He swallows dryly. "She's going to be okay," he says hoarsely, as if he can make it so. "Let me tell you, my darling, my sweet," he sings. "Of places and spaces to make your heart beat…"

Yoshino thinks about what a tragedy it is to outlive your own children. To watch a miracle go quiet and cold.

His voice echoes through the house for hours, for days. Years later she sometimes thinks she can still hear him singing, the words hovering in the empty corners of the house, lost and forgotten.

the stag calls in autumn with the sound of his bellows,

and the leaves on the trees turn to reds and to yellows,

these are the spaces, where wild deer roam,

these are the places, you may call your home…

But Shikako lives. She is okay. She is quieter now; she will always be quieter. Sometimes Yoshino will wonder if… if, if, if. But there is no point to 'if's.

They are good kids. Shikamaru is sweet and Shikako is cuddly and they are both far smarter than they have rights to be. Shikako is ill, off and on, and one day, when Yoshino goes to call the twins in for lunch, finds her hard to awaken and clammy cold… lunch is forgotten as she scoops them both up and rushes to the hospital.

"Chakra exhaustion," they tell her. "Probably an unconscious reaction to hypersensitivity."

They tell her that there is nothing they can do. For her daughter, there never seems to be anything they can do.

"Mummy?" Shikako says blearily into her neck, blinking slowly and sleepily. "ss'lunchtime? 'mm hungry."

"Okay," Yoshino says, because this at least is something she can fix. "We can get some Okonomiyaki on the way home."

If only everything were so simple.

Shikamaru makes friends with the Akimichi boy - Chouji – but Shikako drifts by without making any friends of her own, until she reaches the Academy and falls in with Inoichi's daughter. Yoshino huffs at her husband when he laughs at the news.

"Ino-Shika-Chou," he says, pleased.

The Academy isn't painless for them. Shikako grumbles about taijutsu class – and Yoshino thinks again about enrolling her in the civilian school. Isn't it good enough? Her daughter can grow, live, get married and have children of her own, all without worrying about missions and spilt blood – and Shikamaru barely passes any of his exams, and fails to complete his homework nine times out of ten.

"He's just bored," Shikako says with a shrug, completing a small novel in place of the 'short answer' her instructors wanted. "I gave him a puzzle book, but he already finished them."

There really isn't any solution to that beyond giving him more difficult work and Yoshino never wants that pressure for her kids. Shikaku either, because he constantly puts off the training they should be having, even though the kids are more than ready for it.

It will separate them, when Shikamaru begins to learn jutsu, and Shikako cannot. They will never be equals again.

Except- except their daughter doesn't quit. She learns.

Shikaku comes back from training them with a grey face and weary eyes. "She did it," he says, not quite wonderingly. "She completed the first step. She's going to learn the clan style."

Yoshino frowns at him. "She has been getting better, lately," she offers tentatively. "She doesn't cough so much, and hasn't collapsed in a while." She's stronger too, doing better in taijutsu class. Somewhere near the top, on her last report card.

Shikaku nods, as though he has already considered that. "They said it hurt her," he says. "Having chakra. That was why she cried."

Yoshino can't imagine what it would be like, to live with that under your skin. Feeling pain every minute of every day. Her daughter is quiet and withdrawn, but not unhappy. Not constantly in pain. They must have been mistaken.

She hopes that they were mistaken.