A/N: I've been in this fandom for roughly 7 years, and I've never written any fanfiction for it. Thanks to some very insightful talks with a dear friend, that has now changed. I'd like to dedicate this story to her.
Disclaimer: Everything "Naruto" related is owned by Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement intended.
Shikamaru thought that there was a cruel kind of irony in the fact that even though a war was in sight and all of Konoha could be dead within weeks, the sun was still out with the sky as blue as it'd always been. Watching puffy white clouds pass by, one would never suspect that death and destruction were just around the corner. Shikamaru let his eyes fall closed and leaned back against the tree he was sitting under.
Of course, back in the village, you couldn't forget about the war. Preparations were made and the son of the head of the Nara clan was heavily involved in the process. Usually he didn't mind. Yes, working so much was a drag: But Shikamaru knew his responsibilities and he was willing to live up to them. Still, he sometimes felt overwhelmed by the speed his brain had to work at and he needed some time to calm down. That was why he was currently hidden away in the Nara forest, but he wasn't alone. With him was Neji, knees drawn to his chest, eyes on his hands. He had just appeared at the edge of the forest when Shikamaru was about to go in, and he didn't ask any questions. They did that often, lately: Just walk with each other, maybe talk, until the pressure of their individual thoughts had lifted and they could breathe easily again. In the presence of each other, it wasn't as difficult to untangle and sort their thoughts.
Somewhere in the thicket, Shikamaru heard hooves trample dead leaves. By the sound of it, he assumed it was a doe with her fawn. He almost smiled: Death might be immediate for him, but at least here, life would still go on for a while. When Neji spoke, Shikamaru startled.
"Are you afraid?" He asked quietly. It didn't sound like Neji's usual voice. Here, hidden in the forest, he allowed himself to sound vulnerable. It was a gift Shikamaru hadn't expected, but appreciated.
"Yeah.. I guess I am. I don't want to die yet. But if it happens.. Well, there's not much I can do." Shikamaru said and threw a sideways glance at Neji. His pale eyes were burning.
"I want to live." Neji replied fiercely. "No matter what happens, I want to live. I want to bring change to my clan." He balled his hands to fists. "I cannot lose my life before then."
It surprised Shikamaru, how passionate he sounded. There weren't many opportunities to see Neji like this. He reached out and put a flat palm over Neji's fist: Slowly, the muscles relaxed. The barest hint of a smile crossed Shikamaru's lips.
"We're skilled. We might make it, you and me."
Neji's eyes flickered upwards. He let them roam over Shikamaru's face for a moment and then smiled, too.
"I would hope so."
The boys fell silent again. Shikamaru noticed that Neji kept glancing at him, looking away quickly when he felt caught. Gently, Shikamaru asked: "Want to tell me what's on your mind?" If he didn't know better, he would've sworn that Neji's cheeks reddened slightly.
"It's nothing." He said hastily, but then thought again. "I just.. If we do end up dying, there's something I'd like to do before then, Shikamaru."
The youngest Nara stilled. Neji rarely addressed him by his given name, and the way he said it just now was.. odd. Too gentle. He raised his eyebrows.
"What is it?" Even his own voice came out wrong. It was too hoarse. Neji looked at him again, raising his hands to show he meant no harm.
"Don't run now." He pleaded.
Shikamaru's brain didn't slow down: He was keenly aware of the other boy scooting closer to him, close enough that when Neji leaned forward, his hair brushed his shoulder. It created a curtain that hid them and still, Neji moved at a pace so that Shikamaru had enough time to back away, should he want to. He didn't. Shikamaru didn't draw back as Neji moved closer and he didn't draw back as their mouths met. For a split second, their gazes interlocked: There was wonder and awe in Neji's eyes. Only then did Shikamaru let his instincts take over. His eyelids fluttered shut and he moved forward, closer to Neji, blindly reaching until his fingers fisted in his hair. He pulled him closer, all the while their mouths moved in a way that left them both nearly breathless.
He's so warm, Shikamaru thought with astonishment. He'd always thought Neji would be cold to the touch, but his lips burned and Shikamaru felt his blood beating beneath him, his pulse singing out i'm alive, i'm alive.
When they pulled apart, both of them were gasping for air, their faces flushed. Neji's eyes were wide and wild, triumph sparkling in them. Shikamaru passed a searching hand over his mouth: His lips were swollen, and adrenaline still rushed through his veins. Looking at Neji with uncharacteristically red cheeks and his hair all messed up, he couldn't hold it in: Shikamaru burst out laughing, long and hard. He couldn't stop until tears burned at the corners of his eyes. Neji gaped at him, even more blood shooting to his cheeks. He dipped his head.
"Was it that bad?" He asked uncertainly. Shikamaru wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his turtleneck.
"No." He said, still a little breathless. "No, it really wasn't. This is just so.. unreal."
Neji still looked unhappy. "I apologize, I shouldn't have.. This was too much."
Shikamaru fixed his gaze on him again, smiling. "I'm glad you did that, Neji. I mean it."
Slowly, the other boy's insecurity faded away. He took the hand Shikamaru offered him and together, they walked to the edge of the forest. On their way out, Neji suddenly called out: "Look!" He bent down to pick something up and when he extended his palm out to Shikamaru, it held something pale-yellow and bony.
"A piece of antler." Shikamaru said after a short inspection. "The young bucks sometimes lose them when they rub their antlers against trees."
He closed Neji's fingers over it. When he looked at him puzzled, Shikamaru just smiled secretively.
"Keep it. It's a good luck charm."
Ninja are those who endure. This was the motto that all children of the Leaf learned practically in their nurseries. For Shikamaru, those words had first become brutal reality when he lost his sensei. To endure the loss of Asuma wore him down emotionally, but he held on. Shikamaru knew that one day, he'd have to provide for Asuma's child what his sensei had provided for him.
But here on the battlefield, with his comrades falling left and right like flies and his father's last words ringing in his ear, he realized how much there really was to endure for a ninja. Shikamaru gritted his teeth, forcing himself to remember his task. This was all he could do now. It was what his father would have done in his stead.
They're proud to go before their children do.
There's Neji, fierce and merciless as a God. He looked ready to take down whole bataillons of enemies if that's what it takes to keep Naruto safe. His eyes found Shikamaru's for a second and it's like he held out his hand to him.
Get up. Fight. That's all that's left now.
When the woodsprigs hit, the ugly sound ripped through Shikamaru like an earthquake. He didn't see Neji hit the ground.
There was nothing left of Shikaku to bury. Numb with realization, Shikamaru stumbled along the path to the tents, where the wounded and dead were stacked. Perhaps some deity had been kind enough to save a little piece of his father here, something he could hold on to. Perhaps Shikamaru was desperate enough to believe in gods now.
When he stepped into the tent, a nauseating smell of blood, medicine and decay hit him full on. Shikamaru felt bile rise in the back of his throat and had the powerful urge to drop to his knees and retch. It took a while until he spotted the familiar body on a stretcher, hidden away in a small corner. Later, he didn't remember his feet moving. He did remember seeing Neji, really seeing him, laying there as if he was sleeping. No one had taken the time to clean the blood away: dozens of holes decorated his body. Like a stone, Shikamaru dropped to the floor. His entire body weighed him down, even his head couldn't be kept up. He lowered it, until his forehead touched the back of Neji's hand. The skin had hardened already and it was cold, so different from the hands that had pulled Shikamaru closer just a few weeks ago. He remembered those hands vividly. From somewhere down in his toes, a tremor rose up until his whole body was shaking and trembling. With his forehead still pressed to Neji's hand, Shikamaru let out a bloodcurling sound, more animal than human, caught somewhere between a scream and a sob. He didn't want to open his eyes: He didn't want to face the chaos and suffering around him. But he knew Neji was still covered in blood and battle grime, so he dragged himself to the supply station to get a cloth and a bowl of water.
Slowly, Shikamaru began to clean away the worst of the blood, starting with Neji's face. He was grateful that someone had at least closed his eyes. He didn't think he could take looking into them, all lifeless and unfocused. With his index finger, he traced along Neji's forehead, now blissfully free of the curse mark that had kept him trapped for so long. Shikamaru's breath caught and he wrestled down another sob.
"Why did you have to play the hero?" He asked, his voice raw. "Why do you always have to be so damn noble?"
But Neji doesn't answer.
Shikamaru moved further down to clean what he could on his upper body. In one of the pockets on Neji's vest, there's an odd bulge. Shikamaru opened it and rummaged around, until he found what Neji hid there. It was the good luck charm they found in the Nara forest. Clenching it in his fist tightly, Shikamaru fought to breathe steadily. He knew that the rest of the Hyuuga clan wouldn't understand what this meant and would just throw it away, a useless piece of junk. Shikamaru looked down at Neji and shook his head. That wouldn't happen.
"I'll keep it safe for you." He whispered.
A few years later..
Usually, your wedding day was not an occasion on which you would visit a dead person. But in the years following Neji's death, Shikamaru had marked each important event of his life with a visit to his grave. Today was no different. He sat down in front of the tombstone.
"So." Shikamaru started, rubbing his neck, "the big day has arrived. I'm officially getting hitched." He laughed nervously. "I wish my old man could've been here. It doesn't feel right, to take this step without him."
Shikamaru tilted his head and a soft smile spread on his face. He reached out his hand and traced Neji's name carved into the stone lovingly.
"And you.. If you were here, you'd probably spend more time preening for this than Temari does." Staring at the moss growing around the grave, he sighed.
"I dreamt about you last night. You visiting my grave doesn't matter, you said. I know that you remember me. I get what you mean. You're telling me to move on, and I will."
Shikamaru pushed himself up and took a few steps back. He could almost see Neji with his head cocked, an impatient look on his face. Get moving. Run along, Nara. It felt comforting.
"This is the last time I'll talk to you like this. But I'll remember, I promise."
A gentle breeze picked up and Shikamaru turned his face towards it for a moment. It felt like Neji's hand on his skin. Without looking back, Shikamaru left the memorial and walked towards his future.
Years later, during a shogi game with Shikadai, the boy suddenly asked: "Hey dad.. Why do you always wear that necklace?"
Shikamaru's hand automatically went to the piece of antler tied to a leather cord around his throat. He smiled secretively.
"To remember a friend."