As soon as he sets a foot back into the Lair, Ino and Mirai are on him. Shikamaru fully expects that if Chōji wasn't busy with the café, he would be crowding him as well. He knows them too well, it seems. He gives them a small smile, still shocked from the last words the Fleet Admiral said before leaving. He's having a hard time conciliating the image of the scared, scarred woman who came into their shop, and the hero they see on the promotional material of the Fire Forces to try and guilt people into enlisting. The Fire Forces are many things, but honest isn't one of them.
He sighs, feeling suddenly weary. He can't believe what just happened, but more than that, he feels... heartbroken. There's no other way for the deep ache anchored in his chest, the way he feels feverish with discomfort and compassion. Shikamaru points to his counter and Ino and Mirai follow behind, keeping quiet in a surprisingly perceptive way, for which he's incredibly grateful. It seems they, too, know him too well. They must be seeing how shaken he is, and worry, especially Mirai.
They've known him almost as long as Ino, the only reason for their shorter relationship coming from the fact that Mirai is younger, because he's been involved in their life since the day they were born. They might pretend otherwise, but they do worry about him, especially after what happened to their father.
But he’s tired, and as dearly as he loves Mirai, he’s already dreading having to calm their worry. The pang of guilt is easily drowned by the scope of what he learnt, and by the hours he spent emotionally caring for someone else. As soon as they reach it, Shikamaru leans on the counter, facing his friends. Ino gives him a cautious smile, more a question than a reassurance, to make sure he’s okay. He’s not even sure he is.
“What happened?” Mirai asks.
Ino nods. “I was going to make very crude jokes about your sex appeal and opportunities, but this doesn’t seem funny at all anymore.”
Shikamaru snorts in laughter, almost not surprised. “Did you recognise her? The woman?”
“Should I?” Mirai questions, wondering surprise on their face.
Ino frowns. “She’s definitely familiar. I feel like I’ve seen her on TV, or maybe in a movie. But I’m pretty sure I would remember her, no offence, she seems lovely but you don’t forget someone with those injuries.”
Shikamaru sighs, looking away and around the Lair, unseeing. “She’s Fleet Admiral Haruno Sakura.”
“You’re fucking with us,” Ino says, deadpan.
Mirai sucks in a chocked breath. “No, you’re right. I remember her! Before… before everything went wrong, Tō-san had meetings with his friends from the Army and she came a few times. I think she had a brother who was friends with Tō-san? Yeah, so even though she was Navy, she knew his unit.”
A brother? Shikamaru doesn’t remember reading anything about it. Maybe if she does come back, he’ll ask her about it. It’d make him feel so much better if he knew she had someone to take care of her and be with her most of the time.
“But… I remember seeing her face everywhere during the war, and in the bits at the movies they made us watch before every film. She doesn’t look anything like herself.”
“It’s a theory, but I read somewhere that intense stress can lighten your hair or even make it white. But it’s just as likely that she dyed it so she wouldn’t be recognized. Can you imagine being Fleet Admiral Haruno and going out for groceries?” Shikamaru bites his lips, the quick joke sobering him immediately. What a life she must lead. No wonder she’s petrified at the prospect of leaving her house, when everyone knows who she is. “And, you know, given what happened to her and her fleet, of course she wouldn’t look the same as she did in those propaganda short films. You can’t exactly slap makeup on the kind of injuries she suffers from.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Ino says, looking down. “Did she tell you why she came? Was she nice?”
“Well, you talked to her a bit, but yeah, she’s really kind. I think she was scared to come here, really scared. She thanked me for the vegetarian menu. She told me the smell of cooked meat brings her back to the war.”
“Oh man, she must have such a shit time out there. There are street vendors everywhere, just coming in from home I passed three selling skewers and stuff.”
Shikamaru makes a face. “Well, yeah, she told me coming here is the first time she’s come out of her house since the end of the war.”
Both his friends send him a dumbfounded look, Ino’s mouth slightly open as if to say something but nothing is coming out.
“That’s one hell of a compliment.” They all turn to look at Chōji, coming from his side of the Lair.
“Right?” Ino says, shaking her head in disbelief. “Damn, a war hero ate carrot cake in our shop. What the hell.”
Shikamaru chuckles, an edge of hysterical laughter in the wideness of his eyes and the curve of his mouth. Yeah, what the hell.
It wouldn’t be true to say Shikamaru has forgotten about her, but he’s not thinking about that afternoon she spent at the Lair as much as he did in the days following. Sometimes, he brings a slice of victoria cake to a starving student, and he’s reminded of her fragile smile and downward eyes. But it’s been weeks without a word, and he’s beginning to think that maybe she’s not going to come back, that maybe this was too much for her and she went back to the safety of her home like she did for the fourteen months following the war.
So of course, she comes back the day after. If he’d been keeping count, he’d have known that it’s been precisely three weeks since she first came into the Lair. He’s not though, and he’s struck speechless when he sees her walk inside their shop, the first days of autumn having chased away thoughts of sunflower dresses to replace them with tweed pants and a string straps top. Just like the first time he saw her, Shikamaru is humbled by her courage and defiance of the word, showing the stump of her shoulder without shame. The scar is starting to loose it’s redness to turn to the purple of healing. He knows, from his own, that they’ll keep the violet tint for over a year before finally blanching into the weird, translucent colour healed scars sport.
He feels a little less like a voyeur now, as she looks around, her face brightening up when she spots him where he’s sitting behind the counter. He offers her his most genuine smile, feeling the drowsiness that has been plaguing his bones since dawn slipping away like morning dew. It’s been a bad week, a shipment of Ino’s flowers coming in crushed, luckily covered by their insurance but resulting in a malus, his nightmares coming back with a vengeance without an explanation, ruining his nights and his rest. He’s been plagued with a crippling bout of anxiety for days now, making it hard to come to work or even come out of bed.
But somehow, just the sight of her ruined cheek and unseeing eye, her melted lips twisting in a grotesque manner, is enough to make him take a deep, calming breath. Maybe because he feels like he needs to be solid for her, a reliable support, and that means letting go of his own struggles to be there for her. Maybe because he feels like she’s suffered so much more than him that his problems are pebbles to the boulder she pushes to the top of a mountain only to see it tumble back down. He’s not sure, and frankly, he’s not exactly proud of it because those reasons feel awfully patronising and selfish, but he doesn’t feel like analysing himself right now. All he wants is to hear her out, to know how she’s been. To listen, maybe, if she feels like telling a bit of her story, about how she came to be Fleet Admiral Haruno, the Savior of the Mist Sea.
She’s walking a bit funny, he assumes because the prosthetic is giving her trouble today. Deciding he’ll spare her the probable pain, he walks up to her, smiling what he hopes is a perfectly reasonable smile but might actually be slightly giddy. He’s happy to see her, so sue him. It’s not every day you’re visited by a war hero. He’s about to open his mouth to invite her to take a seat, but she snatches the words right off the tip of his tongue when she speaks first, an excited twist to her voice.
“Good morning, Shikamaru,” she smiles, the happy curve of her lips pinching her burn scar into a gnarly sight that Shikamaru is ashamed of finding ugly.
“Hello, Fleet Admiral. It’s great to see you again, I hope you’re doing well.”
She makes a face. “If you really need the formality, I won’t stop you, but I’d rather your clients don’t know who I am, so would you terribly mind calling me Sakura?”
“Oh.” He tries to hide the surprise, and quite frankly, uncertainty, on his face. “Hum, yes, of course, if you want me to.”
“Great! I’m here to return the books and pick up new ones.”
Slightly reassured now that they’re talking about something he’s comfortable with, Shikamaru relaxes. “What are you looking for today? And, would you like me to bring them to you at a table like last time? My brother added a new desert to our menu two days ago, you should try it.”
“I will! Do you mind if I sit down before telling you about the books? My leg is bothering me.”
His suspicion confirmed, Shikamaru nods, starting for the curtain. “No worries, let’s go to his side. Do you know if you plan on buying books? I tend to have most of them both in the library and in the bookshop sections, but there are a few exceptions.”
“I don’t mind buying them if I have to. Oh, thank you,” she says when he silently offers to take her coat as she goes to sit at the table near the back, like she did last time. He goes to the hangers and leaves her coat there, hurrying back.
Shikaichi, his and Chōji’s cousin and new employee of the Lair, is already taking Sakura’s order. Now that they’re making profit, he’s been able to offer Mirai a raise and Chōji had asked for a new pair of hands. Up until then, Shikamaru had been the one to help him during morning rush, taking away from his own work at the bookshop. Now, Shikaichi handles all the table work while Chōji stays behind the counter, allowing for faster service. Their cousin just came out of the hospital after a bad accident that took away most of their hearing, which in turn forced them to stop working their job as a firefighter. They don’t have the money right now for implants, and as dearly as they love their job, they’re a liability for the fire department and the other firefighters, leaving Shikaichi unemployed and mildly depressed. So Shikamaru and Chōji offered them the job, hoping that being busy would help steer them away from a depression that scares the shit out of Shikamaru because it reminds him of Asuma’s fate.
Shikamaru smiles to his cousin as they leave the table, and comes to sit at Sakura’s side. From behind the counter, Chōji gives him a questioning look and Shikamaru nods, fine with his usual order of tea and carrot cake.
“Well, I’m listening! What can I do for you?”
Sakura pats her bag, dangling from the side of her chair, with her remaining hand. “I read all the books I got last time, and they helped, a lot.”
She smiles. “But a lot of them dug up all the shit I refused to think about for month and dumped them in my lap to deal with at a time I wasn’t prepared to do so in the slightest. As I told you last time, it was the first time I got out of my house since getting out of the hospital. You were all so nice to me, I can’t tell you how much it helped. But still, I was already shaken by my visit here, and the books didn’t help me settle down.”
She sighs, massaging her temple with her hand. Because he’s paying so much attention to her, he can see the twitch in her shoulder where her missing arm has left a big, gnarly scar, as if her instinct had been to raise her missing arm.
“Look at me, spilling my life story. Oh, thank you,” she says to Shikaichi as they put down an orange juice and a slice of victoria cake in front of Sakura, and Shikamaru’s food right after. “Well, anyway. I was in a bad place, and the simple idea of setting a foot outside again sent me into a spiral of anxiety attacks and paranoia high enough that I would have sworn Earther were stationed around my house and waiting for me to get out. I barely managed to force myself not to run back inside this morning. So I’m just looking for something to distract me. I never really read fiction before enlisting, so I don’t even know what I like. But I need something to keep me busy.”
Shikamaru is quiet for a second, humbled by the trust in her words, before nodding once. “Mission accepted, ma’am.” With Sakura’s laughter following him, he grins and goes to his shelves with an excited beat to his heart.
They don’t see her for a couple of days, but Shikamaru isn’t worried. Her visit brought an explanation and peace of mind, and he’s sure he’ll see her again. Instead, he focuses on the Lair, on giving Mirai more responsibilities now that they can afford to. He’s trying to spend some time with Hinata, who he doesn’t know very well, but her friendship with Ino is precious to his best friend, so he tries, for her. It doesn’t help that, in the last few months, he’s seen how things started to change, bit by bit. Stares lingering and touches more purposeful, smiles that held intimacy on top of affection. He would bet his books that nothing happened yet, but he’d also bet that it won’t take much longer. And for that, he wants to get to know Hinata. Not only is she potentially getting involved with his and his brother’s best friend, but he wants Ino to be happy knowing he’s making an effort to get to know her lady love.
Soon enough, though, he realises he doesn’t have to try for Ino, he genuinely enjoys Hinata’s quiet company and soft-spoken words, with a sharp mind she rarely allows herself to show but that he appreciates so much more for when he gets to see it. Shikamaru refuses to prod, because they don’t know each other well enough yet, but there’s something bugging him about Hinata that he can’t exactly pinpoint, something just slightly off about her appearance, or maybe her manners. She’s too stiff, sometimes, too quick to follow orders. She listens to Ino like her word is law, and the respect she shows both brothers is a hair too much. A lot of little things, details in the way she dresses, how even if her clothes are shades of pastel blues and purples, lilac scarf and white coat, they’re almost too… strict, for who she seems to be. Really, it’s nothing much, but just enough for his curiosity to be hooked, and finding her to be a genuinely interesting person to talk to only makes the whole thing more fascinating.
He’s sitting at Ino’s counter, helping Hinata with the baby’s breath she’s putting together for later. It’s a quiet day on his side, just a couple students from UK3 in a private booth with the archives they came here to study and Mirai cataloging their last batch of book donations next to the booth in case they need any help. He’s feeling pretty good, the anxiety from the last week finally put to rest after seeing Sakura and receiving some good news from their insurance who’s not going to penalize them about the ruined flower batch. Hinata is a lovely companion to spend the afternoon with, doing a mindless task to better focus on the wide range of topics they’ve taken to talking about. Not that Shikamaru thinks that his brother and his best friend aren’t smart people, but neither enjoys picking apart social issues like he does, and he’s happily surprised to have found a partner in Hinata. They’re actually discussing the recent student protests after the Fire administration’s announcement that they’ll be introducing a mandatory year of military training, without admitting that it’s to replenish the reservist troops after that disaster of a war.
It’s fair to say he’s reasonably distracted, especially once one of the students wanders out of their studying booth to stretch his legs while his friends keep working, and hears what they’re talking about. Apparently, he and his friend group have all been a part of the protests and he has some great opinions and first-hand insight on the situation that both Shikamaru and Hinata are privately delighted to discuss with him. With Mirai and Ino both doing just fine, they’re free to engross themselves in the conversation, forgetting about the flowers and, honestly, the rest of the world, until a familiar voice draws Shikamaru’s attention. Then what she just said registers, and he slowly turns to look at Hinata, who’s gone deathly pale and just as silent.
Shikamaru watches, frozen, as Hinata scrambles out of her seat, almost falling over in a haste completely inconsistent with her character. An obviously anxious expression on her face and a hand shaking visibly make themselves obvious as she stands at attention, saluting a disbelieving Sakura standing next to him.
Sakura awkwardly salutes back, obviously not used to doing the gesture with the wrong arm, but her eyes are still blown open in shock. Shikamaru wisely stays quiet, feeling like an intruder ; a position the student they were talking to clearly agrees with because he’s just as quiet and unmoving, probably hoping like Shikamaru that he won’t be noticed by either of the women.
“I thought… they told me you were dead.” The anguish in Sakura’s voice breaks his heart, but he doesn’t dare move to comfort her. It doesn’t feel like his place at all.
“Oh my god,” Hinata makes a horrified noise, both hands plastered over her mouth, looking nauseous. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. Please, I- I’m so sorry, they just took me away, I couldn’t say anything, I swear.”
Sakura takes a step back, wobbly on her prosthetic leg. “I can’t.” She looks like she’s going to be sick, green with an illness born from her mind crushed under the weight of the revelation. “I can’t, spirits, I’m gonna—” She stumbles and Shikamaru is there in an instant, throwing away hopes of staying out of this when he sees someone he’s not ashamed to care about in such anguish. He puts an arm around her waist to press his side against hers but he’s very careful not to touch her anywhere near her chest. Nested where her arm used to be, he slowly draws circles with his palm on her back, watching with a crushing sense of dread as the panic attack visibly settles into her lungs. With the space to breathe and bend in half if she needs to, Sakura fights against her own body, clawing her way through the panic until she can drag it back inside of her chest and slowly calm down.
Hinata’s face is ashen and Shikamaru fears for a second that she’s going to faint, but she simply stands there, at attention, looking so out of place he can barely look away. Sakura isn’t doing any better, staring at Hinata as well, her breath still uneven.
“What happened?” she asks, voice cracking.
“We were sinking,” Hinata answers quietly. “The hole in the broadside was so large we had no chance of sealing it back and despite the containment doors, the water flowing inside was too much and the ship was going down.” Sakura nods silently, he guesses that she knows that part already. “You went on with the Seventh Titan and the Jade Pearl and no one was answering the distress call, so we knew we were done for.”
Sakura makes a pained noise. “We couldn’t… there was no way to turn back. We saw you get hit but we didn’t know it was this bad. We were planning on going back to you as soon as the troops were on land, but…” But I lost two limbs and an eye. But Command ordered us not to. But we won the war. Shikamaru can hear all of that in Sakura’s silence.
“I know, Sir. There was nothing you could have done. They told us later that they purposefully blocked our distress signal so you wouldn’t come back for us and compromise the mission.”
Shikamaru gasps, unable to stop himself from speaking. “Spirits. No one knows about this! They managed to cover everything up.”
Hinata nods. “Why do you think no one knows that the Fleet Admiral is alive? Not even us, who served with her? They hid everything.”
“I need to sit down.”
Shikamaru hurries to bring his chair closer to her and watches worryingly as she takes a wobbly step and sits down.
“I hate them. Every single one of them,” she whispers, single eye lost in a way that makes it looks uncomfortably like her blind one.
“How did you get out?” Shikamaru asks, curious despite himself and getting the feeling that Sakura can’t find the strength to ask herself.
“The whole ship did sink, but I was manning the radar at the time, so I was at the top and that gave us a chance to put on the vests and take off most of our uniforms to not be weighted down. When the water came, we were already out of the wreck and trying to stay afloat.”
“There was a storm,” Sakura says softly, looking up at Hinata. “A bad one.”
“Yeah. The waves were too big. We lost too many men to the sea before the unthinkable happened.” Hinata looks up to the roof of the Lair, lost in the painful thoughts. “I heard someone shout. Shout for us. One minute we were alone between the waves, and the next, there was a destroyer sailing towards us, with people shouting for us from the ramps. It flew the Wave jack.”
“What?!” Sakura stares at Hinata with wide-blown eyes.
“We didn’t believe it either,” she says, nodding emphatically. “But they stopped next to us and told us to climb the ladder. They were- the crew mutinied and threw their captain overboard as they left Kiri’s port. They refused to fight alongside the Earthers, no matter that they had a grasp on the country already. So they defected, and when they saw our ship sink, they saved us. The captain- you’ve probably heard of him, ma’am, Captain Momochi Zabuza, he’s-”
“Kiri’s Prime Minister.” Sakura looks speechless.
“Yes. We stayed on board during your last attack. We watched the rest of the fleet attack the Earth troops, the Commander begged Momochi to takes us back, to let us help you, but he said there was nothing we could do. I know he was right, but at the time, it was- ma’am, you have to believe me, it was the hardest moment of my life. We were hanging to the ramp like a lifeline, the Commander was crying like I’ve never seen a man cry, and we watched Seventh Titan and Jade Pearl lead the fleet straight into victory. It was beautiful, Admiral, it was, but then-”
Shikamaru isn’t sure she knows she’s sobbing, the words barely getting out, but Sakura is hanging to her lips, waiting for each new word like a breath of fresh air, no matter that she lived this battle through, that she knows exactly what happened to the Fire Fleet.
“But then- it was awful, ma’am, I swear to the Spirits, I’ve never seen so many explosions. We were safe on our ship and you were being decimated. I can’t remember what happened next, really, because the Commander broke down so we went to him but that’s when the canon- the canon…” Hinata covers her mouth with her hand, a scream barely contained between her shaking fingers, the tears digging trenches into her pale, sickly cheeks. “I watched the Jade Pearl sink, and all I could think about was my cousin, he was a Lieutenant, you know? And he sailed on the Pearl, and I was watching it sink beneath the waves and the storm was getting worse. I think I blacked out, at one point, because the next thing I remember is the explosion on the Titan’s broadside, and Momochi taking the Commander out because he was hurting himself with how much he struggled against the rest of the crew. I think he lost it, ma’am, seeing you leave and your ship being destroyed, you know?” Hinata looks down at her open palms, resting on her knees, searching for something she doesn’t seem to find. “That’s how we made it out alive. I can’t believe- how could they keep your survival a secret?”
Sakura swallows hard. “Because they can capitalize on my death, to get people to enlist. A hero is worth much more than a veteran and now, I’m the face of a nation. But, can you imagine this face on the ads?” she says, pointing at her mangled mouth, burned cheek and melted nose, her milky eye unblinking. “You can’t make a hero out of that.”
Hinata sighs. “I’m really happy to know you’re alive, Admiral. You have no idea.”
Sakura smiles, her scars twisting horribly. “I know, Chief. I feel the same.”
She’s back a few days later. Shikamaru is happy to see her, he really is, but he’s worried. Hinata and her had a long chat after the heartbreaking talk at the counter, and he let them be. It was their time to heal and talk. He’s glad that she’s back so soon, but as soon as she set foot into the shop, he felt the now familiar knot of worry take hold of his stomach. Sakura is pale, more than usual. She’s sweating, but it’s barely fifteen degrees out and the wind is sharp. On her third step inside, she wavers, as if dizzy. He finishes to ring a couple of teachers from UK2 who are discussing the ongoing protests evenly shared between the three universities. Shikamaru listens carefully, but silently. It worries him too, the escalating violence on the part of the law, and the students’ stubborn stance (which he completely agrees with, but the last thing he wants is to see this turn into a bloodbath). Once the teachers are gone, he joins Sakura at a table next to a bookshelf.
“Hello, Shikamaru,” she smiles, faint and quiet.
“Is everything alright? You don’t look good.”
She sighs, the weak smile dropping quickly. “It’s the weather. It’s going to rain in a couple of hours, I can tell. When it’s humid like that, everything hurt and it feels like someone is slowly breaking all of my joints with a vice. Fun times,” she laughs emptily.
Before he can think to stop himself, Shikamaru raises a hand and lays it on her shoulder, right above her stump. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve to hurt like this.”
Sakura becomes silent, and looks up, her eyes searching his face. “Shikamaru…” Her hand comes up to stay on his and she squeezes it with a heartbreaking smile and unshed tears in her eyes. “Thank you so much for saying that. I don’t think anyone ever told me something like this.”
He smiles as genuinely as he can, his eyes crinkling slightly. “Stay put. I’m sure my brother has something that’ll make you feel better.”
As he leaves for Chōji’s third of the Lair, he stops by Mirai’s side where they’re helping a student find an archived journal.
“Mi-chan? Can you bring Sakura something to read, something distracting? Someone brought us Ewilan’s Quest last week and I’m pretty sure we’ve got at least the first three issues. If not, any other comic, or maybe a poetry book with a light tone? I trust you, just get her something that will help her stay out of her own head.”
Mirai nods once, biting their lip in thought as they turn back to the student. Shikamaru walks up to Chōji’s counter and signs to his cousin to get their attention. Shikaichi tells him his brother is in the kitchen, so Shikamaru doesn’t waste a second and ducks behind the counter, calling out Chōji’s name.
“Something wrong?” his brother asks immediately, surprised to find him in the kitchen.
“Do you remember that tea you made Ino when she got sciatica? Do you have everything to make it here?”
Chōji’s brows furrow. “I… think so, yeah. Why? Did you hurt yourself?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry, but the Fleet Admiral came in and she’s hurting really bad, so I was hoping to bring some to her.”
His brother’s face lights up. “Oh, that’s nice! It’s a good idea, but I don’t think it’d be quite right for her, it’s not the same kind of pain.” Shikamaru tries not to show his disappointment, but Chōji keeps talking. “Give me five minutes to finish what I’m doing and I’ll mix her a cup that should help her more, okay?”
Shikamaru smiles wide, clapping his brother on the back. “Thanks, I owe you.”
Chōji laughs, joyful and genuine. “Shika, don’t be stupid. This is Fleet Admiral Haruno, in our little shop, the woman who ended the damn war. Brother, we owe her.”
Choking up on emotions he’s not ready to pull apart yet, Shikamaru nods, lips pressed together in a hard line, and claps Chōji on the shoulder. He leaves the kitchen quickly, stopping by Shikaichi’s side to ask for a hot chocolate and a millefeuilles. When he gets back to Sakura’s table, she’s engrossed into the first issue of The Shadowwalkers’ Oath so he quietly sits down with the food, waiting for her queue. She seems to just finish her page before putting the comic next to her elbow. She doesn’t look any better than when she first came in ; he tries not to stare too much, but he knows he’s not hiding his feelings well, worrying his bottom lip.
He used to be a much more level-headed person, easily amused and never rising to the bait. Asuma’s death changed a lot of things, in all their lives, and changed them all a lot as well. He’s plagued by an anxiety he doesn’t know how to control, not enough time to see his therapist regularly. He fears, plainly, just fears without being able to pinpoint what chokes him up at night, what wakes him up before he’s rested. Maybe that’s why he feels such kinship to the war hero sitting in front of him. But no matter what, the most important thing to him is that she doesn’t suffer. He’s had enough of it, having lived through a war, having seen his family and friends suffer through it all just like he did. He doesn’t have the words to explain what he feels when he sees Sakura smile her twisted, scarred smiles at him, but he wants to keep feeling that, and right now, Sakura isn’t smiling.
Before either of them can say anything, Shikaichi stops by their table and sets down a one-person teapot with its matching cup in front of Sakura. With an exhausted tilt to her appreciative nod, the woman signs a few sentences to his cousin, fast and precise. Shikamaru is a genius, but he’s only started learning sign language a few days ago to help Shikaichi and his level, holding basic conversation, is more than respectable for a three-day learner ; genius or not, he’s leagues behind what Sakura is displaying. When she sees that Shikaichi struggles to answer, she makes a face.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were fluent, and I was using shortcuts anyway because of this… situation,” she says, gesturing to her empty left side with her remaining hand. “I don’t type fast enough, would you mind telling them that I can teach them if they want?”
Shikamaru nods, quickly typing her words on his phone before showing it to Shikaichi. Their grateful, enthusiastic nod to Sakura puts an, albeit small, smile on her face. “I’ll give my phone number to Shikamaru and he can pass it to you.”
She waits for Shikamaru to relay that to his cousin, then signs a quick goodbye to Shikaichi as they leave.
“What is that?”
Shikamaru blushes slightly, trying to appear more confident than he actually feels. “I asked Chōji if he could blend you an herbal tea for your pain. He made some for Ino when she got sciatica a year ago and it really helped. He told me he modified it for you.”
Sakura takes a sharp breath, her eyes shining suddenly. “That’s- oh, Shikamaru, that’s lovely of you.”
“Listen, please don’t think that I want you to leave, but… I can easily pack all of that for you and get the books you came here for, and you can go home and rest. I think it’s incredibly brave of you to try and come out more, but it’s not worth it if this is the kind of pain you’re putting yourself through.”
Sakura sighs quietly, sounding small and defeated. “You’re right. I told myself I had to, but I feel like shit and I want to go home.”
“Then let me put the tea in a travel cup and get the books for you, okay?”
“Well…” Shikamaru is suddenly subjected to a sight he never expected to ever see. Sakura looks down, eyelashes fluttering, and the prettiest blush he’s ever seen on her pale cheeks. He breathes sharply, trying his hardest to calm the wild beatings of his poor heart. Without realizing, he looks up and sees Ino watching them from her counter, the most delighted smile on her face. He quickly ducks his face, refusing to think about what just happened, just in time for Sakura to look up as she continues: “I didn’t actually come here for a book. I- well, that is, I, hum. I wanted to see you,” she finishes quickly, her cheeks burning.
Shikamaru is pretty sure he dies on the spot, right there, from the best kind of heart attacks. And he doesn’t even care.
A week passes by, too quickly for him to notice. The protests are getting worse and they’ve had to shelter students who were running away from the cops and the ramping up violence in the street. He’s closing the Lair for the night, mentally sorting through the packages their received today and the books he’ll be putting away tomorrow, so when a hand taps his shoulder, he jumps in surprise with a frightened cry. The stress and tension of the day weighting down on his thoughts are enough for him to expect the worse, but when he turns around, he’s faced with Sakura’s smiling face. His heart does something in his chest that leaves him half-panting, taking in the sight of her in the same sunflower dress she wore the first time he saw her, but this time paired with a cardigan to ward off the cooling weather.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she giggles, the prettiest goddamn sight Shikamaru has seen all day.
“It’s alright. What are you doing out this late?” He’s genuinely curious, there isn’t much to do at night in the university district if you’re not a student.
“I decided to go to a bar. Yes, I know,” she sighs when she sees Shikamaru’s blinking eyes and parted lips. “Not my greatest idea, but I was lonely and I could hear the cheers from my window. I didn’t last very long, trust me,” she laughs self-depreciatingly. “Turns out, I don’t have as thick a skin as I had during the war. It took two drunk idiots laughing at my scars for me to turn heels and go straight back home. I just happened to saw you on my way back and I can’t begin to tell you how welcomed a sight you are.”
Shikamaru splutters, so many things he wants to say at once that he can’t settle on one, outrage and disgust warring with anger and concern all in one confusing, messy package. What comes out in the end is a string of increasingly colourful curses as he grabs Sakura’s shoulders and draws her in for a hug.
“Don’t ever listen to what they’re saying.” He puts some distance between them and, as gently as he can, he cups her face with his hands. They’re of height, though Sakura is much more broad and strong than he is, so he looks straight into her mismatched eyes, the milky one shaking so slightly he can only see it this close. With the kindest smile he’s capable of, he brushes his thumbs against her cheeks, over the rough skin and scar tissue, the gnarly lips and melted nose, and doesn’t care that his voice breaks when he whispers, “You’re beautiful, Sakura.”
He’s so close to her that he sees the exact moment her mouth twitches, her forehead creases, and just as her eyes crinkle, the first tear beads on her lower lashes. Without a word, he draws her back in, wrapping his arms around her strong body when her frame begins to shake with violent sobs. He rocks her slightly, almost shaking himself with the rage and the powerlessness he feels. I’ll protect you, he tells her in the privacy of his mind. I will.
All morning, Shikamaru has been sleeping standing, last night having brought its collection of nightmares and anxiety-inducing worries and what-ifs. He walked Sakura home, not as surprised as he would have expected to realize she lives barely a street away from the Lair. It makes sense, given her first visit. But that was almost a week ago, and he still can’t sleep properly, kept awake by a dread he can’t even explain to himself, let alone control. He’s exhausted. Sleep shunned him most of the night, and now he’s zombie-walking through the morning shift, thankful in a guilty way that most of their usual student clients are outside marching in the latest protest against the government.
Eyes half-shut, he’s mechanically taping some protective covers to a batch of their most fragile books, when he hears Ino calling for him in a shaky voice. He looks up, already tired by whatever it is that she wants, but the sight in front of him slaps in the face so hard it wakes him up on the spot. His mouth opens without his control, seeing from the corner of his eye that Ino is frozen on the spot as well. Later, he’ll thank the Spirits for Mirai and Hinata who react instantly.
“Sir, welcome back!” Hinata says, coming to stand in front of Sakura who’s in full ceremonial uniform, and salutes promptly. It’ll never stop being strange to see her do that in her fluffy pastel clothes.
Mirai smiles to a tall man next to Sakura. “Commander Haruno, hello! Do you remember me?”
Shaking himself back to life, Shikamaru steps out from behind his counter. In the entrance of their little shop are eleven men and women in Fire dress blues and uniforms, looking around in wonder and exchanging muted words of praise that make him warm inside instantly. He focuses on Mirai and the man they greeted. He looks remarkably like Sakura, down to the sharp edge of his jaw and the slightly curved tip of his nose. Even the sprinkle of freckles on both their faces seems to match. By his side is an enormous white dog, fluffy enough to be candy floss. He’s wearing a blue vest marking him as a service dog, so Shikamaru kills a merciful death the want to pet him before it can fully form.
The man turns towards Mirai, his hand knotting in the dog’s hair almost unconsciously.
“I- oh, yeah, I do! You’re Sarutobi’s kid, aren’t you?” At Mirai’s nod, the man grins widely. “Glad you remember me, you weren’t so big last time I saw you. And it’s Captain, now!” he laughs, elbowing Sakura in the side.
Her laughter is a balm to his heart, but the man’s move also highlights a pretty big difference in the woman. Without realizing, he’s stepped forward, soon standing in front of her. His eyes find hers and she gives him that smile he loves so much. She offers him a little wave, uncertain and a bit slow. With her new arm. He’s blown away, his heart beating in joy, his happiness for her almost chocking him. He gives her his widest smile and slowly opens his arms. Without missing a beat, she throws herself into the offered hug, her two arms closing around his chest. He laughs, eyes wet and feeling lighter than he has in weeks.
“Hello, Fleet Admiral,” he whispers into the fabric of her uniform, his nose right next to her shoulder board. She giggles, his favourite sound, and breaks away from the hug.
“Hello, Shikamaru. I brought some friends to celebrate, it’s a special day for us.”
He laughs. “I can see that.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” the man next to her says, his eyes on Shikamaru but not unkind.
Hinata steps forward, in the man’s line of sight, and he loses his smile in the blink of an eye.
“Captain, uh?” she says, a bit unsure, her eyes searching the man’s face.
“Hinata,” he whispers.
Her eyes are filled with tears. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” she says, her voice cracking. “I’m so glad.”
Silently, there are two other men walking up from the group behind until they’re standing next to who Shikamaru assumes is Sakura’s brother. “Hey, Chief,” one of them says, and that’s when Shikamaru notices just how much he looks like Hinata. His hair in a braid is about the only thing that would differentiate them if it wasn’t for their clothes.
He jumps a little when he feels a cold hand slip into his. He looks down, seeing the shiny metal and soft plastic merged together, and how it fits so well into his palm. Finding Sakura’s eyes and her smile at the same time, he squeezes her hand once, happy to see her relax a little. Her moving has attracted the group’s attention, and she clears her throat.
“Shikamaru, this is Captain Haruno Kiba, my brother. He was the Commander leading the crew Hinata was a part of.” Shikamaru nods, remembering the man from Hinata’s story who had a breakdown at witnessing the systematic destruction of the fleet and ship his sister had been on. He understands the PTSD dog and his physical closeness to Sakura, and without knowing the man, he already respects him immensely. Shikamaru offers him a genuine smile, and he’s happy to see the man return it easily with a nod.
“The two softies crying all over Hinata are Lieutenant Hyūga Neji and Commander Aburame Shino.” The joke seems to have broken the tension and both men snort in laughter, Hinata curling herself in between the two of them, her head resting on the Commander’s shoulder.
“And the rest of those morons are my squad,” she says, a feral grin on her face he’s never seen before and that instantly press all of his buttons simultaneously until he’s left blushing and ignoring intensely the sly look Ino is sending his way.
The men and women walk forward, their eyes not leaving Sakura for a second, a pride and confidence in their posture just at the sight of her, who led them into battle and victory. He recognizes a few of them from the propaganda campaigns, but they all look a bit worse for wear, most of them scarred in some way, two of them even sporting prosthetics.
“This is Lieutenant-Commander Uzumaki Naruto and Lieutenant Uchiha Sasuke. The prettiest of us all, Admiral Haruno Tenten,” she says, pointing respectively to a blond man grinning so wide Shikamaru is convinced he’s about to pop his jaw, a serious-looking man with a patch covering his left eye, and a woman who is, indeed, really pretty, and laughing her ass off.
He’s almost sure he gets the joke, because she’s just as scarred as Sakura, but he’s far from socially adept enough to laugh along with the rest of the squad. If he was a betting man, he’d say that Tenten was probably in the same room as Sakura when the broadside explosion that took down the Seventh Titan happened, because they sport very similar-looking burns and Tenten is missing her forearm and her ear on her left side.
“Is she your sister as well?” he asks, curious and hoping really hard that this isn’t a sensitive subject.
“Not biological, my clan adopted her because she wanted to join the Navy and they wouldn’t let her without the backing of a clan.” Shikamaru hums in understanding. After Asuma died, his own clan adopted Mirai and their mother because his teacher had been the only source of income in the house and they couldn’t afford to live in Konoha without him in the picture. It used to be common practice, but since the end of the war and the pathetic number of people enlisting in either the Fire forces or the shinobi forces, the government has considerably brought down the requirements to join. Not that it’s working, seeing from the number of protests following the draft of the new law for the mandatory service.
Not without emotion, Sakura continues, pointing to the only older-looking officer in their group, a tall, broad-shouldered woman who looks nothing like Sakura, yet shares the same unmistakable strength and unshakable will. “This is my instructor, Admiral Senju Tsunade.” Shikamaru nods, recognizing her from the posters and the ads. She looks incredibly intimidating, but he forces himself to smile a little, knowing she probably means a lot to Sakura.
“And finally, Commander Hyūga Lee, Major Uzumaki Karin and Lieutenant-Commander Uchiha Sai.”
Shikamaru raises an eyebrow. “I’m sensing a pattern…”
Kiba laughs. “Yeah, that’s the thing when you’re in the same squads. Either you’re already family, or you become family, one way or another. Lee and Neji got married after the war, we’re still not sure Neji hasn’t drugged him to get him to say yes, he’s so out of Lee’s league it’s not even funny anymore.” Both men’s echoing “Hey!” have the two squads laughing and even the Lair’s employees joining in. Shikamaru turns a little when he hears footsteps, smiling softly at his brother and cousin.
“Karin is my cousin and Sasuke adopted Sai into his clan!” the blond man explains, speaking for the first time, his smile not dimming one bit.
Shikamaru takes in all those important people, those people who ended the war and paid the price with their body and mind. Sakura squeezes his hand, facing her squad, her family, with a confidence he hasn’t seen in her yet. It feels so good to see her like this.
“Everyone, they’re the people who welcomed me here with a kindness I never could have expected, without even knowing who I was. Over there is Ino, she’s a florist, and you know Hinata. Mirai, who works at the bookshop. With the apron is Shikaichi, they work with Choji in the bakery and teashop. And-” she turns to look at him, eyes shimmering in the sunlight with unshed tears. “And this is Shikamaru,” she says quietly, with so much emotion in her voice that he has to look down, feeling insecure.
“Thank you,” he hears before looking up, a hand landing on his shoulder. Faced with Sakura’s brother, he can only give a shaky nod. “Thank you so much for helping my sister, Shikamaru. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“Well, if you want to follow me, you can sit down on the bakery side and I can bring you the menu. How does that sound?” Chōji says, gesturing to Shikaichi to follow him. The soldiers all nod in agreement, walking behind Shikamaru’s family. He watches as Ino goes up to the front door and turns the sign to display the “We’re closed!” side before drawing the curtains. When she turns around, he smiles at her, and she winks, taking Hinata’s hand with a brief kiss to her cheek that has Shikamaru blink in surprise as he watches them follow the group, Mirai in tow.
Suddenly, he’s alone with Sakura, in the quiet of the shop, the smell of flowers and books all around them.
“Hi,” he says dumbly, looking everywhere but her face. She giggles softly, tugging on his hand to have him look at her.
“Hi, Shikamaru,” she replies, glowing like stained glass with the sun hitting the back of her head. She looks incredible in her dress blues, pink hair tied in a bun, scars on display in defiance of the world’s harshness. “I’m happy to be here,” she sighs happily.
“I’m always glad when you’re here,” he blurts out.
She blushes crimson but still ducks forward to kiss him on the nose in the move surest to have him match her in blush intensity. “You’re the best thing that ever walked into our shop,” he says truthfully.
“Do you know what today is?” He shakes his head. She looks down, briefly, before looking him in the eyes. “It’s been a year since I was released from the hospital.”
“And now you’ve got your arm back, too,” he smiles.
“I do,” she grins. “Do you want to join the others?”
“Let’s go,” he says, tugging her forward. Just before they duck behind the curtain, Sakura stops him with her prosthetic hand still in his. He tilts his head in question, patient.
“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, period” she whispers. Then she steps forward and she drops his hand only to curl her new fingers behind his neck to draw him into a gentle kiss.
Shikamaru sighs in happiness against her lips and wraps his arms around her, closing his eyes.
She did come back, after all. And maybe it’s silly, but he’d like to think he protected her from the world, just a little bit.
Years later, and Sakura will still whisper into his ear, with her mangled lips and melted nose and milky eye stuck on him—