|Sky on Fire: Walk Through Shadow
Author: Killaurey PM
AU Sidestory to Slow Burn. Shikamaru centric While Ino is off in Kumogakure for the Chuunin Exams, Shikamaru's nightmares worsen and his control over his shadow unravels. Getting it together again means facing his worst enemy—himself.Rated: Fiction T - English - Shikamaru N. - Chapters: 8 - Words: 51,491 - Reviews: 41 - Favs: 30 - Follows: 31 - Updated: 08-11-11 - Published: 12-03-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5555701
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Title: Walk Through Shadow
Chapter: 08 Sadako
Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. It's Kishimoto's and I just play with it. AU immediately after the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Part 8 of 8! Unbeta'd. Thanks so much to all who read, review, and lurk!
Notes: This is a side story to Slow Burn. It's not absolutely necessary to read Slow Burn, but it would probably help explain the backstory!
[Shikamaru centric] While Ino is off in Kumogakure for the Chuunin Exams, Shikamaru's nightmares worsen and his control over his shadow unravels. Getting it together again means facing his worst enemy—himself.
The familiar sight of his bedroom ceiling greeted him when he opened his eyes. Shikamaru blinked up at it and wondered how he'd gotten to his room when he'd been… elsewhere. He pushed himself up on his elbows, feeling achy and stiff but otherwise alright, and looked around, scratching at his nightshirt.
Shikamaru didn't bother puzzling over who'd gotten him out of the clothing he'd been wearing-of all the mysteries that was the least important-and tried to grasp at some memory that would explain how he'd wound up here. He remembered walking from his shadow and then… nothing.
He flopped back down and frowned, his eyebrows drawing together. The door cracked open and he turned his head to see who it was.
His father stepped into the room, his face pinched and weary, and with a jolt Shikamaru realized that he'd worried his father badly. How long had he been gone? Gone where his father couldn't follow. Shikaku was not clingy, that was his mother's domain, but Shikamaru had always known his father cared, deeply, for him.
"I'm fine," Shikamaru said quickly, trying to reassure his father because his father wasn't supposed to look like that over him. He levered himself up carefully. "Nothing wrong with me at all."
Shikaku looked as if he didn't buy that as he sat on the edge of the bed. Shikamaru sighed a little as his father's arm came around behind him, offering additional support. "You've been out for three days," Shikaku said gravely, "and before that, gone a week. Your mother is frantic."
Looking at his father, Shikamaru thought that it wasn't just his mother who'd been badly worried. "Ten days?" his voice cracked a little. It had felt like hours to him, in the shadow. He leaned a little more solidly against his father and looked up. "How did I get here?"
Aunt Sadako had told him that only they could see the temple. That only one in each generation could. He paused that thought. There'd been the woman and bothof her sons in the history his shadow had shown him-had Aunt Sadako had been wrong about the one per generation thing? When had that started? He shook his head. That wasn't important right now.
"Sadako brought you," Shikaku said, his face shuttered. "And then told us she couldn't stay."
There was more than just his condition that was bothering his father, Shikamaru realized. He wondered what was wrong with Aunt Sadako. He wondered how much his father had argued with her about leaving. She'd won, clearly, but looking at his father he thought it had been a bitter pill for Shikaku to swallow.
"I'm fine," he said carefully, rather than stick his nose into problems that weren't his own. Shikamaru tried a smile. "Just a little stiff, that's all. I'll see if I can track her down after I shower, if you want?" She had to be at the temple, Shikamaru thought. Where else would she go where no one would be able to find her? The bigger question was why had she gone.
From the way his father frowned, Shikamaru knew that his father had looked for her, and that he didn't like that only his son had a chance at finding her. Shikaku's voice was low and steady. "What are your odds of finding her?"
Shikamaru shrugged and looked away. "Why is it so hard to believe that I might be able to?"
His father's arms tightened around his shoulders. Shikaku was silent for a long time, long enough that Shikamaru found himself almost dozing, like his body was determined to make a liar out of him. "No one has been able to find her," Shikaku said quietly, finally.
Shikamaru forced his eyes open as his attention sharpened. "What's that supposed to mean? I've been finding her, haven't I?"
Shikaku's eyes held something… brittle, Shikamaru realized, surprised. "Sadako-"
"Shikaku," Aunt Sadako said chidingly from the doorway. "Telling secrets that aren't yours? You always were the gossip of the family."
Shikamaru peered around his father to see his aunt, looking lively. Her pale green eyes flickered to him and she smiled at him before turning a stare back on his father. "And you really should know by now that gossips never get the story just right."
"Sadako," his father said, his voice quiet. "This isn't the time for your games. He should be told-"
Sadako hooked her fingers in her belt. "You still can't tell it," she said, her eyes direct and her voice flat. "It stopped being your story to tell years ago." Her grin made her look fey. "There's been a couple of sequels since then."
Shikaku just sighed.
"Look," Aunt Sadako said in a softer voice, "this time I really do know what I'm doing."
"That's," he felt his father take a long deep breath before continuing on. "That's what you said last time, Sadako."
"Yes, well…" Aunt Sadako shrugged. "I wasn't wrong back then, Shikaku. I just wasn't… we all made mistakes, Shikaku."
"Some mistakes are more easily forgiven than others."
Shikamaru had to strain to hear his father, so quietly was he speaking. The self-loathing in his father's voice startled him badly.
"True," Aunt Sadako replied easily. "But Shikaku, there's nothing to forgive. Not in this. Not in that."
His father flinched as if struck and looked away sharply.
Aunt Sadako leaned against the door, her eyes unreadable. "I mean it," she said, "that there's nothing to forgive."
"Stop it," Shikaku said. "Sadako, there is. I…"
"Enough." Aunt Sadako nodded towards him. "You forget, your son is in the room."
From the way Shikaku's arm tightened around his shoulders, Shikamaru wasn't so certain that his dad had forgotten. But then, he thought, with a glance at Aunt Sadako, maybe she knew that and was being gracious about it.
What didn't she want his father to tell him? Curiosity gnawed at his insides.
"Shikamaru," his aunt said, "can you walk?"
"I haven't tried yet," he admitted, mentally tallying up how tired and stiff he was in order to give a more accurate answer. "Probably." He'd felt worse after training.
"Get cleaned up," she told him. "And we'll go for a walk." Aunt Sadako's eyes lifted to rest on his father. "Is that acceptable, Shikaku?"
"Oh alright," Aunt Sadako said, her eyes holding the seriousness her voice did not. "How about you come later and you and I will talk then, while Shikamaru rests?"
Shikamaru thought that was pretty high-handed of her but from the vise-like grip across his shoulders and the unrelenting tension that sang through his father's body… and the way that Shikaku's eyes never left his sister… maybe, Shikamaru thought, maybe he could stand Aunt Sadako being a little high-handed. Just this once.
"Alright," Shikaku said, after what seemed an age. "I'll come after."
The walk with Aunt Sadako through town was both familiar and not. He kept his hands hanging loosely at his side while Aunt Sadako chattered on about everything and anything as long as it wasn't important.
Which sort of reminded him of Ino, he thought, amused as he paced alongside his aunt. Maybe he'd introduce them, when Ino came back.
Shikamaru rather thought that he could make a few guesses on what she had to tell him. Between his shadow and his father… but he'd wait, until they were at the temple, to ask.
He could be a little more patient and it harmed no one and nothing to let her go on about inconsequential matters for the moment. He wondered if that was something like what his father thought, day in and day out, during the business of running a clan.
Perhaps the things that were annoying weren't so annoying when the other option was not having them at all. He filed that thought away to look at later.
Eventually he slumped on the temple steps and wiped at the sweat on his brow. Shikamaru surveyed the ground in front of him, breathing deeply. The grass was really green.
"Aunt Sadako?" he said. "Was there really a need to drag me all the way out here? And how is Dad going to find us?"
She sat down beside him, a smile on her lips when he glanced over at her. "What is it? Tired already?"
Shikamaru grunted. "You're a harsh taskmaster," he said, because it would please her. "Making me walk all that way. You know I'm tired."
Aunt Sadako leaned forward, her long hair falling past her knees to brush against the steps. "My," she said, "a compliment and an admission of weakness all in one? Are you feeling alright?"
A smirk curled his lips. "Never better," he replied. If he ignored the way his body felt at being forced to move after days of immobility, he felt-calmer, more stable. There was no question that he'd be off active duty for a while still, but it was getting better, for the first time in months.
"That is good," she told him, a smile touching her eyes. She leaned back and he watched her fidget for a moment before she looked away from him. "I guess I should start somewhere," Aunt Sadako said slowly. "But, I confess, I'm not quite sure how."
"You and Dad," he said, before he could think better of it. Besides, this was what they'd come out for anyway. "What's the problem there? He's been really… " Shikamaru fumbled for a way to put it. "Off. About you."
She sighed and he leaned against her knees. "That's not a very pleasant topic," she said finally. "And it's not really something I like to talk about, boy."
He closed his eyes as her fingers worked their way into his hair. "I know," he replied quietly. "But that's what you told Dad you'd tell me, isn't it?"
"And running away from an unpleasant topic never helped anyone," she sighed. "I learnt that lesson, same as you."
"Does everyone's shadow teach the same lesson?" he asked, opening his eyes.
She shook her head. "I misspoke," Aunt Sadako said, "my shadow did not teach me that lesson, but I did learn it. It's something most people do, eventually." She sighed. "I digress, which is unfair to you."
"Maybe," he suggested, "you could start at the beginning?"
A hint of amusement touched her lips. "Is there ever a clean place to say that's where the beginning is? I could tell you how your father's first team was killed and the rest of his second team were several years his junior and how together, they made their teamwork famous. I could tell you the first time your mother noticed your father and the fights they used to have. I could tell you the fights I used to have with your father…"
"Maybe you should talk about you," he said quietly, trying to adsorb the fact that the team his father was famous for hadn't been his original team- he'd never even realized that his dad, Ino's dad, and Chouji's dad weren't all the same age. It was with a pang that he chose to ask about her story instead of his dad's.
She smoothed her fingers through his hair. "I am four years younger than your father," Aunt Sadako told him. "When we were children, he never let me forget it and I hated that. I wanted to be able to do everything he could do and I wanted to be as respected as he was. Even as a Genin, people listened to him when he spoke. I could never get people to listen to me that way... then the war came and he was out on the front lines while I was stuck in the Academy."
Her gaze had gone dreamy, Shikamaru realized. As if she was looking back on old memories and finding comfort in the way things had been, once upon a time.
"Nara are known for their intelligence," she murmured, combing her fingers through his hair. He didn't object, even when she worked the elastic free. "Not for their work ethic. But being stuck at home while my big brother was fighting for his life, for his home, for everything Konoha stands for… it drove me. I graduated early. I was nine when the war started. I was ten when I graduated. I walked through my shadow on my tenth birthday."
Her fingers caught in his hair and he winced as she spent a moment working them free. "The war changed everyone, even those left behind. Out of my class, a third of us graduated that year. The rest followed within the next six months. I was so happy when my team was sent out into the warzone. We couldn't stand each other and the whole way there we argued but we were all similar in one way- we all wanted to help end the war. We all wanted to fight. Your father was so angry when my team showed up."
"Why?" he asked, when it became clear that she needed a prompting to continue on.
"The outpost we'd been sent to… Shikaku was nominally in command. I don't think that anyone ever formally appointed him," she mused, "but he was. That's just how he works. My sensei and he fought-he didn't want us around. My teammates blamed me and I blamed Shikaku for it. My sensei won the argument: we could stay."
He tried to imagine his father losing a fight and couldn't. Shikamaru believed that it had happened but couldn't see how…
"We spent three years out in the field," she said, ignoring his inquiring glance to elaborate on the argument his father had lost. "During that time, Shikaku's first team died in an ambush and he was reassigned to a different team who'd lost a member. They clicked. Anyone could see it. As for my team… we managed. Like most people there, we managed well enough to keep ourselves alive, to learn. I was promoted to Chuunin, then my teammates-field promotions were common then, not the standardized testing you've got now. For six months your father and I held the same rank and I was pleased."
"He wasn't," Shikamaru said flatly. He could imagine that.
"No," Aunt Sadako agreed. "He wasn't. He was still my senior, but he couldn't send my team on missions suitable only for Genin. We were too skilled. Then he made Jounin and the war worsened… there weren't enough Jounin to go around. More and more often he was forced to make the decision to send Chuunin on Jounin-level missions and pray they'd survive. Eventually, he had to send my team out on a mission we weren't qualified for."
Her smile was crooked as she looked down at him. "He'd have gone himself," Aunt Sadako said, "he was that over-protective of me. But he had a different mission. There was no other team available to take the mission he was forced to give me and no time to see if another team would become available. I don't think he'd even had a chance to do more than scan the scroll… "
She shook her head. "It was orders to blow up an enemy base. Nearly two hundred of the enemy's forces were stationed there. To this day, I have no idea how our Intel discovered it-or how the base had managed to go undetected for so long."
"What did the scroll say?" he asked, knowing it had to have been bad.
"The scroll told us that the mission took priority over our lives. If we could take out that base, it would be a major blow to the enemy. We needed a major victory by that point. Morale was down. Shikaku offered us the chance to turn down the mission once we'd read the scroll. I think, now, that he was worried by the way we'd gone quiet-my team never was, you see-and was wondering what he'd given us as a job. Back then, I thought only that he didn't believe we could handle it."
"We did." There was no mistaking the pride in her voice. "Three Chuunin took out that base, without backup, with only thirty-six hours to plan and more than half of that time being needed for reaching the location. We did it." Her voice dropped. "But it cost us, Shikamaru. We were able to get in and set up the bombs. We weren't able to get out. All three of us knew what the scroll said and… it wasn't even a decision. We blew the base up… and…"
Shikamaru watched her and wondered if she realized just how sad her eyes looked. "You died," he said quietly, startled when she brushed tears off his cheeks. He hadn't even known he'd been crying. "And then…"
"I woke up," she said bitterly. "Alone, in a forgotten temple, and nothing more than a shadow. Sadako died in that base. Her shadow… I… didn't."
He remembered the way his ancestor, Sachiko, had stood watching as her body burned. He remembered his shadow telling him that it would outlive him. He realized that he had no idea how that would feel or what Aunt Sadako had gone through.
"I was so angry," she whispered. "I was still around and yet I could do nothing. No one could hear me outside of the temple and slowly, people started to forget me. The war went on without me. I had nothing, could do nothing, but rage."
She sighed. "It was a long time before I could learn anything else," she said, "and by the time I was less consumed… the war had ended. All they found of me was my dog tags. Your father wears them still-he found out, later, what the mission had been. He's never forgiven himself."
Shikamaru understood better now the conversation between his aunt and his father. "I don't think," he said, "that I would either. He should have read that scroll more carefully. He sent you to your death."
"If he hadn't sent our team, then another would have had to go and die in our place," Aunt Sadako said. "I was glad to do so, in service of my village. I've only regretted my death because I woke up, when no one should, couldn't do anything."
Shikamaru shook his head. He couldn't imagine that. His father had sent his little sister to her death. And she was telling him it was okay.
That there was nothing to forgive. His stomach churned. It wasn't his place to judge his father but he didn't, couldn't, think of making that decision.
Except… hadn't his shadow managed to make a decision just as hard?
"There are some things," she said, "that are more important than life. You'll understand someday."
He hoped he never did.
"Once my rage had worn itself out, the other shadows taught me." She hesitated then forged on doggedly. "They taught me to insinuate myself into peoples' memories, to make them believe that I'd always been around. To use someone else as a springboard to being 'alive' for an hour, for two, for a day, but to always leave before the person whose energy I'd borrowed lost too much and more. Then…"
"Then?" he prompted.
"Before I knew it," she said, "you were here, your shadow desperately struggling to manage-all of us could hear it." Her lips twisted into a smile. "How could we not? All of us lived through the same. They let me go-an aunt to teach a nephew. And now… well, how we go forward is up to you. I did lie. I did alter your thoughts and dampen your curiosity when it would have caused too many complications in the teaching. I falsified memories so that you'd be less wary of me. I will understand, if that is unforgivable."
She fell silent and he leaned a little more weight into her. Now that he was paying attention to it, he could feel the cool not-quite-liquid touch of a shadow running under her skin. At last, he said, "You're supposed to teach me."
"If you want me to," Aunt Sadako said immediately, "then yes. There are others who will take my place if you wish." She twisted a piece of hair-shadow, he reminded himself-around her fingers nervously.
He thought about that. He wondered how many Nara had pushed away that first lie and been taught by those who'd existed but hadn't lied, hadn't messed with their heads in order to get them to listen. Shikamaru let the silence grow, still leaning against his Aunt's shadow, all that survived of her.
The thing was, he knew it hadn't all been a lie. There would have been ways to get him to the temple that hadn't involved working herself into his life as an aunt.
But then, Shikamaru thought, she was his aunt. Perhaps she'd wanted to be able to act like one, for once, instead of just being a shadow that no one noticed.
She toyed with his hair as he sighed. Her fingers paused. "Shikamaru?"
"I'd be a bad nephew if I pushed you away," Shikamaru told her. "After all, you've been trying pretty hard to look out for me. Just…"
She stared down at him, green eyes bleeding slowly black. "Just?" Aunt Sadako echoed as he sat up, gently disentangling her hand from his hair.
"Just stay out of my mind without my permission from now on," he said, resting his elbows on his knees and determinedly not looking at her. "Okay? That's all I ask."
Not looking at her turned out to be a mistake as the next thing he knew, he was engulfed in a hug. "I won't," Aunt Sadako promised. He had a funny feeling that if a shadow could cry… she was crying.
"Don't get my shirt wet," he said and made no move to shove her away. Well, Shikamaru thought, even if she did… it could be washed. The things he put up with.
Afterwards, he'd never be able to say how long they'd sat there, on the temple steps, before Shikamaru spotted his father walking towards them. He rather thought that, by now, the surprises should have been over.
"Aunt," he said, "Dad's coming."
She pulled away from him, her hair melting into her arms before reforming. Her eyes were red and her face splotchy. "So he is," she said, following his gaze. "May I ask you one more favour, Shikamaru?"
He didn't point out that she hadn't asked him for any favours before. "What sort of favour?" Shikamaru asked, watching as her body formed and melted into shadow and reformed again. She didn't look bothered by the way her shadow, herself, was acting. How much control had she exercised before to avoid constantly changing? Or had she simply altered his perception of her so he hadn't noticed?
Aunt Sadako took a deep breath. "I owe you another apology," she said, watching as Shikaku paused on the edge of the clearing. Her voice was too quiet to travel further than his ears. "And I am sorry for both that and that I must ask it again. I thought I'd have more energy…"
Shikamaru thought about the days that had gone by, before he'd entered his shadow, and shook his head. If anything had happened, he couldn't remember it. "What sort of favour?" he repeated.
"When talking to you," she said, her gaze fastened on her older brother. "I use very little energy. You see the shadows of who we were without effort. Shikaku… is different. He could have been one of us," Sadako said quietly, "and maybe he would have done better than I, who didn't survive past my thirteenth year, but he chose to walk away from his shadow rather than go through it."
"That's why he knew where the temple was?" Shikamaru asked, glancing at his father. "He's been here before?"
"Only the once," Aunt Sadako said. "He was curious, Nara always are, but he did not like the mystery of it and he was older than you, more set in his ways back then. Tired, too. There was a lot going on back then, you have no idea…" She shook her head. "Once, while you slept, I tried to talk to him. But Yoshino was there and… forgive me, even when I was alive, she never cared for me. I could say nothing useful to him with her there."
Shikamaru looked at Aunt Sadako. Despite the way he wasn't sure at all of what to think of the news that his mother and his aunt hadn't gotten along, he said, "It's alright, Aunt."
She sighed. "You're kind to say so. And I'm talking around the subject again… Shikaku can't see me the way you can. He gave that up when he walked away. In order to talk to him, it takes me a great deal of energy so that I'm present enough for him to interact with for longer than a few minutes."
"What does he see right now?" Shikamaru asked curiously. "Just me sitting with a bunch of shadow?"
"Something like that." Her voice was very soft. "Once, while you slept, I borrowed your energy to talk to him. I have no right to ask if I might do the same again, but I am."
He didn't say yes immediately- that wasn't his way. He didn't say no, either. "The last time," Shikamaru said thoughtfully, "what were the consequences?" He couldn't remember anything too bad, which made it less daunting to consider giving away his energy again.
"You needed sleep," she replied. "That's all. Your body required more rest for that day."
"Or," she said, a note of tension in her voice, "you could ask Shikaku to come back tomorrow so that I could talk to him. I'd be able to gather some energy on my own by the-"
"Take my energy," he interrupted abruptly. "Just make sure that my dad takes me home. I don't want to sleep on the steps of this place."
Her pale eyes studied his face searchingly. "You're certain?"
"Yes," he said swiftly, then softened it with, "and stop being troublesome. Just get on with it."
"Thank you," she whispered, sounding like the girl she'd been before she'd died. Her form shivered and shifted and he found himself staring at her, at how she must have looked back when she'd been alive. Her hair was cropped short, a headband keeping it out of her eyes. She wore a tank top and shorts under a knee-length tunic of fishnet. Her sandals were regulation black and her hitae-ite served as a belt, holding the tunic close about her waist. "I'll make it up to you."
Then, before he could protest that he didn't need it made up, she pressed a quick kiss that felt like ice to his forehead. Weariness filled his limbs and the last thing he saw, as she pulled away, looking like her adult-self once more, was her back as she made her way over to his father.
Good, he thought fuzzily. That's good.
Shikamaru surveyed his wagonload of supplies and shook his head. If someone had told him a month ago, or even two weeks ago, that he'd be willingly spending his time buying materials and learning carpentry, he'd have thought them mad.
Settling himself at the front of the wagon, he got the horses moving, and found himself glad, not for the first time, that none of his friends were here to see this. They'd ask questions, he knew. Questions that he wasn't allowed to answer because the temple was definitely covered under the Clan Confidential.
The nice thing about weather in Konoha at this time of the year, when most of the world was blanketed in snow, was that even with all the work he had ahead of him, it was possible to work rather than die of heat exhaustion. And if he wasn't that great at carpentry… a few of his ancestors had been and they were more than willing to help him out.
All he had to do was ask.
Thinking of the wall they'd ripped out yesterday, he knew that he'd have to ask, or the temple would fall down around their ears.
He found himself smiling and didn't bother to hide it. Yes, it would be a lot of work.
The wagon turned the last corner and he saw Aunt Sadako sitting on the stairs of the temple, looking thirteen, rather than thirty-something. She'd taken to doing that, in the last few days. He'd counted on it for today. When she spotted him, she bounced to her feet, planted her hands on her hips, and shouted, "You're late!"
He didn't know how a shadow aged exactly and so far he hadn't been able to pry the answer out of the other shadows, but he was glad to see his aunt acting like the girl she'd been before her death. Even if it made him sometimes feel like he'd suddenly acquired a little sister rather than an aunt.
"I know!" he called back. He didn't know what it was that she and his father had talked about a few days ago and he hadn't asked- that definitely wasn't any of his business. But whatever had passed between them had left his father more light-hearted than he'd ever been (at least, as far as Shikamaru could recall) and it had left Aunt Sadako…
He eyed her as she came to a halt beside the wagon. "Why?" she asked, her eyes bright. "You know that we were waiting for you."
"I know," he said. "But I was late for a good reason."
Her eyes narrowed, a touch of worry sliding through them. "Is everything okay?" Aunt Sadako asked as he slid down from the wagon.
"Everything's fine," he replied. "Got you a surprise, Aunt." Before she could object or even ask what the surprise was, he tugged her up onto the wagon.
"What sort of surprise?" she demanded, twisting to look at what he'd brought with him. "You were supposed to bring- oh!"
She leaned over to reach for the box he'd punched air holes in. The box that wriggled as she picked it up. "What have you done?" Aunt Sadako asked him suspiciously.
"Just open the box," he said. "Dad said you'd like it."
"That's not a comfort," she grumbled. "He also used to think I 'liked' spiders in my bed."
Shikamaru snickered. "No spiders," he said, "I promise."
That was all the reassurance she needed to set the box on her lap and open it.
Three fluffy, fuzzy kittens blinked up at them, as though startled by their sudden freedom. One was grey and two were tabby. All of them had dark eyes.
"I was talking to Ancestor Sachiko," he said comfortably, when Aunt Sadako made no move to say anything. "And she said that animals are more perceptive to shadows and of all animals, cats are the most perceptive, especially if you get them young and have them grow up around it. Dad said that you'd always wanted a cat."
"So you got me three," she said disbelievingly.
"I thought that they'd keep you company when I was away on missions. And, well," he said, feeling a little embarrassed, "technically only one's from me. Dad got you one too."
"I love them." She reached into the box, offering the kittens her fingers to smell. One sneezed, one yawned, and one tried to bat at them. "And the third?"
"Mom picked it out." Shikamaru smiled as Aunt Sadako carefully lifted the kitten who'd tried to bat at her out of the box and cradled it to her chest. "She said that it wasn't worth holding onto that grudge any longer."
Aunt Sadako looked at him dubiously. "She said that?"
"Yeah," he said quietly. "She did. And that you'd know what it meant."
"I do," Aunt Sadako said softly as the other two kittens peered up over the edge of the box. She offered no more information and he didn't press. "Thank you, Shikamaru."
He allowed her five minutes to inspect her kittens in silence before sliding down from the wagon and casting a glance over his shoulder. "Well now," he said, with a wicked grin. "How about we get to work?"
"But-!" She looked at the kittens then back at him, clearly torn.
"They can come with us," he said, waving over a few of the other shadows, his family, who'd been waiting for acknowledgement. "You can look after them. I got them litter and food and all of that. You're even worse than I am at carpentry so it's no loss if you play with them instead."
"It's the truth!" he said, laughing. "Come on, Aunt! We've got a lot to do." His shadow spilled over the wagon at his command and came away with part of its cargo. He set it just outside the temple doors and sent his shadow back for more. All the while, his shadow obeyed his every thought as smoothly as silk.
Soon, more shadows joined his.
Aunt Sadako, he thought as she snuggled the grey kitten, wasn't alone anymore. She'd be just fine.
So would he.
And done! Thanks to all of you who've read and enjoyed this story. :)