In Which There is An Attempted Kidnapping Attempt on Shikamaru, Instead

DOS! AU (Dreaming of Sunshine belongs to SilverQueen)

(This was supposed to be unrepentant Crack. It sort of turned into angst that tried to crawl its way back to unrepentant crack, because it is me writing this. But it's meant to be unrepentant crack.)

The Kumo nin had taken a long time to break, and an even longer time to train back into lethality. But using a ROOT agent would not have worked. Not for this mission.

The wrong people were getting suspicious about the children going missing in Fire Country, and while Orochimaru's work was hardly vital to ROOT, it did represent a significant investment of time and resources on Danzo's part. And it might lead to other operations being unearthed. This seemed the perfect solution.

Free of wartime responsibilities, Shikaku Nara was getting far too interested in village operations. Orochimaru was getting far too careless. Kumo was getting far too uppity (and Hiruzen had yet to be supplied with a motivating enough reason or pretext to allow Danzo free reign of the situation.) All those problems could be solved.

Had been already, if the Kumo ninja kneeling at Danzo's feet was any indication. He'd been seen, but not caught, and successful in retrieving the package. Perhaps he had not outlived his usefulness, after all.

Danzo's considerations are interrupted by Orochimaru re-entering the room, infant lifted awkwardly in both hands. (Danzo had insisted no lethal damage; it could still be a useful bargaining chip.)

"Shikamaru Nara," Orochimaru says, flatly.

Danzo looks up from his subordinate. "Yes," he replies.

Orochimaru lifts the infant. "Shikamaru Nara is supposed to be a boy."

Danzo blinks.

"Report," he orders the Kumo nin. With more details this time, goes unsaid.

The mindwalk of Shikamaru:

It is a delicate, delicate operation, but Inoichi is the best. The more promising infants of the Yamanaka clan were often mindwalked as young as two, to get their brains used to the idea. Eighteen months was pushing it, but not for someone of Inoichi's skill. Shikamaru's sense-memories of the event could be gently browsed with only a minor irritation in the mind, akin to a very mild sunburn. It would have been better if Yoshino had seen more- then maybe Inoichi wouldn't have had to do this at all- but any leads on the kidnapping could be vital.

The procedural details of the mindwalk are straightforward enough. Shikamaru's mind is more structured than Ino's, and a little less prone to fits of excitement.

The actual details of the event itself- Inoichi pauses, examining his own mind for traces of genjistsu or tampering, then proceeds to carefully walk through Shikamaru's recollection of the events again, looking more closely through Shikamaru's own perceptions, even more intently alert for traps or snares.

But impossibly enough, events proceeded exactly as they had the first time:

There is a thump from downstairs (the Kumo nin attacking Yoshino, knocking her out, Inoichi knew). Then, the opening of a door downstairs. Footsteps, as if in a search.

Shikamaru watches as his twin's eyes flare wide and she inhales sharply. (Shikako's chakra hypersensitivity alerting her to the threat? Perhaps. According to Yoshino's half-coherent report, the nin's killing intent had been light and almost incidental, his range poor.) Shikamaru sees his sister's reaction, but not the reason for it, and feels mostly mild curiosity.

Then indignation, when she shoves him under the bed, piling pillows in front. The midmorning sun turns to the dim of half-light.

"You're gonna be quiet until you see Daddy," Shikako whispers. It's not the first complete sentence she's ever said- Shikaku gives a full report of all their 'firsts,' and at eighteen months, both twins are frighteningly brilliant- but it is the longest one Inoichi's heard so far.

She turns around, chakra growing steadily more noticeable, and from the crack between the pillows Shikamaru can see she's crawled halfway to the center of the room by the time the Kum nin can be heard entering the room.

"Shikamaru Nara," the ninja says, voice rough with disuse. Not entirely present in mind, Inoichi diagnoses, though more from the tone of voice than anything. It's not the Kumo nin's lack of observational skills that are an issue; the twins often dress alike. There were some days Shikako just refused to wear dresses, grabbing for her brother's pants instead. (So much personality, the twins have, even at this age. His own daughter, too. Nothing can happen to them. Nothing will. They'll find Shikaku's girl and this will just be a nightmare for too-cold nights.)

Shikako's form is very still as she looks up. Inoichi can see the fear in her limbs, but Shikamaru can't. Doesn't.

Shikamaru feels confusion, and the first faint stirrings of unease. Is he supposed to be hiding from the man? Is that the game, until Dad comes home? Shikako likes games sometimes, and she usually manages to make ones where Shikamaru doesn't have to do anything, but something about this is different…

He doesn't know this man. Why are they playing with him, then?

"Where is your sister?" the ninja askes, expressionlessly. Exhaustedly. Inoichi notices, and tucks away the pertinent details.

"Away paying wif Ino," Shikako lies, lisping. She's looking up at the man. Trembling, faintly, but looking up at the man and lying through her teeth.


Inoichi knows smart. He knows brilliant. He knows genius, he's lived next to genius over half his life. He also knows kids, and he has a girl one day younger than Shikako and what the hell this is not normal. She's sacrificing herself to save her brother and she knows exactly what she's doing. She understands.

He knows the stages of the mind, and all its myriad variations. He's seen recklessness from an eighteen-month old- usually the more active ones. Even selflessness.

Not bravery, though. You have to appreciate that the danger exists, first, and then be scared by it, and then decide to move past being scared, either consciously or not. He's never seen bravery from an eighteen-month old. Or a two-year old. Or a three-year old.

And it's as beautiful as it is frightening, because, yes, something about Shikako's development has gone very seriously awry- but not in any of the ways that matter.

The memory of Shikamaru's thoughts are less panicked, but increasingly concerned. Shikako is pretending to be him, Shikamaru knows. And she cannot trick the man in the game unless Shikamaru hides. But something is wrong… something is wrong…

'Kako doesn't like to talk. She likes to ask questions. She likes to listen to Dad read. She likes to cuddle with him or mom in the sun, and the only times she's happy talking are when it's him or Mom or Dad. She will talk sometimes when Dad's friends are home, if it's too troublesome not to. But she doesn't like to talk. When strangers ask questions she hides behind him.

Why are they playing the game with the man?

And then the man moves, and he can't see 'Kako anymore, and the window makes a sound, and the room is empty.

And Shikamaru knows, somehow, crying will not work to get her back. And Shikako told him to be quiet, to wait for Daddy- not Mommy where's Mommy where's Mommy is she gone like 'Kako where's Daddy- so Shikamaru stays still under the bed, and keeps his eyes very wide, and doesn't make a sound. If he listens, will it be okay?

Inoichi pulls himself from Shikamaru's mind gently, and eases the baby into sleep. "The kidnapper thought she was Shikamaru," he reports first, because that's the important part. Will she still be wanted alive if she's not?

The Hokage and Shikaku are waiting for the rest, so he fills them in on the details of the Kumo nin and the discrepancies in the man's behavior.

He waits until he's left the office, running on the rooftops with Shikaku, to add the rest. "She also managed to make a plan to hide her brother with maybe fifteen seconds notice that they were both in danger, and then impersonated him when she realized he was the target," he explains. It's not something the Hokage needs to hear.

Shikaku almost falters in his pace. Inoichi knows the thoughts that run through his mind- infiltrator- and shakes his head. "It was clearly Shikako," he says, because if anyone were to notice a foreign personality take over it would be him. "And she clearly did everything in her power to protect her brother," Inoichi adds, because an infiltrator would be trying to infiltrate, not get kidnapped by a random third party. And it's reassuring to know that, if your child is going to reveal new and unsettling powers, at least it was in the course of protecting a sibling.

"Troublesome," Shikaku mutters.

"Something to discuss with Yoshino when we get her back, perhaps," Inoichi says, and it's reassurance and reminder all in one. Reassurance that they are going to get her back, and a reminder that Inoichi feels this information shouldn't be shared with the Hokage, or anyone outside Shikaku's immediate family. Bloodlimits are known quantities. Prodigy status, in Konoha, is far less well-protected. And certainly not on the scale Shikako appears to be working off of.

By the time Orochimaru eventually gets caught for his illegal experimentation and is run out of the village, he already has arranged with his summons to send the girl on ahead.

The Kumo nin's description of events would have been easier to write off if his kidnap victim hadn't tried to escape twelve times already. And she seems to prefer his scientific observation over Danzo's attempts at building a rapport, which is an even better indication of her assessment abilities.

It's fascinating.

Besides, the snakes like her.

He joins Akatsuki and she follows him around like a shadow. (She clearly considers him a known danger, one she can predict. There are some members of the group she avoids more than others, without even gathering preliminary information on them, and he takes note.) He experiments. He tests. He pushes her to excellence.

He calls her "girl," or "child," and she rarely speaks.

He lets it be known that he would prefer her to speak, and eventually she begins to initiate discussions on political analysis and sealing and natural chakra, all areas in which she has demonstrated a great aptitude- and in which he has conclusively confirmed her aptitude, and doesn't appreciate the self-imposed limits she places on her own progress.

Sometimes, he wonders if she still remembers her family. An infant should not, but…

("I am sorry for your loss," she tells Itachi, with old, old eyes. She is seven and more dangerous than anyone but himself could guess. They call her 'brat,' or 'Orochimaru's little shadow,' when they call her anything at all. He wonders if she remembers her old name, still.)

Of course, shortly later he has to leave Akatsuki. The girl doesn't seem to mind that, at least. Not that it would have mattered if she had.

In exchange for some assistance with Senju cells and implanted Sharingan, Orochimaru arranges for Danzo's aid in conquering the Land of Rice Fields. It bothers the girl.

Which is interesting, so he pokes at it.

One day, she asks why he doesn't want the Mangekyou Danzo has, if he is so interested in the Sharingan. She's not quite trying to encourage them to take each other out, he notices. She's too intelligent to think he'd fall for that. But it seems to have all the elements of a quickly discarded plan that nevertheless managed to spark her curiosity.

"That eye's chief use lies in covert attempts to alter the mind. I do not have the patience to pretend to answer to the Hokage, the Daimyo, the Jounin Commander, and a seemingly random collection of passers-bye."

She'd stiffened. She's-

Oh. How charming. She actually remembers her father's rank. And she's upset at the implication that he's been subject to Danzo's undetectable genjistsu.

If only her abilities had been part of a bloodline- but no, her acumen and frankly absurd memory-retention skills seem to be a solely a byproduct of mundanely heritable intelligence. A pity. Still, she's almost more useful as his assistant than she would have been as evidence of a proto-bloodline, which is saying something.

It's not that he gives her more freedom, after that conversation. It's that he's finally identified her chief weakness. Those younger than her, those weaker than her, those who would normally be stronger but are currently in pitiable circumstances …

And it solves a major annoyance for him: namely, the tedious administrivia of running a village is overtaking time that could be spent more productively with experiments. The various clan heads of the Land of Rice Fields were broken, beaten down, and weakened before he came. They accepted the strength of an S-Ranked nin to lead them, to unite them, far too eagerly.

If anything, that makes their pride sting more when being directed to take their more minor concerns to an eight-year-old girl. But he lets it be known he expects her to handle it- watches her come to the conclusion that no one else will help, no one else will fix these problems, no one else will transform Oto from a loose collection of laboratories and angry and pride-struck nin into a village that cares for its weaker members, if only out of self-interest.

("The weak may grow strong, and the strong may grow weak," she says, calmly, to one particularly vociferous protestor, unhappy with the idea of allocating village funds to pay for the salary of injured shinobi transferred to desk-work or teaching positions. "The wheel of fortune is always turning."

The ninja- high Chunnin rank, capable enough, with several promising young bloodline users in his clan- is at least canny enough to recognize a threat couched as a lesson. He casts a quick glance at her sleeves, which hide poison needles. At the small palms that can seal with a touch. He's aware enough of danger to hear the warning in her even tones, at least.)

Orochimaru instructs some of the smaller children to call her "nee-sama," and then he knows he has her for good. That time spent with Tusnade and Jiraiya was useful for something, at least.

Orochimaru's little shadow governs Oto while most of its older forces join (and are lost in) the invasion of Konoha.

("If your aim is to kill the Hokage, I believe you will be successful," she informs Orochimaru succinctly. It's not like telling him her opinion will do any harm, in this case. "But I don't believe the successful occupation or destruction of Konoha is feasible at this juncture, or, in the event of a miracle, won easily enough to be anything but ruinous for us, and if the aim is to spark a long-term, full-fledged war between Sand and Konoha I don't believe our chances for that are significantly better."

She likes Kimimaro well enough, and makes sure that he is aware that disagreement is not disloyalty, and that for a ninja whose chief weapon is her brain, letting loyalty to an individual influence her objective analysis of a situation, would, in her opinion, be just as bad as active sabotage. She doesn't particularly care what Kabuto thinks, as she's pretty sure she's going to have to kill him at some point. Orochimaru, however, is perfectly aware she still has some troublesome sentiment for certain ninja residing in Konoha, so perhaps it's for the best she's not going, as she might be tempted to do something foolish.

Her opinion regarding the feasibility of the invasion is heard by the clans, the more prominent ninja, and the various personal experiments of their Kage who have been given enough freedom to gather in public, and it is much talked-over. Very few question Orochimaru- very few are allowed to. Kimimaro and Kabuto are perhaps the only others who can challenge her influence in Oto, and both are involved in the invasion. In that light, Orochimaru's decision to leave her behind to lead the village looks like a slight, as if she's too weak to be of use. Her power and influence among the clans declines.

She makes note of those foolish enough to treat her differently because of this, however. Very shortly, it will look as if Orochimaru was too prideful to listen to her sound advice, and her influence among those who are beginning to see Oto as a proper village will increase. Which is good. Physical power is useful- even necessary- but it's political power that allows her to govern the training program, to keep some children free of the labs, and to modify the gladiatorial death-fights into gladiatorial "revive the losing party at the last minute and earn their personal loyalty forever," fights.

When Shikamaru Nara goes up against Orochimaru's forces in the wake of Sasuke's defection, he doesn't defeat his opponent.

The others win- although there's some evidence that Tayuga and Kimimarao retreated or were rescued, rather than being killed, and it's clear that Naruto was not able to defeat Sasuke or delay him long enough for capture- but Shikamaru is beaten soundly by a strange girl that appears out from nowhere. He doesn't know she's his twin. He doesn't know he has a twin. He's aware, dimly, that he lost a sibling long ago. A little sister, maybe still-born- but he has never been told the details, and even intelligent children lose memory over time.

He is returned to the village with a too-thin Chouji and a note pinned to his jacket that says, "Try a little harder next time. Just because an opponent shows you mercy doesn't mean they'll bother to save your friend."

("You're clearly no threat to me on a physical level, so I might as well test your powers of deduction to give you and your friend a fighting chance," she'd mused, as he'd lain helpless at her feet. "Here, then, is my riddle: you and three of your allies are outside a bounty hunter's office. You are facing an immortal opponent. His comrade, an S-rank with five hearts and five elemental affinities who has fought against Hashirama himself, is watching but not motivated enough to interfere yet. Your opponent is capable of inflicting all the injuries he receives on anyone whose blood he tastes, once he draws a seal on the ground. How do you win without losing someone precious?" She appeared utterly unconcerned with his answer, though her eyes had glanced coolly toward Chouji's thinning frame. A quick analysis. She's assessing something, there.

It's not even a real riddle. What does she want?

"If my death would give my comrades time to run, then it'd be troublesome, but I guess that's what I'd have to do," he replies. Any response that leaves an opening for one of his supposed allies to die- a pretext for her to kill Chouji- is not an option. But the riddle… the riddle is not the opponent. She is the opponent. Chouji's need for medical attention is the opponent. He needs to think.

Her eyes go flat. "Wrong answer," she says, and there is a kunai to his neck. "Next time we meet, you'll have a better one," she says, and it's a command.

Then everything goes dark, and he wakes up in the hospital.)

For a few minutes, he is certain that Chouji is dead. If it had been up to his own skills, Chouji would be dead. Try a little harder next time, the note says. It haunts him for months.

"So, I heard you're the one that fought against Shikamaru," Sasuske says, an arrogant tilt to his head as he examines her. He knows she has power here, he sees it in the eyes of everyone around her. He measures her, assessing, and finds her wanting.


She feels amusement bubble up. Perhaps it's based off of feelings she would rather not encourage in herself- condescension, superiority, a rather overly paternalistic regard- but amusement is rare enough that she lets herself enjoy it, anyway.

"If you were planning to lead into a request for a spar, I can schedule a session for us just before lunch tomorrow," she agrees, pleasantly enough, and no real interest in her voice. There's no threat in her manner, no attempt at posturing or power-play. She much prefers leaping over the pointless mundanities of conversation, and getting to the point of the matter.

She looks past him, at Orochimaru. "If it doesn't interfere in your training schedule for him?" she asks, and just like that, the power has shifted. Sasuske is the child torn between two rather estranged parents, rather than the stranger fighting to prove his place as heir.

Poor kid doesn't even notice. He's still scowling at her, a little confused now.

She could crush him easily, render him unconscious in an instant, and leave the lecture until he wakes up. But that's not the point. The point is to test him. To instruct by doing.

And a little humility will go a long way.

Sasuke is good- he has a lot of raw potential, more than her if she is going to be honest- but she has been the subject of Orochimaru's curiosity and attention since she was less than two years old, and he has never accepted anything less than her full effort. She's been a sealing master for ten years, using her "stripped" Sage mode seal to access the natural chakra she can sense for five, and she's been Oto's primary instructor for poisons and kenjutsu for the last two. (Orochimaru and Kabuto have her beat there in terms of skill, but they are not exactly interested in drilling the basics into the next generation. She created Oto's Ninja Academy, and there's a reason she created keeps her grip there so firm, but there's also a reason why she has to expend barely any effort in doing so.)

So she beats Sasuke within an inch of consciousness, then feeds him filtered natural chakra so he can get up to strength again, then beats him into immobility via a different method, then feeds him a little less chakra to get him on his feet again, then beats him senseless by outsmarting him, heals him up but feeds him still less chakra than before, then achieves a humiliatingly easy win by taking advantage of his emotional volatility, then feeds him a little less chakra than that… it goes on. And she doesn't use any techniques he can copy, besides taijustu and a few C-Rank Earth jutsu he already knows, so he can't win on that front, either.

It's dark by the time they end, and they never do get lunch.

"Excellent job," she praises warmly, as he lies panting on the ground for perhaps the twentieth time that afternoon. (She loves healing her sparring partners into fighting shape and then kicking their ass again. It's perhaps the most potent psychological weapon in her repertoire.) Sasuke has motivation, if nothing else. She feels her respect for him (previously almost nonexistent, as a small jealous corner of her is all-to-aware that he willingly threw away everything that was forcibly taken from her) increase. He has a goal to drive him forward. She can understand that, at least.

So she feeds him a little natural chakra, enough that he can walk with her to a nearby restaurant. "I think you have the opposite problem that Shikamaru does," she says calmly, half carrying him to the establishment. "Put it on my tab," she tells the owner, as she deposits the boy into a nearby chair and gives him a glass of water. "And you should be aware that keeping your passions so close to the surface makes you very easily baited and manipulated. It's no good being strong if you never think to ask questions like, 'Is the fact that my brother's ANBU handler had a recently harvested Mangekyou Sharingan capable of inflicting undetectable mind-altering genjistu significant?'"

She times her words well, and Sasuke chokes on the water.

This is not, technically, interfering in Orochimaru's plans at all. Whether Sasuke takes his revenge against Danzo or Itachi, he still needs to be strong, and Orochimaru's offer of power is still a temptation. And Orochimaru's perfectly aware she's always hated Danzo; setting Sasuke up to kill him has its own excuse ready-made.

"I'm not saying your brother didn't up and decide to kill your whole clan of his own free will," she continues, shrugging. "Actually, I'm of the personal opinion he was under no genjistu influence at all. Theoretically, his own Mangekyou would provide some defense to that technique. But although you had no reason to know that particular fact, you should at least have been at least asking questions like, 'How long does it take to kill three hundred people, anyway?' and 'Why did no one in the village notice in time to either raise the alarm or try to interfere?' Frankly, if Itachi was so skilled and so unhinged, the most surprising fact of all is that he didn't just keep going until half the village was dead. No one in the clan happened to be out on a mission, or on a walk that time of night? Not one non-Uchiha was even wounded. It smells fishier than... well, a very fishy thing." Her voice is utterly disinterested.

There's a little spark of sympathy, deep in her heart. She squashes it. Yes, she's being cruel. But he has to think about these things some time. It would be even crueler to let him wait until he actually kills his brother. It's possible to be kind, in Oto, but if you do it the wrong way you just look weak. (She has too many lives in her care to take the risk of looking weak.) Sasuke is most vulnerable to psychological attack, but he'll toughen up. (It doesn't really make her feel better about what she's doing to him. Does that mean she still has a conscience left?)

Sasuke is trembling, perhaps in rage. Definitely in range. Probably the disjoint between cheerfully treating him to dinner and dumping all this horrific information into his lap is causing him some trouble.

"I'd also advise you not to take my word for it," she says. "You've just met me, after all, and it's not as if pointing out the inconsistencies in what people say happened means I have any hard facts about what actually did happen. If nothing else, your investigation should tell you more about the man you're trying to kill, which can only be of use to you."

He looks like he'd like to kill her where she stands. She doesn't blame him. Now for the important part.

She stares him dead in the eye. "I am not going to be kind. I am not going to coddle you. Being able to examine your own motivations and the flaws in your reasoning will make you a better ninja. You have many, many areas in which you need work, but your lack of this ability is your single. greatest. weakness."

That, at least, diverts him. She lets her words sink in, slowly.

"Your determination is impressive, but if you do not fix this problem, any power you gain will only ever be a weapon for others to point at their enemies." She pauses. "Is it worth my time to train with you?" she asks, softly.

"You're manipulating me, too," he grunts out. Good. He gets it.

"Yes," she replies serenely. "And manipulating people with the truth- especially a truth that can actually be verified by the target of the manipulation- is one of the most dangerous and underhanded methods of control there is."

She waits.

"We'll train. But I don't trust you." He says.

That actually inspires a snort. "Good," she says. "There may be some people in this world who can simply act with your best interests at heart, Sasuke. But you won't find them here, and it's not wise to pretend you will. Now, what would you like for dinner?"

He gives her a glare.

"You're likely not hungry after what I've brought up," she concedes. She deliberately doesn't gentle her tone. She needs to be the practical voice of reason- and pretending or even expressing sympathy when she is the one to inflict the pain would be the grossest hypocrisy, and something about that technique has always smacked of abuse to her. She hates watching Kabuto do it. He's so effective. "But you'll hear and see far worse, here," she tells him. "I've no idea if you'll be able to avoid the labs or the arena. You are from Konoha, however, so if you pretend greater morals than you actually seem to possess, you may be able to escape such duties in favor of training your body to be a sufficient host for our Kage. At any rate, you'll have to learn to eat on an upset stomach. I recommend plain rice."

He twitches, a little, at her implication that he lacks morals. Understandable, as she hardly has room to talk, herself.

He orders rice.

They have a very silent dinner.

"Why are you even doing this?" he bites out eventually, as he pecks at his meal.

She answers honestly, because she likes to surprise people with that, sometimes. "Someone's going to try to end the world in about three years," she replies. "They've got a pretty good shot, as things currently stand. And you do have some potential as a ninja, so it's in my best interests if you don't seem gullible enough to help him do it."

He scowls at her. It's clear he can't tell whether she's trying to lie to him or brush him off with a joke or even- possibly- telling the truth, and also that he doesn't want to admit his ignorance.

"Do you try to make everyone dislike you?" he asks.

For an absurd moment, she's tempted to laugh hysterically. Maybe she is trying to do that. Even the children, the ones too young to understand the world they were born into- it hurts, when they look at her like she's a good person. Like she's someone they can trust. She's trying to make things better, she is. But this is Oto, and Orochimaru is Kage, and there is so, so little she can actually do. And what would leaving accomplish? She'd be nothing more than a prisoner in Konoha, even if her family might try to make her a well-treated one. House arrest, supervised excursions- she go stir-crazy. There'd be no chance of stopping Madara then.

The people who need her, the people she can help, are here.

She's trapped.

"You respect me more than you would have if I'd tried to be gentle about it," she says instead. "And respect matters, here."

She's so tired, some days.

"What's your name, anyway?" Shikamaru asks (likely stalling to set up a preferred combo with his teammates, and backup from his sensei. She can still take them, no problem, but Shikamaru is noticeably better this time, and it's reassuring.) He's older now. Fourteen, maybe fifteen? Sasuke's fifteen, now, but she can't remember Shikamaru's birthday. (Doesn't know her own.)

"You can call me whatever you like," she says airily as she dodges a tendril of shadow, like the question doesn't get to her. Like she even has a name, rather than the titles people call her. "Orochimaru's little shadow," and "nee-sama," and "oto-hime"… they're not so bad, as titles go.

He notices, and his eyes narrow. She doesn't want to see the pity hiding in them, so she looks at his hands, instead.

"I suppose I'll call you Nara, then," he says easily. "It's pretty obvious you were taken from our clan."

She shrugs.

"It's pretty obvious you're trying to stall," she replies instead, throwing a magnetic seal that has him cursing as he slips out of his wire mesh shirt. "Any luck on that riddle I gave you?"

"That's not even a real riddle," he says. "And are you trying to flirt or something?"

"What- no! That's disgusting," she replies, her voice going high in surprise and alarm. It's instinctive, the first uncontrolled reaction she's ever shown him, and he hesitates, minutely. "And it might not be a real riddle, but you really had better solve it," she rallies back. Yeah. Time to make her escape.

Once snark-time is over, actual combat kicks up. In the end, Chouji's Human Bullet leaves a friction burn along her arm, and she's had to do a rather ungainly and painful split to avoid Ino's Mind-Transfer Jutsu. Neither would have been a problem if she hadn't been preoccupied preparing her response to the followup: Asuma Sarutobi's Welcoming Approach: Thousand-Armed Murder.

"Seriously?" she asks Shikamaru.

"What, you have shields," he replies, piercing through said shields with his Shadow-Stitching Jutsu. She dodges. (Asuma had been blown back far- well, not far enough for her to really be safe from a jounin, but far enough for a little breathing room. Just a moment's worth.)

"I also have poison," she retorts, turning word to deed, and spitting it straight through her shield. Hah. He collapses.

Overdramatic reactions ensue.

"Oh, it's just a paralytic," she tells her brother's jounin-sensei, annoyed. "He'll spend a couple of days being even more lazy than usual, is all."

She makes off with a clean getaway –or, well, minor superficial injuries, which is almost the same thing- and half-sighs. Team Ten is getting pretty good. She won't be able to do this again for too much longer, and probably not at all if their sensei's around. It's nice to see her brother well- there's no denying it eases something in her- but she can't let herself pretend actual capture would end anything but tragically.

She still has Danzo to deal with, after all. Among other things.

As she heads back to Oto, she toys with the idea of writing a letter to Shikaku Nara. "Please inform your son about some pertinent details; this is getting Skywalker-twins level of disturbing?" No, if he's already all but confirmed she's a Nara, Shikamaru will likely ask himself.

Shikamaru had been operating under the assumption that Dad's younger brother had had an indiscretion before he'd died. He'd decided on it as a working theory after the incident in the Land of Hot Springs which would never be spoken of again.

Now, he's not so sure. The girl (he refused to call her his 'rival,' as Ino claimed) hadn't even bothered trying to respond to his assertion of her clan status, despite clearly owing loyalty to another village. That wasn't the behavior of a by-blow, or a distant relation, or someone entirely unconnected to the Nara clan. That was the reaction of something who knew their own heritage, and didn't consider it a secret at all.

"In some ways that seemed more like a spar than a real fight," Asuma-sensei says, sitting by Shikamaru's hospital bed. Ino snorts.

Inoichi comes in -to take their report, likely- though Ino gives him a wave and Asuma continues to make conversation.

"And how did she know Shikamaru was lazy?" their sensei teases. "It's one thing if it's obvious to us, but random Oto nin are something else."

"She was the one that wrote that note," Shikamaru says. He doesn't bother to use more words; they all know what he's talking about.

"And we ran into her on the mission in the Land of Hot Water," Ino states, placing a hand over Shikamaru's mouth. If he hadn't been paralyzed, he would have sat up in bed. "She was trying to avoid one of those red-clouded cloaked guys when she spotted us. Then she called Shikamaru a moron, told us we probably didn't have the sense to tell that fire was hot, and knocked us all out. When the three of us woke up, she had already henged our clothes into tacky-looking kimonos, painted Shikamaru's face with geisha makeup, taken most of our stuff, and left us with the bill for the in where we were registered under the name 'The Troublesome Trio."

Asuma stares.

"You promised not to tell!" Chouji says to Ino, looking horrified. His face is brick red. Shikamaru makes an indignant noise against Ino's palm.

Asuma looks like he has the mental image of Chouji in a kimono, and is not appreciating it.

"It wasn't relevant at the time," Ino said cheerfully. "Now that we've seen her again, and she's practically admitted to being a Nara, and she's demonstrated a significant level of skill rather than just showing how easy it is for someone our age to utterly humiliate Shikamaru, protocol requires us to inform our superiors of even seemingly unimportant and trivial encounters."

Inoichi was staring at him.

"The one that wrote the note…you never did receive a full debrief after Sasuke's defection, did you?" he asks, his voice seeming to come from far away.

Shikamaru blinks, and makes a small sound against Ino's mouth, who pulls it away. "So she really is a Nara, then?" he asks.

Inoichi seems to be about to respond, decides not to, then turns to the group. "It resembled a spar more than anything else?" he confirms.

Asuma-sensei nods in reply.

Inoichi pauses. "I'm… going to go look some things up. And speak to some people. Any idea of a name, or a title? Something I can cross-reference before the full debrief?"

"I don't know about a title," Ino replies, "but from what I could see-" she shares a glance with Shikamaru, who blinks lazily in agreement- "it doesn't look like she has something that can be used as a name. Not a real one. From her reaction, I'd guess what whatever title or call sign she has is very, very explicitly not a name, and that it can't be confused with one."

Inoichi's face goes blank.

"She said I could call her whatever I wanted," Shikamaru volunteers. There's something queasy in his stomach. The 'you missed something, you missed something' he'd felt after Chouji had taken those food pills in the fight after Sasuke's defection. Now he wonders if that feeling had had another cause, even then.

"And did you call her something?" Inoichi asks, intent. He's not asking if any of them called her something. He's asking if Shikamaru called her something. And Shikamaru somehow doubts the intensity in Inoichi's eyes is motivated entirely by the rage-inducing idea that a child could go through life without someone ever bothering to give them a name.

"…I said I'd call her "Nara?"

Inoichi nods, deliberately. "Well. We can work with that. I'll be by later."

Deduction: His rival's reply was not mere deflection, even if it had been intended as such.

Deduction the second: That Shikamaru's gift of a name would have had particular significance to his rival.

Deduction the third: His rival is not a distant Nara cousin. Which left-

Asuma-sensei straightens from his slouch, face pale. "It's not-"

Inoichi looks at him.

"The Third said she was dead!" he protests.

"Some parties remained less than convinced," Inoichi says, flatly.

"But the Hokage-"

"I doubt Tsunade knows anything about the matter," Inoichi continues, running over him. "So I can assure you with certainty that we do not have an issue with the Hokage." He turns to leave, glances at Shikamaru, then says gently, "Your father will be by shortly."

Shikamaru feels cold.

Asuma-sensei closes his eyes and, for the briefest of moments, looks like he's about to be sick.

"Is this something we should know about?" Shikamaru asks, distantly. It might be classified beyond his level, of course, in which case he'd have to use more covert means to gather intel. His brain is whirring, and he's not liking any of the thoughts it's coming up with. He's not sure if he's madder at himself, the Hokage, or his parents.

"…I think it best you three hear from someone who has more than conjecture," Asuma-sensei offers, fingers tugging for a cigarette. "Maybe when your father-"

"The Hokage said my sister was dead," Shikamaru says, quietly, not wanting to talk about his father. "And he lied?"

It's not even a hard conclusion to draw.

"It's possible he was mistaken-" Asuma starts, and cuts himself off, rubbing his hair. "The identification was made by- forces not under the authority of the Jounin Commander. The Hokage gave his personal assurance that the information was accurate, and he had the bodies of all the perpetrators involved in the kidnapping and- and death, delivered to the Nara compound. So. Either the Hokage lied outright, or he gave your father an iron-clad personal assurance about a matter in which there was uncertainty."

Ino has her hand over her mouth. "Are we… are we going to talk to Tsunade about it? Can we get her back? Or at least not declare her-" Ino swallows.

"If Tsunade's not listing Sasuske as a missing nin, I don't see how she can claim a kidnapped child as one," Shikamaru says flatly. The he shuts up.

…He's not mad at Tsunade, really. If he starts thinking about the people he is angry about, he- he doesn't know what will happen.

He wants to shout, to throw something, to pound the walls, and he can't because of this stupid paralytic poison- poison shot at him by his sister, after he'd directed a possibly-lethal attack from a full jounin towards her – and he's never- he's never been angry like this. There are no words for the fury he's feeling right now. There are tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. Humiliating, rage-induced tears.

He can't speak for it.

So then, of course, his dad comes in.

He wants to hurt his father. It's not fair, it's not right, but he wants to, and with the appearance of someone he can direct this rage towards, his voice returns.

"Do you want to tell me why, when my sister asked for her name, I didn't know it?" Shikamaru rasps.

It goes downhill from there.

Maybe if you'd ever mentioned her, I would have been able to remember something! The words ring in his head, afterwards.

"He is a teenage boy," Inoichi says. "It makes things tough."

Shikaku huffs a laugh. There's no joy in it.

"…Maybe you should offer to replay that memory for him," he says at last, to Inoichi. "It'll hurt, but… Shikamaru has a point. It'll hurt worse if we keep him from information he could use to get her back. Shikako seems to acknowledge that there's a bond between the two of them, at least."

Gone unspoken is the fact that there's been no such effort to reach out to him. It could be because, as an experienced ninja, he's more likely to be successful in a capture attempt.

…Though if that's the case, it's also unlikely there will be any attempts to contact him in the future. And Yoshino isn't out of the village often enough, and if she were she wouldn't be seen as anything but bait for a trap. If anyone's going to bring her home- convince her to come home(he can't believe she's still alive)- it's going to have to be Shikamaru. Depriving his son of information would be a poor choice.

"I don't even know why I believed him," Shikaku said, rubbing his face. He's talking about that day nearly six years after his daughter's kidnapping, in the Hokage' office with his Hokage and the Elder Council. That dim dawn when the Third had finally given the news. "You never did."

Inoichi's hand lands on his shoulder. "Outsider's perspective. If it had been Ino," he hides a wince, and shakes his head. "And I don't interact with the high-rollers in the Hokage Office as much as you do, so there's less of a rapport," he adds, but there's a frown there, now.

Shikaku doesn't know if he'd go so far as to call his relationship with the other leaders of village policy a rapport, but he nods anyway. Though… there's something… there's a thought, a thought trying to gather itself into coherence inside Shikaku's mind …but it disperses almst as soon as it forms.

Inoichi is looking at him carefully.

"It's nothing," Shikaku replies, shaking his head.

The concern doesn't leave Inoichi's eyes.

…It's just… it's been a difficult day, that's all. Of course Inoichi has reason to be concerned for his mental state. …Shikako's been alive, been hurting and alive for years (there's a part of him that can't believe it), his wife still has to be told, his son is understandably furious with him (why had he believed the Third?) …Shikaku shakes his head, again, to clear it.

His friend deliberately changes the subject, tries for something more lighthearted, and Shikaku can feel his shoulders loosen with relief, because it works.

"That personal connection's not just a twin bond acting up," Inoichi says. "Shikako definitely sees him as her brother. From what I've heard from Ino, when Shikamaru accused her of flirting she practically hurled," Inoichi says.

Shikaku huffs again, and this time there might actually be a little laughter in it.

"It still seems like a miracle that she's alive," Shikaku confesses, running his fingers in his hair in a nervous tic he hasn't done since they were teenagers. "I listen to you, and to Asuma, and Shikamaru, and all the evidence lines up, I know she's out there. But whenever I try to make a plan to bring her back, it's like there's still a part of me saying, 'She's dead. Stop looking.'"

"It seems hard to believe, still," Inoichi offers, voice nonjudmental.

"Yes," Shikaku says. "That's exactly it." (That's exactly it.)

Inoichi goes home, and carefully punches a hole in his wall. "Shit," he says. "Shit."

How did he miss this?

"Ino," he says the next morning, over breakfast. "You have some free time for Clan training today, right?"

"Sure," she says. She's still worried about Shikamaru. She's fifteen. She'll have mastery in a few more years, but she's not there yet. It's monstrously unfair to burden her with this.

But. If he gets taken off the playing field…

He needs a backup plan.

Konoha needs a backup plan.

"We're going to establish the Regency protocols," he says.