Smoke To My Eyes
By Lapiz Sagana
Summary: Shikamaru suffers from an injury that makes retirement his most sensible option, but Sakura won't let that happen. While the two unlikely partners search for the exiled doctor than can provide the cure, Lady Tsunade and Shikaku uncover a plot that went into motion when Shikamaru was rescued from his captors.
"Shikamaru, you might never become a ninja again."
I blinked at the Fifth Hokage, and for a while, that was all I did. My fingers retained their grip on the sleeve of my tunic, which I had been rolling up my left arm when she said those words. My back ached from slouching, but I could not bring myself to straighten up. My arms fell to my sides, and I twisted my upper body forward to see and to relish the view outside the window.
It was peaceful - so far from the grievance in Lady Tsunade's face.
My consciousness absorbed the news at last, and I said, "Might?"
"Two out of the major chakra artery connected to your spine are disconnected, and three out of the five connected to your heart are crippled," she said. "I underestimated the opponent you were up against. A four-man squad of chuunins could not have handled what should have been an S-class mission. I take full responsibility for the cost of my negligence."
I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, the leaves of the nearby hickory swayed. "Have their families been informed?"
"Shikaku organized a meeting with the families," she said. "He's supposed to have told them by now."
"Does dad know?"
"About your condition?"
I nodded at the bird perched on the windowsill.
Her heels rapped against the linoleum, and when I lifted my eyes, she was standing in front of me with her arms crossed beneath her sagging breasts. Slowly, her arms unfolded, and she reached her hand out to grip my shoulder. "I need you to listen to me very carefully, Shikamaru. Your present condition is reversible. Your chances of getting back to normal with surgery are little - and I won't lie to you - but even your chances of survival will be very small. However, with the right people and with the right preparation, we might be successful."
I stared at her, noticing how brown her eyes truly were even when she stood against the light. There lay many layers to the emotion she allowed herself to exhibit in front of me. The first was firmness, in order for me to believe in the conviction of her words. Second was sympathy, for me to know she was on my side. Third lay kindness, for me to realize I had only two options here – to live or to die – but neither would make me less of a person.
"Shikamaru, are you listening?"
I pulled the sleeve over my shoulder and buttoned the tunic down. "You haven't told dad. Thanks. I'll…I'll find the right time."
"File a charge against me."
I shivered and, finally, an emotion melted the rigidness of the muscles in my face. I felt my brows furrow and the corners of my lips slump, and I was confused and angry all at once. "A charge against you, Lady Tsunade? Why?"
She didn't move. She didn't look at me. "Nanami, Jin, and Toya were dismembered by a criminal even Kakashi would have trouble hitting with his kunai without the use of his Sharingan. Your survival is a miracle, truly, and if you decide not to proceed with the surgery, your best chance of making the most out of your untimely retirement will be to sue me."
"So what? So I can leech money from Konoha's treasury in order to live a comfortable life?"
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "In order to establish yourself in the years you won't even be admitted to the Intelligence Division of Konoha's military forces because the damage done to your channels will constantly be sending abnormal amounts of serotonin, dopamine, and every other vital chemicals to your brain."
"You mean I'll be so unstable that I won't even be able to…t-to think right?"
My lips dried, and they parted with a lasting sting. I gaped at the view outside the window again.
The Academy bell rang. I heard the clangor of the large, double doors as they opened, and I pictured myself racing Choji to the classroom. I usually slowed my pace on purpose to let him catch up to me, and most days, I even let him win.
My eyes descended to my bandaged left ankle, and I admitted, "I don't understand."
Lady Tsunade sighed deeply. "Maybe you should stay in the hospital another day to think about all this."
"Mum is waiting for me at home."
"You're disoriented, Shikamaru," she said. "A mother will know immediately that something is wrong - unless you plan on telling your parents right away?"
"It all depends on you."
It depended on me. This whole thing depended on me. Thing. Why couldn't I give it a proper name? What name would suit it? Dilemma? Injury? Crisis? I could not choose, more so could I identify what I really felt about the matter. Perhaps I was in shock, and my body was enjoying this numbing sensation.
I grabbed my cane and hauled myself up to stand. Lady Tsunade watched me. I bowed my head as I limped past her and towards the door. It was so far from me. I took my time limping, and for a moment, my mind mistook my body for a turtle. A turtle – yes, a turtle. My back shouldered a house as hard as fifty shells, and inside that house, within the gloom and solitude, there were decisions to be made.
After all, it depended on me.
"Shikamaru," the Fifth called when I pushed the door open. My feet dragged to a halt.
She said, "I am very sorry."
I nodded at the floor. "Yeah. I guess it's okay."
The hospital corridors passed me instead of me passing them. The speed of the wheelchairs, nurses, and doctors made this elongated box of passageways appear mobile, and even while my feet inched forward, I was barely moving. Somehow, despite this trance, I made it to the main lobby and out of the glass doors.
The stench of antiseptic drifted from my nostrils as I climbed down the steps, and once I was on level ground, I looked ahead at the long road I had to travel in order to get home.
Home. Was that where I wanted to be?
I glanced back and saw Sakura jogging towards me. She didn't even pause to catch her breath. Instead, she stopped beside me and went on to say, "Do you want a wheelchair? Your house is awfully far from here."
Peering behind her for any sign of the Hokage, I replied, "Nah. People will look and ask questions. It's too troublesome to explain."
She threw her hands to her waist and scrutinized my face. "You all right? You don't sound like your usual self."
"Is my usual self a lot less lazy?"
I shrugged my right shoulder. "I grow old. Everybody does."
Sakura wrinkled her nose. "Good luck to your future wife and children."
"I'll tell them you wished them the best of luck."
"I do, in all sincerity." She crouched and poked my bandaged ankle. "I can heal this, you know. Just a strain, right? How come Lady Tsunade hadn't healed this for you? I thought she was personally handling your recovery?"
Too many questions. I planted my cane forward and started walking. "My teammates died," I muttered. "It's a rather simple reminder compared to what they went through."
She fell silent, and I was washed with relief that she had the mind to leave me alone.
Sakura grabbed my wrist and lifted my arm. I gasped, unusually nervous for a shinobi of my rank, and watched her put my arm around her shoulder. She held my waist and forced most of my weight on her. I groaned and told her there was no need to help me, to which her only reply was that she had once worked with Nanami and Toya also.
The travel become lighter, and although people glanced our way and common acquaintances inquired about my health, I had her to lie for me.
Now I was no longer a turtle…but a snail. Just a snail with a tiny shell.
"I watched the jounin exams," she said, grinning. "I'm so glad I chose to take the latter exams. You were really different in the field that day."
I smiled back and poked the sliding door sideways with my cane. It opened a gap enough for one person to enter, but neither Sakura nor I moved when a popping sound burst the silence and confetti erupted in the air.
"Congratulations, Shikamaru!" hollered the crowd in the hall.
I recognized mum in the frontline of the crowd; standing beside her was Ino and Choji. Dad leaned on the wall with his arms folded across his chest and an apologetic smile directed at me. Kiba and TenTen waved at me from the stairs and I spotted Rock Lee grinning at me with his thumbs up. Naruto stumbled out of the kitchen with icing spilling from his mouth and he mumbled his congratulations.
Sakura jerked in surprise. She shook my free hand. "Hey, I nearly forgot! The results came out! Congratulations! You passed the jounin exams!"
I didn't leave the house.
The surprise party had left me trembling that night, and not because they scared me but because I scared myself.
Mum had cooked two of my favorite dishes; only two because the rest, she said, which were mostly common food, were not befitting the celebration. Choji absolutely enjoyed the buffet and he had a contest with Naruto and Kiba on who could stuff the most rice balls in their mouth and swallow the quickest.
Ino and Sakura had confided with each other in a corner, sharing a plate of cake and pasta. TenTen had joked about the missions I was bound to handle as a jounin, which caught the attention of the male shinobis in the room. Their inquiries on her about the details of Neji's endeavors had salvaged me from having to narrate the difficulty of the jounin exams all over again, and a while of this story-telling apparently allowed me a peaceful escape to the garden, away from the feast and the happiness that was not mine to own.
And yet I had not been totally disturbed that time.
If, at all, the worst I had felt was alone, and being alone was completely fine with me.
Of course, in times like those, it was not advisable to be left to linger in one's own thoughts. My silent pondering had led me to the realization that I wasn't even in despair of my tragedy, and five days later, to this moment, I still wasn't.
It was like the throbbing of my strained left ankle…it was a pain I deserved. The grave injury to my chakra channels was a harm I deserved and losing my job as a Hidden-Leaf shinobi did not even count as a loss.
To me, at least, it did not seem so.
I blew out smoke rings and watched grey clouds rise from the cigarette butt. The wind carried them outside the open window and the scent drifted from my room. Sitting up, I grazed the end of the cigarette on an empty can of beer and dropped it to join the ten others I had consumed earlier today.
My lungs were warm when I inhaled and warmer still when I exhaled. I loved this sensation; it put my mind at ease. I wondered if this was why Asuma liked to smoke a lot. Was the comfort this great that he couldn't last two minutes without a cigarette between his lips? I thought I might try chewing tobacco next.
A shadow loomed across my bedroom floor, filling the elongated illumination of the window that I had been staring at for the past five hours of the morning.
"Shikamaru Nara," said the voice.
Too comfortable to alter my position, I slid my upper body to the left of my bed in order to see the ANBU. I had to be as polite as possible. "This is he," I replied.
The bird mask stared back at me. "You had an appointment with the Hokage an hour ago. She demands that you come to her office this instant."
My eyes roamed the room for a clock. I remembered I had thrown them under the bed the day I decided never to use alarm clocks again.
"What time is it?"
"It's time for you to get up, boy." He stretched his legs to the floor one at a time and then walked to my bedside. "My orders are to escort you to her office, so unless you move now, we'd be spending each of your lazy moment together in this mess you call your room."
I lifted my head to glimpse the plates and cans of beer lying about. "Your order is to escort me, not to lecture me."
He didn't respond.
I folded my body upwards with a groan and I slapped my cheeks. Once blood was flowing to my head properly, I scooted to the edge of the mattress and slogged to my closet. All I found inside were white tunics with varying sleeve lengths, three pieces of green turtlenecks, and five pieces of blue sweaters.
I tried to spot any of my usual black shirts but found none.
My intellectual side reminded me that I had stuffed them in one of my travel bags, and that travel bag might be gathering algae at the bottom of Konoha River or traveling with the wind as ashes by now…whichever method of discarding I had thought was coolest in my drunken state yesterday.
I reached out for a blue sweatshirt and put it on. My muscles whined. I suppressed the urge to flinch because I was sure that was what this damn ANBU looked forward to the most.
Slipping on my slippers, I redid my ponytail and nodded at him. "I'll meet you in front of the house."
He gave my appearance a once over but did not comment. "What? Have to convince your mother to extend your curfew?"
"Nah…I have until midnight before she starts to panic." I gathered a handful of incense from my desk, stuffed them in an empty mug, and lit them with a lighter. "I'm serious. I'll meet you out front. If that mask hasn't dimmed your eyesight, you'll notice I have a strained ankle."
He climbed the window ledge and twisted around. "Leave the door first."
I threw my makeshift ashtray into a garbage bag and pitched it to the very back of my closet. Waving my hands in the air to spread the smoke from the incense, I warned him not to close the window, and then I left my room.
I waited outside for a couple of seconds to listen to any sound, just to make sure he followed my instruction. If mum discovered that I was smoking again, she would purposely make all our meals too spicy to be edible, at least, for Shikaku and me, which would cause him to punish me by signing me up to reorganize the books in Konoha's military library. The gist of this punishment was the fact that smoking was not allowed inside the library, and reorganizing the hundreds of books in those hundreds of shelves required the minimum of seventeen days to accomplish…if you worked at it with inhuman speed.
In my current condition, Shikaku knew I would need the entire ten months of the following year to finish.
I descended the staircase quietly and didn't look back to see where mum could be in the house. My lies would, therefore, be reduced to the simple matter of a presumption that she was busy in the scullery and no one in our family dared to bother her when she was in the scullery.
Exiting the door was the most challenging thing I had yet to do since I left the hospital. The sunlight burned my toes the moment it hit them, and my face tightened in shame. I felt too exposed, beyond naked, exceeding muscle and bone.
The strangers passing the street sniggered when they saw me. The mothers whispered to each other about the jounin who only left his house after five days because he had been too afraid to be interrogated about his future.
I heard a little boy cry and I found him on the middle of the street, holding his knee.
The children around him refused to help him. Instead, they huddled and gossiped about the man whose injuries were beyond a scraped knee. They said it was about time I quit trying to be something I was not.
Looking up, I saw a fat cloud shield the sun, casting claw-like shadows over the street. The shadow destroyed the sniggering strangers, the whispering mothers, and the mocking children. The ANBU stepped into view and gripped my shoulder. He shook me awake.
The crying boy vanished.
"It's empty," I muttered, panting. "The street is empty."
"What are you saying?"
I yanked free from the ANBU and I stuttered something about making it to the Hokage's office as quickly as we could.
Paranoia convinced me to keep my head down as we maneuvered past the stream of villagers in the main road. The babble of shop owners and customers highlighted the cacophony of voices. Shoulders bumped. Feet overlapped. Apologies flew. In the midst of this confusion, all my ears could process were the words that paranoia captured for me to wallow in.
Never. Be. A. Ninja.
Come. Enter. Retirement.
Don't. Risk. Life.
A young lady donning a yellow bandana tiptoed on the sidewalk and pasted a poster on the electric post. It was vibrant with blue and red splotches of paint, and the slogan read 'capture your time. Have your portrait painted.' Beside her poster was a loose sheet of yellow paper with an announcement about a job opening in a café in the southern districts of Konoha. The lady plucked it out and stuffed it in the pocket of her denim overalls.
I stripped my eyes off the paper. There was no need to be interested in job openings. I had a job. I was a shinobi – a jounin-ranking shinobi.
The crowd loosened and I stopped gasping for air. The ANBU waited for me on the stairs of the Hokage Tower. I jogged towards him, not because I was embarrassed of my speed, but because I needed my ankles to hurt enough so that I never forget - even for a second - my deceased teammates.
Perhaps there was no other choice but for me to retire…so what? Nanami, Jin, and Toya were never given an option. They just died.
The ANBU announced my presence before pushing open the double doors of the Fifth's office. Lady Tsunade's pen scraped the paper of the parchment she was writing on. She mumbled something that I could not comprehend from where I stood at the back of the room, but I could guess that she ordered the ANBU to leave, because he disappeared in a puff of white mist without warning.
The second we were alone, she lifted her eyes and she flicked her forefinger to call me forward.
I dragged my injured leg to remind her I was in bad health and that her upcoming scolding would not help in any way.
"Stop acting like a damaged puppy," she yapped. "You're not gaining my sympathy – not anymore."
I shifted my weight to my good leg as soon as I was standing in front of her desk. "I wasn't going for sympathy; something between delicate lecturing and less repetition of the obvious would summarize the point of my limping."
Lady Tsunade rolled the parchment and sealed it with a jutsu. She paused. She sniffed. "You reek of cigarette smoke."
"This is where we inject the less repetition of the obvious."
"You missed your first two appointments in the hospital," she said. "And did you expect me to send someone to deliver your medicines to you?"
"Delicate lecturing, ma'am."
"I'm happy you are still clever enough to realize you are need of a lot of lecturing." Rising to her feet, she fished a black notebook from beneath a heap of documents and flipped through the pages. "Monday – all you did was sleep. Tuesday, you slept, you finally ate, and then you stared at your shogi board all day. Wednesday – you finished two boxes of cigarettes and refused to leave your room. Thursday – you persuaded Choji to buy you three casings of beer and then forced him to leave. He came back with Ino in the evening but you did not even meet them in your front door. Friday – you finished the last casing of beer at midnight, left your house, and then dumped a travel bag in the Konoha River. Shikamaru, what's inside the bag?"
I slapped my forehead. "So I did drown that bag!"
"Clothes," I said and shrugged. "All my green and black camouflage with maybe some ten pieces of kunai and ready-made explosive tags. Oh, no worries! I didn't use permanent ink, so they're probably smudged and disarmed by now."
Lady Tsunade was still. She flattened her hands on her desk and frowned at me. "Why would you discard your equipments?"
I tucked my hands in my pockets and shrugged again. "Why would you have an ANBU spy on me?"
"You're in withdrawal, Shikamaru."
"That does not justify your invasion of my privacy."
"I have given you your privacy!" she said. "I have not told anybody about your predicament. I have given you options. I have granted you a pace of your own. What the fuck are you doing with your life?"
My body quivered but I was not cold. Sweat lingered along my jaws. "Well, ma'am, my choice of timing doesn't really give me an opportunity to alter what my family and friends' reactions will be. Whether I told them during that stupid celebration party or choose to postpone the shocking news until tomorrow will not stop them from feeling bad for me, from asking me what I will do with my life from here onwards, and from thinking I'm such a pathetic man with only a brain who will always be the one 'who used to be'."
"Who used to be?" she hissed, and her lips pursed. "Retirement is not your only option here. Do you think I prescribed all those drugs to you if I've given up hope of curing you? Do you think so little of me that I would spy on you for no valid reason? Or that I'm doing this all out of guilt?"
A chuckle bubbled in my throat and it escaped before I could swallow it. "The surgery? You want to place me on that table knowing that my chances of surviving are as little as the chances of Romi's arm growing back?"
Lady Tsunade scoffed as she collapsed back to her chair. "Romi? You're still upset that Sakura had to amputate Romi's arm to save him from being crushed in that mine?"
Her mocking tone made the blood in my cheeks burn. "I was the one who ordered him to go inside that mine. It was my call, and my call cost him his arm, and later his job, and later his fiancé."
She rolled her eyes. "If his fiancé really loved him, she wouldn't have left him just because he can't be a shinobi anymore."
"His being a shinobi is the only reason her family accepted him!" I retorted. "That was all Romi had! Now he lives with his parents without a clue as to how to get back up on his feet!"
"Oh, I see! You intend to follow his example!"
"Don't you have the tiniest care for him?"
"Romi's attending rehabilitation and the last I checked with Shizune, he's doing great."
"Shizune is back at work?"
"She's a medic – she's supposed to heal quicker than other shinobis." Lady Tsunade paused, and then she sighed. "And yes, she's alright. She was the least hurt when the rescue team came for you."
"How many in the rescue team died?"
"…Five out of seven. The other survivor is still in the ICU."
I hastened to the nearest chair, plopped down, and crossed my arms and my legs. "Lady Tsunade, how can you have misjudged an enemy that strong?"
The double doors split open and Sakura stumbled inside, spilling the tower of books in her arms. She froze and the three of us in the room watched as one last book toppled onto the floor.
"I-I'm sorry!" She closed the door behind her. "I didn't intend to overhear."
"Sakura, you're a terrible liar." Lady Tsunade lifted three fingers. "I'll give you three days, Shikamaru. Tell your mother and father within that period, or else I will be forced to eliminate you from my regiment on the grounds of breaking five of the rules in our shinobi rule of conduct and for disobeying direct commands from your supreme commander. Furthermore, I will have Suna remove your name from the awarding ceremony twenty days from now. It will be a dishonorable discharge, so you better pour all your sober energy on the thought that the man 'who used to be' will then become 'he who fucked up'."
I gritted my teeth until my jaws were numb. My fingernails dipped into my palm and my skin embraced every curve of my knucklebones. Sakura's gaze pressed on me.
"Three days," I said.
"Shikamaru," Sakura said. "Think about surgery. We can do that, can't we, Lady Tsunade?"
"If one thing goes wrong, he dies," she said.
I stood. Sakura blocked the door. "Mr. Sho Kakihara!"
The Hokage and I exchanged a glance. "What?"
"Sho Kakihara!" she repeated, expecting us to understand this time. When no one responded to her, she said, "The medic you dumped twenty years ago, Lady Tsunade! Isn't he the author of the case study about chakra channels and the six chakra arteries that connect to our spine? It's his specialty! What if we can have him assist you in Shikamaru's surgery?"
My throat tightened and suddenly, I was patient. I waited for the Hokage to say something.
Say something, Lady Tsunade.
Her expression changed from anger to uncertainty. "He's…not in Konoha, Sakura."
"Well, summon him!" Sakura smiled at me and then marched to her desk. "C'mon, Lady Tsunade! I'll go! Ino and Choji will accompany me for sure! We can't lose Shikamaru! He's the best brain Konoha has had since…well, since Mr. Shikaku!"
I felt myself smile.
Lady Tsunade cupped her face. "No."
"No," she said again, louder. "Sho Kakihara has been exiled. I'm sorry."
Sakura slammed her hand on the table. A bank of paperwork spilled over the Fifth's work, but either of the two noticed. "Pardon him!" she said.
"He purposely risked the life of ten patients in our hospital in order to test the hypothesis he used in his case study!" She turned to me. "You will tell your parents about your condition in the next three days, Shikamaru, but you also tell them I've already started studying about the surgery. While I am preparing my team and myself, you will diligently take your medicines, participate in recreation, attend your check-ups, and then seek counsel from the people who loves you about whether you will proceed with the surgery or not. Are we clear, Shikamaru? Do we have a deal?"
Sakura turned her head towards me and she mouthed, 'say yes' over and over.
My lungs were cold. I reached for a cigarette in my pocket and put it between my lips. "I'll think about it."