Last time, in Arranged:
Shikamaru took the edge of the blanket, which was currently tucked under Temari's arm, and slipped it down, exposing breast and stomach and hip. She was still rolled up against him, back arched in a way that accentuated every curve, and was forced to acknowledge the mind-boggling juxtaposition of her beautiful, salacious body with his boring, masculine one. Temari: woman. Hot woman. Shikamaru: stupefied specimen of male-ness. Life wasn't fair, but at least this time it had worked in his favor.
O O O
Naruto gasped, then tears began to rain down his cheeks. "She was fine yesterday. How could she—why would she-" He tried to continue through his tears, but his body was shaking, then he buckled, sank to his knees, and Mom got down beside him and wrapped her arms around him.
"This is my fault," said Ino. Her voice wavered, but he could tell she was trying to stoically accept what she believed was her responsibility. "I should have remembered. I should have warned her earlier."
Naruto's eyes widened, bright blue clashing with the red rims. "Warned her about what?"
Before she could respond, a new voice caused them all to start. "Do you really want to know?"
Shikamaru realized who it was before he looked; he doubted he'd ever forget that voice because of the attention it commanded. Low and cold, incapable of any emotion but fury.
He turned to see him standing in the dining room, the side door still open behind him, a warm evening breeze rippling the hem and sleeves of his robe.
And he was staring out at them all through clear, emerald-green eyes.
"Don't lie to them."
"Stop telling me what to do."
"You know, I think I like this new arrangement. You can threaten me all you want, but there's no way you can retaliate if I don't obey."
"Yes, there is. Keep annoying me and I'll claw your eyes out."
"That's okay. You clawed my heart out a long time ago."
O O O
Shikamaru had only ever seen eyes like that on one other human being. So bright and clear that they reflected everything like green glass: the afternoon sky, white hospital walls, his own image as they'd stared down at him with chastisement and concern. The were a genetic anomaly, probably caused by a recessive gene on a saturation loci which also explained the red hair that was so diffused that it looked pink. A relative of albinism, although no one would have ever called it that. Rare enough to stand out wildly among a population of mostly dark-haired, dark-eyed shinobi. Almost no chance of being passed on to the next generation. A unique and exotic brand of beauty that would have died with Sakura.
And, now, those eyes were in his living room.
He'd never seen them framed with such cruelty. Iced over with hate; as intensely horrific in Sasuke's possession as they had been intensely beautiful when they belonged to Sakura. And they examined the room, glancing over each individual before landing on Naruto. For a moment the two were locked in a silent, unblinking stare. Then Naruto jumped to his feet and dashed toward Sasuke, who didn't flinch when his former teammate suddenly invaded his proximity.
"You know who killed Sakura?"
Sasuke's eyes narrowed, and the barest hint of humor curled up one corner of his mouth. Naruto peered at him, frustrated and grieved, then his own eyes finally widened with comprehension as he took note of crystalline green. He'd missed it before, apparently; maybe tears had blurred Sasuke's image from across the room. But now he stared at Sakura's eyes with dawning horror. He swallowed, and shook his head once in disbelief.
"It wasn't you."
"What makes you think that?"
"You wouldn't have hurt her. Not Sakura. We're a team..."
"We were a team," Sasuke said through clenched teeth. Then he grabbed the front of Naruto's shirt and yanked him forward. "And you still know nothing about me." He released Naruto, who stumbled a bit before regaining his footing, but didn't fight back. He just watched Sasuke with increasing confusion.
"I don't believe it," he said.
"Neither do I," Shikamaru admitted. Possession of Sakura's eyes only put Sasuke at the scene of the fight. It didn't necessarily implicate him in her death. "You had nothing to gain from killing her. She didn't have any influence in Konoha. And her eyes were valueless to you."
Sasuke gazed at him, unimpressed. "Nara Shikamaru. I guess with your genius I should have expected you to figure it all out." Contempt dripped from every word. "Except that there's one thing you don't know. She attacked me."
"No way," said Temari, challenging. "You were hiding yourself from everyone. The only way she would have found you is if you'd wanted her to..."
He barely acknowledged her presence, and turned back to Shikamaru.
"Kiba couldn't smell you," Shikamaru said. "Hinata and Neji couldn't see you..."
"You're right," Sasuke said, with disgust that, incredibly, sounded directed at himself. "I was cloaking myself from every type of chakra-enhanced detection."
Chakra-enhanced. Invisible to a Hyuuga, an Aburame, an Inuzuka, a Yamanaka. But not, necessarily, to an average shinobi using conventional detection techniques. Using the five natural senses.
Sasuke saw understanding come to Shikamaru, and he smirked. "Sakura's eyes might have been worthless compared to a sharingan. But compared to being blind, they were serviceable. After all, they were the eyes that found me."
"No," said Naruto.
"You're a child," said Sasuke. "And a fool. Wake up and see the world you really live in. Sakura refused to do it, and now she's a corpse."
Something broke in Naruto's face, as fury and grief finally outweighed incomprehension. He bared his teeth and yelled like a hurt animal, drew back a fist, and the white-hot light that formed in his hand resembled a rasengan for an instant. But it couldn't be a legitimate rasengan; instead, what Shikamaru guessed he was seeing was a wild manifestation of Naruto's pain, emotions that welled up, second-nature, into a charge of unbalanced chakra. He'd witnessed Sakura do the same thing on occasion, getting so angry that she leveled a tree or a wall with almost no thought at all. But, either way, this wasn't a battle that could be fought here inside his home. Or even in the village. Shikamaru caught his father's eye for a split second, saw Dad's muscles contract in preparation to move, but Shikamaru was closer and he jumped out instead, caught Naruto's bicep and forearm and held them back to keep him from striking out. The chakra sizzled in Naruto's hand, only a foot from Shikamaru's face, so poorly controlled that Shikamaru could smell the flesh burning in his palm.
"You can't do this," he told him. "It'll draw too much attention."
Naruto's breathing was harsh, his eyes wild. "He killed her..."
Truthfully, on some level Shikamaru still didn't believe this. And he didn't think that Naruto did, either. But this fight had nothing to do with him: if Sasuke wanted them to think he'd murdered Sakura, that was his problem. And if Naruto wanted to punch his lights out, well...it might be good for both of them.
"No chakra," Shikamaru murmured. "We can't have Root coming down on this house."
A long, tense moment passed before Naruto finally swallowed, and the fire in his hand fizzled and died. The stench of cooked meat turned Shikamaru's stomach; Naruto's balled his charred, blistered hand into a fist and, at that second, Shikamaru let him go.
Naruto struck out, a crazy punch that Sasuke easily avoided. Sasuke raised an arm to block the next punch, eyes narrowed, and Naruto screamed again, then placed both hands on Sasuke's chest and shoved. Sasuke stumbled back, but wrapped his hands around Naruto's wrists and yanked them down, held them together while Naruto tried to smash his forehead into Sasuke's nose. Sasuke dodged him again, but made no effort to retaliate. If Shikamaru had had any doubts before, it was clear now that this fight had nothing to do with revenge or rivalry. The entire time Naruto was trying to pummel Sasuke, Sasuke never took a hit. But he never hit back, either. And Naruto didn't seem to be fighting at full strength. Instead, he reminded Shikamaru of a preschooler having a tantrum; much more like the Naruto he remembered from Academy. Nothing like the hero that defeated Pain and saved the village. Sasuke noticed, too, and voiced his disgust.
"You're still too weak, Naruto! What made you think you'd ever be a match for me?"
Naruto choked, aimed a punch for Sasuke's head. Sasuke ducked, and Naruto's fist crashed into the wall, sank in to his elbow. He jerked it loose, pieces of drywall spraying onto the floor, and shook out his fingers. "Shut up!"
"Haven't you been listening? I killed Sakura! And you can't even-"
He didn't get to finish. He groaned instead, both hands coming up to clutch at his head, and he sank to his knees in the floor. Anger disappeared from Naruto's face, gone as quickly as it had come.
"What's wrong with you?"
Sasuke tried to speak, then gritted his teeth and groaned again, in obvious pain. He gave a wry, almost crazy laugh.
A gasp, then he shouted, "Sakura, you blockhead!"
Then he pitched forward, barely getting his hands in time to keep from smashing into the floor, while Naruto stared at him, jaw hanging slack. Ragged breathing from the throats of both men filled the room. After a moment, Sasuke righted himself.
Now, though, his movements were hesitant. Disoriented. He glanced up at Naruto, then at everyone else in the room. Made eye contact with each person. Chouji and Ino, Temari and Sai. Mom and Dad. Then, finally, his eyes landed on Shikamaru. Only, now, the hate and coldness was gone, replaced by wonder. Those eyes filled with tears, shimmering on bottom lashes until a hand came up to swipe them away, annoyed and embarrassed. This wasn't Sasuke. Sasuke wasn't capable of this level of humanity.
"Sakura," he said.
"Yeah," she said, in Sasuke's voice. Only, not really. In the same way that the eyes reflected the owner's soul, the voice reflected the spirit. And this voice was higher, with sadness and regret. "It's me."
"Sakura?" Ino landed hard on her knees, caught Sasuke's body in a tight hug. "You're alive!"
"Not really," Sakura said, sounding too dazed to hug Ino back. "Sasuke-kun is alive. I'm sort of...riding in his body. For the time being."
Naruto, who had been staring with open shock, lowered himself to all fours. He searched her face, her eyes, spoke as if afraid of the answer. "Is it really you?"
"Of course it is. Do you think Sasuke-kun would ever blubber like this?"
His bottom lip quivered, then he reached out for her. He hesitated though, as if unsure if he would be permitted to touch her, but Ino moved out of the way and Sakura grabbed him, pulling him against Sasuke's chest. He embraced her, tears falling without shame.
Shikamaru felt a hand brush his, and he glanced over to find Temari by his side, observing him carefully. It was only then that he realized how disconnected he felt. From everything. He felt like an audience member here, as if Sakura and Naruto and Ino were actors on a stage rather than people he really knew. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what emotional response he was supposed to be having right now. Anger that Sakura was dead? Relief that she was back? Sadness? Anxiety? None of these came to him easily.
"Sakura," he said. "Sasuke didn't kill you, did he?"
"No. Danzo did."
"What?" Naruto drew back, fury in his features. "What do you-"
But Sakura waved him off. "It wasn't exactly unprovoked. Look, I did fight with Sasuke-kun. But..." She sighed, frustrated. "...I couldn't bring myself to kill him. And he just kept saying that he didn't have time for this, he was in the village for a different reason and I was distracting him."
"To assassinate Danzo-sama," Sai said.
"Right. And I finally decided that if I couldn't kill Sasuke-kun, then my only other choice was to help him."
This sounded like nothing more than pure insanity to Shikamaru. But Ino was nodding soberly, and she clasped one of Sakura's hands in her own.
"But, in the end, I screwed that up, too." Fresh tears came to her and she rubbed them on Sasuke's sleeve. "I always screwed up when it came to Sasuke-kun." She turned her eyes on Naruto. "And when it came to you, too."
Ever-loyal, Naruto said, "You never screwed up with me, Sakura-chan."
"Yes, I did, but I didn't come here to talk about that. Not yet." She sniffed once and tilted her head back, blinking back the last of her tears. When she looked at Shikamaru again, she was all business.
"My deal with Sasuke-kun," she said, "was that I'd give him my eyes if he promised to bring me here. I wasn't going to need them, anyway, and there were things I had to say before I left this realm permanently. Sasuke-kun tried to convince me that he didn't know how to do it, but I figured that had to a lie. He spent too much time with Orochimaru not to pick up something."
"So,"she continued, "when he took my eyes, he brought a piece of me with him. Just a chakra imprint, really. And I'll only be with him until he replaces these eyes. That's what I'm here to tell you. The thing I know he'll be too proud to say to you himself."
"What is it?" Naruto said.
"Danzo took Sasuke-kun's sharingans."
Shikamaru nodded again, assimilating all of this information. It made sense, now. Sasuke blinded in battle, a dying Sakura offering him her eyes. At a price, she said, but he knew she would have done it either way. And, now, Sasuke was without the sharingan, but at least for the time being he could see.
And Sakura had made that deal with him, but she was right: Sasuke had come here for his own purposes. He wanted his eyes back, but without them would be unable to put up any kind of fight against Danzo. Even with them, he'd lost.
"So you told him about our plans for Danzo?" Shikamaru said.
"Yeah. He thinks you're insane."
Ino smiled weakly. "But he's here, isn't he?"
"I don't know if that's such a good thing," Shikamaru said. Sasuke had spent his entire life refusing any kind of help from his Konoha colleagues. Why would he accept it now? And knowing what they knew about how dangerous he was, it wouldn't exactly be responsible to allow him to regain his sharingan. In fact, the most responsible thing would be to take advantage of these moments that Sakura had possession of his body, and kill him. And Sakura was a smart girl. She would have come to the same conclusion.
Her eyes met his, hard with resolve. "If you do it, I won't stop you," she said.
He said nothing. She couldn't have stopped him, anyway.
"Do what?" said Naruto.
"But I think it would be a mistake," Sakura said. "Sasuke can tell you what we didn't know before. The way that Danzo fights..."
"But is it worth the trade-off?"
"It might be. Just give him a chance."
"A chance? How many chances has he had, Sakura? And how many times has he acted in the most self-serving way possible?"
"What are you guys talking about?" Naruto was agitated, eyes darting back and forth between the two of them with suspicion. He knew exactly what they were talking about.
Sakura climbed to her feet, a little unsteady, probably in an attempt to be more convincing. But all Shikamaru took note of was the fact that all vital areas were exposed now, easily pinpointed because of the way Sasuke's shirt gaped open in the front. Heart. Lungs. Liver. "You have nothing to lose from waiting, Shikamaru. He's not a threat to you now."
Sasuke's strength was never his sharingan. It was his ability to be patient for what he wanted. The dangerous way he combined both physical brutality with cold, calculating intelligence. A true shinobi genius, in the way that neither Shikamaru nor Naruto could have ever been. That was the threat. And when he imagined that danger unleashed against the citizens of Konoha, against his family and friends, Kurenai and her unborn baby, his fingers instinctively twitched toward his weapons pouch.
Naruto moved, putting his body between Shikamaru and Sakura, so fast that he disappeared in transit. He stared at Shikamaru, incredulous and hurt.
"Don't do it," he said.
"Naruto..." he began, but there was no way he was going to be able to convince him that killing Sasuke was necessary. It wasn't even worth the effort.
"Look," Naruto said. "He trusted us enough to come here-"
"Sure he trusted us," Chouji said, surprisingly vehement. "We're trustworthy. We're not the ones that abandoned our village."
"So? We're the ones that are going to get rid of Danzo and the whole government, right? We're bigger traitors than Sasuke ever was!"
"What kind of logic-" Temari began, but Naruto stared Shikamaru in the eye, with a look somewhere between stubbornness and pleading.
"You have to let me finish my game," he said. "You're the one who taught me how to play."
Shikamaru groaned internally. He still wasn't sure how Naruto did that. Because, despite all evidence to the contrary, whenever Naruto looked at him like that Shikamaru couldn't help but believe that he'd be able to accomplish everything he sat out to do. It was as if Naruto's belief in his own dreams was so strong that it leaked into the people around him.
"We might regret it," he said.
"Let me say it a different way," Naruto said. "You don't want a big fight in this house, but that's the kind you'll have if you try to go through me to get to Sasuke."
He sighed. "Great. That's fine. If you want to protect Sasuke, then fine. But here's the deal: you're going to be his guardian as long as he's in this village. And the decisions he makes, good or bad, will be your direct responsibility. Got it? You can't let him out of your sight."
Naruto nodded proudly. "Got it."
Defeated, Shikamaru rubbed his eyebrows. "Get used to not sleeping." He was talking mostly to himself, but it was Naruto that answered.
"No problem. I can keep a clone on him at all times."
"So, what happens now?" Ino asked Sakura. "How long will you be here with us?"
"Until Sasuke-kun doesn't need my eyes anymore," Sakura said. "But I won't be able to talk to you like this for much longer. Taking over Sasuke-kun's body was a one time good deal." She turned to Naruto and gave him a wistful smile. "And, before I let him have it back, there's something I still need to do." She glanced around the room diffidently, but then her shoulders straightened with resolve and she took a step toward Naruto. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck, and, as quick as Shikamaru's brain usually was, it wasn't fast enough to warn him that he was about to see something private so that he could turn away in time.
She kissed Naruto. He stood in her embrace, stock-still, eyes wide, until water formed in his eyes. Then he melted, yielding to her with one, quiet sob. He slipped his hands behind her waist and held her close, kissing her back, and for the life of him, Shikamaru could not make himself stop watching. This was none of his business, and yet the sight of Naruto breaking while Sakura held him was too powerful to look away from. He felt Temari to his right, close enough to detect her warmth and feel her clothes brushing his. She didn't touch him again, though, and for that he was grateful. Physical contact would have been too much.
Sakura broke away and slipped a hand down until it rested on Naruto's chest. "I love you," she said seriously. But Naruto shook his head.
"You love Sasuke."
"I love you both. I can't help it."
He still looked unconvinced, like maybe there was a chance Sakura would mess with his head even in the afterlife. "Why wait to tell me that now?"
"I'm sorry." All of the sudden, she was angry at herself. "I'm sorry it took dying to realize how much I care about you. And how badly I've treated you."
"So, what does this even mean?" He scratched at his head like he was agitated. "You love me, but you're just going to turn around and leave forever?"
"I don't have much choice, Naruto." Then she bowed her head a little. "Would it have been better if I hadn't told you?"
"No," he said, then he took her face between both hands and stared right into her eyes. "Sakura-chan, you don't have to go. If Sasuke can move you into one body, he can move you into another-"
"It's not possible," she said. "I'm not even really here right now, you know. All you're talking to is what's left over of my will. But the real Sakura..." She put her head on his shoulder, hugged him tightly as though she could soften the blow of what she was about to say. "She's already dead."
"This isn't fair," he said. Then all of the sudden he gritted his teeth and tossed back his head, screamed out his anger and frustration and heartbreak at the ceiling. "This is not fair!"
"I know it's not, Naruto. But you know what else isn't fair?" He wouldn't look at her, but she grabbed his chin and made him face her. "It isn't fair for you to give yourself to someone who can only ever give half of herself back!"
He shivered in her grasp. "But I love you."
"I love you, too. But, you know..." She looked at him through Sasuke's eyelashes, which required ducking her head farther than she would have had to if she'd been shorter than him. "...there's someone else who loves you, too. Loves you all. Not selfishly the way I do."
He shook his head, unwilling to accept this. "I don't care. I don't know who you're talking about."
"Yes, you do, dummy."
"It doesn't matter. I can't just trade you for someone else. I've loved you forever."
"I know. And I'm sorry I was never worthy of it."
Her voice trembled, and at first Shikamaru thought it was because she was crying. But then he realized that she was fading out, losing her tenuous control of Sasuke's body. She shook slightly, winced as though hit with a sudden headache.
"I'm going, Naruto."
"No. You've only been here for a minute!"
"A minute is forever, when you're fighting with Sasuke-kun. You should know that." She smiled at Sai, at Ino, at everyone in silent good-bye. Then she met Naruto's gaze again. "Listen. I need you to tell Kakashi-sensei goodbye for me. And my mom and dad, too, when this is all over."
"And don't let Sasuke-kun go, whatever you do. Remember the promise."
"Love you." She kissed him one last time, tears running down her cheeks, and Naruto clung to her back, her hair, as though he could hold her and keep her there. But her body tensed, shuddered, and a new tear formed at the corner of her eye: a blood-red one that trickled down and left a ghastly streak on Sasuke's pale face. When his body jerked away from Naruto, there was rage in his eyes bordering mania. Sakura was gone for good, Sasuke back in control, and he gasped, chest heaving, looked as if he was considering spitting in the floor. Instead, he spun away from them all and headed for the side door, the one through which he'd arrived.
"Sasuke, wait," Naruto said. Sasuke froze in place, as rigid as marble, but didn't respond. Naruto took a step toward him, but left him some space. "Did you hear all that?"
Of course he'd heard it. Judging by the way his neck and shoulder muscles tensed and flexed, he'd not only heard every word, he'd experienced every moment as though it had happened to him. And, technically, it had.
Naruto moved a little closer, and the death intent radiated from Sasuke like heat from an out-of-control wildfire.
"Back...off," he said, each word punctuated by hate.
"I can't. I have orders to follow you."
"If you follow me, I will kill you."
"Go ahead," Naruto said, a fresh tear rolling down his cheek, then dripping from his jaw. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself, anyway. If I let you leave here again. And Sakura-chan said-"
"She doesn't know what she's talking about," Sasuke said. "I have no intention of enlisting your help to kill Danzo. I have my own plans for him."
"No offense, Sasuke-kun," Ino said, very carefully, "but your plans didn't exactly work last time-"
This, apparently, was the straw that broke the snake's back. Sasuke flickered, vanished, and when he reappeared he had Ino by the throat, back to the wall, two feet off the ground.
"No one asked for you opinion," he said, tightening his grip. Ino gagged, grasped at his hands with clawed fingers, but he held firm. Shikamaru bolted toward her, but he was miles behind Chouji, and Sasuke never saw Chouji coming. Shikamaru had to wonder, later, if anyone had ever guessed what a threat Chouji could be. At that moment he wasn't even sure that he had estimated him fairly.
Chouji grabbed the back of Sasuke's shirt with a Baika-doubled hand and jerked him away from Ino so hard that Sasuke lost his grip on her neck. She slumped to the ground, coughing, and Chouji slammed Sasuke backwards into the dining room table. It split down the middle and crashed to the floor, sending chairs flying in all directions, and Sasuke disappeared beneath shards of broken wood. But Chouji didn't give him a chance to get back up; he plucked him from the wreckage himself and lifted him by his throat, the exact same way Sasuke had been holding Ino seconds ago, only Chouji's hand was a thousand times stronger, a thousand times more deadly. He stared into Sasuke's bleeding, hate-filled eyes with equivalent animosity.
"Never touch her again."
The smell of ozone preceded the chidori, electricity crackling in the air near Sasuke's right arm, and purely by instinct Shikamaru sent out kage mane to capture them both before this could get out of control. Not that he wouldn't have loved to let Chouji obliterate Sasuke, but there were bigger things at stake, here.
But thoughts of staying below the radar, protecting his house, even protecting Ino, all fell away when he made contact with the two shadows. Chouji and Sasuke separated, stood inches apart, both of them emanating the fury that they weren't capable of acting on while trapped this way. And Shikamaru was left stunned by the anger he could feel coming from both of them, not only because it was so strong, but because it was so similar. Rarely could he sense a person's spirit through his shadow; only when the spirit was so powerful, emotions so raw that they spilled over into the chakra. But in Sasuke and Chouji both he could feel naked hatred, spiked with equal amounts of revenge, guilt, fear, and even jealousy. And some of these emotions he recognized all too well, now that he had Temari. Maybe not the jealousy, but he could easily imagine feeling this way, could picture himself sinking into a hurt, blind rage if he had to, for example, listen to Temari confess her love for another man.
Chouji loved Ino. And, even more miraculously, Sasuke loved Sakura.
Maybe Sasuke understood this, and maybe he didn't. Maybe his love for her was so encased in ice that he didn't recognized it when he saw it. But Shikamaru saw it, in both men, and it gave him compassion that he probably wouldn't have been able to muster up a week ago.
"I know you want to kill Danzo," he said to Sasuke. "And you deserve to do it."
Sasuke watched him silently, and Shikamaru glanced at Naruto. "You both do. And I want to give you that chance."
"I don't need your help," Sasuke said.
"Yes, you do," Shikamaru said. "That's obvious. Chouji and I can overpower you now. How much stronger is Danzo than we are?"
A shiver of anger ran through Sasuke's body, and Shikamaru felt it like a jolt of electricity. But he gave no indication that he'd been stung. "More importantly, though, we need your help. We need you to fight alongside us, and wait until we're ready to take him on as a group before you attack. If I don't have your word that you'll follow my orders until Danzo is dead, then I can't let you leave here. Ever." He realized what he'd said. My orders. As if he was in charge of this thing. And he looked over to where Dad was standing, wondering if he'd crossed some line, curious to see how Dad had reacted to the words, if he had at all. But the man was gone. Slipped away during the altercation, right from behind Mom's back. And, so far, no one else had noticed.
"What good is his word?" Chouji said. "He gave his word to be loyal to Konoha, too. Oaths don't mean anything to him."
But Sasuke was still staring at Shikamaru, and Shikamaru mouthed the phrase only for him to see.
On her life.
Sasuke's eyes widened slightly, his jaw tightened with some emotion that Shikamaru was unable to detect. His lips moved several times before he was finally able to force out, "Two days."
"Until he's dead."
A stiff fraction of a nod. "My word."
Shikamaru released them both, prepared for cataclysm. But none came. It was incredibly tempting to give Sasuke some order he wouldn't want to follow, just as a test. But he wasn't stupid. Just because he had a crocodile on a leash didn't mean it wouldn't turn around and bite his head off if he infuriated it enough.
Chouji glared at Sasuke, but stayed rooted to the spot, and Ino gazed at him with something like childish awe. Sasuke took several deep breaths, obviously focusing on containing his anger, and in a moment his face blanked over, as cold as ever. It was terrifying, in a way, to watch a man swallow that much negative energy. One day it would break out. If he didn't let it go, a little at a time, it would destroy him.
Maybe it already had.
"Where are you going?" Shikamaru said, when Sasuke turned for the door.
"To get my team."
"You have a team?" Naruto asked, to which Sasuke replied, in a bitter voice:
"I sent them into the forest after our fight," Sasuke said. "Is your 'army' going to let them back in?"
"They will," said Shikamaru. "You have two hours."
Another moment of extreme effort on Sasuke's part followed, as he struggled with obedience. Then he gave a brusque nod and glanced at Naruto.
"I assume you're going to chase me," he said.
Naruto looked thoughtful for a moment, then he pressed his lips together grimly. "Maybe that's why I'm always too late to catch you," he said. "I never assume you're going to run."
O O O
Shikamaru sent a half-dozen of Naruto's clones with Sasuke, but kept the real Naruto here at the base so they would know immediately if Sasuke had betrayed them. Once they were gone, he looked over to where his mother was, expecting Dad to have returned. But he still wasn't back. Sai, however, stepped forward, his expression inscrutable. Of course. He still had a job to do. He'd come here to arrest Shikamaru, and would have no choice but to follow orders. That threw a serious wrench into things.
"It's too bad that I have to do this," Sai said, "considering the circumstances."
"You're telling me."
"But if I don't bring you back to Danzo-sama, he'll come after you himself. And I won't be able to help your father anymore."
Dad appeared on the stairs, having changed his uniform for civilian clothes, and descended them while everyone waited. He stood directly in front of Sai, his face sober, his back uncharacteristically straight.
"That's not technically true."
"I'm placing myself under arrest," Dad said, "for commanding a subordinate in direct violation of the Hokage's orders."
"Dad!" Shikamaru said, just as Mom sputtered, "Shikaku! You can't-"
"Yes, I can. I was only thinking of Shikamaru's health when I did it, but the fact remains that I broke the law. I have to give myself up."
His health. Right. Like Danzo would believe that for a second. But Dad was giving them the official story, the one they would be expected to spread to all their friends and neighbors. Dad had forbidden Shikamaru to obey Danzo's orders to appear in his office on the advice of a medical officer, because, in her "professional" opinion, he was still on the mend. Treason on a technicality, but treason, nonetheless. "But, Dad," Shikamaru said, trying to force reason through his skull. "What you're admitting to is a lot worse than failing to comply with a single order."
"In two days, it won't matter. We just have to hope Danzo waits that long to sentence me." He smiled thinly, and Mom's face contorted with anger.
"That's not funny."
"Sorry." He held up his wrists for Sai, who tied them with a chakra-infused rope.
"Don't do this," Shikamaru said. "I'm not that important. Who's going to lead this rebellion while you're gone?"
"From what I saw, you were already leading it."
Sai looked back and forth from Dad to Shikamaru, clearly torn, but Dad gave him a little tug toward the door. "You don't need to think about this, Sai. Just follow normal protocol."
Sai nodded slowly, and Mom watched them both, face pale and hard. It was hard to tell if she was mad or worried. Dad leaned over to place a kiss on her forehead, which, at any other time, would have turned Shikamaru's stomach to the point of nausea. But not today.
"From now on," Dad told him, "you're the commander of these troops. You have my full confidence." He raised his bound hands together to salute Shikamaru, then allowed Sai to lead him through the door.
Then he was gone.
Gone. Left Shikamaru behind, with absolutely no idea of what he was supposed to be doing. So far he'd been kept in complete darkness, and Dad's transfer of command didn't conveniently bring enlightenment along with it.
He glanced around at "his" army, feeling like a deer caught in a bright light. Everyone else seemed to be reflecting his face, because they stared back in shock and disbelief. It looked like no one had seen this coming. Had Dad been expecting it all along? Or had he made this decision on the fly, presented with no other option?
After a long silence, there was a shuffle of movement to his left. He looked over at Chouji, then blinked with surprise when he bowed to him, low and deep, a clear and embarrassing sign of honor. After a beat Ino followed his lead, just as respectful. Shikamaru caught motion from his right: Temari bowing, followed by Naruto. Then he glanced up at Mom, who's jaw tightened slightly before she controlled it. She lowered herself, slowly, to her knees. Then she bent over and placed her forehead and palms on the floor.
"Bring him back," she said. "Please."
Her request woke him up, like a slap in the face. He was in command now, and he was letting Sai lead Dad away, with no idea of where, exactly, they were headed or what might happen to him. He reached out instinctively for the soldiers he had readily available, two people he knew he could count on.
They straightened, at instant attention.
"Follow Sai," he said. "Do everything in your power to find where they'll be keeping Dad. And, no matter what, do not let yourselves be seen."
They were gone in a flash, leaving him with Mom, Naruto, and Temari. In essence, without an army. He wished he could send more people to watch Dad, but his hands were tied at the moment. He couldn't order Naruto to do anything; Naruto had to stick around so he could give updates on Sasuke's position and activity. Temari was ridiculously useful, but he wanted her by his side at all times, unless he was given no other choice. Maybe that was pathetic, but he didn't care. And Mom...well, she was Mom. She wasn't going anywhere.
Mom was on her feet, untying the blue bandana.
"Permission to assist Chouji and Ino."
She let the bandana flutter onto her perfectly swept entryway, then took off her voluminous apron and chucked it onto the floor. Up until now, he hadn't really noticed what she was wearing under it: strips of leather that crossed over a fishnet shirt, and black, standard-issue hakama. A uniform, like something from twenty years ago, and so revealing that he was embarrassed to look at her.
"Mom..." he began, but she grabbed one of the pouches of kunai from beside the door and put her hand on the door knob. She watched him, expectantly.
He gaped, brought up short by the knowledge that he literally knew nothing about his parents, or what they'd been doing while he was busy with his own life. Mom was ready. Not jumping into something out of worry, but legitimately prepared for such a situation. Her upper back and shoulders looked lean and trained, and he just shook his head from disbelief. Why hadn't he noticed any of this before?
"Shikamaru, snap out of it," Mom barked. "Make a decision."
"Uh..." He blinked, trying to decide if he needed his mother for anything else. She wasn't an asset he'd considered before, but now that he knew he had her, it would be stupid to just let her run off without thinking. But, no, he wanted her to follow Sai. He'd been wishing for a third set of eyes, and here they were. Focused. Determined. Kind of horrifying.
"Yeah," he said, and he cringed internally at the thought of ordering Mom around. "Please do."
She jerked her head and threw open the door, then disappeared into the dusky evening. The door hung open, and a breeze made the discarded bandana flutter gently before Temari closed it. She looked at Shikamaru, eyes wide with disbelief.
"Wow," she said.
He just nodded, his mind was already elsewhere. He had a hundred thousand things to think about now, and he couldn't afford to be lazy or relax, even for a second. There was so much to take into consideration. He wasn't afraid that he wouldn't be able to figure everything out, given time, but it was difficult to locate the point from where he should start.
"Any word on Sasuke?" he asked Naruto, who shook his head, his eyes far away.
"My clones are still with him. No news is good news, right?"
Shikamaru knew he had to be reflecting on today's events. He was being remarkably useful, remarkably loyal for someone that had absorbed the emotional hit he'd been given.
"Naruto. Go take a nap."
His eyebrows furrowed, a bit like a puppy. "I'm not really tired."
Shikamaru knew this. He also knew that it would be cruel not to give Naruto time to himself, to cry or think or whatever he might want to do. It was wrong to keep him here, when he wasn't the type to ever admit when he needed a break.
"You can use Ino's room. There's an extra bed."
Naruto looked as though he was considering arguing, but he finally deflated and obeyed. It was a despondent figure that made its way up the stairs, and after a door on the second floor clicked shut Shikamaru heard the thump of knees hitting hardwood floor. Temari elbowed him, then bobbed her head toward the stairs.
"He'll be okay, you know," she said.
She examined him, her blue-green eyes dark with concern. "Are you going to be okay?"
He wasn't sure what she meant, wasn't even really listening. He knew she was beautiful, was glad she was here with him. Otherwise, he was thinking about Dad and Danzo. About Naruto and Sasuke. About Chouji and Ino. About Sakura. "Yep."
She opened her mouth again, but the sound of the side door sliding open caught their attention. Genma dropped in, followed by Anko and Ebisu.
"Yo," Genma said. "Where's Shikaku-san?"
Shikamaru sneaked a look at Temari, who was watching him with her eyebrows raised, then he took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest.
"Dad was captured. I'm assuming command of this operation."
They glanced at the wreckage in the dining room, at the demolished table and the deep hole in the drywall, then at each other as if deciding amongst themselves whether or not to trust him. But they quickly came to some nonverbal agreement, clearly based on something that had been previously decided upon or ordered. Dad must have at least prepared them for this eventuality.
They bowed to him, reassigning their allegiance, and when they stood up again Ebisu resettled his glasses on his nose.
Temari smirked at him, and he knew she was thinking the same thing he was. Time for the veil to come down.
"Yeah," he said. "I want the three of you to divulge everything my father commanded you to hide from me."
A/N: Hey, there. Been a while, ne? Here's a new chapter; I hope there are still some people out there that are interested. I have another one that I'm wrestling with, that's almost done, and then it'll be about time to wrap this fic up. I went back today and updated all the chapters so that the formatting looks pretty again, and I changed a few minor things. Nothing major to the plot. However, there's a new untagged dialogue at the beginning of chapter eleven that kind of amuses me. :)
I'm sorry that it's been so long, but it's good to get some motivation for this again. I've really enjoyed writing these chappies. I hope you've enjoyed reading! Please leave me a review if you're still following, and are interested in seeing how this plays out. Next time we learn a few secrets, figure out what the heck is wrong with Shikamaru's mental state, try and wrangle Sasuke, and enjoy some angsty lime. I'd like to give an en extra-special thank you to Randomonium, Coelha-chan, MajorStranger and BigPockets for the editing help, and Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow yanks!