Title: Walk Through Shadow
Chapter: 01 My Father's Sister
Disclaimer: Naruto doesn't belong to me. It's Kishimoto's and I just play with it. AU immediately after the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. Part 1 of 7. Unbeta'd. Thanks so much to all who read, review, and lurk! Yes, I'm still working on Slow Burn and hopefully the next chapter will be up early next week!
Notes: This is a side story to Slow Burn. It's not absolutely necessary to read Slow Burn, but it would probably help explain the backstory!
[Shikamaru centric] While Ino is off in Kumogakure for the Chuunin Exams, Shikamaru's nightmares worsen and his control over his shadow unravels. Getting it together again means facing his worst enemy—himself.
The low table in the center of the room was different tonight.
Rather than the plain, dark wood it had been made out of every other time he'd been here, the top had changed to alternating panels of pale and dark wood. Even the legs of it were slightly trimmer, the feet curling up slightly with the faintest hint of a swirl carved into them.
Shikamaru's eyes narrowed at the table. He didn't know what the change meant, only that he couldn't help but feel that any change in this, his starting point for every bad dream he'd had in the last few months, was likely to be bad news.
Looking around the room, the white room--the floor was just as bare as always, pure white tile that was cool under his unshod feet--Shikamaru frowned, when he noticed a wall hanging.
That hadn't been there before either. And where was Odd-Ino? She always showed up to lead him to another dream, always looking older and somehow not quite the girl—still a girl, just a little off--who he worked-fought-trained with in the real world. Familiarity had shaken his convictions that she was simply an older Ino, produced by his thoughts—she was too different to be a reflection of sorts. He didn't know what else to call her, though, as she was, Shikamaru was certain, some sort of Ino.
Even months of interacting with her hadn't given him much of a clue beyond that, though. She was always flighty, and seldom spoke plainly.
Unwillingly, reluctantly, but he was no stranger to his mind by now, Shikamaru walked over to inspect the wall hanging. If she wasn't here, then there was something he had to do first. Shikamaru considered the size of the tapestry, judging it to be wider than he could reach with arms out-spread, but only barely. And the height the thing had...
As always, it took him longer to get to the hanging and the wall it adorned than it should have. Distances were deceptive and never simple when it came to his mind. Rules, what rules? It was another thing to mull over.
Shikamaru glanced back over his shoulder, just in case Odd-Ino had shown up, but saw nothing but the table in the room. His frown got just a little deeper at that. Changes like this--he found them unsettling.
He did not like change.
Turning back to continue towards the hanging, he nearly walked right into it. Swearing, Shikamaru managed to stop himself before he'd touched it; his nose a bare half inch from the rich fabric. He knew that he hadn't been nearly so close to it before he'd glanced behind him.
Dreams, he thought sourly. That was irritating. He took a careful step back from the tapestry; his eyes fixed on it in the hopes that his gaze would pin it down, lock it into place. Even better, it put some distance between him and the thing.
Touching things, especially when they weren't always in his dreamscape, generally led to the worst sort of nightmares. Shikamaru was more than willing to put the experience off for just a little bit.
Until Odd-Ino arrived, at least. He resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder again to see if she'd shown up. It would only serve him right if he landed in the hanging because he was too twitchy about a change in routine.
As much as his own subconscious had a routine. Shut up, he told himself.
He glanced up at the hanging and swallowed hard.
Red was the predominant colour. Brilliant bloody scarlet, mixed in with brown-red that reminded him uncomfortably of drying blood, and a deep ruby red. All of them spiraled around each other, tied in knots until he couldn't tell where the colours started and mixed.
On the sober background of black and gray, the red stood out like an eye-sore. Like blood, he thought. White areas, or mostly white, some of them slightly pinkish—diluted blood, he supplied darkly—and near the top were two small ovals in startling, shocking blue, amidst rest of the carnage. The blue a serene contrast to the bloodied and tumultuous colours of the rest.
Of all of it, only those ovals standing out so prominently now that he'd noticed them, seemed to rise above the disaster, the fighting, and the rest of the hanging. Nausea rolled in his stomach, and he stared as if bespelled at the blue ovals—almost like eyes, Shikamaru realized, nausea abruptly doubling. Ino's eyes. There was no mistaking that shade of blue.
"You don't like my tapestry?" A girl's voice echoed through the room, and Shikamaru swung around, almost staggering as he managed a few steps away from the hanging--tapestry--and tried to will his stomach calm.
It was Odd-Ino; she had seated herself at the low table and now there was a plate of crackers and tea sitting out. Honey to add to the tea, though usually they both took it black. Forcing another swallow, he took a few more steps, and refused to glance behind him to see if the hanging had followed him while he tried to come up with an answer.
"I don't," he said finally, honestly, as he more collapsed than sat opposite from her. He felt drained, like he'd been running a marathon, when all he'd done was look at a tapestry and then walk away from it.
Odd-Ino regarded him frankly, eyes wide and guileless. This time around she was wearing a kimono in pink and gold, herons in flight scattered across it. The colours made her seem more delicate than usual. Her long blonde hair, longer than real Ino had ever had, was braided and then pinned up around her head to form a crown of hair. Blue eyes matching the tapestry ovals fearlessly met his gaze. Shikamaru couldn't stand to meet that look for more than a few seconds. He dropped his eyes to stare at the tea cup she placed down in front of him.
Shikamaru reached and carefully picked up his cup. His hand shook slightly and he struggled to steady it. Nothing was wrong, he told himself, it was just tea. And Odd-Ino staring at him, he could feel her gaze prickling along his skull, but Shikamaru refused to look up to confirm it. He didn't need to.
"I don't mind," she said, her voice lilting and somehow contemplative. "It's not a design meant for peace."
The tea was hot, too hot as his swallow burnt his tongue. Shikamaru welcomed that pain; it gave him something to focus on while he tried to regain his equilibrium. "Who would want that up in their house then?"
He wasn't having much luck, but his words had come out in an almost-drawl. Better that than his voice cracking as Shikamaru had half-feared it would.
"You can't think of any reasons?" Odd-Ino asked him.
Despite himself, he relaxed slightly. This was routine. What was supposed to happen before a nightmare—tea and talk until he had something to think about beyond the nightmares. Shikamaru couldn't help but wonder, though, at the change in the pattern. Patterns didn't break for no reason.
It was dangerous to ignore it, even if it was only a break inside subconscious. Perhaps, he amended, as he took another sip of his near scalding tea, it was even more dangerous because it was only in his head. There was no one but himself to rely on.
"I can think of a few," he said with a frown as Odd-Ino fussed with her tea and the few rice crackers on her plate.
Her blue blue eyes blinked up at him and she tilted her head invitingly, clearly expecting some sort of answer, but stayed silent. Like a bird, he thought, eyes tracing the outline of one of the herons on her kimono. Shikamaru doubted her wardrobe was coincidence.
"As a reminder," Shikamaru said, testing the words out carefully, weighing them delicately so that what he said wouldn't be misconstrued. "Of war. Of pain. So that whoever had hung it up would never forget what had gone on, or what could go on." It depended on the circumstances. Everything did, but Shikamaru forged on anyway. If he'd protested every question with a need for more information he'd never have gotten anywhere. Oftimes, more information simply wasn't available.
"Or," he continued, "it could have been placed as revenge--someone in the household believes there's something the one the message is intended for, needs to see, and see constantly. They want them uncomfortable and upset."
Odd-Ino blinked slowly, still carefully poised and almost heartbreakingly delicate. Looking at her made his chest tighten and he didn't know why. "Do you think it was placed for that purpose here?" she asked, as she took up a cracker.
Shikamaru glanced over at the wall tapestry. "I'd rather not believe that," he answered. His tea wasn't getting any colder; it never did in his dreams. It was always just to the side of being too hot.
"Because whatever message is in that thing, I don't want it." Blunt. He had no fear of Odd-Ino getting angry. She never did—sometimes inscrutable, sometimes incomprehensible, but never the ranting raging fury of her namesake.
"What if the message is that 'she doesn't care what you want'?"
He paused. "Are you saying that's a message from Ino?" It was all but impossible, Shikamaru thought, even if Ino was all about mind games. She would not do something like this. Not to him.
It was too indirect.
Odd-Ino lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "Who can say for sure?" she asked, tilting her head to the other side. "For certain, that is. Taking care to heed your messages might make things different."
Shikamaru set his cup down; the tea looked as if he hadn't had a single sip. "I think," he said quietly, "that if the message is that, then it could be repeated as many times as a heart beats and I would still ignore it. Even if she doesn't care what I want, how is that going to stop me?"
"I don't know," she answered him. "Did you want to find out?"
Shikamaru looked at her, not sure of what she was asking quite then. "I'll find out if and when it happens in the waking world," he replied, frowning at her. "I don't need to be coming up with answers to questions like that when this isn't reality."
Odd-Ino was unperturbed by his frown. That, at least, both Ino's shared. He couldn't even count the number of times Ino had blithely ignored his mood and gone on to detail merrily whatever plan she'd had in mind. Odd-Ino, though, seemed only to not notice.
No doubt because she's just a construct of my subconscious, he thought moodily. How nice, my subconscious is insane.
Whereas Ino, in the waking world, definitely knew what she was about whenever she overran his mood or opinion.
"What do you think reality is?" she wondered, turning her head to glance at the tapestry on the wall. "That seems pretty real to me."
"It's in my head," he replied, refusing to look over at the hanging yet again. "That makes it only a figment of my imagination. It's not real."
"I'm only in your head too," Odd-Ino pointed out, blue eyes wide and disarming. "Does that mean you don't think I'm real either?"
Shikamaru, caught off-guard by that question, raised his eyebrows. "Do you think you're real?"
She didn't seem like it to him, honestly. Shikamaru wasn't particularly enthused with the idea of her being real. That would only cause more headaches than he was willing to deal with.
If he could keep his dreams and the rest of his life separate, he could deal. Would deal. His father had said that every Nara got dreams. Shikamaru wondered what his father's were like. Was there an Odd-Yoshino in his head? Did he still have to deal with this, the tea and the rice crackers and then the nightmares.
The table they were sitting at began to waver, the light and dark paneling flickering in and out, as if lights in the middle of a storm, the power cutting in and out over and over as he watched.
Shikamaru realized as his nausea came swooping back that Odd-Ino had disappeared. The tea service wavered and sank into the table; the table flickered in and out wildly as he climbed to his feet and braced himself for the nightmare that was coming. His shoulders tensed and for all of his preparation, the sudden lurching of the room sent him off balance enough that he slipped--
--and fell through the table--
--into a world of blood and bone and screams. Picking himself off the ground, he always landed flat on his ass for some reason, Shikamaru took stock of the situation and paled.
It was a battlefield.
As far as the eye could see were shinobi fighting shinobi, jutsu flying through the air, the ground punished doubly from both sides as havoc was perpetuated.
He didn't see Ino though.
Shikamaru brushed himself off though no mud—no blood—had touched him, and looked around. His lips tightened when he realized that, in the distance, he could see Chouji--it had to be Chouji, no one else moved like that—and that his oldest friend was slowly losing his fight.
Lips thinning, Shikamaru walked, almost slouched in that direction. This was a dream, he reminded himself again and again, and kept to a slow walk as he headed in Chouji's direction. No trick of his subconscious was going to send him running. As he walked, he kept an eye out for Ino. Where Chouji was, Ino would be. She had to be.
They were a team. Where else would she be? He mentally shied away from the other possibilities—of Ino dead, of Ino turned traitor, of Ino gone missing—and kept walking. One foot in front of the other as he unwillingly looked at the scene around him; Shikamaru knew it was no good closing his eyes. The scene would remain in his view, as if painted on his eyelids.
There was no such thing as a reprieve inside of his head.
Bodies littered the ground like so many discarded toys; broken and bleeding from horrific wounds as their empty eyes cut into him like kunai. He recognized so many of them, the bodies were his family, his classmates, his co-workers…
Chouji was still fighting. Shikamaru took heart from that and tried to speed up, to stop noticing and picking out the details of the carnage—there was his mother, slit from neck to groin and face forever frozen in a rictus of pain; his father stuck to a tree like a pincushion, long thin blades having pierced his body so many times that it was only the fact that the face had been untouched that he could tell who it was—and knew that, even if this was a dream, he'd remember in the morning.
How could he forget? Those were his parents.
He didn't think there was anyone who could just shrug something like this off. Shikamaru hoped that he never could. What had Odd-Ino said? That it was a message? "Got it," he murmured, sick at heart with the whole situation. "Loud and clear."
Then he was standing near Chouji, and the battlefield was different--no longer in the midst of a spoilt forest, this was a plain that had been left mostly untouched. He looked at Chouji and recoiled. His oldest friend had been brutally wounded, blood flowing freely from too many injuries to count, and Shikamaru couldn't even imagine the strength of will that was keeping him up-right.
"Chouji," he said, feeling helpless and hating it. "It's okay, you've done enough."
Whatever fight was being fought, surely Chouji had done enough by now.
Chouji didn't hear him. Shikamaru had known he wouldn't. This was his dream, after all, but the rules weren't his. (If Shikamaru had been in control of his dreams they'd have been peaceful.) He followed Chouji's intent gaze and went white, wobbling as he took in the fight that was going on.
Ino was easily recognizable. He'd know her deceptively slender body anywhere, and her hair spilt down her back, having fallen loose from her customary ponytail. She was wearing a Chuunin vest and boots that had shin guards on them. The bandages she wore around her hands and arms were still present, but the look on her face, the cold shuttered rage implicit in her empty blue eyes chilled him to the core. Her hitae-ite was firmly around her forehead, the Konoha leaf cleanly inscribed in the metal.
That wasn't the way Ino was supposed to look, but that wasn't what upset him the most. No, what upset him the most, as he looked at her opponent--a man more wiry than bulky, with longish dark hair and earrings in his ears; his hitae-ite, though, was slashed through the leaf, traitor-nin, missing-nin--and was the fact that the person Ino was fighting… he knew better than anyone.
She was fighting him.
He woke up all at once, chest heaving and sweat-soaked as he blinked up at the ceiling of his bedroom and tried to make sense of what he'd seen in his dream. Nausea welled up and Shikamaru all but flung himself out of bed and hurried to the bathroom that was just down the hall.
Shikamaru locked the door behind him. His hands shook as he stared at his reflection in the mirror over the sink. He looked ghastly, chalk-ish and pasty. Shikamaru closed his eyes, glad that this he could close out so he didn't have to look, and struggled to keep from throwing up. In a ninja household, he knew that his waking up as he had hadn't gone unnoticed. But he'd be left alone unless he got sick.
Too many years of paranoia, he thought, as he breathed deeply to steady his stomach. That's what it was. If one fell ill, there was always the chance of it being poison. He did not want to cause a fuss. In and out. Slowly he got his stomach back under control.
Splashing water on his face, he stared into his reflection and wished again that this would just stop. Taking care of other business first, he headed back to his room and glanced at the clock. It was early, just past three in the morning.
And there was no chance of him getting any more sleep tonight. Even though he'd managed to defeat the nausea, Shikamaru knew he was too keyed up to try and get more shut eye. Ignoring his bed, he got dressed and flicked on the table lamp at his desk. Pulling out one of the books his father had given him back when the dreams had started, Shikamaru settled in to try and find something useful for controlling them.
Around his feet, his shadow rolled and stretched across the floor. He cast a glance at it, but didn't bother with trying to still it. He had enough difficulties with it when he wasn't nightmare-rattled. Any effort now would be useless if he attempted to work on control right now. Only a few more hours, he told himself, and then he'd go down and help his father out with the deer while waiting to see if there were any missions for him to go on.
It was… different. Being left behind without any of his team. Most of his classmates, the ones he bothered talking to on a regular basis, were gone as well—Shino and his team out on a mission, which was, he'd heard through the grapevine, undoubtedly a good thing for Shino considering the situation the Aburame found themselves in, the village in a, well, buzz about it—but Shikamaru could be honest with himself, in his own slightly messy room, that it was the fact that his team was gone that bothered him the most.
This time, Ino had said, you'll be the one left behind.
She'd said it as if that had meaning. Shikamaru was rapidly finding out what she'd meant. It was hard to remember that he didn't have team training because he had no team here, or that he wouldn't be out on a mission with them—if he got a mission, it would be with an entirely different team—and he wondered, again, if this was something of what Ino had thought a few months ago.
At least, he'd realized, he'd had warning. It didn't make the fact easier to swallow, but it did keep away the idea that he'd been left behind because he wasn't good enough. Not that that sort of thing was what Shikamaru would have considered but he knew Ino; he could guess that her thoughts had spiraled onto that almost immediately.
He set his jaw and shook his head. That just led to him thinking that he'd done something wrong there—which he hadn't, even if it had been an awful thing to do, but he couldn't have taken her, he'd needed raw power and Ino didn't have that, not even now after all her training, and there'd been no way that he was going to break confidentiality and tell her—Shikamaru scowled down at his book.
In the last few weeks he'd read the books repeatedly. Even as he opened it up for yet another time through it, Shikamaru knew that he wasn't going to find anything new. It was just a way of making the time go by, giving him focus on something other than the fact that he wanted his team back where he could keep an eye on them and the rising knowledge that even if they were in Konoha, his shadow was increasingly unstable and rendering him more of a liability than anything else during a mission.
Yet another thing that he had to get under control. Asuma-sensei had told him to use the time they were gone to put himself back together, work things out, but Shikamaru didn't have so much of an inkling as to how he was supposed to do it.
He flipped through the pages of the book, dark eyes scanning the words without really registering them beyond the fact that it was about control, which he lacked, but spoken so vaguely about how to get back that Shikamaru scowled. What was the point of instructions if you couldn't understand them?
How did someone walk through the shadows of their own mind? For extreme cases only, the text ran, but didn't give any more information. He ran one hand through his tangled hair--he slept with it loose, it wasn't worth the effort of trying to untangle the elastic from his hair every morning otherwise--and let out a sigh. Shikamaru wondered if he ought to ask his father about it.
Shikaku had to have gone through all of... the nightmares and shadow issues at some point, of that Shikamaru was pretty sure. It was, as his father was fond of saying, a different time. There was no war on that drew adulthood out of children years before they were of age, there was less of a need to take on all the duties that an adult had. Shikamaru would never be called stupid, but that meant that he'd noticed that time and time again, it was in the small details that he found he didn't understand those older than him the most.
They knew so much more than he did, even if it wasn't in book smarts. There were more important things to life than that anyway. He wondered, if they'd had a war, grown up through one, if they, he and his classmates, would have turned out much different. Entertaining that idea, Shikamaru shook his head slowly. He couldn't imagine it. He didn't know how things would have been different.
This was his reality. There was no use in thinking of others. He stood, stretched, and checked the time. Still ridiculously early, of course, but Shikamaru closed his book and stood up anyway. He didn't know if anyone was up downstairs, but even if they weren't, he was starting to get hungry, and at fourteen, food took precedence over deep thinking.
He left the room, his shadow spilling across the floor in front of him like a carpet to walk on. His shadow was warm and for a second Shikamaru paused, glancing down at his feet.
It had felt, just for a moment, as if his shadow had a heartbeat of its own.
The kitchen was empty when he got down the stairs, through the wooden panelled hallway, and into the large space that served them as both a kitchen and a meeting area. It wasn't the only kitchen in the complex, of course, but it was this one that his family--more directly, his father and mother--used the most often so he considered it to be the one that was most his.
Pouring a glass of juice, he leant against the fridge and glanced down at his shadow. It pooled around his feet, around the legs of the table and the chairs, stretching even so far as to reach the wall. And none of it was draining chakra--if it had been, he'd have never made it down the stairs, having been knocked out long before from the drain on his energy.
"Come on," he muttered, taking a sip of his juice. "Don't you know what dad's going to say if he sees this?"
His shadow didn't seem to care. Shikamaru figured that that was about all he could expect from a shadow. As far as he knew, his shadow just considered this lapse in control and everything around it to be great. Certainly, it seemed to revel in its freedom.
Silently, as he figured that there was no point in waking up anyone else when they'd be up soon enough--the Nara family, on the whole, tended to wake with the sun despite his personal efforts to never see the sun rise--Shikamaru drained his juice and then grabbed an apple from the basket on the table. Absently he used his chakra, trying to tug his shadow in closer around his feet.
It ignored him. Shikamaru frowned as he bit into the apple. That was worse than usual. Normally, even if his shadow didn't fully obey him, it did tend to contract.
"That was pretty pathetic," a woman said from the doorway. "Your control is absolutely gone, boy. What are they teaching kids these days?"
His head snapped up before she'd even finished the first word and Shikamaru scowled. He didn't recognize the woman, she looked like a Nara, but he knew every Nara living in the complex and she wasn't one of them.
A tall woman, with a tight-fitting vest over an ordinary t-shirt and pants that had to be from a Chuunin uniform were tucked into a pair of knee high boots. She had a face that reminded him of a horse, and her eyes were pale green. Black hair spilled down her back, ending about mid-thigh.
"Who are you?" he demanded, hackles raised—no ordinary intruder could slip past the defenses of their Clan.
She looked at him as if he were an idiot.
"I said," he repeated, then stopped as a wave of dizziness crashed over him. Shikamaru swallowed hard, trying to surpass the sudden roaring in his ears as his head spun. He staggered, clutched at his head, and a small part of him wondered what the hell sort of jutsu she'd put him under… or if it was simply a reaction from his dreams…
"Easy," she said, as he sank to the ground. "It's easier if you don't resist it. You will learn, boy."
His world went awash in white pain, blinding him…
The next thing he knew, Aunt Sadako's horsey face was peering at him in concern. Her long black hair was a mess, she looked like she'd just come in from checking the deer. Or from a mission.
"Shikamaru?" she asked, pale green eyes studying him intently. "What's wrong?"
He blinked, trying to clear his mind; there was something he couldn't remember it was just out of his reach, something important... "How did I get on the floor?" he asked, confused. Shikamaru remembered getting to the kitchen and having a glass of juice but after that… nothing.
Aunt Sadako barked a laugh, her strong arms helping him up, and Shikamaru allowed the minimal fussing as she helped him get to a chair. To his dismay, he needed her help. His legs were wobbly and weak. "You think I know, boy? I come in thinking to get a drink and find you on the floor. Lucky for you I've got some medical training, or I'd have had to rouse the whole Clan."
"Don't," he rasped, and wondered why his throat was so tight.
"Let's get you something to drink," she said and he watched her as she went to the fridge.
He peered at her, one hand rubbing his forehead—he had a headache and the nagging sense of there being something that he had to remember continued to plague him but all he was really interested was in figuring out how he'd wound up on the floor.
Aunt Sadako looked tired. He remembered vaguely that his father had mentioned she'd been out on a long term mission; she must have gotten home only recently, maybe even earlier that night, by the looks of her too thin face and the slight bags under her eyes. "How'd your mission go?" he asked as she pushed the juice on him and folded herself into another of the chairs, obviously waiting for him to drink it.
The juice was cool against his throat and he sipped it gratefully.
"It went," she answered, giving him a long glance and shrugging at that. "We accomplished the mission goals and made it back in one piece without gaining any new nightmares. That's all you can really ask for in a mission at my level. Just glad I never went into ANBU. That place, now that's a deal breaker. No one ever comes out the same."
"Nightmares?" he asked, voice cracking despite his best effort. Shikamaru tried to cover that by drinking more but didn't think he'd succeeded in fooling her as her eyes narrowed.
"You look like you've been having trouble sleeping, boy." Aunt Sadako commented, getting up again and resting her callused hand on his forehead. "Well, you don't have a temperature. Are you up for some food?"
The thought of food made his stomach roll and he shook his head as quickly as he dared. "I'm good," he said, then asked, "does dad know you're back?"
"Not yet," she said, rifling through the cupboards and coming out with dry noodles. She held up the package. "Think he'd mind if I ate these?"
"He doesn't like those ones," Shikamaru answered, "but mom keeps buying them and he can't be bothered to tell her he hates them. He'd probably thank you for eating them—but isn't it early for noodles?" The sun wasn't even up yet.
"Got my days and nights all turned around," Aunt Sadako said easily, setting water to boil. "This is my suppertime. I'll spare my brother having to eat these then. I like them just fine." She gave him a look full of mischief at that. "Maybe that'll keep him happy a little longer, hmmm? At least so long as I don't get another mission."
Shikamaru nodded. His dad wasn't fond of the fact that his younger sister was an active Jounin and they tended to have words about it whenever the both of them were in the same house for too long. "How long do you think they'll give you 'till your next mission?" She wasn't like his father—who was tied to the Clan and the business of managing it—Aunt Sadako didn't have any obligations towards running the Clan so she could be sent out at a moment's notice for longer missions.
"At least a month, I guess," Aunt Sadako replied while pouring the noodles in. "They're pretty good about giving time off unless anything comes up that's urgent. If that's the case then," she shrugged, "well, then I'll be off as soon as I get my orders. I heard you made Chuunin, so you'll probably be learning that soon if you haven't already."
"I've gotten a bit of it," he admitted, "but my teammates are still both Genin—they're off taking the Chuunin Exam right now, actually, so I'm a bit at a loose end." He didn't have to look up to know that she was arching her eyebrows at him.
"Surely they've got you doing missions with other teams?"
He flushed slightly, fiddling with his glass of juice. "I've been having problems with my shadow," Shikamaru answered her, realizing that his shadow was, for once, actually behaving itself for the moment. "Asuma-sensei has advised me that until I get it under control taking missions would likely serve to put my teammates in danger."
"Harsh," she said sympathetically. "You've got the whole range of it then, I bet—the nightmares, the dreams, the lack of control?"
Shikamaru blinked at her. "How do you know about the dreams?" He knew that he hadn't told anyone about those, they never seemed to really be anything that needed to be dealt with. Odd-Ino was, well, odd but she'd never harmed him, just confused him or made him a bit depressed.
Aunt Sadako's smile was rueful. "Who better to know than someone who went through the same thing? Every Nara gets the nightmares," she continued, turning to stir her noodles. "But not every one gets the dreams. The books aren't much help, I bet."
"They're no help at all," he answered, warming to his complaint. "They don't mention a single thing about any of it and there's nothing but vague mentions about walking through your shadow to gain control but whenever I ask dad about it he doesn't seem to know what I'm talking about even though I know he's read the books before."
"Some books," she said, "are protected. Your dad, my brother, he's never gotten the dreams—just the nightmares. The books never talked about the walking through with him. When he says he doesn't know what you're talking about that's because he's never heard the phrase before."
"The book's got a jutsu on it?" Shikamaru frowned; he'd never considered that before. It was possible, he supposed, even if it seemed a bit complicated as a way of doing things. "So those who can read it, are they just supposed to muddle through on their own?"
A thought occurred to him. "Did you just have to figure it all out as you went, Aunt Sadako?"
She shook her head, leaning over to turn the burner off and strained the noodles. "Your, oh let's see, your great great uncle taught me. Now he was an odd duck, the stories I could tell you about him..." Shaking her head, she continued, "It's not common, the dreams, but there's usually someone in the Clan who knows how to help out with the situation before it spirals out of control."
Shikamaru couldn't help the frown that pulled at his lips. "Then why—" Why hasn't anyone helped me out?
Her laugh was knowing, and Shikamaru was surprised to find that when she set down a bowl of noodles with a mild cheese sauce over them in front of him that he was actually hungry. He ignored her amused gaze as he dug in.
"Why didn't anyone help you?" Aunt Sadako asked.
He nodded, feeling the dull burn of a flush crawl over his face. "It's been a while, that's all," Shikamaru muttered into his noodles.
"Probably because, in the whole Clan, I'm the only one still living who knows how to deal with the dreams," she said, almost apologetically. "And I was away on a mission so I didn't know. There used to be more, but the last few wars were pretty hard on the Clans, so…"
Oh. That made a depressing sort of sense. "Then," Shikamaru asked, looking up from his bowl and feeling mildly hopeful. "You're off for a month—do you think, I mean, would you be able to help me sort this out? I've done my best but…"
"But your best isn't good enough." Her lips twisted. "Believe me, boy. I know exactly how you feel." Aunt Sadako ate another bit of pasta. "And of course I'll help you—that's what family is for—but first…"
"I need to get some sleep," she said, with an easy laugh. "Meet me on the south bridge at about three this afternoon."
"Why on the bridge?" Shikamaru asked curiously.
"Why not?" Aunt Sadako asked rhetorically as she finished off her bowl, got up, and rinsed it out in the sink. "Besides, it's easier to deal with if you're not in the loving center of everyone else's shadows."
She covered a yawn with one hand, looking exhausted. "Anyway," she said, "I'll see you then."
Then she left the room, shaking her head, and Shikamaru looked down at his bowl of noodles and considered everything that she'd said.
He had the feeling that the hours until three o'clock were going to be long ones.