There is an old saying in the Nara family: Don't walk with the shadows for too long, or you'll become one.
(Originally published 6/24/2005)
Partially inspired by Chevira Lowe's /Chess, Chips, and Flowergirls, /among other things. Alternate future, a few years sometime past the Part 1-Part 2 gap, no spoilers to speak of (oh, and beware random ShikaTema subtext). Enjoy, if that's the word. I hope my first major foray into Shikamaru's head is decent.
There is an old saying in the Nara family:
Don't walk with the shadows for too long, or you'll become one.
When Shikamaru first went into ANBU, it was because of his friends. By all accounts the job was a pain in the ass... but then Neji decided to join, and then Kiba of all people, and Shikamaru followed them because someone had to be there to save their asses like his dad had told him that one time, and the truth was that a day didn't go by where he didn't feel responsible for what had almost happened.
(The truth is, he still does. But at least he doesn't dream about it so often anymore. Shikamaru has much better things to have nightmares about, these days.)
That was why he went in -- for others. Why he stayed, though, that was for himself. The day he realized he'd just methodically slaughtered seven people in their beds without giving any particular thought to what he'd been doing was the day he understood he could never leave ANBU. He's made it his goal to die here. By his careful calculations, Kiba will last maybe another year, Neji maybe two or three, before they return to the regular ranks. He thinks he can wait. (A good shougi player is nothing if not patient, after all.)
ANBU, as it turned out, had been trying and failing to get a Nara on the squad for untold years. He'd had no idea until the day he came home with the tattoo fresh and red and raw under his shirt, told his parents and watched them gape at him. (He'd considered asking their permission first, but was a little too afraid of the potential answer. Konoha's spooks, even if the dirty work they did was necessary, did not have the best of reputations.) Telling them his reasoning got him a 'We're proud of you', but did nothing to dispel the worried looks passed between them, his father's cryptic admonitions to 'mind the family techniques', the way his mother's usual annoyed smack turned into more of a pat.
Aside from standard guard duties, ANBU generally receive two types of missions. First are those the Hokage specifically deems as needing the touch of an ANBU operative -- usually assassination jobs, since killing people in various quiet and creative ways is the spooks' specialty. Second are high-level missions, B or A or sometimes even S-rank, paid for and needing completion but so awful that none of the regular Jounin are willing to take them on. They go weeks without these sorts of missions sometimes -- Shikamaru has heard tales that Hatake Kakashi, an even more famous name among the spooks than he is in the outside world, sometimes takes on jobs of this sort at the last minute just so some poor ANBU schmuck won't have to deal with them -- and sometimes they get five in a day, orders to go out and kill a child, destroy a livelihood, make chaos in a world that wasn't particularly orderly to begin with.
He found out very quickly why they wanted Naras so much, as well as why no Naras ever accepted -- shadow jutsus made the spooks even more terribly efficient, and they weren't shy about making use of what they had. By his second mission, his partners were killing enough people held in check with his Kagemane no Jutsu to make him want to throw up afterwards. By his sixth or so, he found himself not caring.
Kiba confronted him about it exactly once, when they'd gotten back from taking care of one of two families of rival dog breeders (Shikamaru reflected that it must have been an especially awful mission for him because the client had specifically requested they torch the big barn with all the merchandise in it, said merchandise consisting of live animals), more than a little drunk and half-slumped over the bar they were sitting at, mask dangling off his neck. "You always just stand back and watch while the rest of us do the dirty work, you giant /asshole--/" at that point he'd stopped to take another swig of his beer and plop his face square against the counter-- "What, you afraid of getting fucking /blood /on your hands?"
Shikamaru went home that night, washed his hands about twelve times, and assured himself he wasn't developing a neurosis.
So much for his normal life.
If someone had asked him five years ago what he thought he'd be doing come today, he knows that his answer would have had absolutely nothing to do with his reality right now, crouched in a tree at the border of Water Country waiting for a caravan of Wind Country merchants to pass by. They're carrying some rare medicinal desert plant and his rich bastard of a client wants it, apparently for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with its usefulness and everything to do with its collector's value. The plant could help relieve a disease that's been ravaging the villages of Water for weeks. Shikamaru grits his teeth and keeps following orders.
Everything is going as planned until the first merchant he catches with Kagemane turns out to have three eyes, wooden limbs, and way too much hair, and Shikamaru figures it's just his luck never to be able to get away from /them /as Kankurou's puppet lunges.
It doesn't take him long to find the puppeteer's hiding place, but the ensuing battle lasts nearly an hour. Shikamaru is panting by the end of it, mind and body both stretched to their limits. He doesn't remember Temari's brother being this good a strategist.
"Do you play shougi?" he wonders, idly running a hand through his loose hair, the tie having snapped off sometime during the fight. Kankurou's matching motion isn't quite an exact mimic with the black hood covering his head. The shadow stretches taut between their feet.
"No, but I dance," the puppeteer smirks, tired but seemingly satisfied. If he realizes he's about to die, he pays no heed.
"Huh. So, how's your sister been?" Shikamaru wonders conversationally, pulling a kunai out of his pouch. Kankurou does the same.
"Not too bad. Misses seeing you, I think."
He pauses, raises an eyebrow.
"No matter which of us dies, she's going to kill the other one, you know."
Shikamaru purses his lips. "You're her brother. She wouldn't kill you."
Kankurou smiles a crooked, broken sort of smile.
"I'd put some money on that, if you weren't about to slit my throat. Look after her, huh?"
It is a little-known bit of trivia that Sand-made kunai are longer, wider, and often kept sharper than Leaf-made kunai. Shikamaru holds his knife millimeters from his throat, and yanks it precisely across. He steps close enough to catch the spray of blood on his armor, because he deserves it, and then the body in his arms as it topples forward.
After he kills the rest of the merchants, he sees Kankurou to the Wind Country embassy. He is three days late delivering the goddamn plant. His client angrily demands half the mission fee back. He receives a warning in his official record. Meanwhile, people are dying in Water Country at the rate of about twenty a day.
Shikamaru thinks there might be a word for how this makes him feel, but it's far too troublesome to figure out, so he just hides in the comforting embrace of the shadows and lets them do the talking for him.
Chouji comes to visit him afterwards, in his apartment at the ANBU compound (god knows how Chouji got clearance to wander around in there; maybe Chouza had a hand in it, but Shikamaru wistfully likes to think they have some kind of Best Friend Clause on the books somewhere), and he knows not to turn on the lights. Shikamaru almost never has the lights on in his place these days; he's not sure whether it's more because he wants the shadows or because he doesn't want to look at himself. His friend isn't as naturally adept at navigating in darkness as a Nara, but he is shinobi and they train for that sort of thing; he ducks quietly enough into the little kitchen where Shikamaru is perched on a stool, staring down at the table, and he wordlessly shoves a covered dish under Shikamaru's nose.
"...Grilled trout," Chouji murmurs quietly. They've known each other long enough that the "it's your favorite," the "mom made it for you" and "we're worried" and "/I'm /worried" and "you're scaring us" go understood without needing to be actually spoken.
"Thanks," Shikamaru murmurs hoarsely, when he can convince his mouth to open. "I'll have it for dinner."
This is his version of 'I'm fine'.
There is a long silence in the room, and finally Chouji pulls out the other stool and plops down.
"Okay. We can have dinner together. I'll hang around until then." Shikamaru doesn't look up, but he hears the sound of plastic crinkling open. "You really need to eat more, Shikamaru, you're getting skinny even for you." A little bag is held out in front of his face, the scent of barbecue chips wafting from it, and Chouji offers, "Wanna share?"
It's all so goddamn normal and familiar and fucking /comforting /that he's not sure he can bear it; something /hurts /inside his chest and he has no idea why he finds himself murmuring, "I'm not gonna leave ANBU alive."
Chouji pauses next to him, and he can picture the look on his friend's face, blinking in confusion. The bag of chips is pulled away again. "Of course you are. You're the best there is, Shikamaru, if anybody can survive it--"
He cuts Chouji off harshly and stands up, stool squeaking under his shifting weight, and goes to the tiny window on the other side of the tiny kitchen and stares up at the stars.
"Once Kiba and Neji are out of there, I'm taking my last mission," he informs his best friend with military curtness.
Chouji doesn't say anything for a long time; when he does manage it, it's a single and rather strangled, "Shikamaru..."
Shikamaru watches the stars, and listens to the clock ticking on the wall behind him.
At long last the quiet voice comes again, Chouji's tone subdued, but hopeful as only Chouji can be.
"That could be a long time from now... you might change your mind before then. I... hope you do."
His friend leaves him there, alone with his thoughts in the dark, with the clock ticking away time that he doesn't know if he wants to slow down or speed up or stop altogether.
Chouji is the only one he ever tells.
Years later, he looks after her like her brother asked.
"You should've known I wouldn't let you get away with it forever," she murmurs bitterly, breath heavy as she kneels on the scarred remains of their battlefield, ruined foliage all around them testament to her efforts up to now. Her fan lies in a heap of useless shattered wood and ripped paper some feet away, torn through by cut-off tree branches. Shikamaru, kneeling across from her, idly tugs on his loose ponytail and watches her mimic the motion. The shadow stretches taut between their bodies.
"Huh, funny you should say that. He swore up and down that no matter which of us died, you'd kill the other one," Shikamaru muses conversationally, pulling a kunai out of his pouch. Temari does the same, and scowls.
"He was my brother. I wouldn't have killed him."
Shikamaru grins a crooked, broken sort of grin.
"That was what I said."
He raises the kunai to his throat, still grinning. Temari lets out a single harsh bark of laughter as her hand follows suit.
"So what's the trick this time, crybaby? Is that kunai made of plastic? Or maybe it's just a mind game. I'd be surprised if you have the guts to really kill either of us."
"Can I tell you something great, Temari?" he says, cocking his head to one side a little as he raises an eyebrow, that grin still on his face. On her, the pose looks questioning, to match her quizzical -- maybe slightly alarmed -- expression. He goes on after a second when she says nothing.
"Hyuuga Neji left ANBU yesterday."
He is smiling when he finally meets that shadow he's been waiting for.
Somewhere, in a dark quiet empty apartment, a clock is ticking.
The day he was getting ready to go, pulling on his uniform in a living room hidden by heavy curtains from the noonday sun, a panting Chouji rushed into the room with Neji in tow, wearing civilian getup and looking decidedly tense. The doorway shone a rectangle of light on Shikamaru and he took a step back to keep it out of his eyes, pulled down the black shirt halfway over his head. His smile stayed in that bit of light, for them to see.
"Shikamaru... Neji went back to the Jounin today," Chouji said, a statement of fact that somehow managed to be more of a demand. Shikamaru had known him long enough to see the way his friend's body was tensing in a precursor to dropping into fighting stance.
"I heard. Congratulations," he tossed to the young man still standing in the doorway, slipping into his white armor and zipping up the side.
"And you... What're you going to do?"
"I've got a mission tonight," he said, smiling a lazy smile that Chouji knew too well and watching him stiffen in response. Shikamaru ducked to pick up his gloves, turning his face away from the light of the doorway for a moment.
"I-- I'm /not /going to let you--"
"/Why/, Shikamaru?" Neji demanded in a tense sort of growl, veins popping up on either side of his face as he strove to see through the darkness. "If you hate ANBU that much, there are better solutions -- there's nothing stopping you from coming back to--"
"Back to the regulars? Go fight for truth, justice, and the Konoha way, after all the shit I've done here?"
Nonchalantly, Shikamaru pulled on one glove and smiled again, because it was far less troublesome than breaking down in hysterical laughter.
"There's a reason why Naras never go into ANBU, you know."
Those words hung between them for a long moment, filling up the silence as Shikamaru pulled on his other glove, strapped on his sword.
"Take care, guys," he said, picking up his mask and taking a step toward the door, tensing.
In an instant Chouji was baring a kunai, Neji's hand was on the lights, and the Hyuuga murmured, "Unfortunately, Shikamaru, I was always faster than you," and swiped his hand over the switch--
And nothing happened.
Shikamaru had taped the lightswitch down that morning, when trying to think how the scene would progress. A good shougi player was nothing if not resourceful.
A moment later he was pulling his mask over his face and walking past them, and he felt their gaping eyes on him, unable to follow, the shadows at their feet stuck fast to the floor. He stood halfway in the square of light from outside, saluted them without looking back at them.
"I think this is a new jutsu on you guys, yeah?" he murmured. "Ask my dad if you're curious. It's been real handy, the past couple years."
He closed the door behind him, left them safe in his darkness. And then he walked out into the sunlight one last time.