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Deduction in Shadows

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A sound reminiscent of a pile of stones hitting the desk next to his head jolted Nara Shikaku, Jounin Commander, out of his well-deserved midmorning nap.

He blinked up at his perpetually-harassed-looking assistant, who had just plopped down a tower of paperwork that had to be half as tall as the man himself. People said frontline fighters had legendary skills, but Shikaku wanted to know the magic behind how paperwork ninjas managed to carry so much of the stuff without the whole stack falling over.

Shikaku sighed. "Shouta, how many times have I told you not to interrupt my mid-morning naps for extraneous work?"

The mousy-haired man didn't even bother to look appalled at his employer's lazy attitude anymore. Shikaku would have to up his game.

"If you consider A and S ranked mission approvals for the week extraneous then yes, I will continue to interrupt your naps. Now finish these up by lunch or I'll be bringing you fish cakes and nothing else to eat. And then I'll let you explain to the Hokage why our revenue has decreased due to a slowdown in the administrative process."

Shikaku slouched down further in his seat - the Nara equivalent of a pout - and decided not to waste his energy on answering other than a few grumbles about how Shouta was supposed to be his assistant, not the Hokage's enforcer. Truly, Shouta was a cruel man. He knew how much Shikaku hated fish cakes. Nose in the air, Shouta exited the room as soon as it was obvious Shikaku wasn't going to put up a fight. The door shut with more force than usual behind him.

An hour later Shikaku was pulled from his paperwork haze by the sound of his door latch clicking. He flicked his eyes towards the sound, expecting to see his snooty glasses-wearing assistant checking in to make sure he was 'actually working,' but all he saw was the edge of the door creak forward by half a foot, before quickly but silently shutting again.

Disconcerted, he moved his gaze downward and met the stare of a much shorter and younger visitor than he was used to seeing in his office. A girl of about five or six, dressed in the regulation cheap blue shirt and white pants that were standard fare for orphans, stood solemnly in front of him, a thick manilla folder clutched tightly to her chest. Hair so dark blue it was almost black fell in stringy unkempt waves to her shoulders, framing a thin, pale face dominated by wide charcoal grey eyes.

Her expression was solemn, but he detected a hint of nervousness that set him on edge. How in the world had this girl gotten past his battle-ax of an office assistant? While it was true that a child probably didn't pose much of a threat to a shinobi of Shikaku's strength, it wasn't unheard of to use children for assassination missions. Just look at Uchiha Itachi and Hatake Kakashi. Despite his caution, Shikaku retained his relaxed demeanor, though he inched the hand not holding his pen casually to rest in his lap next to his kunai pouch. A small smile crossed the girl's features and something that looked like approval flashed in her eyes. Interesting. 

"Oi, brat, I think you must be lost. Daycare is on the bottom level." The smile dropped off her face and she leveled a flat-eyed stare at him.

Silence stretched for a long moment before she broke it. "Nara-sama," she began, voice barely trembling with nerves, "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I have some information that may be of interest."

Shikaku raised an eyebrow but didn't otherwise show any reaction.

"I..." the girl's eyes darted from his for a moment as she faltered, before she visibly gathered herself and met his gaze again. This time, her voice came out strong. "My name is Nomaka Mayu and I'm here to report someone for multiple kidnappings and treason against Konoha."

Shikaku showed his shock only in a long blink, quickly recovering as his mind raced through the implications. As this was much more interesting than doing paperwork, he decided to give the girl a bit more of his time. "And who do you make these accusations against, Mayu-chan?" he asked in a mild voice.

Mayu swallowed again, nerves obviously getting to her before she whispered out a name. "Shimura Danzo."

In a blink, Shikaku was out of his chair, hands on his desk and leaking killing intent as he stared down the child in front of him. Mayu let out a small sound of terror and backtracked so quickly that she tripped over her own feet and fell hard against the door with a thump.

"That," Shikaku said, all pretense of being only a lazy paperwork ninja abandoned, "is quite the accusation to make against a council member. Think hard before continuing."

The handle on the door rattled, Mayu having locked it behind her when she slipped in, and Shouta's worried voice could be heard through the thick wood. "Nara-sama, are you alright? Nara-sama?" At the same time, he felt an ANBU signature flare to signal their appearance in the space above the ceiling.

Apparently, Nara Shikaku letting out some killing intent in the middle of the day was a Big Deal. A small hand gesture and Shikaku communicated that he wanted the ANBU to watch and wait without interference.

"I'm fine, Shouta," he said calmly. "Go back to your desk and continue your tasks." Code for a small situation, I can handle it for now, wait for further instruction.

His gaze was still focused on the girl, who was sweating and shaking but had managed to flick her tear-filled gaze to the ceiling where the ANBU's chakra had pulsed. This girl keeps getting more and more interesting, he thought and tried not to feel guilty for terrorizing a kid.

He had to make sure she understood that this was no game - if she backed off now and claimed it was a prank, he would set her free with minimal consequences. While he didn't doubt that Shimura had his hands in a lot of not-so-legal pies, it was dangerous to draw attention to the fact that you knew such things.

"I -" Mayu stuttered out. "I have -" She stopped and took a few shaky breaths, obviously on the verge of hysterics. Really, for how young she was it was impressive that she was still standing. "I have proof!" 

Shikaku released his killing intent, but retained his position. "Explain."

Mayu took in a few shuddering gasps of air before straightening up from her spot against the door and visibly attempting to pull herself together. Squaring her small shoulders and gripping the folder closer to her chest to (unsuccessfully) hide her tremors, Mayu crossed the room to his desk and gently laid the folder on its surface between stacks of papers.

"This could take awhile. Do you mind if I pull up a chair?" she asked primly. Well, she's certainly adorable, he couldn't help but think to himself at her attempts to appear unaffected and offered her an answer in the form of a shrug.

He watched as she dragged a chair from the corner of his small office to the front of his desk, seemingly unperturbed by the sound of wood scratching against wood that marked its passing.

Once Mayu reached the front of the desk she spent a few moments fussing with the position of the chair before clambering onto it, letting her small legs swing since they weren't long enough to reach the floor. Shikaku really hoped she wasn't sent there to kill him, because she was seriously pulling at his heartstrings.

After she was sorted, Shikaku allowed himself to slowly relax into his own seat across from her, both hands still flat on the desk in front of him. For a moment they stared at each other and he took the chance to study the girl in front of him more closely.

Her skin was still clammy and pale from her earlier fear and he could see that she didn't eat as many full meals as a girl her age should. Her shirt was a size too large, the collar sliding down on the right to reveal a bony shoulder.

She seemed to be studying him in turn, gaze darting from his bottlebrush ponytail to his scarred face before focusing on his eyes. Something she saw there must have reassured her because she blew out a breath and began to speak. "I think that we should keep this between the two of us for now." Her eyes flickered up to the ceiling and back to his. Shikaku narrowed his eyes at her, but she didn't flinch away. Finally, he nodded and made a hand sign to dismiss the ANBU operative. He bit the pad of his thumb, drawing blood, and reached under his desk to drag it across the seal carved there, activating it.

Mayu's eyes widened. "What was that?" she asked as the chakra flared and Shikaku shrugged.

"Privacy seal. Now no one but us will be able to hear what's happening within about a five-foot radius." He motioned towards her, a clear indication that she should begin.

"Six months ago," Mayu began without fanfare, opening the file and pulling out the sheet at the top of the pile before handing it to him, "one of my roommates at the orphanage disappeared. His name was Hakun. After a police report was filed and a short," her voice turned cold at the last word, "investigation the police said he had run away. Idiots. Like Hakun had the imagination or courage needed to run away. Also, he was only five! Where did they think he would go that a team of elite ninja investigators wouldn't be able to find him?" She huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, fitting the part of a petulant child easily.

Shikaku blinked a few times before accepting the piece of paper from her. He could tell by the watermark and format that this was an official record that the village put together on all orphans. "And how did you get your hands on this?"

Mayu waved her hand in irritation. It seemed she was past her earlier fear now that she could concentrate on her story and annoyance with the Military Police Force. "That's not important. Just read it and tell me if you believe he could be a flight risk."

Shikaku scanned the information and had to admit it wasn't very likely. The face of a happy five-year-old beamed out at him, missing one of his front teeth. His psychological profile described him as a steady, generally cheerful child despite his circumstances. He had good physical health and was tagged as a potential candidate for the Academy due to his family's past as active ninja and an undeveloped but potentially large chakra core. Everything else about him was pretty average, from intelligence to physical fitness.

"Alright," Shikaku conceded, setting down the piece of paper, "I'll bite. Show me the rest."

The girl in front of him slumped over in relief, the tension she'd been holding since she walked into the door leaving her body. "Okay." She took a deep breath before straightening again and reached for the next piece of paper. "So, the police officers weren't happy when I pointed out their general incompetence." He snorted and she flashed him a quick but sincere smile in response to his humor that brightened her whole face.

"Which, you know, not surprising. The Uchiha don't like it when people question their skill. What was surprising," and now she had fallen into a voice that wasn't that different from an Academy teacher in lecture mode, which Shikaku had to admit was pretty cute coming from such a tiny body, "was the reaction of the mistress of the orphanage, Nono Yakushi. She got scared when I wouldn't stop saying that something bad must have happened to Hakun and that they shouldn't give up."

At this, Mayu handed the next piece of paper to Shikaku, who almost facepalmed when he saw it was another official report - this one detailing the history of one Nono Yakushi. She had once been in ANBU and had retired during the Third Shinobi War due to injury to run the orphanage. Any personnel file of ANBU and former ANBU members was strictly guarded and for good reason. How in the world had Mayu gotten it?

"She punished me severely and threatened to kick me out onto the streets if I didn't keep my mouth shut. This only proved that she was hiding something and I knew that I would just have to continue looking into it on my own. And don't ask how I got those files, because I don't think you would like the answer. I thought you shinobi and kunoichi were supposed to be good at guarding stuff," Mayu said with a disdainful sniff.

Shikaku just gaped at her before shaking his head and setting aside the report. He would circle back around to her grand theft tendencies later.

"I remembered that a while before Hakun disappeared there was another runaway - Chiyo - who had also just disappeared with no clues and I decided to look around and see if I could find any patterns." Mayu looked down at the pile in front of her and started sorting through it, mumbling to herself before pulling out a small stack and holding it out to Shikaku with an expectant look on her face.

"These are the profiles of all the orphans that have gone missing from the orphanage in the past seven years. Look at them and see if you can find any patterns."

Shikaku couldn't help but think that her bossy attitude reminded him of his wife, Yoshino, when he or Shikamaru were being particularly lazy. With a sigh and a muttered "troublesome," he took the stack and relaxed back in his chair to begin perusing the pile.

The only sounds in the office were those of paper rustling and Mayu fidgeting subtly across from him. She hides it pretty well, but the girl is nervous. No wonder, as she came in here to accuse a council member of kidnapping multiple village children.

At first glance, there didn't seem to be much of a pattern to the disappearances. While most of the twenty-six children fell between the ages of three and twelve, that wasn't unexpected since usually, they left the orphanage to either attend a trade school or became genin before turning thirteen. After a quick perusal of names, ages, and dates of disappearance, he began going through the reports with an eye to detail. He only had to look at the first handful before it clicked and he sat up in alarm.

"So you see it," Mayu said. "You don't have to read the rest - I can tell you right now that each is marked as a potential Academy candidate."

Shikaku gently set the stack down in front of him. "Okay," he said and let his eyes sharpen, dropping his lazy mein. "You officially have my attention."

Mayu closed her eyes and let out a breath before burying her face in her hands. "Oh thank god."

To Shikaku's consternation, a small sob escaped her and her shoulders began to shake. Alarmed, he stood up and walked around the desk so he could crouch beside her, and gently laid a hand on her back. Mayu flinched and wide tear-filled eyes darted over to him warily. He removed his hand and held both of them up to show he didn't mean any harm.

"What's this about, then?" he asked gently. "I thought you'd be happy that I'm willing to listen to you."

"I - I am," Mayu said, visibly trying to get ahold of herself. "I was just. I was just so." Her face scrunched up and her eyes overflowed. "I've been so scared."

Shikaku's heart clenched and once again he really hoped she hadn't been sent to play him because if she had, it was working. He'd always had a soft spot for kids. "Don't worry, I'll help you figure this out," he said, slowly wrapping his arms around her thin frame and drawing her towards him.

Mayu collapsed against him this time, fisting the edges of his flak jacket in tiny hands, and dissolved into tears. He couldn't help but wonder how long it had been since she'd had someone comfort her like this. Probably never.

Eventually, much more quickly than Shikaku had expected, her crying subsided and she sat back. He couldn't help but chuckle at her bewildered expression. She sniffled and touched her fingertips to her wet cheeks, futilely wiping at the tears streaking her face.

Shikaku stood, ignoring his creaking joints, and reached into one of his many pockets to grab a roll of bandages. He unrolled a small section and with a flash of kunai separated it from the rest and held it out to Mayu, who had watched his motions with wide eyes.

"I don't have any tissues in here, but this should do until you can wash your face properly." Shikaku turned around and sauntered back to his chair, where he sat down and busied himself straightening paperwork to give her a chance to pull herself together.

When it seemed like she was calmer and all traces of snot and tears were removed from her face - if not his jacket - he spoke. "So, tell me what you've found that's got you so spooked."

Mayu took a shaky breath and when he glanced up he saw that her shoulders were squared and her little face, though still flushed and a bit swollen, was set with determination. "Right. Well, I realized the same thing that you probably did. Someone is collecting or killing children that would otherwise someday make up the ranks of Konoha's shinobi forces. As long as he or she had the help of a few officials, it would be easy to nab orphans. With Nono-san's help and probably someone in the Military Police forces', this person has been doing this without gaining the attention of the village for years."

Mayu paused, probably to see if he would make any protests against the idea that someone in the police force was turning a blind eye to kidnappings. When none came, she continued. "If the kidnapper was taking children from the orphanage, then he would probably also be taking other vulnerable children from the village."

Shikaku sighed. "You mean the poor."

Mayu nodded, then reached for her file and pulled out a small stack to hand to him. These were reports from the Military Police - another resource she shouldn't have access to - but he decided to ignore that in favor of reviewing the papers in front of him.

"Most of them were in the same age range as those taken from the orphanage. Mostly the sons and daughters of poor merchants or single working mothers and fathers from the seedier parts of Konoha. A few academy dropouts..." she let her voice drift off into silence while he shuffled through the stack.

Finally, he set it down. "Okay, I agree with you that most, if not all, of these are serial kidnappings. What I'm still missing is how you connected this to Shimura Danzo."

Mayu flinched and lost all the color in her face when he spoke the name of the council member, but she forced herself to answer. "Right. Well, after gathering that information, I came to a bit of standstill - no new information was flowing in. I guessed that the kidnapper had some political power, and probably a lot of resources, but that was it. I followed Nono-san around to see if I could gather any more clues, but she wasn't doing anything suspicious."

Mayu had reverted back to her 'lecture' voice and seemed to be warming up to her subject, her earlier discomfort forgotten. "That was when I realized I had forgotten a whole group of possible victims." She leaned forward in excitement.

"The homeless population," Shikaku said, caught up in her enthusiasm.

Instead of being annoyed that he had stolen her moment, Mayu beamed at him, obviously pleased that he was keeping up with her. He was again reminded that this was actually a child and not the small adult she seemed to emulate.

"Yes! Exactly. So, I spent some time making contact with and convincing some of the groups of homeless children around Konoha's Flower District to talk to me." She sobered. "I discovered that they were hit harder than any other group so far."

Here, she stopped and sorted through the much-diminished pile. Instead of reports, she handed him hand-written descriptions of children. "They didn't have any records, so I had to create these profiles myself from what they told me about the kids that disappeared. There wasn't anything like IQ scores or chakra core scores, but I did notice that a lot of the missing children were considered special in some way by their peers. Either they were smarter, meaner, faster..." Mayu swallowed and looked away. Shikaku could tell that they were getting to the part of the story that had ultimately led her to his desk.

"It also turns out that the kidnapper was a lot less careful to cover his tracks when it came to the homeless gangs. In fact, it looked as though he even personally came to collect the children. Usually, he didn't leave any witnesses, but about a year ago, he messed up. She is the sister of a boy he had taken. She was hiding in the woods and saw him."

She handed Shikaku another piece of paper. "If you offer her protection, a home, and a promise to do whatever you can to save her brother, she should cooperate." Mayu's lip quirked up, but her expression sad. "She's not exactly brave, but she is all alone and would do anything to save him. You'll find information on how to find her there."

Shikaku looked down, quickly memorized the information on the sheet, and promptly turned it to ash in his hand. Mayu's eyes widened - either at his casual use of chakra or his choice to burn the information -before they narrowed in thought and she nodded. She understood how important it was that they keep the identity of their only witness a secret. He didn't intend to tell anybody outside of this room until he had the girl in his hands.

"Tell me what she saw," he demanded.

"An old man, wrapped in bandages all down one side of his body, with a cane. She said her brother, Fu, laughed at him when he said he'd be leaving with him. The old man knocked him out and signaled to someone who had been hiding up in the trees. A woman, dressed in black with a sword on her back, came, picked up Fu, and then they left."

Shikaku sighed and rubbed his temples. "An old man in bandages with a cane, huh?" 

"At first, I had no idea who that was - as an orphan, I'm not really aware of big political figures other than the Hokage and a few of the clan heads. I spent the next few weeks researching in the public library. It didn't take much to find a suspect that fit her description. Shimura Danzo is in most scrolls and books featuring powerful Konoha figures that are still living."

"Okay. That explains how you came to the conclusion that Danzo is somehow involved in these kidnappings. What it doesn't explain is why you're so afraid."

Mayu paled again and looked down at her fingers. "When I figured out who had done it, I wasn't sure what to do with the information. I couldn't go to the Military Police for multiple reasons - not the least of which was that at least one higher up is probably directly under the influence of Danzo."

"The other being that they wouldn't be too impressed with your propensity for stealing classified files?" Shikaku asked lightly. Mayu had the decency to look ashamed, though he had a feeling she was faking it.

"Yes. That...too." Mayu fidgeted before continuing. "Also, the eyewitness account of one street rat didn't seem like it would hold up very well and I felt like I had hit a wall of how much I could do on my own with my limited resources and the fact that I have no idea how politics work in Konoha. You can only learn so much from books." Mayu sighed.

"So I started looking into other powerful figures in the village like the clan and military department heads. I read about you all, of course, but I also did some information gathering around the village." Mayu held up a finger, "Uchiha Fugaku didn't seem like the type to be under anyone's thumb, but he also didn't seem like someone who would listen to the theories of a small child that had somehow stolen important police files out from under him. Plus, the Uchiha seem to be in some sort of silent feud with some of the village idiots."

Shikaku couldn't help but snort at her description of the people who insisted that the clan had anything to do with the Kyuubi attack. They had lost more members and power than any other that night, after all.

Mayu held up another finger, "I wouldn't make it within ten feet of Hyuuga Hiashi, though he'd probably take something like this seriously considering the effort they put into keep their bloodline limit from falling into the hands of anyone outside their clan," another finger went up, "Hatake Kakashi would probably go straight to the Hokage, which would be a mistake before we were able to gather more evidence against his childhood friend, since he's proven in the past that he's reluctant to act against those he cares about," another finger, "The Inuzuka for the same reason."

Mayu shrugged. "The Akimichi, Yamanaka, and Nara all seemed like they wouldn't fall under Danzo's control willingly, but out of the three, I figured the Nara were the clan that he would be least likely to even try with. You are known for being the smart clan, and when you're not being lazy you're being scary."

Shikaku chuckled at the description. "Okay, I can see your reasoning behind coming to me - though you should know that coming to one of the three generally means coming to all of us. Inoichi and Chouza have my full trust."

Mayu shrugged, seemingly unperturbed. "That's fine - I just needed you to believe me enough to take over." She took a deep breath. "That's not all, though."

"I figured. So far everything you've told me isn't anything that would put you personally in danger."

Mayu gave a short nod. "Like I said, I've been following Nono-san to see if she could lead me to any other information. Until yesterday evening it was all pretty boring."

Shikaku made a vague noise when she paused to encourage her to continue. "My room is next to the stairs. Her apartment is the floor above our rooms, so late last night, I heard her sneaking out. I guess she didn't think she needed to be very quiet when the only people that might hear her were a bunch of orphans. Anyway, I ended up following her out to the courtyard. I hid under the porch and after a few minutes, he showed up. Danzo."

Shikaku inhaled in shock, though he'd been expecting it. "What did they talk about?"

"He said...that he'd just finished the initiation and needed more recruits to fill the ranks. I think...the way that Nono-san reacted..." Mayu took a shuddering breath. "I think initiation is bad. I think he needed to find more kids because so many...died."

Shikaku allowed his eyes to close for only a second before opening them again to give his full attention to the now-shaking and silent girl in front of him. "Okay, Mayu. Can you tell me what happened next?"

For a moment he thought she wasn't going to continue, but she nodded and visibly gathered herself. "She gave him a stack of papers. I think they were reports like the ones I showed you before. He started looking through them and asking questions about a few of the kids. I've written down the names there." She nodded towards that last piece of paper in the stack. Finally, she seemed to steel herself for the next part of her tale.

"He asked about me," she said in a small voice and curled in on herself. "My IQ is... higher than average," no shit, Shikaku thought but didn't say, "but physically I'm not very impressive. I'm too young for them to have any real idea of my core, though it should be at least average if not higher..." her voice drifted off and her eyes met his. He jolted at the terror in them.

"That's why I had to act now. That's why I came today, as soon as I could. Please," she whispered, sounding more like a child than she had throughout the rest of the conversation, including when she had broken down, "please don't let him take me."

Once again Shikaku found himself kneeling by her chair, though this time he didn't even remember getting there. He took her small, trembling hands in his own. "I won't," he vowed. 

He knew that he'd do everything within his power to keep his promise. Danzo would take this child - or any others - over his dead body.

000

Chouza studied Shikaku from across the dinner table, not trying to be subtle about it. He'd received an invitation to join the Nara family for dinner, worded in a way that let Chouza know that refusal wasn't an option, and he should leave his own family at home. Inoichi must have received something similar because he was seated next to Shikaku, also with a semi-disturbed expression on his face.

While Shikaku hid it well from most of the world, those closest to him would pick up on the subtle clues. Shikaku was furious - the angriest that Chouza had seen him since the Hokage's advisors insisted that Hiashi's brother give up his life in the name of diplomacy after the mess with the Kumo diplomats.

Perhaps more telling was the way his muscles were coiled beneath his lazy demeanor. Shikaku wasn't only angry, but he was ready to do something about it. That was never a good sign for those who had drawn his ire.

Chouza had seen Shikaku like this a handful of times, but usually the reason for it was obvious. Enemy troops killing off a whole squadron under his command, the council giving up a member of Konoha as a sacrificial lamb, the village driving one of its heroes to suicide after a decision with massive political consequences. Right now, he was in the dark and from the furtive glances Inoichi kept sending his way, he was as well. 

Oh well, Chouza thought to himself, turning his attention back to Yoshino's excellent cooking, I'm sure we'll find out what's got him worked up eventually.

"Mayu-chan, you should eat another serving of vegetables," Yoshino said to the small blue-haired girl sitting quietly by Shikamaru, who quailed under his mother's pointed glare and reached out to spoon more roasted vegetables onto her plate.

Chouza couldn't help but nod his head in approval. Though she was clean and dressed in what looked like one of Shikamaru's old yukata that he'd outgrown, she was obviously underfed.

"Thank you Shikamaru-san, Yoshino-san," Mayu said in a low tone.

Shikamaru yawned in response while Yoshino beamed and exclaimed over her good manners. Mayu looked around, obviously not sure what to do with Shikamaru's lack of reply and his mother's over-exuberance. Shikaku just shrugged at her when her gaze fell on him, though his lips pulled up into a reassuring smile.

The girl calmed and went back to eating. Huh. Look at that. If there had been before, there was no longer any doubt in Chouza's mind that this girl was involved in whatever had Shikaku in a tizzy.

"So, Mayu-chan," Inoichi said a few minutes later. "You wouldn't have anything to do with the rumor going around that Shikaku was seen leaving his office around lunchtime covered in glitter with a small child in tow, would you?"

Mayu froze with a fork halfway to her mouth. "Um..."

Shikamaru, who up until then had been half asleep at the table, turned interested eyes towards her. "You pranked dad?" he asked, sounding halfway between disbelieving and impressed.

"Prank is...such a strong word for it?" Mayu seemed to ask and turned her eyes to Shikaku, who had slouched down into a pout.

Yoshino's eyes were wide and she covered her mouth to hide a giggle that escaped. Inoichi smirked, though his eyes remained sharp.

"Ah, well, I think we've all mostly finished here. Shikamaru, Mayu, you two do the dishes. I need to talk to Inoichi, Chouza, and Yoshino in my office for a few minutes." With that Shikaku abruptly stood and strode towards his office, leaving the other adults blinking in shock at his back. Naras weren't really known for their abruptness or their striding around.

When they were all settled in Shikaku's office with the door and blinds closed and a privacy seal activated, Yoshino finally spoke the question Chouza had been thinking all night. "Shikaku, what in the world is going on? And don't try to tell me it's something to do with getting caught in a prank set up by Mayu."

She was seated in the only chair in the room, hands in her lap, staring steadily up at her husband, who was leaning against the desk next to her with his hands in his pockets. Inoichi had taken up the spot in front of the door, face serious and arms crossed over his chest, and Chouza was standing between them in front of a bookshelf lining the wall, where he could easily see everyone's face. It was a cramped space for all of them, but not the worst place they'd had a clandestine meeting.

Shikaku ran a hand down his face. "No, the prank was a cover. Mayu snuck into my office and gave me some news that I didn't react well to. I needed something to explain my sudden unleashing of killing intent without drawing too much attention to Mayu."

Yoshino sucked in a breath. "You used killing intent on a child? Shikaku, how could you?"

He winced and rubbed the back of his neck. "It wasn't my finest moment, but I had to impress the importance of what she was claiming onto her, and quickly. If what she was saying was some sort of trick or a way to try and gain attention...well, I needed her to retract her statement immediately."

"Shikaku, what did that girl tell you that has you so worked up?" Chouza finally asked. "Did someone harm her?"

The room seemed to shrink and darken as three jounin level ninja began leaking killing intent into the air. It was true that none of them knew her well, but she was a civilian child of their village and therefore under their protection.

"No," Shikaku cut a hand through the air in a signal to calm down. "At least, not yet. Though, she's brought proof that we were too late to help others like her." He slumped, looking like the day had aged him ten years, and Chouza realized that whatever Shikaku was about to tell them was bad - really bad.

"Just tell us," Inoichi said in a low voice as Yoshino reached over and squeezed his arm in support.

"Right," Shikaku said and straightened his back, twisting around to grab an innocuous manilla folder resting on the desk behind him. "This morning, Mayu-chan came into my office and revealed some interesting facts about what's been happening in the village whilst no one was looking."

000

Mayu finished drying the last of the dishes in trepidation, watching the boy next to her from the corners of her eyes. At first glance, with his spiky ponytail, slouched posture, and brown eyes, Shikamaru seemed to be a tiny replica of Shikaku. A closer look, however, revealed that he had gotten his facial structure from his mother.

He was leaning against the counter looking half asleep and Mayu wondered if he'd been up all night or something. From the moment Shikaku had dragged her through the door and told his wife and son that she'd be staying with them for a few days, she'd barely gotten more than a greeting out of Shikamaru.

He'd spent the time that Yoshino was fussing over her this afternoon napping on the couch. Mayu was pretty sure he hadn't even shifted position while she was being bathed, having her hair trimmed and styled, then stuffed with snacks and dressed in the nicest clothes she'd ever worn, even if they were just Shikamaru's hand-me-downs.

The silence was strange after the stress of the morning and an afternoon filled with Yoshino's chatter. Mayu got the impression that she wouldn't have minded having a daughter around the house. Or maybe just someone with more energy than a sleeping slug.

"Do you want to play Shogi?"

Mayu was shocked out of her contemplation and barely managed to snatch the plate she had dropped out of surprise before it hit the counter.

"Nice catch," Shikamaru said.

Mayu sighed and set the dry plate on top of the pile of other clean plates on the counter - they were too short to put them away in the cupboards, and Shikamaru had explained that he usually left them neatly stacked for his parents to put away later.

"So, do you?" he prodded.

"I've...never played," Mayu said truthfully. In her other life, before she had been reborn into a world so different as to barely be recognizable, she had played chess often with her father and uncle and even the occasional game of Go. But never Shogi.

Shikamaru just shrugged his shoulders. "I can teach you if you want." He sounded like he didn't care whether she answered yes or no.

So invested, she thought and her lips tipped up into a small smile despite her inner voice's sarcasm. "Okay."

Mayu followed behind the boy, wondering how he kept his balance while being slouched over so far. Secretly, she thought that he wouldn't make much of an opponent once she got the rules down. The Nara may be known for their intelligence, but Mayu had a short lifetime of memories being raised by arguably the smartest men in the country under her belt.

Of course, her brain and body weren't those of a young adult's - there was something to be said for biology - so it shouldn't be too lopsided. She figured it had something to do with hormones and paths being forged in her growing brain, but emotionally she was still pretty much a child, despite her genius, powers of deduction and fairly good grasp of grammar.

The last was still a work in progress. After all, she'd only had a few years to work on learning both the written and spoken language of this world. Mayu sank to her knees on the cushion in front of the short table where there was already a Shogi board set up. He seemed to plop down across from her like a puppet with its strings cut, as though he couldn't spare the energy to lower himself slowly.

Mayu giggled at his theatrics before she could stop herself. She couldn't help it - he was adorable.

Instead of getting annoyed, his lips quirked up a bit at the edges and Mayu realized he had done it on purpose to put her at ease. In response, she beamed her brightest smile at him. He blinked and then tentatively smiled back at her before focusing on the game.

"I'll run through the rules once and then explain them again as needed while playing. The first game will just be a practice run."

Mayu nodded and listened closely as he described the different pieces, her interest quickly caught by the new challenge. To her surprise, he was articulate and seemed to genuinely be trying to teach her. She nodded along with him, sure that she would be able to remember what he had told her. Mayu had retained her eidetic memory from her original life, something she was very thankful for.

After asking her a few questions to test how well she had learned the rules, Shikamaru gave a small nod and they began to play. Mayu didn't have much of a strategy for the first game, instead focusing mostly on getting a feel for the rules and flow. She lost quickly, but Shikamaru seemed to think she had done well on her first try.

The next game Mayu tried out a few tactics that had come to mind while playing the first time and lasted much longer. She still lost, but by the end of it, she felt confident that she would be able to hold her own during the third game. Shikamaru also looked vaguely impressed with her efforts so far, which she took as a compliment. He was obviously a very proficient Shogi player, despite his young age.

Shikamaru watched her first few moves with lazy eyes, one of his knees drawn up and supporting his bent elbow and his chin resting on his fist. By their tenth move, he had straightened up and was studying the board with interest before deciding on his next move.

Half an hour and six moves later each, he was sitting cross-legged, leaning over the board, elbows on the table and fingertips of his hands touching to create a circle that rested just under his lips as he thought.

Mayu's eyes darted between the board and his face, waiting to see what he'd do. She had been wrong about an easy victory - Shikamaru was good. Genius levels of good, really. Mayu doubted she could have done as well by his age in her first life, where she was considered smarter than any other child - and most adults - that she came across.

Finally, he picked up a piece and moved it forward and to the right. Mayu bit her lip and narrowed her eyes, trying to discover exactly why he had made that particular decision. After a few minutes of thought, she made her countermove and they continued in that fashion for a few minutes before the clearing of a throat and the rustle of fabric drew her attention to the door leading into the hallway, where the adults were watching their game with varying degrees of amusement.

"Shikamaru," Yoshino scolded, "did you force poor Mayu to play Shogi with you this whole time? It's late - you should be in bed by now!"

Shikamaru sighed and slumped over, mumbling something under his breath that Mayu couldn't quite make out.

"What was that?" Yoshino snapped, hands on her hips.

Behind her, Shikaku slapped a palm to his forehead while Chouza and Inoichi snickered as though they were teenagers instead of fully grown shinobi. Shikamaru froze, obviously not realizing that she could hear him, before he opened his mouth to answer. Mayu cut him off before he could further annoy her.

"It's okay, Yoshino-sama, I like games and Shikamaru offered to teach me. I must have lost track of time, I was having so much fun. I'm very sorry for keeping him up past his bedtime." Mayu widened her eyes and let her lower lip tremble a bit, knowing from practice on the teachers at the public school all civilians attended just how effective it was.

Yoshino dropped her hands from her hips and hurried to fuss over Mayu. "Oh, no, dear, don't worry about that! Of course, it's okay that Shika-kun stayed up a little late to entertain you. You go ahead and finish this game and then you two can go get ready for bed."

Mayu glanced over at Shikamaru and saw that his jaw had dropped open in shock at this blatant display of manipulation and she barely kept herself from shooting him a smug look.

Shikaku, Inoichi, and Chouza had wandered over while Yoshino was talking to look at the board. "Ah, no reason to put it off," Shikaku drawled, "Shikamaru will win within the next three moves."

"What?" Mayu exclaimed, leaning over the board. "He will not!"

It was Shikamaru's turn to look smug as he leaned back and crossed his arms while her eyes darted around the board, trying to predict the moves and countermoves that each of them could make in the next few turns. "I mean if I...and then he...no, that wouldn't work. But! If I...well, no, because then he could just...what if..." her voice trailed off as she stared at the board and a picture of his strategy came together.

"You...you won three moves ago!" Mayu accused. His smug expression faded as she continued to gape at him, turning to discomfort. He lifted one hand to rub the back of his neck.

"You..." Mayu started, then stopped again. She was vaguely aware that the four adults were watching her reaction closely, but was too wrapped up in how soundly she'd been trounced in a game of wits. "You..."

Shikamaru held his hands up as if he were getting ready to placate her and opened his mouth to say something, but once again she cut him off.

"You're amazing!" she exclaimed, a happy laugh escaping her.

Five set of eyes stared at her in shock, but she couldn't be bothered to care. Finally, finally, she had found someone in this world that she could relate to, even if it was just for one game. Someone who could outsmart her that wasn't over twenty-five and therefore only saw a smart little kid in front of them.

"I...am?" Shikamaru finally said, looking confused.

"Yes! You're a genuine genius! Let's play again!" Mayu couldn't stop the huge smile she beamed at him if she had wanted to and after a moment he returned it.

At that, Yoshino was shaken from her bewildered staring. "Oh no, you don't! It's time for you two to get ready for bed. Up you get, Shikamaru will show you where the bathroom and extra toothbrushes are. I've laid some sleepwear out for you on the guest bed. Say goodnight to Inoichi and Chouza before you go upstairs."

Both children grumbled a bit as they stood, but didn't outright argue. Shikamaru gave a small, lazy bow to each of the men. "Bye Chouzi-ojisan, bye Inoichi-ojisan. I'll see you at barbeque night."

The two men for their parts looked amused as his less than enthusiastic goodbye but murmured their goodnights back.

Mayu bowed with a little more energy, "Goodbye Akamichi-sama and Yamanaka-sama. It was nice to meet you."

She heard a chuckle and then a large hand was ruffling her hair gently. She looked up through her bangs and saw that the hand belonged to Chouza. "So polite. I'm sure I'll be seeing you later, Mayu-chan. Take care."

Recognizing a dismissal when they heard one, Mayu followed Shikamaru up the stairs and down a long hallway past three closed doors to the bathroom. Shikamaru dragged a stool to the front of the sink and stood on it so that he could reach the cabinet behind the mirror, where he grabbed a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush still in its package.

"Thank you," Mayu whispered, taking it from him and turning it in her hands until she found the tab to pull that would open the packaging.

He grunted in response as he grabbed a blue toothbrush from a small holder on the counter and ran it under the water. He shuffled to the edge of the stool to make room for her and she gave him a small smile before joining him. They brushed their teeth in companionable silence.

When they were done he motioned that he would wait outside while she used the bathroom. At her nod he slunk out, closing the door behind him. Moving quickly from habit (there were a lot of kids to every bathroom at the orphanage, so you learned to finish up fast), Mayu used the toilet and then moved back to the sink to wash her face and hands.

After she was dried off using the hand towel hanging on a hook on the wall, she opened the door to an empty hallway. Hesitantly she took a few steps but hadn't gone far when a door to the right opened to reveal Shikamaru, now in sleep pants and a t-shirt.

"Your room is the door right across the hall," he said pointing to the door directly across from the one he was standing in. He covered a yawn with one hand before continuing. "Do you need anything else before bed?"

"Um. No, thank you," she replied and gave him a small smile. He smiled back before shuffling his way into the bathroom and closing the door.

For a moment Mayu stood in the hallway, listening to the murmuring of voices downstairs as Inoichi and Chouza exited the house and the sound of Shikamaru moving around in the bathroom. On second thought she realized that was a little creepy, so she turned her attention to the door Shikamaru had pointed at and walked over to it, turning the handle and pushing it forward to reveal a modestly sized room on the other side. It was decorated in blues and creams and had a bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small desk and chair tucked into the corner.

Mayu stepped inside and softly shut the door behind her, shutting out most of the noise from the rest of the house. She took a few steps across the room to the bed and reached out to run her hands across the fabric, breath hitching at the softness of the material against her hands.

How long had it been since she slept in soft sheets? A lifetime ago, she thought with a huff of laughter. Well, best not get used to it. You'll be back to the orphanage in short order, she told herself, refusing to wallow in self-pity over it.

After all, she only had to put up with it for another couple of years until she graduated from the Academy. Maybe she would even be in the same class as Shikamaru. The thought made her smile a bit.

Grabbing the shirt and pants laid out on the bed that were almost identical to the ones that Shikamaru was wearing, she quickly but carefully pulled off the borrowed yukata, laying it gently over the back of the chair before pulling on the shirt and shorts. She was pulling the covers back on bed, determinedly not thinking about how cool the high-quality sheets felt against her hands when there was a light knock on the door.

She straightened before calling out permission to enter. Unsurprisingly it was Shikaku standing in the doorway, a serious look on his face.

"Can I come in?"

Mayu bit her lip and nodded. Shikaku shut the door behind himself and walked over to the bed before sitting on the edge of it. She hesitated for a moment before sitting down as well, leaving about a foot of space between them.

The silence stretched for a moment before she broke it. "Did...did they believe I was telling the truth?"

Shikaku looked at her from the corner of his eyes before nodding, once. "They did."

Mayu looked down at the sheets and started to absently tug at a loose thread.

"Oh. Okay. So what are you going to do?" She hated how small her voice sounded, but couldn't help it. She was scared.

A large hand covered her own before she could unravel the thread any more than she already had. Mayu stilled and kept her eyes pointed downward.

"Mayu," Shikaku's voice said gently. "Look at me."

She bit her lip before raising her head a fraction and looking up at him through her now-trimmed bangs - courtesy of Yoshino. He sighed, then turned his body to angle more towards her and brought his other hand under her chin, tipping her face up with the pads of his fingers.

"Mayu," he said, eyes boring down into hers. "I promised I wouldn't let him get you and I meant it. Between Yoshino, Inoichi, Chouza, and myself, I think we've come up with a plan that will provide irrefutable proof that Shimura Danzo is a traitor."

It was difficult to doubt the conviction in his eyes, but still - "Won't you get in trouble, though? For not going to the Hokage directly?"

This morning she wouldn't have cared about the consequences to him after, but that was before he brought her into his home, with a promise to protect her and introduced her to his child and wife.

Mayu had expected that he would take the file if he even believed her and she'd either be shoved into some depressing safe house or left to her own devices. While the unanimous opinion throughout Konoha seemed to be that Nara Shikaku was a good if lazy and sometimes terrifying man, she couldn't help but doubt that someone who killed and lied for a living could retain that much humanity. Considering her plans for her future career, she was relieved to see that she had been wrong.

"Ah, well, no, because I will be going to the Hokage." He held up his hand to stop her protest from forming. "We all agreed that we shouldn't give out details, but I'm going to request a small team of people I trust to investigate some strange reports from around the village. Hiruzen-sama and I have known each other a long time and he trusts me. If I ask him for a week or two before giving details and for an S-ranked classification, he'll probably give me the time."

"But...won't Danzo be suspicious about an S-ranked in-village mission that no one will give him the details for? And on top of that...one of his potential recruits from the orphanage went missing the day after he received my file..." Mayu chewed on her lower lip, wondering how she had missed the implications of her flight until that moment. Stupid, letting her own fears lead her decisions.

"Hey, now, don't make that face. What do you think I was doing all day while you were here getting pampered by my wife?" Shikaku said, releasing her chin so he could put his hands in his pockets. He stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles, resuming his customary slouch, all the intensity of the last few minutes draining out of him.

"Cleaning glitter out of your office." Mayu quipped, only to receive a small scuff on the back of her head.

"Oi, that's what Shouta's for. No, I was out doing some misinformation distribution." She cocked her head to the side and looked up at him thoughtfully.

When he saw she was interested, his lips quirked up and he continued. "I'm sorry to say that a girl of your description was seen entering the Flower District, looking for an apprenticeship in one of the luxury houses."

Mayu's jaw dropped. "You - you spread a rumor that I left the orphanage to become a prostitute?" Her voice raised to almost a screech on the last few words. Shikaku's face morphed into panic and his eyes darted to the door as he raised both hands, palms out, towards her.

"Keep it down, keep it down! Do you want Yoshino to hear you?"

Mayu took one look at his terrified face and felt laughter bubbling in her chest. She slapped both hands over her mouth, but it did nothing to stop her mirth.

She finally gave up, laid her hands down next to her on the bed for support and possibly for the first time since she realized her place in this new world, let herself laugh without reserve.

"The big scary clan head, everybody," she gasped out between gales of childish laughter. "All you need to defeat him is to tattle to his wife."

"Yes, yes, laugh it up," Shikaku said, though she could tell from his expression that he was actually pleased to have made her laugh, whether he meant to or not.

When she had calmed down, she wiped tears from the corners of her eyes as she caught her breath before turning her attention back to him. His lips were still pulled up in a half smile and he was now leaning back and resting his weight on his palms with his feet still stretched before him.

After a moment, she matched his position and tilted her face up to look at his. "I guess it's a better explanation than 'she ran away to the circus,' but I'll be super mad if people think I spent my childhood learning how to...to..." she blushed and didn't finish her sentence.

"Maa, Mayu-chan, don't worry about it. I'll tell everyone you were at the hospital with pneumonia when it's all over. As for tipping Shimura-sama off that our investigation may be about him, well...that's hard to avoid."

"But if he knows then he'll hide all of the evidence before you can find it!" Mayu said, alarmed.

"Mmm, and I won't be able to prevent that. What I will be able to control, though, in which evidence he hides." Mayu cut off the protest she'd been forming and opened and closed her mouth a few times before finally settling on a reply.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, for awhile now I've noticed that our supply manifests have been off. Nothing too big, just some armor here, or some kunai there and they could always be written off as a bad shipment or as a box or two getting lost in transit. I suspected that someone on the inside was stealing, but I couldn't figure out what exactly they needed it for - either they were reselling, or using it to arm someone. I couldn't find any evidence of them ending up on the black market. But, now that I know Danzo is supplying his own personal army..."

Mayu's eyes widened in realization and her lips formed a little 'o.' Shikaku nodded.

"I see you've figured it out. I'm going to make him think that I'm investigating the stolen items by dropping a few hints here and there, while in actuality my team will be connecting him to the kidnappings and locating the children. So while he scrambles to cover up his involvement in something less important, I'll be shining a light on another dirty little activity."

"Wow," Mayu said, impressed. "That's really smart. You're amazing, Shikaku-san!"

He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly and looked away. "Ah, well. I've just been playing these games for awhile. If it weren't for you being so clever, I still wouldn't know where those supplies were going."

Mayu rolled her eyes and on impulse climbed up to her knees on the bed and turned to face him so that their eyes were on the same level.

"Thank you for believing me, Shikaku-san. I may have figured out some things by being nosy, but I know that you're going to be the one that traps him so that nobody will doubt what a jerk he really is. I've only known you for a day, but I already believe in you."

Shikaku looked taken aback for a moment before his features softened. "Mayu-chan, I hope this is okay, but I'm going to hug you now."

She squeaked when he sat up and pulled her to his chest.

"Shikaku-san! Stop treating me like a baby!" she protested, but he just squeezed her harder.

"How lucky I am that such a cute little Mayu-chibi came into my office today!" he exclaimed, ignoring her halfhearted struggles.

"You-you're supposed to be a serious clan head!" Her voice came out a little muffled since her face was smashed into his shoulder. "And I'm not a chibi! I'm the detective that cracked the case for you!"

He laughed and brought one hand up to ruffle her hair before pulling back. "Ah, it's true, you are a very good detective. Maybe I'll start calling you Detective Chibi-chan."

She scowled at him and brought her hands up to fix her hair, though she was sure he saw straight through her. Despite his teasing, he was a good hugger, and hugs were something she hadn't gotten a lot of in this life.

He stood up and she ducked his hand when he went for another swipe across her hair before he tucked both in his pockets and slouched towards the door.

"Get into bed and covered up and I'll turn off the light for you," he said over his shoulder after pausing with his hand resting on the doorknob. Mayu stopped fussing with her hair and obediently clambered under the covers, scooting down the soft mattress until her head was resting on the pillow and pulled the blankets up to her chin.

"Oh, and Mayu?" She stopped what she was doing to look over at him, but he was facing away from her now, hand still on the doorknob. "Don't worry about the situation anymore, okay? I'll take care of it and until then, you'll be safe here. Nobody would get past my clan." he paused to think for a moment. "And even if they did, they'd never make it past Yoshino."

Mayu giggled as he gave a dramatic shudder and then he was slipping out the door, shutting off the light as he went.

000

Mayu lay in the dirt beneath the old, creaky porch of the orphanage and watched Nono-san as she stood in the dim light of the overgrown courtyard. Somewhere towards the back of the grounds, a swing creaked lightly in the wind, but other than that there was no noise.

Mayu made sure to take slow, even breaths. While she was pretty sure the old seals scattered around the orphanage, put there during the Second Shinobi World War by Uzumaki Mito herself to protect the children from enemy spies, covered any sound or scent she would create, she wasn't 100% positive they extended to her spot under the porch.

After ten minutes or so two figures appeared before Nono-san in a swirl of wind and leaves. Mayu studied the man she knew to be Shimura Danzo, body tensed for flight as she waited for a sign that he knew she was watching.

His companion stood behind his shoulder to his right and Mayu couldn't tell whether the black-clad figure was male or female, due in part to the cloak covering any possible curves and the white blank mask over his or her face. Either way, it was extremely intimidating.

"Nono-chan," Danzo said. "I trust you have some possible recruits for me?"

Nono bowed her head. "I do, Danzo-sama. In fact, you can see one of them for yourself - she's over there, under the porch."

Mayu's breath hitched, fear spreading through her limbs. Stupid! She thought to herself. You should have known you couldn't escape the notice of an ex-ANBU...

Between one second and the next, the masked figure disappeared from Danzo's side and appeared before her, kneeling so that the white face was looking directly at her from the space between the scuffed dirt and the old peeling boards of the porch.

Run! Mayu's mind screamed at her, but her body wouldn't obey. She raised one heavy hand in front of her as though to ward off the wraith and screamed when something grabbed her wrist and dragged her out into the open air.

Too afraid to fight and knowing that she could never outrun the people in front of her, she collapsed to her knees, shaking.

"Surely such a small, cowardly thing wouldn't do well in my army," she heard Danzo say, though his voice sounded like it was coming through water. "It would probably be best to dispose of her now."

No! I don't want to die!

"Oh I don't know," a new voice that filled her with cold dread and pulled at something like a memory in the edge of her mind spoke up from directly above her. The masked figure - it was speaking. "First, I think we should have a little fun."

At those words, Mayu's shaking grew more pronounced. She knew this person, she had heard him these words before. The memory was trying to push its way to the surface and reflexively she fought against it.

She knew, to the core of her being, that this was not something she wanted to remember. Still, her body seemed to move without her permission and slowly, slowly, her eyes began to travel up the body before her.

Past black-clad legs, past a billowing cloak and finally, to the glowing white mask. The hand attached to the body slowly raised itself towards the mask. Mayu wanted to protest, to scream at this person, this thing that she feared so much, to stop, but she was frozen, stuck in place, as the mask was lifted.

A bland, boring face topped with short brown hair appeared. At first glance, the man seemed normal - nothing to fear. Until Mayu looked into his cold, manic gaze. He crouched down in front her, mouth pulled into a grotesque parody of a grin.

"Now, Ms. Holmes. Should we begin?"

A knife flashed towards her and Mayu opened her mouth and started to scream when the worst pain she'd ever felt hit her. As the world began to fade around her, a name formed in her mind, the letters clear and sharp. Moriarty.

Mayu jolted awake, disoriented, taking in deep, panting breaths. Her cheeks were wet with tears and shivers wracked her body as she looked frantically around a room dimly lit by moonlight filtering in through a window. It took only a moment to remember where she was and Mayu began to calm.

The Nara house. She was in the Nara house, with Shikaku sleeping just down the hall. Nothing could hurt her here. She was safe. Danzo didn't have her. That horrible man - the memory of the man who had called her by a name she hadn't heard in this lifetime - didn't have her. She was at the Nara house. She was safe. Shikaku was just down the hall...

Mayu continued to gulp in air, repeating to herself over and over again that she was safe. After a few minutes, her shaking subsided, though the bone-deep fear wouldn't release her, leaving her feeling cold. The name Moriarty kept rising to the surface of her thoughts, making it impossible to shake off the reaction to the nightmare.

Finally, unable to stand the sight of the ceiling any longer and the feeling of being cut off from the world, Mayu threw aside her covers and stumbled to the door. She quietly creaked it open and slipped into the hall, where she sank down onto the floor to lean back against the wall.

Drawing her knees up to her chest, she wrapped her arms around her shins and rested her forehead against her legs. The change in location seemed to release most of the hold the dream had held over her and her fear subsided to manageable levels. Her brain kicked back into its usual overdrive and Mayu was able to step back and look at what she had dreamt with a modicum of logic.

Obviously, her mind had taken a memory - what she had seen while spying on Nono-san and Danzo - and had changed it in reaction to the fear she'd been experiencing for the past day and a half. Because Mayu knew, from observing just one conversation between himself and somebody he deemed as just another tool in his arsenal, just what sort of twisted man Danzo really was. After all, she'd been taught the art of deduction by the best.

She had been so close to becoming just another faceless missing child of Konoha, taken and forced to do god-knows-what by a megalomaniac with no compunctions when it came to the depths he would sink in his grasping plays for power. If she hadn't looked into the disappearances herself, Mayu wouldn't have had a warning, wouldn't have seen it coming.

Well, she'd just have to accept how close she came to losing her freedom, life, and worse, her mind, and resolve to always be aware of her surroundings, to not let the unexplained pass her by without investigation. That should take care of any further nightmares featuring Danzo, with time.

What that didn't help with was...the other thing. She knew, to the core of her, that the specter of Moriarty was not something her subconscious had conjured to fill in the gaps of her unresolved fears.

He had felt like one of the memories of her past life, which had a certain haze to them that her more recent memories did not. They were dimmer and seemed to be coming to her through a thin barrier, as though she were seeing them through a lens, or from underwater.

Mayu had a feeling that Moriarty was part of the one aspect of her past life she'd never been able to remember before. Her death.

She was pulled from her thoughts by a rustle across from her. When her eyes focused she saw it was Shikamaru, standing in his now-open doorway, obviously having been pulled from a deep sleep. His hair was out of its ponytail and lay in a messy nest around his face. He was rubbing one eye with a fist and yawning.

"I -" Mayu started, but her voice came out in a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again, this time with more success. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "Did I wake you?"

Shikamaru just shrugged, lowering his hand to his side and studied her hunched form before speaking. "Nightmare?" He asked and it was her turn to shrug in reply.

"Troublesome," he muttered. Mayu wilted, feeling guilty about waking him up when she was a guest in his house.

"Was it about whatever has dad so worked up?" He asked in a bored voice.

Mayu started and gave him a wary look before deciding there was probably no use trying to pretend there was nothing going on. After all, she was crashing in his house while Shikaku was out toppling important political figures from their thrones.

She gave a small nod and played with the edge of her borrowed shirt. "Yeah, but...I'm not really supposed to talk about it."

Shikamaru didn't say anything to that. He just stood for a moment more, sharp eyes taking her in before he came to a decision. With a huff, he turned and walked down the hall towards the stairs. Baffled, she watched as he disappeared from view.

Unsure whether she should follow, she sat frozen on the floor. Mayu knew she should go back into the room, but for some reason, the thought sent shivers down her back. I wonder how long I have until it could be considered morning time, she thought to herself. She was pretty sure it was around one or two am, so probably a while.

With a sigh, she curled back up, deciding that it didn't matter how weird Shikamaru ended up thinking she was, she would just stay there until daybreak. 

"Here. Drink this, it'll help." Mayu was startled again from her thoughts by a glass of water being pushed into her face by an uncomfortable looking Shikamaru.

"Ah...thank you," She said, taking the glass from him and bringing it to her lips.

At the first touch of water on her tongue, her thirst hit her like a freight train and she ended up drinking most of it in one go.

Shikamaru's lips quirked up on one side in what Mayu was beginning to recognize as the smile Naras give when you've somehow amused them. She gave him a tentative smile back before setting the glass down next to her and resuming her previous position.

After a few minutes, it must have become apparent that she didn't plan on moving because Shikamaru sighed and sat down next to her. "The nightmare...can you tell me anything about it?"

Mayu turned her head fully to face him, laying her cheek on her upraised knees. Her eyes took in his features. Today was the first time she had met a child whose intellect came close to meeting her own.

She had been distracted throughout the day and could admit she hadn't been paying as much attention as she should have outside of looking at the Nara family and deducing safe. Something that she could admit was completely indefensible in her current position - she should be gathering all of the information on the people around her, allies and enemies alike if she wanted to survive the next month.

Deduction didn't come as naturally to her in her past life as it had to her father and uncle. It was something that had been drilled into her until she did it automatically. Here, she was still a child, with a child's emotions and distractibility and she had a feeling it would be a few years yet before she could once again walk into a room and know what everyone had for breakfast, their romantic status and if they had recently committed unsanctioned murder.

She focused all her deductive ability on him now. Genius level intelligence, though he's not conceited about it - the result of growing up in a clan known for producing geniuses. His lethargy isn't an act, he most likely won't reach his potential until something big motivates him. Physical stillness and frequent naps help him deal with a brain that is always processing much faster than those around him. He is kind, though not easily motivated into acts of kindness since that would involve putting forth more effort than he's willing to. Steady and loyal - he will grow into a pillar for his clan...trustworthy. Trustworthy.

"There's a man that wants to hurt me. I'm not...he reminds me of. Someone else," Mayu finally answered after a few moments.

She didn't elaborate and he didn't ask her to. They sat in comfortable silence for awhile until Shikamaru broke it with a yawn.

"We should go back to bed," he said, standing up and stretching.

She hummed in response but didn't move. The terror from her dream had faded, but she didn't want to go back into the room. Out in the hallway, even if everybody was still asleep, she didn't feel so alone. Mayu couldn't remember ever spending the night without the sounds of other children in the orphanage lulling her to sleep. While she had been alone for six years, she wasn't on her own. Now, she found the silence stifling

He stared at her for a moment before sighing, mumbling something under his breath and then disappearing into the guest room she'd been sleeping in.

"Um," she said, but barely had time to wonder what he was doing before he was standing in front of her holding the pillow from her bed in his hand.

Shikamaru then held out his other hand and moaned impatiently when she just stared at it.

"Come on, I'm tired and want to sleep and won't be able to if I know that you're just sitting out here staring at a wall."

She hesitantly placed her palm in his and let him pull her to her feet. Still holding her hand, he led her into his bedroom and to his bed, setting her pillow down next to his. He then crawled under the covers, scooting over and pointedly holding the covers up so she could follow.

Mayu only paused for a moment before crawling in after him. To her surprise, he rolled over so that his front was pressed to her side and put his skinny arm over stomach as he burrowed into his pillow. Then, as far as she could tell, he promptly fell back asleep. She stared at the boy in shock for a few moments. Well, that was a skill she wouldn't mind having. She held her body stiffly for several minutes, unused to physical touch, before finally relaxing and following Shikamaru into slumber.

000

Mayu glared down at the plate in front of her and tried to ignore the smirk on Shikaku's face. She had awoken this morning in a tangle of blankets and gangly limbs, with Yoshino cooing in the doorway with a camera while Shikaku chuckled in the hall behind her.

Shikamaru was unaffected by the gushing Yoshino was still doing about how 'cute' they were and how much her girlfriends were going to love the adorable pictures she'd taken of the two of them drooling all over each other and the blankets.

Shikamaru seemed completely unconcerned about potential embarrassment and was, in fact, asleep at the breakfast table, with his head propped into his hand. Mayu took a bite of her admittedly delicious breakfast and decided to just be thankful they hadn't asked why she ended up in Shikamaru's room instead of her own. Though considering they were ninja, they probably already knew.

Eventually, Shikaku stood, ruffling both of the children's hair in turn, before moving over to kiss Yoshino goodbye.

"I'll probably be late tonight," he said casually.

Mayu bit her lip but didn't comment. There was tension below his calm exterior and she could tell that he was at least somewhat concerned about how his meeting with the Hokage would go.

"You two stay around the house and the property today - don't wander," Shikaku said as he left the kitchen.

"Ah," Shikamaru replied, not seeing at at all curious about why his father wouldn't want him wandering around the village. Either he was really, incredibly lazy, or he'd taken it seriously when Mayu said she was in danger during their whispered conversation last night.

"Shikamaru, why don't you show Mayu the backyard and show her how to do your morning stretches. I'll be out after I clean up the kitchen," Yoshino said with a small smile.

"What a drag. I thought I'd get to skip since we have a guest."

The soft smile dropped off Yoshino's face and she pointed a spoon at him. "Shikamaru! Get your lazy butt out there, or I'll make the rest of your day so miserable you'll be dreaming of stretches!" He cringed down in his seat, pout on his face, and didn't argue.

"Mayu, you don't mind, do you dear?" Yoshino asked, again falling back into her sweet mother persona.

"I - no?" Mayu asked, feeling a little terrified of the quick transformation.

"Now look what you've done, making our guest uncomfortable," Yoshino scolded at Shikamaru, who responded by grabbing Mayu by the hand and pulling her out of the kitchen and into the dawn light as fast as his little legs could carry him.

Mayu glanced back and saw Yoshino smirking in victory.

"Your mom is so scary," she said in admiration once they were safely down the porch steps and in the backyard.

"You say that like it's a good thing," he mumbled, still slouched into a pout.

Mayu grinned at him. "It's good to be able to scare the people around you. I could learn from her."

She studied her new surroundings, noting that the yard was a fairly large patch of soft, green grass, lined on the sides by raised gardens and tall trees. Currently, the gardens held a mix of flowers that bloomed in the early fall and various squash and some late tomatoes.

On the far side of the yard, up against a simple fence made up of posts driven into the ground, with two rows of longboards running parallel to the ground, was a small run-down shed. Beyond the fence was a large meadow which sloped up onto a hill, where a large, fenced in forest began. There weren't any other houses in sight. It seemed the head of the clan lived right at the edge of the Nara Compound, which was on the very outskirts of Konoha itself.

Shikamaru sighed and mumbled something about all women being terrifying, then plopped down on the grass.

"Here, sit down and I'll show you our stretches."

He talked her through a series of movements that reminded her of the beginner's yoga classes that Uncle Sherlock had forced her to go to when he needed to gather information on the owner of the studio, who of course turned out to be an arsonist. They had been working on it for about 10 minutes when Yoshino came out and joined them, offering suggestions and readjusting their stances where needed.

After about 45 minutes she called a halt and had them sit down with crossed legs.

"Mayu-chan, have you ever meditated?" she asked.

"Yes - I read a book on it at the library once when I started trying to access my chakra."

"Oh?" Yoshino gave her a sharp look. "And did you succeed?"

"Ah, I can feel it and direct it a bit," Mayu said with a shrug.

"That's good! Much better than Shikamaru's done so far," she said with a glare at him.

Mayu glanced at him nervously, afraid he'd be annoyed with her for inadvertently directing his mother's wrath, but he looked unperturbed by his mother's comment. Her lips twitched and she shrugged.

"I have a lot of free time at the orphanage," she said.

Yoshino looked at her with sad eyes but didn't comment. Instead, she began to talk them through breathing for meditation and how to 'feel' for their chakra and begin to move it around. They worked on this for about an hour and during that time the sun brightened and the world came to life around them. Mayu breathed deeply and used the last half hour of meditation - during which she was pretty positive Shikamaru was sleeping - to drop into her mindscape.

Or, well, her mind cave as she liked to call it. Sherlock had called it his mind palace when he helped her build her first one, Before. Here, it was called a mindscape by those shinobi who specialized in jutsu of the mind.

She had also seen it referred to as a mind temple in a scroll written by monks. The mind temple used a similar technique to Sherlock's to create a fortress that protected and organized their memories and psyche, but they added an extra layer by weaving chakra into the exercise.

It was esoteric and time-consuming (it took years and years to create a solid chakra manifestation layer in the mindscape) and required a strong mind, high intelligence, and infinite patience. Mayu had already planned on recreating her mind cave and the extra effort needed to protect herself from what she considered to be one of the biggest threats of this world - techniques that affected her mind - seemed a small price to pay.

She had only been working on it for about a month - before that, her attention was more on learning as much as she could about the world around her. Learning to read and write, discovering the history and political climate of the world she lived in...those had all taken time. It wasn't until the first time she'd seen a shinobi racing across the rooftops that she had actually felt a real motivation to become an active participant in this world. After all, who wouldn't want to train to be a superhero?

Her mindscape was mostly a dark space with jumbled memories and thoughts moving in and out of her vision. Mayu frowned and concentrated on the dream she'd had last night. It had lost a bit of its potency here, where she knew she had the control. It began to play in front of her, as if in a hologram, and she walked slowly around it, studying it from every angle.

Then, she began picking it apart, pulling that which was memory from that which was fear. When she got to the end, however, she ran into a problem. She knew the voice and face of the black cloaked figure were based on a memory that had yet to fully surface.

This wasn't a surprise, as she hadn't just woken to all of her past memories intact. They had come to her throughout the first five years of her new life, integrating slowly so as not to break her. The circumstances of her death were the only thing Mayu had never been able to remember.

Mayu replayed the voice over and over, studied the nondescript face of who she knew to be Moriarty, trying to prompt more of the memory to the surface. While she felt a faint stirring somewhere in the depths of her, she couldn't retrieve it. Yet. Until she pulled the repressed information forward and dealt with it properly, it would be a weakness of the mind, as proven last night.

Frustrated, Mayu moved on, concentrating hard on a folder labeled 'investigations' appeared before her. She pressed a hand to it and it opened into more folders - not unlike what you'd see on the desktop of an OS in her other world - and selected the one labeled Shimura Danzo and began to transfer the new information she'd gathered. She shuddered as 'target: Nomaka Mayu' was added and integrated.

She felt only relief when the memories associated with 'allies: Shikaku Nara, Yoshino Nara, Akamichi Chouza, Yamanaka Inoichi' were added. To say she had been surprised at Shikaku's willingness to believe in and then help a six-year-old orphan would be an understatement. It had been a last resort, really, born from the fear that had consumed her in a way that only children really felt.

After what felt like hours, but was only about half an hour in real time, Mayu was pulled from her space by a touch on her shoulder. She blinked open her eyes to see Shikamaru crouched in front of her and Yoshino was nowhere to be found.

"We're done," he said. "Usually after this, I go cloud watching while mom is distracted. Wanna come?"

Mayu blinked at him. Cloud watching, seriously? That sounded horribly dull. But, well, it wasn't like she had anything else to do. Still...

"Can I bring a book?" she asked.

Shikamaru shrugged before standing and slouching towards the house. Mayu's lip twitched and she stood to follow him inside and through the kitchen to a hallway, where they turned right. Mayu hadn't been in this part of the house yet and looked around with interest.

They passed a closed door on the left - Shikaku's office, then - and finally entered a large, sunny room that contained three large armchairs by a fireplace in the corner and beautiful shelves carved from cherry wood lining the walls. The shelves were filled with books and Mayu gasped in surprise. She hadn't seen a personal library this big since...well...Before.

She crossed the plush blue carpet and quickly made her way to the first shelf on the far right, intending to do a quick sweep to get a feel for how the books were organized before taking a closer look. Shikamaru seemed to sense that this could take awhile, because he plopped into one of the chairs and curled up into it, his little body fitting easily into the space.

He mumbled something that could have been 'wake me when you're ready,' and went silent. Mayu giggled and turned back to her task, slowly walking along the rows of books. When she got to the end, she hummed in thought. The books were organized by subject first and then by title within each subject.

There were six main sections: chakra control, basic jutsu and shinobi skills, strategy, science (with a focus on medical science), history and fiction. Mayu tapped her fingers on her leg in thought before moving back to the chakra control section.

She had already read the library's copy of The Beginner's Guide to Chakra, so skipped that over. Finally, she pulled down Learning Practical Applications of Chakra and did a quick scan of the table of contents before deciding to bring it along.

Biting her lip, Mayu looked over at Shikamaru, only to find him fast asleep. She rolled her eyes and decided he wouldn't be annoyed if she picked out one more book. After a few more minutes of perusal, she pulled out Poisons and their Antidotes: Volume 1: Fire Country.

Mayu moved over to Shikamaru and shook his shoulder. He grumbled and pushed his face into the chair. She huffed and poked the side of his head.

"Shikamaru-kun, don't you want to go cloud watching?"

One eye opened and swiveled to look at her for a moment. Finally, he uncurled himself and stretched before standing. He motioned towards her books and she knew he was asking what she'd grabbed.

Brightening, she held them up for him. He hummed and took the book on poisons from her.

"You should start with this one," he said, moving back to the shelf to replace it and pull out a new one to hand to her.

Mayu read the title, head tilted to the side. The Science of Poisons by Nara Shino.

"Why..." she started to ask.

"It's a better starting point," Shikamaru said, waving his hand in the air. "More of a 'how and why they work' than a list of poisons."

"Thanks," she said, a little surprised that he had actually read it, but at the same time not. After all, he was extremely intelligent and sleeping had to get boring eventually.

They made their way back outside and over the fence separating the backyard from the field. Mayu followed Shikamaru across the length of the meadow and up the side of the hill, where he stopped about ten feet from the tree line and lay down on the grass, staring up at the sky above them.

After a moment of hesitation, she sat down next to him and impatiently opened the book on poisons. The portion of the library open to the general public didn't have anything at all on poisons, at least not specifically.

After an hour or so Shikamaru broke their comfortable silence. "How old are you?"

Mayu glanced at him from the corner of her eyes and saw that he was still looking up at the clouds, completely relaxed and seemingly not caring whether or not she answered.

"I turned six a few months ago," she offered.

He grunted. "I turn seven next month," and heaved a huge dramatic sigh that Mayu couldn't help but giggle at.

"What's so wrong with turning seven?"

He turned his head to look at her and looked so aggrieved that she let out another laugh. The satisfied expression that crossed his face for a moment made her realize that he was trying to get that reaction from her and couldn't help the bit of warmth that infused her at that.

It had been a long time since anyone cared about whether she smiled or not, yet the Naras seemed determined to see her do it. It wasn't like Mayu needed that in her day-to-day life - independence had never been a problem for her - but it was lonely to always be on her own, all the same.

"Mom says I have to start attending the Academy when I'm eight and graduate by twelve," Shikamaru answered and Mayu brightened.

"Really? I'll be taking the entrance exams for next year, too! Maybe we'll end up in the same class."

Shikamaru gave his little half smile and a grunt of acknowledgment before turning his attention back to the sky, but Mayu could see that he was genuinely pleased. Mayu stared at him openly for a moment, then shrugged and when back to her book.

They spent the rest of the morning in comfortable silence, Mayu reading and Shikamaru content to stare at the clouds until Yoshino called for them to come in for lunch. After they ate Shikamaru led her back into the sitting room and the Shogi board there.

They played a few games and Shikamaru won the first three, to Mayu's delight. She made him explain each strategy before they moved on and his self-satisfied grin reminded her so much of her uncle when she showed him admiration that her chest went tight.

That night Shikaku didn't make it home for dinner and Mayu could feel the tension building in her back and shoulders. She looked across the table at Yoshino, who was teasing Shikamaru about the pleased expression he'd been wearing since their Shogi games. He rolled his eyes and huffed, but one side of his mouth was quirked up in his little half smile and she could easily read the love and fondness they felt for each other.

Mayu felt something in her relax at their interaction. Shikaku had something to come back to, while all Danzo had was his schemes and his megalomaniacal tendencies to keep him going. She shivered as she remembered the one time she'd seen him, wrapped in the shadows of the overgrown courtyard of the orphanage, so confident in his right to snatch children from their lives. That kind of strength was brittle no matter how intelligent or how ruthless someone was, especially in the face of a strength born from the will to protect others.

She knew this, had seen it play out in her old life. Her father was never more dangerous than when Sherlock or herself were threatened or hurt, no matter what he claimed about the futileness of sentimentality. Whoever this Moriarty was, she had no doubt he had died horribly once Mycroft and Sherlock discovered what he did.

She tried not to dwell on their reactions past that - her death must have hurt them badly, she knew. No one but Mayu, or, well, Diana Holmes, had offered them unreserved affection.

After helping Shikamaru clean up the kitchen, the three of them retired to the small library. Mayu continued reading the books she had chosen that morning, this time with a notebook Yoshino had given her so she could take notes. She already had some experiments with local plant life in mind...she wondered if Shikamaru would mind taking her for a walk in the woods tomorrow...

Shikamaru, apparently all napped out for the day, was laying on the plush rug with a book on traps that Mayu itched to read in front of him, while Yoshino was sharpening some kunai in the chair across from her own. It was...nice. Homey.

Finally, at Yoshino's urging, Mayu and Shikamaru went upstairs to get ready for bed. When she hesitated outside the door to her guest room, Shikamaru tugged on her hand impatiently. "Maa, Mayu-chan, your pillow's already in my room."

Relieved and annoyed with herself for her weakness, she followed him into the room and once again he cuddled up to her side. He's so adorable, she thought, amused that the next in line to hold the spot of fearsome and apathetic Nara heir was a snuggler.

Shikamaru fell asleep immediately and Mayu was relaxing into a doze when the door creaked open. In the moonlit room, she could make out the outline of Shikaku, who ghosted silently to the bed and let out a chuckle at the site of his son glommed onto her. Mayu grinned and gave a little 'what can you do?' shrug.

Shikaku shook his head and sat down with a rustle of fabric on the edge of the bed.

"Hey, squirt. How are you doing?" He asked in a low voice.

"I'm okay. You look tired, though...but..." she flicked her eyes across his face, his shoulders, the way his hands were clasped between his knees, "...you have good news."

He raised an eyebrow before giving an affirmative grunt. "The Hokage gave me the team I asked for without asking for too many details."

"And this team...you trust them not to..." betray you to Danzo? She didn't say out loud, but he understood anyway.

"Yes. I've known them for years. They're fully apprised of the situation and on board. Angry, too - they want this taken care of and those responsible brought under control."

Mayu breathed out. "Okay. Okay, and you have a plan? Not just to bring down the...organization, or conspiracy, or whatever, but to protect the orphans?"

"Aa, don't worry Mayu-chan, this is a team of the best. We'll get them, I promise."

"Just be careful," Mayu said, remembering the feeling of home the Nara household gave her. The last thing she'd want is for their bubble of happiness to be torn apart. "When I saw him, that night...he wasn't bothering with pretending. He's a fanatic. He's dangerous and clever. You're clever, too, but you're a good man, so you probably can't imagine the things that he's - that he's..."

A large hand on her head stopped the words. "Don't worry, Mayu-chan. We'll be careful and we'll live. I promise - he won't take anyone from their families again." He said the last bit with a vicious sort of ferocity that made her pause.

"So you...you figured it out then," she whispered. "That those missing clan kids -"

"Yes," he bit out and she felt his eyes on her, though she diverted her gaze. "But I didn't realize you had. Why didn't you say anything?"

Mayu shrugged. "I wasn't." she blew her breath out in frustration. "It was already a long shot that you'd believe me, you know? It would have been easier to believe that it was just poor civilian families and orphans. The other - I didn't think it would be as easy to accept."

There was silence as he seemed to absorb that.

"Sorry," she finally whispered and he sighed.

"I can't blame you. After all, it must have seemed like we didn't care much after a six-year-old was able to put together the information in less than six months that full grown shinobi missed. It's no wonder you didn't trust us." Didn't trust me, he left unsaid.

"But I do now," she blurted in response to what he didn't say. "You're good and kind and you love your family. You. You're good," she finished lamely.

And she knew she was right - had known it when he hugged a terrified orphan he'd only known for half an hour and then taken her home with him to keep her safe. He hadn't flinched away from the problem, despite the sheer enormity of it. He was taking on a close friend and advisor of the Hokage, the leader of a militaristic society, in the name of those others would see as the weakest links in the village.

His breath hitched at her declaration and he froze. Then he was pushing her bangs back from her forehead and leaning down to place a kiss there.

"I'm honored that you think so," he whispered, before clearing his throat and standing. "Better get some sleep, Mayu-chan. Yoshino doesn't believe in sleeping in," he finished dryly and she giggled as he ghosted out of the room, closing the door behind him gently.

She waited a minute before elbowing Shikamaru. "You still going to fake sleep?" she asked and he grumbled at her. She had known he was awake and figured Shikaku probably knew it too and just trusted his son to be discreet.

"Your dad...really is amazing," Mayu whispered. "You're very lucky."

"Aa," Shikamaru said, then, "I'm glad he's helping you. You don't deserve to be so scared."

Mayu's breath hitched and in her head, she heard that high laughter and Now, Ms. Holmes, should we begin? Without thought, she turned and buried her face in his small shoulder. He tightened his arms and patted her back.

"Don't worry, Mayu-chan, mom and I will protect you while dad kills whoever made you sad."

She let out a surprised laugh and relaxed into the comfort. It was going to be hard to go back to the orphanage when this was all over, but for now, Mayu would enjoy the feeling of home while it lasted.

The next few days she fell into an easy pattern with the Naras. In the mornings, Mayu dragged Shikamaru out of bed and down to breakfast and then they did stretches and meditation with Yoshino. Then, they would go to the small hill, where Shikamaru would sprawl out on the grass and stare up at the sky while Mayu read.

Sometimes, she'd join him for a while, resting her head on his stomach or shoulder. A few times she even fell into a nap - she was sleeping more at the Nara's than she probably had in the past month at the orphanage, but it was easy to relax here, where it was quiet, and she didn't have to worry about watching her back or uncovering conspiracies.

Mostly, she would read, determined to make use of the Nara library while she had access to it. She wondered, slightly wistfully, if she would be welcome to come and visit Shikamaru after Danzo was taken care of and she was back to living at the orphanage. She had read the book on poisons Shikamaru had suggested she start with and moved on to the other more advanced texts.

The afternoons were taken up by Shogi and Go, which Shikamaru taught her on her second day there. Shikaku had only made it home for dinner once out of three nights and he hadn't had anything but vague updates for Mayu, but he had a satisfied glint in his eyes, so she assumed the investigation was moving forward at an acceptable rate.

He was also carrying a low-grade, continuous fury that burned under the surface of his unconcerned exterior that made her almost feel sorry for the beat down that was surely coming Danzo's way once the trap closed around him. Almost.

Mayu and Shikamaru continued to share a bed and she didn't have any more nightmares. She was no closer to unearthing the rest of the memories playing at the edges of her consciousness, but the fear was beginning to have less of a hold on her mind, as she forced herself to study it in her mindscape each morning. 

It can't rule you if you out-logic it, Sherlock used to scoff at her when she was a child (the first time) and woke terrified from nightmares. She had to admit, stepping back and studying and then organizing the thoughts and memories that upset her usually sucked most of the power out of them.

It was on her fourth evening at the Nara residence that Mayu had her first Shogi victory over Shikamaru. The boy looked shocked and actually sputtered when he realized she had played him into a corner. Mayu whooped and jumped to her feet with her arms in her air.

"Take that genius-boy!" she crowed, wiggling and laughing at his annoyed expression.

Of course, he had then redeemed himself by winning twice more in a row, but Mayu took the defeats cheerfully enough. Shikaku was home that evening, looking distracted and he chuckled at their competition.

"I haven't seen anyone outside myself beat Shikamaru in awhile. Good job, Mayu-chan," the man said easily.

The next morning, the clan head wasn't there for breakfast and Mayu went through her meal and morning stretches and meditation impatiently. Shikamaru noticed her distraction, but other than a raised eyebrow didn't comment on it. When they finally climbed over the fence and crossed into the field, she pulled him along impatiently by his hand.

"Shikamaru-kun - will you take me into the forest? I want to find some plants for some experiments," she breathed out the last word with near-reverence.

His response was to moan. "Aw, Mayu-chan, why can't we just do what we always do? You're too excited for so early in the morning," he said in a grumpy voice he'd never used on her before.

She dropped his hand and slowed to a walk, turning her face from him in sudden embarrassment when she realized he was annoyed with her. Usually, she couldn't care one way or another if someone was unhappy with her, but this was Shikamaru, this was the first real friend she had made in this world. His responding to her tendency to get overly enthusiastic in the face of a project with irritation made something in her chest tighten.

"Ah, sorry, Shikamaru-kun," she said to the ground to her right. "Of course we can cloud watch. Maybe I can go to the woods this afternoon while you read."

Silence, and she felt his gaze on her, then an explosive sigh and he was grabbing her hand and tugging her towards the forest, muttering about how she was a "Troublesome girl who shouldn't give in so easy."

She looked over at him and saw he was looking back, this time with his fond half smile in place. She immediately felt lighter and knew that she was smiling brightly back at him.

"Okay, let's go!"

They spent the next few hours tromping through the woods, looking to a book titled The Guide to Creating Fire Country Poisons for reference while searching for a few specific plants.

They hid the plants in the mostly-empty shed in the back yard after Shikamaru insisted his mother wouldn't be happy with Mayu's project and would probably toss all their hard work before going in for lunch.

"Did you enjoy your walk in the woods?" Yoshino asked cheerfully as she set sandwiches in front of them.

"Yes!" Mayu said. "There are so many interesting trees and plants - and it feels like there's no one around for miles!"

Yoshino laughed at her enthusiasm.

"Well, you should drag Shikamaru out there more often. That lazy bones needs more exercise," and somehow she managed to say the last sentence threateningly, making Shikamaru sink down in his seat.

"Did you see the deer yet?" Yoshino asked in a happy voice and Mayu was pretty sure that the woman was going to give somebody whiplash with her moods swings one day.

After lunch Yoshino left to go to the market and Shikamaru laid down on the couch and fell into a light doze. Mayu returned to the shed for the plants and brought them into the kitchen.

Mayu opened the book to a page titled Shinkiki Contact Paralysis Poison. She had chosen this one specifically because it wasn't lethal and the effects wore off within twenty minutes. Useful.

She pulled out a saucepan and a few other implements and spent the next hour carefully following already-memorized directions. She had just bottled up the solution after straining it into three small glass vials she had pulled from a box under the sink and pocketed them when she heard Shikamaru stirring. She was at the sink when he finally shuffled in, hands in his pockets.

"What were you doing?" He asked, eyeing the pans she was washing with rubber gloves.

Mayu grinned at him cheerfully and responded with a simple, "Experimenting!" He sighed, but didn't push. Probably something he'd regret later.

000

Shikaku wasn't home for dinner and Mayu caught Shikamaru sending concerned looks at his empty chair throughout the night. She bit her lip, feeling guilty for her part in causing Shikamaru's worry. 

Don't be stupid, this is nobody's fault but Danzo's, she scolded herself. Misplaced guilt was annoying, both to feel and to witness in others.

That night she waited for Shikamaru to fall asleep before carefully extracting herself from his hold and slipping across the hall to the guest room where she'd stashed her new poison to grab a vial along with her notebook. She then ghosted as quietly as possible down the hall to the kitchen, where she switched on the light.

Mayu held her breath while she waited to see if anyone would come down. When nobody did, she held the clear glass container up to the light, studying the light green solution for imperfections which the author of the book had warned meant it hadn't turned out correctly. When all she saw was a clear liquid, she gave a small squeal of excitement before settling cross legged on the floor, back against the fridge and facing the clock.

It had been a long time since she'd been able to create something like this. She did what she could at the orphanage with squirreled away materials, but most of her time the past six months had been consumed with her investigation into the kidnapped orphans.

Opening to a page in the notebook that already had careful notes on the creation of the poison, she added a quick description of the color and viscosity, then drew out a quick table. In the far top right corner, she wrote 'Test 1: One Drop. Location: Foot.' Setting the notebook and pen to her side, Mayu stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth in concentration as she carefully pulled the cork from the top of the vial and set it by the notebook.

Okay, it should take 20-30 seconds to kick in - probably closer to 20 seconds because of my size. With one eye on the clock and excitement in her veins, she carefully tipped the vial until a small drop was balancing on the lip.

She took a deep inhale and gave the glass a tiny flick and a single drop fell onto her foot. Noting the exact position of all three hands on the clock, she quickly set down the vial and leaned against the fridge.

Five seconds - can feel a slight burning sensation at contact point, she mentally noted, then seven seconds - lower extremities losing feeling. 12 seconds, torso also going numb -

Her attention was pulled from her thoughts when movement registered to her right. With a gasp, she moved her head - more slowly than she would have normally - to see a tired-looking Shikaku had just entered the kitchen. 

Oh crap, she thought as his face morphed from confusion to shock to horror. I should have made sure he had already come home and gone to bed... 

But then the paralysis hit and she was slumping over and couldn't respond to his gasped "Mayu, what is it? What's wrong?" as he ran to her side.

And, oh, paralysis was uncomfortable. She could breath, and blink, but her limbs and head wouldn't respond when she asked them to move.

"Mayu!" She felt a bit guilty about the frantic look on Shikaku's face, she did, but she also felt annoyed because her experiment was ruined.

He had completely distracted her from her observations. She would have scowled if she was capable of anything except slack-jawed drooling.

He dropped to her side and grabbed her, cradling her in his arms.

She heard footsteps clattering down the stairs and closed her eyes in horror. From her position pulled against Shikaku's chest Mayu had a perfect view as Yoshino burst into the kitchen, kunai in hand, crouched low and eyes darting around the room looking for an attacker. When her gaze settled on them, she gasped in horror.

"Mayu! Oh my god!" She ran to their side and Mayu could only watch as her foot hit the still-open vial and sent it skittering towards Shikaku's knee, tipping and soaking the fabric of his pants.

Oh shit, she thought, unable to warn Shikaku, and then just to make this all even better, Shikamaru skidded into the kitchen, also holding a kunai, and, okay, that was actually pretty cute. Or it was until he took in Mayu's limp body and his panicking parents, and his face crumpled.

"Yoshino, check the perimeter to see if the perpetrators are still around," Shikaku barked, "Shikamaru, go get...go...get..." and then Shikaku was toppling over, bringing Mayu with him. Luckily, her fall was padded by his chest and arm, and Yoshino was able to dive and catch him before he hit the floor.

"Shikaku!" She gasped, even as she was falling into a defensive posture over their fallen bodies.

"Shikamaru, get over here!" she said. "I don't sense any...any..." another thump of a body, and oh god, she must have stepped in the puddle...

"Mom!" Shikamaru's voice called, anguished. Unable to see anything, her face mashed into Shikaku's flak jacket, she could only listen as Shikamaru ran over to check their pulses.

"Mom, dad, what should I -" a shuddering breath and then, "right, okay, think, Shikamaru. Think."

A rustle of fabric and she imagined him hunched over, fingers and thumbs creating a circle in his 'thinking' pose, something she'd seen him do every time they played Shogi once she actually started challenging him.

A moment later, she heard the sound of her notebook being picked up and the rustle of pages as he looked through it. Oh crap, she had time to think, before a quiet and furious, "You stupid girl."

More noises - cupboards opening and closing, a drawer, footsteps over to their dog pile and then the rasp of the towel against the linoleum. Then her body was being shifted and she could see again and she caught a glimpse of an angry Shikamaru. Grunts as Shikaku and Yoshino were moved.

"Dad, mom," Shikamaru said, "You've been hit with a mild paralytic. It should wear off in 15 to 20 minutes, but since it was made by an idiotic amateur, I'm going to go get Inoichi-ojisan just in case. I won't get anyone else since we're trying to keep Mayu a secret."

She listened as he left, the front door slamming, and lay in misery, unable to do anything beyond blink and listen to the reassuring sound of Shikaku and Yoshino breathing. Mayu wondered if they'd kick her out, and a lump formed in her throat when she imagined losing the warmth that the Naras had shown her. They had been so nice to her and she had poisoned them.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the door slamming open and footsteps running into the kitchen.

Inoichi's pinched face appeared above them, then "let me see the book with the poison description."

The sound of pages turning and muttering. By this point, Mayu was able to twitch her feet and she felt Shikaku shifting minutely. Right, he was probably able to burn some of it away with chakra...that was 15 minutes? He also came into contact with a lot more than I did...

Inoichi must have noticed the small movements, because he let out a breath of relief. A few more minutes and Shikaku was sitting up with a groan.

"Dad!" Shikamaru said in obvious relief and blurred into his arms. "You're okay!" Shikaku groaned and flopped his arms around Shikamaru.

"You should be fine, unless the girl completely screwed up the recipe," Inoichi said.

Mayu slowly sat up and huffed in offense at the doubt of her skills, all she could handle at the moment, then regretted it when three faces turned to her - one angry, one bemused and the other amused. The last was Inoichi, who started to chuckle.

"Well, Mayu-chan, you've done something nobody else has been able to accomplish in decades. You took out the fearsome Nara clan heads," he let out a chortle and Yoshino finally sat up, looking frustrated.

Inoichi was studying her notebook, reading her notes and made a strange choking noise. "You - this was an experiment? Test one: location: foot? How in the world did you end up getting it all over your hosts?"

Mayu glared at him. "I didn't 'get it all over them,' they just. They were supposed to be asleep! But then Shikaku-san came in and he thought I was hurt so he ran over then Yoshino-san came and she knocked over the vial..." she was talking fast by the end, almost at a wail and Inoichi seemed to be unable to hold it in anymore. He started laughing and didn't stop, even when tears were in his eyes.

"Oh god, wait until I tell Chouza! Shikaku, feared by Iwa nin everywhere, taken out by a six year old with a vial of low-level poison!" He was doubled over now, letting out gales of laughter.

Mayu stared at him in horror, unable to believe how wrong everything had gone. She was distracted by a feminine laugh to her left and whipped her head over to see Yoshino with her hand over her mouth, shoulders shaking.

"You - your face Shikaku! You just, you fell over like the great lump you are," she gasped out, having to wipe tears from her eyes.

Mayu gaped and blurted, "Is this an unintended side effect of the poison?" then cringed.

For a moment, there was silence and then Inoichi and Yoshino both dissolved into now-hysterical laughter. Mayu thought her brain would just stop when Shikaku joined them. Soon, all three of the adults were either lying down or slumped over the table, unable to hold themselves up.

Shikamaru and Mayu shared a long suffering look, though Mayu's was tinged in relief. If they were laughing, they couldn't be too mad, could they? Finally, they calmed. Mayu had moved away from them to lean back against the fridge, waiting for their attention to inevitably turn back to her.

To her surprise, Shikamaru had come to sit next to her, shoulders brushing. She remembered how angry he sounded when he had found the notebook, but he seemed to have gotten over it now that he knew his parents were okay. Her heart constricted when she remembered his scared voice and she looked down at her hands in shame.

Finally, Shikaku wiped his eyes and turned to face her, sitting cross legged. He held out a hand and motioned to Inoichi, who must have understood, because he handed Shikaku the notebook. He spent a few moments looking through the last few pages of her notes, Yoshino looking over his shoulder while Mayu fidgeted in silence.

Finally, unable to take her guilt, she sat up to her knees, drawing the attention of everyone in the room and bent at her waist in the lowest bow she could manage. Her body was still fighting off the poison and she wavered and would have fallen over on her side if Shikaku hadn't grabbed her shoulder.

"I'm sorry!" She said. "I didn't mean - I mean I thought I'd be alone." Frustrated tears filled her eyes. Frustration with her own stupidity, mostly.

Shikaku gently pushed her upright with two hand on her shoulders. "Mayu-chan, look at me." She bit her lip and raised her eyes to meet his stern brown gaze.

"I'm not mad about what happened," he said, voice gentling when he saw her tear filled eyes. "Do you know what I am disappointed about?"

Mayu shifted and darted her eyes to Yoshino, but found no help there. "Um. For playing with poisons in the house?"

She winced when it came out as a question and knew she'd answered wrong when he sighed and gently used one hand under her chin to pull her gaze back to him.

"No, Mayu-chan," he said. "I'm upset because you endangered yourself by testing a poison on your own person, alone, in the middle of the night. Do you know how awful it was to walk into the kitchen and see you slump over? I thought you were -" He broke off and cleared his throat and Mayu's eyes widened.

"I - but - you were worried about me?" Mayu said, voice small and confused. "I mean...I know that you promised to protect me, but, I don't think anything that happens due to my stupidity really counts as your fault..."

Yoshino drew in a breath and then Shikaku was being pushed to the side by Yoshino with a "humph" of air and Mayu was being hugged.

"You idiot child! Of course, we were worried and it has nothing to do with promises my lazy husband made," she whispered fiercely.

Mayu's eyes widened in shock. "Oh," she said.

Shikaku had recovered his balance. "That's right, Mayu-chan. So next time, maybe you can do your experiments on mice, hmm?"

She hummed in response, neutral, and Shikaku's eyes narrowed at her. Before he could say anything, though, a large hand patted her head and she twisted in Yoshino's embrace to see Inoichi crouched next to her. He was grinning and seemed perfectly comfortable in the middle of the Nara's kitchen, hair pulled into a hasty, messy ponytail, wearing a thin t-shirt and sweats.

"I guess Shikaku wasn't joking when he called you a genius, huh? That's impressive, making your own poison at your age and doing it well. But, Shikaku would be difficult to live with if you accidentally killed yourself in an experiment, so be more careful with yourself, okay?"

"O-okay," she replied, wide-eyed, something warm growing in her chest, only expanding when a grumbling Shikamaru plastered himself to her side and Shikaku's hand landed on her shoulder. 

Oh, she thought as she hid her face in Yoshino's shoulder. I had forgotten what this felt like. 

She pointedly didn't think about the inevitable cold that would replace this feeling when this was all over and she returned to the orphanage. For now, she allowed herself to enjoy it.

000

The next five days passed without incident. Yoshino had insisted on being involved in any further work Mayu did with poisons and she found the safety measures and lack of testing dull, so moved her attention instead to chakra control exercises.

She was laying on the soft grass on the cloud watching hill with her head pillowed on Shikamaru's stomach, tiny hand held in the air above her as she focused on keeping a leaf stuck to it, when Yoshino appeared in front of them, face grim and lined with worry.

Mayu lost focus, barely noticing as the leaf drifted to the ground, and sat up in alarm.

"Something's happened," she forced out, ignoring the beating of her heart as Shikamaru sat up as well.

Yoshino nodded, once. "Shikaku's been injured. He's at the hospital -"

She didn't have to continue, both children had jumped to their feet and were already racing down the hill, Yoshino between them. Through panicked thoughts racing through her brain - Please don't let him die, not because of me, please - she was aware of two other grim-faced ninjas joining them as they raced past the house on their way to the hospital.

Part of the team that had been investigating with Shikaku, probably. Mayu barely paid any attention to their surroundings despite the fact that she hadn't left the Nara's property for eleven days. It took fifteen minutes to reach the hospital, and they burst through the doors, out of breath, and followed Yoshino to the reception desk.

Shikamaru grabbed her hand and she glanced over to see him looking grim-faced. She squeezed his sweaty palm in hers and couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever forgive her if Shikaku died because of something she pulled him into. Yoshino got directions to Shikaku's room and they followed her hurried footsteps down a hallway, up some stairs, and past other rooms until stopping in front of one labeled 213.

Mayu let Yoshino and Shikamaru enter first, hesitant to see what was on the other side. Ridiculous, a voice that sounded a lot like her father at his most huffy said, like avoiding it will make it different.

Right. She squared her little shoulders and stepped through the door. The room was full of people, but her gaze went straight to the man sitting up in the hospital bed. Pushing fear aside, she scurried to the bed, hands fluttering as she catalogued the clues in front of her, barely noticing that she was speaking out loud.

"Bandages covering right side plus smell of aloe - most likely burns, no more than second degree. Ankle wrapped and propped up, sprain or a small fracture. Slight concussion, likely culprit a single blow to the right of the skull. Awake, but heaviness in limbs suggests exhaustion - too much use of chakra, or..."

"Mayu-chan, Mayu-chan!" A familiar hand on her head and she was jolted from her frantic mumblings. Her vision seemed to snap back into place as she met a pair of warm brown eyes and her fervor receded.

"I'm fine, Mayu. Just overdid it, and got on the wrong side of a fireball. No permanent damage, I promise."

She slumped in relief and nodded, finally taking in the rest of the room. She blushed a little when she realized conversation had stopped in the face of her mini-breakdown and she was being studied by four shinobi other than the Nara.

She only recognized two of them - Inoichi and Chouza, who were both looking a little worse for wear but mostly unharmed. A man wearing a bandana was leaning against the wall, senbon hanging from the side of his mouth, looking bored. A blonde kunoichi with red eyes stood next to him, one arm in a sling and a nasty cut across her cheek. Both wore all black and their bodies were still twitching from what was probably an adrenaline high from a good fight.

"Mayu-chan, these are the shinobi I told you about that were helping with the investigation. Shiranui Genma and Kurama Hayu."

They both nodded their heads and she swallowed and forced a bow. "Thank you very much for your assistance in this matter, Kurama-san, Shiranui-san."

"Call me Hayu, kid," The blonde said and offered her a strained smile.

"You said...they were helping you, Shikaku-san?" Mayu said, turning back to him and trying to tamp down on her hope.

Yoshino sat on the hospital bed by his hip and she saw that Shikamaru was seated between his father and the wall, cuddled under his arm.

"Ah," Shikaku said in agreement and gave her his half smile. "We got the evidence we needed to move on him last night. I can't go into detail here, but the threat's been neutralized." He scowled, "not that this means we don't have a ton of work ahead of us...the man left a major mess behind. The paperwork alone will be a drag..." he cut off with an oomph as she launched herself at him. When he winced in pain, she quickly took a step back, wringing her hands and bowed as low as she could.

"Thank you, Shikaku-sama. You - you saved me. You really..."

"Hey, don't give all your thanks to him!" The man in the bandana protested. "We did most of the hard work while he sat in his office, complaining about missing his wife's dinners..."

Mayu straightened and laughed a little. "You're right, thank you very much for your hard work, everyone."

She wanted to ask for the details, wanted to know what Shikaku meant by 'neutralized,' though by his satisfied expression she had a pretty good idea, but Yoshino and Shikamaru were talking quietly with him now and everyone who wasn't a Nara was slipping out of the room.

Oh, her brain clicked with sudden realization. That should include me. After all, I'm not a Nara. She swallowed against the lump in her throat as she watched the three heads bent together - two with their brown hair pulled back in spiky ponytails and one left down into long tresses.

Slowly so as not to distract them, she backed out of the room, slipped out the door and shut it quietly. Her appearance in the hall pulled the attention of Chouza and Inoichi, who were having a low conversation a few feet away.

Mayu didn't know what her face was doing, but some of what she was feeling must have showed, because Chouza's features twisted into something sympathetic.

"Oh, kid..." he started, reaching towards her, but Mayu twisted away, something like desperation hitting her. She didn't want his pity, didn't want it from anyone, and she knew that she wasn't capable of keeping her feelings to herself right now.

Mayu thought about what Shikaku's face would do when he realized how much she just wanted to stay, and her breath caught in her throat. She couldn't put that on him, not when he had already done so much for her.

More selfishly, she couldn't stomach the thought of what it would feel like when he told her it was time to go back to the orphanage. She wouldn't blame him, wouldn't be upset with him, but it still wasn't something she wanted to hear said out loud.

Inoichi let out a noise of dissent as she turned on her heel and took off down the hall. She heard Chouza telling him to let her be as she burst through the doors to the stairwell, almost knocking over a tired looking nurse as she rushed by her. Mayu didn't apologize - didn't think she could get the words out - as she hit the stairs, clattering down them without grace, only her grip on the railing keeping her from losing her footing.

Then she was out of the stairwell, weaving through the crowd in the lobby before she tumbled out of the front doors and let her feet take her towards the Nara compound. She was breathing heavily by the time she reached the house she'd spent the last few weeks in and she stopped on the porch to catch her breath, ignoring that her intakes of air sounded suspiciously like sobs.

Cut it out! She berated herself. You have nothing to cry about. They're fond of you - you know they are - they'll let you visit. Shikamaru will want to play shogi and Yoshino likes to braid your hair... somehow her pep talk did the opposite of making her feel better and she had to grit her teeth against tears.

Right, rip off the bandaid, she thought desperately and rushed up the stairs, stumbling a bit in her haste, and to the guest room, where she started frantically taking off her borrowed clothes. She folded them carefully and placed them on the bed, then pulled out the clothes she'd been wearing when Shikaku had gently steered her through the door on that first evening.

The material felt rough against her skin after wearing clothes soft from years of use and good craftsmanship, but she ignored that. When she was dressed, she looked down at the blue shirt and white half pants and gave a choked laugh.

She looked like an orphan, but what was worse, was that she felt like one, something that had never really bothered her before. She moved to the desk and grabbed the books she had been reading and her notebook, leaving the room and slowly walking back down the stairs.

Mayu knew she should put the books in the library, but couldn't get herself to walk into that room, so instead, she set them carefully on the kitchen table.

She hesitated, then pulled a piece of paper out of the notebook and penned a quick note thanking the Naras for their generosity, and that she hoped to see them again soon. She also wished Shikaku a quick recovery and let him know that she would be at the orphanage if he needed a statement from her.

There, she thought, that note shouldn't tip them off that I'm anything other than fine. 

Then, ignoring the ache in her chest, Mayu left the house, shutting the door behind her.

000

"What do you mean you can't find her?" Shikaku asked, fear making his gut clench. "She was here thirty minutes ago!" Yoshino looked furious and Shikamaru's eyes were wide in his face.

"She seemed...upset about something," Inoichi said, uncomfortable. "We thought she needed a minute to calm down - we didn't think she'd leave the building."

"Upset? What would she have to be..."

"The case is over," Chouza said quietly, "You don't need to protect her anymore."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Yoshino asked, confused, but the meaning was clear to Shikaku, who sighed and rubbed a hand down his face. That girl was so troublesome.

"Right," he said and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Chouza, Inoichi, I need you to get me home before she disappears."

Shikamaru gasped. "Disappears? But I thought she wasn't in danger anymore!" he said, scrambling off the bed as well.

"She's not," Yoshino said, having caught on to the implications. "She...oh, she must be..." her face became determined and she nodded, helping Shikaku balance on his one foot.

"Shikamaru and I will go ahead, try to catch her. If she makes it back to the orphanage, we'll have to go through mountains of paperwork before we can get her back."

"The orphanage? Why would she want to go back there?" Shikamaru asked, but followed his mother's long strides to the door.

"She doesn't," his mother said, walking quickly but not running - nobody wanted to piss off a medic that might one day be setting your bones, after all - "but she wants us to ask her to go back to the orphanage even less."

"Oh..." Shikamaru said, frowning in thought. "But, she has to know we - "

Yoshino sighed as they entered the lobby and shook her head. "That girl...she's always been alone. Being wanted isn't something she's used to and she isn't used to wanting to be wanted, either." Shikamaru took a moment to parse through the convoluted sentence and its meaning.

"But, we do want her. Right, mom? You and dad too?" He asked carefully. They were on the street now and Yoshino turned and gave him a fierce grin.

"Damn right we do," she said, "now climb on my back, we'll take the roofs."

Shikamaru burst through the door of their house a few minutes later.

"Mayu-chan!" he called, running up the stairs. "Mayu-chan, are you here?" he flung open the guest room door and paused.

They were too late. There were no books on the desk and on the bed, folded neatly, were the clothes she had been wearing that day. He picked them up and slowly made his way downstairs to the kitchen, where his mom was sitting at the table with her face in her hands.

"Mom?" He asked, moving to the table, where he sat the clothes down and picked up the piece of paper next to her elbow. The politely worded missive thanking them for their hospitality made him want to throw the neatly stacked books she'd left across the room.

A moment later, he heard his father and his teammates come through the front door. He didn't turn towards them as they entered the kitchen. He knew that his father would understand what happened when he saw his wife, head in hands with a rare slump to her shoulders and Shikamaru, body hunched over the most ridiculous goodbye note in the history of goodbye notes.

Silence settled for a few minutes before Shikaku let out an explosive sigh and sat heavily down into a chair.

"Dammit," he growled. "Inoichi, Chouza, I don't suppose you can help me hobble over to the administration building? I've got something I need to take care of."

000

It had taken half the day to convince the mistress of the orphanage (and, wow, that was fast, Nano-san was probably languishing in a cell in T&I) that Mayu had been convalescing at the hospital with a bad case of pneumonia and not, in fact, taking up an apprenticeship in a brothel.

The woman, overwhelmed with her new duties, eventually gave in and waved Mayu off, who then had to go in search for her things, which had been boxed up and placed in the attic. Really, were they all idiots? she asked herself. Like she would actually skip off to live somewhere else without her meager belongings.

After settling back in and picking at dinner in the dining hall, ignoring the excited whispers of the orphans around her as they discussed their new mistress, Mayu found herself laying on her bed in the dark, somehow feeling lonely despite the three other occupied beds in the room. If anyone asked, she would never admit that she cried herself to sleep.

The next day found Mayu sitting in a nook in the back yard, half hidden from the other children playing in the cool sunshine of early fall. She had automatically done the stretches Yoshino had taught her, then an hour of meditation, ignoring the hollow ache it caused to do so without a sleepy, smiling Shikamaru next to her. It was a useful practice and it wouldn't make sense to stop doing it just because she had to fight tears the whole time.

Mayu fingered her notebook idly and wished she could go to the library, but the orphanage was currently on lockdown, probably due to the investigation and she had found it impossible to sneak by the ANBU ringing the perimeter when she had tried. What a drag, she thought, smiling a little.

The rest of the day did, indeed, drag by and she had to swallow back her disappointment when she didn't get any visitors. She knew it was ridiculous - Yoshino and Shikamaru were probably busy trying to keep Shikaku from working too hard with his injuries and everyone would be busy cleaning up the mess that the investigation had unearthed.

She couldn't help but regret leaving without learning the details, but once she was sure she would get through it without bursting into tears, Mayu planned on sneaking back into Shikaku's office for a meeting. 

Right, I have no intention of just disappearing. Unless they tell me to go away, I'll keep visiting, the thought cheered her up enough that she didn't cry that night, though she didn't sleep all that well either.

She was laying in an unoccupied patch of brown grass, staring up at the clear blue sky and wishing for clouds, when a familiar voice reached her ears. Heart jumping, she sat up and looked around, spotting the Naras - all three of them - on the back porch talking to the mistress of the orphanage, whose name she didn't bother to remember.

The woman looked agitated, gesturing to a stack of papers in her hand and Shikaku and Yoshino seemed annoyed, making her wonder what they were discussing. Her thoughts ground to a halt, though, when the youngest Nara's eyes met hers. He had been scanning the yard, obviously looking for her. When he finally spotted her, his eyes narrowed, and a scowl crossed his features. Then he was leaving his mother's side and stomping down the sagging steps of the porch, ignoring the other children's curious stares and whispers as he headed right towards her.

Mayu stayed frozen in her spot, mind frantically racing. Why was he so upset? Had her leaving without saying goodbye made him mad? She winced as she realized, yeah, probably, it had. Then she was out of time, because he was standing above her, hands on his hips in a pose eerily reminiscent of Yoshino when Shikamaru or Shikaku had done something to particularly piss her off.

"Uh - hi, Shikamaru-kun," she said timidly.

He glared at her for a few moments before his shoulders slumped and he sighed, falling to his knees to embrace her.

"Stupid girl, what'd you run off for?" he said with a sniff.

Mayu blinked back tears. "I - sorry," she whispered and he just held her tighter.

"We got your stupid letter," he said, sitting back and giving her a look.

"Ehe, yeah..." she rubbed the back of her neck and looked away for a moment. "I just - "

"Didn't want to have to say goodbye? Yeah, we figured that out squirt," A gruff voice said as a shadow blocked out the sun.

Mayu looked up to see that Shikaku and Yoshino had abandoned the irate woman on the porch and were standing over her, Shikaku with a scowl on his face that matched the one Shikamaru was sporting, and Yoshino with a beaming smile.

"You're pretty dumb for a genius, you know," she said cheerfully and it was Mayu's turn to look annoyed.

"I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye, but I don't know how that makes me stupid," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "It's not like I wouldn't have been leaving anyway."

She refused to give into the urge to look like a kicked puppy as she said that, instead of looking off to the side. A fist bopping the top of her head made her yelp and she rubbed at the sore spot and gaped at Shikamaru, who had never so much as hinted at violence towards her before.

"That's why you're an idiot!" he yelled, tears in his eyes. "Did you know, I had to sleep all alone for two nights straight? I was cold," he huffed, slumping into the Nara Sulk.

Mayu's mouth opened and closed a few times, but she didn't have a response. Something that felt horribly like hope was blooming in her chest and she struggled to tamp it down. Because if she was wrong...but. But. The paperwork in the mistress's hands. Shikamaru saying she was an idiot for leaving in the first place.

Her thoughts were probably clear to Shikaku, because he reached down, grabbed her arm and pulled her up into a hug. She squeaked as her legs left the ground and quickly wrapped her arms around his neck as he squeezed her.

"That's right, squirt. If you want it, you've got a place with us," he said gruffly. "I'm sorry it took so long, but once you showed up at the orphanage, it took so much paperwork to get them to let us even close to you, you have no idea," he sounded so put out at the last that she had to giggle through her shock.

"The clan won't let us outright adopt you because of succession issues," Yoshino said, in a tone that clearly said they are all idiots and they will regret this later, "but you're legally our ward until you're of age. I mean, if you want to be."

The last was said with such hesitance that it knocked Mayu out of her daze. She squirmed a bit until Shikaku set her down and she stepped back until she could study all of their faces. Mayu pushed back her own fears and doubts and made sure she only saw the people in front of her.

Her breath caught at what she saw, because...because they wanted her. It wasn't pity or duty, it was fondness and hope that she read in their expressions, in the way they angled their bodies towards her.

"Okay," she whispered, letting the smile she was feeling all the way to her toes take over her face. "Let's go home."